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Vacationing in scenic Zululand

Few visitors to South Africa venture into the historic, pastoral Zulu heartland. Our correspondent laments the oversight. Here are her recommendations.

Zululand Zebras

Mpila Camp at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in South Africa's KwaZulu Natal province. Visitors stay in chalets where animals are free to wander. (Photo by Erin Conway-Smith)

 

South Africa is a diverse country. Consider the unfamiliar list of options when you stick your bank card into an ATM. The display screen is chockablock with languages to choose from, ranging from English to Afrikaans to isiZulu.

IsiZulu is the most widely spoken of the country's 11 official languages. It's the tongue of the Zulus, the largest ethnic group at 24 percent of the population. President Jacob Zuma is perhaps the most famous Zulu. He proudly embraces traditions such as polygamy (he has been married five times, has three current wives and is engaged to another prospect), and is prone to dancing in leopard skins at traditional functions.

Zululand, the heart of the Zulu Kingdom in KwaZulu Natal province, is rarely thought of as a travel destination even by South Africans, who instead flock to the nearby seaside city of Durban. That's a shame. Zululand boasts natural beauty and historical sites, ranging from the protected Indian Ocean coastline near the Mozambican border to the stark, hilly battlefields from the Anglo-Zulu war. A visit to Zululand is essential for anyone interested in fascinating battle stories, but the area’s abundant natural beauty holds particular appeal for outdoor adventurers and nature lovers wanting to scuba dive with whale sharks and spot leatherback turtles along the coast.

On a recent trip to KwaZulu Natal, as we rushed to make it to the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park before gates closed at dusk, our car got a flat tire on a rural highway near the president’s village homestead, a place called Nkandla. As we fumbled at roadside, luggage strewn on the ground while we searched for a missing jack handle in our trunk, we became a roadside attraction for a stream of children in tidy uniforms walking home from school along the highway. While English speakers will generally have no problems getting around in KwaZulu Natal, the exception is in rural areas such as this one, as we found out when trying to repair the tire at a nearby garage.

Flat finally fixed, and with the late afternoon sun casting a golden glow over the green hills and rondavel huts, we continued our journey through Zululand, reaching our safari destination just in time.
 

Touring the Zulu battlefields

The northwest part of KwaZulu Natal province is littered with battlefields where fearsome Zulu warriors clashed with British and Boer invaders in the 1800s. We visited the sites of two battles at the start of the Anglo-Zulu war: Isandlwana, where the Zulus decimated the British, and Rorke’s Drift, where a small band of Brits held out against Zulu forces (both of these battles were made into major films – see “Zulu!” and “Zulu Dawn”).

Even for those not interested in war history, the area is stunningly scenic with a great variety of birdlife. The abundant Paradise Whydah, with their beautiful long tails, appear to float over grassy fields.

Our guide Thulani walked us through the two battlefields, which are only a short drive apart. He was a gripping storyteller with an impressive knowledge of the area’s history. Most battlefield tourists stay at one of the upscale lodges in the area – we stayed at Rorke’s Drift Lodge and would recommend it for the excellent food and spectacular vistas.

Address: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are located in the KwaZulu Natal midlands; the nearest sizeable town is Dundee.

Phone number for the historic sites: +27 (0)35 870-2050/1/2

Website: http://heritagekzn.co.za

Opening hours: Daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Bookings: Pre-arranging a tour with a knowledgeable guide is highly recommended. There are several excellent guides working in the area, most affiliated with the high-end lodges. Our Zulu guide, Thulani, can be reached at +27 (0)72 872-9782.

Price: We paid $13 per person per battlefield site for the guide, plus an official entry fee of $3 per site.

How much time to allow: Most visitors will drive themselves to the different battlefields, and hardcore war history aficionados will stretch the trip to a week – or you can choose one or two sites and do it in a day.

 

Special equipment, experience or dress: You’ll be walking outdoors, so wear comfortable shoes and bring a hat and sunglasses for protection from the fierce South African sun.

 


Safari at the former Zulu royal hunting grounds

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park encompasses the African continent’s oldest game reserves – Hluhluwe and iMfolozi, both dating back to 1895 and originally Zulu King Shaka’s private hunting grounds. There's also a much newer corridor that links the two areas.

Today you can take self-drive safaris or go on park-organized drives and guided walks to try and spot the “Big Five” animals (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino). The area is particularly known for its huge rhino population – the largest in the world. It was here that white rhinos were nurtured back from the brink of extinction starting in the 1950s and 60s.

Within the park, a range of accommodation is available, from an eight-bed lodge to huts with communal washrooms and shower facilities. We stayed in a simple yet surprisingly comfortable hut at Hilltop Camp on the Hluhluwe side, which has a stunning lookout from its restaurant and pub. We also stayed at Mpila Camp in the iMfolozi section, where the small cottages are not fenced off from the reserve, allowing zebras, impalas and other wild animals to wander through. A sign warns visitors to keep doors closed to prevent hyenas from snatching your children.

Phone number for park information: +27 (0)33 845-1000

Website: http://www.kznwildlife.com

Opening days and hours: The park is open daily but gate opening and closing times vary depending on season. In the South African summer, the gates are open from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. In the South African winter, they are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Best time to visit: It is easier to spot animals in the winter – so, April to September – when it is cooler and drier, with less vegetation to block the view.

Price: There is a daily “conservation levy” for foreign visitors of $16 per adult and $8 per child. Accommodation prices vary greatly, but are generally reasonably priced and can be booked online.

How much time to allow: Spend at least two nights for the full experience of staying in the park and for the best chances of spotting animals.

