Revisiting the magical sand castle beach of my childhood

I was just getting into some of my most special childhood holiday memories last week, before I got royally distracted by the present. I had meant to continue sharing about one of the most whimsical places we visited several times when I was younger, so, fortunately for you, I finally remembered today.

After travelling past Plettenberg Bay, and just before Knysna, on South Africa’s Garden Route, one turns left off the highway down an unremarkable gravel road for about 5km. At the top of the hill, overlooking the sea, one parks and begins the steep trek down a path and then 116 steps to the pristine, secluded beach and rolling waves below. I’m sure it must have been challenging for the adults to schlep all of us children down the arduous route, but definitely not as challenging as for those who originally holidayed there over a century ago.

The place is Noetzie.

From the early 1800s people had been coming to Noetzie to camp, and then in the early 1900s a few local families from Knysna and Oudtshoorn began to develop it as a summer holiday destination. Iron and timber Cottages with names like Helenside (now North Cottage), Wegkruip, Yellow Cottage, Lagoona and Torpie’s Laughter were brought down a rough track by ox wagon and constructed in the undergrowth practically on the beach, as well as around the bend on the river. Several of these have been in the same family for generations.

But the real reason it was such a magical place to us was because of its “castles”.

My father taught me all about straight horizons in photography, apparently.
Two of the original Noetzie castles as we saw them in the 1970s (with the oldest on the left).

In the early 1930s the first castle, at the western end of the main beach, was built as a regular home by one Herbert Stephen Henderson out of the natural stone found at Noetzie. The turrets were only added later, after fellow Noetzie resident Rex Metelerkamp joked that all Henderson needed to do was to add a few turrets and he’d have a castle.  And so it was that this modest, faux-castle started the castle-construction ball rolling. Next, the Hendersons built Pezula on the hill towards the east of the beach in the late 1930s, which was followed in 1942 by another one next to the original. It was known, simply, as The Castle or Noetzie Castle. The Lindsay family then built Perekuil (now referred to as Lindsay Castle) in the 1960s and Herbert’s son built Montrose in the 1970s below Pezula.

Sadly, all of the original castles, apart from Pezula, have since been refurbished, or in some cases demolished and replaced with modern versions by the new owners. Within the last decade a completely new castle (The Cliff Castle) popped up on the same property as the original two while they were being renovated, and a larger new castle, Craighross, was also built from scratch on the western side of the beach next to the public steps. Originally private family homes, most of the castles are available today as vacation rentals.

Back when I was young there was nothing else around for miles, but now one drives by the uber-exclusive Pezula golf and residential estate, which was developed on the 640ha ‘remainder of Noetzie farm’ from the early 2000s. At the time of my visit, Pezula Private Estate also owned three of the castles (but not the original Pezula, interestingly enough) including one which Nelson Mandela and his wife Graça Machel once holidayed in. I did read somewhere that these three castles were going under the auctioneer’s hammer this month though.

Despite the upgrades and development, which is to be expected, this is still a magical place to visit, and was one of the first places I pencilled into my “must-stop-at” list when planning my road-trip.