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kwazulu-natal“There’s a reason we chose to pitch our tent in this neighbourhood” / Summerhill Stud (p)

“It’s a strange irony that the much-decorated battalions of the most trumpeted army in history, had to come to the ‘Darkest Continent’ to face their greatest defeats.”

Extract from the 2014/15 Summerhill Sires Brochure.
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mick gossMick Goss
Summerhill CEO
There’s a reason we chose to pitch our tent in this neighbourhood. Summerhill is more than good real estate. Rolling hills and deep complex soils over sandstone and basalt, hundreds of trees and emerald green pastures speak of a bountiful countryside, generous but not soft. With their stately Prime Ministerial residences, their rich racing heritage and the old chapel basking in the lee of Giant’s Castle, Summerhill and Hartford are national treasures.

These farms are deep in horse country, just outside Mooi River, a slow village with a sleepy railway station, left behind by the Anglo-Boer War. There are more churches per capita than anywhere else, and signs that the old families still have a bit of old money.

It wasn’t always thus. The anthropologists tell us that for tens of thousands of years, our district was the preserve of the ‘first people’, the Bushmen, who roamed these plains following their herds of Eland, Red Hartebeest and the Black Wildebeest. In their tens of thousands. Their peace was shattered by the arrival about 1500 years ago, of the Nguni tribes, headed up by the amaXhosa, the amaThembu, the amaMpondo, and what came to be known as the amaZulu. They came here not because they knew it was the land of milk and honey, but because they were fleeing the ravages of slavery. Long before the British and the Spanish began slaving on the West Coast, Arab and Phoenician traders were plundering our human resources in the East. These Ngunis gave us the Nobel Prize laureates Albert Luthuli , Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. One of my most cherished memories growing up was a photograph of a barefooted teenager strapping my grandfather’s horses for the Bizana Cup. Visitors to South Africa these days are greeted by the biggest airport on the continent, O.R. Tambo: just shows how far you can go with a grounding in the horse game.

The British established a trading post at Port Natal in 1824, and the Voortrekkers, or the “Boers” as they came to be known, trekked over the Drakensberg in the 1830s. When the latter arrived, they looked down upon the verdant valleys of the nation’s bread basket; here was the “promised land”, they said. It was understandable-they’d just left the Western Cape! In a matter of months, these three tribes, the Zulus, the British and the Boers were battling one another for the spoils of our region, more fiercely, more determinedly and more courageously than ever before in their histories. To put that into context, the British at the time held dominion over almost 40 percent of the earth’s surface; there was no territory they’d entered that they hadn’t conquered. In short, they had the keys to the greatest fighting machine the world had ever known. For their part, the Zulus were by now the undisputed continental champions, but taking on the British with a primitively equipped army, was like going to the World Cup with your hands tied behind your back. The Boers by contrast, were a somewhat disparate crew wracked by factionalism, but the things they had in buckets, were a defiant spirit, and superb skills of musketry and horsemanship.

In the end, it was a bit about politics, and all about land. The economies of the era were not propelled by finance or technology, mining or industry; the one indispensable commodity everyone yearned for was land. Good ground, good water and a good climate are the “not negotiables” of good stock country, and here was some of the best on the planet.

Summer in some parts of the horse-raising world, for example, means dust and a blazing sun that gives off a white glare. Summer at Summerhill is sublimely warm, there is always moisture in the soil, the grass holds a generous tinge of green and the clover stands to attention. Here there’s no need for farmers to struggle with stringy merino wethers; you can run five big Friesian cows to the hectare without difficulty. Things grow. As we’ve said before, this is the Tipperary of the South. Kind country, paddocks bordered with clipped hedges of Drakensberg privet or sweet-smelling may, poplars, planes and liquid ambers along the farm lanes, old oaks encrusted with lichen around the farmhouses. For a full century, since a Zulu king rejoicing in the name Shaka had laid waste to it, this homeland idyll was ravaged by the savagery of war, driven by a lust for the finest pastoral acreage in creation.

By no means was it the one-way traffic you might’ve predicted though. It’s a strange irony that the much-decorated battalions of the most trumpeted army in history, had to come to the “Darkest Continent” to face their greatest defeats. Lest we forget, Michael Caine , Stanley Baker and our good pal David Rattray, surely the greatest storyteller of all time, so romanticised the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, that we overlook the crushing Zulu victories over the British at Eshowe, Nkambula and Hlobane. Yes, Isandlwana was an epic; yes, Cetewayo’s warriors preceded the opening salvos with the greatest piece of military choreography ever witnessed; and yes, in a matter of hours, Victoria’s heroes were in shambolic flight down the Fugitives’ Trail. But it pays to recall that it was the Zulus that destroyed the last remnants of the Napoleonic hegemony, that it was the Zulus that prompted the British Prime Minister, Disraeli, to enquire of the Commons “Who are these people, who convert our bishops, defeat our generals, and this day have put an end to the greatest European dynasty in history?”. It pays too, to remember that there is only one nation whose name is known to every airline pilot on the planet: Z” for Zulu. And it’s because of what happened within in two hours of the Summerhill Stallion barn in those fractious days.

As for the Boers, they joined the fray in December 1838, with a bloody demolition of Dingaan’s impis at Blood River. The outcome was as much a reflection on the difference between those that excel at bisley and those that throw the javelin, as it was a signal that a small contingent of Boer men, women and children, armed only with muzzle-loading rifles, were here to play. Fifty years on, the British suffered the same lesson at Majuba, where General George Pomeroy Colley paid the ultimate price in the battle that ended the first Anglo-Boer war. Despite their subsequent successes at Talana and Colenso in the next episode, and whatever the Afrikaner historians might say about Magersfontein and Modderdrif, the one that sits most fondly in their bosoms, is Majuba. I was reminded of this when playing against the Junior Bulls at Loftus Versveld one day for Western Province; in those days, the Loftus pitch in winter resembled a road more than a lucerne patch. They had a monstrous winger in their side on the cusp of national selection, and while tackling wasn’t my biggest suit, I got him that day. We both fell hard to the concrete, and while I was prone in my agony, he could hardly lie there in the glare of the Loftus faithful. “Englishman,” he warned from above, “remember Majuba”. It was a hundred years later.

But the mother and the father of them all, whatever anyone may say, was Spioenkop, a mere 45 minutes from the nerve centre at Summerhill. It’s a poignant fact that on that hill that day, where the bodies on both sides lay three deep in the trenches, and drawn together by dint of the peculiar circumstances of our neighbourhood at the time, was an assembly of men whose influence on the affairs of mankind in the next century, would be immeasurable. Denys Reitz, future deputy prime minister and a field marshall in the British Army in the First World War, was there; Louis Botha, who had succeeded to the Boer leadership on this farm, the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa and a major role player at Versailles in the wake of the Great War, he was there; our man, the man the world invited to script the charters for the League of Nations and the United Nations after the respective World Wars, the man George V had hoped might one day be Prime Minister of Britain, Jan Smuts was there; Winston Churchill, the most famous Englishman of that century, captured right here by those self-same Boers who would repeat the act sixty years later with Nelson Mandela just 20 minutes from our front verandah, he was there. And as difficult as it may be to believe, the man that liberated India in 1947, Mahatma Ghandi was there.

For the British, the South African campaign had been their toughest passage in three centuries of glorious military history. It’s arguable that, despite something of a comeback with the help of the Allies in the fields of Flanders and the battle for their own island in the first few decades of the next century, what happened in our district in the nineteenth might well have signalled the beginning of the end for the Empire. It wasn’t all doom and gloom however; at Rorke’s Drift on the 23rd January, 1879, Her Majesty’s subjects celebrated their finest hour. One hundred and thirty four men, invalids, hospital orderlies, clerks, storemen and engineers took on a division of a Zulu army on a roll. This was the final endorsement of what had made that little island the masters of the known world, a victory acknowledged not only by the award of an unprecedented eleven Victoria Crosses, but by a Zulu regiment which paused before them as they collected their dead from the battlefield, and saluted those  battered bodies in their scarlet tunics.

