Joburg Expat: Living Like a Diamond Magnate

January 2, 2012

Living Like a Diamond Magnate


I recently mentioned a vacation to you on which we had accidentally started a wildfire. I never wrote about it back then, as that fire had marred our otherwise wonderful memories of an amazing weekend. Only now did I go back through my pictures and realized they had a story to tell. Many thanks to Jacky du Plessis for supplying the other half of the photos for this post.

As I said, the whole weekend was put together last year in amazing detail by our friends Jacky and Mike, who in turn are friends with the owners of Prynnsberg, an old diamond magnate's mansion in the Free State. Prynnsberg has a very interesting history. You can read more about it here, but in a nutshell the story goes thus: Charles Newberry, who had come to South Africa to seek his fortune, did indeed find his fortune in the Kimberly diamond mines and then used his wealth to build a mansion in the Eastern Free State near Clocolan. The house was a gem, equipped with the most extravagant furnishings imported from London, and the Newberry family lived there in luxury for many years, but upon Charles Newberry's death things started to go downhill, with one of his descendants eventually squandering it all before or rather while drinking himself to death, letting the estate crumble. All the magnificent artifacts in it were auctioned off, but the shell of the house remained, in various states of disrepair, at which time it was bought by the aforementioned friend. He and his wife are now in the process of restoring it to all its former glory and are supplementing the much needed capital for such a vast undertaking by renting out the estate, staff and all, to groups and conferences.

View of Prynnsberg's beautiful gardens at dusk

Since all of Prynnsberg's original furnishings were auctioned off, the current owners have
had to redecorate the whole place, but you wouldn't know it, as everything is tastefully
kept in a style befitting the period and ambiance of the house.

This is how we found ourselves as guests at a diamond magnate's estate, so to speak, sometime last year, together with a group of about thirty friends. It was absolutely magnificent. The house has about twenty rooms, spread out over three different levels, and just being escorted to your room felt like you were Ernest Hemingway travelling through Africa. In fact, Rudyard Kipling is said to have once stayed at Prynnsberg and  to have left as his legacy a mural in one of the children's nurseries. Our room was vast, with a creaking parquet floor and a stucco ceiling with elaborate patterns (and a few holes, it must be said - as I mentioned, it is still very much in the process of being restored). There was a billiards and games room that was huge, there was a lovely front "stoep" from where you had a great view over the lovely gardens, there was a pool built into the rock face, and there was a whole separate bath house, a cavern of sorts hewn from the rock, with old fashioned bath tubs arranged on the floor and a host of flickering candles set into wall recesses.

Billiards room
Front view of Prynnsberg Estate; you can see how it is built into the rock face
Bath house. Photo credit: SafariNow.com. I must say, I didn't notice the
piano while taking my bath!

Every day was carefully planned out so that there was never a time to be bored. The pool, with its rather high rock wall above it, provided endless hours of entertainment, there was a ping pong table somewhere, the front lawn was converted to a soccer field, if a rather narrow one, there was skeet shooting and motorcycling, the kids got to watch an open air movie projected onto a large rock, and every meal was set in a different setting, one of them most memorable in the old African church which is also part of the estate. The food was an absolute dream as well as abundant. I'm still salivating over the quiche and scones we had for breakfast one morning.


Our daily soccer match

Kitchen staff working their magic.

Yup, that's me, taking the plunge. The only time I'm not afraid of heights is when jumping
into a pool; though in those cases I'm usually afraid of the cold water! Photo credit: Noisette

My first thought was to delete this picture; but then I reconsidered, as it perfectly
captures the spirit

The best part of our stay was the good company. Seldom have we laughed as hard and as long before or since then. Our friend Mike was giving out awards one night for various accomplishments throughout the weekend. One of us - whose name I won't mention, not even the blog name - was growing more and more hopeful throughout the "ceremony," having had a very good outing at the shooting range that afternoon, besting everyone else with the shotgun. But the shotgun award, alas, went to somebody else, while our protagonist ended up with "Doos of the Day." No one ever explained Doos to us, but I have since learned it is a very bad Afrikaans cuss word. The reason? The house also came with an old-fashioned toilet, you see. One where you had to yank the chain in just such a way that water came gushing from above. It was a very tricky proposition - yank too slowly and nothing happens, and yank too hard and the chain comes off. All of us seemed to sooner or later master the trick, but our Doos found himself in the bathroom at 5:00 in the morning, really needing to flush, and proceeded to wake up the entire house, growing more and more desperate when repeated chain-pulling yielded no results...

