The magic faraway tree

PHOTOS Dawie Verwey PRODUCTION Sumien Brink WORDS Mirelle Leyden


Nestling in a cove of milkwoods is a xanadu of a modern home. The owners, a hard-working couple seeking a private refuge, named it “umthunzi”, Zulu for “meeting place under the trees”.

Ralf and Jacqueline Obry had hunted all the way from Paternoster to Witsand for a property on which to build a weekend home. But when they arrived in Noordhoek near the Cape Peninsula’s Atlantic coast, their search abruptly ended – because it took them less than half an hour to decide that this piece of land was exactly what they wanted. “The beauty of this area simply took our breath away,” Jacqueline says of the couple’s first seeing the property.

As owners of an events company in Germany, the Obrys had spent more than 20 years organising conferences involving large crowds of people, so peace and quiet were foremost on their list of priorities. Firm believers in the adage of a change being as good as a holiday, the couple started initiating major life changes when they visited South Africa with clients and fell in love with it.

With tall milkwood trees occupying a large part of the property, Ralf had a rather small area to play with when designing the house with architect Celia Fraser. But play he did – until he came up with a three-storey home that would be wrapped in an arboreal cocoon. Because, in the meantime, through chatting to a Franschhoek landscaper friend, he had found a way to conserve the property’s magical old milkwoods. Says Ralf, “When outside, on the ground-floor deck, you are under the trees; on the first floor, you are in them, as if in a tree house; and from the second floor, you look down onto an ocean of green leaves … you’ve risen above them.”

Allowing nature to call the shots

To make the most of their natural surroundings, Ralf constructed decks on all sides of the house, with glass forming the only buffer between the tamed and the untamed. The structure’s facade is indicative of the design philosophy on which the house is based: juxtaposing the ultramodern with nature’s unrefined elements.

The result? A strikingly successful combination of the natural world’s raw beauty and the contemporary comfort of a modern home.

Allowing nature to call the shots when designing a house can prove an immense challenge, yet be endlessly rewarding. To all sides of this house, vast glass doors open onto various deck spaces that showcase the diverse surrounding landscape. One side has views of the Atlantic and Noordhoek’s famous stretch of white beach, another draws the eye up towards the jagged textures of Chapman’s Peak, and that to the left of the house shows the lush density of the milkwood forest.

Once inside the property’s elaborate wrought-iron gates, the visitor’s attention is drawn towards the massive, solid-steel front door. But this heavy, fortress-like entrance belies the luminous interior space.

The peace and tranquillity that pervade the house’s natural surroundings are echoed inside with the generous use of light ivory- and chalk-coloured walls, floors and ceilings. While contributing to the home’s calming ambience, the light walls also act as a gallery space for the couple’s impressive collection of works by pioneering South African artists.

A breathtaking cohesion

“The talent in South Africa is outstanding and our home forms the perfect background against which to display it,” says Jacqueline. Though each piece tells a very different story and is unique in design – and sometimes in media – the couple’s sense of styling gives the contrasting parts a breathtaking cohesion.

Immigrating to a sometimes-unpredictable country such as South Africa after a lifetime in uber-organised Germany is an adventure not many people would have the courage to undertake. But for Ralf and Jacqueline, it was the first of many wonderful changes. And, when admiring the milkwood trees proudly adding to the area’s beauty, one can’t help but see the resemblance between them and the Obrys: both are firmly routed in South African soil, and flourishing.

Stretched out on their deckchairs to enjoy another great sunset, with an ice-cold bottle of wine at the ready, they appear to have found the antidote to hard work: perfect relaxation.

Architect Celia Fraser 021 789 2371

First published in VISI 30