The History of Mbotyi River Lodge
Hidden Gem on the Wild Coast...
The literal translation of Mbotyi is Place of Beans. This is because the rich climate and fertile soils are conducive to the production of excellent beans. The history of Mbotyi River Lodge is equally fertile. A landscape in which time has stood still and which is breathtaking in its beauty is punctuated by romantic figures and strange occurrences. By piecing together some anecdotes from the past with a little factual information, it is hoped that the history of Mbotyi River Lodge will be brought alive.
The Property and Its Owners
The Mbotyi River Mouth Trading Site was created in 1922 by deed of grant, the first owners being Jack Barber and Johannes Victor Kottich. The area of the site is 4.2827 hectares and is roughly square shaped. The title conditions stipulate that:
- Payment of a perpetual quit rent of £1 Sterling per annum shall be paid punctually to the magistrate Lusikisiki;
- The rights of the proprietor shall not extend to any deposits of gold, silver or precious stones which may at any time be discovered on the land;
What is unique is that it is one of the few sites along the Wild Coast which confers freehold title upon its owners.
Jack Barber acquired the half share of Vic Kottich in 1928 and traded until his death in the late 1950′s. In 1960 the Barber estate sold the site for £50 to Rick Grant, Ian Jessop and Mike Robinson, 3 traders from Mt Frere. In 1985, the site was sold to Dr Mazwai, a medical practitioner from Lusikisiki and in November 2000, it was acquired by a consortium of Johannesburg businessmen.
In Jack Barber’s time the only buildings on the site were an old corrugated iron trading store with a yellowwood counter, a modest homestead and a few shacks that were let out to holidaymakers intrepid enough to make the journey to Mbotyi. There was not much development during the tenure of Messrs Grant, Jessop and Robinson. A few more holiday shacks were built and the shop continued to trade although in later years the volume of trade became a trickle.
In 1985, after Mike Robinson and Rick Grant had died, Dr Mazwai purchased the site with a view to building a Hotel. The hotel was completed in the late 1980′s and was known as Mbotyi River Bungalows.
Sadly, history was against Dr Mazwai who was forced to close the doors of his hotel in 1993 following the assassination of Chris Hani and the consequent political troubles in the then Transkei. The hotel was hastily evacuated with some guests leaving their cars behind and being ferried out by helicopter. Remarkably, the hotel was never vandalized. With table place settings intact and overgrown lawns, the hotel stood empty for nearly a decade as a ghostly reminder of its former glory. The hotel remained untouched for 8 years until purchased in 2001 by business men from Johannesburg, Peter Gillespie and Peter Christodoulou. Dr Mazwai retained an interest. The present owners are Peter Gillespie, Nita Ross of Wild Coast Holiday Reservations, former SA cricketer Peter and Tuffy Kirsten and Dr Liso Mazwai.
The Early Days
Prior to 1935 access to Mbotyi was extremely difficult and hazardous. Visitors parked their cars at the top of the forest and walked the last 8km down to the sea through a forest which must have been alive with snakes. It was not uncommon to see leopard. If word got to him, Jack Barber would assist by sending porters to help carry luggage. In 1935 a road, involving massive excavation works, was built through the forest which enabled cars to reach Barbers camp at the sea.
The concrete road through the forest was built in the late 1980′s at the same time that the construction of the hotel was completed. This guaranteed access all year round. Prior to that, the road was regularly impassable in the rainy season. It was not uncommon for visitors to be rained in for days on end. On occasions, their patience worn thin, visitors would hire teams of oxen to pull their vehicles out of the mud to get home. Testimony of the hazards of the rain and the road are the wrecks of at least two cars that can be found over the side of the forest cuttings.
Gordon Eagle, who first started going to Mbotyi in 1929 recalls what he terms, The Great Flood of 1931:
“…17 inches of rain fell overnight. In the morning the lagoon was a raging torrent, more than 300 yards wide at the narrowest point. Tony, my younger brother and I needed to get across to old Barber’s Store as we had run out of food. We put a rowing boat in about three miles upstream from the mouth and even at that, nearly got washed out to sea. That put me off Mbotyi for a long time and I only came back years later.”
There have over the years been many people that have fallen in love with Mbotyi. None more so than Jack Barber.
Jack was the Robinson Crusoe of Mbotyi. He played soccer for Scotland and fought in the trenches of France during the First World War. On his return to South Africa, he, together with Vic Kottich, was granted ownership of the Mbotyi River Mouth Trading Site by deed of grant of Crown Land.
During the war while convalescing in a military hospital in France, Jack met the love of his life, Sally Barnes. Sally was a volunteer nurse from Boston Massachusetts and she nursed Jack back to health. They soon struck up a friendship which they maintained by correspondence, even after the war had ended. Some time in the 1920′s Jack proposed to Sally and, to his surprise, she accepted.
