On the ridge above us a frieze of Zulu warriors appeared in full battle dress

South Africa today is much more than wide beaches and game parks: it is a tonic for the disillusioned spirit. We wanted to visit the homelands; particularly the Transkei of President Mandela, but the poverty and uncontrolled industrial development has left little of the traditional Xhosa life and culture. So it was to Mandela's chief headache, the Zulus, that we went. They have had a bad press and are certainly a fierce and nationalistic people, but this has enabled their unique culture to survive.

We left the normal tourist routes and crossed the border from Natal at the Tugele bridge, following the line of march of Lord Chelmsford, who invaded Zululand in 1879.

A woman, sitting proudly like an elegant sentinel in a blue cloak, with the elaborately beaded headdress of the Zulu matron, marked the boundary. The road then became filled with other women wearing tribal dress who were carrying pots and bundles on their heads to the market. This resembled a car-boot sale, employing "combies" - the battered mini-vans which are the public transport of black South Africa. The air was full of the lowing of the Zulus' fat cattle, along with the pungent smell of roasting mealies (ears of maize). But we were the chief attraction; there are no busloads of tourists here.

We were on our way to a Zulu pioneer camp, the geographical location of which we had only the vaguest idea and since it was getting late we were fearful of not locating our pick-up point. Finally we saw on the crest of a ridge what looked like a posse of four cowboys out of a John Wayne film. Our reception committee was led by Vincent, a gnarled and bearded Zulu, who we later found out had been a grip on the film series Shaka.

The sight of our transport was daunting; a spirited grey stallion and a gentle chestnut mare. "You can ride with the luggage in the bullock cart if you prefer, but horseback will be more comfortable," said Vincent. We found out why, after a one-and-a-half hour ride down the mountain side. Vincent pointed out a particularly rocky descent which they call O My God hill. I asked why and he explained with a grin that the tourists in the bullock cart always cry "O my God" at this place.

As the light faded in the hills we found ourselves part of a cattle drive as a herd of black-and-white Nguni cattle streamed out of the thorn thickets for the evening roundup back to the kraal.

Vincent reined us in for sundowners and brei (or barbecue) in the valley and we crossed a wide sandstone drift in the shallow river. A Zulu woman in a blue toga appeared suddenly out of this apparent wilderness with a plastic cool bag over one shoulder filled with gin and tonics, wine and meat, and in the other hand two lighted brands.

The tracker piled up driftwood and we ate our grilled steak by the firelight and listened to Vincent's tales of his people. A single kerosene lamp lit our way in the darkness as we rode back across the river towards camp.

Suddenly, from the ridge above us, the flare of torches illuminated a frieze of Zulu warriors in full battle dress. The noise of drums and assegais - spears - rattling on shields was deafening. Warriors and boys (all from the local school) threw their torches on dry tinder and leapt through the flames of the fire, hurling their assegais at imaginary prey. Then, with triumphal song and the women's ululations, they led us, still mounted, into camp like returning warriors.

We spent three days with the Biela people from Shaka's clan. The individual thatched lodges of the camp, which accommodate only 12 guests in total, are built into the rocky face of the Mfule river gorge. You dine by candlelight beside the river (in fact there is no electricity) and the hot water for our personal rock-pool was heated in a wood-fired boiler. The swimming pool, which we enjoyed on warm afternoons after a canter up the valley, is a natural part of the river which has been dammed and filtered.

Vincent became our friend and mentor, teaching us Zulu ways as we visited the clan's kraal - shouting at the entrance to receive permission to enter. The kraal consisted of a circle of very large beehive huts, made of finely woven reeds and grass which are renewed each year. At the centre stood the pride and wealth of the clan, the cattle. A familiar smell drew us to the beer-making hut, where one of the chief's wives was straining the fermented brew through a fine-mesh basket.

Then Vincent invited us to a coming of age ceremony in a nearby kraal. The young men were home from the gold mines for the holiday. We piled into a pick-up truck and as we bounced over rutted tracks Vincent pointed out a circular thatched hut flying two red-and-white engagement flags. "That man is marrying two women," he said.

When we arrived the dancing had already started, the heavy drum beat and young women's chant, made famous by the film Zulu, bounced back from the hills. The male relatives squatted in a long line on the grass while the young women - who were coming of age - danced bare-breasted, wearing only the traditional heavy leather skirts, intended to slow up flighty wives. Anklets, made of tin cans, rattled as they kicked and stamped out the rhythms, advancing towards the men with assegais which they laid at their feet. The men took up their challenge and advanced with war-like leaps - only to pin dowry money into the girls' hair.

We were the only white present and were treated like long-lost friends. The men kept shaking our hands and holding us, saying "Simunye" again and again, which means "we are together".

How to get there

Discount fares to South Africa are widely available. The cheapest flights from London to Johannesburg are usually to be found on Sudan Airways via Khartoum or Balkan Bulgarian via Sofia. Non-stop flights on British Airways or South African Airways cost around pounds 670 including tax and are available through agents such as Bridge The World (0171-911 0900)

Who to ask

The South African Tourist Board, 5 Alt Grove, London SW19 4DZ (0891 102090 - a premium-rated number)

The Simunye Pioneer Settlement (00 27 03546 912) PO Box 25 Melmoth, 3835 Kwazulu, South Africa

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine