Lord Milner Hotel is said to be one of the most haunted hotels in South Africa so I went there for a weekend of ghost hunting. This is what I found…

Lord Milner Hotel is said to be one of the most haunted hotels in South Africa where stories abound of certain guests that have refused to leave. I am not talking about ones that get defiant when the pub closes or can’t bear the thought of room service coming to an end. Rather ones that have been known to float down corridors, rattle doors, play cards, appear in windows and stare forlornly from turrets.

Never has an assignment held so much intrigue and slight foreboding! After all, one can be full of bravado about staying at one of the most haunted hotels in South Africa until night falls. Then suddenly going to your room alone becomes almost a dare. With jokes about “If the lights are turned off, then you know” – and you hear yourself breath a sigh of relief to see that they are still turned on. Then of course you don’t shut the door behind you for fear that the doorknob starts rattling or some unseen force shuts you in there and you can’t get out.  Perhaps this is part of the charm of The Lord Milner Hotel holds – the never-ending “what if I actually see a ghost?”

We arrived in Matjiesfontein at dusk after having the storm in Cape Town chase us down the N1.  With dark clouds amassing behind us and darkness about to fall, we pushed open the heavy wooden doors of The Lord Milner Hotel and there it was… that staircase. With that red carpet. Straight out of that cult horror movie, The Shining. The scene was suitably set…

After signing the massive and ancient guest book, we trundled our way up the stairs, keeping a beady eye out for the soldiers that are said to lean on the balustrades. I was so busy gawking up the stairs that lead to the turrets and Katie’s Card Room (where sounds of shuffling cards have been heard) that I almost tripped over Theresa, the hotel cat. Theresa, being a good host to many a newbie at the hotel escorted us to our room and almost everywhere we went.  One hiss from that cat and I was prepared to run in the opposite direction! So I liked having her around – a sort of “ghost alert” if you will.  She must’ve picked up on this (cats are intuitive) because she decided to spend the entire night with us. Not hissing, but purring. We revelled in the feline affections, but was told the following day at breakfast that she is notorious for sleeping around. And like a true hussy, she ignored us for the rest of our stay.

Having got through our first night unscathed, apart from clanging pipes and creaking wooden floorboards (that hotel talks to you even if the ghosts don’t) we were taken on a private hotel tour by Johnnie, the resident entertainer. You can’t help but love Johnnie. The minute he catches your eye he shouts “It’s show time!” followed by “I love it when you talk foreign.” He took us around the various rooms of the Lord Milner Hotel, showed off his brilliant rendition of Nelson Mandela, pointed out the 100 year old piano, the 300 year old mirror and the cup that South Africa won in the very first cricket match played against the British in Matjiesfontein. He also showed us a photo of a ghost.

The story goes that he had the picture taken with the two little girls and the one said “Who’s the tannie?” Of course no-one else could see this “tannie”, but there she was when the photo was developed and posted to Johnnie by the family. The hotel thinks it may be the ghost of Olive Schreiner, who lived in Matjiesfontein (she wrote The Story of An African Farm there) and her house is right near The Lairds Arms. It may or may not be a fake, but I tend to go with the latter. This town barely uses email let alone Photoshop!  Besides, there is no way you can get a small child to make an expression like that for no good reason. But you decide – the photo is below. Real or not, it’s chilling stuff!

After that it was time to go see some different ghosts. The fields near The Lord Milner Hotel were once the campsite for British soldiers during the Boer War (the hotel was originally a hospital).  The 10 000 soldiers and 20 000 horses may be gone, but there are still reminders in the form of holey tin cans and rusting pieces of metal. We picked our way through the debris, startling a few hares and making sure we didn’t stand on baby tortoises (we saw three!) while searching for treasure. We had so much fun that we were out there for hours. We even found a button! Oh the glee! Turns out that it is the real thing and probably belonged to a General or Commander. We sat on the kopjie, which was probably the look out point, and took in the view. I closed my eyes and imagined how things must’ve been for young soldiers in their late teens and early twenties being plucked from England and sent to the middle of the blistering hot (and sometimes freezing) desert. I am still sure I heard the ghosts of tents flapping in the Karoo wind.

