David Rawdon, who saved Matjiesfontein

An icon of the Karoo has passed on, but his dreams will never die.  David Duncan Rawdon, the man, who loved life, enjoyed Spanish champagne and a good brandy will forever be remembered at his beloved Matjiesfontein.  He re-created this village 40 years ago and turned it into the tourist spot that its original owner James D Logan would have envied.  David, a legend in the hotel industry, an inspiration to many, a mentor, a guru, discovered Matjiesfontein in about 1960. By then, he had a long list of top class hotels to his credit – Rawdons in Natal, the Lanzerac in Stellenbosch and the Marine in Hermanus – yet it was the ramshackled, rundown Matjiesfontein that stole his heart. He once laughing said: “The day after I bought the village I went into the bank at Laingsburg and heard some locals whisper ‘there’s the mad Englishman who bought Matjiesfontein – what does he think he can do with that dump?” As ever, David had seen past the sad, forlorn buildings. He’d seen a little piece of Old Victorian England on the plains of the Karoo. Within ten years, like the Phoenix, it rose anew and his dream became a reality.  The old Milner Hotel, named after Lord Alfred Milner, opened its doors in 1970. By 1979, in David’s capable hands, the village was declared a National Heritage site. David once said: “All my hotels have been important, exciting and different, but Matjiesfontein was a real struggle and for this reason is special and closest to my heart.  I hope it will go on forever.”  So does everyone who loves the village.


Few realise that despite reaching great heights of brilliance in the hospitality and interior decorating, David, by his own admission, lacked ambition as a young man. So much so that his father despaired of him ever “making anything of himself.” Born in 1924, David was the eldest of three sons. His father was an American dentist Dr George Rawdon, and his beloved mother, Marie, was a domestic science teacher. She ensured all her boys learned to cook and David discovered many culinary secrets at her side.  He was devoted to her and created a museum in her memory on the Matjiesfontein station.  Educated at Hilton College, David was a keen rugby player and represented Northern Transvaal in 1944.  He also served in the South African Air Force in Italy during World War II. On his return from “up north” he exasperated his father by not settling down and finding a job. His father warned he would end up as a rat catcher, instead he became a hawker.  Then he “almost tried farming” but moved into the hotel industry and never looked back. He set the standards and created iconic hotels widely known not only in South Africa but also internationally. A love of antiques led to him making a name in interior decorating. He encouraged his workforce, inspired loyalty and dedication. He loved sharing knowledge and fostering ability. David adored Matjiesfontein where he created a home in the old jail.  To consolidate his dream he placed Matjiesfontein in an Educational Trust to be run by two nephews and younger brother Benjamin. They will ensure the magic lives on. ”David was much loved,” says Jonathan Rawdon. “He showed us the fun side of life. Nothing got him down. Ever the optimist, he never took things too seriously and always looked on the bright side. Matjiesfontein will continue as was his dearest wish.”


© Rose’s Roundup, December 2010 (No 203)

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