Superlatives will never do South Africa justice. From start to finish this trip pulsated with the uniquely eloquent rhythm that emanates from the soul of the cradle of mankind, from which we all have descended.
Once again, it has humbly dictated in a quiet and elegant fashion, that this beautiful part of our sacred planet deserves the respect and consideration that is reciprocated to any lucky individual that takes the time and invests their money (for it is an investment in ways that may not be readily apparent).
|Table of Contents|
Tour operator: Thompsons Tours
Falaza Game Park & Spa
|Thanda Private Game Reserve
Ghost Mountain Inn
These are just a few of my thoughts. Take them as you will, but I sincerely believe that anyone with a 'waking heart' may well feel the same if they carry that heart with innocent curiosity and a willingness to do as the 'sangomas' do and set aside their own egos and simply absorb what this very special region offers you.
Let it take control of your senses, and you may discover something beneficial hitherto unknown about yourself. If and when your chance arrives, please go to Southern Africa: Let its majesty blow your preconceptions to a point where they belong.
Our group of just 8 good people was a mix of tour operator staff and marketing personnel. As it turned out, we established healthy friendships throughout the trip, which contributed to making this trip exceptionally pleasant.
Flying via Johannesburg, into Richards Bay, and onwards to Falaza Game Park, Thanda Private Reserve, Mkuze, Ghost Mountain Inn, Isandlwana Lodge and Fordoun Spa in Nottingham Road, finishing at Sibaya Lodge, north of Durban, and spending a few days in Durban at the end.
An exciting overnight flight from London Heathrow's Terminal 2, served up a visual feast even better than the onboard entertainment. Part of the journey was bumpy and I watched a Celestial Armageddon going on outside at 37,000 feet with unbelievable lightning flashes and awesome displays of natures fireworks, before settling down for the rest of a very comfortable experience and waking to another amazing African sunrise (or should I say another Zulu Dawn). It felt like I was coming home again.
I envy airline pilots and how often they can witness these special occasions. I was reflecting on my good fortune of sitting with our group in the 'bubble' of our Boeing 747, where the service ratio is better, the seats feel more comfortable (an exit seat here gave me a miraculous 5 feet of leg room - slightly less clearance our flight seemed to manage over the fence at OR Tambo airport above) I can say that I arrived pretty refreshed and raring to go. If you travel in a 747, always try and request 'the bubble' (they shouldn't charge extra).
After a friendly welcome by the Immigration and Customs guys, I headed through the sliding doors that welcomed me to South Africa again and collected my rental phone (always a good idea when abroad: it saves you calling your colleagues via their UK number, when they are almost in the same room as you).
[Note: The cost of the phone for my trip was about three pounds, including rental!]
I joined our short flight to Richards Bay. The turbo prop was ominously noisy on take off but once we attained our cruising altitude, things calmed down noticeably and, once again, I found myself enjoying the special scenes out of my window.
Richards Bay began as a makeshift harbour that was set up by Commodore of the Cape, Sir Frederick Richards, during the [Anglo Zulu War] of 1879. In 1935 the Richards Bay Game Sanctuary was created to protect the ecology around the lagoon and later by 1943 it expanded into the Richards Bay Park. The town was laid-out on the shores of the lagoon in 1954 and proclaimed a town in 1969. On arrival we entered the quaint terminal building to retrieve our luggage. This place is a million metaphorical miles from the chaos that is Johannesburg and it was actually an enjoyable interlude as we saw a mysterious disembodied hand shove our luggage through the rubber doors onto a bench for collection.
We were introduced to Prince, who was to be our very entertaining guide for the duration. He was descended from a Zulu chief (as so many are). Our driver (man mountain Afrikaans guy) was Wynand, and nothing and nobody seemed to trouble him. Both gentlemen represented Thompsons Tours who were to take care of all our transportation and informative narration along the way.
The drive to Falaza Game Park & Spa was a pleasant 1-hour plus north and Prince shared his knowledge of the region along with some of its history. Guys like him have obviously studied hard, mastered some of the intricacies of English and are devoted to ensuring that their guests get the most from their visit.
On arrival at Falaza, her charming staff, (one of whom had the great name of Bongani, with whom I was to instantly make friends), met us. Ironically enough (as I found out later) the literal Zulu translation of his name means: "Be Grateful", and I was!
We also met Martin Myburgh, the manager, who took very good care of us and made our stay memorable and made us feel quite special. Privately owned Falaza Game Park and Spa offers an array of authentic bush experiences in a lush indigenous setting.
Compared to other game locations, Falaza seemed a little low key, but the emphasis here is on relaxation and nature rather than white-knuckle adventure, (but there are options) and it was good to learn of the themes here for future reference. I believe it would suit those that are less than fanatical about the Big Five and rather more inclined towards more laid back expectations.
Here, you can enjoy the true African experience and impeccable service offered by Falaza Game Park and Spa. Neighbouring the World Heritage Site of St Lucia, Falaza is near the renowned Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, boasting the 'Big Five', and the fascinating corals of Sodwana Bay.
The bar, lounges, boma, lapa, and swimming pool all encourage intimacy with nature, embracing the mood of the bush. Indulgence awaits guests selecting one of the treatment plans in the advanced facilities nestled amongst the indigenous foliage of the Spa. Physical and mental relaxation and revitalization for men and women alike are combined in a tranquil environment with specialized treatments.