Arrangements were excitedly made for Sally to take the ship from Boston to Durban. Jack calculated when the ship would be passing by Mbotyi and told Sally to look out for a large bonfire which she could expect a few days before Durban. This would mark her new home. As the story goes, a massive bonfire was lit on the hillside above Shark Point on the designated day and Jack thus welcomed his wife to be to her new home.
In 1929, Sally the lady from Boston finally arrived at Mbotyi by ox-wagon. She would never open her trousseau and was never to leave Mbotyi. By all accounts, Sally was a saint. She fell in love with Mbotyi and led an active and involved life with the community. She nursed the sick and infirm and engaged in her passion, horse riding. She could be seen riding on the beach every morning. The pathway leading from the front of the hotel to the beach is aptly named Sally’s Alley.
When he was not behind the counter in his trading store, Jack was either fishing or walking the hills with his beloved pack of dogs. Strangely, he never wore shoes.
Jack and Sally had no children. They were quite content with their own company living in harmony with the local people and the natural environment. As fate would have it, the fairytale had to come to an end. Sally died in the late 1950′s. Jack was devastated. He hit the bottle, went downhill rapidly and died shortly afterwards of a broken heart. It is suspected that he took his own life although nobody can be sure. What is known is that his shack caught alight and that he perished in the fire with his dogs.
There are few stories about the old Transkei which do not have some reference to Khotso. Mbotyi is no exception.
Margaret Barlow, who practiced as a medical doctor in Lusikisiki for many years had this to say about Khotso in her book The Last of the Lotus Lands ”
“…Khotso Sethunsa was one of the greatest of all herbalists. He was an amiable magnificently dressed little man said to be enormously wealthy.
Khotso was reputed to be the grandchild of President Kruger’s coachman and was supposed to know where the Kruger millions were buried. As a result, he always celebrated Kruger Day with great enthusiasm and would invite celebrities from all over South Africa to attend.
Khotso’s followers, at one time there were more than 250, were obliged to attend a 3-year training course. In the first year they underwent an oral examination and were asked, for example, to find a lost cow. Those who did pass were obviously the cream of society. Personally I’d opt to write my pathology exam again than face Khotso’s test.”
Khotso’s rise can be traced to his days as a teenager working as a herd boy for a Kokstad farmer, Eric Scott. The legend of Khotso is that after having been beaten by his employer, he publicly threatened revenge. This was unheard of in those days and particularly coming from a youngster. Soon thereafter a tornado swept through Scott’s farm destroying nearly everything. Khotso claimed responsibility and the rest is history.
He made a fortune selling his powerful muti and built for himself and his acolytes majestic palaces outside Kokstad, Mt Frere and Lusikisiki. The latter can still be seen on the right hand side of the road approaching Lusikisiki with its walls adorned with statues of lions and eagles in flight.
Amongst the bidders at The Barber Estate Auction was Khotso. Everybody thought that with his wealth and power it was a done deal that Khotso would be the new owner of the hotel site. At the last minute Khotso withdrew his bid and the site was knocked down to Rick Grant and his partners for a mere £50. Khotso felt hard done by and uttered a curse before leaving the auction in disgust. Nobody knows why Khotso withdrew his bid – one popular theory is that just before the bidding started he was reminded that the apartheid laws of the time might disqualify him from acquiring ownership.
The Khotso legend was to return to Mbotyi years later when it was said that he was linked to the disappearance of the Gray children.
The Gray Children
In 1967 an American Missionary Organisation, Pilgrims’ Holiness, had a mission in Mt Frere. The mission was run by the Gray family who went on holiday to Mbotyi that year. Some time during the holiday, the father and eldest son were left to mind the children on the beach. The children were a boy and girl Vinny aged 6 and Susie Aged 4. Father and son decided to go fishing and left the two young children in the care of the family servants. When they returned from fishing, the father and son found the servants hysterical. The children had disappeared.
Eleanor Grant, daughter of Rick, remembers the incident well.
“…Word soon went out that these missionary kids had disappeared. A massive search party gathered and everybody searched the hills, sand dunes and shoreline. The army was called in and the lagoon was even dredged. The children had vanished into thin air. If the kids had drowned their bodies would have washed up but this did not happen. To this day nobody knows what became of them. For months afterwards the Gray family would wander the hills calling out for their lost children. It was an unbelievably sad thing to witness. The theory at the time was that it was Khotso’s curse and that the children had been taken for muti. Of course this was never proved. For years afterwards we never let our own kids out of our sight…”
On a dark night, don’t be surprised if you bump into the Gray children on Mbotyi beach. Nick Robertson gave this chilling account of his sighting of the Gray children:
“The story you ask about occurred about 10 years ago. We were having a New Years party at Glyn Bodley’s cottage. This fact may cause you to raise your eyebrows but let me assure you that all that I tell you is true.
