Mount West rises in the Midlands

By Mark Preston-Whyte

Twenty years ago, when turning off the N3 at the Mount West/Nottingham Road interchange, rolling farmlands stretched away east. Nestled alongside the off-ramp was a redundant cheese factory, the Mount West Motel and a two-pump truckers’ service station.

Today, enthusiastic entrepreneurs have developed a major growth node and tourist destination, providing jobs in a rural area of high unemployment.

In 1999, Kevin and Fern McComb bought the farm, Providence, and converted it into a wedding venue, the third in the Midlands and the first in the immediate area. From these small beginnings has grown a successful family business. Their son, Rory, and daughter-in-law, Bonnie, are also part of the team, providing youthful energy. Kevin credits Fern for the venue’s success, saying she is a perfectionist who really cares.

Kevin and Fern McComb, with their son, Rory, and his wife, Bonnie.

Fern is a London-trained cordon bleu chef who passes on her cooking and baking skills to the 12 long-serving former farm workers who provide loyal, core assistance to the business.

At last count, there were 50 wedding venues in the Midlands, proof of the increasing popularity of these ventures.

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In 2002, Ian and Lynne MacKay bought the vandalised, disused cheese factory and, with two staff, started a butchery. A year later, they opened a cosy restaurant, calling the combined businesses Linga Lapa. Biltong has been made and sold on site since the very beginning. The best in the business, say loyal customers.

Ian remarks that as demand grew, the business simply evolved, employing more locals, who have learned on the job. Now, 17 years later, there is also a bakery making pies, bread and pre-cooked frozen meals.

Huge farm stall

Apart from the original shop, The Butcher, the Baker and Biltong Maker, Ian’s food concept is one of a huge farm stall providing customers with a fun experience. His suppliers are local housewives, many of whom have been selling their goods at Linga Lapa for years.

Matt Mackay, Ian and Lynne’s son, trained and experienced in the catering industry, took over the restaurant seven years ago and it has gone from strength to strength. Price, consistency and a friendly ambience are key and Matt also gives credit to his loyal staff, some of whom have worked there for 15 years. Since Matt took over, the staff complement has grown from four to 13.

Matt MacKay with staff at Linga Lapa.

Lunch is served every day, while dinner is served on Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday lunch is a la carte and a carvery. On the second Wednesday of every month is the very popular braai night.

Other small businesses located at Linga Lapa include Ray Hughes, who displays refurbished antique furniture; Glynnis Peattie, an estate agent who displays a well-stocked board of properties for sale, and Heavenly Hammocks.

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Butcher, Baker, Biltong Maker, Ian MacKay.

Six years ago, Lynne started an extraordinarily diverse craft shop at Linga Lapa. She supports local and other worthy community projects around the country. Clothes, beanies, scarves, baskets, jewellery, soaps, leather bags and carpet slippers form part of her stock. Raw sheep’s wool is spun by Eunice, an expert spinner who works Merino wool into scarves, beanies and gloves. Eunice did not want her surname published.

Nguni

Lynne also sells Nguni hides and footwear. Colourful old gas bottles have been converted into quirky piggy banks. Even grass brooms, leather gun cases, body creams and other general crafts are stocked. An interesting selection of potted plants is also available.

Local artists and photographers showcase their work here, too.

On the opposite side of the road, a successful local entrepreneur, who did not wish to be named, has done extensive development over the past 10 years. The old motel site is now the four-star Brahman Hills hotel and The Windmills, which comprises a 24-hour petrol station, Grab and Go food shop and a 400-seater “kitchen”, has been developed.

Brahman Hills general manager Sollie Bester and his assistant, Onwaba Maholwane.

Orrin Cottle, of The Windmills, explains that the venue employs 147 people in the three businesses. Three professional chefs supervise the food businesses.

Supplies for his beef curries and roast spring chicken are locally sourced. Both chickens and cows are free range, no hormones or chemicals are used, and a recent environmental decision replaces plastic bags and straws with paper ones. The Windmills Kitchen also has a craft beer outlet, with beer sourced from the nearby Happy Days Brewery.

Brahman Hills

Brahman Hills, which boasts two chapels and a wedding venue, is another success story.

Sollie Bester, general manager, explains that the aim is to make the Midlands the Franschhoek of Kwazulu-Natal. He wishes to build relationships with other businesses, the idea being that if one succeeds, all succeed. Hotel guests are encouraged to visit other restaurants, coffee houses and places of interest to widen their Midlands experience.

Facilities at the hotel include restaurants, a spa and conference centre.

Clearly, Mount West is in the hands of far-sighted people who are making significant investments to take the area to another level. Their efforts appear to be succeeding, with the area now one that offers interesting options for travellers and tourists.