Refreshments and meals can be enjoyed in a variety of cosy indoor settings or by staying in touch with the surrounding nature outdoors.
After settling in and having afternoon tea, we went on a 2-hour game drive, and were greeted by the local resident Rhino family, including some fairly new arrivals. At one point they were blocking our route and amazingly our guide simply stood up in the 4 x 4 and clapped her hands loudly and they dispersed DO NOT TRY THIS YOURSELF - (she obviously knew them well enough to have this effect).
Away from the "mother and baby unit", we found a lone male on the other side of the park, seeming to enjoy his solitude, but we were warned he could be moody so check your field of vision on the way to and from the restaurant, and don't get too close!
Falaza generally delivers great viewing and there is a range of activities available, all either on the park or in close proximity. They include:
Returning to camp about 6:30, we freshened up and met at the boma for a lovely feast, washed down with some of the best of South African wines. From dinner under the stars we adjourned to our respective homes for the night and I, for one, slept very well. It's hard not to in places like Falaza.
The lodge accommodates 30 persons in 15 luxury twin bedded tents. All tents are equipped with fans, sundeck, en-suite shower/w.c. (5 tents have baths & showers), hairdryer, tea and coffee making facilities. The tents are non-smoking, but they all have their own private deck.
An early morning walk through the primordial sand forest of Falaza brings guests into intimate contact with nature. Under the care of competent rangers, guests are often rewarded with unusual sightings of many creatures at close range. These walks are not strenuous and are enjoyed by young and old alike.
We enjoyed our "walk in the woods" and learned some new snippets from our guide, who had lived around here 'almost as long as some of the trees' he said. Among other things, I had my first introduction to The Monkey Apple Tree. The tree is browsed by small game and the leaves and roots of the tree are used medicinally. The fruit pulp is edible and apparently delicious!! It is quite common throughout South Africa, as the birdlife that have fed on the fruit in the higher branches disperse the seeds far and wide.
The brisk walking safari in the morning sun raised a hearty appetite in most of us and it was quite appropriate that it ended back at the Falaza restaurant where a sumptuous buffet breakfast was waiting for us before our departure. I felt a 2 night stay would have put me more in touch with what was on offer and I would have relished going into further detail, but the trip had a pretty strict schedule so after the friendly farewells we were on our way.
Prince asked us if we would like to pass some of the time learning some basic Zulu! (Why not?) So, on the road to Thanda we received a little more education and enjoyed the scenery, leaving Falaza behind and arriving at Thanda around one hour later.
Thanda, meaning 'love' in Zulu, is an expression of the magical union of the power of Zulu culture, wildlife, romance and exclusivity. Thanda Private Game Reserve is South Africa's top award winning safari destination and is situated in northern Zululand, in close proximity to the Indian Ocean.
The inimitable integration of South Africa's best climate and rehabilitated rich bush land has made Thanda home to amazing wildlife and over four hundred bird species. Ignite your imagination and open your mind to an extraordinary experience for your soul, mind and body. It's the unique and sought after balance between energizing and exclusive relaxation that you are invited to share.
For those arriving on a self drive, you will need to leave your car (securely watched over) at the main gate and take one of their luxurious 4 x 4 vehicles up to either the Main Lodge or the tented camp. It is only 23km north of Hluhluwe on the N2, towards Mkuze, approximately 300km north of Durban. The reserve is easily accessible from the N2, with a gravel road, the D242, going westward and approximately 5 kilometres to the Thanda gate.
The closest commercial airport is Richards Bay, and transfers are available. International guests usually fly via Johannesburg and a connecting domestic flight takes you to Richards Bay, where Thanda staff will meet you. When we arrived, we changed from our minibus at the gate to a big 4 x 4 land cruiser with high seating for fabulous viewing and headed up the 30 minutes or so, including a game drive, before arriving at the main lodge where we were warmly welcomed with a hot towel and a cooling drink.
One of our first sights at the main lodge was of a male kudu, drinking and grazing by the water hole outside the lounge, seemingly indifferent to the presence of humans, although keeping one eye on us just to watch how close we approached (we got to within about 20 feet). After satiating his needs he ambled off back into the bush.
Marietta, the manager, allowed us some time to wander around and inspect the place and I have to say that everything I'd read about it understated the actual reality of this spectacular location, where creative attention to detail and artistic imagination were fully in evidence.
Built high on a hill, the views are splendid out over the African Bush, the standard of accommodation and common areas are outstanding and I could see any would-be honeymooners or anniversary couples metaphorically patting themselves on the back for their choice.
Away from the comfort of your chosen accommodation, there are exceptional choices and experiences that await you. Knowledgeable game rangers introduce guests to the world of stargazing and the solar system. The natural, unpolluted air ensures a clear view of the magical African sky. This can be complimented with a decadent African bush dinner lit by paraffin lanterns and candlelight: perfect for a romantic surprise or a special occasion. These are not part of the usual package and need to be arranged at the lodge.
