“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.” Nelson Mandela.
Having managed to survive the much spoken about dangers of beautiful South Africa (SA) I am now faced with the equally spoken about danger of contracting the Coronavirus. SA had it’s first case last week and the infected person travelled through Durban airport, where I find myself today – I’m on route to Zimbabwe. Most of the airport staff here are wearing face masks, and the people working in the many shops and restaurants are sanitising their hands constantly, in-between each and every cash transaction. Passing through Durban airport is both surreal and unnerving.
Unlike the previous leg of my journey, ‘The Garden Route’, which was both straight forward and obvious. The next stage of my journey, from Durban, proved to be far more challenging – where to go and what to see was far less ‘mapped out’. “What exactly do you want to see?” was the normal response to my question.
The only places that kept resonating with the people I sought advise from were: St. Lucia, The Battlefields and The Drakensberg Mountains. Problem is these three regions are enormous. In hindsight I made the mistake of trying to cover all three.
St Lucia and iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, stretches for 220 glorious kilometres from the Mozambique border to Maphelane, at the southern end of Lake St Lucia. With the Indian Ocean on one side and a series of lakes (including Lake St Lucia) on the other, the 3280-sq-km park protects five distinct ecosystems, offering everything from off-shore reefs and beaches to lakes, wetlands, woodlands and coastal forests.
The pleasant village of St Lucia is a useful base from which to explore the park’s southern sections. In high season St Lucia is a hotbed of activity as the population swells with visitor numbers. The main drag, McKenzie St (a former hippo pathway), is packed with restaurants, lively hostels and bars, but the quieter avenues behind it offer a touch more hush and a good selection of B&Bs. Hippos sometimes amble down the town’s quieter streets. Guest house owner at check in: “It’s probably best if you don’t leave your car there, just in case a hippo sits on the bonnet.”
The Battlefields and Ladysmith.
Big wildlife, big mountains and big waves may top the agenda for many visitors to the province, but the history of KwaZulu-Natal is intrinsically linked to its battlefields, the stage on which many of South Africa’s bloodiest chapters were played out. The province’s northwestern region is where fewer than 600 Voortrekkers avenged the murder of their leader, Piet Retief, by defeating a force of 12,000 Zulu at Blood River, and where the British Empire was crushed by a Zulu army at Isandlwana. Here they subsequently staged the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift, where the Boers and the Brits slogged it out at Ladysmith and Spioenkop.
Isandlwana & Rorke’s Drift.
If you’ve seen Zulu (1964), the film that made Michael Caine a star, you will doubtless have heard of Rorke’s Drift, a victory of the misty-eyed variety, where on 22 and 23 January 1879, 139 British soldiers successfully defended a small mission station from around 4000 Zulu warriors. Queen Victoria lavished 11 Victoria Crosses on the survivors and the battle was assured its dramatic place in British military history.
However, for the full picture you must travel 15km across the plain to Isandlwana, the precursor to Rorke’s Drift. It’s here that, only hours earlier, the Zulus dealt the Empire one of its great Battlefields disasters by annihilating the main body of the British force in devastating style.
The town of Ladysmith, where I based myself for a couple of nights, was named after the wife of Cape governor Sir Harry Smith. The town achieved fame during the 1899–1902 Anglo-Boer War, when it was besieged by Boer forces for 118 days. Musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Paul Simon fame) has its roots here. Despite the fact that the town’s pretty colonial vestiges are looking somewhat tired now, I really enjoyed my stay here. I managed to find a lovely B&B and a fantastic restaurant serving first class curries.
The Siege Museum (Ladysmith). This excellent museum, next to the town hall, in the old Market House (built 1884), was used to store rations during the Anglo-Boer War siege. It has displays about the war, stocks information about the town and surrounds, and can provide a list of battlefield tour guides.
The Drakensberg Mountains.
If any landscape lives up to its airbrushed, publicity-shot alter ego, it is the jagged, green sweep of the Drakensberg’s tabletop peaks. This forms the boundary between South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, and offers some of the country’s most awe-inspiring landscapes.
Within the area is a vast 2430-sq-km sweep of basalt summits and buttresses; this section was formally granted World Heritage status in 2000, and was renamed uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. Today, some of the vistas are recognisably South African, particularly the unforgettable curve of the Amphitheatre in Royal Natal National Park. I loved my time here.
Next stage: Zimbabwe.