Africa, Birds & Birding

Old Lilani Spa

On our first visit, with Bruce & Heather, the remains of the old hotel were still there. You walked into the foyer under a roof, the reception counter awaited you; But you soon walked out into the sunshine, as it was just a remnant of roof and a built-in counter with nothing behind it, only three of the walls still standing. Less than this:

But that was OK as it was the hot baths we were after.

While sitting in the warm water of these old baths drinking beer, we heard a loud ‘Pretty GEOR-gie’, looked up into the tree overhead and saw this:

emerald cuckoo
– emerald cuckoo – Roger Hogg’s pic from Westville –

Then they had a big revamp and it was like this:

– we enjoyed some lovely times here –

Now it has fallen into disrepair again and in 2019 there’s this:

– hope this sign is at the top of the valley, not only when you get to the bottom! –

I looked up some of the history of the resort:

In a 1900 school geography and history book, Robert Russell, the Superintendent of Education in the Colony of Natal wrote, ‘The Ehlanzeni and Kranskop districts are noted for their wild country. Hot springs with a temperature of 101°F, more or less sulphurous, are found in the Ihlimbitwa.’ These were Lilani’s hot springs.

In 1905, Mr St Vincent Erskine, on behalf of the Grand Lilani Hot Sulphur Springs Syndicate Ltd, leased 10 acres of land around the hot springs from the Natal Government for a period of five years at £25 per annum. The “syndicate was granted a lease of two of the warm springs to develop them for the benefit of the sick as a ‘sanitarium’ – especially to overcome rheumatism and nervous disorders, though they soon claimed way more benefits than that, including curing constipation. One would hope that particular cure wasn’t instantaneous; like, in situ, ne?

An article in the local newspaper announced that as of the 1st August 1906 a charge of two shillings per day was to be made for the use of the hot springs to non-syndicate shareholders. During this time facilities were being built down at the hot springs. The initial part of the hotel was then built which included accommodation for the proprietors. The first access road was built to the top of the northern escarpment at the present day village of Eshane, and people descended on foot or were carried down by litter into the valley.

Later a rough road was built to the hot springs resort.

In 1908, a new lease for 25 years was drawn up, increasing the land from 10 acres to 32 acres, in favour of the Hot Springs Syndicate, owned by Messrs Menne, Matthews and Gibbs. This was then sublet to Mrs Matthews for 10 years from April 1910. Dr J Wright Matthews, M.D., was the resident physician and Mrs LV Matthews was the manager of the Sanatorium In 1914 the Hot Springs Syndicate went insolvent and the ownership of the lease passed to Mrs Matthews.

Advertising was not shy: “The panoramic view of the surrounding mountain scenery was said to be truly magnificent, and the climate, one of the most equable in South Africa.” “The wonderful powers of the hot mineral springs found here have long been known to the Dutch community in Natal, and an analysis proves that the waters in a great degree possess the same chemical constituents as those which make Harrogate and other spas of a similar character in Europe in so much request.”

Breathless reports in The Greytown Gazette, Friday, 26 July 1912, page 4, col. 5 : ‘A large party comprising several families, left Greytown at the beginning of the month for the ever-famous Lilani Sulphur Hot Springs, which are under the able management of Dr and Mrs Matthews, who at all times show unstinted hospitality to visitors. On arrival at the Springs the party camped out in 15 to 20 large tents erected around the place which presented a gay appearance. The baths are very healthy and bathing commences as early as 4.30 in the morning and is indulged in till ten and eleven o’clock in the evening. The patent oven, dug out in a large donga, in which bread is baked comes in for a great amount of attraction and the bread produced from this oven is both delicious and wholesome. In the evenings Dr Matthews entertains the visitors with magic lantern lectures, which are greatly appreciated.

The party are having a most enjoyable time at these Springs and are expected to return to Greytown early next week.’

Later a Mr and Mrs Hobbs ran the resort. During the Second World War they went to one of the large POW camps in Pietermaritzburg, where many Italian Prisoners were detained and chose three prisoners to work at the Lilani Hot Springs. The three men were Frank, Mario and Inchenso Caruso. The men worked there from March 1945 until 1948; building, terracing the gardens, and generally helped with the running of the Hydro resort for a shilling a day. In 1948 Frank Caruso applied to remain in South Africa and was accepted. Mr and Mrs Hobbs and Mr Sayer offered him a partnership in the resort which he accepted on the condition that he was given a trip home to Italy the following year, which condition was granted (Caruso, 1996). They now called the resort the Lilani Hydro Mineral Hot Sulphur Springs, Holiday and Health Resort. Trips off the tongue.

In 1966 the Apartheid government decided to make sure resorts were strictly Whites-only or Blacks-only, so they terminated the lease and paid the owners R44k for their improvements. In 1972, having done sweet buggerall with their investment, they tried to get Caruso to take back the lease, but he declined.

– the valley – check that glorious winding road – all downhill!

Correspondence and financial transactions before EFT and email:

Dr J Wright Matthews, the first proprietor of the Lilani Hot Springs Spa, applied for a prospecting license to search the valley for gold, asbestos, whatever. His application was granted and he paid the sum of £2.10 shillings as a deposit to the Natal Native Trust, Colony of Natal, on 28th July 1909.

In a letter, dated 21st December 1911, Dr Matthews applied for the return of his money as he had not used his prospecting license. In the reply to his request, dated 28th December 1912, his request was granted by the Acting Chief Native Commissioner in Natal, on the condition that Dr Matthews forwarded an affidavit to the effect that no surface damage was done under the prospecting permit. This affidavit was duly drawn up in Johannesburg, dated 5th January 1912. The Acting Secretary for Native Affairs in Pretoria was then instructed to forward a cheque to Dr Matthews by the Acting Chief Native Commissioner in Natal in his letter dated 9th January 1912. Nineteen days from application to ‘Refund granted – please pay the man!’ Not bad by any standards. Especially over Xmas / New Year time.

The hot springs

Six springs are known in the vicinity. Their temperatures range from 35°C to 40°C and their flow volume per hour from 770 to 3500 litres. The total flow of over 10 000 litres per hour would thus fill an average home swimming pool in about five hours.

The original founder of the Lilani Hot Springs as a spa

Mr Mbulungeni an early member of the community and who could have been an inkosi of the community, is spoken of in oral tradition as the ‘founder’ of the Lilani Hot Springs. Mr Mbulungeni is said to have sat on a large rock while waiting for the sun’s rays to shine into the valley, either before or after having a bath in the hot springs. He was buried beside the large rock and to some of the community it is known as a Remembrance Rock. It is situated above the road, at the last fork to the right before the turning circle at the old hotel site.

~~~oo0oo~~~

The history from a 2000 thesis by Ross Johnathan Hoole for his MSc in Geography at UKZN Pietermaritzburg – thank you!

1 thought on “Old Lilani Spa”

  1. I have The Grove caretaker wedding 16mm video taken at Lalani. He`s dead but would be 90ish now. There is now a bridge across the river and you can drive downstream. Have also been to the entrance to the Gold Mine. Quick way is to go via Nagel dam them Harburg entrance Lalani from the West.

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