The wild wild west of Umhlali

The main road in Umhlali shortly after it had been tarred.

An era of “spirited socialising” has come to an end with the recent sale of the famous Umhlali Hotel, but the memories of the glory days of pub life live on in the minds of the ‘Lali Hotel’ long bar regulars.

The quaint village of Umhlali, inland from Salt Rock, was established by British and Scottish Byrne settlers in 1850.

They originally called it Fort William as it was the site of a fort. Later it was named Umhlali – the Zulu name for the Monkey Orange tree, which grew abundantly along the banks of the Umhlali river.

Also read: The Dolphin Coast – going back in time

It also means “the place of waiting” because settlers and locals would have to wait on the banks before crossing the river on a northward journey.

While Ballito consisted of a few beach shacks, Umhlali was the hub of the farming community with the heart of the village being the bustling main road sporting a bank, post office, supermarket, hairdresser, car dealership, farmers’ co-op and of course the Lali Hotel.

Many a tale is told about the ‘Lali’ Hotel, favourite watering hole of farmers of Victoria Country and beyond. Verdi and Leanna da Silva started the bottle store, later converted into Leanna’s art and framing shop.

Complete with an Irish barman and a painting of a naked lady above the bar, the Lali Hotel was the second home for the sugar cane farmers and a ‘must stop’ for travelling sales reps.

Born and bred in Umhlali, the Milstead brothers Barry and Trevor said the long bar was the height of entertainment back in the day.

“There were no cellphones or televisions. We had live entertainment in the bar. It was a men’s only bar. The windows were high up so you could not tell if it was day or night.” said Trevor.

Barry said the former owner of the hotel, Rod Drennan was the life and soul of the local watering hole.

“Rod had Springbok colours in drinking! He was the central guy who held it all together.”

Trevor Thompson, whose great grandfather started Thompson’s Butchery in the village, said the Lali Hotel was the place to be, especially when it rained.

“The Lali was the busiest and most interesting pub on the North Coast. All the farmers roared into Umhlali when it rained, stepping on their brakes 50 metres before the hotel so that they could stop in time as they slid through the mud,” said Thompson, who now runs Seaforth bed and breakfast in Foxhill.

“The original Litchi Party started there – it was a two day affair. People capsized in the bar and often cars were only collected two or three days later! The new owners will have to do a lot of exorcising before they can open the church there,” said Thompson with a chuckle.

Near the butchery, next door to the hotel, was the local hair salon run by Lesley Etherington, who arrived from London 45 years ago.

“I had no idea that the small town had such a wild side to it! I have seen it all at the Lali – even the odd horse or motorbike would make it into the bar. They started drinking from 10am and some characters even handcuffed each other to the bar so that they could not leave. They did all sorts of naughty things at the Lali – they even had a stripper with a snake,” said Etherington, who still cuts hair at The Bus Stop in Umhlali.

The Umhlali railway station, which is now the second-hand furniture shop, ‘Second Chance’.

Her sister, Sharon Wessels was 18 when she came to Umhlali and said it was a vibrant village back in the day.

“Umhlali was the place to be!

“The characters were unforgettable. Hollywood Harry, for example, was the barber behind Lesley’s salon. He made a lovely curry, but the police always raided his shop because of his dagga stash.

“We were all friends, there was no Apartheid in Umhlali,” said Wessels.

The next owner of the Lali and bottle store was Verdi Da Silva, whose wife Leanna started an art and framing shop which she ran for 20 years. Verdi says the village was wonderful.

“Leanna and I miss Umhlali’s busy days, when we knew everyone and could wave them down in the road and have a chat. We loved the village dearly,” said Da Silva.

  AUTHOR
Elana Geist

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