BULWER’S Mountain Park Hotel on the slopes of the Amahwaqa mountain. | Picture: Duncan Guy
BULWER’S Mountain Park Hotel on the slopes of the Amahwaqa mountain. | Picture: Duncan Guy

Swopping Britain for Bulwer

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Jan 16, 2021

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Durban - Britain and its cosy life became boring for the relatively new owners of the Mountain Park Hotel in the southern Drakensberg.

“Little things prompted our move. If Brexit hadn’t been the last straw something else would have been,” Ralph Henderson told the Independent on Saturday from the village of Bulwer (as opposed to the Durban suburb of Bulwer).

He and his wife, Sam, had not limited their travels to continental Europe, which they regret seeing Britain leave.

They’ve lived and travelled all over the world. Their integration with communities in host countries, where they taught English, has led to both of them being fluent in Russian and Japanese.

BULWER hotelier Ralph Henderson, top right, and former employee Justin Venter beside him in English rugby jerseys while Mountain Park Hotel staffers, manager Bernard Malidadi, middle left, Philani Dlamini from the housekeeping team and Neliswa Memela from the kitchen team, cheered for the Springboks during the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Now it's their time to learn isiZulu, spearheaded by their children learning the language at school and hotel menus and notices written first in isiZulu and then English. The couple, in their 50s, admit being “a little bit backwards” in their progress since they bought the hotel in September 2019.

However, when the school year starts, their daughter, Carolyn, will become a lot more familiar with the language at her new high school, Pholela Institute, in Bulwer.

It’s a bastion of black education in South Africa and has as a past pupil the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

“She’s going to have to learn isiZulu,” said her mother.

“Teaching will be in English but the moment everyone’s out the school gate everything will be in isiZulu.”

Carolyn’s father added: “It’s incredibly important to speak the language of the people you live among. In South Africa a terrible mistake was made by Europeans coming here and deciding to turn the country into their country instead of recognising it as a foreign place. It’s a very arrogant and an incorrect approach.”

He also believes language barriers within a country cause friction between people, causing them to become uncomfortable when they do not understand what their fellow citizens might be saying.

The Hendersons’ vision is for their hotel to reach out to the emerging middle class.

“We feel there’s a large market out there and it’s possibly being ignored,” said Ralph, for instance, “people going on their first family holiday”.

Mountain Park has hosted lively, festive Zulu weddings under the Hendersons' watch.

They’ve spent time and money fixing the place up after years of neglect.

The grand old hotel, on the slopes of the Amahwaqa mountain, had its finishing touches done by Italian prisoners of war at the end of World War II.

Ralph, an engineer by training, has spent much time carrying out emergency fixes during what he calls “holy sh*t” moments.

“There have been situations, such as a pipe having been exposed and not been closed using sound plumbing, but wrapping a number of plastic bags over it and applying rubber bands.”

While Sam is British, born and bred, Ralph is South Africa-born but left the country for Britain at the age of 12 with his parents. He has links to Bulwer through his family. His aunt, Esther Alm, started the award-winning charity, Hlanganani Nogothando, meaning “coming together with love” for brain-damaged children in the village and his uncle was the principal at the junior school of Pholela Institute.

“I had been aware of the hotel being on the market and watched it for years,” said Ralph who has spent the last 15 years in investment, managing portfolios.

Acknowledging that many people may disagree with him, he believes South Africa and Africa have a bright future.

“South Africa is slightly like Asian countries in the 1960s and 1970s. There is a generation of South Africans who have grown up with electricity, water and housing.

“They have better opportunities than their parents. They have different expectations.”

He said the next 25 years were going to be exciting as these young people become more part of the economic engine.

“Their expectations are high and positive,” added Sam.

“They don’t expect to be treated badly. They expect the future to be for them and that’s good.”

Ralph remarked that many countries in Africa were peaceful, had undergone democratic transitions and were enjoying inward investment, including from China.

“It’s exciting. We are very pleased to be here. It’s so much more dynamic than Britain.”

The Independent on Saturday

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