KwaZulu-Natal’s exquisite landscape is a giant potjie of ethnic, religious, culinary and historical ingredients that are putting cultural tourism on the map…
Words: Anita de Villiers
Pictures: Anita de Villiers and Supplied
To try to digest even a spoonful of this stew of cultural tourism in KwaZulu-Natal is near impossible. So I chose a small number of destinations that would give an eagle’s perspective of what the landscape of cultural travel looks like in this land of the Zulu, the Indian, the English and the Afrikaner (there are many other groups, I’m not even going there for now).
The Drakensberg and iSimangaliso Wetland Park share the distinction of being included in South Africa’s eight Unesco World Heritage Sites. These two destinations epitomise what in touristy terms is known as the Berg, the Bush and the Beach, but from a cultural angle there is much to learn and do.
Listed by Unesco as the Maloti Drakensberg Transboundary World Heritage Site, this mountainous area straddles the Kingdom of Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal, with the 242 813ha uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park on the South African side. uKhahlamba is Zulu for ‘barrier of spears’, while the Afrikaans word Drakensberg, poetically pronounces this majestic range as ‘dragon mountains’.
Integral to the Berg’s heritage status are the rock paintings created by the San people over four millennia. Some 655 sites with more than 35 000 paintings depict the animals, objects and spiritual life of the first people who dwelled the length and breadth of Southern Africa, long before any other group migrated here. So they are the only group that needn’t take a hike. For the rest, hiking the weather-carved valleys, rocky ravines and climbing the dramatic rockfaces of the Berg is what it is all about.
Buy a hiking pole made by the local people, put on your boots and imbibe the essence of Africa. The Monk’s Cowl route in the Central Berg’s Champagne Valley is a good place to start.
While in Champagne Valley, also discover Falcon Ridge Bird of Prey Centre. Every morning, except Mondays and Fridays, starting at 10h30, Greg and Allison Mc Bey demonstrate the prowess and antics of the Black, Fish and Wahlberg’s Eagles, and other birds of prey. They also demonstrate the fascinating art of falconry – training and using birds of prey to hunt.
Greg tells us that this sport of the medieval nobles has a linguistic legacy in words such as ‘hoodwinked’ and phrases like ‘at the end of your tether’. Falcon Ridge is also a rehabilitation centre for injured birds, making the centre part of one of the strongest strands of the culture of this province, namely conservation.
Visitors to iSimangaliso on the KZN North Coast may not know about what has been described as ‘the conservation fight of the century’, that started in 1989 – a fierce struggle to stop the mining of titanium-rich dunes at Lake St Lucia. Spearheading this monumental effort were conservation big guns like Ian Garland and Ian Player.
It was Nelson Mandela who was finally instrumental in the ruling to not mine this incomparable natural jewel, one that eventually became a World Heritage Site that now stretches its boundaries up to the Kosi Bay lakes on the Mozambique border. iSimangaliso, the Zulu word for ‘miracle and wonder’ was described by Madiba as ‘the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest mammal (the whale)’.
Whether scuba diving Cape Vidal’s reefs, watching a loggerhead or leatherback lay her eggs on a pristine beach, discovering the traditional fish kraals of the Tonga people in the Kosi Bay lakes, or seeking out the Big Five in Mkhuze Game Reserve, these are all miracles that are conserved for the next generations.
Battles fought during the last decades of the 20th century in north-western KwaZulu-Natal were wars that spilled the blood of countless Zulus, Boers and Brits – diverse nations that would in time become the people of South Africa.
Making sense of the complexity of numerous battles during the Anglo-Boer Wars and the Anglo-Zulu War, asks for more than a meander through the Battlefields Route. The route’s website recommends that you choose an era or a war, select the sites you want to visit and find a guide to interpret the lay of the land.
Resident historian and guide at Isandlwana Lodge, Rob Gerrard has an interpretation of the fierce battle between King Cetshwayo’s Zulu army and the British Invasion Force under Lord Chelmsford’s command that is nothing short of spellbinding. You hear, smell and taste the fierceness of 20 000 Zulu warriors in battle, the defeat of the British as a result of underestimating the enemy, the flight of soldiers through the Fugitive’s Trail to the missionary station at Rorke’s Drift in order to save the Queen’s Colours, and the ensuing battle fought here. The white cairns across the Isandlwana plains mark the mass graves of the 1 357 British soldiers who lost their lives here.
To appreciate the detailed canvas of the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer wars, plus a variety of cultural and historical aspects of the KZN landscape, Talana Museum, spread over 180 acres just outside the town of Dundee, is the place to go. Thanks to curator Pam McFadden and her staff, the standard is world-class and the content and activities of the museum are ever-evolving.
Of interest is the bronze bust of Mahatma Gandhi that commemorates his 21-year contribution to the destiny of the South African Indian community. As the creator of the concept of Satyagraha – a combination of Sanskrit words that can be translated as ‘insistence on truth’ – Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent civil resistance grew on South African soil. It was a philosophy that would influence both Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Pam is a fountain of enthusiasm and knowledge and relates that Gandhi was once imprisoned in Dundee for civil disobedience but was quickly released because of his international stature.
It was a year after Mandela and the African National Congress turned away from non-violent resistance, and formed their armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), that Mandela was captured near the town of Howick. Sunday, 5 August 1962 would mark the day that his transformational 27-year walk to freedom began.
At the Mandela Capture Site there is what to me must be one of the most impressive sculptures of this iconic man. Designed by artist Marco Cianfanelli, 50 steel poles between eight and ten metres in height, are arranged in such a way that, from thirty-five metres away, you can one make out Mandela’s profile. The emotions this visual experience arouses resonate with something in Cianfanelli’s approach to his work: “I am interested in making things that prompt a sense of the complexity of the present.”
Moving on from Mandela, who in his later years charmed the world with his Madiba shuffle, the tempo quickens considerably to the rhythms and traditions of Zulu culture.
At Shakaland near the town of Eshowe, an array of activities and demonstrations give a fascinating view of the Zulu culture. Originally built for the movie King Shaka, Shakaland is now a living museum representing a Zulu village, where people in traditional clothing perform ceremonies and activities like stick fighting, beer tasting, beadwork, pottery, spear throwing and more. It is, however, the robust and lively dancing that literally reverberates inside you. The beat of the drums overwhelms even the most sceptic traveller.
An apt closing thought on what a cultural landscape can offer the traveller, can, I think, be found in this, from Mark Twain: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness’