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Saturday, 26 December 2015

The Heart of South Africa


By: Cindy Lou Dale

DURBAN - The pulse of the Zulu kingdom

The rickshaw was waiting outside my hotel. "Durban, she is an exciting, playful city; but the Madam, she does not want to play," said Zuma, my rickshaw-puller who pounded tirelessly along Marine Parade, ordained in a magnificent head-dress, resplendent with beads and other decorations. "The madam, me thinks she wants the mountains and the seas."
I told Zuma of my plans to travel through KwaZulu Natal. His handsome ebony face beamed a radiant smile and his features softened as he spoke of his land and his people. "The madam, she is going to the heart of my land. The city she is only the pulse." Only later would I understand what he meant.

ZULULAND - The heart of the kingdom

The following morning I hired a 4x4 and headed north along the Indian Ocean coast road, taking me through Zululand. The sheer majesty of this region was awesome - the cobalt blue Indian Ocean, the Mangrove swamps and limpid lagoons, the rolling green hills and indigenous forests and always, the wide welcoming smiles from the locals.
Driving through the Valley of the Zulu Kings, I felt certain, when listening carefully, that I could hear the wind sigh and whisper the secrets and sorrows of great battles, made visible by lone forts and small graveyards on ghostly undulating landscapes. I found the battlefields where I followed the footsteps of famous military strategists - Shaka - King of the Zulu's; Winston Churchill; Mahatma Gandhi. The Zulu kingdom that once lay in blood-soaked conflict today lies in peace.
Some 100 miles from Durban, up the coast near Eshowe (milk-bush shrubs), a guide took me by ox wagon to ShakaLand, a small Zulu village of beehive huts especially built for the movie set of Shaka Zulu. Here I experienced Zulu hospitality at its best and observed a traditional wedding ceremony. I visited a Sangoma (witchdoctor) who threw 'the bones' for me and 'cast away the evil spirits'.

SODWANA BAY - 7 Mile Dive

I continued my journey up the Zululand coast passing numerous deserted beaches and eventually reached Sodwana Bay. Sodwana Bay is one of South Africa's most popular dive sites and is situated in the northern reaches of KwaZulu Natal. Sodwana, meaning 'little one on its own' in Zulu, is easily accessible - only four hours by car from Durban. The reefs at Sodwana are named after their distance from the launch site, starting from "2 Mile" going up to "9 Mile". Perhaps the most scenic reef is "7 Mile", which on a good day can compare with the best in the world, like Wakatobi in Indonesia, the Red Sea, Australia, or Madagascar's Barra Reef - where I learned to dive. Sodwana is diveable all year round, with the best conditions during the warm summer months from November to May.
While at Sodwana Bay, a German adrenalin junkie, Klaus, convinced me to join him in Gaansbaai (Afrikaans for Goose Bay), a coastal town on South Africa's famed Garden Route. "Gaanzbaai", he claimed, "offerz ze bezt shark cage divink in ze world." Taking comfort in his fearlessness and evident indestructibility, I agreed. A few days later I joined him on the 'Barracuda' and motored out of Gaansbaai's Harbor. Frankie, our Skipper, said we were heading towards Dyer Island and would be there within 20-minutes - this statement evoked frantic activity on the deck. I found a discreet corner to ooze myself into a diving suit and true to his word, 20-minutes later we dropped anchor. The crew excitedly began chumming the water with bloody entrails. Moments later Klaus and I were lowered into ocean. Too late for regrets now, I thought and said a silent prayer.
Klaus pointed out a Great White effortlessly gliding by; it took a bite at the innards which had been thrown overboard. In the gloomy distance I spied a dark shape fast approaching. When I realized what it was - a Great White of gigantic proportions, I began frantically gesturing at Klaus to look. Just as I was preparing myself for death, the mammoth beast turned away at the last moment, its tail glancing off the steel bars, sending the cage crashing into the hull of the boat above, and us tumbling within it.
Later on deck, with a cold beer in hand and wrapped in a warm towel, Klaus enquired about the 'dangers of South Africa'. He asked the Skipper what the chances were of him being shot and stabbed. Frankie regarded him sternly and replied, "It depends on what you mean by dangerous - inoculations are available against most tropical diseases; being shot and stabbed rarely happens, unless you're extremely unlucky. Being savaged by a wild beast is more likely but most people manage a more or less complete recovery - given time and physiotherapy - many even walk again." Klaus was ashen. Frankie chuckled, looked away, and winked at one of his crewmen.
When my feet touched dry land later that day, I felt deep admiration and respect for the ocean. Klaus and I were ready for several very large drinks and were marched off to the nearest watering hole by our Skipper and his crew.

