The fertile rolling hills, expansive plains and majestic mountains of KwaZulu-Natal have been the backdrop of conflict and struggle between the diverse populations that have inhabited the region for centuries.
This area may be best known for the African warfare that led to the rise of the powerful Zulu kingdom and the numerous bloody battles fought by white colonists in an effort to stake a claim on these lands. But for hundreds of years, small tribes of Nguni-speaking migrants lived in KwaZulu-Natal in relative peace. They descended from Eastern Africa during the great Bantu migrations to the fertile valleys of the lowveld and the foothills of the Drakensburg Mountains, where they grazed their cattle. But severe drought in the late 1700s spurred brutal conflict over dwindling resources and paved the way for an era of bloody warfare known to the Nguni as mfecane, meaning “the crushing.” Three main kingdoms vied for control of the region, the Ngwane, the Ndwandwe and the Mthethwa. Out of this conflict a mighty warrior of the Mthethwa federation, Shaka of the Zulu clan, rose to military power in 1819. Shaka drove the Ngwane north into what later became Swaziland and defeated the Ndwandwe, sending them over the Drakensburg Mountains and into the interior, where they wreaked havoc on local populations and spread warfare throughout the highveld.
King Shaka used his military prowess to create a large and powerful consolidated monarchy. He relied upon his highly disciplined army regiments to expand his kingdom, extract tribute and subjugate smaller chiefdoms as far south as the Umzimkulu River, in present day Eastern Cape. When British pioneers from the Cape Colony settled in Durban and Boer Voortrekkers began to homestead in the fertile hills to the south, Shaka tolerated their presence and instructed his subjects to do the same. But Shaka’s life and reign came to an untimely end in 1828 when his half-brother Dingane assassinated him and stole the Zulu throne. Unlike his brother, Dingane was not willing to live in peace with the invaders. He first appeared to befriend the Boers, but then wiped them out in a surprise attack, killing hundreds of settlers including the famed Voortrekker leader, Piet Retief. In retaliation, the Boers waged war. In the Battle of Blood River, the Boers used their superior weaponry to mow down over three thousand Zulus. The Ncome River ran red with the blood of the deceased.
It had taken King Shaka 10 years to build the Zulu kingdom. Within 10 years of his death, the powerful kingdom had lost half of its territory and the Zulus retreated north of the Tugela River. The Boers declared an independent Republic of Natalia and established their capital at Pietermaritzburg. But the Boer republic was short lived and the British wrested away control in 1843, naming the region the British Colony of Natal. British settlers flocked to the new colony, began building cities and developed prosperous sugar plantations. The proud Zulu were unwilling laborers, so the British imported thousands of indentured servants from India to work their fields and build their wealth. In addition to the indentured laborers, free Indians also began to immigrate to the colony, contributing to the diversity and vibrancy of the growing economy centered in Durban. These early immigrants and laborers formed the foundations of Durban’s distinct Indian community, today the largest of its kind outside of Asia. One of the most famous Indian immigrants was a young lawyer named Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi became incensed by the discrimination and oppression his fellow Indians faced as second-class citizens. He developed a tactic of passive resistance to lead the Indian struggle for equal rights in South Africa before leading his own country towards liberation.
British colonial aspirations were long thwarted by the Zulus to the north until the Anglo-Zulu War broke out in 1879. Led by King Cetshwayo, the Zulus dealt the British an early embarrassing defeat in the Battle of Isandlwana near Rorke’s Drift. But soon British reinforcements poured into Durban and advanced on the royal kraal at Ulundi, where they captured Cetshwayo and defeated the Zulu forces. Using the tried and true tactic of divide and rule, the British broke apart the mighty Zulu kingdom into a number of artificial chiefdoms and incorporated the disintegrated empire into the colony. The British then turned their sights on the Boers in the South African War of 1899-1902. The prize at stake was ultimate control of the southern tip of the continent. The British proved victorious and Natal became part of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Remnants of a century’s worth of brutal wars between the British, Boers and Zulus are still seen today in the Battlefields of western KwaZulu-Natal near Dundee and Ladysmith.
