“I love Carnarvon!” It was a sentence few before him had probably ever uttered, but our brief stop in the Hantam Karoo town had clearly impressed our son. I’m not sure why he was so taken with Carnarvon. As a family of beer enthusiasts (well, me and the hubby anyway) we had stopped only to admire the expansive collection of beer cans at the Carnarvon Hotel. Kai got a rare bag of chips out of the deal but I was still rather surprised as we strapped him back into the car seat and he blurted out his love for the little sheep-farming town.
I think we underestimate a small child’s ability to find joy and amusement pretty much anywhere. I for one am always searching for family-friendly restaurants or attractions, but you can’t guarantee petting farms or giant jungle gyms or fairgrounds full of rides and stalls wherever you go – and I am grateful for that. It forces you to research a little and think outside the box, and with a little imagination, you can find kids’ entertainment even in the tiniest of towns. Here are a few of our favourites:
Sutherland, Northern Cape (population 2836)
It was love at first sight. I first visited Sutherland about ten years ago and it remains one of my very favourite SA dorps. I love the lack of decision-making required at dinner time. I love the fresh air, the car-free streets and of course, the massive, star-filled skies. But would a three-year-old love Sutherland too? The nexus for visitors is the South African Astronomical Observatory, which sits atop a chilly hill 19km east of town. By day, you can take a peek inside SALT (the Southern African Large Telescope) and its smaller counterparts; by night you can peer at the sky for a guided star safari, often ending with an unforgettable glimpse of Saturn’s rings. Beware though, Sutherland gets very cold – if you plan to bring your kids for an evening visit, be sure to wrap them (and yourself) up warmly and consider bringing a thermos of something warm and a hot water bottle. Even in summer, it gets pretty nippy at night.
We visited in winter, so decided on a day visit. To keep Kai interested, I told him that the telescopes were spaceships and he loved seeing the framed photos of various planets and constellations once we stepped inside. When he’s older, we’ll certainly return and he can learn about telescopes and nebulas and sub-zero temperatures. But for now, inventing tales (I prefer this term to “lying”) about the place meant that I could enjoy the guided tour and he wasn’t utterly bored.
Sutherland is also the place to eat lamb (and indeed, the place where we discovered our son’s ravenous appetite for lamb chops). The town’s handful of restaurants all serve lamb in some form, but most agree that Cluster d’Hote is the place to dine – book ahead, or leave, as we did, disappointed.
Graskop, Mpumalanga (population 3996)
For grown-ups, the allure of Graskop is fairly obvious. It is the southern gateway to the Blyde River Canyon, a dramatic drive peppered with lookout points, picnic spots and a selection of scenic hiking trails. I’m not sure at what age people begin to truly appreciate scenery. My son did comment a couple of weeks back, while driving over Ou Kaapse Weg in Cape Town, “Mummy, look – there’s a beautiful view!” and while I acknowledge that this made my heart melt, I don’t know if I could yet sell him on a day out based entirely on looking at notable landscapes. Still, a picnic is always a great seller and the Bourke’s Luck Potholes have an other-worldiness about them that is easy to sell to little kids.
Back in the town itself, there’s a great attraction for big kids: The Big Swing, where you can fly, abseil or of course swing across the gorge if you’re brave enough. For the rest I have one word: pancakes. Oddly enough, Graskop is kind of synonymous with pancakes, thanks to Harries, which opened here 20-odd years ago. I personally wasn’t wowed by the food, but the promise of a pancake filled with chocolate and banana worked as the perfect treat (OK, bribe) to keep Kai in his car seat for the best part of the afternoon while the rest of us oohed and aahed at our surrounds.
Matjiesfontein, Western Cape (population 422)
If you’ve never veered off the N1 for a lunch break in Matjiesfontein, put it on your 2018 ‘to do’ list. And be prepared for some weirdness. It’s a weird, and if I’m honest, kind of creepy place. I audibly yelped when I was silently greeted by a time-worn mannequin in the old post office (do not watch House of Wax before visiting Matjiesfontein) and the Marie Rawdon Museum is – for me – one of the scariest tourist attractions in South Africa, with its rambling collection of porcelain dolls, old commodes and Victoria dental equipment… But Matjiesfontein makes for a very convenient leg-stretching stop and it’s the kind of place kids love.
Staff wander around dressed in period costume, an old-timer by the name of Johnny tickles the ivories in the Laird’s Arms pub (yes, we do take our son to a lot of pubs), the museum is full of interesting old knickknacks, there’s a red double-decker bus parked in the street and at the end of town (you can walk the entire town at a leisurely pace in under ten minutes), a second museum is filled with trains, trams and classic cars. If you stay the night, you get to board the bus and also take a ghost tour of the 19th-century railway siding – perfect for older kids.
Arniston, Western Cape (population 1267)
Arniston is a fine example of a tiny town with no in-your-face kids’ attractions that is in fact very family-friendly indeed. For a start, there’s a lovely beach with paddleable (that’s a word right?) waters and plenty of rockpools to rummage in. There’s the Waenhuiskrans Cave, found at the end of a fine walk and scramble along the coast (be sure to go at low tide – trust me) and the pretty old town with its maze of fishermen’s cottages and quaint ocean-side restaurant. And of course, if you’re looking for a more traditional form of family fun, there’s the Arniston Hotel, with a pool, spa and fully fledged kids’ club, complete with minders to take them off your hands (in school holidays only).
Montagu, Western Cape (population 15,176)
The largest on the list is filled with pretty old buildings and charming restaurants – two things guaranteed to thrill pretty much no child between the ages of two and 15. But if you dig a little deeper, there are some kid-friendly attractions. The Leidam Bird Sanctuary is right in the town, free to visit and great for babies and toddlers still fascinated by flying things. You can hike from here to the Avalon Springs, where kids of all ages can wallow in warm water and whiz down waterslides (you can of course drive as well, if the short hike doesn’t appeal).
Nearby is Die Stal, a charming tearoom with space for little ones to run around. But perhaps the best thing for families to do in Montagu’s vicinity is to take a tractor ride into the Langeberg. Trips from Protea Farm leave on Wednesday and Friday mornings and end with an optional potjiekos lunch under the trees (though I would recommend lunching back in town). The trip is particularly wonderful in winter, when there’s often a sprinkling of snow on the ground and kids jump down to build microscopic snowmen.
What are your favourite South African small towns to visit with the kids? I’d love to hear your suggestions – please share in the comments section below.