History of the Hot Springs

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Mention was made in the last issue of the "Standard" of the early opening (or rather reopening) of Montagu Baths and boarding house adjoining. The full significance of the announcement may not have impressed itself upon the casual reader of the paragraph, because much might have been added to lend point and interest to it, and to show that a great deal of importance - Colonial as well as local - was really attached to it.

That the hot chalybeate springs of Montagu, for which the baths and boarding house are provided, are of more value than ordinary fountains is pretty widely recognised ; the people of Montagu Village and round a large area of the district have the utmost faith in the waters, and these are an endless source of conversation in superlatives to residents there and elsewhere throughout the Western Province who have proved their virtue by actual personal experience.

Recently I had the pleasure of a visit to the Baths, now in course of extensive and expensive alteration; and whilst there heard so much of the curative properties of those bubbling springs that I resolved to ascertain all there was to be told of their history, and of the physical blessings they had conferred upon suffering mankind for nearly 100 years.

One informant "let himself go" when enlarging upon the great healing fountain here provided free by Nature herself, and incidentally, but not irreverently remarked: "The Pool of Siloam is not in the same category with it". That remark fairly represents local feeling at any rate, and when this colonial asset has been developed and exploited by its new owners, the New Cape Central Railway Co. Ltd. - as it is now to be, practically for the first time, the name of Montagu will become, as a Spa as proverbial in South Africa, as Buxton is in England, and Chemnitz in Germany.

Nor is this the mere assertion of people who may profit somewhat by the edulation of an attraction of the first-class in their neighborhood; proofs have been forthcoming and unreserved testimony given to the virtue of these thermal springs, some of which have been writ large all about those quart size rocks, since 1818 - one year before Queen Victoria was born. How these springs came to be reserved for the telling on another occasion. As an introduction to that remarkable bit of Colonial history it will be enough to say now that the traveler along the high road through the Little Karoo, from Montagu to Ladismith or Touws River, would not dream of any good thing coming out of that dark and forbidding kloof bearing away to the left between mountains, several thousand feet high, that rise abruptly from the level veld. But this attention would be sure to be arrested by the extraordinary freaks of Nature, when in her most turbulent mood in past ages, had perpetrated upon the mountains themselves. These grand old eminences are a portion of the Langebergen, which separates the Karoo from the Breede River Valley ; and they add the whole neighbourhood a peculiar charm of their own, because their ruggedness and general character are quite unlike anything of the mountain scenery of the South Western region of the Cape.

The springs may be approached by two routes from the village of Montagu. When driving, the upper road going north is taken, until the weather beaten finger board (shortly to be replaced by an iron enamelled plate), that has done duty as a guide for many years, is reached ; then the narrow turn to the left is taken direct to the small estate that, years ago, cut off from the Commonage - total distance from the village 20 minutes, or 2 miles. But nobody on foot thinks of taking the dusty road. In dry weather the whole course of the stream through the Kloof may be covered in about the same time, but by less than half the distance. This path takes one - but, perhaps, I ought to say two, because it is a noted lover's walk - through a grassy, shady and romantic valley, just above the level of the stream.

Only during the last 500 yards or so is the going rough under foot, where the stream has to be crossed once or twice to reach the Baths at the head of the Kloof. It is proposed to minimise this difficulty by throwing rustic bridges across here and there, and clearing away any impediments to the easy and pleasant walk out from Montagu. The City Fathers are quite willing that this should be done by the new owners of the Baths, although nearly the entire length of the path is along Town Commonage.

When proceeding up this path one is confronted at every turn - and the Kloof in a short mile takes the form of a double S - with mountain scenery of the grandest description ; not merely such as would be formed from volcanic upheavals in uncountable periods of the past, but mountains covered in verdure of the greenest and densest, in which the wild geranium and pelargonium, the heather, aloe, mimosa, and blue gum, are in their elements of sunshine and moisture, and spread out everywhere amid the rocks and gullies in rich profusion. It is not to be wondered at that lovers should seek these tortuous ways ; the very atmosphere breathes of romance - and physical balm. Just outside the village, and at the entrance to the Kloof, is an old English Mill, driven by an overshot water wheel, that keeps up its flop, flop, flop, with as much splutter and splash, as if it were grinding wheat to supply the whole community with flour and bread.

It was doing its duty industriously when I called to pay it and it's manager my respects ; and with the prevailing high prices of imported flour, its duty should be done, day and night, for a long time to come. To enable it to do this the water is taken out of the river half a mile up and the race follows beside the foot path, adding to the luxuriant growth of flower, bush, and tree in its devious course. Nor is any of this water wasted ; I have already shown how it provides Montagu with bread, it also provides for the people their potable and irrigible water, that is conserved in the dams lower down. This all comes from the highly mineralised springs that burst out of the rocks all the way up the Kloof ; but of these the hot fountains at the top rank first in importance and intrinsic value, the water cooling and purifying as it flows along the village.

The gorge considerabley narrows down as it approaches the Karoo; the width being not more than about 100 feet. Indeed it resembles nothing more than the neck of the long skin bottle used in Arabia, with the source of the stream situated in the mouth. Within the last 400 or 500 feet of the neck so much is being done in excavations, pipe-laying, construction of cement walls, manholes, and baths, that for the present the original character of the bed of the stream is obliterated ; and if the purposes and plans of the new owners be carried out in their entirety it will never again, hereabout, appear exactly as Nature designed it.