The best time for game drives is first thing in the morning and late afternoon as animals are more active during the cooler hours of the day. Game drives are conducted in open-topped Land Rovers, with a maximum of six guests per vehicle. All seats are at the side of the vehicle so everyone can get the best photographs without inconveniencing fellow guests. (Simple idea, but very effective)
A fantastic way to round an exciting morning game drive off is with a sumptuous breakfast served in the heart of the bush. Your Rangers and Trackers will keep an eye out for the wilder inhabitants of Thanda! The lodges offer a choice of five-star accommodation to suit every taste with the exclusive opulence of the main lodge or the rugged refinement of the tented camp.
The main lodge encompasses just nine bush villas, which offer guests the epitome of self-contained privacy and sheer luxury. Circular in structure and reminiscent of a traditional homestead built into a hill, each of the villas boasts a breathtaking view of the surrounding game reserve, and each villa has its own spacious lounge area and master bedroom with inter-leading fireplace. A thatched outdoor game-viewing deck (sala) and your own infinity pool offer refreshing solace from the summer heat. Each of the villas has a full en-suite bathroom complete with an enormous oval shaped bath and indoor and outdoor showers. The villas are all equipped with private bomas for an intimate and romantic dining experience.
Thanda's tented lodge, which has 4 tents, so can accommodate a maximum of 8 guests and is situated away from the lodge about 10 - 15 minutes drive and has the amazing feeling of being right in the bush. The tents themselves are fully furnished, desk wardrobes etc not double beds but 2 singles made into a double which you commonly find in South Africa, with four posters, adding to the romantic feel. The bathrooms are comfortable including hot showers, etc. There is no electricity but storm lights at night, and they will recharge any electricals up at the lodge if you need them. Given the reduced cost, they could not be better. The tents are also well positioned and are far enough apart not to feel that everyone can hear every word but close enough to the main camp areas so that you feel secure enough. There is a main lapa, where breakfast lunch and dinners are served and a viewing platform with leather sofas a plunge pool and sun loungers over looking the bush. The tented camp is sublime for winding down in luxury in spectacular surroundings. At night the campfire is lit and the camp is illuminated with storm lamps, if you walk around at night you are accompanied by staff in case any animals are surrounding the camp, though the electric fence usually has the desired effect
Thanda Private Game Reserve aims to restore nature's balance by reintroducing species endemic to the area, as well as the Big Five. The rehabilitated land has encouraged the bird and wildlife to flourish, and has assisted in the re-establishment of the natural ecosystem. Game drives and bush walks are always guided by knowledgeable and experienced game rangers and trackers and afford guests a better understanding and appreciation of the wildlife heritage.
But! Why settle for the Big Five when you can have the Big Seven? Once you've had your fill of game viewing, you can opt to join one of the many outside activities that Thanda offers. Spot whales and dolphins on a deep-sea boat trip between June and November along the eastern shores of KwaZulu-Natal, or dive with sharks in Sodwana's warm waters. The Greater St. Lucia Wetlands is South Africa's first declared world heritage site, and a boat cruise on the estuary will enable you to encounter some of the 1500 species of fauna found here.
Other activities arranged by Thanda include fresh-water and deep-sea fishing, horse riding on the beach or at a nearby non-Big Five game reserve, swimming and walking along the pristine beaches at the Indian ocean and having your own beach barbeque, snorkeling, birding safaris, micro light flights, midnight turtle tours to Mbibi, kayak and canoe safaris and visits to a traditional village and school. There are also five golf courses in the surrounding areas for golf enthusiasts.
Of course, for those guests who would prefer to savour the peace of the luxury bush retreats, enjoy the stillness of the stars above you with the privacy of your own outdoor fireplace, or a variety of relaxing therapies and beauty treatments offered by the wellness centre.
The focus point of Thanda Private Game Reserve is to fully embrace the Zulu culture by including elements of it throughout all aspects of the lodge. From the decor to the cuisine, guests will truly learn to appreciate the rich and still very much alive traditions of the Zulu people.
Vula Zulu, a traditional 'kraal' is the setting for guests to have the privilege of watching fifty to one hundred Impis trained by an associate of a Zulu prince, performing age-old dancing rites, as was done prior to and after battle.
Leaving Thanda, by way of another game drive on the way to the main gate we encountered warthog, towering giraffe, a stunning array of birdlife. We also saw some dwarf mongoose (every bit as amusing as their more TV star cousins, the meerkat) and several other wild residents of this fenceless part of the reserve. We even got a little trumpet farewell from a pair of young ellies as we departed (Is there no end to African hospitality?)
After a stunning visit, a couple of short-ish but exciting game drives, a superb buffet luncheon and having gained a much clearer perception of what Thanda Private game reserve has to offer, I was again just grateful for the opportunity to enjoy another special African treat. I would happily come back for 3 nights.
I asked Marietta of the future plans and she tells me that they are planning on building some 'super luxury' homes at the very top of the reserve for the 'rich & famous', and she smiled as she suggested the likely asking price! Also, they are to strengthen their links with the Mkuze Airstrip, which will help develop local tourism and, being only 20kms from Thanda, will provide very quick access to one of the best lodges in Africa.
Estimated transfer time will be reduced from 2 hours plus to a mere 30 minutes.
Leaving in our minibus we headed a little further north and on to Ghost Mountain Inn for our next 24 hours of learning experiences and, no doubt eloquently delivered friendship and hospitality. We were not to be disappointed.
