At a mile marker shy of 250 kilometres it may not have the length or the mystique of the now defunct famous Route 66 in the USA, but the journey of the same name in South Africa is a splendid mix of rolling hills, forest, history. . . and a Zulu blonde.
Route 66 – between the Dokodweni Toll Plaza on the N2 in the South and Pongola in the North where it rejoins the N2 – follows one of the oldest trade routes through Zululand; a route like so many others in Africa and in other parts of the world that brought with it the missionaries, soldiers, police, farmers and conflict.
The route has seen massive changes and violent war – clan against clan, kingdom against kingdom and the place where Victorian Britain’s imperial ambitions and military might were shaken by the resilience of the Zulu army, their spears and shields against the rifles and cannon of the British.
The rise of Shaka and the battles of the Anglo-Zulu War have inspired novels, television epics and movies and today the scale and uniqueness of the annual Royal Reed Dance draws considerable international attention.
Starting at the Southern point of Route 66, it may be worthwhile to make the short detour on the R102 to the banks of the Thukela River and to the site where, in 1879, the British issued the Zulu King Cetshwayo with the ultimatum that led, inevitably, to the start of the Anglo-Zulu War. As a scene-setter, this gives some substance to the history of the region, even though the old wagon trails have been replaced with modern tarred roads.
The first town on Route 66 is Gingindlovu, a busy ‘village’ serving the needs of the local sugarcane farmers with little to remind travellers this was once a military headquarters established by Cetshwayo after he had defeated his brothers in bloody battle for the throne. The name means ‘Swallower of the Elephant’ and refers to the defeat of Prince Mbulazi and his followers declaring he had ‘eaten’ up the greatest opponent to his ambitions.
To the British soldiers who fought two major battles against King Cetshwayo’s army here 20 years later during the Anglo-Zulu War, the village was known fondly as ‘Gin, Gin, I love you’.
The sites of the battles of Nyezane and Gingindlovu are just outside Gingindlovu on the R66 to Eshowe. Both sites are close to the road and are marked by granite memorials. Some of the British soldiers killed at the Battle of Gingindlovu are buried in a sadly untended and overgrown cemetery on the farm 300 m from the memorial.
Without doubt, one of the most colourful characters contributing to the rich history of Zululand was John Dunn – hunter, trader, white chief of Zululand, husband to 48 women and father of at least 117 children. Born of Scottish parents, he lived at Port Natal (now Durban) until he turned 18 when he took himself and his young wife, Catherine, into the largely unexplored territory north of the town.
Dunn met Cetshwayo – then heir apparent to the Zulu kingdom – and was invited to settle in Zululand and become the prince’s advisor. Dunn agreed to the offer and was made Chief of the fertile coastal area known as Ongoye – stretching from Thukela River to the Mhlatuze River in the north – and he increasingly adopted the culture and customs of the Zulu.
He married his first Zulu wife in 1861 and over the next few decades ended up taking 48 Zulu wives while the close bond between Dunn and King Cetshwayo strengthened and became one of the wealthiest and most powerful chiefs in the Zulu kingdom through his ivory and gun trading.
With war inevitable, on New Year’s Eve in 1879 Dunn and his family, 2 000 supporters and some 3 000 head of cattle were ferried across the Thukela into British Natal where he offered his services to the British, taking part in the war for the first time at the Battle of Gingindlovu.
Following the defeat of the Zulu army at Ulundi Dunn who was given back his former chiefdom with increased powers and twice as much land. In the late 1880’s Britain annexed Zululand as a British colony and Dunn unhappily found himself once again under colonial rule.
He died on August 5, 1895 at his farm Emoyeni outside Mtunzini at the age of 71, survived by 23 wives and 79 children.
Eshowe, not quite the centre point of Route 66 is, nonetheless, a good base of operations for the more dedicated explorers being home of the Dlinza Forest, the Fort Nongqayi Museum Village, The George Hotel, The Zululand Brewery and Zulu Blonde.
Being elevated on a hilltop above the humid coastal plain means Eshowe boasts as a cool, comfortable climate wrapped as it were by the 250-hectare Dlinza Forest, one of the last true forest reserves remaining in the country, home to 65 bird species (including Spotted Ground Thrush, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon and Narina Trogon), 80 butterfly species and an equally dazzling array of vegetation.
