Cottages in this World Heritage Site offer an outdoor paradise
The two mongooses scampered across the rocks in the nearly dry river bed, then dived into the adjoining grass when they spotted me, sitting on a log bench.
After peering out inquisitively for a while, they dashed away upstream.
In the background, the Drakensberg carved a silhouette against the vivid blue sky. The setting was Mkomazana Mountain cottages, tucked into a forest of centuries-old trees, at the foot of the Sani Pass, and located within the World Heritage Site.
Not long after, a troop of about 20 baboons ambled along the bank of one of the farm dams, barking a warning. The previous night we had spotted duiker on the lawn, while a baby bush buck proved an enchanting encounter for some.
Such tranquillity is the norm here; at times the only sound is the chirping of the birds. I spent hours sitting on the verandah, looking up at the mountains.
Guests have the option of checking into three-bedroomed coot cottage, stone house, or valley cottage, or the one-bedroomed rose or stone cottage. All are self-catering and the bedrooms still have the original Oregon pine or yellow-wood floors.
My cottage, stone, had cement floors in the lounge/kitchen/dining area; but the bathrooms in all units are totally modern; and the large, comfortable beds have their feet firmly in this century.
Each unit has different decor, while coot (rather more modern as it was rebuilt recently) almost dabbles its toes in a farm dam. Each has a different view, but valley and coot would best suit those who like a water setting. There is also a large self-catering barn – ideal for a wedding group or big family get together.
This is where the boisterous younger members then stay dormitory style.
Fear not, though, the barn is only used at such times, so your peace is not disturbed. The barn pub, with flags, rugby jerseys and other memorabilia, is open for residents only, who bring their own booze.
Take a stroll to the upper dam, with great views of the Berg.
There’s a tiny trout hatchery and fishing is on the catch-and-release basis. The more energetic can climb up to the ridge overlooking Mkomazana, or carry on further afield to “salt and pepper”, rocky outcrops which look exactly like these condiment sets.
Every morning a basket of scones, hot from the oven, is delivered to the cottages by a beaming staff member.
Duiker, eland, grey rhebuck, bush pig, bushbuck, reedbuck and baboons all have a home in the area.
The fascinating history adds spice. In 1889, Edward Finley Murray purchased some 40 hectares from the governor of the Colony for just over £50. Thus Mkomazana began life, changing hands a couple of times.
Enter James Lamont and his partner Wareing, two ex soldiers from the Anglo Boer War, who found their way to Basutoland (now Lesotho) where they opened stores in Mokhotlong and Rafolatsane. Sturdy donkeys carried goods to these stores.
The 100km journey took over a week, along arduous narrow routes in northern Basutoland, so the two enterprising men decided in 1913 to pioneer the Sani Pass. Prior to this, only the odd person picked his way down a tortuous route.
Realising they would need a base in Natal, Lamont and Wareing bought the Mkomazana land, establishing a small settlement. Goods arriving on the train at Underberg, 22km away, were transported by ox wagons to the settlement, then loaded on to the trusty donkeys for the two-day trip up to Lesotho. The route was so steep,at times hey had to be dragged up one at a time.
After the death of the two enterprising men, Charles Ridgway (known as Makhakhe – “man of repute” in Sotho) bought the business. He went into partnership with Eric de la Harpe from Bethlehem in the Orange Free State.
In 1940, Makhakhe, his wife and two daughters arrived at Mkomazana.
The road was hardly fit for motor vehicles, which had often to be towed out by oxen. Meanwhile, people from Basutoland brought their wool and mohair to the general store on the property, were given tokens, and used these to buy a large variety of provisions on site.
Makhakhe often helped his customers out in times of hardship, lending them oxen for ploughing, handing out seed, and giving them food in exchange for livestock or wool. A spinster, Sheila Mackenzie, would set off alone with the loaded ox wagons carrying the goods to Underberg.
Makhakhe took a dip in the pool which he built alongside his house every morning, even in winter, and would then stand shivering and blue before the Aga stove.
More recently, Peter and Alastair Clarke, the current owners of Mkomazana, constructed dams where Makhakhe once grazed his polo ponies. Some of the current staff are descendants of people who worked on the property in those legendary days.