On arrival we were warmly greeted by the welcoming staff, with a cool drink and hot towels (this is always welcome after any length of traveling on some dusty roads). I met with Craig Rutherford, the hotel manager and Jean Toucher, who was a matronly lady in charge of all the safaris and excursions and was to prove a sheer joy to travel with, because of her knowledge, hospitality and great sense of humour. She was born in Botswana, lived and worked in Zambia and has now settled here. She also has an important connection with the Mtwazi Combined School.
We were shown to our respective rooms and I was delighted to enjoy the spacious comfort of my double room, everything being in line with a four star resort.
At the foot of the legendary Ghost Mountain in Mkuze, northern KwaZulu Natal lies the privately owned 4 Star Ghost Mountain Inn - a perfect setting to experience the allure of Africa in stylish comfort. Zululand hotel accommodation at its finest.
This intimate and beautiful hotel is the ideal location from which to explore the array of wildlife and coastal reserves in Maputaland and the Elephant Coast. Nature enthusiasts will appreciate the abundance of wildlife and the scenic splendours of this rich and diverse region during game drives, guided walks and boat cruises in the company of knowledgeable rangers.
Back at the hotel, the spa offers a range of skin and body treatments and healthy lunches in a tranquil environment. Those who prefer the relaxing sound of birdsong and the warmth of the African sun will find their respite at the poolside within the glorious gardens of Ghost Mountain Inn. Relax in one of the 50 tasteful, en suite bedrooms with television, telephone and air conditioning or take in the African sunset from your own garden patio. This is an attractive alternative to Zululand bed and breakfast and guesthouse accommodation.
Having settled in and refreshed, we convened, as usual, in the bar where Jean met us and drove us along to Lake Jozini for our afternoon boat cruise. Every need had been catered for, and once aboard we sped toward the western side of the lake but as we approached Jean killed the motor and let us drift silently towards the herd of elephant browsing on the sweet reeds near the shoreline. They had evidently enjoyed a swim earlier on as their usually grey hides were a rich brown colour from the mud. They were ambling south to north and Jean timed our arrival precisely for us to get off a few good shots from a fairly close position.
Lake Jozini lies in a dramatic setting at the foot of the Lebombo Mountains and is one of South Africa's largest dams. There are several exquisite gorges, which abound with cycads and a wide variety of birds. On the western side of the dam one might see elephant, rhino, hippo and crocodile. The 13 varieties of fish found in the dam include tilapia, catfish, mudfish, carp and the sought after tiger fish. A catch and release policy for the tigers is promoted and anglers are encouraged to retain only one trophy fish each per day, releasing the live smaller ones.
As the ellies retreated with their babies into the tall grass, we turned south and got a few glimpses of hippo (well their eyes and ears anyway, apart from one that was about half exposed), but Jean was cautious enough to keep a respectful distance. These are the biggest killers of humans throughout Africa. Jean told us that only once had she had her boat rocked by an irate hippo, and she didn't want a repeat performance 'anytime soon'.
As time approached for our 'sundowners' I was appointed barman for the boat and by the time we disembarked, there wasn't a lot left in the cool boxes, and all the nibbles had disappeared too! What a stunning, pleasant and memorable way to pass an afternoon!
We headed back after sunset in darkness. Again I was reminded that this happens quickly and the old "dress like an onion" advice is always a good idea (Always bring a jacket / jumper).
Arriving back at Ghost Mountain Inn, we changed and prepared for dinner. Before entering the restaurant we were treated to a 'Zulu Fire' Dance Show, by the equally athletic male warriors and Zulu girls. The energy, vibrancy and enthusiasm of these shows demonstrate their pride in their heritage and makes for an exciting aperitif. This was one of the best floorshows I'd seen so far.
On entering the restaurant we were joined by Craig and a few of the other staff. and recounted our experiences so far. The food was fine, the company jovial and as the evening passed we established new friendships were a future possibility. Craig raised our curiosity about the legend of Ghost mountain and somewhere just before bed time, we were asked if we would like to do a dawn climb of Ghost Mountain itself, and most of us volunteered to meet at 6:00am. Those that declined opted either for a lie in or one of the fabulous spa treatments.
In the dark African pre-dawn, the human hunters (us) launched a stealthy attack on the unsuspecting coffee and muffins and we were introduced to Mbeke (the name means: 'Born at the beginning of the week'- so ' Mondays Child', I guess and the girls definitely thought he was 'fair of face') who drove us the short distance to the base of the mountain. A group of about a dozen souls began the climb which varied between slightly easy to a bit tricky, bordering on the ever-so-slightly dangerous, so one has to keep their wits about them and is best not attempted with a hangover.
Mbeke says it usually takes an easy 2 hours each way. Surprisingly we made it to the top in an hour and he seemed impressed with us. This gave us time for a few snapshots of the surrounding and very beautiful landscape as he told us more about the folk legend of the mountain (It is in places like these on mornings like these that you realise how very far from home you are. Hardly any sign of civilisation in sight for miles. Bliss!)
