By Mark Preston-Whyte

Lions River is a sleepy hamlet on the R103 in Kwazulu-Natal. In its heyday, when rail transport was king, 100 trains a day passed through its railway marshalling yards. The station died with improved road transport, but Lions River today is undergoing rejuvenation.

The first sign of this is at the large stock yards of the Lions River Agricultural Society, seen as you travel down the R103 from Nottingham Road. You cross the Lions River, Treasures and Trash on your left, colourful Nguni hides hanging on railway property on your right.

On an old railway shed new signs read The Platform and Lions River Station. A few hundred metres further is Steampunk Coffee, in buildings housing the fuel station and supermarket that belong to the Thokans.

Enthusiastic entrepreneurs

These are the signs of some of the enthusiastic entrepreneurs and artists who march to their own drum and who are rejuvenating the area. A couple of kilometres further are the Mandela capture site and museum.

The Thokan family has been serving clients from their premises in Lions River for 65 years. Pictures by Mark Preston-Whyte

First, a mention of the Thokan family. Their forebears entered the area 130 years ago. Their first business was washed away by the Lions River, after which they bought a plot from Alan Paton’s grandfather and built a trading store. This wood and iron building still stands next to the R103, opposite The Platform. Although no longer a trading store, it remains in the Thokan family.

Hassan Thokan is clearly a successful business man. He explains that the current business premises were built 65 years ago. The shop has a welcoming feel and there is a huge variety of goods in stock.

The building housing Steampunk Coffee.

Meeting place

Michael Goddard, while visiting his parents in the Dargle, saw a possible business opportunity and asked Hassan if he could start a coffee shop alongside the supermarket. The rest is history and Steampunk Coffee is now a major attraction – a meeting place for locals and tourists alike.

At first, local farmers stopped for early-morning coffee, but soon bikers, cyclists and tourists made the business a must-stop. Michael and his assistants exude a warmth that makes the visit to the venue a pleasure.

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Michael is passionate about coffee and has his own roastery on site. He supports the economy by using locally-grown coffee beans. There is also tasty vegan food. He believes in sustainability and zero waste, and no plastic cups are used.

If you wish to take away, bring your own container.

The Platform is the brainchild of Glen du Preez. He started selling Nguni hides across the road, outside Treasures and Trash, a well-established business in the area. He was aided and encouraged by owner Malcolm Finch. The hides are sourced from Glen’s father’s farm in the Rietvlei area.

Nguni cattle are very popular in Kwazulu-Natal. Historically a source of wealth for the Zulus, they are very hardy and resistant to the many diseases that afflict other breeds. The hides are hand selected and professionally tanned.

Glen du Preez outside his artists’ haven, The Platform.

Glen, an entrepreneur to the core, saw a great opportunity and negotiated a long-term lease from the railways to develop a business in the old shed. His vision is that The Platform should be a site for artists in the broad sense to showcase their wares, with his philosophy being to support local small businesses.

He has been joined by Michael Mawdsley and Barry Downard.

Michael, a goldsmith by training, woke up one day and decided to change direction. He is a well-known self-taught sculptor who produces the most beautiful work. Michael says his work has been largely traditional, but he plans to go the contemporary route. He works in clay in a corner of The Platform and then casts in bronze at the Goodwin Foundry in Lidgetton.

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Barry Downard trained as an interior designer, but resigned from paid employment at the age of 28 to run his own photographic studio, which he did for many years. He gave up his studio 10 years ago when his work became centred on Photoshop and computer-generated imagery (CGI).

Ever innovative, Barry taught himself metal work and is now developing a metal art business. He does bespoke metal work on commission – decorative gates, doors and fountains, as well as functional art like fireplace sets with braided steel handles.

Barry, who believes that if you live in an area you should improve it, was chairman of The Dargle Conservancy, which was instrumental in preventing inappropriate development in this fragile biome.

Emmanuel Namwera – Nguni Guy.

Glen is the salesman at The Platform, ably assisted by Emmanuel Namwera, who looks after the Nguni Guy side of the business.

The Platform also sells leather shoes and bags, of excellent quality, that are made in Kwazulu-Natal and the Cape. The prices are competitive, but Glen plans to buy in bulk to enable him to drop prices even further. He also sells online and is hoping to break into the international market. Wooden furniture that’s made in Lions River is also being sold, as is jewellery and art by participating artists.

Treasures and Trash

Over the road, Treasures and Trash is owned by Malcolm Finch, an experienced auto mechanic with practical experience in other trades.

He has run his own small businesses for 35 years, but started this interesting shop six years ago and hasn’t looked back. The shop stocks high-end glassware, crockery, clocks and other household goods, often obtained from deceased estates. Malcolm also sells vintage vinyl records to a select clientele.

He has a workshop where he refurbishes lathes, workshop drills and agricultural equipment. One suspects this is his first love, so while Malcolm is repairing machinery, Lauren Jane Gardiner is often left to run the front office.

It is a work in progress and there is much still in the pipeline, but Lions River is on the up and with these enthusiastic hands, it is sure to roar ahead.