Apartheid further polarized the province and its people. The northern region was deemed the “homeland” of KwaZulu (meaning place of the Zulus) and racial segregation carved up urban centers in the south. In 1977, KwaZulu was given nominal self-governance and the Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, former member of the ANC Youth League, was installed as Chief Minister of the homeland. In the context of increased repression of black resistance to apartheid, Chief Buthelezi broke from the ANC and launched his own Zulu cultural revival. The Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement drew heavily on traditional Zulu power structures in hopes of leading black Africans towards liberation against white oppressors. However, as support for the largely Xhosa-led ANC national resistance grew, Inkatha used increasingly violent tactics to enforce Zulu loyalty to Buthelezi. Black-on-black political violence during the 1980s and early 1990s claimed the lives of thousands, and ANC supporters and youth comrades in the townships around Durban and Pietermaritzburg bore the brunt of Inkatha’s aggression. Evidence later surfaced that the South African security services covertly bankrolled Inkatha in support of its destabilizing violence against the ANC.
With the dismantling of apartheid and transition to democracy in 1994, the KwaZulu homeland was reincorporated into South Africa and together with Natal became the united province of KwaZulu-Natal. The Inkatha movement refashioned itself as the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and joined the ranks as a legitimate national political party. Zulus today remain the largest black ethnic group in the country and Zulu tradition and culture continue to permeate South African life. Political and cultural reconciliation is progressing as a means to unite the differences of a long-divided province and right the wrongs of the past. Still, KwaZulu-Natal’s tumultuous history and its combination of rich Zulu, Indian and European heritage gives the province a flavor like no other.
GPS: S 29 51.432 E 031 01.469 | pop. 3.5 million | elevation 4 m/13 ft
Durban is the third largest city in South Africa and has a vibrant mix of African, Indian and English people, cultures, architecture and neighborhoods. Visitors from both within the country and abroad come to the city for its year-round sunshine, moderate temperature and stretches of white sandy beaches up and down the coast. Durban’s city center can be a little rough around the edges as many residents and businesses relocated to the suburbs post-apartheid. But while much of the city center today is dead after dark, renewed development is starting to take hold and the greater Durban area exudes a pulse of growth and life. Just a few signs of the times are its new international airport, world-class stadium, and a flourishing restaurant, arts and nightlife scene.
GPS: S 29 51.780 E 030 58.227 | pop. 150,000 | elevation 45 m/148 ft
The Cato Manor Township, located 8 km from Durban’s city center, began as a settlement for the area’s Indian population in the mid-1800s. In the early 1900s, blacks began to move into the area, renting plots from the Indians, despite the apartheid policy of racial segregation. The mix of Indians and blacks created a unique and vibrant community, but it wasn’t without its troubles. Disputes over high rent and poor living conditions led to interracial mob violence in 1949.
Continued disputes between the Durban municipality and residents of Cato Manor broke out over the enactment of the Durban System, which required blacks to have a permit to be in town, the Native Beer Act, which made it illegal for residents to brew their own beer and finally the Group Areas Act, which required blacks and colored people to move out of Cato Manor and into townships farther away from the city. A series of deadly riots occurred in 1959 and 1960 after Cato Manor was officially declared a white-only zone, and by 1964 the last of Cato Manor’s coloured residents had been forcibly removed.
Toward the end of apartheid, families began to move back into Cato Manor. The Cato Manor Development Association was formed and with the help of funding from the European Union, houses, schools, roads and clinics were built in what is now the largest inner city resettlement and development project in post-apartheid South Africa.
The Drakensberg is southern Africa’s highest mountain range, reaching peaks of up to 3,482 meters. In Zulu, it is called uKhahlamba (meaning barrier of spears) and in 2000 the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park was granted World Heritage Site status. These grassy foothills, iconic escarpments and towering peaks are a hiker’s paradise. The park teems with wildlife, natural pools and overhangs decorated with historic San rock art.
Northern Drakensberg is best known for the iconic Amphitheater, a towering curved rock wall that is 1,000 meters high and 5 kilometers wide whose image graces nearly every postcard of the mountain range. Atop the Amphitheater is the Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the country with a drop of 970 meters. This area attracts hikers for its wide variety of trails both in and around the Royal Natal National Park. There is no central town in this region of the Drakensberg, but guesthouses and restaurants are well signed and scattered off of the main roads. Bergville has an information office and is the best place in the region to stock up on supplies.
The Central Drakensberg is roughly divided into three areas that each have their own access roads into the Drakensberg and are dominated by mountain peaks that approach the highest points in the country. Cathedral Peak (3,004 m) is well suited to those interested in hiking and climbing. The area has two lodges and a campsite surrounded by numerous trails, including one to the top of Cathedral Peak. Champagne Valley and Monk’s Cowl (3,234 m) is one of the most developed areas of the Drakensberg with plenty of cafés, restaurants and B&Bs. Giant’s Castle (3,315 m) has easy access to a high concentration of some of the best-preserved San rock art paintings in the region and overnight hiking trails that lead up the mountains to Lesotho.
