Classic hotels of South Africa: Houw Hoek Inn holds steady
In the first of our new series on historic and interesting hotels, Roger Webster visits the oldest in South Africa, the Houw Hoek Inn
The Cape of Good Hope was occupied by British forces in 1775. Cape Town was young, dry streets swirling with dust from horses' hooves, carriage wheels and sweeping skirts. The inhabitants were a mottled crew of gentry, slaves, English government officials and soldiers, burghers, tradesmen, Koi or Hottentot natives.
Anne Lindsay was born in Scotland in December 1750. She moved to London, where she met and married Andrew Barnard in 1793, 12 years her junior. Lady Anne Barnard obtained an appointment for her husband from Henry Dundas, who would later be made the first Viscount Melville, as colonial secretary in Cape Town at the Cape of Good Hope to Lord McCartney. The Barnards travelled there in March 1797.
On May 5 1798, accompanied by wagons and eight horses, the Barnards set off on a month's leave into the wilds of Swellendam. It took them five hours over the sandy Cape Flats to reach Meerlust, near Fourie, the farm of Mynheer Myburgh, and a further four hours to De Bos, the farm of Captain Morkel. Here the party spent the night.
The following morning, after an hour's travel, they reached the foot of the Hottentots Holland mountains. A team of badly abused oxen took the wagon over the mountains along the tracks left by other travellers. The tracks led through the Steenbras and Palmiet rivers to the site of the Houw Hoek Inn at the foot of the Houw Hoek mountains, where a Dutch East Indian Company tollgate had been erected.
The party spent the night on the farm Arieskraal, at the house of Arie Jacob Joubert and his Dutch wife. They shared their evening meal and had "boiled chicken fit for an emperor!" This was the humble beginnings of the Houw Hoek Inn.
Over the years, the Houw Hoek Inn remained a favourite overnight stop and watering hole. The existing ground floor was erected in 1779, no doubt with slave labour as slaves were only emancipated in 1833. The inn was situated on the High Road to Grahamstown, which became of crucial importance from 1820 when the British settlers arrived on the Eastern Frontier.
The "new" Sir Lowry's Pass was opened in 1830, built at a cost of £7011 by Major Mitchell. Houw Hoek Pass was also upgraded. Travel was sped up and the inn had to compete with Somerset West Village - 100 souls and six canteens. The inn was licensed in 1834, making it the oldest licensed inn in South Africa.
The upper storey was added in 1860, and in 1861 Lady Duff Gordon slept there en route to the Caledon Spa. The proprietor then, and at least since 1848, was an ex-missionary, Mr Beyers. Their visit is detailed in the following extract from Letters from the Cape by Lady Duff Gordon, published in 1864:
"We got to Houw Hoek, a pretty valley at the entrance of a mountain gorge, about half past five and drove up to a mud cottage, half inn, half farm, kept by a German and his wife. It looked mightily queer but Choslullah (the coachman) said that the host was a good old man, and all clean - no louses! So we cheered up and asked for food. While the neat old woman was cooking it, up galloped five fine lads and two pretty flaxen-haired girls, with real German faces, on wild little horses; and one girl tucked up her habit, and waited at the table, while another waved a green bough to drive off the swarms of flies. The chops were excellent, ditto bread and butter, and the tea tolerable. The parlour was a tiny room with a mud floor, half-thatch door into the front, and the two bedrooms still tinier and darker, each with two huge beds which filled them entirely. But Choslullah was right; they were perfectly clean, with heaps of beautiful pillows: and not only had none of the creatures of which he had spoken with infinite terror, but not even fleas! The man was delighted to talk to me. His wife had almost forgotten German, and the children didn't know a word of it, but spoke Dutch and English. A fine, healthy, happy family. It was a pretty picture of emigrant life. Cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry and pigeons innumerable, all picked up their own living and cost nothing; and vegetables and fruit grown in rank abundance where there is water. I asked for a book in the evening, and the man gave me a volume of Schiffer. A good breakfast and we paid nine pence for all."
In 1848, Mrs Beyers gave birth to a daughter, Maria Gertrude, and Mr Beyers planted a bluegum tree to commemorate the birth. The tree is now 11,2m in circumference and still guards the entrance to the inn.
Maria Beyers married a Scotsman, Walter McFarlane III, who became co-owner of the inn. He later started the hotel business in Hermanus. His grandson, Valentine McFarlane, still lives in Stanford, bright as a button at 85.
There is the story of a young lad who, on his way abroad, left his visiting card, a bank note, on the ceiling in the bar so that on his return - possibly broke - he could again enjoy the delights of the cellar. Others followed his example and there is now an impressive collection behind glass.
In 1902, the railway to Caledon was opened. The train stopped briefly at the Houw Hoek Inn and meals were served to the passengers on the platform. It is a well-known fact that the inn's owners made handsome profits by serving the soup so hot that diners could not finish their meal in time for the train's departure.
Various owners made changes to the inn, such as converting the old stables into "The Barn", a conference centre.
Several of the staff have been there for many years. Barman Wallis Shumba is a marvellous source of information - he has been listening to and regaling others with tales for 17 years. The receptionist was conceived in room 11, since demolished.
Henry the ghost has been around Houw Hoek Inn for the past 40 years and has been seen many times downstairs around reception; in rooms three and four, which are now used as store rooms; and in the passage on the first floor. He has given several night-duty porters a few frights.
Strange things happened in the early days. At night, the sound of footsteps and doors opening were heard coming from the first floor although no one was booked into these rooms. Later, when telephones were installed in the rooms, a call would come in from one of the rooms upstairs or the telephone would ring in the room with no calls going through the switchboard.
When TVs were introduced, they would switch on and off on their own.
The last person to have seen Henry the ghost was Ronnie, the manager between 1988 and 1992, who died about 10 years ago. Henry was seen in the passage upstairs. Another story goes that, in the late '70s, a lady sitting in the lounge started sketching a man standing close to her - then the man vanished. When the drawing was shown to the owner's wife, Mrs McEntyre, she immediately recognised farmer Henry, a regular who had killed himself on his way home from the inn one night.
The last event is recalled by Sakhumzi "Sakkie" Ndondo, who still works at the inn as a waiter. About six years ago, it was his first night duty. He locked the back door to the verandah and went and sat by the fire in the lounge. He heard a door opening and footsteps on the wooden staircase. On investigating, he found the back door wide open!
About three months later, he was on duty. He walked out of reception to the bar next to the staircase. The lights in the staircase and the passage upstairs went off. As the only light-switch was upstairs, he went up to investigate and switched the lights on again.
On hearing noises coming from one of the rooms - which was not occupied - he went to look. As he walked down the passage, the lights in the communal bathroom went on and off again. Upon reaching the room where the noises were coming from he found the door open and the TV and lights on. He switched off the lights and the TV, and the passage lights went off. Poor Sakkie was so scared he ran outside to the parking lot to wait for morning. That was his last night duty!
The bar used to have one big brass bell that hung from the old wooden creaky ceiling. Above it was room three, the honeymoon suite. When the bell rang, all patrons in the bar would clap and cheer.
History, ghosts and beautiful scenery - a visit to the inn will have you transported back to the 18th century, to the whisperings of visitors, the laughter and clinking of glasses in times gone by. Not only that, but today's inn has lovely bedrooms with great cuisine, wonderful staff and lives beyond its three-star grading, nestling in the heart of the Kogelberg Biosphere, 90km from Cape Town on the N2.