A few years ago the historical town of Pilgrim’s Rest on the eastern escarpment of Mpumalanga had lost its appeal as a result of severe mismanagement. But just as the sun always breaks through the mist, the town has recently regained its position as a popular tourist attraction. Mariana Balt went visiting…
• 1870: The year of South Africa’s first gold rush.
• 2005: Pilgrim’s Rest hosted the World Gold Panning Championships – a first for South Africa and Africa.
• TGME: Transvaal Gold Mining Estates was the name of the company that mined gold in the area.
• 89: The number of historical buildings or sites along the Pilgrim’s Rest Main Road.
• The Gold News: The first newspaper published on the Pilgrim’s Rest Goldfields in 1874.
Seeing the historical town of Pilgrim’s Rest rising from the ashes of neglect to once again enjoy the clicking of tourist camera shutters is a special experience. Tourism brings economic revival, which is important to a community suffering high unemployment due to the lack of other industries in the area.
The Mpumalanga Department of Public Works, Roads and Transport is responsible for the management of the museum town and decided in 2012 that business operators should reapply for the right to occupy and trade on the premises.
Years of court cases and uncertainty saw operators leaving, resulting in deteriorating economic conditions
and a visible decline. Mpumalanga Heritage, a registered civics organisation for the conservation of all aspects of heritage and history in the province, was just one of the supporting parties in the fight that led to 10-year contracts being allocated in 2018.
Business owners have since revived their enterprises and with the help of the (now keen) government department, the mining company active in the area, and the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, maintenance and businesses are starting to flourish.
The museum remains the custodian of the town and René Reinders, who manages the museum information services, makes sure work that is carried out is historically correct.
While the entire town is a museum, specific venues such as the transport museum, printing museum, house museum, general dealer museum and history museum, are located in different buildings.
Visitors can find information and maps at the information centre.
Hawkers previously regarded as a nuisance are now housed in neat stalls erected by the mine and government department. The regional curios are popular among tour bus travellers who stop for lunch at the Royal Hotel.
One of the town’s main attractions is the Alanglade House Museum, built in 1915 by the Transvaal Gold Mining Estates as the official residence for its mine managers. Surrounded by mountains, forests and some of the original gardens, it is decorated with furniture and objects from the period. Heading through the front door is like stepping back in time.
The Pilgrim’s Rest Golf Course offers much more than just the opportunity for a game of golf. Players can indulge in a blast from the past at a 19th hole in the historic clubhouse that is straight out of a turn of the century magazine or movie.
Businesses throughout the town offer opportunities to buy memorabilia and gifts, fill up with fuel from authentic pumps or remember yesterday’s vehicles at the Central Garage Transport Museum. They can also make family memories with an old-fashioned diggers’ photo at Kuzzulo’s Emporium and watch a black and white silent movie at Belvedere.
The historic cemetery pays tribute to the pioneers who lost their lives at the outset of the great South African gold rush and includes The Robber’s Grave. Legend has it that an unknown man who was caught, convicted and banished from the diggings returned to the town and was then shot. He was buried ‘facing the wrong way’ to brand him as a thief forever.
Those not interested in history can eat or drink in old-fashioned style, listen to stories at The Vine Restaurant and Pub or enjoy coffee and pancakes at several venues.
Overnight guests can find accommodation at the iconic Royal Hotel, or self-catering guesthouses like Mona Cottage offers visitors even more time to enjoy the nostalgia of the area. Guided tours to the village museums and the historical digging site can be booked at the information centre.
Written by Mariana Balt
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