The Southern Drakensberg is home to a handful of wilderness areas and nature reserves, all under the management of KZN Wildlife, that make for great locations from which to hike, climb, fish and explore the San rock art sites. In the middle of the southern berg is Sani Pass – the only vehicle border crossing between KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho and the highest pass in the country. Just over the Lesotho border you can enjoy a beer at the “highest pub in Africa.” For those interested in hiking there is the popular five day 60 kilometer Giant’s Cup Trail (see p. xxx) with overnight huts along the way.
GPS: S 29 36.159 E 030 22.812 | pop. 540,000 | elevation 653m/2,142 ft
The Natal Midlands cover the interior stretch of land starting around Pietermaritzburg and climb inland towards the Drakensburg Mountains. The area is dotted with small towns surrounded by rolling grassy hills, rivers and waterfalls. Northeast of the Midlands are the Battlefields where numerous historic and bloody battles were fought among the Zulu, Boers and British over the past centuries. Today there are museums, monuments, original forts and burial grounds dedicated to all who fought.
Pietermaritzburg is the capital and second largest city of KwaZulu-Natal. They city has a number of grand historical buildings that have fallen into various states of disrepair, which gives the downtown area a haunted, post-colonial feel. In 1893, Gandhi was famously thrown off a train here because he refused to leave the first class carriage when a white man objected to his presence because he was colored. A bronze statue of Gandhi now stands in the city center.
GPS: S 28 33.580 E 29 46.850 | pop. 220,000 | elevation 1,009m/3,310 ft
Ladysmith is named after the wife of Sir Harry Smith, the former Governor of the Cape Colony. But the town is probably most famous for being the site of a 118-day siege during the Anglo-Boer War and as the home of the male vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Today Ladysmith is a light industry center with a small downtown area and a number of historic buildings and surrounding battlefields.
GPS: S 28 09.737 E 030 14.262| pop. 30,000 | elevation 1,250 m/4,101 ft
Dundee was quite the place back in the day when its coal mining, brickmaking and glass production were thriving industries. Today all of those industries are defunct, and there isn’t too much to do within the town itself besides visiting the quality Talana Museum and Heritage Park. However, the town is well situated as a base from which to explore the region’s rich battlefield history. With Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana roughly 80 km away, there are many registered battlefield guides in town that will happily take you on a historical tour of the area.
The area of north central KwaZulu-Natal is called the Battlefields because of the many deadly battles that took place in this region among the Zulus, Boers and English over a period of nearly 100 years. There are over 50 historic sights within this part of the province. Some of the more prominent sites are detailed below.
1838 – Voortrekker Zulu Battles
After the implementation of British rule over the Cape Colony in 1806, Voortrekkers began to push northeast into the hinterland of the country in order to establish their own independent territory outside of British control. In 1837 a group of these Voortrekkers, lead by Piet Retief, established a camp on the ridge of the Drakensberg near the border of present-day KwaZulu-Natal. Retief and a small group of men descended into KwaZulu-Natal, and after coming in contact with a number of Zulu, met with chief Dingane in an effort to negotiate a land settlement agreement for the eastward moving Voortrekkers. Dingane struck a deal that if Retief and his men could recover a few thousand cattle that had been stolen from Dingane’s people by neighboring chief Sekonyela, he would agree to make a land settlement. It is believed that Dingane never intended to give up land to the Voortrekkers and that he sent Retief and his men on this mission intending that they would be killed.
A few months later in early 1838, Retief and his men successfully retrieved the cattle and brought them back to Dingane, fully intending to sign a deal for their new land. Dingane signed a contract ceding all the land south of the Tugela River down to the Mzimvubu River to the Voortrekkers, but then promptly killed Retief and all of his men as well as other Voortrekker men, women and children waiting in a nearby camp. The Voortrekkers fled and men regrouped in a commando unit under the leadership of Andries Pretorius.
