I waited until the last minute before deciding where to stay on the last night of the Blogitect Road Trip. The first eight nights of the trip were meticulously planned, but I delayed choosing a stopover town for the ninth night. I wanted to find an unusual town — something interesting and unexpected — off the beaten path but also roughly halfway between the Sunshine Coast and Joburg.

The day before our journey home, my friend Charl suggested Wepener.

Welcome to Wepener. Thanks to Google, I’ve just learned the mountain behind this arch is called the Jammersberg, which means “Mountain of Sorrow”.

“It’s not too far out of your way,” Charl said. “And there’s an interesting guest house there.” I googled Wepener and saw it’s right on the border with Lesotho, one of my favorite parts of South Africa. There was a guest house on the map, the Lord Fraser Guest House, and it had a nice-looking website. The rooms looked historic and pretty.

I called the Lord Fraser, booked a room for the following night for R900 (about $60), and that was that. My research lasted exactly three minutes.

The next day Thorsten and I made the six-hour drive from Kenton-on-Sea to Wepener. (I haven’t blogged about our time in Port Alfred, Kasouga, and Kenton-on-Sea yet. Those posts are coming soon.) It was a beautiful drive up the nearly empty N6 highway to Rouxville, where we got onto the R26.

The R26, somewhere between Rouxville and Zastron in the southeastern Free State. Here’s a map of the entire Blogitect Road Trip Route, if you haven’t seen it.

We arrived in Wepener in the late afternoon, just before sunset.

A Stopover in Wepener

We pulled into Wepener and one of the first things we saw was a row of burned-out shops. We later heard that these shops, which are right on the town’s main street, were firebombed last December in a dispute between the owners.

Burned-out shops in Wepener
Shop ruins. It looked like a post-war scene.

I’ve been thinking for weeks about how to write about Wepener without incorrectly characterizing a place I know almost nothing about. I was there for less than 24 hours. But it’s safe to say that like many other small South African towns — and many small American towns, and many small towns the world over, for that matter — Wepener is a forgotten place. It came to exist and flourish during colonial and apartheid times, and hasn’t adjusted well since those times ended.

When I saw that row of burned shops, the boarded up hotel across the street (which was fortunately not the Lord Fraser), and the noisy cluster of people spilling out onto the pockmarked pavement around the bottle store (bottle stores, like cockroaches, survive every calamity in South Africa), my first instinct was to ask Thorsten to turn the car around and continue on to Bloemfontein, which was 90 minutes away. But I swallowed my trepidation, reminding myself I am supposed to be a badass travel blogger.

The Lord Fraser is on a dead-end street and surrounded by a grove of massive oak trees — just behind the row of bombed-out shops, in fact — so it’s hard to get a feel for the building from the outside. We walked in through the wrong entrance and struggled to find the reception area. The place felt dark and deserted. The knots in my stomach tightened.

Eventually we found the manager, Elmien, in a sitting room behind reception, surrounded by a ragtag pack of dogs. Elmien welcomed us warmly and took us to our room, several dogs trailing behind us.

We walked through the bar, which was very dark and had two cow heads mounted on the wall. A taxidermied sheep stood on one of the tables.

Bar at the Lord Fraser
I shot this picture later on, when the bar looked more cheerful. The Jack Russell is Chloe, my favorite member of the Lord Fraser dog pack.

We exited the bar into an expansive, bright green courtyard. The lawn was so green, it looked nearly fluorescent. The courtyard was ringed by tall palm trees, and the buildings were covered in green ivy and Virginia creeper, just starting to blush red in the early autumn chill.

Courtyard at the Lord Fraser
The Lord Fraser courtyard.

Various groups of guests gathered around tables in the courtyard. They all turned to look at us. I blinked, trying to absorb the transition between this magical courtyard and the rest of Wepener. “We’ve just arrived in Middle Earth,” I whispered to Thorsten, but I don’t think he heard me.

We entered another building and followed Elmien down a hallway to our room: Room #5, the Fraser Room. I walked into the room and immediately knew we’d made the right decision to stay.

Hallway at Lord Fraser
The hallway leading to our room.
The Fraser Room at the Lord Fraser Guest House
The Fraser Room.

