The Blogitects Spend a Night in Wild Wepener

by | Apr 26, 2021 | Free State, Lodging, The Blogitects | 29 comments

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.

29 Comments

  1. Albert

    Very interesting! And so typically for every small dorp to have a Pakistani or Chinese shop in the middle of nowhere. I would also love to hear their stories

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes, and in this case there was not just one but several!

      Reply
      • Albert

        I think it is maybe a border town thing. Migrant workers going back home to Lesotho and stocking up on goods before the border. Come to think of it, the town of Ladybrand in the Free State also had lots of foreign owned shops and its also on the border

        Reply
        • 2summers

          Yeah, that makes sense. I think it’s location near the border is the main reason Wepener has survived (somewhat).

          Reply
  2. David Bristow

    I wish I had known about the Lord Fraser when I drove that way with ghastly diarrhoea, looking for a loo, too scared to stop and too scarred not too. 🙂

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hahaha (although not funny at the time, I’m sure). So where did you stop?

      Reply
  3. Graham Maclachlan

    Wow! Great photos and very well written. Well done. Hats off.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks so much Graham! And sorry again that we missed each other that day.

      Reply
  4. Barbara Shaw

    I did exactly what you did on my trip along the R26 from Fouriesburg to Aliwal North (where I swam in the hot springs!). My night in Wepener at the Lord Fraser was disturbed (and disturbing) by a very rowdy ANC rally down the main street and I was warned not to go too near as the bottle store was still open. The Lord Fraser was lovely though and the town is situated on a river so it has possibilities. But it’s a sad town.

    Perhaps next time you could use Waschbank Lodge on the Orange River. I have been there several times. It’s not as grand as the Lord Fraser but it’s very friendly and safe and has a wide deck overlooking the river. If you get lucky, you can go out on their motorboat on the river.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hi Barbara, wow that also sounds like quite an experience. Seems like Wepener is always wild in one way or another. Waschbank Lodge also sounds very intriguing!

      Reply
  5. dizzylexa

    Great blog on a little town I had almost forgotten about, love the photo’s especially the one with the pink car in it.

    Reply
  6. AutumnAshbough

    That last photo is gorgeous. And kudos to you for exploring. I think I would have hidden out!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thank you. Honestly Thorsten deserves all the credit for making that exploration happen.

      Reply
  7. Ruth

    Great story and beaitiful photos. There thousands of small dorps like Wepener…. it’s so sad, especially for the people tryng to eke out a living there. Last year March I was in Somerset East and it was very depressing – the only time you see any significant number of people is on grant payout day….. and this was before Covid.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yeah. I’ve also passed through quite a few similar towns. It’s rough!

      Reply
  8. Santa

    Wow… I grew up in Wepener and lived there from 1964 up to 1980…. but still have family and friends there. There is much more to the “story of Wepener” than it seems and I’m sorry that the fload of 1981 wasnt brought up here. That was probably the main reason why Wepener schrinked to 30% of the original town. Although Wepener is now mainly managed by pakistani … it is still my hometown and very near to my heart. Thank you for a beautiful review of Wepener.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks so much for the comment, Santa. As I said, I was only there for one night – I wish I’d had time to learn more. I will read up on the flood!

      Reply
    • Annelene

      My mother was born and raised in Wepener. My grandparents stayed there till the end of the 90’s before they moved elsewhere. Have very fond memories of the town it used to be before it started going backwards. Fun facts, my grandmother worker at Frasers, my mom wed in the church and my great grandmother lived opposite the church.

      I live in Bloemfontein now and went there for the first time in about 20 years when we came out of hard lockdown last year. Was so sad to see the state of the town.

      Reply
      • 2summers

        Thanks for sharing your memories, Annelene!

        Reply
      • Hilary Kelman

        One of those direlect buildings that was partially burnt down was the Frontier Hotel where I was born and raised was just in front of The Lord Fraser house. I have some wonderful memories of my parents and my brothers and the school we attended. Who is Annelene from Bloemfontein. I now live in Israel.

        Reply
        • 2summers

          Hi Hilary, wow that’s amazing!

          Reply
  9. Mike

    Hi. Love your story about Wepener. I was born in Aliwal-North and brought up in Wepener. You can’t imagine all the memories you just brought up. My home town! Wish you could have experienced it in its hay days.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hi Mike, thanks so much for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Reply
  10. Diane Brown

    Love this write up. I stopped at that hotel for lunch late last year on a Ford media trip. Arriving itlooked like a total dump, then I went nto that stunning garden and was blown away. The food was outstanding g and the tannies so friendly.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Wow, that’s interesting that you went there with a media trip! Do you think anyone on the trip wrote about it? There’s so little online about Wepener.

      Reply
  11. The Roaming Giraffe Di Brown

    It was a Ford trip and we literally just stopped there for lunch

    Reply
  12. Moliehi

    That’s my hometown, I grew up there, it was great. Still crazy about this small town. My family still lives there and I currently stay in the Capital of SA. Thanks for such a great story, maybe one day Wepener will be restored to its former glory.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thank a Moliehi, I hope so too!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: