Of Icons, Legends, Battles & Spices

Heritage tourism has become a global phenomenon…and the fastest growing tourism sector today.

For example, some 36-million tourists visited Britain last year; but three times that number of domestic tourists, some 114-million people in total, were recorded inside the UK over the same period, most of them visiting heritage sites and spending in excess of £26 billion, or just under R500 billion. A massive market indeed.

People want to know about the past; see it, feel it, live it, and understand it. It’s part of examining our roots, and gaining a better understanding of our present. It also helps foreign visitors gain a better understanding of the places they are visiting.

While the UK has such a rich and vast heritage offering and has cottoned on to its tourism potential, South Africa has never lagged behind. And one province that has truly embraced the idea of heritage tourism – fused with cultural exploration – is KwaZulu-Natal.

We visited the province to take a journey into the past and came face to face with our astoundingly rich and varied historical and cultural heritage.

Seeing the city of Durban on South Africa’s northern East Coast from the air during landing approach, has never failed to elicit a childlike sense of excitement and expectation in me. This time was no different. In fact, I was somewhat more excited than usual as a unique adventure awaited me.

From our descending plane I could see, far below, the Indian Ocean breakers rolling towards the land, while a foggy haze warned of the humidity that would soon wrap itself around me on the ground. Inland a thousand hills beckoned lush and green, dipping down to the hot, narrow coastal plane, the bustling city and the beachfront extravaganza of high-rise hotels.

Our plane landed at King Shaka International and, after meeting up with my guide, Thabo Mokgope, I set off on an amazing 5-day journey travelling far back into history.

The city and province offer far more than seemingly endless stretches of golden beaches and awesome game and nature reserves, such as the Inanda Heritage Route which Durban Tourism, the body entrusted with making available to the rest of the world the many delights of this city, has added in recent years to its splendid offering.

The route offers a tour that unlocks many of Durban’s most revered historical treasures for all to share, taking in some of the most important, albeit often little-known, historical sites of Durban. Winding its way through the Inanda Valley, it provides a snapshot of critical South African history as well as an important part connected to the history of India.

The latter should not come as a surprise, for Durban after all is home to the largest Indian community outside India. And it is a place where the political conscience and philosophy of a young Mahatma Gandhi was shaped. It is this route that perhaps more than anything else also pays tribute to the city’s fusion of the cultures and people of African, Asian and European origin – with a good measure of other influences also thrown in.

The province also boasts a large number of some other intriguing heritage routes and places of historical and cultural interest. For instance, set within a relatively small radius covering the province’s Midlands, there are no fewer than 82 battlefields, museums, old fortifications and places of remembrance…more than in any other part of South Africa.

Here history comes alive, set in awesome natural scenery and with nearby Big Five game parks, the Drakensberg mountains, a beautiful coastline and many other attractions thrown into the bargain.

But before you embark on the Inanda Heritage Route or the Battlefields tour, you may want to scout around the Durban city centre and meet some other very interesting historical figures. For instance, on an island between Dr AB Xuma Road and Monty Naicker Street in downtown Durban you’ll find the famed Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, or rather his bronze bust.

Few people are probably aware that Pessoa, one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language who is also often described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century, grew up and schooled  in Durban between 1895 and 1905, before returning to Portugal and world fame. In Portugal today, Pessoa’s other statue sits on a bench outside Lisbon’s famous coffeehouse, Café A Brasileira.

In the same manner, the statue of Pessoa’s Durban contemporary, John Dube, founding president of the African National Congress (ANC), now sits on a chair on the veranda of his first house on a hill in Inanda, Durban. One wonders whether the two ever met in Durban, as they certainly shared some common interests and views, and lived in close proximity.

A couple of street blocks away from Pessoa’s bust, on Margeret Mncadi Avenue, previously the Victoria Embankment, I saluted Dick King and his legendary horse. In 1842 they made an epic journey, racing 960km in just 10 days to Grahamstown, fording 120 rivers along the way, to fetch military help for the British garrison in Durban that was besieged by Boer forces. Sadly there is no statue of King’s faithful 16-year-old servant Ndongeni, who covered half the journey with King but eventually had to turn back as he had no saddle or bridle for his horse. Perhaps the city should contemplate adding a bronze of Ndongeni alongside King to complete this historical depiction of human and equid endurance and bravery.

