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The Coach House Hotel and Spa at Agatha is a heritage hotel standing near the site of the original staging post built by Heinrich Schulte Altenroxel and Conrad Plange in 1892. The Zeederberg Coach Company used it for resting and changing their teams of mules and oxen before tackling the final step along the tortuous road leading to Thabina, Leydsdorp and the Lowveld. At the time, Pietersburg was the starting point of many coach routes: one going to Bulawayo via Rhodes Drift and the Tuli block; another via Haenertsburg and the Kloof to the early farming settlement of Krabbefontein (now Merensky School); or via Munnik to Westfalia and other early settler areas. One route led to Leydsdorp via Haenertsburg and Agatha. Parts of this old coach road are still in existence today, with many stretches of the present road on New Agatha following the old coach route.
The road via Agatha first led down through the treacherous SchelmBos near the present Ebenezer dam, then across the Letaba River and via Diggers Rest and Berg-en-Dal up the steep Agatha Hill. It then passed the hotel and down across the Letsitele River towards Thabina and Dickenson's Hotel. From Thabina it was a short stretch to Leydsdorp where another hotel awaited the traveller.
It is difficult to imagine the problems that faced those early travellers. In wet weather, the road was impassable for days. The discomfort must have been intense, with 12 seats inside the coach and space for luggage and another 12 seats on top. Pulled by 16 mules, the speed was about 20 km per hour. Horses were not an option because of the risk of tsetse fly bites leading to the inevitable demise of horses through the spread of sleeping sickness. The Zeederburg Coach Company actually at one stage tried using Zebras to combat the dreaded sleeping sickness, but they proved to have very little stamina and were essentially too wild to control.
Doel Zeederburg and his brothers were financed by Cecil John Rhodes and were the largest transport operators at the time. They ran coaches built by Abbot Downing Co., Concord, New Hampshire, USA – exactly the same as those used in the Wild West at that time. It was not inexpensive – a ticket from Pretoria to Salisbury was 22 pounds, or Pretoria to Johannesburg 12 shillings and six pence.
Stories of journeys by coach are legendary. The intrepid drivers and brave travellers were sometimes forced to deal with swollen rivers, fearful mountain passes, muddy tracks and attacks by lion as well as the risk of rouge highwaymen.
Dick Turpend was a rascal who lived in Duiwelskloof. His name was near enough to Turpin to decide his career. The story goes that one of the coachmen he tried to stop promptly whipped up his mules and vanished in a cloud of dust. Only when at a safe distance from the masked man, did he remember that he had two little old ladies as passengers. In trepidation, he stopped the coach, alighted and opened the door to find himself looking down the barrel of a pistol held by a small but steady hand!
The original Altenroxel Hotel was a rough and ready wayside inn comprising six rondavels, a dining room, stable and a store. The guests' bathroom was a hollowed out tree trunk filled with clean water. The kitchen was open to the elements and most of the meals came out of a black three-legged pot. Some years later the hotel was moved to a neighbouring farm called New Agatha which was renamed Cheviot in later years. Here Mrs Strachan ruled the roost and although the new hotel was an improvement on Altenroxel's, the comforts in those days were still harsh.
John Buchan (secretary to Lord Milner in 1902) was a frequent traveller and also once travelled the Pietersburg-Leydsdorp road via New Agatha to stop at the Strachan Hotel. It was in the area that he first gathered his inspiration and ideas for "Prester John". Buchan wrote of "The Leydsdorp Coach which once a week imperils the traveler's life…'85" and that "twenty miles further on, the same coach, if it has thus far escaped destruction, precipitously descends the mountainside onto the fever flats that line the Groot Letaba and Letsitele Rivers…'85".
In the late 1880's a township was laid out for the Leydsdorp population. It was called Agatha after the wife of the Mining Commissioner Joubert and was at the Thabina River crossing near Dickenson's hotel. Joubert instructed that a hospital be built to care for the many miners from Leydsdorp suffering from malaria and black-water fever. The area proved to be very unhealthy and in early 1890 the township was moved higher and renamed New Agatha. The hospital was transferred to the new location and later a post office with telegraph was added to the New Agatha facilities, as well as a police post.
Leydsdorp, alas, was not the success expected and in about 1895 many miners moved out leaving it to become a ghost town. Apart from the lack of gold there was a drastic shortage of water, making mining difficult. However, Leydsdorp persevered for many years thereafter as it had become something of an administrative centre with a hospital, police station and hotel. In time, as Leydsdorp lost its glitter, easier roads were built to the Low Country and the railway connected Tzaneen and Pietersburg in 1916 and the hotel went into decline. It closed down in 1928 and was used as a farmhouse. The Coach House Hotel and Spa was built in 1983 and was a winning formula for recreating the magic, adventure and romance of those early days.
Coach House Hotel and Spa was built on the foundations of the old Strachan Hotel and a few of the old walls and cast-iron windows are amazingly still in place today. The Coach House Hotel and Spa is stooped in history, a walk through the hotel reveals a treasure chest full of rear antiquities, amazing discoveries and reminders of a bygone era of colonial Africa along the lines of Karen Blixen's famed tale of life in colonial African - Out of Africa.