“Pilgrim’s Rest, where ghosts are still panning for gold.”
Pilgrim’s Rest is one of those places full of history. You can feel it in your bones. As we took the R533 that curved along the mountain side, we could sense it. It was a place of gold.
This old mining town in Mpumalanga dates back to 1873. The entire town was declared a National Monument in 1986. It is living memory of the early gold rush days in South Africa during the late 1800s / early 1900s. The town is preserved as a museum and major South African tourist venue.
But this was not the first time gold was excavated in this neck of the woods. People had been mining for gold since 1300 AD.
Taking a walk through this one-road-town is like stepping into a time machine. From the minute we entered we were immersed by old buildings and antiquities, like an old petrol pump and mining cart. Our first stop was at the old Royal Hotel (1873) near the entrance. My trusty Canon camera ran a dead battery, and I desperately needed to charge it.
As we entered through the double doors – I was immediately transported back in time. The reception desk was sturdy and old. There was a little bell I had to ring to get someone’s attention. While I plugged my camera battery in to charge, my mom and aunt took a little walk around.
The Royal Hotel was trapped in a time warp in the Late Victorian era. Reception walls lined with interesting photos and artefacts to provide a glimpse into history. This theme stretched into the lounge, where walls were plastered in green, pink and white wallpaper, extending from floor to ceiling. Antique chairs were spaced around the room, decorated with delicate flowers and classic throws. The bookcases boasted guides to South Africa, mining, tourism and even golf. While we were admiring the decor, the men were in another wing of the Hotel, enjoying a drink.
The local Church Bar is a favourite joint, also echoing the old mining town feel. It was so named as it was converted into a bar after it served as the worshipping house for the locals. As we entered, we saw another man perched on a high chair at the bar, slugging back a Castle before wiping his beard with his sleeve. This man was called Luke.
Luke is a hydro-geologist. He is part of a team that is searching for water in this valley. Everything about this man echoed a man of the earth. He had the messy cropped hair and a dark beard to match. He was wearing a thick khaki jacket with jeans and vellies (boots). His shoes were caked with mud from his morning excursions into the mountains.
“Can you believe it – Pilgrim’s Rest was the first place in South Africa to have electric street lights,” Luke told us. He had only been here a few days, but seemed to know the town’s entire history.
In fact, Pilgrim’s Rest was the second town in South Africa to have electricity. This was when London still had gas streetlights. It was also the second town in South Africa to get electric street lights in 1883, but Luke wasn’t far off.
Pilgrim’s Rest now survives by being a tourist destination. Nestled between the blue gum and pine tree plantations – it’s hard to see why anyone would make an effort to visit a one-road-town. But once here, the magic of the silence is enchanting. It’s got the old feeling, displacing you from the big city life into the small town blues. That is the real treasure.