Next we headed back into the city centre for a more contemporary experience of Durban’s diverse cultural heritage.  First stop was Little Gujarat at No 43 Dr Goonam Street where the “mild” version of Durban’s famous bunny chow set my innards on fire…an invention of the descendants of Indians brought from British colonial India to the Natal Colony as indentured labourers to work on the sugarcane estates. Later more Indians of various professions and trades would follow, among them the young lawyer named Gandhi.

Another Indian legacy is the nearby spice market at Warwick Junction. The area is one of the city’s main transport hubs where rushing rivers of humanity, cars, buses, taxis and trains converge around a vast complex of nine markets where some 8,000 vendors all shout for your attention, selling everything from CDs to curry powder, monkey skins, fridges, fresh produce and plastic buckets. It is home to one of the biggest and diverse markets in Southern Africa, once again a colourful, fragrant fusion of Africa, Asia and Europe.

In the Zulu muti market I chatted to inyangas and sangomas, watching them grinding bark and roots to a fine magical powder, while dead and skinned monkeys with glassy eyes, crocodile teeth, bird claws and snake skins dangled overhead. Farmers in the 100-years old fresh produce market sold the biggest bananas and carrots I had ever seen, and in the Victoria Street Indian market small mountains of curry powders and spices corrupted my sense of smell.

We went up the stairs into the Berea train station section that houses the Music Bridge, a maze of stalls and shops where African jazz competes with the latest hits from Mumbai at full volume, so loud you cannot hear the metro trains passing by below. I felt myself swept along in a dizzying carnival of street commerce and culture. As my kids would say: what a jol!

Next came the “French connection”. For a more solemn experience we visited the Emmanuel Cathedral, built partially with a donation from Empress Eugenie of France, wife of Napoleon III. In 1880 she came to visit the site where her son, the Prince Imperial, Napoleon IV, had been killed in the Anglo-Zulu War the previous year and donated ₤5,000 to the local Catholic Church in remembrance of her fallen son.

After journeying south across the city to the suburb of Chatsworth, we entered into the soulful silence of the biggest Hare Krishna Temple in Africa, the Sri Sri Radhanath Temple of Understanding. This serene place of meditation and introspection is an architectural marvel harking back to ancient India and built in the shape of a lotus flower with gold-tipped steeples, silver roof, dazzling white spires, gleaming marble tiles, gold-tinted windows, crystal chandeliers and gold statuettes.

Finally we leave the city and set off for Inanda and the Heritage Route, passing through the township of KwaMashu north of Durban. As we pull up to Phoenix Settlement where Mahatma Gandhi lived, we are reminded that in Inanda there is “more history per square kilometre than anywhere else in South Africa”.

It was here at Phoenix that Gandhi first developed his philosophy of passive resistance against injustice, a philosophy that was applied by the people of both South Africa and India in their struggles for freedom.

At Phoenix, on the original 100 acre site, one finds a reconstructed replica of Gandhi’s corrugated iron house named Sarvodaya. The original was destroyed during the anti-apartheid Inanda riots in 1985. But it in the quiet of the morning, the house still has a distinct “Gandhi feel” about it. Close your eyes and you can imagine him sitting dressed in a loin cloth on a straw mat, meditating.

Still standing beside the house is the original building that housed Gandhi’s printing press where he printed and published his newspaper, Indian Opinion. The newspaper lasted from 1904 until 1961. The property now also houses a community clinic and the Phoenix Interpretation Centre, together forming the Phoenix Settlement. There are many photographs, documents and panels on display that tell the fascinating story of this period and the man.

From Phoenix the road takes us up the hill to Ohlange where John Dube acquired a piece of land and built a school for his community not far from where he was born on the Inanda Mission Station in 1871. The school, the Zulu Christian Industrial School, later known as the Ohlange Institute, was the first black African-owned and run educational institution in South Africa. Dube’s first house also still stands here, while the graves of Dube, his wife and a number of his children are here too…now a national monument.

Having studied in the USA, Dube went on to become an essayist, philosopher, educator, politician, publisher, editor, novelist and poet, as well as the first president of the ANC which today governs South Africa. In 1903 he established the Ilanga Lase Natali newspaper, which is still being published to this day. Dube and Gandhi were friends, sharing a common philosophy.

IN 1994 in South Africa’s first democratic elections Nelson Mandela chose the Dr JL Dube Interpretation Centre housed on the school premises as the place where he cast his vote for the first time in a fully free, democratic South Africa. It is said that on that day he went to Dube’s grave close to the house and, facing his tombstone, said: “Mister President, I can report to you that today we are finally free.”

