From the Hippo Hide Lodge in the Berea district of Durban, I take a cab to Ulundi station where I find the white mini van taxi to the Zululand town of Eshowe 150kms north of Durban. Every available bit of space is utilised. I am squashed right in the back and my backpack finds a home pressed somewhere in the front seats. An excessively rotund Zulu woman sat next to me is munching on slices of white bread in one hand and a large cheap supermarket sausage in the other which she occasionally takes generous bites from. In her lap is an enormous bottle of some discount brand Cola. The journey is two hours but feels like 20 and I am happy when we leave the main highway and I spot a sign saying ‘Eshowe 23kms’
Arriving in Eshowe I stumble out of the bursting minivan like I’ve been kept hostage inside a kitchen cupboard and find myself in a clothes shop run by a friendly South African Indian and shielded away from the hawkers and mess outside as I try to fully understand my bearings and where on earth I am in relation to my chosen accommodation. There are no taxi drivers in sight and I don’t trust many of the hawkers. I see a respectable looking elderly local walking towards his Toyota. I abruptly approach him and blurt out that I need to go to the George Hotel in exchange for a few rands. He obliges and I lump all my crap in the back seats and off we go. It’s barely a few blocks away and I suppose I could have walked there. I decide not to stay at the George and instead have a punt on the adjacent Bishops Guest House. There are no rooms available but the owner Hazel says that I can stay with her friend. It is almost mid afternoon and I head to Vals Takeaway on the edge of town for a delicious, ample and much needed mutton biriani. Afterwards I visit Shoprite to buy a few groceries before heading back to the Bishops. Hazel’s partner Terry kindly drives me in his 4×4 to Hazel’s friend’s house. The house is an enormous bungalow with a large handsome drive and garden with exotic trees and plants. My room is in a separate small block on the grounds of the house. It is immaculate with a Queen size bed, TV and private ensuite bathroom. A very good deal for the price.
The next day I go for a walk around Eshowe. Outside of the city centre it really is a very pretty place in the heart of Zululand. I go for a walk to visit Fort Nongqayi. Inside the fort I am greeted by a young Zulu man named Zano. He is a very intelligent, articulate and entertaining guide. His English is excellent. We visit the white church founded by Norwegian missionaries before entering the fort. Inside the fort are Zulu related displays and artefacts. The section of the fort dedicated to John Dunn (a legendary 19th century white Zulu businessman and sex machine) piques my curiosity but history aside it was being with Zano which really made my day. When he mentioned that his favourite writer was Charles Bukowski I thought I was hallucinating. Very quickly my attention turned away from Zulu history and culture and straight to Bukowski and how in Zululand of all places with my Zulu compadre Zano we’d be discussing him – this beautifully fucked up damaged poetic skid row bum in staunchly conservative Zululand. 20kms away from Nkandla and Jacob Zuma’s massive homestead. Zano told me that many of his friends were also into Bukowski – ‘that man speaks the truth!’ Zano would say.
When we parted ways I payed a visit to the Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum which has a wealth of notable and important Zulu arts and crafts. There are beautiful and elaborately patterned handwoven baskets and pottery artefacts including several pottery pieces by the noted Zulu artist Nesta Nala and her children.
Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum
Pottery works by the Zulu artist Nesta Nala
In the evening I relax in the library of the George Hotel which has an adequate Internet connection. I decide that I will visit Shakaland the following day. It’s a Disneyfied like adventure park reenacting traditional 19th century Zulu culture. It was originally created for the highly succesful television series Shaka-Zulu. Unfortunately I don’t have my own transportation and getting to Shakaland or almost any other place in Zululand without it is very difficult. Fortunately a lady named Leanne from the George Hotel kindly offers to drive me there and back the next day.
Inside the library of the George Hotel
For some irrational reason I decide to spend this evening at one of the cheaper outside rooms of the George Hotel in a stupid plan to save money. For the sake of a few rand I ditch Eden for some decrepit beatnik hotel in a seedy part of Tanger in the 1950s. My room has a perpetual pungent oder of fresh paint. I can see that my room is a former wreck which has been tarted up superficially to make it look neat and presentable. My room is the epitome of the phrase ‘polishing a turd’ and it sure as shit ain’t worth what I paid for it. Loud building work outside my room comences in earnest at 7am; not that any of this matters. I’ve been struggling to achieve a modicum of decent kip ever since 11pm. The last few days have been a mess of insomnia. I go to the mirror and my fresh boyband face from just a few days ago has morphed into Shane McGowen’s. Nevertheless I am all ready for Shakaland.
Shakaland is ridiculous. I am not exactly Wilfred Thiesger or Richard Burton and am very much the clumsy albeit curious Gringo with his two words of Zulu under his belt. When I arrive I am the only tourist there and so I get a private tour of the grounds. I drink the infamous sorghum Zulu beer from a big wooden spoon and fool around with a large King Shaka spear like I am in Falaraki on some last minute cheap package weekend bender – not exactly warrior material. I mean put me in a time machine and plop me in the Blood River battle of 1838 I would have more than let the team down. Andries Pretorius would have given me the whipping of my life for my incompetence and tomfoolery. Later I am joined by more visitors; a Belgian couple and a group of visitors from Pretoria. We watch an impeccable performance of Zulu dances. At one point I decide to join in and add some very un-Zulu moves; like a cross between between King Cetshewayo on PCP and Bez of the Happy Mondays. Then we all have some locally made food at the Shakaland restaurant.
