It’s the year of 1966, it’s springtime in South Africa and widespread rains have fallen over the countryside. The mealie fields in the Free State stand tall and, in the apartheid cabinet of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, some refer to the majority of the population as ‘natives’ and ‘bantu’.
I am in the Air Force Gymnasium, in a ceremonial guard-of-honour unit for the State President, Mr CR Swart, a tall, thin man (with a top hat) nicknamed ‘Blackie’. So there we have the ceremonial head of government called Blackie ruling over the masses who were often referred to as ‘die Swart Gevaar’ (Black Danger).
Thinking back now, it seems so hideously weird. With a veneer of liberalism, three of my rebellious friends and I go AWOL and undertake a quick protest weekend trip down to Durbs by the sea. But matters soon unravel as we start a pub crawl in all the towns on the road to the coast. After Nottingham Road Hotel we wobble our way towards the Berg and end up in the hamlet of Himeville, in the old bar of the Himeville Arms.
Tales of wow and woe
All of this driving and crawling happens to the music of one single tape of The Beatles’ album Revolver. My goodness, roll over Beethoven, these were the hard days and nights on a country roadtrip. Back then village hotels were a hub of each town’s socialising, its heart and soul, and the meeting venue of a variety of clubs and societies across the land from east to west, from Messina in the north to Malmesbury in the south.
Some village hotels were dressed proudly British colonial, others gabled Cape-Dutch-like, others corrugated-iron roofed with long balconies adorned with white pillars and wood-fluted swing doors into the bar, a place for men only, with joyful laughter and dirty jokes.
Above the entrance, a sign boldly displayed would read matter-of-factly, ‘Whites Only’. Inside, the wooden bar counter often curved around a central drinks galley, where whisky, cane and brandy bottles were mounted and poised, tot ready.
Back then I’d hear the sharp clink of ice cubes falling into a glass, the soft plop of a double-shot of brandy and the fizz of Coke.
Many years of arm lifting and dopping has left the wooden bar counter with intricate patterns of glass stains that extend like tattoos across its surface, stirring up phrases and tales of wow and woe, of stories galore. I’d see ghosts dancing, men dissolving into memories, slowly fading into a cheered past. In one corner would stand the frame of a pitted dartboard spiked over the years, with a bad calendar picture of a reclining girl drooling sex appeal, just above it.
A crackling fire burning and a warm welcome
Now, propelled forward through time of years lapsed, I ponder on the slow demise of the great village hotel, overtaken by lodges, self-catering units and an endless line of B&Bs. Perhaps it’s my hankering for the longer days, slower lifestyle, simple pleasures, no animal called the internet, just a couple of words at The Pig and Whistle and a few days at a Karoo hotel.
Yet, my travels around this great southern continent over the years have shown that some traditional hotels have kept their gables high, their spirits flying with their edges slightly more roughened, still embracing the traveller with great fondness.
Not long ago, life’s journey once again takes us into the rolling Midlands’ hills that surround Himeville, and so are born these few thoughts on three hotels. It’s 52 years after the visit by three vagabond air-force cadets, when I once again walk into the bar of the Himeville Arms.
“Holy Moses,” I say to the Zulu barman, Mfanafuthi Mazeka, who looks up with a broad, white-toothed smile. “Moses does not come any more,” he says with a shrug and a laugh. The boozy, bar-counter stains have vanished, sanded and polished away, bringing a hearty new cheer to the pub. The hotel, built-in 1900, feels old, in a kind of English manor-house way, a lounge with old couches and heavy curtains, a crackling fire burning, a warm welcome.
I photograph a waitress with a beauty of braids down to her waist and two cellphones in her pockets. My Canon finds delights around a complex of rambling spaces, old group photographs, passages, a sandstone-walled dining room, pot plants, garden cottages, outdoor tables and a swimming pool.
Between it all, tall pin oaks grow proudly, shading the spirits of all the travellers that have passed through here over the years. In the morning, my eyes delight at a wondrous English breakfast. “Holy Moses,” I sigh, drooling. “Sorry, he checked out ages ago,” my CEO, assistant and wife quips. “And you’re quite fat.”
Litte can subdue the local revelling
A day later, after a long drive over vast rural landscapes, we enter Grahamstown, the city of Saints and Sinners. I lectured photography here, for what, 18 years? The mere thought of this enormous stage of my life makes me want to be a little younger, a little more sinful again. Along Main Street, Lynn tells me to stop smiling.
