On 23rd September 1889, “100 acres, one rood and three perches” were purchased by Edward Finley Murray, from the Governor and Commander-in-Chief over the Colony of Natal, for the sum of 50 pounds, 2 shillings and 8 pence. And so Mkomazana was born.
The property was subsequently transferred to Harry Cockerell in January 1908, and later to Jas H. Gordon in August 1917. At this time, the Sani Pass was unused, apart from the odd person who would find his way down the tortuous path from Lesotho, (then called the Protectorate of Basutholand), there being no established track at all. Once the pass was negotiated, there was still a long way to go to reach the tiny and equally remote villages of Himeville and Underberg.
James Lamont and his partner, Wareing were two men who had a profound effect on Sani Pass, on trading in Lesotho and on Mkomazana. They were ex soldiers from the Boer War, who found their way to Basutholand to learn trading and to open their own stores in Mokhotlong and Rafolatsane. Donkeys hauled their goods for their stores over a week-long, arduous, narrow route of 100 kilometres from northern Basutholand. So in 1913, they decided to pioneer the Sani Pass which they saw as a quicker route. Also, Underberg was only 22 kilometres away and there was to be a railway station there. In summer storms and winter snow and cold, freight was hauled over the dangerous pass, which was so steep near the top, that the pack animals had to be dragged up one at a time. The success of this venture can be credited to the courage of hundreds of surefooted little donkeys. It soon became evident to Lamont and Wareing that they would need a base from which to operate in Natal; they therefore bought the land of Mkomazana to be their headquarters. This site became quite a little settlement over the years, employing a lot of people of various skills. Goods would arrive by train at Underberg and would then have to be hauled out by ox wagon to Mkomazana. There they would be loaded on to the pack animals for the two-day trip to Mokhotlong and Rafolatsane.
The next person to become a legend in the story of Sani Pass and Mkomazana is Charles Ridgway, known to all and sundry as Makhakhe (a Lesotho name meaning ‘a man of repute’). When Makhakhe heard that the trading operations of Wareing and Lamont, were for sale, (after they died in 1935 and 1936 respectively), he decided to try to buy the business. He borrowed the money from Bill Yeats, another trader in Lesotho, and went into partnership with Eric de la Harpe from Bethlehem; they each paid 3000 pounds sterling. Makhakhe arrived at Mkomazana in 1940 with his wife, Mary, and their two daughters, Shirley and Charlotte. The store was 27 years old and the road was still hardly fit for motor vehicles. In wet weather, they often had to be towed by oxen. Goods still arrived on wagons as there were few trucks at that time. At Mkomazana the practice of sorting out the goods and loading them onto the backs of pack animals for the two-day trek to their destination over the Sani Pass still continued. Makhakhe made the trip monthly, taking two or three horses. Like many traders of that time, Makhakhe looked after his customers well. He helped them in times of hardship, lending them oxen for ploughing, handing out seed for planting and giving out food and goods against payment, in the future, of livestock or wool. His home, the present Top House, was elegantly furnished and he built a swimming pool in the garden which was fed by a mountain spring - it is still there today. His wife, with the help of Dougie and Joyce Franks, who lived with their 8 children just above the Top House, created a beautiful terraced garden. Makhakhe would take a dip in his pool every morning summer and winter, often rushing into the kitchen where Joyce, the housekeeper and cook, would find him shivering and blue in front of the Agar stove.
The settlement of Mkomazana now consisted of houses for the staff, a wholesale shop, a wool-sorting shed, various storage sheds as well as accommodation for the customers, with cooked maize meal and traditionally brewed beer thrown in for 50 or 100 customers at a time. People living in the Mcatsheni valley to the north would make their purchases there. Then there were the muleteers and donkey owners who would come down the pass with loads of wool and mohair. They would have their wool weighed, would be given a token to the value of the wool, which would be taken to the store to make their purchases - ploughs, cement, coffins, lengths of material, blankets, clothing, packed dates, herbal medicines, motto sweets and basic foodstuffs packed in sixpence amounts. Makhakhe would doctor the donkeys while they were on his property, making sure that no-one was using a donkey that was unfit for bearing loads or crossing back up the pass. The wool was loaded onto ox wagons drawn by 10 to 12 oxen, and a spinster by the name of Sheila Mackenzie, would courageously set off on her own with this load and whip in hand, to Underberg.
Makhakhe died in 1965 and another era began on Mkomazana, with Brian de la Harpe at the helm. Business expanded to include stores and wool wholesalers in Underberg, Himeville and Boston. The stores in Lesotho were disposed of and the property itself no longer had trading operations.
When Brian died, the de la Harpe family sold all operations, in 1994, to Superco Zululand, owned by Peter Rutherfoord, brothers Peter and Alastair Clarke, and Nick John. The stores and wholesalers were eventually sold or closed down, but the legendary property of Mkomazana began the next era of ownership, with the Clarke brothers subsequently becoming the sole owners, employing some of the staff who worked for, and remembered, past eras.
Under the care of Donald Clarke, (brother to Peter and Alastair), and his wife Wendy, tourist and back-packer facilities and an educational centre were developed. The old wool-sorting shed became a pub with an inviting central fire and pool table. Three dams were constructed on the same meadows where Makhakhe once grazed his polo horses. A trout hatchery was built and the dams stocked with trout of varying sizes. The Top House continues to be loved and used by the Clarke family and friends. Mkomazana Mountain Cottages are serviced, self catering, restored cottages, enjoying the facilities of this delightful property, and ably managed since 2006, by Mike and Betty Tapp, on behalf of the Clarke family.
Mkomazana is part of the World Heritage site of Ukhalamba Drakensberg Park, so we hope that the legends, history and usefulness of the property, will flourish and continue into perpetuity, as a refuge for indigenous animals and bird life.