Where time stands still
When life gets hectic and you need a break, I know a little place on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal where time stands still. The historic Botha House is perched on a hillside overlooking the Indian Ocean. In the early morning, soft light stretches over tai chi waves, washing the white gables of this historic homestead a soft gold.
In the distance, the water is grey, green and blue, and the sky a silvered lemon. The dew on the grass is untouched, the air is fresh and salty, and the big fig tree in the garden is alive with the sounds of birds calling their greetings to the day.
Since the early 1920s, this immutable waking, affected only by the whims of the season, has been enacted for presidents and prime ministers. Today it’s my turn to appreciate the timeless ritual from this historic vantage point, as Botha House, once the exclusive holiday cottage of South Africa's heads of state, is now a guest house.
In the early morning, soft light stretches over tai chi waves, washing the white gables of this historic homestead a soft gold.
In the cool of the morning, I wander around the extensive grounds, which form part of Umdoni Park, about 200 ecologically important hectares on the South Coast. It was established by sugar baron Sir Frank Reynolds to protect the area's fauna and flora. Perhaps mornings like this are what first inspired him to single out this tract of coastal land (he was known in the area as Nkanyize, or ‘morning star’, for his early rising habits).
When he received a request from his friend, the first prime minister of the then-Union of South Africa, General Louis Botha, for “2 or 3 acres here (in Umdoni Park) ... to put up a cottage for Annie (Botha’s wife)”, Reynolds oversaw the building of the charming Cape Dutch structure. Its foundations were laid in 1919 and, after General Botha died (sadly without living to inhabit the house), Reynolds presented Umdoni Park, with the newly constructed Botha House on it, to the South African Nation – the latter for the exclusive use of the South African prime minister in office. Since then it has hosted numerous dignitaries, prominent business people and heads of state.
Today, the house is administered by the Umdoni Trust. It also oversees the running of the adjacent golf course, along with the rest of Umdoni Park, which gets its name from the water-loving Umdoni trees that are typical of the area. Tony, Lynne and Susanne Hallett run the hospitality side of the business, sticking strictly to the condition that the furniture and fittings are retained and maintained in their original style. They do a sterling job, and stepping into the guest house is like stepping back in time. It’s easy to leave behind cellphones, computers, TVs and the stress of modern living as you wake up in a bed where prime ministers slept, take in the same views that helped them relax, and enjoy a landscape that has been described as perfect 'beyond improvement'.
There are walks, mountain-bike trails and hikes through the forest, while the golf course has to be 1 of the most beautifully positioned on the South Coast (the clubhouse is another gabled gem by Reynolds). Birders can spot forest weavers, crowned eagles, narina trogons, yellow-rumped tinkerbirds, gorgeous bush-shrikes, green twinspots and other forest species, as well as the sought-after green malkoha. Pennington Beach stretches below you and nearby attractions include the historic Lynton Hall (Sir Reynolds’s homestead with its outstanding collection of botanical specimens – exotic and indigenous), the Selborne Hotel and golf course (which recently hosted the SA Women’s Golf Open), and a historic mill.
Evenings on the deep veranda are accompanied by the rhythmic booming of the breakers. Drinks are followed by dinner in the dining room. The food is sumptuous (try the chicken curry with lashings of fresh coriander), and is followed by coffee in the lounge, where a portrait of Reynolds, by Rowarth, still hangs. There are 6 en suite rooms, all with beautiful views, where the finest soft furnishings complement the teak furniture (made to order by one Mr Cook in Durban) to ensure your comfort.
There is a small museum onsite, a fascinating guestbook and several interesting examples of period art, including a bronze bust of General Botha by a Mr March, who cast the work in 1925 and had it in his studio until 1964, when it was acquired by the Umdoni Trust.