Drinking traditional Zulu beer
Trying (pushing) my luck with traditional Zulu dancing
Back in Eshowe, I sensibly decide to return to Eden and my Queen size bed. I sleep well and wake up at 6.30am the next day feeling well rested. Yet my mood changes when I turn on the TV and the long awaited result of the EU referendum in the UK has already been announced. For two hours I flip between all the diferent news channels lost in confusion. Fortunately a sane part of my brain does the right thing and propels me out of my room and away from the TV. Besides I had booked a tour for today with a local guide to visit his village and home and perhaps visit his family and a local school. Sadly my original guide had fallen ill and the only option available was a guy named Walter. The lady at the George warned me that he could be ‘erratic’ and may hustle me for more money at the end of tour. But I was assured that he was completely harmless, just a very naughty boy.
Big pimping; Walter and I
Seeing Walter for the first time I become hesitant, anxious and uncertain. My mind harks back to my Moroccan guide Mohammad who accompanied me and a few friends on a three day expedition in the Atlas Mountains ten years ago. He was a never ending liability and even had the temerity to ask for a 200 Dirham ‘customary’ tip at the end. Walter is four parts Rick James, three parts Jacob Zuma, two parts Shaft and one part Lee Scratch Perry. Nevertheless I knew that we would have lots of fun and (erratic) adventures. Walter is wearing a silk red shirt and an ostentatious pair of pimping sun glasses. He’s dressed up more for a night out on the tiles on Florida road in Durban than a visit to a traditional Zulu village. He keeps insisting that he is 83 and has the energy of a bull. What remains unclear is how we are going to get to his village. I don’t have a car and after having told him about ten times he keeps asking me where my car is. The lady at the George who organised the tour says that we would be able to get to his village via public transport but I am forever doubtful. After much unnecessary stressing I realise that the best move is to simply go with the proverbial flow and just glide with the movements of Walter. Getting angry or upset is a fools game. In fact, in a perverse kind of way, I prefer to be with Walter than the other more reliable and trusted guide; it would have been all too predictable. Here there is no compass.
We walk towards Eshowe town and for all I know we may as well be heading to a few shebeens or gambling houses than sticking to our original plan of visiting his village. As we pass Shoprite, Walter raises his right hand and an old truck slows down. Walter motions for me to get in and off we drive to what I am guessing is his village. Soon we leave the main paved roads and drive on to a dirt road up a hill and towards his home. There are four semi modern huts at his place with red tin corrugated roofs. I am introduced to some of his family and I use my two words of Zulu; sawabona and injani (which mean ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ respectively).
At Walter’s abode
Leaving his home we walk towards a local school. The day is getting hot and I regret not bringing a bottle of water. When we approach the school it is closed. Walter suggests we keep on walking. During our walk we pass by numerous local village folk and Walter insists on photo opportunities every time we meet passing villagers. We bump into a young sangoma apprentice. Walter wants to take a photo of me with the boy using my iPhone. I don’t object. When he hands me back my phone I see that he has taken 22 photos. I will do all the editing when I return to Eshowe later. I don’t know where we are going. After a while I get so exhausted and feel like we’ve galivanted throughout all of Zululand. At one interval he points to a hut in the distance on top of a hill. He tells me that’s where his friend lives and wants us to go there. I faint at the distance but Walter knows of a shortcut. We ditch the path and climb up the hill gripping onto rocks and miscellaneous roots and vegetation. Halfway up the hill I nearly loose my balance but claw my right fingers into the ground earth to prevent myself from falling back to the start. Walter on the other hand is going up the hill like some son of a gun trooper; like a modern day King Shaka. When we enter his friend’s modest abode which has a sparkling name brand fridge and plasma TV inside, we are both rewarded with a cup of clean water which he scoops into the cups from a large open blue tank of water in the corner of the living room.
With some local Zulu village folk
Leaving his friend’s place we head back towards Walter’s house. All the time on the way there he keeps pointing to his house in the distance, like it’s one of the seven wonders of world. When we return to his house, a member of his family prepares a meal for us of chicken and vegetable stew and a lifetime supply of pap. After our meal, Walter hands me a battered notebook which contains testimonials from travellers all around the world. There are also letters. One is from a French couple from Piotiers dating back to 1998 and the other from a Dutch lady from Delft. Clearly all the travellers who crossed paths with Walter were won over by his unique charisma, energy and spontaneity. And so was I. It was a blessing in disguise that the other guide was ill. Although there was still one last problem. How the hell was I going to get back to Eshowe?
Walter offered to call me a cab or rather get one of his mates to pick me up and drive me back to my guesthouse. I accepted the R100 fare and so Walter and I walked from his house and to the side of the dirt road. On the way we pass by three gravestones. One is of his parents. By the edge of the road, Walter was joined by a friend brandishing a large bottle of Castle Chocolate Milk Stout. They share the bottle and offer me a swig which I decline. Then Walter’s friend lights up a prerolled doobie. My cab eventually arrives and I bid Walter farewell.
I stay one more day in Eshowe. The next day is a lazy and aimless day, although I do muster the energy to go for a walk to visit King Cetashowe’s memorial site further outside of town. At the end of the road just after the site I am rewarded with one of the most spectacular vistas of rural Zululand. It really was quite majestic.
Before returning to Durban I order a Durban curry for lunch from the restaurant of the George Hotel. Whilst I am waiting for my food, I visit an outside bar on the grounds of the hotel called Pablo Esco Bar, so called since the owner has an uncontrollable obsession with the famous Colombian Drug Lord. I order a pint of Zulu Blond which is a local brew made by the owner and has even won a few awards. I like it. It’s a glorious day outside and despite a kind invitation from a local at the bar to go to a party at his house where a few local bands will be playing, I am all done with Zululand. My battered white collective mini van taxi awaits to take me back to Durban.
by Nicholas Peart
12th July 2016
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