Montagu in the Little Karoo has a bit of everything: spectacular natural scenery, beautiful old buildings, good restaurants… It also makes everyone feel welcome, whether they’re a hiker, mountain biker, rock climber, history buff or foodie.
If you drive into town along Route 62 from the Cape Town side and cruise down Long Street, you’ll notice the well-maintained houses and manicured gardens first. Stately Cape Dutch farmsteads stand among vineyards and orchards. The Victorian houses in Church Street tell of a British influence. Sheep and horses graze, and water murmurs in irrigation canals.
Streams from Donkerkloof and Badskloof in the Langeberg to the north feed the irrigation dam in the middle of town. During the breeding season, this dam is the avian equivalent of Heathrow airport as all manner of bird species come to land. Ibis are particularly abundant – you’ll smell them before you see them. Rest your legs at one of the birding platforms next to the dam; you might see a kingfisher or a fish-eagle. And at night you might hear an owl hooting in the dark.
See, even birds feel welcome in Montagu!
Place of many mountains
Montagu is sheltered by mountains on three sides, with the open side facing east if you’re on the R62 looking towards Barrydale. It’s a landscape of rolling hills, as any cyclist will tell you.
When DF Malan arrived here as a young dominee in 1906, he was overwhelmed by the hospitality. The residents welcomed him in Ashton with a cavalcade of about 70 vehicles. He described Montagu in a letter: “Montagu is mooi, zeer beslist mooi. Prachtige bergen rondom. Aarde buitengewoon vrugbaar. Water in oorvloed... De bergen, water en lucerne geven my recht om Montagu te noemen het Zwitserland van ZA...” (Montagu is incredibly scenic. Surrounded by beautiful mountains. The soil is exceptionally fertile. Water in abundance… The mountains, water and lucerne give me the right to call Montagu the Switzerland of South Africa…”) Maybe a little hyperbolic, but he does have a point.
Rock climbers and hikers come here in droves. Tony Lourens, one of the top rock climbers in the country and author of several rock-climbing and hiking books, has been visiting these mountains for years and moved here permanently from Cape Town earlier this year. He’s not alone. “Three of my friends have also bought plots close to where I live,” he says.
Tony and I struggle to find a time to meet up. He leaves me messages like, “It snowed and we’re going to climb a peak” or “I’m in Cogmanskloof – we’re working out a new route.” Later he sends me photos that look like they were taken in the Alps. (Maybe Switzerland isn’t too far-fetched? – Ed.)
Tony eventually finds time to take me to Legoland – a popular climbing spot next to the old toll house in Cogmanskloof. Even if you only explore the area at ground level at climbing spots like Heaven, Lost World and Castles in the Sky, you’ll see amazing views – in kloofs, next to rivers, high in the mountains and down in the valleys.
Montagu is popular among the adventurous crowd largely because all the activities are so close to town. Many of the rock-climbing routes are within walking distance. The hiking trails start on the outskirts of town. The mountain biking trails start in town.
A hiking group called Montagu Mountain Meanders helps to maintain the trails – they clear alien vegetation and put down sand bags to cover big puddles after heavy rain. Tourists who camp here for long periods often join their WhatsApp group to go on morning excursions, even if it’s only a 2,5km walk through Badskloof on the western edge of town to grab a coffee at Avalon Springs Resort.
You don’t even have to head into the mountains to get your heart rate up – you can also stroll around the Nature Garden. From April to October, residents gather for tea and cake on Tuesday at 10am to raise funds for the maintenance of this public space.
Another beloved green space is the herb garden at Joubert House, the oldest house in town. After the flood of 1981, Montagu Museum started a herb garden to raise funds to repair the building. “The garden has a little of everything – fynbos, Karoo species, garden herbs…” says Hennah Flesch, manager of Joubert House. “Visitors should come walk through – it’s a microcosm of our region and town.”
Medicinal herbs are harvested in the garden and surrounding kloofs to be dried, packaged and sold. The herbs treat an array of ailments, from headaches to insomnia. “These packets represent more than just herbs,” says Hennah. “Some of the mixtures are a combination of Khoi and Boer remedies – it’s Montagu’s own cultural mixture. The herbs are sent to all corners of the country.”
“The most popular mixes have African wormwood for the lungs and cancer bush to boost the immune system,” says Anneline Mohammedt, the museum’s herb co-ordinator.
The museum even offers a guided hike to see the herbs in their natural habitat. This unique outing will take you deep into Donkerkloof, where the herbs grow abundantly next to river streams.
Montagu has long been synonymous with health. In the Montagu Country Hotel, there’s a beautiful old poster: The mountains of Cogmanskloof tower over an old railway bus, which is coming around a bend to pick up passengers at the Ashton station and take them to Avalon Springs. It reads: “Montagu: On the highway to health”.
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