It’s as well that they do, because they fill our Hartford House with their visits, but it’s a strange quirk of the British psyche that they return, year-after-year, to these scenes of their greatest defeats. While I have a smattering of “British” in my own veins, I’ve never quite twigged what makes it so, though it’s true that they return to our fortresses at Newlands, Ellis Park and King’s Park too, year after year, hiding after hiding, and depart with those “never-say-die” smiles that promise they’ll be back again.

To grasp what this was all about, you need only ride out across the glories of the Hartford gallops, where the whole horseracing story had begun with an Italian prisoner-of-war in the 1940s. Mowgli , Cape Heath, Sentinel, Magic Mirror, Panjandrum, Alyssum, Master Polly, Magic Charm, Preston Pan, the legends that inspired the writings and artworks of Milner, Campbell, Langley and Vos, they’d all stepped out upon this hallowed patch of private turf. In a more recent era, the saga lives. Igugu, Imbongi, Spook And Diesel, Nhlavini, Rebel King, Imperial Despatch, National Emblem, Pierre Jourdan, Hear The Drums, Angus, Pick Six and Bold Ellinore, they all know what this scrap was about.

summerhill stud, south africa

Enquiries :
Linda Norval 27 (0) 33 263 1081
or email



Mooi River FarmA chilly Mooi River morning
(Photo : Hartford House)

“It’s these little increments which make the
5% and 10% differences that deliver the championships.”

mick gossMick Goss
Summerhill CEO
It’s at times like these that we appreciate the benefits of selection. You’ve read many times in these columns that the thoroughbred is a jigsaw of 300 years of meticulous welding of the best attributes of the breed on the part of the world’s best breeders. That chiselled head, those flared nostrils, the craned neck and the body sprung for action, the jaunty, arrogant swagger that belongs only to a racehorse, is what’s come of this work: to see a string of racehorses on their way to the track in the mornings here, is to look upon a gallery of the Old Masters.

That said, the “selection” of which I speak, is not that involved in the evolution of the racehorse, but rather the assembly of the team with whom I go to work every day. The people who get us up in the mornings at Summerhill have been some 35 years in the making, and we now have one of the smartest crews in the business.

Even at -5°C, as it’s been for the past few mornings in Mooi River, it’s a pleasure to join these fellows in the paddocks for the annual matings review, revisiting every detail of last year’s and the year before’s plans. Once we’ve run our hands and eyes over the yearlings and weanlings, we’ll be scrutinizing their mothers for clues as to which stallions they’d be best suited to. We’re not quite done with the weanlings yet, but what I can tell you, is they rank up there with the best I’ve seen at Summerhill. Yes, I’m an optimist, but a rational one at that (I’d like to think!), and what’s especially encouraging is the first crops of the young sires; Brave Tin Soldier and Visionaire, who’ve yet to debut at the races. Expect big wraps on these. For those who are interested, I think we’ve made a few innovative “tweaks” on the husbandry side, which has tilted the playing fields again; it’s these little increments which make the 5% and 10% differences that deliver the championships.

Those who read our previous column (Mating Musings) will recall our anecdotal reference to George Bernard Shaw, who to this day is said to be rivalled only by Winston Churchill in the sharpness of his wit. One regular wag posted this story on “GBS” “on our site”: Isadora Duncan, the famous (or notorious) dancer, is alleged once to have written to GBS, suggesting that they co-operate in producing a child. As an inducement she offered: “Just imagine, Mr. Shaw, the baby might be endowed with my body and your brains.” In regretfully declining Miss Duncan’s kind offer, GBS gave his reason: “Yes, Miss Duncan, but just imagine if the poor child were endowed with my body and your brains”. Couldn’t be more appropriate.

