The 18km pass that connects Wellington to Wolseley in the Western Cape was built by road engineer Andrew Geddes Bain with the use of convict labour and opened in 1854 as Bainskloof Pass.
At its peak, the pass reaches 594m where, at Eerste Tol, you will find a hamlet of old buildings, most of which are (or were) used by faith-based organisations as getaway locations.
McBains Lodge is in one such building. Since its purchase six years ago, the conversion into fully-realised traveller accommodation continues to be a work in progress.
“I’m living in my to-do list,” Justin Nurse tells Farmer’s Weekly of the lodge that he and his partner Ma’ayan Hamilton are creating. The rooms are named after writers and artists (Hamilton is the daughter of South African artist Pieter van der Westhuizen), and the exterior walls are covered in frescoes.
Around the shared and open- plan kitchen and lounging area, works by Marti Lund and Sven Christian can be seen. Rooms in the original building are configured in a somewhat ant-nest style, with nooks and crannies and little stairways that invite exploration.
Below the main building, other cabins have been built, the most desirable of which in terms of its location and views is Jonathan, which looks out directly onto Deviation Buttress, a mountain immediately opposite the river. Klein Wellington Sneeukop is behind the lodge.
Aside from the creative and quirky interiors that entice one own’s creativity and whimsicality, the great appeal here is the location.
There are three CapeNature trails here: Limietberg, Bobbejaansrivier, and the aptly named Happy Valley (Murasie). CapeNature hiking permits are required for these routes and they are available to purchase at McBains.
“These are healing waters,” Nurse says of the river below the lodge.
It lies within 100m from McBains and can be accessed directly, but this requires a level of fitness and fancy footwork. About 500m away, however, is a swimming spot that is easier to reach.
There are stone steps to climb but they are well positioned, and there is a helpful chain to hold on to for the bits that might be tricky for some.
“That was the girls’ pool,” says Nurse, while the part of the river in front of McBains was where the boys, more daring, could clamber over rocks into the water below. When a church ran the accommodation, the genders were separated.
Laugh it off
Nurse’s name may be familiar to some. Shortly after completing his journalism and business management degrees at Rhodes University and as a way to pay off his student debt, he came up with T-shirt designs that poked fun at some of South Africa’s best-known brands in a wry, satirical and cheeky way.
The most famous of these, ‘Black Labour, White Guilt’, parodied South African Breweries’ (SAB) Black Label beer. That T-shirt turned out to be a poke too far: SAB sued Nurse for copyright infringement.
SAB won its case in both the Cape Court and High Court before the Constitutional Court dismissed the case with costs in favour of Nurse and his Laugh It Off business.
You can buy Laugh it Off T-shirts from McBains too, and Nurse’s compendium book that details the David vs Goliath battle.
Today, his and Hamilton’s focus is on nurturing and healing. ‘Nature Therapy Thursday’ is a weekly example.
Hamilton is a qualified TRE (trauma and tension-release exercises) practitioner and Nurse is a qualified addiction counsellor. The session is followed by a healthy, usually vegetarian, meal.
“We see ourselves as gatekeepers and guardians of this extraordinary nature resource and love sharing it,” he says.
Forty people can be accommodated at McBains and, as Nurse says, “if you come with good vibes you’ll have a great time”.
Given what the current state of McBains is after six hard years of toil, one can only imagine the condition in which they purchased it.
“It was a mess, and we made a cheeky offer, which he accepted,” recalls Nurse.
After taking ownership, they discovered several major problems, not least of which were leaky plumbing, rotten timber and plenty of accumulated clutter. They are both working full-time while running the lodge until occupancy picks up.
“At weekends, we’re pretty full,” says Nurse, “but midweek we’re quiet and that’s when we need to attract visitors.”
Farmer’s Weekly visited during the week and had the run of the place. We chose Wilbur on account of its queen-sized bed, cool interior, small, self-catering kitchen, and en-suite bathroom.
A wonderful sleep ensued in the comfy bed with crisp white linen after stargazing from the wood-fired hot tub before bed.
There are books to read everywhere at McBains and interesting art and memorabilia to look at. The concept is strong and as funds come in it will, no doubt, be more fully realised.
There is no mobile phone reception and while there is Wi-Fi in the main house that stretches to some parts of the guest accommodation, this is the kind of place to unplug, unwind and lie in a hammock, reading and looking at the mountains.
It’s a free-spirited space and, perhaps because of the healing waters below and magnetic pull of the mountains, we left feeling revived and ready to tackle the world.
Check their website for details of the accommodation. There are dormitory rooms that sleep 12, for example, and rooms that share showers and toilets. Prices are from R500 per person sharing.