My Rough Guide: Beware the strange little country museums
Sunday 02 November 1997
Given its terrific location on one of the few deserted bits of coast anywhere near Durban, it's surprising that the Sea Bell Indian restaurant at La Mercy, with its views of the Indian Ocean, hasn't been jazzed up at all. But then it doesn't really need to attract tourists, as its reputation is firmly established among Durban's cognoscenti and, besides, the peeling wallpaper and curry-stained table-cloths somehow add to the charm. There's no question that the menu is first class - especially the seafood curries. But best of all, you could look up from your plate, as I did, and see a school of dolphins frolicking in the surf, just metres away.
Best live performance
Talk of "battlefield tours" conjured up images of crusty colonels with handlebar moustaches discussing military tactics against a bleak muddy landscape dotted with the odd grave. David Rattray's account of the Battle of Isandlwana proved to be hypnotic - a narrative tour de force of Homeric proportions. The battle itself, in which a Zulu army armed only with spears and shields wiped out a well-armed British force in 1879, sent shock waves all the way to Westminster. Rattray sits his audience on Isandlwana hill, a looming sphynx-shaped formation overlooking the battlefield, and gives a spellbinding three-hour account of the battle (which itself only lasted just over an hour). His words are so evocative that you get the real illusion that you're watching the events unfold below.
Most bizarre museum
South Africa is awash with strange little country museums full of Boer War memorabilia and bits and pieces donated by Afrikaner farmers. In order to ward off a loss of funding from the new government, and to qualify for Reconstruction and Development Plan money, many have attempted to tack on a few token displays from the point of view of the country's African majority. One that hasn't is the Fort Beaufort Museum in the Eastern Cape, where the collection still consists of some incoherently-labelled rock samples, a few ancient farm implements, and a display case with some field glasses usefully labelled: "A very old pair of binoculars."
There aren't many really remote hotels in South Africa, but Rocktail Bay Lodge, near the Mozambique border, makes up for this. You don't go there for flash foyers and five star service, but for the supreme solitude and the truly deserted beaches. The only way to cover the last 10km to the lodge is by 4x4 vehicle across sweeping dunes. The beach is endless and because it's South Africa's closest coast to the tropics, the water is beautifully tepid. And of course, there's Gremlin, the not-so-cute bushbaby with a serious addiction problem, who props up the bar, steals sweets from children, and will down your lager the minute you turn your back.
Most soiled bed
If you ever find yourself at Letaba Camp at the Kruger National Park avoid chalet 17. I don't know what the rest of the accommodation is like, but 17 has been taken over by a family of bats that have carefully positioned their nesting site above the beds on to which they cheerfully spend their days aiming their droppings. Only after we had shaken the funny little black pellets off the bedclothes several times, and they kept reappearing during the day, did we realise what the score was. The one consolation was the fact that these poorly house-trained flying rats spent their nights out on the town refuelling on insects for a fresh day's carpet bombing of unsuspecting guests.
Most unexpected beggars
Beggars go with the turf in Third World countries, but you'd be forgiven for hoping to shake them off on a wilderness hiking trail. We had no such luck when we walked the route from Greyton to McGregor, in the Western Cape. It was a hot day to be taking such a steep route - even a beautiful one passing through protea forests. So the rock pool filled by a gushing waterfall was certainly a welcome sight. No sooner had we dunked ourselves in the water and pulled out our sarnies, than a cohort of pleading froggy eyes broke the surface. I know I'm a sucker, but I couldn't just sit there and polish off my food without handing over most of it to these accomplished con-artists.
Where to stay
You can stay at David Rattray's Fugitive's Drift Lodge (Tel 00 27 3464 21843; Fax 00 27 341 23319) for pounds 80 a night and join his tours of the Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift battlefields for pounds 30.
Prices at Rocktail Bay Lodge inclusive of all meals come to pounds 120 per night and can be booked through Wilderness Safaris (Tel 00 27 11 884 1458; Fax 00 27 11 883 6255; email: email@example.com).
Accommodation at most of the Kruger National Park's 13 public rest camps are well-maintained, bat free and should be booked ahead through the National Parks Board (Tel 00 27 12 343 1991; Fax 00 27 12 343 0905), especially during the December/January peak season.
The Boesmanskloof Hiking Trail passes across 14km of mountainous terrain between the Western Cape towns of Greyton and McGregor.
The Sea Bell Restaurant at La Mercy is 28km north of Durban.
Tony Pinchuck wrote 'The Rough Guide to Southwest South Africa'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
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