Looking east from Mkuze two very pronounced features rise out of the Ubombo range, on the left Gaza and on the right Tshaneni. At irregular intervals over the years, strange lights and flickering fires are seen among the fissures and cliffs of the summit. Weird noises and strange calls are also heard. A section of the Ndwandwe tribe, headed by the Gaza family, had their home beneath this mountain until Shaka conquered them in 1819 and the head of the family, Soshongane, fled with his followers into Mozambique, where he founded the Shangaan tribe.
From early times it had become customary to bury the bodies of Chiefs on Ghost Mountain. High on its slopes there is a taboo cave, used as a tomb by generations of the Gaza family. Soshongane and his descendants, although they lived many miles away in Mozambique, were carried back to the Ghost Mountain when they died. Their bodies, mummified and wrapped in black bull skins, had to be transported by bearers who travelled by night and hid during the day to avoid detection by the Zulus. After the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, when the British tried to rule Zululand by dividing it into 13 separate states, each with its own ruler, there was a period of chaotic rivalry, with feuding and fighting between Usuthu warriors, and the powerful Mandlakazi (both part of the Zulu nation).
One of the bloodiest battles occurred on this very mountain where skeletons were still found, above ground, almost 40 years later. It is logged in history books as The Battle of Tshaneni.
We were to learn about the Anglo Zulu confrontations later on this very day when we headed into the heart of the famous battlefields, but this little lesson opened my eyes to the tribal feuds that went on in these parts over past centuries.
Under the watchful eye of Mbeke, we descended to our vehicle and made good time back to shower, pack and have a peaceful breakfast in the quiet gardens before checking out and saying our grateful farewells at around 10:00am, pausing to give Jean (Our 'African Queen') a special thanks for our most enjoyable cruise and story telling experience from the day before.
We headed back on the N2 and went north through Mkuze and Pongola (not far from the border with Swaziland) , southwest passing Itala Nature Reserve and south through Vryheid, down to Dundee and then east again to Rorkes drift, where I had visited 2 years before and had been enthralled by the brilliant narrative of David Rattray, and his oral illumination concerning the events of the Battle at Isandlwana and also the brave defence at Rorkes Drift.
To listen to David Rattray narrate the story of Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana was akin to watching the best-scripted, best-directed and best-produced movie Hollywood's finest studios could put out." "It really was goose-bump stuff." Sadly, David is no longer here but his family and team maintain and continue to develop the legend. He was an absolute hero to the Zulus (and was fluent in their language) and famed throughout the world for his hard work and devotion to promoting the historical battlefields of the Zulu Kingdom as well as inducing global welfare support for local communities.
Our destination today is Isandlwana, where we are to be welcomed at Isandlwana Lodge, a stunning lodge overlooking the arena that saw one of the greatest Zulu victories in history and one of the British Army's most humiliating defeats. The battle at Isandlwana stunned the world. It was unthinkable that a "native" army armed substantially with stabbing weapons could defeat the troops of a western power armed with modern rifles and artillery, let alone wipe it out. Until news of the disaster reached Britain the Zulu War was just another colonial brushfire war of the sort that simmered constantly in many parts of the worldwide British Empire. The complete loss of a battalion of troops, news of which was sent by telegraph to Britain, transformed the nation's attitude to the war.
Rob Gerrard, FRGS, author and ex-Gordon Highlander, is the resident historian at the lodge. He was educated in Britain, commissioned into the British army, served with The Gordons in Kenya and on a secondment in Malaysia, Borneo and Thailand. His passion for British military history led him into lecturing on the battles of the Anglo Zulu War of 1879, and Anglo Boer Wars of 1881 and 1899-1902. He was made a Fellow of The Royal Geographical Society in 1998.
I found his narratives to be very dramatic and at times highly emotionally charged. I believe you can rely on his interpretations and you will have a clearer picture of events after hearing him instead of trawling through all the written accounts by others.
We were invited to the balcony in the afternoon where Rob presented the events leading up to the battle and how all the various factors combined and conspired to result in a catastrophic defeat of the British. When I listened to David Rattray a couple of years before, he suggested it was more of a Zulu victory, down to superior military tactics on the part of the Zulu and certain levels of poor communication on the part of the British. However the facts regarding Isandlwana speak for themselves.
If you are ever fortunate enough to visit this part of South Africa I would urge you to include this stunning location as part of your trip. If you remember little else of your journey, you will retain this experience for all your years to come.
The last survivor in the main battle, a soldier of the 24th, escaped to a cave on the hillside where he continued fighting until his ammunition gave out and he was shot down. (Rob Gerrard walked us to just below this point the following morning, and it was, for us all, a sombre moment when we considered the final few inevitable minutes of that soldiers life.)
After our illuminating narrative from Rob on the Isandlwana lodge balcony, he drove us down to the arena itself. Graphically explaining all the strategic and geographic aspects of the battle, Rob recounted meticulously the events of that historical day. Even educating us in the war cries of the Zulu warriors; "Hebe!", "Usuthu!"
In dramatic fashion he concluded his talk just at the setting of the sun. He drove us to "The Saddle" of the mountain, the central and conclusive location in this momentous piece of history. Soaking up and trying to imagine the scene, I gazed out of our truck's window and saw another spectacular sunset and had to fight the temptation for a photograph, as Rob was in full flow.
