Separating the South African Eastern Cape settlements of Rhodes and Maclear is a three thousand meter plus escarpment falling away from the southern rump of Lesotho, and the Southern Drakensberg. A road exists between the two settlements, mounting the escarpment at a point known as Naude’s Pass at an altitude slightly higher than 3000m. It is a breathtakingly beautiful scenic drive, winding slowly up through the higher reaches of the Witteberg, and the bleak, sparsely vegetated and perennially damp highlands at the upper reaches. Set in a slight valley at the absolute headwater of the Bell River, a tributary of the dominant local Kraai River, is a small farm – Tenahead Farm, whereupon stands the River Hotels Tenahead Lodge.
When chatting to the local in Rhodes about Tenahead lodge prior to making the journey up Naude’s Pass in my Opel Corsa to visit the establishment, there was a certain amount of polite perplexity expressed about the existence and philosophy of Tenahead Lodge. The concept and construction of the lodge had been the work of the original farm owners – possibly as a retreat or conference facility – but soon afterwards it was sold to River Hotels and became part of the River Hotels group. The sense at the more salient altitudes of Rhodes was that it was a bit of a white elephant – too remote to really be practical, and with very little in such isolation to do, other than to enjoy the attributes of the lodge itself.
I set off to check it out myself, embarking up the Naude’s Pass road filled with confidence in my little car, but growing less confident as the miles ticked off and the road became both more precipitous and winding, and conspicuously unmaintained. Nonetheless, I arrived safely, and as I plied the last bends in the road and caught site of Tenahead wedged into a slight valley just a few meters below the crest of the escarpment, I was also struck by the absolute isolation within which this very interesting establishment had been sited.
Interesting is precisely what Tenahead is. The first oddity is the construction, which is ostensibly the dry wall technique used to build sheep walls, and which, one imagines, was the early method used to construct houses. The material is the dark local basalt stone, in this case utilized with an extremely high level of skill, giving the buildings that make up the complex an authentic, and yet at the same time a creative, themed décor that actually works very well. Considering the bleak and completely natural backdrop – with the tiny Bell River headwater flowing almost under the main buildings – this architectural peculiarity is what makes Tenahead remarkable. Any more orthodox construction would seem lost and irrelevant in such an unembellished situation.
The interior, as one might expect, is also highly décor orientated, which is a fairly standard feature of luxury lodges continent wide, and although some acknowledgement of local native culture is noticeable here and there, by sense is that the theme is somewhat generic, and although undeniably tasteful, comfortable and expensive, lacked the authentic cohesion that the drywall exterior might have led one to expect.
Another point worth mentioning is that Tenahead exists in such a degree of isolation that only its own resources are available to entertain a guest interested in exploring the locality. Activities include horse riding, hiking, a spa treatment facility and of course fly fishing, but during the winter, when Naude’s Pass might be expected to be under several inches, if not feet of snow, then there certainly would seem to be little point in visiting, and during the bouts of summer rain that were certainly a feature when I visited, Tenahead might seem somewhat like a lavishly gilded cage.
Tenahead scores highly on innovation and décor, and also on levels of comfort and cuisine, but stumbles a little on practicality. There may be moments in time when it offers the best platform possible to enjoy this unique landscape, but one cannot help feeling that these moments would be the exception rather than the rule.