When Boudicca fetched up for our overnight’s stay at Richards Bay, it’s safe to say that most of our passengers were somewhat less than overwhelmed at first impressions. Richards Bay is an industrial port, right next to a coal exporting centre. To call it ‘short on charm’ would be a radical understatement.
Happily, we were not there to savour it’s delights (a process that would have taken all of thirty seconds) but rather to enjoy the wealth of attractions nestled in the nearby hinterland. And, what it might have lacked in charm, Richards Bay more than made up for with it’s ease of access to some truly memorable wildlife and scenic encounters.
Up to now, almost everything that I had seen and done on this trip had been coastal related but now, for the first time, we headed inland on an excursion that would bring us face to face with bona fide members of the biggest of South Africa’s thirteen indiginous tribes- the infamous Zulus.
Our coach snaked its way inland, past brush plantations. small groups of school children making their way home, and a hinterland that contained God alone knows what. But that ninety minute drive would culminate in one of the greatest travel experiences of my life thus far.
DumaZulu is an authentic cultural village and domestic experience, actually inhabited by members of the ethnic Zulu population. Here, in a compound of rare red earth surrounded by a criss-crossed wooden fence, these people keep their original way of life alive; cooking, eating and making handicrafts, as well as spears and shields. This was no Disney-esque style recreation; the people here actually live on the site.
That fence is no protection at all against the snakes that come here at night; the natives simply kill those. But it does keep out the larger, more substantial predators that lurk in the brush just outside at night. Happily for us, our visit took place in the searing afternoon sun, with no shortage of light.
After a full on, very vocal challenge from a local Zulu, garbed in the traditional fur and head gear, we learned more of the local culture and customs. A Zulu male may attain any number of wives, all for the princely dowry of eleven cows each. And, with the local Zulu shields being made of cow hide as well, it’s apparently that these mostly benevolent bovines feature largely in the spectrum of everyday Zulu life.
Over a smouldering, smoky pit, a trio of young Zulu braves showed us how they made their spears, hammering and moulding them into shape using a series of blunt rocks. I did wonder uneasily whether they might be quietly tooling up for Rorke’s Drift II- The Rematch but to be honest they were amazingly polite, and not at all daunted by our bus load of dollar crusaders.
For a small fee, you can even consult with the Sangoma- the local equivalent of a witch doctor- on any topic under the sun. Though we were told not to take photos of her, the Sangoma was actually quite happy to pose with her charming, assorted, bleached white collection of skulls, bones, and chicken innards, throwing them skywards in theatrical displays that hopefully did not augur too badly for my immediate future.
The Zulu huts themselves are squat, circular straw refuges, scattered around the red soil of the compound like so many blemishes on a sun burnt palette. Inside, there’s a fire pit in the centre, and there’s room enough for several people to commune in each. The Ritz Carlton they are not.
Back outside, we sat on some rickety bleachers, drinking genuine Zulu beer out of a collection of locally made clay bowls and jugs. That beer is clearly an acquired taste and, to be honest, I have yet to acquire it. But the show we were about to witness was intoxicating enough in its own right, beer or no.
Cue a full on, feisty troupe of Zulu ladies and gentlemen in full regalia, complete with tom tom drums, spears, feathers, and exotic head dresses. For the next thirty minutes or so they stomped, chanted, and thumped drums and chests alike. In doing this, they kicked up up a dust storm that looked like the aftermath of a regiment of charging Rhinos. The X-Factor it was not….
There were displays of macho bravado, no shortage of spear waving, and some truly blood curdling howling of a type not heard since the last Atomic Kitten album. The blood ran colder than that Zulu beer at times, but it was never anything less than thrilling, full on, and in an odd type of way, truly intoxicating. We learned later that what we had witnessed was an actual wedding courtship ritual.
And this really was the truly authentic, heartfelt sound of tribal Africa. Long before Apartheid, Cecil Rhodes or even Oscar Pistorious ever reared their heads, these frantic prayers, offerings and chants were at the very epicentre of Zulu life. You had the definite sense of being on the cusp of something timeless and rare out there. The line between past and present was, at best, a beguiling kind of blur.
Still, there was enough time to shop at the authentic Zulu store, too. Here, you could buy CD’s and DVD’s, as well as freshly made spears, shields, and other examples of local artistry. And, while it all seemed to be suddenly a bit tacky, it did serve to remind me just how uneasily native people and their traditions sit alongside the modern world, with it’s endless, perceived sense of technical and material progress.
Back to the ship, and our own tribe of sea safari veterans trooped, tired but happy, back up the gangway to board Boudicca. Darkness had stolen across the quayside; the local sellers had packed up shop and gone home for the day. And, although we would be here overnight, there was nowhere nearby really so alluring as to merit getting off the ship again that evening.
Snug and fast back aboard our own little world, we turned inwards to share our day’s adventures, our pre-dinner drinks out on the terrace, and then a marvellous, mellow dinner, followed by live music in the Lido, and a couple of nightcaps outside on the terrace on Seven Deck.
Here, back aboard our own charmed little universe, the lights shone on the still, dark waters that lapped at our ship’s flank. From being down and deep in the dense, exciting tribal playground of DumaZulu to all the languid, laid back bonhomie and comfort of Boudicca, I mused that it had, indeed, been quite the day.
And we were by no means finished yet.