This was out of respect not just for him but also for those souls who ended their days here. I gazed, silently at the sunset, and realised that I would see other sunsets, unlike the 1300 British and Colonial soldiers and countless Zulu warriors who met their fate on that day. He told us that there are (astonishingly) 227 cairns (piles of white stones) which mark mass graves of British soldiers and comrades who fought and died here.
The last British soldier at the scene retreated into a small cave on the mountain where he fought to the last until his final bullet was spent, before being overcome and killed by the Zulus. One can only imagine what was going through his mind as his rapidly approaching doom inevitably took his last breath.
Under each of the cairns lay the remains of at least 5 men who lost their lives that day Departing the battle scene in a sombre mood, we returned to the lodge and I felt truly humbled but also privileged to have experienced this day and learned so much more than I knew, and planned to study more when time allowed.
A battlefield, wherever in the world it may be, evokes and invites reflection and this was no exception. They all serve as a reminder of the brutality and ultimate futility of blood letting for the sake of power, pride, material gain and serving far flung egos, allegedly, all in the name of justice and liberty. It makes one think.
I once read this little truth: "The ones who call the shots are not among the shot".
Lightening the mood, we returned to the lodge to prepare for dinner and I seemed to have got the honeymoon suite. All the (twelve) rooms are beautifully appointed with large comfy beds and locally made furniture. Bathrooms are a dream complete with fluffy towels and Molton Brown toiletries. All rooms have great views over the battlefields ... spacious and luxurious, mine could not have been better.
"The Unsinkable Molly Brown", as I was to call her is actually Pat Stubbs. One of the two owners of the lodge, she told of an interesting life and indulged my curiosity when I asked her as to how she came to be here. She is retired from a business career that took her to many parts of the world, and she was looking for a challenge when she became intrigued by a story in an investment magazine in the U.S., which highlighted the opportunity of tourism investment in Southern Africa. Pat has a house in Florida but spends much of her time at the lodge, ensuring guests are well accommodated and the local community reaps the benefits of tourism. She displays that special warm Southern Hospitality, with a lovely Mississippi Delta accent that I always find so endearing. I was to spend more time with her at Indaba a few days from now and learn more.
The story goes like this:
Two American women, Maggie Bryant and Pat Stubbs who met by chance on an airplane in the autumn of 1996, built Isandlwana Lodge, an architecturally and environmentally sensitive building, high on the iNyoni Rock just below where the Zulu commander stood during the Battle of Isandlwana. Their common interest in Southern Africa was the springboard from which a remarkable partnership ensued.
These two enterprising women visited Isandlwana together for the first time in December of 1997. Contacts with Amafa KwaZulu-Natal, the organization that manages the historical sites in KwaZulu Natal, brought them to Isandlwana to discuss a possible investment here. Some ten years before, Amafa and The Mangwe Buthanani Tribal Authority had identified the site. After discussing the possibilities with the Tribal Councillors, the group walked the site and a simple handshake with the Inkosi of the Tribe created a partnership that has brought jobs to the local community and will bring tourism revenue to the Tribal Trust for use in building schools, clinics and enhancing the life of the village. They need it and I believe the exchange of stunning history and culture for a little of our money is a fantastic deal.
One of the provisos was that the building had to be in keeping with the local scenery and this was remarkably achieved and the following day I noticed a vague similarity from a distance in the appearance of the lodge and the Zulu Memorial at Isandlwana itself. Coincidence? (I don't think so).
After chatting with Pat for a while we were ushered into the lounge area where Dalton Ngobese, a Zulu chief's descendant, our barman and part time guide at the lodge led his band of Zulus through an exciting dance and song presentation. The men have powerful Zulu voices and they 'proclaim good sound messages of proper living with AIDS'. Through singing and dancing they bring a message of hope, love, faithfulness and encouragement.
After an entertaining and informative interlude, we were invited to convene for dinner, which, as always, was announced by Nellie, our charming waitress (and not too dissimilar in looks to Whoopi Goldberg!) prior to service and the description was mouth-watering, as was the array of courses that followed. Our group had split with half of them sharing a table with Pat and the others, including me, shared our repast with Rob Gerrard. The evening that ensued was one of those memorable African nights where new friendships were suggested and welcomed, we shared some of life's experiences and this included much laughter and amusement when we shared similar anecdotes.
As the meal itself came to a close, Dalton (back in Zulu wear) led out the girls who had lovingly prepared our feast and there ensued an impromptu floorshow where some of us were invited to participate. The wine must have kicked in by now, because most of us had a go at Zulu dancing which kept the staff in giggles for some time!
As our fabulous evening drew to a close, a few of us adjourned to Daltons bar for a night cap, allowing us the chance to get to know our new friends a little better and Rob invited us on a walking tour of Isandlwana itself just after dawn tomorrow morning. Along with a few of the ladies in our group I gratefully accepted.
Back in my room, I was grateful of the hot water bottle that had been thoughtfully tucked under the bed covers and I was soon asleep and filing away the events of what had so far been, a very special tour indeed. All in all this had been a very "Zulu-ful" day.
The following morning, as I tend to do in Africa, I was awake very early and took a walk on the terrace at the lodge, hot coffee and muffin in hand, and absorbed the tranquillity of the morning. At the far end of the lodge there is a walkway to a small pool, ideal for the hotter times of the day and, beyond that, there are some private quarters (see- the military names still linger) for the management and staff at the lodge.
