By Debbie Möller & Joy Comley
Merry Pebbles Holiday resort in Sabie is turning 50 this month, May 2021. It is quite a feat in this day and age for a business to still be open after 50 years, but 3rd generation Merry Pebbles has managed to achieve this landmark accomplishment.
In 1960 Erasmus Smit Comley (Smitty as he was affectionately known) married Madeleine Botha.
Smitty was a very innovate guy and in 1968 he sold the patent, he designed, for his anti-theft device for car radios and in 1971 he sold his business chain in Gauteng of auto fitment centres called Autosonic – some of which are still in existence today.
In 1970 Smitty and his wife Madeleine Comley with their two sons Walter and Leon headed to Sabie with the intention of early retirement. They purchased (together with two silent partners Frank Eksteen and Tony Antonio) a small farm named Merry Pebbles from Peter Davis. It was not long before Smitty realised that retirement with his family on the farm was not going to be sustainable and a caravan park was born. Smitty had a vision to turn the barren piece of property into the beautiful holiday resort you see today. On arrival there was only one building which is still standing today. This building has been converted into the 2-sleeper chalet No: 20. Merry Pebbles is now a far cry from the bare landscape in 1970.
On the not so successful side and to the bemusement of the Greater Sabie Community – Smitty and four of his friends (Johnny Botha; Daantjie Killian; Chris Weber & Koos van Rooyen) decided to dabble in a bit of gold prospecting. They and their single labourer started working a claim in the Ceylon area. They kept on it for 2 years and were known as the “Sad Sacks” eventually giving up after the fun wore off.
The family settled in Sabie and Walter and Leon attended Sabie Primary School (Walter was Head Boy) and then for High School moved over to Lowveld High in Nelspruit.
Walter went on to study Microbiology for two years as well as a Diploma in Hotel Management and an MBA from the Business School of the Netherlands from 2004 to 2006. Walter and his wife Jenny, from Nelspruit, got married in January 1987. Jenny and Walter met at Lowveld High school and she also pursued a career in Microbiology. They have two daughters Amy a Chartered Accountant who lives in England with her husband John and Megan a Dentist who resides in Johannesburg.
Leon studied a Commercial Catering Diploma at the ML Sultan Technikon’s Hotel School in Durban. This is where he met his wife Joy who was on the same career path. Leon spent a few years as Restaurant Manager at Olifants Camp in the Kruger National Park before he realised his career dream. Leon & Joy moved back to Sabie in 1987 and were married in January 1989.They have a daughter Sharee who is also a Chartered Accountant, married to Albert and they live in Pretoria. Reece their son has an Honours Degree in Quantity Surveying. In 2019 Merry Pebbles welcomed Reece Comley to the business fold. He is the 3rd generation at Merry Pebbles being the grandson of the founder Smitty Comley.
In 1984 Leon and Walter bought out the two silent partners (plus/minus R1.5m) and Merry Pebbles became the solely owned property of the Comley Clan.
Walter was an active member of the Sabie Publicity Association and was part of the activist group that prevented Sabie receiving a name change. He was also involved over the years with the squash side of the Country club and later on getting more involved with the golf.
This passion for the community seems to run in the family as Smitty did 3 terms as a Councillor in the 70’s and 80’s with the Sabie Municipality. This community service is now being carried on by Joy as she is on the committee of the Sabie Chamber of Commerce & Tourism. Joy joined the SCCT in 2011 and assisted in the huge “Dorp van die Jaar” title in 2012. She now heads the wonderful Sabie PRIDE Project which employs a team to work weekly in Sabie to keep the town clean.
Leon’s passion is in fitness so bringing to Merry Pebbles and Sabie a different dynamic. He has involved Merry Pebbles in almost every sport activity that occurs in Sabie e.g. Long Tom Marathon, Sabie Classic, Sabie Experience, Noon to Moon, Panorama Tour, Mac Mac Trail Run and lots more.
Smitty passed away in 2016 at the age of 82 after a long painful illness. He was an amazing man and many of his inventions/building work is still standing strong today.
Madeleine Comley turns 83 in 2021 and has worked every single day up until Lockdown in 2020 ! What an amazing lady she is and according to her grandchildren … she is the best Ouma on the planet. Greatly loved.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing at Merry Pebbles, there are far too many highs and lows to mention in a newspaper article. But one thing is for sure the Comley family don’t give up and have the perseverance and determination needed to keep a good business running so long.
These attributes have been visible in a few tragedies the resort has witnessed. In 1981 Merry Pebbles whole office block burned to the ground together with their reception and shop. In true Comley style they picked up the pieces and re-built the reception / restaurant / shop / liquor store complex we see today. Their perseverance was again seen in the two floods endured. The first one in 2012 and more recently this year 2021 on the 25th January. Merry Pebbles’ main entrance has been blocked and flooded many times but never as bad as the last two floods where the whole reception / restaurant complex was under water.
In 2012 they installed their first solar panels and went OFF THE GRID in 2019 to guarantee power and hot water 24/7 to their guests
Merry Pebbles is situated on the banks of the Sabie River in the picturesque valley of Sabie (Mpumalanga). It boasts an array of activities for all to enjoy, ranging from hiking / trail running / mountain biking on the forest trails, tubing and trout fishing to visiting the scenic waterfalls, travelling along the Panorama Route or making a day-trip to the Kruger National Park, Sudwala Caves, Blyde River Canyon and God’s Window.
In addition to this, they offer a multitude of amenities: well stocked convenience store, one of Sabie’s favourite restaurants well known for their steaks, heated and cold-water pools, water slides, playpark, tennis court, trampoline, fun bikes and go-carts, volleyball net, games room, putt- putt and outdoor chess board – not forgetting the river activities like tubing and fishing or simply soaking up the tranquil surroundings listening to the water and watching the birds..
Merry Pebbles has 35 self-catering chalets (ranging from 2-sleepers to large 4-bedroomed houses that sleep 8) and 200 electrified camp sites with all the sites electrified and 4 large ablution facilities. Camping has certainly evolved since 1970. A walk around Merry Pebbles these days finds luxurious caravans with TVs; solar panels; satellite dishes and loads more to make their stay comfortable.
Merry Pebbles has a positive attitude and are part of the movement to “make Sabie great” and the family really hope Merry Pebbles will be still standing in another 50 years being run by the next Comley generations.