A trip to the land of the Zulus or……

It all started at Cape Town airport. The plane, of the new low cost airline Mango, coded Manx in case you are trying to check-in online which you find you can’t, was meant to be leaving for Durban (we had all the destination road maps from there!) at 10.15 but, at the last minute, it was postponed to 1520.  “You can’t do that. We have to be at our destination at 1800 otherwise they lock the gates; and that’s somewhere several hours NW of Johannesburg.” Quick shuffle and we were on our way to Johannesburg by 1000. OK, maybe 1.5 hours more on the roads but we should make it round about 1800. 2 hour flight either way.

 

We arrived, swapped the Budget car hire, ate a nice snack at the Intercontinental; and off we set. I’d do the driving. Maybe potholes or madmen on the motorway. We could see on the map that the N3 went in the right direction.  So we needed to turn left on to the N11 after the toll…about 4 hours to get there.

So here’s the toll.  There must be one of those big motorway junction signs.  That’s funny: nothing there. On we went, maybe 28 kms, still no N11. It’s not here. (In fact they changed the turn to before the toll but hadn’t shared the information on a sign) “We’ve passed it”, cried the map reader. So we turned off on to a by-road and back we went to Ladysmith. Name familiar? Only 45 minutes lost!  We could still make it. Phoned ahead.  “We’re coming. Don’t lock the gates. We’re on the road to Dundee. Is there any shortcut?” “Are you coming from Johannesburg or Durbam,” asked the girl.  “We’ve passed that point. Do you know the road?” “No.”  “Keep in touch.”

Arrived in Dundee. Bit of fuel. They’ve dug the centre of the town up. Where have you put the signs?  Another half hour plus lost.  Getting dark.  No dusk in SA. Just blackness. The maps sent from Fugitives’ Drift Lodge added an air of mystery as to the whereabouts of the destination. Gates shut at 1800.  Were there real fugitives there?

Down the road Dundee to Greytown. We come to the famous name. Rourkes Drift.  That’s it.  Is it a place or a historical site?  If you get there, where then is the Lodge. Phone the Lodge. No answer. Phone again. No answer. Tried one of the roads. Smoke.  Maybe a bush fire. Immolation?  Don’t fancy this.  30kms of dirt road to find a gate which is maybe locked even if we survive the fire!  Tried the Lodge again.  No answer.

Go back to Dundee and get into a hotel. Must be best for us both.  Return tomorrow when it is light. Back we go. Another half hour.  Only one hotel. Not a dream come true but saved the discussion: fully booked. “We’ll have to sleep in the car”, came the suggestion.  But where can we park it to be safe.  What in the f*** shall we do?  Phone the agent.  In Tanzania??!!  Spoke to someone surprised by the late call. Oh my God. But she did get the name and 20 minutes later, now past 2100, a call from the agent in SA.  “You’ve got to help. We’re beleaguered. I have my lovely lady with me. She doesn’t want to sleep in the bush.  Neither do I. We don’t want to die!”  Wait another 20 minutes and the phone rings again. The lodge. “I’ll direct you in. Can you get back to the dirt road? You bet.”

High speed dirt road driving in the pitch dark. Directions were simple. Rourke’s Drift, through the huts, take the first left and stop before you hit the gate. 2230. We’d made it. Up at 0600, safe and sound by 2230. Can’t be bad.

“You deserted us. You didn’t answer the phone.  You knew we were out there. At risk.  Even if the girl knocked off round about 1900.” “Shame” came the reply!

 

But the lodge was great. A David Rattray creation built from small family beginnings to celebrate the Zulus and record the Zulu/Brit wars.  Nice big chalet.  Good food, well prepared but heavily calorific…going some way to explaining the very big bums on South Africans. But the place was full of English ex-public school boys and girls, plus a couple of Tiger Moth pilots and wives, who had seen the film Zulu some time in their lives.

Lovely modern library building, there to eat lunch with spectacular views across the hills and valleys along Buffalo river; and Fugitives’ Drift whence the few survivors tried to escape from the battle of Isandlwana, where 40,000 zulus massacred 1700 Brits almost to a man. 1873 or was it ‘79.  The general in charge had gone off to surprise the main Zulu force early; but the Zulus had taken another route.  A rather English story, I thought.

Toured Rourkes Drift next day where 17 men, mainly Welsh men boyo, had fended off 4000 zulus attacking their hospital with only Martini rifles, 20,000 rounds of amunition and mealie sacks and biscuit tins to hide behind. 11 VCs awarded in all, presumably to make England feel better.

Couple of buildings and a few stones there meant nothing much.  It all lay in the excellent telling of the story by David’s son, Andrew, much along the lines of David’s original script.  David had been killed by a gunman…those reasons were not clear. And the fields of Isandlwana where the slaughter the previous day had taken place…another 4 hour story, including war cries and the noise of the assegi as it goes in…. and as it comes out.  Tours finished and the rains came.  Typical of this time of year. Thunder, lightning & downpours. The next day we left for a 4/5 hour journey to Phinda (pronounced as a P) game reserve.

 

Again the drive is not one you would want to do twice. Dirt roads were OK but then you go up into the hills. Continuous rain. The land is lush with literally 100s of kms of eucalyptus (for paper and power by Mondi). Brightly coloured huts dotted about; and sometimes in groups, with cows, goats and corn in the small holding indicating that things are better for people who live here. But we came to the small towns, and the traffic, and the hills, and the cloud, and the fog, and the wheel destroying pot holes. But at last we were through and back to the N2, wending its way north from Cape Town.

Towns came and went, as did policemen with cameras hiding behind trees; a few more 100s of kms of trees, sugar cane and now pineapple (would you believe it – probably why there is so much pineapple around here; but we didn’t see any avacodo trees!); and an hour and a half later we saw the sign Phinda.  Down the road, thru the gate and we were off to our lodge, the Forest Lodge, passing giraffe, black rhino, endless deer varieties. And there it was, our chalet in the trees, guides to take us about in the dark in case we became the viewing.

 

It was lovely there, 4 days for 3, all you could eat and drink in the price. Sphe, pronounced Spay, was a star and, what we didn’t have, she got for us.  Up at 5 on a drive until, say, 9, breakfast and a snooze until lunch, another snooze until the evening drive, at 4 to 5 to 8 or 9. That was the good news.  Boy, did it rain. Two beleaguered Brits, perched up on the open landrover in capes trying to stop the water seeping round to the bum/crotch areas.

But we saw the animals. The big 5 as they say, mostly very close up and intimate, families of giraffe, lions, rhino, warthog and elephants; and, sometimes, it didn’t rain, like the last day when we drove around in the sun. If anything, the game in these big parks (this one was 25,000 hectares) is spoon-fed compared to the wilder, more remote, more challenging Botswana.

Staff were really impressive. Attractive, well presented, well spoken and handling the likes of us with relative ease. Makes you realise what is in store as SA takes off.  The guides were black too and more than competent. Beautiful room, great for a snooze! Sam, the chef cooked excellent raw materials then mixed them all up so they were inedible to most Brits but added even more pounds to the large South African bums, male and female. Most of them now could hardly walk. All seemed rather too good to be true after the start we had in going to Fugitives’ Drift.

 

It was. Come time to leave they had lost the car keys. Still a paid limo to Durban, a two hour flight, a taxi and then home sweet home in Franschhoek while the Lodge moved post-haste to return the hire car on time

 

Hope you’ve enjoyed the read. (2/2012)

 

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