The beauty of building a dream

For over 80 years we have called The Cavern home. To us, it’s the great outdoors. It’s the place of many happy returns. It’s our gathering spot, it’s a space for reconnection and its greatest appeal is its ability to restore. There is nothing quite like a mountain, its vastness and its beauty to heal a weary soul. What a gift to call this home.

It’s a story that began with two. Bill Carte and Ruth Blyth met at the Oaks in Byrne and in his letter of proposal Bill wrote; “Ruth, my darling, I plea as never before: Put your trust in me, marry me and be my mate in building up a home and a farm second-to-none in South Africa“.

And Ruth, being adventurous and determined, put her faith in Bill, married him and together they began building a life. Initially they ran The Cavern as a cattle ranch for Judge Thrash. But the Judge soon became aware that the veld was no good, the landscape too steep and the farm unviable but Ruth saw its potential as a Guest Farm. They borrowed money from an uncle and so began the dream.
Bill’s vision in 1941; “Our work is to create beauty, to make the land more fertile, to make our living, to leave the world better than when we came into it.

Bill was a large man with a large voice but he had a kindly, gentle disposition. His first project was the building of the main lounge. He manufactured his own explosives and blasted the rock in the sandstone cliff line. Rocks were chiselled and then transported to the main lawn by sleighs drawn by oxen. An incredible task and a great achievement – creating from the resources of the land.

During the 1940s The Cavern could accommodate 12 guests in rudimentary rondavels with outside ablutions. Bill was farmer first and an hotelier second. Cattle, sheep, pigs and ducks made up the chaos of farm-life and there were challenges; no refrigeration, no electric power, muddy roads and water heated in large oil drums suspended over open fires. But, despite the adversities Ruth & Bill continued to build.

By the 1950s four children had joined the Guest Farm. Guests returned year after year, drawn to the fresh mountain air, the many hiking trails and the Carte’s warm hospitality and they coined the phrase “the resort of many happy returns“. Bill was described by his daughter, Ros, as a loveable, big, gentle and kind. He played chess with guests and regularly took the family for afternoon tea in the Fern Forest. They’d boil the tea on an open fire and bury the tins of sugar and tea for the next family outing.

But great sadness struck when Bill was diagnosed with cancer. After 13 short years of marriage, Bill died in 1954 leaving his 4 young children, his darling Ruth and a fledgling business in the vast Drakensberg Mountains. Many thought it was time then for the family to move to Durban and for Ruth to become a matron but that just wasn’t our Ruth. She was determined to stay. She’d sunk her roots and she would continue the building of a farm second-to-none.

Ruth depended on friends and guests for building advice and is wasn’t long before she had to replace the main lounge’s thatch roof. The huge 7m poles were described as “fencing posts” instead of roof poles, knowing that there was a much higher tariff on building materials than farming materials. Crafty Ruth! The station master did call in and ask if she was farming giraffe!

As the farming operations diminished, Ruth rented the grazing ground to sheep farmers but when she noticed that the natural vegetation was being annihilated, she put a stop to it. It was a financial loss but an environmental gain. Ruth also began what is a Cavern legacy of eradicating alien plants. Each growing season, we return to the same places to continue her work of preserving and conserving. This was her and Bill’s vision of making the land more fertile.

By the 1960s the Cavern could accommodate 120 guests and Ruth carried the responsibility for all those people, all her staff, her vibrant children, the livestock, the firebreaks and more with incredible fortitude. When there was a shortage of lamb one night, it appeared on the menu as “Roast Knuckle of Ram”. Not many guests opted for it and so there was plenty for the family to enjoy!

As we reflect on the chaos of the world post-Covid and we see the challenges, we as a family are continually reminded of Ruth’s strength to persevere in times of extreme challenge. She sacrificed much to stay and continue building The Cavern. She never complained. She was quietly strong, very private and actually quite shy but her faith and friendships saw her continue creating beauty and making her living.
What Ruth started her sons, Peter and Anthony, continued into the 1970s and 80s. The Cavern grew into a thriving resort where holidays were about climbing every mountain, playing in the outdoors and ending the day with afternoon tea, evening drinks and family moments. It was magic growing up here.

The Cavern remains in its pristine valley, below the rugged sandstone cliff-line, surrounded by forests and berg streams. Today it is recognised as a Site of Conservation Significance. That is its real gift – the beauty of mending and restoring. This is more significant now as we live through unprecedented times of upheaval, uncertainty and much anxiety.

The Cavern family and its 100 staff members continue making their living. There is an investment in people who are continually trained and uplifted through opportunities in the business. The building of the Forest Retreat Spa has seen more than 20 ladies trained as therapists. Work opportunities during holidays assist youngsters through their university days. In-house training helps unlock dreams and individuals are able to realise their purpose.

Beyond the resort, with a broad base of support from families, corporates and friends, is the investment in the local ECD centres and the establishment of an independent foundation phase school. We are committed to leaving the world better. A legacy, started by our grandparents, fostered and encouraged by our parents, is possibly our family’s greatest contribution.

81 years on, here’s to creating beauty, to making the land fertile, to making our living and leaving the world a little bit better.

Megan Carte Bedingham

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