DRAKENSBERG MOUNTAIN RANGE - The soul of the Zulu Kingdom

The following morning I traveled north-east, in the direction of the famed Drakensberg Mountains. Its awe-inspiring basalt cliffs, which are snow-capped in winter, tower over riverine bush, lush yellow-wood forests and cascading waterfalls which form a massive barrier separating KwaZulu Natal from the Kingdom of Lesotho.
The only access to Lesotho is via the Sani Pass which, at the top, boasts the highest pub in Africa, at some 3,000 meters above sea level. This spectacular mountain pass is the gateway to the scenic 'Roof of Africa' route that links the dramatic scenery of the Drakensberg with the mountains of northern Lesotho. The road is treacherous and requires a 4x4, especially in bad weather.
The 600,000-acre mountainous region known as the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park (uKhahlamba means Drakensberg in Zulu) has been preserved and venerated for eons since the San Bushmen roamed the slopes. Tens of thousands of paintings depicting their daily life can be found on rock faces - now a World Heritage site.
The fearless traveler may wish to conquer the cliffs in summer or ice-climbing in winter and the adrenaline junkies may prefer repelling, white water rafting or a helicopter ride to view the mountains from above. But I opted for what I thought would be the genteel and leisurely pace of walking one of the many well-marked hiking routes. Our trekker-guide, Jade, a white haired and sweetly unobtrusive elderly lady, shepparded my group into a single file line and marched us for the day at a frightening pace.
The Drakensberg is truly a hiker's paradise - a high mountain range is a wilderness that renews your body and soul. This world of sheer cliffs, deeply incised valleys and crystal clear rivers, is where the bearded vulture, the black eagle and numerous species of antelope, find refuse. This range was once also home to the San Bushmen, as is evident in the thousands of rock paintings.
The hikes offered range from a gentle stroll to extremely strenuous. Popular hikes include the Giant's Cup Trail at Cobham (3, 4 or 5 nights - 59km/37 miles), a truly magnificent trail designed to give the hiker as much diversity as possible, the Thukela Gorge hike (2 - 3 hours, 7km/4 miles) at Royal Natal, which hikes through alternative stretches of protea (national flower), grassland and forest with the only scenic rival being the view from the top of the Thukela Falls and the thrilling Cathedral Peak trail (6 - 7 hours, 10km/6 miles) that affords the experienced hiker a chance to stand on one of the major free-standing peaks in the Drakensberg.
The following afternoon I returned to Durban.

FIT FOR A KING - Ethnic food for the soul

On my last night in South Africa, I decided to experience the Zulu culture one more time and headed into the ghettos with my guide, who promised me the best Shebeen (African bar) in the province.
Matilda, a rotund Zulu woman clad in a leopard-print pant suit, runs a true African Shebeen — hot, dark, and filled with African gewgaws with drinks served in worn enamel mugs. The local residents crowd her small establishment, 'kicking back' with potent Durban Cane 'for pain' (a fruity rum punch with a stick of sugar cane) and live, pulsating, African music. Ignore the African way of tortoise-speed service, and do like the locals and enjoy the experience.
Matilda and her husband, Philemon, sweat like diamond miners in a kitchen the size of a small sailing galley, putting together the "Shebeen Cuisine" they had become famous for; including their trademark dish of Durban's "Bunny-chow", which is a thick lamb curry in a hollowed-out hunk of bread.
For starters I ordered Mopani worms, coated in beer batter, flash fried and served with a sweetly overpowering chili sauce and a side-dish of Vhuswa pap (a traditional porridge, made with maize meal), washed down with several stout beers served in bottles to douse the chili sauce. How do the worms taste? I hear someone ask. They are very chewy and taste, well, just like you'd expect worms to taste — slightly scaly, crunchy skin, and a bit earthy. An hour later I was told there were two items available for a main course. Matilda's special, which she claimed it to be Nelson Mandela's favorite, was again, Mopani worms and Mogodu (black tripe and wild African spinach stew). I opted for choice number two: ostrich steak and cubed crocodile tail, grilled quickly and served with a cherry-peppercorn sauce and nothing much else - presented on a battered tin plate. Dessert was a fabulous vinegar pudding, comprised of sponge cake with a sweet and sour sauce.
Later Matilda brought a bottle of aptly names "Jungle Juice" to my table. She confided that it was in fact apricot brandy distilled in a back room. She settled her large frame into a comfortable position and said; "Now the madam and Matilda, we drink". And so we did.
The following morning I checked out of my hotel and left my luggage in the baggage area. I strolled down to the Marine Parade with a heavy heart. I found a bench under a palm tree and ate a bunny-chow. I watched the local women meet and chat - a colorful and noisy explosion of skirts and tribal beads, who shrieked with hilarity at the gossip being told. At that moment I realized I was smitten with this beautiful country, its golden beaches and its warm ocean. I left for the airport knowing I had lost my heart to the spirited and proud Zulu people.
As my plane landed at Heathrow I recalled Zuma's words "The madam, she is going to the heart of my land. The city she is only the pulse." The Zulu people had touched me with their warm hospitality and friendly smiles. The South African's I found remarkable in their curious lack of urgency and their dogged determination to squeeze every moment out of a day. This was an experience which will linger long, together with the memories of their vast blue sky and baking sun.
Let The Little Travel Consultant plan your trip to discover the heart of South Africa.

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