Our Story

Late in 1997 my friend Roque and I got this crazy idea of opening a guesthouse. After a few months of planning I quit my job at IBM and we decided to go into a lot of debt. We started with two houses ( Plantation and Manor house on the Sunninghill Guest Lodge property ) and opened our lodge with five rooms in April 1998. The first few months were a real learning curve with many, many sleepless nights and a lot of very hard work. We got busier and decided to add another five rooms to the lodge by renovating the French Quarters in September 1998.

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As any South African knows, building is a real test of patience and after our builder almost accidentally amputated one of my French guests’ legs, we managed to complete the building within a month and vowed to never ever build again!!! We kept the promise for exactly five months, when we started renovating Urban pad and building Cape cod cottage. We opened an additional five rooms and one self-catering unit in May 1999. And of course vowed never to build again. Once again we kept the promise but this time for a whole year until we renovated our entertainment area.

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In 2000 we started looking for another house closer to the Sunninghill hospital. We realised that we were getting a lot of business from the Netcare Sunninghill and it would be more convenient for visiting relatives if the patients were walking distance away. Roque came upon 84 Edison Crescent one morning whilst jogging and jumped over the wall to look at its potential. Three days later we bought number 84. We rented it out for nine months in order for us to do the necessary preparation to start the building and get the rezoning on its way. This was going to be a much bigger operation where building was concerned and we spent quite some time with builders, architects and the like. Roque with his accountant’s brain wanted everything at really good prices and I wanted everything to be pretty. So after many drawings up of budgets and me not sticking to any, we started building in Feburary 2001. We were supposed to open the new lodge in May 2001, but instead only opened at the end of June. Running between Sunninghill, which operated at 93% occupancy during this time, and screaming at builders and tilers and gardeners and electricians and plumbers and pavers and painters turned out to be very exhausting!

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Woodmead Guest Lodge was an instant success and proved to be popular with doctors, professors and relatives visiting the hospital, as well, as the corporate market. After a few months of both lodges operating smoothly we saw an opportunity to buy the house next to Sunninghill Guest Lodge. It came at a slightly inconvenient time as we did not have any intention of growing the business at that stage but if we ever wanted to expand the Sunninghill Lodge that was the only way we could extend. After purchasing the property we rented it out for a while with the intention of turning it into an executive furnished home.

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All went well until the tenants gave us notice! This in itself would not have been a problem, but in the mean time, I had met the man of my dreams (finally!! My poor mother was thrilled, she had given up hope that I’ll ever get off the shelf) and we were getting married in April 2002. This meant that I had one week to re-paint, renovate and furnish Lilima Place. Miraculously I did manage to walk down the aisle and somehow Lilima Place also got finished and furnished and no one died in the process.

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Then in 2003 I fell pregnant. And as every parent knows, that changes your whole life. Somehow my staff survived working for the hormonal monster I became (apparently the gardeners kept on asking the female staff when I am due, as they were suffering under my constant outbursts of tears, laughter and being totally illogical – however, Roque said he noticed nothing different from my usual behaviour. )

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We took life in our stride and did not make any major changes to our business for a couple of years. In 2006 Alpheus, our handyman, built a 40 sqm studio which we designed on the back of his cigarette box. It took forever to build, but there was no rush, it was more an excuse to get rid of the hideous tree in the corner of our property. To our surprise this studio was so much in demand that we knew we had to build more! And so our biggest challenge arrived in the form of building 8 studios. We were ill – prepared for the nightmare we embarked on. What was supposed to be a one-year process ended up taking one year of planning and 16 months of building! Whilst we were in the middle of building we decided to go ahead and add two luxurious penthouses. The building process was so traumatic this time I am actually not even able to write a humoristic piece about it yet twelve years later. Just know that the new block towering over Nanyuki road was built on litres of my tears! Some of our staff started believing that my wardrobe was cursed, as whenever I put my hard hat and gumboots on I would end up in a lethal mood.