It was after midnight when Ian Holmes and myself decided to take a walk across the beach to the hotel. When we were well onto the beach we saw two people and walked up to them.
The first thing we noticed was their strange garments. The man wore a monk’s cowl. Around his waist he had a type of coarse rope. The whole garment was of a dark colour. I suppose a little like the colour of a true monk’s cowl. It was hooded. The woman I walked right up to was dressed in a very similar white garment. Hers did not have the hood.
We didn’t recognise them and Ian asked them which “camp” they were from. One of the strangest things about the whole happening was they didn’t say one word. The man appeared to grow right before our eyes to the height of at least seven foot or more. He them attempted to wave us away. His garment was splayed (I think that is the correct word) at the end of his arms. I watched him wave Ian away and his arm going through Ian’s head. Ian said that he didn’t feel any air moving.
They then walked off and appeared to fade out into the sea.”
Info updated 22 September 2003 with many thanks to Jean Pendleton (nee Gray) of Michigan USA the sister of the missing children.
Strange and Notorious Characters
Over the years some strange and notorious characters have been drawn into the Mbotyi time warp. These are people who eschewed the conventions of society and who ultimately paid the highest price for doing so. They were probably attracted by the peace and mystical charm of the place.
Vic Kottich, who sold his half share in the hotel site to Jack Barber, was a recluse who lived on his own in a tiny shack overlooking the sea. He was reputedly a morphine user who secured a regular supply of drugs for himself by establishing a fictitious pharmacy in Lusikisiki. He was also supposed to have made contact with German U-boats during the war – his German origins and reclusive lifestyle were probably the real reason why people said these things about him.
What is not apocryphal is that in the early 1980′s while on the run from the police, the notorious bank robber and rogue policeman, Andre Stander, stayed at one of the cottages at the hotel site. Stander, son of a police general and himself a former police captain, carried out a number of daring bank raids – often two or three on the same day – leading police on a merry dance. He cut a romantic Robin Hood figure hiding out for a time at Mbotyi. He even bought an ocean going yacht, the “Lily Rose” which was moored at the docks in Cape Town and which he hoped to use to escape the clutches of the law. The law eventually caught up with Stander and he was shot dead by police in Fort Lauderdale in the United States.
Andre Erasmus, a businessman from the South Coast, was a good friend of Stander and played rugby with him in the 1970′s when Stander was stationed as a policeman in Kokstad. Andre had this to say:
“…He was a charming fearless bastard. A typical Afrikaans policeman. He was a good mate and was even MC at my brother Francois’ wedding.
In those days Francois did a lot of repping in the old Transkei and often stayed over at Ian Jessop’s cottage at Mbotyi. It was about 1983. Francois had to stay over at Mbotyi and went to ask Driver (Jessop’s caretaker) for the key. Driver said “but your brother’s friend is already staying here”. Francois was surprised but didn’t say anything. That evening he decided to go and meet my friend. A tall dark bloke wearing an oversized Stetson introduced himself in a broad American accent as “Chaarles” (this was Stander’s second name). He had a friend who he introduced as “Paat” (this was Patrick McCall, a fellow robber). Francois straight away recognised Stander but decided to play along because he feared how McCall would react. Later that evening Francois thought what the hell, I’m going to tell him. So he went back to the cottage and he and Stander embraced each other. Andre told him how terrible it was in prison and that he was never going back. Francois genuinely felt for the guy… I mean he never really hurt anybody and most of the time used toy guns to rob the banks.
Francois promised to keep quiet. As soon as he returned to Kokstad he told me about the meeting with Stander. There were no phones then so I drove down to Mbotyi straight away to see what I could do for Andre but he must have got a fright as he had already left. Francois and I were shitting ourselves… We had said nothing to the police and didn’t know whether we were going to get into trouble for doing so. We even went to see our lawyer to ask what we should do.”
In the End
Personalities, mysteries and a breathtaking landscape. Add a dash of romance and danger. Stop the clock. A place whose history has been forged by strange occurrences and unusual people. People seeking something different in life – tragic romantics, reclusive addicts, great herbalists, lost missionary children and charming fearless bastards. The list could probably go on.
As new events unfold and interesting incidents from the past come to light, so the history of Mbotyi must be added to. It is hoped that this collection of anecdotes and events might serve and as a basis for the creation of a dynamic history. A history to which every visitor to Mbotyi will be able to contribute.
We acknowledge the research and effort of our friend, Ant Grant, in the preparation of this short history of Mbotyi and our thanks and appreciation go to him and anyone else that contributed and made this story possible.