It's only 169km from Cape Town, surrounded by the most dramatic mountains you'll find anywhere. It's probably best remembered because the only access road from Cape Town is through a short tunnel cut through the mountain. But it's also known for the mineral springs and Muscadel - the sweet wine synonymous with the town.
In fact there's even an annual Muscadel Festival. But it is the mountain ranges that completely dominate everything, and that's probably the town's most enduring memory. If you're driving along the R62, it's easy to drive right through the town on Long Street, not realising that the main street (Bath Street) is set a few streets back.
Related content: Accommodation in and around Montagu
About 170km from Cape Town. On Route 62, an alternative route to the N1 between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and the N2 between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.
The town is an architectural gem with many outstanding Cape Dutch and Victorian buildings.
It's surrounded by the most spectacular mountains you'll find anywhere, which makes it a rock climber's paradise.
But it's the town's location on Route 62, with appealing villages and wine estates nearby, that provide such a rich experience for visitors.
Montagu was founded in 1851 on the farm Uitvlucht, which belonged to Pieter Swanepoel from 1841. It is generally accepted that Joubert House, built in 1853 in Long Street, is the oldest house. It was restored to its former glory in 1983 and is now part of the Montagu Museum.
Montagu lies between the Keisie and Kingna Rivers that join west of the town. In the 19th century, the only western exit was through Cogman’s Kloof. Passage required that the river be forded eight times! Strong teams of horses or oxen were required for the trip as carts or wagons were often stranded in the Kloof.
In the early days, trekkers often followed the course of rivers. The wheels of one trekker’s wagon became stuck in the rocks of the riverbed. In his efforts to free the wheel, the trekker’s hand was so badly injured that his party was obliged to pitch camp near the present day Montagu. They drank the clear, strangely-flavoured water and found it to be wonderfully refreshing. They traced its course through the kloof, where they discovered the hot springs. The injured hand, bathed frequently in the warm water, healed miraculously. News of the healing waters soon spread and sick visited the springs from everywhere.
A mail coach transported the post between Ashton and Montagu and its arrival was always a special event. The old coach house is today a home. After the tunnel, built in 1877 by Thomas Bain, was completed, a decent road was built through Cogman’s Kloof and other roads soon followed. Building of the now popular Montagu Baths started in 1857. Disaster struck in 1981 when a flood swept away the entire Baths Complex. The hotel has since been rebuilt.
The British Secretary of the Cape, John Montagu, began his public career as an army officer and was present at the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was finally defeated. He was an able and conscientious young man whose talents were recognised by the Colonial Office when he entered civilian life. He was posted to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania, Australia) as Civil, Military and Private Secretary to the Governor. After some time he came out under a cloud and was recalled. Subsequently vindicated, he was then appointed Colonial Secretary of the Cape of Good Hope in 1843, specifically charged with reducing its debt, which he did skilfully.
He had the intelligence and imagination to envisage the potential of the Cape, but realised that it could not develop without efficient transport and communications, and their provision became the focus of his attention. The sandy barrier of the Cape Flats was the main obstacle. He built a road across it that was protected by screens, Port Jackson willow and hakea, which he had seen in the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand). The latter have since become a serious environmental problem.
Aided by pioneering road engineers Henry Fancourt White and Andrew Geddes Bain, he punched passes through the mountain barriers with the aid of convict labour and expert stonemasons. Through his efforts, the country developed. Farmers and businessmen rejoiced and the amiable but overworked Montagu became a popular figure. As a tribute to his services, the dorp previously known as “Agter Cogman’s Kloof” in the Langeberge was renamed Montagu.
By 1851, he was facing collapse due to the inconclusiveness of a local war and his reluctance to draft a constitution for representative government for the Cape, which he considered premature. He bravely made the journey to the infant dorp named after him and was feted at a ceremonial luncheon given by its few inhabitants and property-owners. His health finally failed and he left for England on May 2 1852. Crushed mentally and physically by his exertions, he never recovered and died at Brighton on November 4 1853. His close friend, Robert Gray, first bishop of Cape Town then visiting England, officiated at his funeral. His portraits may be seen in the Montagu Museum, 41 Long Street, and in the Public Library in the Municipal Building in Piet Retief Street.
The Montagu baths were originally part of the farm “Uitvlucht” but were sold for the first time in 1857 and has changed ownership frequently. At various times, the property has belonged to the old NCCR (New Cape Central Railways), Mr Jannie Marais (the great benefactor of Stellenbosch University), Mr Fernandes (from Madeira) who gave the complex an exotic character, Mr Hugh Tevis (a Californian millionaire) and Mr Aaron Idelson (a Montagu hotelier).
Montagu Village Market: every Saturday from 8:30 to 12:30. A "local is lekker" lifestyle market on the cutting edge of a new world movement of Eco awareness, simpler, slower, authentic lifestyles with stories of provenance. Where you can:
Sample mother earth’s bounty - fresh from the fields and orchards
Experience - The good life- hand made, stone-ground, soil dusted and unspoilt
And Search out - The quaint and the quirky essentials for an enviable lifestyle
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