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Our lodges boomed before and during the Soccer World cup of 2010 and it also survived when the World Cup-hangover hit. Many guest houses closed down soon after July 2010 as suddenly the businesses were not sustainable. Unfortunately, as often in life, greed and ego inspired owners to double and triple their rates and this way destroying relationships with regular guests. Although we did hike our rates for the FIFA related guests, we kept rooms for our regulars and at regular prices. I often think that was one of the reasons that when times got tough, we managed to pull through.

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It became obvious in 2013 that due to many factors, lack of skills in SA, the recession etc people were looking for longer term accommodation, but at more cost effective rates. We therefore bought, renovated and furnished a few apartments in Sunninghill Gardens. Our corporate market loves this and I loved decorating them. With Airbnb becoming popular in SA these apartments have been an asset in every way.

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The year 2020 has been hard on many of us, but especially our industry. In order to survive I approached Netcare offering assistance to them during the pandemic. This changed our lives and direction for ever. The Netcare group sent us their staff members who tested positive in order for them to isolate here, we were given the task of looking after 39 patients per day and we realized that this was actually our absolute passion! We loved caring for and journeying with the people and from that an idea was born. We decided to open a lodge which offers medical care. We rebuilt our Woodmead guest lodge to suit patients ( yes, seems I just can not stay away from the builders ) Instead of ramps for wheelchairs we designed a magnificent 60sqm deck to give access to rooms where there were stairs, we redesigned all the bathrooms to suit a patient’s needs first, but does not look anything like a hospital or clinic’s bathroom. We changed the rooms’ furniture, entertainment lay-out and importantly installed a nurse call system. Our staff were trained intensively and they flourished. To us it felt like we were preparing for the past 23 years to do exactly this, this is our calling. Opening Sunninghill Recovery Lodge in 2021 was one of our proudest moments.

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And so, that is the story of how we came to where we stand today. We try to create a homely atmosphere at both lodges and apartments and to make it as comfortable as possible, with friendly staff that will remember your name and the way you like your eggs for breakfast.

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The staff is our biggest asset, Mable Dingoko is in charge of the Sunninghill Guest Lodge and Dorcas Dingoko ( yes they are sisters ) is at the Woodmead Guest Lodge. They have been with us since the second year we were running, and have stuck with me through thick and thin, calmed me down when the guests infuriated me, patiently listened to my hormonal tantrums during pregnancy and very often took the murder weapon out of my hands when I was about to go and kill the builders! They have helped out in more ways than I can ever remember and are an absolute pleasure to work with. I always say what a blessing it is to work with two of your best friends. Both have recently completed their Hotel Management Diploma, and are taking care of the business, the staff, the guests and myself better than anyone else ever could.

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Mable and I fell pregnant around the same time, which was not good planning at all. But somehow we managed to get through the pregnancies absolutely fine. Mable then beat me with two weeks and gave birth to the most beautiful little boy named Amogalang. Amy, my second child, arrived two days after my birthday and has been a pleasure and a delight.

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Mable went off on her maternity leave as planned and we completed a new en-suite room for her and Amogelang to move into. I settled nicely into raising our two beautiful girls and all went well for exactly two weeks……………..

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Dorcas was in the most horrendous accident where four people died and all others were very seriously injured. She was critically wounded with a broken pelvis, broken arm, pierced lung and major flesh wounds. After spending 9 weeks in hospital she returned to work. She made a remarkable recovery, but was left with a few scars. She amazed all the physiotherapists and OT’s with her determination and was soon able to walk again, drive again and even to write again. We once again realized how precious she is to all of us.

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After 16 years of working with me, Mable had to make the difficult choice between living and earning in Sandton and raising her sons with her husband in Mafeking. She chose the latter, which was the right thing to do, although difficult. Mable left after her beautiful Spring baby was born and although she is living in the North West now, she is still part of this family and we speak regularly. We often say that we are just having a little holiday and that we will work together in a new business which we will dream up.

