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TThe last stagecoach robbery in South Africa took place in 1912, in the hills above the little gold-mining village of Pilgrim’s Rest in what is today Mpumalanga province.
The highwayman, village laundry owner Tommy Dennison, had the foresight to wear a mask, but not to leave behind his very recognisable horse, on which he rode up and stopped the coachman at gunpoint, then ordered him to throw down the money boxes. They hit the ground and broke, revealing a large pile of half-crowns.
The very next day, there was Dennison at the bar of the Royal Hotel, paying off his £20 debt with a bagful of newly minted half-crowns. He was arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to 5 years in Pretoria Central Prison.
However, the bar of the Royal Hotel began as an establishment ministering to a very different kind of clientele: it was built as a Roman Catholic chapel in old Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), the capital of Mozambique (at the time a colony of Portugal).
The congregation outgrew the chapel and the building was sold to the owner of the Royal Hotel in Pilgrim’s Rest, who broke it down and had it transported by ox-wagon across the mountains into South Africa.
Today, when you walk into the Royal Hotel, with just a bit of imagination, you can hear the diggers carousing, the gamblers laughing and the drovers cursing their beasts in the narrow road outside.
The Royal Hotel has been preserved – and restored – in true Victorian style. Its 50 en-suite bedrooms are spread around 10 different buildings in Pilgrim’s Rest. Here you will find old brass beds, washstands from another era and authentic Victorian baths.
After a traditional meal in the dining room, it’s time to visit the Church Bar and gaze at a world of memories on the walls, in the form of old photographs and memorabilia collected over 100 years. It’s a fascinating portal back to the heady days of the gold rush.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)13 768 1044
How to get here
Pilgrim’s Rest lies in the heart of Mpumalanga’s Panorama Route, from Sabie to Lydenburg – it’s about a 4-hour drive east of Johannesburg via the N12 and N4.
Best time to visit
It’s an all-year destination with mild winters, but November to February can be very hot.
Around the area
Explore Panorama Route day drives to the small towns of Sabie and Graskop, as well as to scenic attractions such as the Blyde River Canyon and the Mac Mac Falls.
Length of stay
Stay overnight in Pilgrim’s Rest, giving yourself an afternoon, and evening and a morning to explore the town; it’s well worth including if you’re taking a few days to explore the Panorama Route.
The annual South African Gold-Panning Championships are normally held in Pilgrim’s Rest in late October.