That’s our dilemma in the paddocks right now. And that’s why we leave the final decision to our customers.

summerhill stud, south africa

Enquiries :
Linda Norval 27 (0) 33 263 1081
or email



Winston Churchill escapes from Boers
Winston Churchill looks pleased with himself - dressed in civvies astride a horse. And, he probably has every right to be, after making a daring escape from Pretoria to Lourenco Marques, now Maputo, at the height of the Boer War.
(Photo : Sunday Times)

“A unique photograph of Churchill after
he had escaped from Boer captivity,
surfaced in the Sunday Times”

Farm tours at Summerhill and Hartford House are popular items. Students of history, fans of racing and those who are mesmerized by the Midlands and the mystique of our sport, travel from as far afield as Johannesburg for the day, take in the tour and a bit of lunch at the nation’s Number One restaurant, before they are back on the N3 northbound.

Others prefer to do it the leisurely way, and they check in for a couple of nights at Hartford. While we’d recommend the latter for its relaxation, we’d not want to deny you the pleasure, either way.

If you’ve done the tour, you’d know that in the summer of 1899, a young Winston Churchill was a visitor to the Moors of Hartford. We all know too, of his capture up the road from us, and his presence at the mother of all battles, Spioenkop. Remarkably, on Spioenkop that day (just 45 minutes from us,) and drawn together by dint of the peculiar attractions of our region, were five of the most influential people of the 20th century. Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of South Africa, (who together with Hartford’s Sir Frederick Moor and his brother, John (the former a colonial Prime Minister, and the latter a senator in the first South African government, attended a class of just 10 students at Hermansburg Junior School;) Deneys Reitz, former Deputy Prime Minister of South Africa and later a Field Marshall in the British army, he was there; our man, Jan Smuts, the man the world chose to write the charters for the League of Nations and the United Nations after the respective World Wars, and the man Churchill appointed as his successor in the war cabinet should anything have become of him, he was there. In the pantheon of great South Africans, you’d have Smuts up there with Nelson Mandela, who ironically was captured just to the south of us seventy two years later; Winston Churchill himself, later to become Prime Minster of England and arguably the greatest Englishman of all-time, he was on Spioenkop that day; and amazingly, the man who liberated India in 1947, Mahatma Ghandi, was there as a stretcher bearer.

Just recently, a unique photograph of Churchill after he had escaped from Boer captivity, surfaced in the Sunday Times. It’s apparently coming up for auction in England shortly, and there’s been a bit of a story about it. It turns out the picture was taken in our immediate vicinity, after Churchill’s escape from Boer custody.

From 1896 to 1897 Churchill served as a soldier and journalist in India. In September 1898 he fought at the battle of Omdurman in Sudan, taking part in what is often described as one of the last true cavalry charges. In 1899, he resigned his commission, and was assigned to cover the Boer War for the London Morning Post.

In October that year he accompanied a scouting expedition in an armoured train near Ladysmith, in what was then Natal, but was captured by the Boers. Although he was a war correspondent, he was armed with a pistol when captured, so was treated as a prisoner of war and held in what had been the Staats Model Skool in central Pretoria.

Churchill managed to escape, and the Boers put a £25 price on his head. Travelling by foot and train - where he hid under coal sacks - he eventually reached safety, 480km away, in Portuguese-controlled Lourenço Marques. The escape made him a celebrity back in Britain and he was elected to parliament in 1900.


Have you ever been to Summerhill?

Our Zulu Dance Troupe performing on Stallion Day
(Summerhill Stud)

There are those who’ll tell you it’s one of the rare places on earth.

That it has a soul so deep and so spectacularly surprising. That its originality and its history are defining dimensions.