Enroute on a hay wagon to our our "Mad Hatter's Dinner"

Everyone was grooving that night, including the staff

Boys hard at work

Which leaves me with the story of the fire. Our last evening was to culminate in an open-fire braai, under a huge rock overhang a little ways from the house. It was a beautiful setting, and everything was planned in minute detail: Our drinks, ice, a buffet, pillows, and sleeping bags for those kids brave enough to spend the night under an open sky. It was the most romantic setting imaginable. There even was a fire truck parked nearby, to cover our bases in case the fire got out of hand, as it was the end of winter and hadn't rained in five months.


A most romantic setting

A perfectly controlled fire

A fire truck, just in case

It was foolproof, right? Except for a small problem - the fire started on top of the rock ledge, not anywhere near where the truck could be driven in time to put it out. Unbeknownst to us, the kids had brought along a flare gun, and that flare, shot straight up, drifted beautifully and very gently, with us watching with horror, into the grass high above us. This is the first time in my life I have understood the term "spreading like wildfire." It was a spectacle to behold. By the time the men drove the truck all the way around and to the top, it was beyond our control. The women and kids stayed behind, dousing blankets with water and throwing them onto spots where burning patches crashed down from above. When there was no more, we went home, but the men, soon joined by the entire staff as well as surrounding farmers, battled all night, returning in the wee hours of the morning, utterly exhausted.


No one considered the danger of fire up on that ledge.

We had hiked on top of that ledge earlier that day, and knew how hard it was to navigate. Next to impossible in the pitch dark, though of course everything was lit up by the expanding glow of the flames. And yet the guys had managed, or so it seemed. The next morning, we all went again to inspect the aftermath, when we realized to our horror that the wind had picked up again and new flames were shooting up. So to work we went again, everybody doing their part, carrying water, beating on flames, clearing debris, poking through ashes to make sure the last embers were dead before moving on to the next patch, always spurred on by our guilt to have brought this fiasco onto our hosts, and perhaps even other surrounding land. It truly was an unforgettable experience.

In the end, we got lucky, something every firefighter will tell you is a big factor in their line of work. The wind, which all night had been so unpredictable, ended up helping us by turning the fire back onto itself to where it had already raged, keeping it contained and easier for us to finish off. We got home late that night, utterly exhausted, and one or two with some ugly burn marks. It was a truly humbling day, one that taught us that fire and nature demand a lot of respect.

We might not be invited to Prynnsberg again, but I thought the least I could do is promote it on these pages.  For more information and to make bookings, please click here. You will have an unforgettable experience, getting a whiff of what it  must have felt like to live in Africa in the olden days.

Just leave your matches at home.

Time for peaceful reflection: Me drawing a sketch of the front porch
This is the sketch. If it weren't for the girls' DS's, the scene could be from the 1880s...

4 comments :

2summers.net said...

Wow, that's quite a story. The photo of you jumping into the pool is amazing!

Sine said...

Thanks Heather! The whole thing was quite an experience. I can't believe I didn't write about it until now, more than a year later, but the fire had us all in shock, to be honest... By the way, Noisette took that picture, will have to give him credit. That shadow looks like I'm Bat Lady with a huge long tail!

Maryanne said...

Unbelievable story and fantastic photos. Know you guys will remember that forever. Look forward to hearing more details next time we get to visit!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I would love to see it once it is all finished. Who knows, maybe by now it is all done. I would have loved to do the shooting. I didn't know private ownership of guns is legal in SA.