It takes all sorts to make a world and sooner or later, a large proportion of them will probably have found their way to the Zoete Inval (‘Sweet drop-in’) Travellers’ Lodge on the Main Road of Hermanus. Recalling the old coaching inns of previous centuries, it is warm and welcoming, with a bed for everyone. And what a land of mystery and discovery it holds for children!
There are staircases and secret passageways everywhere in this three-storey building and its separate loft. Not just one single staircase that leads from one floor to the next in an unbroken trajectory; no, there is a kind of joyful excess of staircases inside and out, some twisting and steep, some lazily sauntering between floors. Then there are long passages and short, with rooms of every configuration leading from them, some with two beds or three, some with multiple beds and bunks. All the staircases and passages eventually lead to the cosy library though, stuffed with a treasure trove of books and memorabilia, like an old wooden aircraft propeller and a typewriter of roughly the same vintage.
And all that’s just inside the buildings. In the garden, there’s a mini-forest to explore, a strelitzia bush of giant proportions and a beautiful forest waterfall built single-handedly by mine host, Jan van der Velden. Strung beside it is a double hammock, just waiting for someone with a book to climb up and sway to the sound of the cascading water. And who would have guessed one could make the most comfortable outdoor chairs out of recycled car tyres, with riempie seats of washing-line cord? Of course, along the way, the intrepid traveller is bound to come across Dotty, the guard cat who keeps a watchful, proprietorial eye on all the comings and goings. Unlike most of the other guests, she ‘dropped in’ one day, and recognising a good thing when she saw it, refused to leave.
But any house is just a husk without the people at its heart, the people who created and continue to maintain it – Jan and Marilyn van der Velden. Jan was born in Holland, where his father was in the Dutch underground during WWII. After the war, with very few jobs available in a bomb-blasted Europe, the family immigrated to South Africa with just one suitcase. Jan was only three years old when they settled on a smallholding near Brackenfell.
Always an avid reader and passionate about conserving the natural environment, he went on to complete a BSc and then a medical degree. But his interests went beyond this: a former rock climber, a pilot and traveller, he was also a keen amateur photographer and has had a life-long love affair with baboons and whales. His knowledge of this part of the world goes back many years to his childhood when the family had a small holiday home in Onrus, then a tiny village by the sea with one tarred road, where everybody knew everybody else.
After completing his medical studies, a locum brought him back to Hermanus and while working here, he obtained his pilot’s licence at the old airfield. His love of flying and his medical degree took him far and wide, including North America – which he flew coast to coast four times. It also saw him carrying out a locum in a small town in Saskatchewan, Canada, home to a young kindergarten teacher called Marilyn. They became friends and after he left, remained in touch. It took several more years of travelling on both sides, including three years in Japan for Marilyn, but at long last, as in all true fairy stories, they found their way back to each other, married and are living happily ever after in Hermanus.
When the Hermanus Provincial Hospital opened in 1975, Jan was one of only five doctors employed there. He loved being able to do everything, from trauma work to surgery and obstetrics. In those days specialists were few and far between and he regrets the fact that now there is more emphasis on treating the disease than the person. After a break of several years working in other parts of South Africa, when he and Marilyn finally returned to Hermanus, they bought a single-storey house on the Main Road of pre-WWI vintage.
Since the plans included a second storey which had never been built, and as the thatched roof would have to be replaced anyway, they decided to resurrect the original plan. But why stop there, they thought, let’s add an attic as well. “So there we were with this huge house,” laughs Marilyn, “and just the two of us rattling around in it, so we started thinking about what we could do with the excess space.”
In 1994 Zoete Inval opened, and a procession of travellers that she thinks of as Liquorice Allsorts began to stream through its hospitable doors from all over the world. As if running a guest house of this size (it can accommodate up to 42 people at capacity) were not enough, they each continued to follow their many other interests. While Jan carried on working at the hospital until he retired, he was also deeply involved in tourism and conservation issues, serving on the tourism committee for eight years.
The matter of baboon control is one which particularly exercises his mind. “I love baboons,” he says. “I love to just sit amongst them in the fynbos. I have never felt in any danger and am always very much entertained by their powers of mimicry, especially the youngsters; but people keep messing things up when it comes to their control.” Jan was also the prime mover and shaker in the creation of a whale sanctuary, spending hours with officials, scientists and politicians to convince them of the need for one. He is also proud to be the longest surviving member of the Vogelgat Conservation Society. “People are too quick nowadays to sacrifice wildlife for financial gain,” he says. “I get very angry about that.”
Marilyn, on the other hand, is an inveterate recycler, a legacy from her mother who is about to turn 100. Everything that can be recycled at the guest house, is, from the water to bottles and plastic and when, a number of years ago she was involved in getting the Yomelelani ECD Centre started at the old airfield, she conceived of the idea of getting other pre-schoolers to recycle for their own benefit. “At first I used to go round to each of them in Jan’s old Cressida and exchange the recyclable materials they had collected for items like soap, toilet paper and towels, when I realised they couldn’t even be taught about personal hygiene when the centres didn’t have access to these essential items. It was a lot of fun – the crèches competed against one another and they would get prizes and go on exciting outings, to reward their efforts.”
The Recycle Swop Shop eventually acquired a permanent home at the old airfield and Marilyn remained its driving force until about five years ago when Nerina Howard took over its management.
Both Jan and Marilyn have a strong belief that everyone has an important role to play in any community. Says Marilyn, “Life is all about listening to and respecting one another for who we are and what we have to offer. In a symphony orchestra, all the instruments have something to contribute to the beauty of the music, but things get into a terrible mess when the drums try to drown out the rest.” The lives of this couple from very different corners of the globe are a living testimony to this philosophy where everyone matters.