That for all its “busyness”, it also has its sanctuaries, hideouts and nesting places for our wild friends and their natural habitats. Places we look after by leaving them strictly alone.

And then there are things we never let go, like .

For those of our pals with the frenetic timetables, of the civilized, increasingly crowded and belligerent world, who “visit” us for their daily rush of racing’s news, views and the business of breeding, we’ve installed the most advanced therapy in the technological world.

Many will tell you that if you’ve never been to Summerhill, you’ve hardly been anywhere. Imagine the stories you could tell if you had. And while you can never beat the real thing in the real world, the virtual one will do for now.

It’s a little known fact that following the alarming events which ensued in South Africa in the latter part of 1989, with the collapse of the Rand on the default of the nation’s international debt repayments, that the enterprise of this business initiated a delegation to England to attract people into racing and breeding in South Africa.

Such a success was the visit that among those who were lured to the southernmost tip of what our civilized neighbours to the north call the “darkest continent”, were the Maktoum family, whose association with this farm celebrates 20 years next March.

Besides the horses belonging to Dubai Rulers, Summerhill has become home to more than 300 thoroughbreds belonging to friends and investors spanning seven time zones, including Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Dubai (of course), Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Monaco, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

It’s remarkable what you can achieve when you’re desperate, and today it’s a source of pride at the farm to know that this is the largest concentration of foreign owned thoroughbreds on any one property, anywhere in the world.

You’d sometimes have to ask yourself (if not pinch yourself) what it is that attracts these people into keeping their horses here so far from their homes, and it’s probably an answer that lies in the long history of the province of KwaZulu Natal. Let’s not forget that the Zulus who populated this area almost 1300 years ago, fought tooth and nail, in the first instance to amalgamate their own nation, and thereafter to preserve the territory they owned, against all odds. In the early 1800’s with the influx of European migrants principally from Britain and Holland (in the form of the Boers,) dominion over what was seen as some of the finest and most productive farm land in the world suddenly become an issue, to the extent that three nations (the British, the Boers and the Zulus) witnessed the greatest moments in their respective military histories within two hours of Summerhill.

The great battles of Isandlwana and Hlobane, Rorke’s Drift, Colenso, Majuba and Spioenkop sit deep in the breasts of these people, while its an intriguing fact of history that the greatest Englishman of all-time, Winston Churchill and the greatest African of all time, Nelson Mandela, were both captured within half an hour of Summerhill in 1899 and 1961 respectively. Don’t forget though, the liberator of India, Mohandas Ghandi, spent 22 years in this province, and that he turned up the battle of Spioenkop as a stretcher bearer in a scrap he had nothing to do with.

What was it then, in the subconscious of these people that attracted them here, and continues to tug at the heartstrings of the many who are part of the Summerhill story these days? We guess it must have something to do with the splendour of our environment, one of the best climates in the world, and of course, the people who live and work here. The Zulus are some of the most enchanting, respectful and hard-working people in the world, and it’s a tribute to their creativity and their appreciation of the performing arts that our little dance troupe, which has already ranked second and third respectively in the World Traditional Championships in Tokyo and Hong Kong that they’re off to the United States towards the end of the year as cultural ambassadors for South Africa. This time, though, we think they could come home the World Champions.

Until we meet again.



HARTFORD HOUSE in Rare Company


2007 was a kind year for Hartford House. There were many accolades, not the least of which was the inclusion of its restaurant among the top ten in the nation. In November, the Hartford team were notified that they had made the six finalists in the travel category of the prestigious Top Billing Momentum Lifestyle Awards. On the face of it, this was some kind of achievement, making it to the last six of the best boutique Hotels in the country, but it was only when the iconic names of places like Ellerman House and The Saxon were announced as finalists as well, that we realised that Hartford had entered a rarefied atmosphere.

