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We gave this family a strict budget of R3000 and tasked them with finding a route that was affordable for a family – including the furry member.

With Eshowe as the destination, here’s how they did it.

The family: Taweni Gondwe Xaba, husband Reggi, Tapiwa (11), Kulunga (9) and Zakithi (6). Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Costs

Toll fees on N2 R79
Diesel R570
Accommodation in a guest house for five + dog R1160
Food R500
Entry fees R775

Eshowe is the historical heart of battlefields where King Shaka’s men, armed only with short spears and an incredibly progressive military strategy, took on the guns and cannons of the Imperial British army, and confounded them. It was therefore fittingly dramatic that the first time we passed through, blood was spilled! We were en route to visit the Xaba family ancestral land in Vryheid.

A quick stopover landed us in the emergency room of the Eshowe hospital after our youngest got a deep gash on her knee from an uncovered tent peg. Sixteen stitches later, we proceeded on our journey. To distract the children, I made them call out the places of interest written on signboards along the road. A few caught my attention, and this is how, two years later, we ended up with the itinerary for our latest road trip.

The sprawling view from Umdoni Forest. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Going to the bush was our preferred option for this particular assignment, but the cost of game reserves seems more geared to Euro-flashing travellers and not so much to us little ZAR people. Also, the children were not keen to leave Rosie, our labrador, at home with a dog-sitter again, so we settled on doing ‘bush lite’ and basing ourselves in Eshowe. We broke up the drive there with lunch at Zinkwazi Beach, one of our favourites: pet-friendly, fisherman friendly and home to the Ski Boat Club, a lovely log cabin on the beach, serving the soggiest fish and chips ever consumed by man.

The location is so gorgeous and the beers so cold you just have to forgive them the food. On arrival at Mphushini Falls Resort, they knew nothing about our booking (in spite of the e-mail confirmation) and had no rooms. The sun had already set so we hit the internet feverishly looking for alternative accommodation at the last minute. Many simply did not answer their phones.

Long story short, we ended up at the cosy Abendruhe Guest House, which welcomed us and Rosie very warmly; owner Heinrich even brought a special rug for her to sleep on. We changed and rushed off to Shakaland for the evening performance – even though it was all staged, it was rich, informative and inspiring. Our three little chatterboxes were rendered silent for once by the audiovisual spectacle!

The George Hotel built in 1906. Photo supplied.

Early the next morning we entered the centuries-old forest in town. The tree canopy spread out beneath us as we stood on the viewing platform of the Dlinza aerial boardwalk. It was so breathtaking that we all instinctively fell quiet. Kulunga eventually broke the silence, whispering, ‘Everything is a photograph here.’ And it was.

We had not requested a guide and regretted this. It would have been very interesting to learn the names and habits of all the birds and creatures we came across, instead of this type of city-slicker conversation that occurred more than once – Kulunga: ‘Oooh! What a beautiful bug!’ Zakithi: ‘Like a mosquito with giant spotty wings! What IS that?’

With three Zulu ‘princesses’ in tow, it was only fitting that we pay our respects by visiting Queen Nandi’s grave, mother of Shaka Zulu himself. Our online research promised that we’d find a special grave designed by a cultural committee to honour her memory. Imagine our shock at finding her resting place in a shambles. The signage to the location was extremely poor and we had to depend on helpful locals to redirect us.

Finally, our Sahara Wrangler was able to tear across the overgrown hillside to stumble upon what can only be politely termed a heap of large stones held together by concrete and ‘protected’ by a broken, rusty fence. A piece of wood bore the words ‘Nandis Grave’. Tapiwa noted aloud that it was ‘even missing an apostrophe’.

Traditional dancers, singers and story tellers perform in a giant hut at Shakaland. Photo supplied.

Were it not for the exquisite and breathtaking landscape of the surrounding mountains and valleys, I’d say we burnt fuel for naught. To add salt to the wound, we got a puncture in our front tyre. I’m not one for superstition and whatnot, but I still can’t shake the feeling that it was a message from the Great She Elephant for me to relay to the nation at large that she is bitter at how neglected she is. The puncture put paid to our plans of visiting Bulawayo battlefield and the Lone British Soldier’s Grave, so we returned to Eshowe.

