DORP: The bubble on the hill

Mama’s rules for keeping guests and staff safe from covid-19

Frank Malaba, Manager of Dorp Hotel

In Brief

  • The trendy Dorp Hotel in Cape Town created a covid-19 free ‘bubble’ that’s mainly responsible for guests returning to the hotel. How did they do it?
  • Cleanliness, safety, security and ethical will be even more important buzzwords for hotel stay in a world after coronavirus.

Frank Malaba, 38, lived in a state of perpetual anxiety. It was the end of March and he didn't think he'd make the rent for a while.

"I was treading on thin ice," Frank says.


Things were looking up for him at the beginning of 2020. He was happy with his new job as manager of the trendy Dorp Hotel in Cape Town. But then the covid-19 pandemic happened and Dorp paused operations after the government announced the covid-19 lockdown measure.


"I was worried about my life and how to survive."


Malaba was right to worry. The future is uncertain for many workers in the beleaguered hospitality industry.


"It wasn't Mama’s fault that the pandemic happened. We understood the hotel had to close and we braced ourselves for bleak times. For me, paying the rent was paramount.”


Lockdown in South Africa started close to payday. Frank cringed at any incoming text message fearing it could be a notification for a bounced debit order. Then the text message confirming his salary payment for March arrived.


"We got paid in full during the four months of hard lockdown. I called Mama on behalf of my colleagues and she said we would remain in solidarity through the pandemic." 


The person Frank refers to as ‘Mama’ is Gail Behr, the owner of Dorp Hotel. uSpiked’s history with the Dorp goes way back before the boutique hotel existed. In 2017, Cedar Falls (the developer of Dorp) soldiered on with the project in Bokaap amid riotous objections by some community members who felt the foray by property companies in the area threatened their heritage. I reported that the objections had little to do with heritage. Nevertheless, the objections caused a few developers to leave the neighbourhood and at great cost. 


A few weeks ago, I received a text message with a video


A post shared by Dorp Hotel (@dorphotel)

of the award-winning musician, PJ Powers, singing and dancing with Dorp’s staff. 

I contacted Gail to find out how the establishment is faring during the second wave of the covid-19 pandemic and the infamous new variant in South Africa. Gail said she is “busy and trying to dodge COVID-19 bullets.” I asked if I could see for myself how the COVID-19 bullet-dodging game is played at the hill. I was curious to see the safety measures in place at Dorp, which is mainly patronised by professionals in the creatives industry. Gail invited me for lunch on condition that I kept my mask on at all times.


Gail means business when it comes to observing the covid-19 protective measures. I was screened on arrival and led to join my host for a socially-distanced lunch, together with PJ Powers and two other guests. I must confess to being star-struck in Thandeka's presence that I cannot remember the names of the other two people at the lunch table. PJ is special in her own right. Once I even knew a few of her songs by heart.  


Frank and I spoke after our lunch with Gail and I learned that he has a knack for languages. He's fluent in nine local languages plus English and previously worked as a freelance translator for local and international film and TV production companies. 


I asked him how they have managed to maintain the safety of staff and patrons. “Mama patrols the establishment like a Mugabe’s soldier on foot-patrol,” says Frank, chuckling through his mask.


“It’s mama’s rules or the highway, no matter who you are. She will kick you out immediately if you flout the rules.”


I can see Gail kicking an errant guest out of Dorp and I too chuckled, thinking of the similarities with Basil Fawlty of the British sitcom Fawlty Towers. Frank, who had watched Fawlty Towers, quipped, “Fawlty Towers or not, Dorp is our Mama’s house and we all feel and claim its ownership. It is our home away from home.”


As the lockdown progressed, Mama, together with public health professionals, transformed Dorp into a bubble in the style of the American NBA bubble and catered for staff members who could not isolate safely in their homes. 


With the easing of the lockdown restrictions in August 2020 by President Cyril Ramaphosa, Dorp was ready to safely reopen.  Staff who had not been Locked-down at Dorp were called back. The staff who were all still on the payroll returned and by September the bookings had started to pick up.


It’s not all about business at Dorp, Frank says. “We are like a commune and disparagers aren’t tolerated. 


"The soft music playing in the background often gets cranked up and we would spill onto the garden and corridors for quick, safe and socially-distanced dance routines. It’s just so much fun. Not many people have fun while earning a living and I feel lucky.”


With its magnificent décor and breath-taking view of Cape Town, Dorp has become the preferred destination for crews of production companies. But don’t drive up the hill expecting to be welcomed for lunch or dinner. This beauty is only available to resident guests. Also, please know that Dorp doesn’t sell liquor.