Let’s not forget that one of the world’s most famous and epic told stories, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, was inspired by the misty mountains and raw beauty of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Truth be told, South Africa has a shopping list of small towns (or ‘dorpies’) that are so picturesque that they seem to have popped straight out of a page from a children’s story book. To visit them means not only feeling like you’ve left the hustle of the city, but that you’ve somehow managed to time travel to another era.
Here are 3 of the storybook towns that are definitely worth a weekend away.
Tulbagh (Western Cape)
Tulbagh (less than an hour’s drive out of Cape Town) is probably most well known for the earthquake it suffered in 1969, but it’s also the fourth oldest town in South Africa and has no less than four historic museums and a wine route that is second to none.
In Tulbagh it feels like the air is fresher, the trees greener and sky bluer. Surrounded by the Groot Winterhoek mountain range, the town is as pretty as a picture with its Cape Dutch buildings and monuments. There’s lots to do too: Chocolate Tasting (by Moniki Belgian Chocolates), wine tasting (it’s part of the western cape wine route and home to the first estate to produce Methode Cap Classique in South Africa), lots of eateries and little shops, a theater bar / restaurant as well as mountain biking and hiking.
Sutherland (Northern Cape)
Sutherland is the epiphany of the small Karoo dorpie. A town that came into being as early as 1858, Imagine well worn red gravel dust roads, stone houses with wrap-around stoeps (verandahs) and clearest night sky (and air) in South Africa - that’s Sutherland.
It’s biggest attraction is the fact that it is home to the South African Large Telescope (SALT) and people flock there take a tour of SALT and do guided stargazing at night. Both are worthwhile things to do when visiting. Other attractions include: the home of famous Afrikaans poet N.P. Van Wyk Louw, the Jewish Cemetery and the NG Church.
The town also has a handful of restaurants that offer great Karoo cuisine like lamb dishes and traditional boerekos (farmers’ food). With not too much to do except take it easy, it’s a clever choice for a weekend away. And if you go in winter, you might get to play in the snow! Just remember to pack accordingly, it really is the coldest town in South Africa in winter.
Matjiesfontein (Western Cape)
Now if you are travelling to Sutherland from Cape Town, you simply must make a pit stop at Matjiesfontein (just off the N1 before you turn off to Sutherland). It’s a no-horse town where time has simply stopped. It’s a bit surreal, so don’t be surprised if you have to pinch yourself to check that you have not landed on a historic film set.
There’s an old Victorian Hotel, the Lord Miler, an old English pub where wait staff were tuxedos and top hats and a railway station that dates back to 1878.
You can get a red bus tour (English style) of the town, and visit two interesting museums: The Railway Museum and The Marie Rawdon Museum, which houses a collection of turn of the century household items that you’ll only be familiar with if you’ve ever watched the TV series Downton Abbey. Other interesting to do’s, if you have the time, are visits to the historic cricket pitch, courthouse and jail. History buffs will also enjoy a trip to the British Army Remount Camp.
And apparently the whole town is haunted. There’s that.