Special equipment, experience or dress: Bring running shoes or hiking boots and natural-colored clothing (think greens, browns and beiges) if you plan on taking a guided bush walk. Don’t forget binoculars and a long lens for your camera.

 

Exploring the World Heritage coast


Head north from the tourist village of St. Lucia through the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and you will discover some unusually varied scenery. To your right is the Indian Ocean, buffered by a coastal forest and sand dunes covered in lush vegetation. Take a left to find swamp forests and the freshwater Lake St. Lucia, filled with hippos and crocodiles. The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has at least five distinct ecosystems and 356 bird species – the highest number in all of Africa.

We stayed in a log cabin within the park at Cape Vidal (beware of the aggressive vervet monkeys). The old-fashioned cabins could use a renovation, but they’re inexpensive and charming. It’s a short walk over sand dunes to the beach for sunbathing, snorkeling and saltwater fly-fishing. Buy a map of the park and take self-drive safaris to explore the various landscapes and spot wild animals and birds, and stop off at any one of a number of picnic spots complete with barbeque pits (known here as “braai” pits). Tour operators based in St. Lucia offer activities including boat cruises on the lake, deep-sea fishing and cultural tours.

Phone number: +27 (0) 35 590-1633

Website: http://www.isimangaliso.com/

Opening hours: Park entry times are generally from sunup to sundown, but vary by month and by park gate and so visitors should carefully check the website. Be aware that a limited number of cars are allowed into the park every day, so it is best to turn up early.

Price: Varies depending on what part of the extensive park you are visiting. Entering from the St Lucia side, there is a fee of $5.85 per vehicle and $4.40 per person. Accommodation at Cape Vidal ranges from $15 per person for a campsite to $45 per person for a five-bed cabin with full kitchen.

Special equipment, experience or dress: Bring snorkeling equipment and fly-fishing gear if you are so inclined, but note that ocean activities are heavily dependent on the tides. If you inquire at the information booth at Cape Vidal beach, park rangers will give you a handy tide chart.

Be aware that this area is a malaria zone, although it is considered relatively low risk. Consider taking malaria prophylactics, and at dawn and dusk always cover up and use mosquito repellent (Peaceful Sleep and Tabard are two good local brands).

 

Night turtle patrol at Rocktail Bay

 

It is one of nature’s most mysterious events: sea turtles that travel halfway around the world and yet somehow manage to return to the beaches where they were born in order to lay eggs. At Rocktail Bay, a remote northern stretch of the isiMangaliso Wetland Park, researchers drive along the beach every night between mid-October and mid-March to monitor the endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles that come ashore to deposit their eggs deep into the sand.

Only two groups of tourists are allowed along on the research drives each night – one jeep from Thonga Beach Lodge, and one from Rocktail Beach Camp, where we stayed. Both are upscale lodges, but the research drives don’t pander to visitors – it is all about the turtles. Visitors must follow strict rules to ensure the turtles are not disturbed. The turtle drives can stretch past midnight, depending on how many turtles you see and how long they take to lay their eggs – there’s no way to rush them along.  If you happen to be here later in the summer, you might see the eggs hatching and the baby turtles scrambling for the sea.

We headed out for a windy night drive with Mbongeni, a local guide who has been involved in turtle research on this beach for more than 20 years. Every night in the South African summer he patrols a section of the beach. We were fortunate enough to see two loggerhead turtles, including one who laid her 100 eggs in the sand and carefully covered them up, then struggled back slowly into the ocean – a truly amazing sight.

Phone number: +27 (0)11 257-5111

Website: http://www.rocktailbay.com/

Best time to visit: Turtle drives are only available from mid-October to mid-March.

Price: The luxury tented rooms with en suite bathrooms are $205 per adult, including meals. The turtle drive costs $25 per person.

How much time to allow: There is no guarantee of seeing turtles, but if you are really keen, stay at least two nights at the lodge to improve your chances.

Special equipment, experience or dress: Wear a sweater and windproof jacket for the night drive, although an insulated poncho will be provided. To reach Rocktail Beach Camp you need a 4x4 vehicle, or you can arrange to leave your car in a secure lot and the lodge will pick you up.

 

Scuba diving at Sodwana Bay

Sodwana Bay is on the “Elephant Coast” in northern Zululand, so named for the country's largest herd of indigenous African elephants, which live in the coastal dune forests set back from the white sand beaches. 

The diving at Sodwana Bay, which has Africa’s southernmost coral reefs, is remarkable for a few reasons: in addition to corals and tropical fish, you can see whale sharks and manta rays, plus humpback whales depending on the time of year. Most species of shark have been spotted in the area, including ragged-tooth sharks, tiger sharks and hammerheads. It is also here that a colony of the extremely rare prehistoric coelacanth fish was discovered by divers a few years ago.

For the best local knowledge on dive sites, stay at scuba diving-focused accommodation such as Triton Dive Lodge, run by one of the local divers that found and filmed the coelacanths.

Phone number: +27 (0)82 494-8761

Website: http://www.tritondiving.co.za/

Opening days and hours and best time to visit: While diving is good year-round – and the cooler months from July to October mean less traffic – most people prefer the South African summer when the water is around 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

Price: Accommodation in simple thatched cabins starts at $29 a night, but you’ll do better to buy a dive package – for example, two nights’ stay and three dives for $154. A single dive with no accommodation is $40, with additional costs for dive sites that are further offshore. There are extra costs for diver permits and for renting gear.

Special equipment, experience or dress: It is possible to rent gear if you don’t have your own. But don’t forget your scuba certification card or you will be stuck on shore. 

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