Tintswalo Atlantic boutique hotel rebuilds after devastating fire

The position is without equal. Being so close to the ocean’s edge makes you feel like you’re on the water even though you’re on land. That the sea in front of the lodge is a marine reserve also means you can often see whales close to the lodge. Perhaps you’d even witness one being born.

This is Tintswalo Atlantic.

Voted best sundowner spot in Africa a few years ago (and well known for its outstanding service and food), the boutique hotel is the only one in the Table Mountain National Park. It’s also the same hotel that the devastating Cape Town wildfire burned to the ground in March this year.

“I don’t know if you have ever had one of those dread calls in the middle of the night but it isn’t a great experience,” says owner Gaye Corbett. “A million thoughts flashed through my head.”

When Gaye saw a missed call from managing director Michelle du Plessis, she thought it was a mistake. But when she called back, she found out there was a terrible fire on Chapman’s Peak. The lodge was under threat. No, it wasn’t the first time they’d had fire scares, which is why she thought their sprinklers would take care of it. But when she learned that they’d evacuated the guests, she realised the situation was more serious than she first thought.

“When Melissa [du Rand, general manager] answered the phone she was so hysterical and almost incoherent,” she recalls. “She was standing on the other side of the bay. She said the flames were so big and moving so fast that we had no chance of ever stopping it. The wind was howling and I even had difficulty hearing her on the phone. It was then that I realised we were in trouble.”

Although they called fire department at 1am, they hadn’t arrived by 4am. It turns out there was a greater drama at play. The fire-fighters were spread too thin on the ground, trying to save an old age home under threat and several houses too. Helicopters couldn’t fly as the winds were howling up to 40 kilometres per hour. All Corbett could do was sit, wait, and pray that by some miracle the fire would stop just short of the lodge. But it didn’t.

“I wearily got up and got dressed ready to start the day after not having slept for most of the night and battling to fight back the tears and the grief that I felt for our beloved lodge that we had created only six years ago and loved so dearly,” she says. “It was like a home for us and a special place of pure joy and peace that we could always escape to in torrid times. It felt like we had lost some special part of our souls.”

When she switched on the TV, Corbett realised that this wasn’t just a fire that had come down the mountain and burnt the lodge; it was an enormous catastrophe affecting the whole of Cape Town. And while the news reports hadn’t yet picked up the tragedy that had befallen Tintswalo Atlantic, she and her family took action.

“Warwick [Goosen, her son-in-law] caught the first plane down to Cape Town and left us up in Johannesburg, handling the bookings, shifting our guests, insurance, and staff matters,” she says. “Lisa [her daughter] was immediately onto referring all future bookings and informing our agents of the situation, and handling the numerous press calls that were pouring into the office. Melissa was given the task of moving all the weddings that were booked over the next month or two: a job none of us were looking forward to!”

But even though they were handling press interviews and had all admin under control, they still didn’t know what the actual situation was and just how much damage there was to the lodge. And so Corbett, together with her husband and daughter, caught a plane down to Cape Town to find out.

“All the staff were there, looking like the world had come to an end,” she says. “I suppose for some that was exactly how they were feeling. Was this the end of their jobs? And where would they go to from here? So the first thing we did (after we had all cried our tears) was assure them that nobody would lose their jobs. We would work out various plans to keep the staff active and producing during this downtime. Somehow we would struggle through this together.”

Corbett finds it beautiful that this tragedy brought people together, giving support and help to all those brave men and women who were risking their lives to save other people and their homes. Indeed, one of the most heartening things they experienced is the hundreds of messages and well wishes they received. People from all over the globe and all walks of life, people they knew and people they’d never met before, offered condolences, help, and support.

“There is something that occurs in the face of danger and tragedy that brings the best out in people” she says. “It’s as if the real goodness in mankind comes to the fore. It just goes to prove that we are all good people at heart.”

Gaye says that the support from the community has been quite overwhelming. They even had people writing from England, America, and Australia offering to come out and help them by doing whatever they could. All these offers – from previous guests, tour operators, corporate clients, and more – were incredible and something she can’t even begin to quantify. But this didn’t stop her from doing whatever she could to pay it forward.

They made donations to the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) and also had some of the staff visit a fire-fighter injured on site, offering help to speed up his recovery. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the company did this and already does charitable work with Education Alive and Youth for Human Rights. After all, Tintswalo is a Shangaan expression meaning “the intangible feeling of love, gratitude, and peace bestowed upon someone offering you a meaningful and worthy gift”.

Soon after the fire, a quantity surveyor flew down from Johannesburg so it didn’t take long for them to have a good estimate of what it would take to rebuild. They were also quick to have an assessor visit the site and appointed a contractor to clear the rubble and start construction within three weeks of the fire.

Their main objective was to be up in running within eight months at the most. They already had several weddings booked for the end of the year and were determined to meet their obligation to those brides!

Because of their pre-approved South African National Parks concession agreement, the core rebuilding didn’t change much. The décor also remains as similar as possible. And even though they wanted to create an even more beautiful haven of peace on earth, the soul of Tintswalo Atlantic is still the same.

“One of the main things was to rehabilitate the fynbos around the lodge and to stabilise the soil so that we don’t get any major erosion when the rains come,” she says. “Those 300-year-old Milkwoods in the front of the lodge were completely burnt so we replaced them with young trees, but these do not have the same look as before.”

But that’s okay, because Gaye has learned that fynbos is meant to burn. Perhaps the fact that the last fire was 15 years ago is the reason this one was so hot and unstoppable. “The fynbos needs to refresh itself,” she says. “It’s a natural process we interfere with. So when a fire like this starts, together with the gale force winds, it’s just not possible to hold nature back.”

At least it’s nice to know that the mountain, covered with fynbos and flowers at certain times of the year, will be at its most beautiful after the rains: the perfect setting for spectacular walks starting right at the lodge. “We will see flowers and vegetation blooming all over those mountains that we have not seen for many years,” she says. “Something to look forward to after this devastation.”

All in all, Gaye has learned that so much good can come out of something that appears to be completely tragic. Her advice for those facing similar challenges in life is quite simple: “Never regret yesterday, life is in you today, and the most important thing of all is that you make your tomorrows.”