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New lease on life for 'ghost town'

08 Aug 2008
The historical 1800s Eastern Cape village of Thomas River is becoming a popular tourist and wedding destination.

Situated halfway between Stutterheim and Cathcart on the N6 and surrounded by farming land, lies the historical, and until 2003, disused, village of Thomas River.

Today, having had new life breathed into it by Jeff and Ann Sansom, who discovered it while holidaying in the area five years ago, it is fast becoming a popular tourist and wedding destination. Set within the Thomas River Conservancy, which covers around 31 000 hectares, it is also becoming popular among outdoor enthusiasts on the back of offerings such as picturesque hiking trails, fishing, birding, paintball and mountain biking.

According to Jeff Sansom, the village was named after an English army deserter called Thomas Bentley who was shot with a poisonous Bushman arrow while crossing the river in 1801.

Throughout the 1800s and well into the mid-1900s, Thomas River was a village in its own right with its own residents, supply store, post office, church and school house. Its first train station was built in the late 1870s, in the middle of four gun forts dating back to the 9th Frontier War. The second station, which came into being in 1926, saw its last train in 1948 when the new railway line opened.

The arrival of the major national retail brands in the nearby towns of Cathcart and Stutterheim, both about 15 to 20 minutes drive from Thomas River, sounded the death knell for the local supply store owner and butcher, who ended up closing their doors and moving out of the village. A few years later, the post office followed suit.

Today Jeff Sansom, along with his daughter Michelle White-Phillips, owns two of its three houses and the station building which has been converted into a private residence. The cow shed has also been converted and now exists as two, single-bedroom cottages, both inhabited. Describing the residential architecture as period, typically comprising stone foundations and brick walls topped with pitched or hip zinc, and sash windows, he says the original houses were built between 1880 and 1920. "The station, however, is more reminiscent of the Hemingway period with its wooden gable ends."

Depending on what the future brings in terms of demand to live in the area, Sansom says while there are no plans to subdivide their land at the moment, things could change in the next couple of years. "While we're primarily a tourist destination at the moment, it's likely that retired or semi-retired people looking for holiday homes away from the hustle and bustle of the seaside resorts might want to live here. Who knows then what could happen in terms of its permanent accommodation offerings? The sky is the limit when one has a bit of imagination."

The village is also home to a number of museums including the Rock Art Centre, the Museum of Early Transport, the Motor Museum, the Blacksmith's Workshop and the Museum Pub and Dining Hall with their rich collections of antiques. Even the police station is a relic, he says, and the only one anywhere in South Africa with a rondavel as a charge office.

Still a place of learning, the old school house is the site of the Private Library, which comprises a large book collection as well as antique office equipment such as typewriters and period phones.

The stone-dressed, non-denominational church, built in 1888, has also been renovated. Says Sansom of the hard work that has gone into the village: "When we discovered the Thomas River Village, we decided we wanted to retire here and rebuild the village for ourselves and our family as well as the surrounding community."

"Since January 2003, the village has grown and evolved into what it is today. Our main focus within the village is affordability and marketing it to South Africans because we believe that it must be accessible to everybody."

Its major economic driver is tourism, which Sansom sees gaining momentum as the village's tourism infrastructure improves. Current visitor accommodation includes the self-catering Station Master's and Station Foreman's Houses, the old post office for hikers and backpackers and a caravan/camping park but as growing numbers of people are drawn to its museums and historical surrounds, or spend time there at functions such as weddings and conferences, the need for additional accommodation is apparent.

"The historic old dining hall, Farmers' Hall and library are perfect wedding and conference venues, enhanced by the availability of a full function coordinating service," he says, explaining the reason behind the village's growing appeal. It's also being bolstered by the efforts of its local conservancy to attract people to the area on the back of its many outdoor offerings that he says are ideal for teambuilding and weekend getaways.

In time to come, Thomas River Village will also be able to offer an 18-tee, nine-hole golf course and bowling green as well as an entertainment area complete with swimming pool and sauna, and a venue that will seat up to 300 people. "We would also like to enlarge the Motor Museum, possibly even adding on a workshop for restoring the vintage and classic cars in our collection as well as other collections found in South Africa," he adds.

Finally, after having had a steam engine donated to the village, Sansom says efforts are underway to secure funding for, and find a source of, old gauge track that once laid, will allow for the old train to be transported from its current resting place in Krugersdorp to the Thomas River Village. – Ingrid Olivier

For more information contact Michelle White-Phillips, General Manager & Function Coordinator at 045 843 1504 or 072 070 6132, or email michelle@oldthomasriver.co.za. Click here to visit the website.

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