The Amphitheatre loomed large, and the uThukela River flowed strongly, thanks to the recent rains. A couple on their mountain bikes were taking up the challenge, we eased past them trying not to engulf them in dust, even though we were eager to arrive. Onwards and upwards, the dirt road meandered. Eventually depositing us at the Cavern Drakensberg Resort & Spa, what would be our mountain idyll for a few days.

Drakensberg Mountains from the Cavern

It wasn’t going to be all play though as I was here to check out the community projects that the greater Cavern family have been involved in for many years. After a quick coffee we set off with Megan Bedingham, founder of Khanyisela Projects and the Royal Drakensberg Primary School, which opened in 2007, to see the school in action.

It was break time, and the kids were having a ball – some on the outdoor equipment, some of them playing an informal game of soccer, some just taking the time to munch a snack from their lunch boxes. These were the primary school kids, all proudly kitted out in their school uniforms, and all eager to stand in line with their masks back on to get their hands sanitised before heading back into their classrooms. And what cool classrooms they were! Bright and cheerful with all the charts, tables and learning tools that a junior primary school kid would need.

Royal Drakensberg Primary School
Royal Drakensberg Primary School

Next up was the little ones. With bright smiles and gleeful laughs, they clamoured up steps, slid down slides, twisted down poles and swung on swings. Some even had flying dragons, monster spiders and even the three little pigs.

And some were sticking leaves on their ‘tree of kindness’ with the help of their teacher Idah – integrity, kindness and respect are very much a part of the ethos of this very special school.

Idah started at the Cavern in 2005 as a nanny and then in 2007 moved across to the school when it started. Her career path took her from teaching assistant for a few years and then after studying early childhood development up to Grade R through UNISA she took over a class at the pre-primary school. Her vivacious attitude and lovely smile make her a favourite with kids and parents alike, and she also acts as parent liaison in the community.

Megan takes us indoors to see the classrooms. She tells us that the beautiful building we are now seeing was once a ramshackle and roofless sandstone barn, built with stone hewn out of the surrounding hills. But with experienced hands and local help her Dad – Peter Carte (more about him later), turned this empty old building into a place where hopes and dreams are built, and futures are enabled. Little miracles in the making!

“We believe that by focusing on early childhood development, we contribute to the wider impact: transforming not just the lives of children, but their communities, and ultimately their countries, making them healthier and more competitive in the global economy”, Megan tells us. The school caters for children from grade zero up to grade three.

I see the alphabet charts, the lovingly created handbooks, the cushions for rest time and the row of name places for their backpacks, and I can’t help thinking that this humble little school would not be out of place in any city suburb and would easily compete with the best of private primary schools too. Megan tells me that they never aimed to create something that would be a place of privilege, and even though the kids that attend the school are more privileged than their counterparts in the local amaZizi community their aim is to make a difference in those spaces too.

Megan, a qualified teacher herself, tells me that through their Khanyisela Projects they support a network of pre-schools and crèches in the amaZizi village. Schools are equipped with infrastructure, resources and play equipment, children are fed daily and come into an environment that is stimulating at a time when the opportunity for development is colossal. Teachers are supported through training programmes and assisted with the upkeep of their buildings and facilities.

It doesn’t stop there though, as Megan goes on to explain how critical early childhood development is. “In response to the growing international recognition that the first 1000 days is a critical window of opportunity in a child’s development, we recently developed and implemented a parent/caregiver package called BabyBoost. This programme was devised and delivered by a previous Cavern guest, Dr Marysia Nash, and assisted by her colleague Gemma McDonald, BabyBoost represents an important development in the education of babies up to two years old”.

I meet Sibonelelo, one of the Babyboost educators, she smiles shyly as Megan tells us that she used to be a cook at one of the local pre-schools but when she showed an interest in the BabyBoost programme she was given the opportunity to upskill for the position. Megan explains that she is employed by the school in this capacity and has ten moms (or carers in most cases, often a granny) and their children under her ‘care’. The moms are then taught how to sing to the little ones, how to cuddle them and lavish them with love and even how to read to them. Sibonelelo then takes videos of the moms and their kids and send them through to Marysia for her comment and input.