The Fraser Room is not just a room but an entire suite, with an entrance hall and a large bathroom with a clawfoot tub and toilet that flushes with a long chain. The bedroom is huge, decorated with antiques and beautiful wooden built-in cupboards. There’s a lovely functioning fireplace.

The Fraser Room, we would later learn, is so named because it once belonged to Ian Fraser, Baron Fraser of Lonsdale: a British aristocrat who ran a successful department store business in South Africa and Lesotho during the mid-20th century. The house was Lord Fraser’s summer home up until his death in 1974. After a period of neglect the house was taken over by another local businessman, Willem Swanepoel, and his wife, Wilna. Willem and Wilna restored the home and turned it into a guest house in 1993. The Swanepoel family continues to run the Lord Fraser today.

The outside of the Fraser Room at the Lord Fraser Guest House
The Fraser Room from the outside.

Elmien left us with a cheerful wave and we unloaded our things from the car into the suite.

“Should we take a walk around town?” Thorsten asked.

I won’t lie: I had been thinking we would order dinner from the bar, lock ourselves into Lord Fraser’s opulent suite, and not venture out until morning. But I reminded myself (again) that I’m a badass travel blogger and I have a very tall boyfriend who is even more of a badass than I am. Also I could see a beautiful sunset brewing.

Off we went, out into wild Wepener.

Old Frasers department store
A department store, which, like most of the businesses in town, appears to be under Pakistani ownership. This used to be a Frasers department store, as you can see from the lettering along the top of the building.
As in many small South African towns, the sandstone Dutch Reformed Church is the most imposing building in Wepener — looming over the town at the end of the main street.
Organ in the Dutch Reformed church
The next morning we went inside the church, just before the Sunday service started, and discovered this fantastic organ in the balcony.
A small mosque
Every small South African town also has a mosque, usually much more modest than the church, with a distinctive green dome.
House and broken down pink car
A typical Wepener house.
Sad building under a beautiful sky
Sad building under a beautiful sky.
Shopfront in Wepener
If we’d had more time, I would have loved to speak with some of the shop owners to find out where they came from and how they made their way to this desolate corner of the world.
Sunset along the main street
A Wepener sunset.

Back at the Lord Fraser, we went to the bar to order dinner and had a long conversation with Mr. Swanepoel — a tall, imposing man who yelled at his staff in rapid-fire Sesotho when the bar started to get a bit rowdy. (The bar was filled with boisterous young Heath Department workers who were staying at the Lord Fraser while doing covid testing at the South Africa/Lesotho border post.) I wish I’d taken notes during that conversation because I was fascinated by Mr. Swanepoel but can no longer remember anything we actually talked about. I think my brain was experiencing pandemic sensory overload (and clouded by the tall can of Maluti beer I drank while we spoke).

We slept very well in Lord Fraser’s enormous bed.

The next morning we took another town walk, then returned to the guest house and had a nice chat with Elmien, the only woman I’ve ever met who served in the South African National Defense Force, over breakfast. Sadly, it was time to check out of the Lord Fraser.

On our way out of Wepener we stopped to look at the town hall, another lovely building that — you guessed it — was recently burned down.

Wepener Town Hall
The town hall has a monument to Louw Wepener, the town’s namesake, in front. I haven’t had time to get into Louw Wepener’s history but it’s also pretty interesting; he was a Voortrekker who died in 1865 during a famous battle in the Free State-Basotho Wars.
Thorsten in the Town Hall facade
Thorsten in the back of the town hall facade.

Wepener is not a town for the faint-hearted. But Thorsten and I sincerely enjoyed our visit — especially our night in Lord Fraser’s room, which felt like a visit to another to another time, if not another dimension — and I feel compelled to go back someday.

If you’re looking for an adventurous stopover between the Eastern Cape/Western Cape and Gauteng, I highly recommend wild Wepener. But sure to book room #5 at the Lord Fraser and bring your inner badass.

I also highly recommend the drive north on the R26 between Wepener and Fouriesburg, especially during cosmos season (March and April). Be prepared to dodge lots of big potholes.

Cosmos in the Eastern Free State
The biggest cosmos field I’ve ever seen, on the R26 between Ficksburg and Fouriesburg.

The end.

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