The Inanda Heritage Route also offers insights into the lives and work of many other historical figures. One can visit the ancestral homestead of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the principal founder of the ANC and its first treasurer general. Then there is the home of Rev Posselt Gumede, a pastor, intellectual, translator of hymns, political activist and founder member of the Natal Native Congress.

Also on the route is the home and grave of AWG Champion, an early trade unionist and ANC leader; the Inanda Congregational Church and the Inanda Seminary both established by American missionaries Daniel and Lucey Lindley in the mid-1800s where many well-known people were schooled; the house of Bertha Mkhize, teacher, trade unionist, ANC Women’s League president and a 1956 treason trialist; and the birthplace of Isaiah Shembe’s religious community which sees itself as a nation chosen, like the Israelites, by God and today has a huge following. Travelling through the area one sees almost everywhere the white stones on open pieces of land where Shembe’s followers worship.

Travelling further from the city, you can visit the Luthuli Museum, which includes the original 1927 home of Chief Albert Luthuli in Groutville, KwaDukuza. Chief Luthuli was a former ANC president who in 1961 became the first African to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent stance in the fight for liberation.

There are also many scenic attractions along the Inanda Heritage Route, such as the Inanda Dam or the beautiful Mzinyathi Falls. Close to the falls we encounter a group of young village boys out hunting with their pack of dogs.

On the way back to Durban we stop at the popular Sbu’s Lounge, something of a mix between a local shebeen, butcher, upmarket pool bar, braai facility and tourist attraction. We select some fine meat cuts which are braaied for us and brought to our table, along with some welcome beers. A street busker looking every bit the Broadway tap-dancer enters and entertains us with his walking stick, two-tone shoes and smart dance moves.

The next day we head inland towards the famed and beautiful Valley of a Thousand Hills, where we take in a spell of traditional Zulu dancing. Then we head north to the King Shaka Heritage Route. It provides a fascinating window on this most famous Zulu monarch and military genius and his people. There are many other Zulu heritage experiences on offer too, such as King Senzangakhona’s grave site or the royal residence of King Dingane kaSenzangakhona at Mgungundlovu. The route ends at Shaka’s grave at kwaDukuza, where it meets up with the province’s celebrated Battlefields Route.

On the Battelfields Route we visited sites such as Isandlwana, where 20,000 Zulu warriors inflicted one of the worst defeats on British colonial forces ever, killing 1,357 men; and Rorke’s Drift, where  an attack by 4,000 Zulu warriors on the  British garrison was repelled by 150 men in an 11 hour battle, with 17 British casualties and 11 Victoria Crosses being won, the most ever in a single action by one regiment.

At the site of the Battle of Blood River, we stand in the middle of a laager of concrete Voortrekker (Pioneer) wagons and imagine what it must have felt like when 470 Voortrekkers or Boers, led by Andries Pretorius, prepared for battle with an estimated 15,000–21,000 Zulu attackers on the bank of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838. The Zulu attackers were defeated and their casualties are said to have amounted to some 3,000 men, among them two Zulu princes.

Other major battle sites include Majuba, where in the decisive battle of the First Anglo-Boer War the Boers defeated the mighty imperial British army; Spioenkop, site of another major Boer victory over the British forces, this time during the Second Anglo-Boer War; and Ladysmith, site of the 118-day siege of the town and its British forces by the Boers in the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Today, on these battlefields, surrounded by this vast and rugged landscape drenched with the blood of Zulus, Boers and Brits, the scale of things and the relationship between man and nature, between life and death, and between war and peace take on a new significance here.

Find a quiet spot on a hill and shut your eyes as the sun goes down, and you can almost feel the tension in the air and  hear the soft patter of bare feet and the subdued clatter of iklwa stabbing spears as the feared Zulu army approaches. Then all hell breaks loose, and you can hear the clash of metal on metal, the continuous barrage of rifle fire, shouts and blood curdling screams. The air is filled with the smell of sweat, dust, fire, and cordite.

Soon it is all over and, save for the moans and crying of the gravely wounded, silence descends again. When you open your eyes there are now only the mounds of whitewashed stones and scattered iron crosses in the grass fields marking the final resting places of those who fell here in battle all those many years ago.

There are many other places of historic interest to visit in this beautiful province, such as the site of Nelson Mandela’s capture by security police at Howick, which led to his 27 years in prison. The provincial capital, Pietermaritzburg, also has a significant number of museums and places of interest.

All too soon it was time to return home again, and as our plane left Durban, I thought to  myself: what a privilege it is to be a South African and a tourist in my own amazing country. And to have learnt so much more about it by journeying into the tumultuous and diverse headiness of our past.