The city is now called Makhanda and the varsity town is abuzz with people and cars, the streets dented with enormous potholes. Gone, forgotten and closed are a number of classic village hotels, the Grand and the Cathcart Arms hotels, once such popular beer holes for students and a few lecturers in the 1980s. Past Grahamstown and on the road to Bathurst, I wipe the sweat from my brow and drive my visual delights into true 1820 Settler country.
Bathurst is a quaint Eastern Cape village inhabited by a colourful brand of new settlers, many alternative and creative. Along the few streets, some gravel, giant milkwood trees hide an assortment of interesting dwellings. Slap bang in the middle of the village, the old Pig and Whistle Inn stands proudly.
With a nagging irritation, my Canon itches to start reminiscing, but first we settle into our en suite bedroom on the first floor. Like in the inns of old, other rooms lead off passages with large, communal bathrooms at the end. English settler Thomas Hartley, in the early 1820s, built this historic inn in Bathurst. After his death the name was changed to the Widow Hartley’s Inn but, as the legend goes, this did little to subdue the local revelling.
Settler sights and sounds
Bathurst was well situated geographically as a waypoint for wagon travellers. There was a blacksmith, supply shops and, of course, the village hotel, later known as the Bathurst Inn. The inn acquired its current name about 100 years later, when soldiers from the Royal Air Force were stationed nearby at the 43 Air School during World War II. They decided to name their new pub after their local in England, and the Bathurst Inn became The Pig and Whistle Inn. Gavin and Lucille Came now own the hotel, The Historic Pig and Whistle Inn.
Then, while I am photographing The Pig’s wonderful atmosphere and setting, a strange force settles on me, gently coaxing my timid body down to the bar, the oldest, continuously licensed pub in South Africa. The place is humming and, when I get elbows on the counter, I note old drinking stains again, but gawking at me with hollow eyes, is a human skull.
“Holy Moses, a double whisky,” I exclaim through parched lips. The pretty barmaid replies, “Not Moses, but Widow Hartley’s skull, found in the basement under the dining room, last century sometime. Known for her hospitality across the land, she regularly still takes a tot or two.” Happy next to Widow Hartley, and soaking up a kaleidoscope of settler sights and sounds, I find it a strange privilege to be here in this historic place.
I awake to the squeaking and opening of heavy maroon curtains. It’s my wife, who’s already been for a run and a shower. “How did I get here?” I grumble. “Well,” she says with a mean little smile, “a kind Missus Sarah Hartley brought you upstairs, said you were grabbing at the pretty barmaid and the past.” Holy Moses. After two days we are home, just over the Blaaukranz River, in the Western Cape.
Cottages and the oak-dotted lawns
On my list of old village hotels, a few real classics remain, thriving on into a changed world, but I decide to photograph one so unique, so incredibly English country, just up the pass from us. The Kurland Hotel, originally a simple farm dating back to 1885.
When Baron and Baroness Peter Behr, Russian émigrés from Kurland in Latvia, bought the farm in 1941, they added gables, did extensive alterations, including lofts with wooden stairs, outside chambers and a servants block. They bought various surrounding properties and added stables, the estate eventually covering 700 hectares, including four mountains, a forest and a river.
After the retirement of his parents, Nicolas Behr took over the estate and, in time, added a sawmill and a brick factory that now lies just across the N2. When I first arrived in Nature’s Valley in the 1970s, the legend of Nicky Behr was already as tall as the Tsitsikamma Mountains.
He was a character of note as we were to experience through our friendship with him over the years. Nicky added more cottages to the oak-dotted lawns that extend from the main manor house. A number of polo fields with
a clubhouse and numerous paddocks now grace the estate. When photographing here I would suddenly stop, and look around, wondering if I was on some estate in southern England.
After Nicky’s passing, Kurland was turned into a boutique hotel and is now managed by his son, Peter Behr. I remember, during Nicky’s living years, the tremendous parties we had there, many beyond explanation, usually awfully decadent.
One afternoon, a gathering of us had a fish braai of full-size snoek pegged on sticks, slowly grilled over a large fire. There were five-metre-long pine tables that had been cut in single slabs at the Kurland sawmill. Getting into his riotous stage then, when the wining started to surpass the dining, Baron Behr threw Russian vodka on the tables and we all ran, jumped and then slid down the tables, falling off the other end like Trolls.
As the fire grew into a grand-finale bonfire, accompanied by thunder over the mountains, the Troll rabble cheered wildly. At least, by then, all the spirits of Latvia and the English country poopers had fled. Holy Moses.