After lunch at The Cavern you shouldn’t be surprised to hear the bar lady humming a beautiful tune or strains of Maskandi wafting down the passage from the kitchen. 

Pot washer, Sakhile Nqubuka, sings bass in the Cavern Choir and loves to drown the noise of clattering pans with song.

The Cavern Choir started many years ago, when gratuities soared whenever staff sang happy birthday to guests.  When voices are this beautiful, it seems a pity to hide them in the kitchen.  Chef, Collen Zwane admits to breaking into song when he has a particularly boring repetitive task (all those onions to chop!) to finish.

While almost 30 staff members are part of the choir – whoever is on duty on a particular evening, participates. They perform for guests twice a week after dinner. During the afternoon break some play soccer or watch movies while others practice for the choir. “Singing is in our blood,” says Collen, “we are happy to do choir practice and play soccer on the other days.”

Mpume Mkhize is the leader of the choir. She has been at the Cavern for seven years. “We used to sing gospel but changed to traditional Zulu wedding songs because they are fun and guests do love them.  We have many guests who come over and over again, so when we hear they will be here, we practice some new songs for them.”  Mpume remembers two older ladies who wanted to sing in the choir, but were not that good at the dance moves.  “Thulani used to laugh and laugh so much, falling on his knees, that it became part of the performance, with the guests all laughing too!”  

The nature guides and the nannies, the receptionist and the housekeepers join in once the last table has been cleared and guests are comfortable on the couches.   All decked out in traditional gear, with voices raising the roof of the lounge, one is transported right into a cultural event in the neighbouring amaZizi tribal area where community is strong and traditions are upheld with pride.  “We put our spirit into the songs. We want the guests to feel it and experience the real thing,’’ enthuses Neh.  She and fellow waitress Khanyisile Hlatshwayo sing alto, waiter and tenor Nkosinathi Mlangeni loves the performing traditional songs – getting out his very best dance moves for every occasion.

Steward, Nompilo Mabaso sings at home all the time with her family. When she arrived at the Cavern, her sister was remembered for her lovely voice, so she was immediately commandeered to join the choir. She often sings the soprano solo.  “We are like a family here at The Cavern.  It is good to live here and work close to our homes.” 

The Cavern supports 16 schools in the amaZizi area where their staff have homes, providing a daily meal, improving facilities and the quality of education.   The Cavern family extends far beyond the choir – transforming lives in the surrounding community and creating unforgettable memories for guests who travel from afar and leave with Zulu melodies and mountain landscapes embedded in their hearts.

Megan Bedingham is the dynamo behind the hugely successful Cavern Resort.

Ruth and Bill Carte (Megan’s grandparents) came to live at The Cavern in 1941 and started the hotel a few years later. They also laid out many of the hiking trails which are still used today. “My gran was a remarkable lady – she loved the mountains and this valley and walked every afternoon until she died aged 79.  When her husband died in 1954, Ruth ran the hotel on her own. “She was determined to keep the family together and was pleased when my dad joined her – they worked together for nearly 20 years” says Megan.  

Megan’s gran is the foundation of many of Megan’s life passions. “Afternoon tea at my Gran’s was a ritual I loved as a child. She would have a nap, then we all joined her for tea at 4 o’clock and then she’d go off for a walk in the hills.”

Family and community are the cornerstones of life at the Cavern.  Megan stresses that reaching out and helping others are intrinsic values in this family – everyone plays them out in different ways.  Many of Megan’s siblings and cousins still live close by and are involved in their business and projects – the family impact on the area is huge. They gather for lunch most days at the Cavern or cycle down to the Tower of Pizza when they need a change of scenery!

Megan studied to be a teacher – and often wondered why she had done so when she really wanted to be in the hospitality business.  “Now I see, that it is all part of a process. If I hadn’t done teaching, I might not be able to do this.”  Believing that education is the best way to make a real contribution to community, Megan founded and runs the Royal Drakensberg School just along the road.  This delightful school, created from an abandoned sandstone barn, caters for children who live in the area, offering world class holistic education. They follow the national curriculum (CAPS) but teach in a fun, creative way with many activities out of doors under the mountains, instilling a love of nature and values of integrity and kindness.

Walks in the hills are an integral part of the school calendar. Even the little ones hike up to Lone Rock to see the Bushman Paintings. Learning about natural and cultural heritage is an important part of education. Everyone knows they are so fortunate to have such beautiful surroundings to teach and learn in.  Megan believes this little school is creating a new norm. “We constantly reassess and adapt, chucking out the things that don’t work. We started with small steps as we wanted to ensure we’d survive the journey and it has worked. We hope that as more people become aware of how education should be, of what is possible, they become less inclined to accept a poor education and may strive to attain a similar standard in their own situations.”

Megan’s family also assist creches and many schools in the nearby amaZizi community with buildings, water tanks, teacher training, feeding programmes and resources. “We meet all sorts of people at the Cavern, many of whom are inspired by what we are doing. This helps us a lot with our projects and enables us to do so many things.  People are astonishingly generous with donations, advice, skills and time.” Mr Mchunu, principal of Insunkangihlale Primary comments:  “My relationship with Megan began in 2001. Since then we have worked together a lot, she is easy to talk to and shares a lot of information. She is a kind lady and supportive of our learners and teachers.”

While Megan works very hard building a strong, inclusive community, she also puts a lot of effort into keeping her whole family safe and strong – something that would, without doubt, impress her Grandmother.  Gathering to explore the landscapes around them is part of this, building on childhood memories (“I remember my Uncle Roddy hiking the mountains flat,” laughs Megan) and adding new moments to treasure.   Cousin, Loretta Mecklenborg, who lives along the road is involved in many projects. She is a great admirer of Megan’s passion and determination “The world is suddenly a better place when I spend time with Megan.  She is immensely kind and loving, and no matter what the challenge, she has a calm way of considering issues and coming up with simple and wise solutions.  She has a clear sense of what is important and by holding firm to her principles she creates an atmosphere of acceptance and appreciation that enables all around her to thrive.”

There is little doubt that Megan will continue to relish every opportunity that comes along to make a difference in her community, to feel inspired waking up in the mountains every day and will be walking until a ripe old age herself. “It is very good for people to just walk, life is too rushed.” She concludes.

If you ever have the opportunity, walking in the hills and listening to the choir at the The Cavern is a marvellous way to spend a holiday.

This story was commissioned by N3TC for their Touching Lives programme.