What do King Shaka, Cuba and a railway line have to do with the history of the area? It doesn’t have anything to do with fierce battles, fine cigars or luxurious train travel, but a more interesting connection dating back to when my family’s old sugar farm, Beverley (now Simbithi), was starting out in the early 1920’s.
It’s amazing how one or two decisions and can impact so profoundly on the future of an entire area, but that’s exactly what happened. When my great grandfather GP Ladlau was establishing Beverley Farm as a sugar estate in the early 1920’s, the hilly terrain posed an issue when transporting cane to the nearby narrow gauge railway that was used to transport cane to the mill. As a result, GP decided to use motorised transport to move his cane from the fields. The building of a simple road followed, which became the present day Shaka’s Rock Road that divides Simbithi. The newly-formed, but very basic road network then allowed access to the coast which until then had not been possible.
While the increasing cost of establishing a new farm utilising state of the art motorised technology was hurting GP Ladlau’s cash flow, the world sugar industry was in upheaval. The First World War had largely decimated the traditional sugar beet field’s in Europe from which most of the world’s sugar was derived, and an alternative was desperately needed. It was at around this time that the opportunistic Americans had begun to invest in the Cuban sugar industry and even went so far as to send across cheap labour much like our indentured labour system, and proceeded to take control of the world market. This needless to say had a major impact on GP and South African farmers who struggled to compete with the Cubans due to difficult logistics and higher transport costs.
So it was a combination of hilly terrain, a new road, and the Cuban sugar industry that lead GP to search for ways to ease his financial difficulties through the sale of some sections of his farm and in so doing opened up an opportunity for another local character whose actions would forever change the local tourism and property market and pave the way for future property visionaries.
Charlie de Charmoy, was looking for a site to build a hotel and with the newly developed beach access, he was able to identify a location which had previously been almost impossible to get to. With other crude roads through Beverley Farm linking up with what is now Thompson’s Bay and Willard Beach, Charlie decided to buy a lot of the coastal property from what is now Shaka’s Rock to Thompson’s Bay and thus begin the establishment of the area as a holiday destination. It’s interesting to note that the tidal pool was built by him and is known as Charlies’ Pool.
With no real landmarks or town names, Charlie had to devise a strong marketing campaign and point of difference to bring in the crowds. Like any marketer or developer, Charlie decided to take advantage of some poetic license, and seems to have encouraged, or as some might say, embellished, the myth of King Shaka. It is suggested that he would supposedly follow the practice of throwing his wives and detractors off a high rock to meet a watery end, or to test the bravery of his warriors by making them jump. Historical records are vague at best to support this practice and more importantly, the exact location, but it was all that Charlie needed to tell a story and sell his product. As a result, Shaka’s Rock was named and the landmark Shaka’s Rock Hotel was established. As an additional marketing exercise, he erected a bust of King Shaka and placed it on a plinth at the intersection of the old road (The R102) between Maidstone and Umhlali Village which was then the main road from Durban to Zululand. This was meant to attract passers-by. This bust still stands today where it was originally erected, and the area is known as Shaka’s Head as a result.
Being a marketer myself, I can’t but be amazed and impressed by this vision, creativity and determination to develop a destination from nothing. As a result of all this efforts, the hotel was a world renowned destination right through the 30’s until the early 90’s. I remember being rewarded with a T-bone steak on the patio if I got a good report card, but there are many more fantastical stories of holidays gone by, the infamous bar and a precariously situated cliff top front lawn. It has always been said that there were a few patrons who fell off the cliff, but this probably had less to do with the ghost of King Shaka and more to do with a spirit of a different kind. What is certain is that the hotel will always leave an indelible mark in the minds of many locals. Sadly the hotel was knocked down to make way for a block of flats “Chaka’s Cove” in the mid 90’s.
I just love the history of our area and the families and individuals that have played their part in its history and character. So next time you drive along Ocean Drive from Thompson’s Bay to Chaka’s Rock, hopefully you’ll think, just for a brief second, about some of the characters and events that helped establish this beautiful part of our coastline.