Did you know?
The Matatiele area was once an area dominated by wetlands and marshes. The name, derived from Sesotho, means 'the ducks have flown'.
Route 56 is marketed as ‘the shortest route between the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal’. However, it’s not really the best way to go if you’re in a tearing hurry. There’s just too much to do in this wondrous mountain country that straddles Lesotho, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
Chances are that once you’ve arrived in the historic village of Matatiele (or simply ‘Matat’, as the locals call it), you’re going to wish you set aside a week for your journey.
If you’re a biker, a hiker, a fisherman, a birder or someone who likes a good book and country ambience off the beaten track, the offerings of Route 56 Matatiele will be right up your alley.
Matatiele lies in the cusp of what was once called No Man’s Land, which crawled with ne’er do wells, gun-runners, cattle thieves, dodgy frontiersmen and just about anyone wanting to stay shy of the law for a decade or two. It’s like the Crook’s Corner of the old Eastern Cape Highlands. So it’s got all that historical romance too.
Take the Royal Courtyard, once known as the Royal Hotel. They’ll tell you that the last duel in South Africa was fought in the backyard here.
Famed travel writer TV Bulpin records in Discovering Southern Africa that a marathon all-night poker game took place in the Royal and that a travelling salesman won all the money. The players went to bed at dawn, having arranged to resume play at 11am, to give everyone a fair crack at recouping their losses. Predictably, the salesman ran off with his winnings.
The then-hotel owner, Alec Payne, grabbed a pack of cards and some money and rode in pursuit of the fleeing salesman. He must have caught up with him and they must have played poker somewhere up in the mountains, because Payne returned the next day with all the salesman’s cash and his trousers to boot...
Early Matatiele was established with the arrival in 1864 of Adam Kok and his group of Griquas. They had been on an epic migration across the Drakensberg mountains all the way from Philippolis in the southern Free State.
Life here for the Griquas was idyllic for a short while, but within 15 years the Basuto War erupted and the region was in turmoil. This made the area ungovernable and a perfect operating space for cross-border criminals.
Today Matatiele is a quiet little dairy farming district and a great destination for a visitor with a love of the outdoors. Not to mention those with a taste for some truly spicy stories.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Follow the R56 from either Molteno or Pietermaritzburg.
Best time to visit
Winter (June/July) in the southern Drakensberg is magical, but the spring (August to October) and autumn (March to May) are also charming. In the summer months (November to February) you can expect thunderstorms, but the surrounding countryside is wonderfully green.
A self-drive sedan is all you need. If there are 4X4 adventures, your guides will provide the tougher vehicle.
Length of stay
Set aside at least two days for your visit to this region
What to pack
Pack for informal and rugged adventures: good walking gear and something warm for the mountains, particularly in winter.
Where to stay
Route 56 Matat has a list of accommodation options ranging from guest houses to farm stays.
What to eat
Expect hearty country fare at most establishments.