April 4, 2010
I have to confess, I’m not really into battles. My eyes tend to glaze over at the mere mention of them and I nearly died of boredom watching Braveheart. So it was with some trepidation that I began my visit to Isandlwana in Kwazulu Natal, site of the most famous battle in the Anglo-Zulu wars, where in January 1879 the army of the British Empire was roundly defeated by that of the Zulu Kingdom.
The battlefields, however, are home to a most extraordinary hotel, Isandlwana Lodge, and battlefield tourism is the major draw. The lodge is built directly into the iNyoni rock escarpment, right below the spot where the Zulu commander stood during his famous victory over the British. And within minutes of arriving, the overwhelming weight of history takes over. It’s impossible to stand and gaze over the surrounding landscape without feeling a huge sense of awe at the spectacle that played out here.
The lodge itself is the result of a rather unorthodox venture between the local Tribal Authority and two American businesswomen with a passion for South Africa. The Inkosi (chief) of the tribe had already identified the site as a potential spot for a development that would create jobs for the local community and revenue for providing medical care and schools for the villagers.
Shaped like a shield, and made from the rock of the immediate area, the low thatched building slips harmoniously into its surroundings. It has just 12 en-suite rooms, furnished in a mixture of ethnic and modern styles, all with private balconies with 180 degree views. A huge double-height dining area, bar and lounge with floor to ceiling windows offers the perfect spot to sit and watch the cattle graze, or in my case, witness an incredible purple sky and violent electrical storm.
Despite all this, I woke up on my first morning still not feeling particularly enthralled by the prospect of a battlefields tour. It was raining and foggy and I could have quite easily holed up in an armchair by the fire with my books all day. I am so glad I didn’t. Paul Garner, the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic guide I have ever had the privilege to be entertained by, filled the day with a story so compelling, so suspenseful and ultimately – as we looked out at the cairns of white rocks marking the graves of fallen soldiers – so moving, that it became the highlight of my stay.
Learning about the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift (the latter rather inaccurately immortalized in the 1964 film Zulu) is indeed one of the main reasons people visit the lodge, but it’s not the only one. This is the heart of Zululand, and if you want to learn something about its culture and traditions, this is the right place. The lodge has very close ties to the villagers and one of them, a young woman called Poppy, took me for a walk.
As we tramped through the long damp grass she spoke shyly of her impending marriage and of the issue of the lobola or dowry, which her fiancé’s family needed to give to her father – eleven cows, in this instance. Cattle are extremely important to the Zulus and a large herd represents power, wealth and status. Without cattle a man cannot get married, feed his family or placate angry spirits!
Inside the hut of the village Sangoma (medicine man) who unfortunately wasn’t present, I sat at the side and watched as his female apprentice donned ankle bells and rattles, and chanted, stamped and swayed herself into a trance while Poppy knelt on the floor beside me and beat a large drum.
Further down the hill is the village school, a place very popular with lodge guests. Many want to help the school in some way after their visit and recent donations have manifested themselves in the form of new computers and a dedicated teaching space.
Back at the lodge, when you’re all walked-out and battle weary, it’s time for a cocktail by the pool, chess in the lounge, or a coffee on the terrace. Manager André Broerse, a down-to-earth and supremely affable host, will cater to your every whim before you’ve even thought of them. It’s the kind of service you want in a luxury hotel – invisible, not gushing. After my walk with Poppy I left my very muddy trainers outside my room, and when I opened the door again they were clean! And on my second night, after an unseasonably cold day, I pulled back my covers to find a furry hot-water bottle placed inside my bed. This made me very happy. I’m not a fan of the cold. It’s these kinds of thoughtful touches that really leave a lasting impression.
Isandlwana Lodge is not the most obvious choice for a holiday in South Africa, but it was a truly unforgettable experience. I would recommend staying 2 or 3 nights as part of a wider exploration of Kwazulu Natal, and you’ll need a car. It’s an easy four hour drive from either Johannesburg or Durban, and you’ll pass through some pretty spectacular scenery on your way. Visit the lodge’s website for more information or book direct through Virgin Holidays.