For many thousands of years, our valleys were filled with the song and dance of an ancient people, whose spiritual appreciation of these great plains and the fastnesses of the Drakensberg, was much deeper and much more profound than anything we know today. They lived in peace and great serenity among the animals and plants of the kingdom, and they built their abodes with the materials of the neighbourhood.
All my life, I've had a love affair with Nature, and I've never ceased to marvel at the wonders which the changes of the seasons bring, especially here, where one season is very different from the next. My appreciation of these things started in the great outdoors when I was growing up, and as they do, my senses have become keener as I've become older. I am nostalgic at the passing of spring for summer, sad that the spring is over, delighted at the advent of summer: it's the same when autumn comes on, as it is right now, and then of course, there is a stark and necessary beauty about the winter, which unlike many places, manifests itself under glorious, cloudless skies.
Living here, I've realised how imperative it is to harmonize with nature, and that it's best to harness the benefits of everything she has to offer. My fascination with nature's offerings has to do with this realisation, and the beautiful parkland and the lake at the foot of Hartford House was the perfect place to give expression to the bounty of our region. For years, I harboured a secret wish to create something from our environment using the colours of the soil and the dyes of our local plants. We're fortunate to still have among us, the rarest of craftsman who inherited the building traditions of their forebears, and whose talents include the erection of homes in the traditional way. It's a strange irony though, that at a time when people like me are turning to the methods of old, and looking to build with materials of mud, timber and thatch, our African brothers are increasingly embracing the technologies of the modern world.
Ezulweni Lake Suites
And so Ezulweni, which means "in the heavens," was born, a reversion to the way things were, and a statement on the compatibility between the practicality of the past and the comforts of today. Built with materials harvested largely from the greater Hartford and Summerhill estates, the purpose in juxtaposing the original Hartford homestead with Ezulweni, was to provide travellers with an insight, of our region's colonial history, as well as to allow them a glimpse of what's possible with a touch of imagination from our Zulu builders, whose hands are so apparent in the finishes.
The first of these suites was Mbulelo, which in the Xhosa dialect my husband Mick grew up with, means 'thanksgiving'. The mud bricks were hewn from the clay foundations on the site, and in order to provide the texture and the viscosity which characterised the old Zulu compound known as "ubulongo", we mixed it together with a good dollop of horse manure and shredded bedding from the stables, before we laid them out under the African sun to bake. Most of the timber, as well as the stone and slate is either from the estate itself or its immediate environs, while the doors and shutters we imported from India when we were remodelling one of the province's great landmarks, Lynton Hall, where the furnishings echoed the sugar industry's association with Indian workmen.
I yearned to build a "garden" roof, despite my husband's misgivings (in a former life he was a lawyer, and had much to do with leaking roofs), so we installed one here, and even he will concede that ten years down the line, there is a certain thrill at this sight for the visitor approaching Mbulelo for the first time.
We then turned our energies to Inkanyezi, which means the first or the evening star in Zulu, thus named by our builders. Most of them come from rural environs, and all of them grew up in Zulu rondavels built of mud. To them, it resembled a shining star, hence their selection of the most prominent star to portray their feelings. While the materials here were also sourced locally and the building methods were not unlike those employed in Mbulelo, in its design, its atmosphere, and its appeal, it is entirely different. The main door is a grand example of the sort that adorned the entrance ways to the Maharajah's palaces, while the verandah columns are of Rajahanstani origin. I have endeavoured in each of the suites to ensure that there is an interesting piece of antiquity, and in this one there is an especially beautiful 1820 convent linen press acquired from the country environs of the old Orange Free State.
Along the way, we crafted Siyabonga, which means 'we are grateful', named that way by our Zulus, as much echoing their relief at having accomplished what was in the nature of something altogether different in architectural style, as it was for the natural beauty and ambience the suite exudes. I suppose most people would call the style Moroccan, and it is appropriately characterized by its collection of African artefacts and its stunning sleeping quarters, clad in Drakensberg sandstone. The bathroom features romantically-aligned twin tubs, and the suite is rendered with a combination of mud and locally harvested river pebbles, all of which have withstood the ravages of our summer storms and occasional winter snow falls. The ancient brass-studded front door demands the curiosity of travellers as to what's on the other side. Among Siyabonga' s many famous guests, it became the suite of choice of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed of the Ruling family of Dubai, when visiting our parent farm, Summerhill Stud, where the royal horses have stood for more than a couple of decades.
This phase would not have been complete without Nhlanhla, which is one of the Zulu languages most wonderful words. It really means 'good luck', but it conjures good fortune, happiness, largesse and the gratitude we feel when life is kind to us.
The suite radiates nature, the patina of our environment, and the warmth and originality of our local materials. As much as anything, it is a signal example of what the creative spirit can do with the simple harvest of our district. In contrast to the rustic finishes used here, the fine mahogany wardrobe was imported to this country in the 1820s, and was acquired from a little village in the Eastern Free State. The teak floors were rescued from the renovation of Durban's "grand old dame", the Edward Hotel on the Golden Mile, while the fruits of my many visits to the antique world of India are once again evident in the front door; I am always amazed at how comfortable the ancient world of India is here in Africa.
The copper bath is the creation of a customer of the racehorse stud, Summerhill, while the beds are of an altogether different age, featuring an hydraulically adjusted touch button, enabling guests to position themselves as their souls demand, after another tough day in Africa! Nhlanhala is the favourite of Their Majesties King Letsie III and Queen Masenate of Lesotho, monarchs of the Mountain Kingdom. The baSotho people are the only African tribe to have nurtured their own breed of horse, and the racehorses their Majesties keep on our property, feeds their and their nation's passion for these beautiful creatures.