The Waterval area in Mpumalanga is renowned for its beauty, history and status as the Lowveld gateway. Part of its heritage is the Wayside Lodge at Waterval Onder, a hotel that rose from the ashes a few short years ago.
There are two types of travellers; those who, regardless of where they are in the world, want to reach out of the shower and know that the towel will be where it always is. The second group are more adventurous souls who want to hear the untold stories of the area they are visiting.
If you are in the second category, stars and room service aren’t crucial issues when you book into an establishment. What gets you going is having your interest piqued when you hear a hostelry owner describing getting a phone call calculated to get the average hotel owner heading for the hills.
As Pierre Urtel, owner of the WaysideLodge at Emgwenya (more familiar to oldies as Waterval Boven and Waterval Onder) recounts it; the call went something like this:
Worker: “Boss, do you want the good news or the bad news? ”
Urtel: “Oh, no. I suppose the bad news first.”
Worker: “There’s been a fire, and all the land up from the road up has been burned.”
Urtel: “What’s the good news?”
Worker: “You’ve now got a swimming pool, a tennis court and a bowling green.”
Backtrack the tale with Wayside Lodge owners and operators Pierre and Sally-Ann Urtel, and you have one of those stories that seem to abound in South Africa’s rural areas.
Several years ago, while on a bike tour, Pierre and Sally- Ann pulled into Waterval Boven for an overnight stop. Over drinks, talk about lifestyles followed, and like most urbanites, Pierre said he would love to have a place in the country that he could “fix-up”. When he checked out the following morning, he was told there was a place at the “bottom of the hill” (Waterval Onder) for sale.
What he wasn’t told was that the place had been almost totally razed by fire. It had then stood abandoned for years, been vandalised, and the grass was so high that some of the buildings weren’t visible from the road. Finally, a bank had stepped in, and the property was repossessed.
Then, Pierre found that the bank was selling the property at an online auction. A month later, he registered and found that he was the successful bidder ( well, only bidder). A few months for the paperwork to fly past a couple of city bankers and the Lowveld’s answer to the Zimbabwe ruins had proud new owners.
“What hadn’t been burned had been stolen,” recalls Sally-Ann.” There were no light fittings; wiring had been ripped out, and the walls had been cracked by heat and exposure. There was no paint visible; graffiti was everywhere. The building we are sitting in now couldn’t be seen through the high grass and bush, which was so thick that we couldn’t walk through it.”
The builder who had travelled from Johannesburg and was going to be tasked with beginning the mammoth renovating project was totally bemused. Pierre recalls that he shook his head, muttered about the heap of rubbish that had been bought and then walked off.
At this point, most people would have called it quits. Not the Urtels. For six and a half years, travelling from Johannesburg to the site every second weekend and getting their hands dirty became their lives. The lifestyle of a large house in Johannesburg, leisure time, and weekends free for motorcycle trips vanished to become only memories.
Working alongside his team of three permanently on-site builders, Pierre got stuck in doing the buying, rejuvenating the electrics and fixing and replacing woodwork. Sally-Ann tackled the acres of bush, and gardens slowly began to emerge.
When work began in earnest, a builder lived in one room, the Urtels took up residence in another, and a third room became a kitchen.
It was while the long-distance commuting was well underway that the fateful call from a builder came through. Hidden by thick bush and grass that had been “trimmed” by the fire had been the three amenities whose existence until then was unknown. The bowling green has since been repurposed as a dam, but the pool and the court are intact. The pool, after being abandoned for about 17 years, still contained water. The court just requires some fencing to be usable by energetic guests.
Working steadily and with patience that would have made Job envious, the couple whose biggest project had been renovating some houses finally had a working hotel on their hands. Best of all, as the work had been done gradually as financial resources allowed, the project was completed with no debt attached – avoiding the telephone numbers that loans of this type can accumulate in no time.
Today, the Wayside Lodge is a place of neat bedroom blocks, expansive gardens and flowing green lawns sheltered by the ranges of hills that rise behind the hotel and form a verdant green backdrop for the lodge. In addition to its idyllic setting, it has the “X-factor” that travellers want – the couple who own the hotel operate it, welcome visitors, and happily spend time chatting to guests who, these days, include a fair number of international travellers.
Remember the opening remark about the shower and towel always being in the same places?
This is (thankfully) unknown at the Wayside. The rooms are all different from each other, have individual finishes and décor, and as Pierre and Sally-Ann readily admit, originate from various sources. These include pieces gathered during their browsing expeditions and even sales of fittings from corporate buildings in Johannesburg. Adding a touch of Johannesburg history are some headboards that originated from an auction of fittings from the Old Westcliff Hotel in Johannesburg.
“We decided at the beginning that we didn’t want a traditional hotel where every room is the same. We didn’t change the existing structure, but the décor and fittings are all different,” says Pierre.
A case in point is the bar counter in the cosy pub off the dining room. It is built from old beams recovered from one of the original fire-damaged buildings on site. Once cut and joined, they made a solid, welcoming counter and the centrepiece for a room where conversations begin easily and ebb and flow across a relaxed evening.
The counter itself complements some of the rooms other fittings that had their beginnings in a Johannesburg CEO’s corporate office. Abandoned to make way for new fittings, they were transported to Waterval Onder and began new lives as bulkheads and storage space within the bar area.
Memorabilia scattered throughout the grounds, in the dining room and adjacent pub, are unique and have stories attached that reflect the history of the area and the Wayside Lodge’s development.
Quite often, discussions will centre on items like the oak-encased “gambling machine”, which operated off two-cent pieces in its prime.
“It was built and owned by a man who installed it in a pub, splitting the profits with the owner. In two-cent pieces, the income paid for his children to complete their educations,” says Pierre. How did it end up as a conversation piece at the Wayside Lodge?
“Well, says Pierre, the machine was inherited by his daughter, who knew how I love things like this and that I would look after it. We made a swap. She got a bathroom suite she needed, and I got the machine.”
Judging from the attention and talk the antique attracts, Pierre got the better bargain. The obvious question has to be asked; how many “stars” do the Wayside Lodge have?
None, says the owner, who says that with stars come regulations. The Wayside formula is about hospitality, being met by the owners, good conversation, spotless rooms with high-quality mattresses for a good nights sleep, and knowing that if you fancy a braai, the patio and everything you need is there. The fact that there is a lot to see and do in a picturesque area is a bonus.
For further information on the Wayside Lodge, click here.