The afternoon was spent scoffing bangers n’ mash in the pub, taking a brief nap and visiting the township tavern to catch the rugby.  We also took a tour of the town (the shortest tour in South Africa) on the red bus, called Futtom Fluffy. It took ten minutes and we turned left or right because we couldn’t turn right or left. When the tour was over, Johnnie brightly informed us that the tour may be over, “but the pub is still open”. I was beginning to fall in love with this town. Not only did it have history, quaint buildings, ghosts and antique gas pumps, it had character and was filled to the brim with characters. It also served delicious meals in a dining room where you had to dress for dinner and the pub was always open. A desert oasis indeed!

However, we still hadn’t seen any ghosts.  We checked our photos as soon as we took them, glanced furtively up the stairs and scanned the windows regularly. But nothing. Not even the sound of shuffling cards. I was secretly disappointed. Until I went upstairs in the pub that evening…

Above The Lairds Arms is a billiard room with a beautiful billiard table that I spent some time admiring – it had a thick wood cover that you had to slide out to open the table. I don’t think I had ever seen one like it until that day. After this minor distraction, I located the bathroom and switched on the light. As I stepped into the bathroom, “click”, off went the light. I went back and switched it on again. But no, the minute I stepped away from the switch it went off. I put it down to faulty electrics the first few times, but eventually I lost my temper. I said in my bravest big girl voice “Now stop it! I need the loo and I don’t want to go in the dark!”  The light stayed on. I sat there quietly praying it didn’t get switched off again. Which thankfully it didn’t.

Now herein lies the interesting part. I scuttled downstairs hastily and asked Abie, the barman, about faulty lights. He just laughed and said “There’s no faulty light switches. Someone’s being playing tricks on you. Perhaps it was Olive. She likes it up there.” I brushed it off, went outside and started chatting to a young chap who had just decided to get married to his sweetheart the following day in the Traveller’s Chapel. The conversation eventually shifted to the hotel’s ghost stories and he told me that he had seen quite a few shadows in the hotel and something strange on the stairs in the pub. I went on to tell him about the ghost photo, which he hadn’t seen. I showed him the photo I had taken of the photo on my camera. He went quiet for a second, looked at me and said with a deadpan expression, “That’s who was on the stairs”. 

The following days were spent eating enough food to feed a British army, taking walks through Boer War graveyards (where the average age of the dead is 25) and singing along with Johnnie on the piano in the Lairds Arms. There was also the wedding with their family and friends arriving on the day with cooler boxes filled with champagne and a bunch of lavender for the bridal bouquet. It was utterly charming and fairly impressive, especially as some of them had only been given a few hours’ notice of the impending nuptials. As the only photographer in the area on short notice, I took the photos and I am still friendly with that couple today.

I have to say that weekend in Matjiesfontein was probably one of my best weekends I have ever had. The quaint town, fabulous meals, always-open pub, interesting people and a beautiful swimming pool – not to mention ghostly encounters and an impromptu wedding – make for a good weekend away!

But is the hotel haunted? Maybe, maybe not. I think there is something there, faulty light switches and could-be-fake photographs aside. And you will definitely find yourself regularly looking up at the windows and possibly not wanting to go to your room alone…

Matjiesfontein is only 250km from Cape Town. I recommend you spend a night or two. Johnnie will definitely have you singing at the piano bar before you get though your first pint and perhaps you will even get hitched.  And who knows, you may have a few extra guests at your wedding that you didn’t invite.

Who are the ghosts of The Lord Milner Hotel?

Rumours abound of people having seen a ghost wearing a negligee floating around the passages and the stairs of the Lord Milner Hotel. It appears that Lucy (as she is known) has never checked out of her room on the first floor.

Then there’s Kate who was a young nurse who liked to play cards with her patients (either when the hotel was a British officer’s hospital or later when it became a popular health resort). Apparently the sound of cards being shuffled in Katie’s Card Room have been heard on many occasions and she has been known to rattle the door at the top of the stairs.

Ghosts of British soldiers have frequently been seen on the main staircase and legend has it that the spirit of James Logan (who founded the town) has never left Matjiesfontein, but resides in the elegantly decorated lounges at the back of the hotel.

A guide to Matjiesfontein

Story originally written for Getaway Magazine | 2012