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Glide into the past


What better way to explore the ghosts and the colonial past of the Victorian village of Matjiesfontein than on a traditionally styled Harley-Davidson, asks Jim Freeman.

People who disparage Harley-Davidson motorcycles generally have one thing in common – they have either never ridden one or it is been a heck of a long time since they have done so. Truth be told, I was one of those who loudly decried them as “Milwaukee Monsters” or “two-wheeled tractors” until less than a decade ago.

Now I can honestly describe myself as a Harley-Davidson ambassador. My conversion from critic to product evangelist occurred during a media visit to Mauritius six years ago. While the itinerary included a day at the horse-races in the capital Port Louis, I had another kind of island riding in mind and asked the organising PR genius whether there was any way he could organise me a motorcycle for the day.

Little did I know that the general manager of the hotel at which we were staying rode Harley and he got on the blower to then-dealer manager of H-D on Mauritius, Paul Wren. Waiting for me at the resort on my arrival was a big, black and menacing 1690 cc Softail Slim.

It was, as they say in the Hollywood classic, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Two months later, I was a guest in Mpumalanga at the Harley South Africa launch of the 2014 range of bikes dubbed Sons of Rushmore (in mocking apology to the Sons of Anarchy TV series). 

In 2010, faced with plummeting sales and the possible demise of the brand, Harley-Davidson took the unprecedented step of conducting market research – dubbed Project Rushmore – among owners, upon whom it had previously foisted new models and upgrades with little regard for their needs or preferences. It was not as if touring bikes were under threat per se; BMW and Japanese marques were experiencing a popularity uptick in the segment.

Spin doctors said the purpose of Rushmore “was to fundamentally improve the riding experience for owners of our touring models: to take that input, act on it, and find new ways to exceed the expectations of our global riding community. We rode with our riders, spent thousands of hours testing and retesting, and travelled endless miles to find the information we needed.”


Milwaukee makeover

Essentially, owners said they were tired of riding prehistoric pigs (the technology of Harley did not feel as if it had advanced much since the company was founded in 1903) … or paying a premium for the displeasure of doing so. Riding an iconic brand was one thing, they said, getting piles as a result was another.

It says a lot for the company that criticism was taken to heart and the makeover began immediately. After a redesign and development period of just more than three years, new bikes (albeit with the same names) came to market. Not a moment too soon. Pretty much all that remains of the traditional Harley are the signature shape and sound: low-slung, laid-back, and possessed of a thumping snarl that can only emanate from a badass V-twin. 

Performance, safety, comfort, and ride quality improved immeasurably with the introduction of the 2014-series and continue to do so. New models have been added to the product line-up – with varying degrees of success – to broaden the appeal of the brand. So, yeah, I was pretty stoked when Harley South Africa marketing boss Aidan Johnson arranged a new Street Glide Special rental bike gratis through the Harley Tyger Valley dealership for a three-day trip from Cape Town to quirky Matjiesfontein. 

Thrilled but a little leery, the word “Special” in the name indicates that Harley has increased the engine size from the standard 107 cubic inches (1,745 cc) to 114 ci (1,868 cc) … by some way the “biggest” bike I have ever ridden. Even though the Street Glide Special possesses the engine of a mid-sized car and weighs in at 362 kg, I need not have worried, even though my first few minutes of riding took me into peak-hour traffic on the N1 freeway.

There is a lot more torque to the engine, which results not only in quicker acceleration from standstill to 100 km/h (great for merging with traffic) but also quicker 100-130 km/h fifth gear roll-on to facilitate overtaking. The engine is nicely responsive and power delivery is smooth and consistent. Harley has also seriously reduced the engine and ride vibration. One does not, however, buy a Harley-Davidson touring bike to commute to and from work.

Two days later and the two stretched side “bags” were loaded with a surprising amount of gear, including cameras and extra clothing because a glance at the sky in the direction of the Du Toitskloof mountains suggested I was going to get seriously wet. The well-preserved Victorian village of Matjiesfontein lies about 300 km from Cape Town on the N1 between Touws River and Laingsburg. 

At its heart is the Lord Milner Hotel, famed for – among other things – the Laird’s Arms pub and the surprising number of ghosts that are reputed to swish through the corridors. The spectral presence, I am told, is entirely benign … even the young lady who rattles doorknobs in the middle of the night. The resident cats, Theresa and Patat, do not seem particularly gepla by ghosts, though.


Matjiesfontein village

The entire village is owned by the Rawdon family, while the hotel is managed on behalf of the family, by American hospitality company Valor from its local headquarters outside Stellenbosch. The Lord Milner is a three-star facility with, according to hotel GM Werner Smit, “five-star service and four-star rooms”.

Matjiesfontein owes its genesis to James Douglas Logan, an itinerant Scottish railwayman whose first job after landing in South Africa in May 1877 was as a porter on Cape Town station. Hard work, competence, and ambition brought him quick promotion, including station master. 

According to Dr Dean Allen, author of Empire, War and Cricket in South Africa, “it was not long before the young Scot was offered the position of district superintendent of the railway section between Hex River and Prince Albert in the Karoo. Logan moved to Touws River in August 1879. The canny Scot realised trains needed to be provisioned as they headed into the interior of South Africa and Logan cornered the market quickly, creating a business empire, as Dr Allen writes, “which stretched from Bulawayo to Cape Town”. 

He resigned from the railways in 1883 “to devote his full attention to his burgeoning catering activities”. Shortly before leaving Touws River, he bought three farms just up the railway line around a dilapidated and barren little siding called Matjiesfontein. The desire Logan had was to create an empire – not to create wealth for its own sake but for the social status and recognition it could bring. In making his fortune, he became a friend of then-Prime Minister of the Cape, Cecil John Rhodes, and gave himself the title “Laird of Matjiesfontein”.

The first Anglo-Boer war broke out just after the hotel was completed (and named, in typical imperialist toadying fashion, after the governor of the Cape). It was perhaps the “golden” period of the history of Matjiesfontein because over 10,000 British soldiers were billeted in the vicinity. The hotel was given over to officers, while the troops and their 20,000 horses stayed in the veld.

Matjiesfontein remains a working siding though it is most visited by trains such as Rovos Rail and Premier Classe, whose passengers alight for a walkabout and tour of the station buildings, which have been converted into a Victoria museum. There is also a transport museum, restored courthouse, and gravel cricket pitch, which was the scene for the first international match (South Africa vs. England) in the Western Cape.

Our Bike: Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special

Engine: Milwaukee-Eight 114 V-twin (four valves per cylinder)

Displacement: 1,868 cc 

Maximum torque: 163 Nm @ 3,000 rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Length: 2,425 mm

Wheelbase: 1,625 mm

Ground clearance: 125 mm

Seat height: 690 mm

Gross weight: 362 kg

Fuel capacity: 22.7 litres

Consumption: 5.9 ℓ/100 km (Manufacturer’s claim)

Base price: R376,000

We like:

Much-reduced vibration, comfort, balance, and engine responsiveness. BOOM GTS infotainment system nice and noisy for an extended trip.

We do not like:

Picky, I know, but it could do with an extended-reach side stand for greater ease-of-mind parking on off-camber road surfaces. I kept feeling as if I was going to drop the bike on its side.

RoadTrip Rating

90% (points deducted only because it is largely limited to tar surfaces)

(Jim is not biased, no – Editor)

Text: Jim Freeman | Images: Jim Freeman

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