Heading back for a caffeine refill I encountered the others who were looking forward to our morning tour. Rob greeted us in his cheerful fashion and shortly afterwards we were on our way down to the car park near the Zulu Monument from where we were to spend a couple of hours gleaning more information about the battle, but much of our visit was spent in reverent silence as we strolled the arena and just let things sink in, recalling Rob's descriptions from yesterday and he was more than happy to answer, quite eloquently, any points we may have missed from his hypnotic lecture on the previous day. I felt very privileged to be here with such a small group of like-minded people.
As we walked around the silent mountain, I looked back over my shoulder and wondered why, of the many World Heritage Sites in South Africa, Isandlwana was not included. Despite the catastrophe that the British endured, this was, in my mind, one of the greatest victories that the Zulus had ever accomplished. It would be a cold heart that came here and walked away without some level of reflection of what happened here all those years ago.
An early morning walk often results in a healthy appetite and we made it back to the lodge by 7:30 for a cooked breakfast and some last minute formalities before meeting with Dalton again for a visit to the local village, where we were to visit a Sangoma, (diviner) who is trained in the art of, amongst other things, how to determine ailments. He or she will then send one onto an inyanga (witch doctor) who diagnoses and produces the medicine or cure. The sangoma can also foresee or predict events. Perhaps, back in 1879, there was one who knew that the British would be overwhelmed at Isandlwana?
I wished I had learned the Zulu for "What are tomorrow nights Lottery numbers?" but the moment was gone. However, without bidding he correctly diagnosed that one of our group had a long standing stomach ailment without even speaking with her! (Very impressive)
Our Sangoma was, bizarrely, wearing a T-Shirt under his cloak that said: "Jimmy Carter- the one you can trust!" (or something like that). It, of course, has a story attached.
Dalton told us that the former President of the United States Jimmy Carter and his family had stayed at the lodge and, somehow our Sangoma got his hands on the T-shirt by way of a souvenir! Incidentally, Jimmy Carter has done a lot to support various worthy causes in Africa, so I happen to like him a lot.
The sangoma philosophy is based on a belief in ancestral spirits. Both men and women can be called by the ancestors (a consequence of refusing the calling is usually ongoing physical or mental illness), though sangomas are usually female. A trainee sangoma (or twaza) trains under another sangoma, usually for a period of years, performing humbling service in the community.At times in the training, and for the graduation, a ritual sacrifice of an animal is performed (usually a chicken, a goat or a cow). The spilling of this blood is meant to seal the bond between the ancestors and the sangoma.
Sangomas are able to access advice and guidance from the ancestors for their patients in three ways: possession by an ancestor, or channelling; throwing bones; and interpreting dreams. In possession states the Sangoma works themself into a trance, through drumming, dancing and chanting, and allow their ego to step aside so an ancestor possess their body and communicates directly with the patient, providing specific information about their problems. It can be very dramatic, with the Sangoma speaking in tongues, or foreign languages according to the specific ancestor, or dancing fervently beyond her normal ability.
Today was relatively less electric but nonetheless it was fascinating both watching our Sangoma and listening to Dalton's interpretation. Alas, as things often happen, our time was short and we had to move on quickly afterwards.
Bidding fond farewells was becoming a reluctant habit, as we departed Isandlwana, but I knew we'd see some of the guys again in Durban later on. Our route today on the way to Durban was through the midlands and Nottingham Road where we had lunch arranged.
On the way we traversed the Tugela Crossing, high up in the mountains over a narrow pass with precipitous drop into a steep ravine before stopping briefly at Greytown, a town of historic note.
Ever had a cup of Earl Grey tea? We were told this town (Greytown) was named after Earl Grey of the famous tea brand. However, it seems that the town was actually named after Sir George Grey, the Governor of the Cape from 1854 to 1861, who has nothing to do with tea.
The Earl Grey blend is named after the 2nd Earl Grey, British Prime Minister in the 1830s and author of the Reform Bill of 1832, who reputedly received a gift, probably a diplomatic perquisite, of tea flavoured with bergamot oil[, taken from bergamot, a citrus fruit typical of Southeast Asia and grown commercially in Italy. I have no idea if this guy ever even set foot in Africa, let alone have a town named after him. I'll let those that are interested research this at their leisure. I guess I was due a "red herring" after all I'd been told so far!
The truth: Greytown lies 1000 metres above sea level in the heart of Umvoti County and is home to around 80,000 people (absolutely NO tea plantations).
Our destination for lunch today was Fordoun Spa Hotel and Restaurant. Travelling from Greytown and roughly following the course of the Mooi River, we arrived, a little behind schedule, met Jon Bates, the manager. He seemed fairly unflappable (he was arranging 200 guests for a wedding the following day) so he put us in the charge of his reception department and we were given a tour of the picturesque rooms and excellent facilities One of the more memorable features of this property was the old grain silo, dating back to when this was a working dairy farm, which had been converted into a flotation tank, in pitch black and offered underwater music, chosen by the guests. If you ever want total sensory deprivation, I could think of worse places!
