South Coast splendour
This week Tribune Travel reveals the gems of the South Coast. First up, Sue Derewent tells the story of Botha House, beach cottage to prime ministers
HIDDEN IN THE BEAUTIFUL, forested Umdoni Estate at Pennington/Umzinto is a house once used by some of South Africa’s most influential people.
Built in 1920 by sugar baron Frank Reynolds as a “beach cottage” for his friend, General Louis Botha, the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa, today it is administered by the Umdoni Park Trust, which also oversees the lovely Umdoni Golf Course with its rolling greens bordering the Indian Ocean and the Umdoni forest estate, one of the last stretches of original, intact, coastal forest left on the South Coast.
The foundations for this beach house were laid in June of 1919, but General Botha died two months later and never got to stay in the house, which was only completed in May 1920.
His widow Anne occupied it until she died. For the rest of the 20th century, Botha House, as it became known, served as a retreat for numerous fascinating and prominent people, including presidents, politicians, businessmen and writers.
As someone who grew up on the South Coast, I heard many stories about this house, but despite numerous attempts, never managed to visit it. So I was delighted to discover that it has been opened to the public as a wonderful guest house.
According to golfers, neither its Dutch gables nor its sea view are as attractive as the fact that one can easily walk from Botha House to tee off on the Umdoni Golf Course, or enjoy a beer at the clubhouse, another lovely old building built by Reynolds.
Reynolds himself lived not too far up the hill from Botha House in another famous house called Lynton Hall. Having been knighted in 1916, being a member of one of Durban’s A-list families, and serving on the Natal Legislative Council, Sir Frank enjoyed some special privileges.
One of these was the right to select rare plants from those imported by Durban Botanic Gardens for himself. As a result, when he died, he left one of the finest private collections of exotic species in Africa – and magnificent indigenous ones, too.
Frank and his brother, Charles, both of whom made significant contributions to the development of the sugar industry in South Africa, are buried in a walled graveyard at Lynton Hall.
Charles became something of a family disgrace, and died in South America, supposedly after being stabbed by a jealous husband. Apparently, his body was pickled in rum and brought back to Umzinto to be buried.
It’s rumoured that Frank held a funeral service for one of his own legs, which was amputated soon before he died. The rest of the family seemed more level headed, with Frank’s son, Lewis, becoming General Smuts’s private secretary and an MP for the South Coast.
The current owner of Lynton Hall, a descendent of Frank’s, lives in the UK but visits the estate regularly.
I imagined that Frank had quite a job clearing the forest to establish the original golf course, but after looking at old photos, it seems all he did was replace the original grasslands with greens and fairways.
The stands of trees are still intact, much as they were in his day, and it turns out that Frank had the foresight to protect and maintain as much of his estates’ natural surroundings as possible, even going as far as to place the whole 200ha Umdoni Park Estate into a trust for the people of South Africa in perpetuity – so it can never be “developed”.
Over the years the trust has done an outstanding job of making the park accessible to the public while maintaining its integrity. Various walks and bike trails wind through the forests and are a bonus for visitors who might not be such keen golfers.
A walk along “Molly’s Road” (Molly was Frank Reynold’s daughter) takes you to Otter Gorge viewsite where you can rest on worn railway sleeper benches under massive old trees, looking down into an almost secret gorge.
On our walk we saw duiker and banded mongoose. The birding on the estate is fantastic with Forest Weavers, Crowned Eagles and Long-crested Eagles often spotted. Hikers regularly report seeing a pair of Martial Eagles. It’s worthwhile taking a small flask of tea on any of the hikes because there are plenty of places you will want to stop and enjoy the views.
The beach used by Botha House guests is a small private one with old ruined change rooms and a funny stone tidal pool. Situated in front of the golf course, it has become popular for wedding photographs and parties, stately Botha House being a perfect venue for weddings in general.
At the beach parking area, which is right in front of the clubhouse, are two lovely old structures largely in ruins. One is a red brick mill that was once adorned with sails, and the other a stone railway siding built especially for a visit by the then British Royal family. King George V had been ill and it was suggested that he visit South Africa to convalesce, but he died before the visit could take place. MUCH HAD BEEN DONE TO upgrade both Lynton Hall and Botha House for the visit, and Botha house still boasts its original, beautiful teak furniture. As a contemporary visitor, it’s weird to find yourself sleeping in a bed possibly once slept in by any number of interesting characters, such as Anne Botha, prime ministers Jan Smuts and BJ Vorster, and state presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk. The guest book makes fascinating reading.
But you only have to spend one night at Botha House to see why people loved staying there. All the rooms are large and have superb sea views, en-suite bathrooms and fireplaces.
There’s an enormous upstairs stoep from which you can look out over the lawns, the swimming pool and the forest between the house and the ocean, a deep verandah for lazy, beach holiday sundowners, a downstairs lounge and dining room and a traditional colonial entrance hall. What more could a president, or anyone else for that matter, want?
On November 1, Botha House is launching its new Wild Fig Café. with an afternoon of jazz saxophone on the lawns under the giant fig and a tour of Botha House at 4pm. Tickets are R20.
Call 039 975 1227 or visit www.bothahouse.co.za