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

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