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How a lodge in KwaZulu-Natal works for a better life fo...

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DM168 DEEP DIVE

How a lodge in KwaZulu-Natal works for a better life for all in Hambrook village

Hambrook village, with the brown winter grass and northern edge of the Drakensberg in the background, in KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Angus Begg)

‘Since early on we wanted to be part of the community, our closest neighbours,’ says Simon Blackburn of Three Tree Hill lodge in Hambrook, ‘so we chose to be inclusive, immersive and not separated.’

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The recent riots in KwaZulu-Natal were felt deep into the rural countryside. Stories of cooperation and people coming together to defend their interests are legion, but the chaotic events also highlighted how people can, and maybe should, work together.

As is often the case, the tourism industry, so often susceptible to the slightest disturbance, is showing the way.

“Here in Hambrook village we were affected badly by the recent riots. No work, no pay … life was like at a standstill”.

Paul Sigubudu is the councillor for Ward 11 in the Okhahlamba municipality, an area that includes Hambrook, another oddly-named village, Acton Homes, and many farms. He is referring to the riots, two weeks ago, that tore through the economies of Durban, the greater KwaZulu-Natal province, and Johannesburg.

In the foothills of the northern Drakensberg, with Bergville and the central Drakensberg to the south and the Spioenkop hilltop battlefield close by down the R616, Hambrook is in tourism country.

Business was good

“Before Covid, business was so good,” says Sigubudu. “Jobs were secure.” In a village of maybe 3,000 people, the ANC councillor confirms that most jobs in the area are provided by agriculture and tourism.

Since the days of former tourism minister Valli Moosa boasting about the growth of global tourism almost 20 years ago, when it was challenging the oil and gold industries, the local tourism industry has grown to become one of the largest employers in the country.

Sigubudu highlights the role of a particular establishment that has set somewhat of a benchmark in the area, if not the province.

Most establishments in the area cater to the local market. However a local four-star lodge, Three Tree Hill, serves mostly overseas guests, in particular those interested in Anglo-Boer war history, as narrated on the bloody hilltop battlefield of Spioenkop, and hikes through the game reserve of the same name.

“I’m not a friend of the Blackburns [Simon and Cheryl, the owners of Three Tree Hill], but they do so much for this community”.

Sigubudu says he’s seen them delivering food twice-weekly for the community’s pigs, and speaks of their support for the Hambrook crèche and what seems like the disproportionately large high school for a village of this size.

Simon Blackburn, who with his wife Cheryl rents the land on which Three Tree Hill stands, adjacent to the Spioenkop game reserve, employs 22 people from Hambrook, with similar numbers employed by three smaller establishments in the area.

He says maybe “triple or quadruple” that number is employed by the larger Drakensberg resorts like The Cavern and Cathedral Peak Hotel.

Cheryl Blackburn and Paul Sigubudu, the councillor for Ward 11 in the Okhahlamba municipality. (Photo: Angus Begg)

Helping hand

Ntobeko Ntshingila is one such Hambrook local employed by the Blackburns. A duty manager at Three Tree Hill lodge, Ntshingila has lived in the village for all of her 35 years. The single mother of two, speaking from her home during lockdown, says she has worked for Three Tree Hill for 13 years, rising to the position she occupies today – duty manager.

This Zulu woman, working in an establishment devoted to the history of colonial conflict between Boers and the British, describes it as her “home away from home”.

“Working here is really different, the owners have this humanity, they are people persons, always concerned about what’s happening with other people.”

Travelling into Hambrook with Cheryl Blackburn, the “very cooperative relationship” that her husband says they have with the village is evident.

I get out of the vehicle to photograph a traditional beehive hut that sits next to a square “new build”.

It is a stark reminder of the contrasting worlds we occupy in Africa, where the 21st century drags cultures and tradition towards what for many rural-dwellers is an uncertain world.

Covid-19 awareness prevents strangers from entering others’ homes, but a gogo (granny) exits with a ready smile and skin that speaks of harsh winters and maybe 100 birthdays. Blackburn follows, gives a Covid elbow touch and engages with “Gogo”, who after some research we learn is Ntombinde Nhlapho.

Nhlapho may not know her precise age, but she clearly knows Ms Blackburn. The same applies to the rest of our visit to the village, her vehicle being acknowledged with smiles and waves.

“Since early on we wanted to be part of the community, our closest neighbours,” says Simon Blackburn, “so we chose to be inclusive, immersive and not separated.”

He speaks of an open and transparent form of relationship and meetings where everyone gets to talk.

