The Road to Nowhere: McGregor in South Africa’s Western Cape

Written by Janet Traill
(A Runner-up entry in the Off the Beaten Track Writing Competition.)

Entrance to McGregor
Entrance to McGregor

The signpost said ‘McGregor 20 km’. This was not the first Scottish name my husband and I had come across while touring through South Africa – in fact this sign was on the outskirts of the small Western Cape town of Robertson – but Scottish memories of Rob Roy country came flooding back and we decided to explore.

The road led us over the Breede River and between rolling hills, so reminiscent of the Trossachs, and at the end was the magical village of McGregor.

Whitewashed Victorian cottages, some of them thatched, lined the road. Roses tangled over fences; irrigation water gurgled down kerbside channels, and sun-dappled stoeps, shaded by leafy vines, promised an enticing escape from the hot sunshine.

We passed the white-spired church and a sprinkling of quaint shops, art galleries and restaurants. Abruptly, the tar road gave way to dirt and, since it was lunchtime, we decided to turn around and sample one of the attractive eating places.

McGregor Cottage
Whitewashed Victorian cottages

We chose Tebaldi’s, housed in a rambling, old property with shady outside area where we enjoyed an excellent Cape Malay curry. The restaurant is part of the Temenos Retreat and later we explored the peaceful and contemplative grounds, with their secret corners for meditation, calm statuary and melodious wind chimes. McGregor was beginning to work its magic and we decided to stay longer.

At the Information Centre we booked two nights in a fairy-tale cottage, tucked away down an unpaved side street. The informal garden provided just the right backdrop for sundowners and, later, star-gazing. Perhaps it was the mystical ley lines, said to pass through the village, or maybe it was just the ultra-comfortable bed, but we both had the best night’s sleep we’ve experienced in a long time!

The village was named after the much-loved Rev Andrew McGregor, and is proud of its Scottish connection – the tourist brochure sports a sash of McGregor tartan. We chatted to the lady in the museum. “McGregor is one of the best preserved Victorian villages in the country,” she told us. “This is probably because we’re on the road to nowhere; maybe you’ve discovered this already?

Lucky donkeys at Eseltjiesrus
Lucky donkeys at Eseltjiesrus sanctuary

Years ago, the road was supposed to be continued over the Bushmanskloof Pass to link up with the southern coast road. That never happened – I guess the money ran out – and the road just stopped at the end of the village. So, few people wanted to come here and hence there was little development.”

She went on to say that things have changed and nowadays people in the know love to come for a relaxing break. The hiking trail over the pass is popular, as are the various festivals held throughout the year. These include a food and wine weekend, a poetry festival, and a book fair in aid of the local donkey sanctuary.

A donkey sanctuary? This sounded intriguing and, following her instructions, we found ourselves at Eseltjiesrus – Rest for Little Donkeys – just outside the village. This sanctuary started with just two badly neglected donkeys some ten years ago. The number has steadily increased with abused, abandoned and elderly animals finding peace, rest and loving care.

Lord's Guest House
Lord’s Guest House

Hearing that we came from Scotland, one of the ‘donkey ladies’ recommended that we visit Lord’s Guest House for lunch. “It’s like a little piece of the Highlands in McGregor!”

Following her instructions, we set off along a meandering dirt road that wound its solitary way to the top of the King’s River Hills. Here, we reached the impressive stone built lodge and entered another world, of lush gardens and utter peace.

While we waited for our food, we relaxed on the shady veranda, overlooking the immaculate lawns and duck pond, with a view to the distant mountains basking in the hazy blue of the afternoon sun.

Cottage at Lord's Guest House
Cottage at Lord’s Guest House

The service was friendly and attentive, and the lunch was memorable – salmon for me and medallions of springbok for my husband. Afterwards, we explored the guest house and grounds. The theme of the lodge is certainly Scottish, with each of its four luxury rooms decorated in a specific tartan. Further from the main buildings are four private cottages, perfectly placed to take advantage of the wonderful views across the valley. And at the top of the hill is a serene, stone built chapel – the perfect setting for a magical wedding.

After two memorable days, we left McGregor, refreshed and relaxed. The village had worked its magic. Hopefully, unlike Brigadoon, it will not disappear and we shall be able to return.

POSTED 19th DECEMBER 2016 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of JANET TRAILL. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.