After hours of winding through gradually worsening roads, the visitor to Rhodes is greeted by two signs: one denoting its heritage that says “Please respect the peaceful spirit” and the other “No Hooting, No Tooting”.
Nestling in the towering mountains of the Drakensberg on the Eastern Cape’s border with Lesotho, the tiny village is suffering after three years without the local Tiffindell Ski Resort bringing in the tourists. Although all its wide streets and houses are part of a heritage site, the paint is peeling and the last remaining general dealer stocks only tinned food and some ice cream in a half-empty fridge.
Tiffindell Ski Resort opened in 1993 and brought people into this remote area, boosting local tourism. After David Taylor and Andre le Roux took ownership in 2007, things went downhill and the resort was closed in 2010. The two have struggled to pay debts and the community has suffered since then. Taylor and Le Roux were travelling and could not be reached for comment.
Dave Walker, owner of Walkerbouts, one of the last remaining bed-and-breakfast establishments, said: “In 2007 we had three working wining and dining places, two bottle stores and two well-stocked general dealers. We also had a microbrewery.”
Walkerbouts is the village’s gathering place. People pop in for a cup of real coffee and chat around its tables in the morning sun. The discussion is mainly gossip and no topic is more keenly debated than the upcoming auction of Tiffindell. The point is always that the new owner has to include the community if they want to succeed.
Attitude of goodwill
Walker said the village used to have an attitude of goodwill towards the resort, with people giving up their time and tractors to clear the road when it snowed, allowing tourists to head to the resort under their own steam.
“But this new regime was arrogant and wanted to go at it on their own, so eventually people wouldn’t lift a finger to help them,” he said.
Leaning on the counter of his bar, he said Rhodes used to have 10 000 bed nights every year. This brought people into the village and a profit in winter that helped locals to survive the months when tourists did not arrive. “The new regime ruined all of this. We now have one bottle store and a general dealer that stocks nothing. For now, it’s a matter of survival and it’s been shit.”
Down the road from Walkerbouts, next to giant trees that line the village’s roads, is the other bar. With rifles stuck along one wall and a massive old till hogging the wooden counter, it makes its bartender, Julius Masewu, look tiny and out of place in his jeans.
It was empty and Masewu said it had lost 75% of its customers. “At best, I now earn R200 a month from tips. It is not much. Now I can spend the whole day in the bar without a single customer,” he said. “The only time it fills up is when they have a Sunday braai or there is a rugby match.”
The houses next to the bar are mostly holiday homes, shuttered for the season. Masewu said they used to be rented out to people who were coming to Tiffindell, but now they stayed closed until December when the owners came for Christmas.
The main street, a wide dirt road that passes over the one bridge that spans the river splitting the village, winds its way to the top of Rhodes’s township. Here, the local football team is doing drills in their yellow uniforms, getting ready for matches against other teams in the Senqu district. But as dusk comes, the shadows sprint across the valley and a chilly bite to the air forces people to start moving indoors. In some yards, the music starts and people crack open their beers.
At the very top of the settlement is Sibenzile Sibindi’s house with its view of the entire valley. He is in luck, working for the local municipality, which sets him apart from many others.
“People from all over Senqu lost their jobs when the resort closed and here maybe 15 people lost their jobs. That means their families also lost their incomes, so a lot of people have been affected,” he said.
Rhodes’s largest employer is now Tony Kietzman. Puffing on his pipe and hobbling along with a cast on his leg, he is in the process of opening a new nursery.
With funding from the European Union and support from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, he is planning to grow 110 000 seedlings for herbal remedies every year. The pilot project already boasts a working greenhouse with a coal-fired geyser to heat the water for the radiator system that keeps the plants at a constant temperature. It will employ 30 people and, in due course, Kietzman hopes that local farmers will adopt the seedlings to grow on their own land.
Like many of the people in Rhodes, he tinkers with many projects. Looking up the valley, he plots his ambitious plan to dam the winding river and use gravity to feed irrigation projects for more seedlings.
“If I could only get permission I could change this whole area,” he said. Some weirs will allow for fishing and a windmill and solar panels will electrify the expansion of his project. “Everything I do is low-tech and labour-intensive,” he said.
“The idea is to hand it over to the community when it is fully functional and make it self-sustaining,” he said. And, he claims, with municipal support it could spawn side industries that would bring more employment. However, getting a solid commitment from the municipality was a lengthy process.