“These help with trust issues, so nothing bubbles up. Also a free WhatsApp group for open communication”. Being Fair Trade Tourism-certified presumably also helps.

Gogo Ntombinde Nhlapho. (Photo: Angus Begg)

Community and conservation

Blackburn says they offered help, initially at the expense of their own business, where it was needed, starting with the crèche, followed by the high school. He speaks of the conservation and community levy they started, to which guests could contribute directly.

Cheryl explains that the levy, which is now added onto the guest room rate and kept and managed separately, supports the Three Tree Hill Foundation, which in turn supports the community and conservation work.

The couple believe that because of this interest in and concern displayed for the Hambrook community, especially its children, the residents value the presence of the lodge in their lives.

Ntshingila says speaking to employees of other tourism and agricultural establishments, it is clear that they don’t have what she and her colleagues have.

“In most places of work, no one is worried where you come from, how you survive … it’s just nine to five for a salary”.

The Hambrook village primary school. (Photo: Angus Begg)

Then came the riots

Into this picture of cooperation, respect and relative pastoral contentment the riots arrived, accompanied by what has now been confirmed as instigated pillaging, looting and violence.

Sigubudu explains how during the July riots the R616 from Ladysmith to Bergville, Hambrook’s nearest town, was blocked, that the Hambrook community could get neither petrol nor food. Even he, as ward councillor, had to wait until the next day to be allowed through.

Ntshingila, with an 18-year-old daughter and a boy of almost three, was understandably anxious.

“We watched it on the news. Factories and shops were [in] flame. The fear grew as the looting started to happen in Ladysmith as that is closer to us, and we do use the town.”

She explains how Bergville town was “closed”, that no public taxis were allowed to go in. The road in the neighbouring village of Acton Homes was filled with “big rocks and broken glass, breaking movement between Bergville and Ladysmith town”.

She says the Blackburns and their children cleared about six tonnes of rocks from the road, which relates to an anecdote from my conversation with councillor Sigubudu.

“Simon [Blackburn] from Three Tree called during the riots. He wanted to know how they could help Hambrook.”

That same Simon explained how the community defended Bergville’s shops against looters, describing Hambrook’s residents as “fearful, confused and angry” and unhappy about the protests.

“They are all suffering from the financial effects of Covid, so they do not want any more setbacks.”

Simon Blackburn says the regional farm watch, private security and police “were successful in joining forces early on to provide a visual presence and deter any form of aggression or looting”.

There were no incidents in Hambrook village, and Bergville suffered no damages.

The Hambrook school supported by the Three Tree Hill Foundation. (Photo: Angus Begg)

A better way of business

It is common knowledge that we are the products of our environment, especially as we grow. It seems, as for many in this country, that the Blackburns’ sense of justice is driven by their formative years.

“With my mum as an anti-apartheid activist, who we believe was murdered by the state,” says Simon Blackburn, “we were brought up to respect everyone the same and to treat everyone fairly, no matter their race, gender or creed.”

He says the good news is that there are many who are “the same as us” in the South African tourism industry, who want to make the world “a better, fairer place for all”.

Yet this Eastern Cape-born lodge owner takes that bland statement, probably muttered by millions over millennia, a little further, speaking to what he believes is an industry’s obligation.

“There can be no community upliftment or conservation projects at all if we do not build a better, more equitable business  model.”

He speaks of the need to find a way for staff to become shareholders and therefore vested-interest stakeholders “in the business they know, love and have expertise in”.

Hambrook village is proud to be a place where neighbours help each other. (Photo: Angus Begg)

‘We help our neighbours’

It’s not rocket science. I think of a lodge owner who, long before Fair Trade Tourism (SA), successfully employed such thinking at his lodge in the Crags outside Plettenberg Bay. A once jobless, unemployed person rose through the ranks at Hog Hollow to become the general manager (with shares) who looked after the lodge when the owner took an extended vacation.

“White people don’t necessarily understand,” says Sigubudu, “but when we earn, we help our neighbours.”

Since our visit a few weeks ago, Simon says they have had no guests. Their next booking, provided that the riots and political instigation do not return, is for later this month.

Meanwhile, Ntshingila, who with her last salary bought some day-old chicks and feed for broiler chickens to sell, to earn an income until the lodge gets busy, says she is grateful to work where she does – to be part of the family. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • We have been return visitors to Three Tree Hill for over 10 years. We are always astounded and inspired by Hambrook, the Blackburns, their staff and the lodge. Beautiful people with generous hearts, who are doers, who make things happen.

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