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Text by Hazel Hall – Author of “Taking the Waters – The History of the Olifants River Warm Baths”.
According to legend, the discovery of the spring is closely related to animals. A herdsman roaming the district boasted a huge ox by the name of Kolberg, who kicked open the spring with his mighty hoof. The legend continues in the name of Kolberg, after which one of the bathhouses is named. To this day, many believe that Kolberg is the best – and it may well be, because it is closest to the spring source and thus the hottest.
This hot water spring has been a focus for human activity for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. The San, or Bushmen were indigenous to the area, and they used this hot spring as a pivotal life source for many years. Evidence of this can be found in the rock art found near The Baths. Because their physical and spiritual worlds were so intertwined, the San would have harnessed supernatural power from the hot water for healing purposes.
By the 1720s European settlement had spread along the Olifants River as far as its confluence with the Doring River. So The Baths would certainly have been discovered by them. But it was in 1739 that the place was first mentioned in VOC (Dutch East India Company) documents. The Khoi-San came into conflict with the European farmers and Jan Cruywagen made a report to the Council of Policy suggesting that they set up a military post ‘aan ter Warme Bad’. This war caused the whole area, which included The Baths, to be taken over by the white stock farmers. Although the Khoi-San fought desperately to keep control, we do not know how they felt about losing the hot spring.
Daniel van den Henghel, the controversial Acting-governor of the Cape at the time, and the only official ever to be chosen by drawing lots out of a hat, then decided that the VOC should erect “a handsome stone building” and thatched bathing huts for the visitors to the area. In 1763 Governor Rijk Tulbagh had the buildings renovated for his personal pleasure and the privileged burghers. Many respected Cape families patronized The Baths including botanists Carl Thunberg (the father of South African Botany) and Francis Masson (the English gardener from Kew). But the Baths were many miles from Cape Town and it was difficult for the Company to maintain the place in good order. So in 1778 a letter was sent from the Castle authorizing Schalk Willem Burger, who owned Karnemelksvlei, to move to The Baths and to supply visitors with cattle, poultry, and produce and to also keep the Company House in a proper state of repair – ‘maar ook dit behoorlyk te repareeren’. This document still exists. But by the end of the 18th century it was slipping back into a sad state of neglect. Sir John Barrow, secretary to Lord McCartney, found only a dilapidated old house that was used by those who were looking for cures from the water.
The Batavian Government made some good improvements, and when the British took over again in 1806, The Baths was again flourishing. However by the 1850’s many complaints had been made to the Civil Commissioner in Clanwilliam regarding its sad state of repair. The Baths were almost “in ruins”. So in 1855 the Government decided to sell The Baths ‘in the name and on behalf of Her Majesty Victoria, by the grace of God . . Queen, Defender of the Faith’. The first private owner was John Lawrence Sharp, who paid the princely sum of three hundred pounds sterling for The Baths and eighty-morgen of ground. Several owners followed – Johannes Jacobus Wiese, the London merchant Richard Grissold, Josua Albertyn, Aletta Burger (married first to Wiese and then Albertyn) with her eleven children, and Johannes Petrus Kirsten.
Kirsten had paid two thousand pounds for the property, but sadly neglected it. A Commission of Enquiry, set up in 1895, found that the roofs were leaking, the floors were full of holes and pigs were scavenging amongst the cooking pots! Nevertheless, a doctor by the name of FW Weber, called to give evidence, still maintained that despite these conditions, “there is no doubt that the Olifants River Baths deserve the good repute for healing purposes which they have acquired”. The Commissioners were so impressed with Dr Weber’s testimony that they formed a syndicate to buy The Baths. The Olifants River Syndicate had big plans to build a railway tunnel through the mountains from Porterville into the valley, but the Anglo Boer War intervened and in 1903 the Syndicate sold The Baths to James McGregor of Modderfontein.
James McGregor was a remarkable man, but when he rode down over the mountains, a short, stocky Scot in a crumpled hat and veldskoene with his goods piled on a wagon, no one would have believed it. He hired a room and wagon shed on Modderfontein farm, but he was always “die uitlander” – the foreigner, nothing more. He was nevertheless shrewd and hardworking. As a very young man he’d been to Australia, digging roads and panning for gold, and when he saw the rich and fertile valley, he knew he had come to stay. In 1869 he bought his first land, and then married the beautiful Lenie van Wyk, whose family had farmed in the district for generations. They made him promise, with his marriage vows, that he would never take her to his foreign land over the sea, and when this was done, signed and sealed, he was one of them. He, they and the valley would never look back. By 1900, James McGregor owned fifty thousand morgen of the finest land. Three years later he bought The Baths, and with the help of his three sons, he built good roads, an elegant, balconied guesthouse and several fine stone bathhouses, some of which are still there today.
It was his two younger sons, William and James, who took over The Baths from their father. But in 1918 tragedy struck with the highly infectious Spanish flu epidemic. They both died within six days of each other and thus The Baths ended up in the hands of their seven sisters. The McGregor sisters were very hardworking and ran all the properties inherited from their father extremely efficiently. Two of them married – Lizzie, to Trygve Morch Olsen, a Norwegian engineer who came to help build the bridge over the Olifants River at Citrusdal. His energy almost matched that of his father-in-law, for twelve years after old James died in 1914, he added the gabled “Dwarsgebou”, affectionately known as “Paddastraat”, a large swimming pool, the Boarding House and bungalows. The other sister who married – Janie (to Keith Peter), was the only one to have children. And it is through this line that The Baths has stayed in the McGregor family to this day. Janie’s daughter Margaret married Harry Hall and they, along with Margaret’s brother, William, inherited The Baths from their aunts.
A brand new restaurant was built in 2003 to celebrate the centenary of The Baths being owned by the McGregor family. The Boarding House that Trygve Morch Olsen built in the 1920s was demolished and a new building containing self-catering units has been constructed in its place. It is called Olsen House to honour Trygve Morch Olsen. It is to their everlasting credit that James McGregor and his descendants have brought The Baths into the twenty-first century without disturbing the timeless peace and beauty of the Cederberg. And that people may still come here, as they have throughout the centuries, to find rest and tranquillity for body and soul.
It remained in the hands of James McGreggors’ great grandchildren up until July 2015 when it was bought by E Strydom.