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Molteno, Eastern Cape

Molteno is a town in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

It was founded in 1874 and named for Sir John Molteno, the first prime minister of the Cape Colony. South Africa's first coal mine was opened here.[1][2] High in the Stormberg Mountains, Molteno is South Africa's coldest town and it is close to the country's only ski resort. Ouma Rusks originated here.[3]


Coal fields were discovered in this part of the Stormberg Mountains in 1859, and the town was founded for mining in 1874 by George Vice. He named it after the first Cape Prime Minister, John Molteno.[1][2] (Interestingly, because of this, the town's other namesake is his ancestral hometown in Italy, not far from Milan.) The town's principal streets are named after the members of Molteno's cabinet.[4] Water was drawn from the nearby Stormberg river, and later also from the Jubilee Dam.[5]

Soon after its founding, the town became the major supplier of coal to the Cape Colony, with a large portion going to supply the diamond fields in Kimberley.[6] It was granted municipal status in 1883, and by 1892 around 6000 tons of coal were being extracted at Molteno. Much of this coal went to supplying the Cape's rapidly growing railway system.[7] In 1887, the newly founded Molteno Chamber of Commerce was influential in urging the Cape Government to extend its railway system northwards into the Boer republics, so as to open up new markets. By 1897, production of coal in the region had risen to over 70,000 tons.[8] However, by the 1920s the expansion of the railways made access to coal fields in Natal and the Transvaal possible, resulting in the decline of coal mining around Molteno.[9]

The mountains around Molteno are largely composed of sandstone of exceptional quality, and there were originally plans to build Molteno out of this beautiful rock, as a "Sandstone City". Nonetheless, several of the oldest buildings in the town are still made from local stone, fashioned by Italian artisans. The Old Mill is one example, built in 1874 and restored in 1991, as is the local Church and "Drostdy" (Magistrate's office).

During the Second Boer War, Molteno was used as a mustering point for troops prior to the famous Battle of Stormberg, as it was the closest railway station. The area also saw extensive Boer guerilla activity.[10]

Places of interest

Although hot and arid in summer, in winter Molteno is the coldest town in South Africa, being located near the highest point in the Cape in the heart of the Stormberg Mountains. Because of its extreme temperatures, it offers snow in the colder months and the town is not far from the country's only ski resort, Tiffindell. The town has several botanical gardens, a monument to Queen Victoria, and a historic library built from local stone. There are 4X4 trails in the mountains and the nearby Molteno Dam offers water-skiing and trout-fishing.[11]

Molteno is also home to Ouma Rusks and the Stormberg biltong factory.[3]

The Molteno Museum is located in the stone library building and aims to portray the history of the town and its surrounds. It contains a range of artifacts, from stone-age tools to Khoisan, Xhosa and Voortrekker relics including a large collection of vintage guns. It also houses local war relics from the Boer War, and a display of pioneering historical photography from the region, the "Lomax Collection". Also of historical interest are the blockhouses that are located in the area, dating from the Boer War, and the Stormberg Battlefields. [12]
There is a lot of Bushman rock art in the surrounding mountain ranges. The area around the town offers ample opportunity to view rock paintings, fossils and stone age tools uncovered in caves and diggings close to Molteno. There are also three extinct volcanoes in the vicinity.[13]

The town has one of the oldest railway stations in South Africa - now officially reopened after being closed for repairs. The station lies on the main line from East London, inland to Johannesburg. This line was actually planned and begun by the same John Molteno after whom the town is named, but the railway only reached the town in 1884.[14]


Molteno is surrounded by mountains and high Karoo plains, known for its vast panoramic views. It is also located almost exactly on the watershed between the catchment areas of the Atlantic Ocean (e.g. the Orange River to the north) and the Indian Ocean.[15]

The semi-arid, succulent-rich vegetation of the Great Karoo ecoregion predominates in the area.


Molteno has a subtropical highland climate (Cwb, according to the Köppen climate classification), with warm summers and chilly, dry winters, with occasional snowfalls. It borders on a semi-arid climate (BSh/BSk). The average annual precipitation is 401 mm (16 in), with rainfall occurring mainly during summer.

The village of Buffelsfontein, located near Molteno, has the lowest recorded temperature in South Africa, of −18.6 °C (−1 °F), on 28 June 1996.[16]

The administrative area to which Molteno belongs, Inkwanca, literally means "cold" in Xhosa and, in 2005, Tracy Gill from the SA Weather Service officially crowned Molteno as South Africa's coldest town.[17]

Climate chart (explanation)
Average max. and min. temperatures in °C
Precipitation totals in mm
Source: SA Explorer


Molteno is located on the Stormberg Series of the Karoo System where some of the only workable coal seams in the Cape are to be found (the Molteno Formation, the youngest in the Karoo System, is named after the town).[18] These coal fields are being explored for possible coal bed methane extraction.[19]

The rocks preserve a record of gradual desertification over millions of years, starting from the Upper Triassic when the area was a warm swampland, and continuing into the late Jurassic when the region had become a desert. Extensive Dinosaur footprints and fossils can be found in these rocks.[20]

Famous residents

  • Ambrose Lomax, the chemist and photographer.
  • Johannes Meintjes, prominent South African artist.
  • LJ van Zyl, Springbok Athlete

See also


External links

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