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Then we also have Nelly Plaatjies-Cadala whom I have known most of my life, she just about raised me, as she worked for my mother when I was growing up. I reckon she did a good job, however I am not sure if she thinks so? We have known each other so long that I can no imagine my life without her. She is the lady that at Sunninghill Guest Lodge at 4:30am starting breakfast and then comes back during the evening to cook you dinner ( probably my mom’s recipes! ) Nelly often tells me that I have to change my clothing if she does not think I look good on any specific day.

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I want to mention Phineas who worked for me for us since 1998. This poor man was always able to smile despite me asking him to scrub out the swimming pool with acid, spread manure on our grass and worst of all, actually having him arrested and spending a weekend in jail because I was pregnant and crazy. He had such a forgiving nature, when I apologised for having him arrested, he casually said; “ Not to worry Mam, we all make mistakes” As we are a bit of an incestuous business, it is no surprise that Phineas’ son also worked here. What is a surprise though, is the son’s name. It is Trouble. When I asked Phineas why on earth he burdened his child with a name like that, he shook his head sadly and said “ You have not met his mother Mam” It seems that we like odd names, as our newest gardener is named ‘Remember’ ( which he doesn’t by the way ) and then Gift has really been just that, he is gifted and also has the gift of the gap.

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I often joke and say that I have a wife, sometimes I think to juggle a business, a husband, children and life in general, a woman needs a wife. And luckily for me I have Sakhile, she is the most patient angel-without-wings I have ever met. She is from Zimbabwe and apart from being my rock she runs a very successful employment agency. You are sure to meet Bongani and Brian who are her nephews and will diligently look after you at the Sunninghill Guest Lodge’s reception. Noreen and Olida are also precious staff members who have a level of commitment I have not encountered before, they get mentioned so often in the reviews that I can not keep rewarding them for good comments!

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I have a wonderful team of maintenance guys, Thae is a soft-spoken young man with the kindest eyes and biggest smile. He makes sure that everything that needs to be serviced, gets serviced and fixes everything that needs fixing. With 45 televisions, 47 toilets and many temperamental geysers I assure you, he is never bored.

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Our other staff members are just as friendly and willing to help you, and I am proud to say that everyone wants these lodges to succeed. They all have a special place in my heart. Most staff members recently completed a diploma in Food Production. They all worked very hard and came back with great results. They are really empowering themselves, which is the whole idea of working together and growing our business. Staff at the Sunninghill Recovery lodge continuously attend training in the field and I am proud to say that Wits Hospice trainers told me that our group of women were the best they have ever trained.

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My staff have kept me entertained, probably more than my guests! I’ve had to issue leave as one staff member had to rush home when the Thokolosh bit her child. Some staff members refused to sleep over as a crocodile was spotted in our garden. Another staff member demanded sick leave as she claimed a rain spider spat in her eye. A gardener had to take sudden annual leave as a witch chased his wife into a cupboard and she couldn’t get out.

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As you can imagine we have met some very very strange guests over the years, and have plenty of stories to tell, but I will not go into any details as I am sure you might think I talk about you too!

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I can honestly say that mostly we have had the pleasure of meeting wonderful people that have become dear friends and not one day has passed that we did not have a precious tale or an amusing story to share. I feel so lucky to meet interesting people, journey with some during hard times but somehow you all leave something behind, and we get a bit wiser from what you teach us. We will never forget that we are able to put food on the table, because you choose to stay with us.

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I’ve had the privilege to see staff members blossom from cleaners to supervisors to managers. Some women that started here with almost nothing, have empowered themselves to such an extent that they are driving ( and owning ) cars, homes and getting their children into university with bursaries. I have such hope for this country and her people when I see the way we are able to build each other up and encourage each other.

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And so, here we are, with both lodges still standing and with us managing to stay off the Prozac and just barely out of the mental institutions.

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In the end, we are eternally grateful to you, our guests who make it possible for us to have this business which we love.

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We truly hope that you enjoy the time you spend with us, albeit at the recovery lodge, the apartments or Sunninghill guest lodge and that you will visit us again and again.

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Ann-Magret McKerrell

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