Embracing heritage tourism in KwaZulu-Natal
En route from Ballito to the lodge, our minibus traversed sugarcane fields, rivers and informal settlements, in clusters around dirt roads, until, eventually, there was nothing but the vast openness of the golden and green landscape ahead of us.
After hours of rattling over uneven ground and watching unfamiliar scenery pass by in a blur, reaching the guest house felt like stumbling across an oasis in the desert.
Founded by the late historian David Rattray and his wife Nicky, together they pioneered Heritage Tourism in South Africa and created an award-winning lodge for visitors to savour the extraordinary saga of the Battlefields - namely the Zulu War of 1879, which is famous for the great battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.
Upon arrival, we were greeted warmly by staff members and two friendly dogs. Raised wooden walkways, lined by flower bushes and succulents, led down the grassy bank and to our rooms.
Since Fugitives’ Drift is home to the Rattray family, who live on site, the décor and style warmly reflect their personality and the history of this area.
The spacious rooms are comfortable, beds are framed by a large mosquito net and big cosy armchairs that face the balcony, opening out to breathtaking views of the reserve.
The bathroom has an essence of the colonial old world, complete with Victorian roll top bath, natural soaps, bath salts and brushed brass taps.
The showpiece was the outdoor shower, boasting broad views over the plains flanking the Buffalo River Gorge.
Under a canopy of trees and greenery, with a G&T in hand, it was the perfect spot for sundowners. While basking in our surroundings, we were offered appetizers to graze on, samoosas and crisp potato skins with either a garlicky herb dip or a sweet and sour one.
Dinner was in the charming dining area. Keeping with the theme, it was decorated in a similar fashion to the lodges - maps of Africa, woven Zulu baskets above the fireplace, contrasting with the twist of a modern-looking chandelier.
A chalkboard carried the evening’s menu - for starters an onion jam tart with goats cheese or a salad, a phyllo parcel filled with a medley of cubed veggies with or without the lamb, paired with a side of three vegetables and, for dessert, cheesecake. Simple, yet wholesome and delicious, every morsel was polished off rather quickly.
Meals are held at a long table, where all guests sit together, allowing you the opportunity to meet fellow lodgers, some travelling from far and wide to be there.
As someone who enjoys the company of others and intrigued by peoples’ backgrounds and cultures, I loved the experience of getting to know the other guests.
The lodge offers a service called a “Wake-Up Call” where, after dinner, you’re asked by a staff member what time you’d like to be woken up. So, at 6.30am sharp, I awoke to a gentle knock at the door. Greeted warmly with a tray of rooibos tea and shortbread, it set the tone for the exciting day ahead.
Breakfast was a buffet of fruits, yoghurt, cereals and the likes, and hot meals that are made to order. I asked to have my toast and eggs in a takeaway, to eat while on the early-morning tour, which the kitchen staff kindly made into a takeaway parcel for me.
Thought-provoking and often emotionally charged tours are conducted daily to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.
If one tried to dream up a landscape for the clash between two great nations, the reality would most certainly surpass it. After reaching our first stop and taking in the landscape, I felt as though there was a blanket of serenity that enveloped the boundless and beautiful surroundings. It made attempting to imagine the bloodshed that once took place here, truly bewildering.
Our minibus journey to the battlefields was made colourful, with imagery from tapes recorded by David Rattray that offered fascinating background information. Mphiwa Ntanzi, a site Tourist Guide from the lodge and a descendant of a Zulu warrior who fought in the Isandlwana battle, did a superb job of talking us through the history of his ancestors. Animated, poetic and sincere, each of his stories ended in applause from his captivated audience.
Talking with Ntanzi, he shared that he learnt stories of war from his father through oral history. “Our language was only written down after the 1900s so, in Zulu tradition, we would gather in rondavels and sit around an open fire, while old men and women shared the stories of our ancestors,” he said.
Walks, horse rides and mountain biking through the reserve, to view abundant game and bird life are also offered, as well as fishing the 20km frontage on the Buffalo River.
If you’re looking to view KZN in a new light, the entire experience of touring the battlefields will surely offer you this. As someone who walked into this with little to no knowledge of the bloody battles that took place here, I feel more connected to my home province than ever before.