The BabyBoost programme is something that is slowly being rolled out within the community to “build a continuum for growth from birth to age ten, or the end of grade three” says Megan. “Our ethos is to give children the opportunity to learn to read so that they can read to learn”.

My heart is full to overflowing as we head back up the hill to check into our suite.

Our suite at the Cavern

Our superior suite sported a stylish interior, complete with fireplace for nippy nights, king-size bed with decorative draping and beautifully appointed bathroom – with a shower that has ample space for two. A tea and coffee station, with ground coffee and a coffee plunger as well as a jar of the yummiest homemade crunchies, are on the ‘kitchen’ counter for our use. As is a bar fridge, should we require. With ever-changing mountain views, a gurgling stream tucked into the riverine forest in the valley below and the perfect outdoor spot to appreciate it all, what more could a girl want?

Lunch, apparently. Which is just one of the three meals a day that are included. I’m expecting a light snack so am surprised to be presented with three course menu options, but relieved when my choice arrives and see that the portions aren’t huge – thankfully, I won’t be rolling home! Did I mention that tea is served both in the morning and afternoon?

Our waiter is Sphesihle, or Sphe for short. He proudly shows off his trainee badge and tells us that he is loving working here, but it is a bit scary that he must wait on the table of the owners – “but they are very helpful”, he tells us, “and I am learning a lot”. I ask to take a photo of him, with the typical pose of his generation, he smiles shyly, even pouting for the camera. And smiles delightfully when I show him the result.

Our waiter, Spesihle, at the Cavern

Over the few days that he waits on us he begins to tell us his story… his home is in the local amaZizi community and that he went to school, first locally and then in Bergville. After completing his schooling, he managed to get a job at Sungubula Camp (the self-catering cabins near the Royal Drakensberg Primary School), but when an opportunity came up at The Cavern, he jumped at it. He tells us that he is the only breadwinner in his family – an unfortunate statistic is that in most rural areas each employed person supports and average of ten others. With his confidence, willingness to learn and affable character he is bound to go far.

The Cavern employs in the region of 100 staff with most of them coming from the local communities, and some having worked there for decades.  Not only do they employ locally, but they offer opportunities for growth and advancement too. Later that afternoon, as one does after a hard day’s work of taking photographs, walking the trails, and taking a few notes, we felt we had earned the rights to a serious G&T so headed to the Cave Bar to find one.

The Cavern Cave Bar
The wine cellar at the Cavern

We could have just waited on the deck appreciating the view and one of the waiters would have helped us, but I wanted a closer look at the ‘Flintstone’ bar, as it is affectionately referred to. Here we met Sakhiwe, also from amaZizi village, who was also happy to tell us his story. He had started out in housekeeping – his first job after leaving school – followed by a stint as barman in the upstairs bar, then at the entertainment desk and now in his own domain in the Cave Bar. “Which I love”, he tells us while preparing our swish looking G&T.

G&Ts at the Cavern

The following day, whilst enjoying a cuppa tea in the lounge, Megan fills me in on the Carte family history.  A story that starts in 1941 when her grandparents, Ruth and Bill Carte bought the Cavern, which at that time was a cattle ranching farm with a small guest house. Back then it was just a few thatched rondavels with a separate ablutions and very rudimentary facilities. But with grit and determination (and explosives), sandstone from the surrounding hills was carted in on a sleigh drawn by oxen to begin the building of a few more thatched dwellings, which over the years has extended into a building project continued over the generations. 

It wasn’t just the expansive views, fresh mountain air and many hiking trails that had guests come back time after time, it was the wonderfully warm hospitality of the Carte’s and the numerous Cavern traditions, such as Saturday night dances, tennis matches as well as fun games evenings – as well as teatime with the delicious Cavern crunchies.

The Cavern main buildings

Megan tells me that she is immensely proud of her grandmother Ruth, who, when Bill died of cancer 13 years after they married, decided against all odds to stay in the mountains, bring up her children as a single mother and continue growing their fledgling business. It would have been so much easier to opt for the easy way out and head to Durban for a ‘regular’ life, but she was as committed to Bill’s dream of leaving a legacy as he was when he penned the words “it is to create beauty, to make the land more fertile, to make our living, to leave the world better than when we came to it” – Bill Carte, in his proposal letter to his beloved Ruth, dated 16 June 1940.