Apparently, Hartford now needs to await the final word from the judges, the outcome of which is to be aired on Top Billing’s celebrated SABC3 programme on 17th January. The judges include Thoko Modise, General Manager of SABC3, Patience Stevens, founder of the Top Billing programme, Tracey Egnos, head of Corporate Communications, Momentum, and two specialist judges in the form of John Rothman and Heinrich Spies, both of whom have served lengthy spells in hospitality and the grading of Hotels.

The categories include décor, landscaping, entrepreneurship, local travel destinations and art. To satisfy the curiosity of our readers in the meantime, we have profiled Top Billing’s formal motivating statement on Hartford House below.

Cheryl Goss “invented” Hartford House eleven years ago. She turned a colonial mansion, which once served as home to the family of the last prime minister of the Colony of Natal, into one of the nation’s great secrets. Apart from its branded distinction –“the only world class hotel on a world class stud farm in the world,” it occupies a unique part in the geography of the land. The Drakensberg serves as a garden backdrop. It is situated on South Africa’s champion racehorse-breeding establishment; it is a half hour from the capture sites of two of the most significant statesmen of all time, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill. What were these people doing in this vicinity for that matter? What were the British, the Zulus and the Boers fighting about in this part of the world a century ago? What attracted the Zulus here; what enticed the current rulers of Dubai to house their priceless stallions on this property, when they have the world to choose from ? And what prompted Queen Elizabeth, of all the rural properties in the country, to request a visit on her royal tour in 1995?

It’s this intrigue that makes Hartford an essential part of any foreigners visit to South Africa.

Whenever the sun rises, the Hartford team thank the good Lord for having them live where they do, among some of the most decent, most respectful and most hospitable human beings on earth. We speak of the Zulus, of course who, despite their historic connection with the military devastation of a century ago, possess an instinctive talent for making people feel at home like few others.

Of course they needed training and more training, as well as an understanding of foreigners, yet Hartford has seen people recruited from the casual ranks of it’s stable cleaners and trained to the point of representing their nation at international culinary exhibitions in Zurich and Prague. The Zulu dancing troupe was selected for South Africa at the World Traditional Dance Championships in Tokyo and Hong Kong. The troupe came third. In the world.

And the service and hospitality ethic at Hartford is in parallel. At least that’s what their guests tell us.

Cheryl Goss is a legend. Hartford didn’t say that, their visitors did, and plenty of them. She has that rare capacity to surprise, some say to ‘change lives’, and in blending the eclectic origins of Africa, Europe and colonial India, she has achieved an ecstatic combination of class, culture and colour.

Besides, in Hartford’s new lakeside eco development, Ezulwini, she has erected from materials drawn largely from the estate and the immediate environment, a compendium of suites that have wowed both the architectural and decorator communities.

At the culinary level, faith invested five years ago in a young 20 year old, has been dramatically rewarded. Jackie Cameron and her team have enjoyed the acclaim of just about every worthwhile food critic in the land. And recently, apart from the restaurant making the Top 10, it has been voted No 1 on the East Coast. Jackie has also just been counted with Margot Janse and Freda Applebaum, in the top three female chefs country wide by no less a man than Victor Strugo.

Toss in a Diners Club Platinum Wine list for several consecutive years, and you have the lot.

There’s arguably no other property quite like it. Gary Player, not long ago described it as the most beautiful of its kind in the world, and he’s seen a few. Yet Hartford is not only about its beauty. It’s about people, their decency, their sincerity and their “Africanness.” It’s also about the spectacular environment and all it embraces - its climate, its history and its diversity. Ten years ago, with their late mate David Rattray, Hartford pioneered the foundation of the Land of Legends, a cultural and culinary combination of the best properties in KZN. Today its members comprise Hartford House, the Rattray’s Fugitives’’ Drift, Phinda Game Reserve, Cleopatra, Rocktail Bay, Izulu and Three Tree Hill. Seven worlds in one. And as rare and spectacular an experience as you’ll find anywhere.”

(Excerpt from Top Billing’s motivating statement on Hartford House)

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