1879 – Anglo Zulu War
The decisive six-month-long bloody Anglo Zulu war began in early 1879 and marked the end of the independent Zulu nation. In the second half of the 1800s, a complex series of disputes, broken land treaties and an increasing British desire to quash their unpredictable Zulu neighbors and expand economic interests, led the British to issue an ultimatum. In December 1878, British high commissioner Sir Bartle Frere demanded from Chief Cetshwayo that the Zulu disband their armies, surrender certain high-ranking individuals, accept western missionaries onto their land and pay fines for insults against the British notion of justice, or face war. Cetshwayo did not respond to the ultimatum and in January 1879, a British force under Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand, without approval of the British Government back home.
GPS: S 28 53.379 E 031 28.449 | pop. 15,000 | elevation 532 m/1,745 ft
Eshowe has had a prominent history in Zululand. It was once the home to a number of Zulu Kings and the site of a number of bloody battles during the Anglo Boer War. It was also the first European town to be established in Zululand and was the capital under the British. The city serves as a commercial hub for the region and is located only 25 km from the coast. Rolling hills and the lush Dhlinza Forest surround it.
GPS: S 28 04.121 E 032 08.486| elevation 138 m/453 ft
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is the oldest nature reserve in the country and offers the best game viewing in KwaZulu-Natal. Pronounced Shloo-shloo-way Em-fo-loo-zee, it was established in 1895, and the 960 square kilometers of lush rolling hills and grassy plains of these former Royal Zulu hunting grounds offer expansive, breathtaking views. It’s not as big or as crowded as the more popular Kruger National Park, but therein lies its charm. It’s the only place in the province where you can sneak a peak at the Big 5, and it serves as an important breeding ground for white and black rhinos. It isn’t long after entering one of the three gates that you could come across zebra, buffalo, elephant, rhino, impala, kudu, blue wildebeest, crocodile or skittish giraffes. Baboons and warthogs often travel along the gravel roads traversed by self-guided drivers. The elusive lion, leopard and cheetah can be tough to find on your own, so your best bet to spot these expert hunters is with a trained guide. The park is also a birder’s paradise with over 350 species of bird found in its varied terrain.
Note that malaria is present in the park and proper precautions should be taken.
GPS: S 28 22.487 E 032 24.712 | pop. 1,000 | elevation 22 m/72 ft
St Lucia is a laid-back coastal town located at the southern tip of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and a great jumping off point for exploring the area’s diverse ecosystems and animal inhabitants. Crocodiles and hippos live in the St Lucia Estuary, which runs along town and into crashing waves and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. At night, hippos are known to roam the quieter streets of town, and locals caution against antagonizing them. After all, they were here first. The lively McKenzie Street is lined with restaurants and tour companies that will happily organize outdoor adventures for you.
GPS: S 28 21.391 E 032 25.214 | elevation 23 m/75 ft, 035-590-1633, reservations 033-845-1000, www.isimangaliso.com
iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of the most beautiful and diverse nature reserves in the country. Eight unique ecosystems span 3,320 square kilometers of South African landscape from the Mozambique border in the north to Mapelane, just south of the St Lucia Estuary. The name iSimangaliso means “miracle” in isiZulu, and rightfully so. Its subtropical coastline has 280 kilometers of pristine white-sand beaches, spectacular coastal dunes and rugged rocky cliffs. They buffer a myriad of freshwater swamps, lakes, wooded forests, sprawling savannah grasslands, and South Africa’s biggest estuary system. These are the largest protected wetlands in the country, recognized in 1999 when the region became the first place in South Africa to be deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Formerly called the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, iSimangaliso is South Africa’s third largest park and its diverse landscapes are home to more species of animals than the more popular Kruger National Park. The country’s largest populations of hippos and crocodiles live here; they can be seen lazing about in Lake St Lucia and roaming the estuary, a good reason why locals warn against getting too close to the water. The giant leatherback and loggerhead turtles prefer the soft sands of the Indian Ocean when they come ashore under the cover of night, November through February, to lay their eggs. Driving through the park you may also encounter elephants, black and white rhinos, leopards, cheetah, buffalo, giraffes, wild dog, and a wide range of antelope. The park is also a birder’s paradise with over 520 species thriving in the lush and varied environs.
You could easily lose yourself here for a few days with the available amount of things to do and places to explore. Certain areas of the park can get extremely crowded during holidays and on long weekends when hordes of South Africans flock to the park. Its advisable to avoid these tourist trap times to keep expenses low and better appreciate all that the park has to offer.
Note that malaria is present in the park and proper precautions are advised. The iSimangaliso 24-hour emergency hotline is 082-797-7944.