His other projects are dotted around the village, all of them environmentally friendly and using appropriate technology. This was critical, he said, because getting things from the outside world was very hard.
The general dealer and bottle store are a testament to this – the former boasts shelves that have more gaps than bottles. The village’s single ATM is also a tiny portable affair.
To get their own stocks, people buy on bakkieloads of food in the towns closer to the highway and further down the escarpment. This is not a place for people with normal cars.
Although Rhodes has become a threadbare village, the resort that drew people through its shops is also creaking in the howling winds. The 20km road to it is treacherous and only to be tackled by confident people in 4x4s – which is reinforced by a sign halfway up that tells you to “Engage lowest gear and drive with confidence”.
Tiffindell’s former manager, Grant Sephton, said this warning was always heeded by female drivers but ignored by men who wanted to prove that they were macho.
“We never had to come and help a woman, it was always the men. And sometimes we would have wives asking us to help out behind their husband’s backs.”
As it winds its way from 2200m to 2700m, the road passes many closed houses and neglected holiday homes. “People sunk money into this area, building accommodation for all the guests, but now they are stuck with empty houses. So prices have hit rock bottom,” said Sephton, adding that the trend was repeated in all the surrounding towns and along the highway towards Johannesburg.
As the road gets higher and higher, the gradient increases sharply. Now it is only the sheep that clamber up the mountains with ease. Near the top, large patches of snow cling to tufts of grass and melt into the road to create mush and deep ruts.
Sephton, a lifetime resident of the area, has always tried his best to be near snow. In his youth it meant joining a band of local farmers who would hunt out on the best slopes to ski. In the 1990s it meant working at the resort as it started growing under the Van Eck family, its founders. “The first time I met the father was at his caravan on the resort. He offered me some food and a beer, but he had only a cucumber and some bread with two beers in his fridge.”
They struck up a rapport and Sephton spent the next 13 years working there, only going home on the weekend or for a little bit longer when the winter snow season stopped. He was dismissed when David Taylor and Andre le Roux took over the resort.
Now he has a contract to do some running repairs on the resort while it sits in limbo. The few people he employs are a far cry from the 150 who were employed at the height of the season in years past, he said.
Although these repairs keep the place looking good for potential bidders, the resort is fundamentally in bad shape. Snow drifts have piled up on the stairs, making each step a step into the unknown. One sure footfall is followed by a leg buried to the hilt. And the paint has begun to strip off the buildings. Otherwise, the resort’s machinery and ski lifts are waiting to be greased and set to work.
One of the crew doing repairs, Thobiso Tshali, hails from another town that relies on the resort for its employment – Barkley East. He found work here in 2000 after matric because he was unwilling to join the mass exodus of people going to Johannesburg and Cape Town to find jobs.
His love for snow began as a child when he grew up in the valleys below the resort. But he still cannot handle the cold. “You never get used to it. I don’t even want to bring my children here, it is so cold.”
Even with the mind-numbing temperature and a wind that cuts through any exposed parts of the body, he cannot imagine ever working anywhere else.
“I love it here, it is so beautiful.”
Like everyone else, he is waiting to see who buys the resort. With most of his friends from the resort without jobs and his employment coming to an end soon, he hopes the new owner will take workers from the local community.
“I want them to see what skills we already have and use us, because there are no other places to work,” he said, rubbing his hands to get some circulation going.
If that happens, the surrounding communities can burst into life again, but for now everything is frozen, like the diesel in winter.
“Whatever happens, happens. Rhodes has been here for a hundred years and it will always be here,” said Walker.
Steep slope of challenges plagues resort
The modern incarnation of Tiffindell Ski Resort started taking shape in 1993 when the Van Eck family decided to turn their love of skiing into a business.
Although it had a captive audience and novelty on its side, the resort struggled to turn a profit.
David Taylor and Andre le Roux, two businesspeople, then concluded a deal with the family to buy the resort: they would lease Tiffindell back to the Van Ecks, who would develop it with their financial muscle driving things.
The deal was signed in 2007 and the pair, using Tiffski Property Investments, bought the resort for R22-million. The amount was to be paid in a number of ways over certain periods.
But Taylor and Le Roux ran into financial difficulty and several deals to sell the resort fell through.
As things went sour, liquidators tried to reverse the original sale.
The case went to the Supreme Court of Appeal, which declared the sale invalid. It brought an end to a four-year legal battle and opened the way for the auction on July 12. – Sipho Kings