It functions successfully as a spa resort, being an ideal finale to a long, exciting and perhaps energy sapping tour of the region, before heading down to Durban for your flight home. The accommodation and restaurant seemed worthy of its 5 star status and I'd have no hesitation in recommending the restaurant and service.
We had a delicious lunch and the staff were charming and efficient without being obtrusive. Fordoun has only been operative for 2 years (at the time I was here) but advance bookings are very reassuring indeed. Our visit was brief but enlightening and left a lasting and positive impression.
Fordoun combines the attractions of an award winning up market boutique hotel and spa with a top class conference, wedding and event destination and a superior restaurant. Fordoun caters for resident guests of the hotel as well as day visitors during the week at the Spa. Skye restaurant is open to the guests through out the week and weekend however booking is essential.
African Traditional Healer Dr Elliot Ndlovu, Inyanga (medicinal healer) and Sangoma (spiritual healer) are available to share with guests the wisdom and healing powers of Africa. In Elliot's garden we saw over 120 different species of healing plants.
The Skye Restaurant is a fine dining establishment. In the past year, they have been awarded with 2 Chefs Hats by Portfolio Places and been listed in The BOE / Moet en Chandon Top 100 Restaurants in South Africa.
The hotel comprises just seventeen luxurious, individually appointed double suites with private verandas, underfloor heating and dream bathrooms, each with bath and shower, and a dressing area. Each room has its own television, and tea/coffee-making facilities. There is also a double suite with wheelchair access and specially adapted bathroom. Despite its luxurious atmosphere, and emphasis on quality, Fordoun's rates are surprisingly competitive in relation to similar hydros elsewhere.
Leaving Fordoun, we headed out to Nottingham Road, Howick area and headed east towards Pietermaritzburg, the capital and second largest city of the province of KwaZulu-Natal It was founded in 1838. Popularly called Maritzburg, and abbreviated PMB, it is home to the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The city offers an airport (Oribi), not an international airport but offers excellent national destinations and inter-city flights, and can offer a quick alternative to the 3-hour drive down to Durban airport.
Some of the architecture was Victorian with a Byzantine twist, such as the Old Town Hall The Tatham Gallery building, which was built in 1871, is one of the top 7 art museums in South Africa.
Pietermaritzburg is where Mahatma Gandhi was shoved out a train 1893 after refusing to move from the first class to a third class coach while holding a first class ticket. This unsavoury incident proved to be a landmark event in Gandhi's life as he made it a mission to protest such incidents of racial abuse. Pietermaritzburg city now hosts a commemorative statue of this remarkable man.
Hitting the rush hour traffic ebbing and flowing around the north side of Durban, we arrived at Sibaya Casino and Entertainment Kingdom, which was to be our nest for the next two nights. Our accommodation was at the Sibaya hotel, an annexe to the main complex. This is fine for the business traveller spending only a small part of their time in their room. For the leisure traveller, there is nothing of interest without heading out in your hire car. The casino next door seemed to be a draw for locals and on the first night, I walked through it after midnight and was a little surprised to see mainly, Asian women on the slots trying to improve their bank balances. The fast food outlets were tacky and the atmosphere was a world away from what we had experienced over the previous few days. I would only recommend staying here if you simply wanted to rest up for the night before heading on to more magical climes. It does, however, offer occasional Zulu dance performances, which could initiate the traveller into some of the experiences that lay ahead.
I had a few business meetings over the next couple of days, so this is pretty much where the tour ends, until the next one!
At the airport, about 20 minutes drive from the city centre; I was reunited with my luggage (you can ask the hotel to send them on ahead for you instead of lugging it around or risk having it stolen if you leave it unattended) I remain very grateful for all the new sights, new friendships and memories I am taking with me and shall treasure for a very long time.
When I arrived in Johannesburg, I couldn't believe my luck! Again, South African Airways had booked us on the upper deck again (in the bubble) and the service, comfort and legroom were excellent all the way home to Heathrow.
Homecoming: We arrived about 6:30 the following morning and then things went back to normal. I waited over an hour for my luggage, endured a snails pace getting through Immigration and Customs and I eventually boarded my National Express coach about 9:00 am.
It got better. On the journey back to Brighton there was an accident on the M25 and this resulted in the motorway being completely closed between Reigate and the M23 turn off and usual journey time of 2 hours became almost 7 hours. Somehow, It really didn't bother me, but there were some passengers trying to make a connecting flight from Gatwick onwards to somewhere and it became apparent they weren't going to make it and there was quite a bit of abuse being hurled (senselessly) at the poor driver. What they would've done in Africa, goodness knows!
Rather than involve myself, I just drew my bush hat over my face and went to sleep to ponder another magnificent trip to a very, very special part of the planet.
Africa invites dreams and fulfills them time after time after time It has been there for a million years or more and should be regarded as a blueprint for nature. Culture and beauty abound, from which we could all learn so much. And that can only be a good thing!
There is a saying in is Zulu language which says: "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu", meaning:
Therefore I hope we all keep meeting 'other people' whenever we can.
|Safari Location:||Falaza Game Park, Thanda Private Game Reserve, Mkhuze Game Reserve - South Africa|
|Safari Company Used:||Thompsons Tours|
|Duration:||7 May for 7 days|
|Traveller Details:||Kevin Guidera|
|Rates & Availability:||Plan your own safari. Make an enquiry|