It’s a wonderful place – warm and inviting, like the town I grew up in. There is the main road that leads everywhere, the business owners who all seem to know everything about the town and its inhabitants, the tourist attractions that locals sheepishly admit they never visit. And one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had, at The George Hotel: lashings of bacon, English Breakfast tea, and exquisite colonial ambience (I know, not very PC, but it really took me back home to the Gymkhana Club in Malawi). A giant image of Dame Helen Mirren on the wall above the reception desk, from when she stayed here while filming; the library suffused with the pleasant smell of aged paper and old leather, the alfresco dining space, the brilliant staff… it’s just special. The rooms are charming and, with a slightly bigger budget, we all would have loved to stay here.

Interesting side note: no one asked for the Wi-Fi password, Eshowe was that interesting!

The furry member of the family running through the fields.

 

Plan your trip to Eshowe

Getting there

Head north up the N2. Take Exit 245 (about 94km from Durban) for lunch in Zinkwazi. Back on the N2, take the Dokodweni Exit 277 and turn left onto Route 66 to Eshowe. After 28km, follow the signs into town.

When to go

It’s a summer rainfall area, with mild to warm weather all year – it only gets freezing cold at night in midwinter.

Stay here

Abendruhe Guest House is quite basic in its appointment but the owner’s hospitality and service are definitely five star. En-suite double room R580 per night. Tel 0828193478.

Other options we considered

Mtunzini-on-the-Green This was R1000 for the five of us, and offered a pool and braai area, but although it was on the coast it was not directly at the seaside.

The Hatchery At Amatikulu. The Kelp Room cost R1200 for all of us, but it has no pool or Wi-Fi and the offspring and husband balked at this. Penny’s Cottage looked good but was R200 over our budget; it had the essentials but wasn’t pet-friendly.

Kwa-Eden. This spot in Zinkwazi had the best web photos, was rated four stars and had all the mod cons. It would have cost only R900 a night for all of us. However, they didn’t answer their phone. safarinow.com Beautiful Ocean View Guest House At Tugela Mouth. The web pics looked amazing but the owners have dogs so we couldn’t take ours. R349 plus R303 per person (sleeps eight).

Mphushini Falls Resort. Right in Eshowe, this was our original final choice – it has a pool, free Wi-Fi and was described on Booking.com as ‘one of our bestsellers’. However, the booking was bungled. R1600 for a self-catering family room (sleeps five).

 

Do this

Treat yourself to breakfast for R60 per person at The George Hotel. Grab one of the outside tables. (The hotel is also the home base of Zululand Brewery and a coffee shop.) thegeorge.co.za

Do the aerial boardwalk in the Dlinza Forest, 125m long with a 20m-high viewing platform. There are also short trails on ground level through the forest. Entry R30 adults, R10 children.

Visit Fort Nongqayi in town, which houses the fascinating Zululand Historical Museum, Norwegian mission chapel, Vukani Craft Museum and magical Butterfly Dome. Entry from R35 adults, R10 kids. eshowemuseums.org.za

Shakaland by
Tapiwa Xaba (11)
‘I loved the dancing and the storytelling. It was my first time to hear the sound of the ingungu, the friction drum, and it was hypnotic. It really felt like I was there in the olden days!’

The package experiences available at Shakaland are perfect for an introduction to the various colourful and interesting aspects of Zulu culture, including beer making, beadwork, fighting formations and spear throwing. The Nandi Experience is the cream of the crop at R550 per person – a Zulu village tour, lunch and traditional dancing.

Children up to age five participate for free, those up to 12 years old pay half price. We just went for the evening cultural performance (R190 per person). Sadly, we could not partake of the magnificent buffet of game and other meats (R245 per person) as that would have blown the budget; for us, there awaited a lovely KFC in Eshowe. 0354600912, aha.co.za/shakaland

 

This story first appeared in the July 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

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