The decision to form a town at Tzaneen was taken in 1918 and the town was established the following year. It was only in 1924, however, that it was proclaimed a town.
Tzaneen owes much to the discovery of minerals to the east -- it was on the route between Pietersburg (now Polokwane) and Phalaborwa -- but only became established as the main town in the region when the railway station opened in 1912. One of the first establishments in the area was built in Agatha, the forerunner of The Coach House Hotel, as a staging post by Heinrich Schulte Altenroxel and Conrad Plange in 1892. The Zeederberg Coach Company used it for resting and changing their teams of mules and oxen before tackling the final step along the tortuous road leading to Thabina, Leydsdorp and the Lowveld.
At the time, Pietersburg was the starting point of many coach routes: one going to Bulawayo via Rhodes Drift and the Tuli block; another via Haenertsburg and the Kloof to the early farming settlement of Krabbefontein (now Merensky School); or via Munnik to Westfalia and other early settler areas. One route led to Leydsdorp via Haenertsburg and Agatha. Parts of this old coach road are still in existence, with many stretches of the present road on New Agatha following the old route.
The road via Agatha first led down through the treacherous Schelm Bos near the present Ebenezer dam, then across the Letaba River and via Diggers Rest and Berg-en-Dal up the steep Agatha Hill. It then passed the hotel and down across the Letsitele River towards Thabina and Dickenson’s Hotel. From Thabina it was a short stretch to Leydsdorp where another hotel awaited the traveler.
It is difficult to imagine the problems that faced those early travellers. In wet weather, the road was impassable for days. The discomfort must have been intense, with 12 seats inside the coach and space for luggage and another 12 seats on top. Pulled by 16 mules, the speed was about 20 km per hour. Horses were not an option because of the tsetse fly. Zeederburg actually tried using Zebras, but they proved to have very little stamina and were essentially wild.
Doel Zeederburg and his brothers were financed by Cecil John Rhodes and were the largest transport operators at the time. They ran coaches built by Abbot Downing Co., Concord, New Hampshire – exactly the same as those used in the Wild West at that time. It was not inexpensive – a ticket from Pretoria to Salisbury was £22-10-0, or Pretoria to Johannesburg 12 shillings and six pence.
Stories of journeys by coach are legion. The intrepid drivers, sometimes well-fortified, as often were their passengers, braved swollen rivers, fearful mountain passes, muddy tracks and attacks by lion and buffalo and highwaymen.
Dick Turpend was a rascal who lived in Duiwelskloof. His name was near enough to Turpin to decide his career. The story goes that one of the coachmen he tried to stop promptly whipped up his mules and vanished in a cloud of dust. Only when at a safe distance from the masked man, did he remember that he had two little old ladies as passengers. In trepidation, he stopped the coach, alighted and opened the door to find himself looking down the barrel of a pistol held by a small but steady hand!
The original Altenroxel Hotel was a rough and ready wayside inn comprising six rondavels, a dining room, stable and a store. The guests’ bathroom was a hollowed out tree trunk filled with clean water. The kitchen was open to the elements and most of the meals came out of a black three-legged pot. Some years later the hotel was moved to a neighbouring farm called New Agatha which was renamed Cheviot in later years. Here Mrs Strachan ruled the roost and although the new hotel was an improvement on Altenroxel’s, the comforts in those days were austere.
John Buchan (secretary to Lord Milner in 1902) was a frequent traveller and also once travelled the Pietersburg-Leydsdorp road via New Agatha to stop at the Strachan Hotel. It was in the area that he gathered ideas for “Prester John”.
Buchan wrote of “the Leydsdorp coach which once a week imperils the traveller’s life…'85” and that “twenty miles further on, the same coach, if it has thus far escaped destruction, precipitously descends the mountainside onto the fever flats that line the Groot Letaba and Letsitele Rivers…'85”.
In the late 1880’s a township was laid out for the Leydsdorp population. It was called Agatha after the wife of the Mining Commissioner Joubert and was at the Thabina River crossing near Dickenson’s hotel.
Joubert instructed that a hospital be built to care for the many miners from Leydsdorp suffering from malaria and black-water fever. The area proved to be very unhealthy and in early 1890 the township was moved higher and renamed New Agatha. The hospital was transferred there and later a post office with telegraph was added to the New Agatha facilities, as well as a police post.
Leydsdorp, alas, was not the success expected and in about 1895 many miners moved out leaving it to become a ghost town. Apart from the lack of gold there was a drastic shortage of water, making mining difficult. However, Leydsdorp persevered for many years thereafter as it had become something of an administrative centre with a hospital, police station and hotel.
In time, as Leydsdorp lost its glitter, easier roads were built to the Low Country and the railway connected Tzaneen and Pietersburg in 1916 and the hotel went into decline. It closed down in 1928 and was used as a farmhouse. The new Coach House built in 1983 was an attempt to bring back the magic and romance of those early days. It was built on the foundation of the old Strachan Hotel and a few of the old walls and cast-iron windows are still in place today.