The next generation, Megan’s dad, Peter, and her uncle, Anthony, joined their mum in continuing this legacy and by the 1980s the Cavern was a thriving resort and a place of ‘many happy returns’ – a phrase borrowed from an entry in their visitors book decades before.  In 2000, an opportunity arose down the valley and Anthony and his family moved to build Montusi Mountain Lodge. The family bonds are still close, Megan tells me, with the families getting together often and sharing much laughter and meals on a regular basis.

Fast forward a few decades, and a couple of generations alter, and the Cavern is now in the capable hands of Megan and her husband Hilton, as well as her sister Lesley and her husband Lloyd (they are recently married – so congratulations to all!). Peter is still very much part of things and is always happy to share his fond memories of growing up in this piece of mountain paradise.

A mountain paradise the requires much exploration, with hiking trails aplenty. From the well-marked Nature Trail for leisurely strolls to way more hectic mountain hikes that require a relative level of fitness, and criss-cross cycling paths for MTB enthusiasts.

We opted for the less strenuous options and enjoyed many an hour exploring the trails in the vicinity of our suite and around the lodge.  With wonderful names like Putterill’s Weir, May’s Falls and Cowslip Falls Dam, one cannot help but be enthralled. The mossy rocks, lichen covered trees and a plethora of ferns delight one in the Fern Forest, and one can almost image fairies dancing in the soft sunlight that filters down through the trees. Higher up one is rewarded with fields of protea bushes and, tucked amongst the tufts of grass, wildflowers aplenty – which must be quite spectacular in the spring. But no matter where you walk, you are surrounded by mountain peaks, gushing waterfalls, and babbling brooks.

A Lammergeier (bearded vulture) soars overhead, a zitting cistcola flits from bush to bush and a Drakensberg prinia watches from its perch in a small tree. We are lucky and spot an olive woodpecker ferreting in the bark of a huge gum tree for insects. A Deiderick’s cuckoo calls in the distance and the iridescent flash of blue from a half-collared kingfisher gets my hubby clamouring though the undergrowth to get a photo. Once back at the lodge we watch a flock of African Olive pigeons (aka Rameron pigeon) feasting on the fruit of a wild peach tree (Kiggelaria Africana) – a tree that is also home to small black hairy caterpillars, which are a treat for four different species of cuckoo.

The Cavern also offers daily guided hikes into the mountains, and we opted for the relatively leisurely walk to the Natural Pool where one stops for tea and crunchies.  We had been joined by the Cavern dogs Zinga and Toby, all very much a part of the family and well familiar with all the trails and tracks across the property. We ‘lost’ Toby on route, but Zinga stayed with us throughout, nose to the ground, then bounding off for a while in search of the source of the wonderful smells. Then traipsing through the stream and shaking off the water in gay abandon, before looking at us with real puppy-dog eyes hoping for a piece of crunchie as a treat – another Cavern tradition in the making!

Hiking in the mountains at the Cavern

After a long walk comes the need for some relaxing spa time. And the Forest Retreat Spa does not disappoint. It nestles in the canopy of the indigenous fern forest, with birdsong and the gurgling sound of Putterill’s stream your only soundtrack. I meet Nozipho, my spa therapist, and while her hands expertly do their magic, she tells me her story…

Forest Resort Spa at the Cavern

She started working at the Cavern 16 years ago, in the laundry, so when the opportunity arose for her to be trained as a spa therapist she jumped at it (as did her colleague Ncamsile, who is also still working at the Spa). She smiles, telling me that she has been fulfilling her passion for 13 years. That I can understand, as I sit quietly on the deck after my massage, enjoying the serenity of the occasion and feeling sublimely relaxed with my body restored.

View from the Spa at the Cavern
Nozipho my therapist at the Cavern Spa

Such is a visit to this special place, where the mountain air clears your head, the beautiful surroundings restores your soul, and the lovely people fill your heart to overflowing.  

Click HERE to read this in the latest Responsible Traveller Mag