The forest has a number of ground trails (all less than 2 km) but the main attraction is the 250-metre aerial boardwalk stretching out from the top of a valley – the children and wheelchair-friendly walk is flat until the end where a 20-metre platform takes visitors above the treetops, some 120 metres up from the forest floor.
At least four Zulu kings occupied the land around Eshowe, but its more modern history begins in the mid-19th Century when Reverend Hans Schreuder of the Norwegian Mission Society got permission from King Mpande to start a mission station at Ntumeni. Seven years later, a second Norwegian, Reverend Ommund Oftebro, established a mission station at KwaMondi (now a suburb of Eshowe). During the Anglo-Zulu War the British forces occupied the mission as a fort and were besieged by the Zulu army for 10 weeks.
During the Zulu Civil War a few years later, Eshowe became the British military headquarters and a large peace-keeping force of 3 000 British troops was encamped in tents at Fort Curtis for about 16 years. No evidence of Fort Curtis remains.
Fort Nongqayi, however, remains – the white three-towered fort built in 1883 as headquarters of the barefoot Nongqayi Zulu Police. Housed on the same grounds as the fort and Mission Chapel Museum is the Vukani Cultural Museum housing some 3 000 items of traditional and modern craftwork and basketry.
Although modernised, The George Hotel’s large veranda, wooden floors and grand staircase leading upstairs to the rooms is a reminder of life when the pace was slower and people were prepared to take time to enjoy themselves.
The hotel is also home to The Zululand Brewery and it was in this small (300-litre) enclave brew master and hotel owner, Richard Chennells came up with the formula for Zulu Blonde – a lager style beer that topped the list against 50 other beer brands in the Wetherspoon Real Ale Festival in London last year.
The highly contested best brew saw 46 local ale brands and six international brands, of which Zululand Blonde was the only one from South Africa, being thoroughly tested in 750 pubs across the United Kingdom to take the title of best beer.
“We flew over there and brewed 54 000 litres for the festival at Burton-On-Trent, which has a large brewery and is famous for brewing ale,” says Chennells. “The recipe took me a while to get the taste right and we had to tweak it here and there.
“When we brewed the beer in England, the water gave it a slightly different flavour, but it has a slightly fruity, not too bitter taste which makes for easy drinking.”
If current negotiations bear fruit, Zulu Blonde could be bottled and sold throughout England and Europe by next year.
A ‘Blonde’ beer is one in which a mix of traditional barley brewed beer is blended with wheat beer, the final taste dependent on the ratio and the recipes used for the two brews.
Refreshed and rested, the next stop on Route 66 takes us further north and up to around 800 metres above seas level to the hamlet of Melmoth, established by the British when they annexed Zululand in 1887 and named after Sir Melmoth Osborn, the resident commissioner.
Just outside Melmoth is a spring where maidens gathered every day to collect fresh water supplies, transporting it in clay pots balanced on their heads for 8kms down into the valley known as Emakhosini where King Dingane built his capital Mgungundlovu.
Water closer to the palace was polluted by the large number of soldiers and cattle residing around the royal capital and the clean water of the Mthonjaneni spring was used exclusively by King Dingane to quench his thirst and for his ablutions.
Nearby is the site of Fort Victoria where the British army built a garrison following the defeat of King Cetshwayo at Ulundi. In the grounds of the Mtonjaneni Lodge adjacent to site of the fort is Mtonjaneni Zulu Historical Museum that houses a private collection of memorabilia and artefacts relating to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
In the history of Zululand, Ulundi is arguably the most famous and significant of places having been ‘born’ on September 01, 1873 when Cetshwayo became king. As was customary, he created a new capital for the nation, naming it ‘uluNdi’ (“The high place”). On July 4, 1879, in the Battle of Ulundi (the final battle of the Anglo-Zulu War), the British army captured the royal kraal and razed it to the ground. Nearby is Ondini, where King Mpande, Cetshwayo’s father, had his kraal. A large Zulu hut now is on the site.
The town of Ulundi, in the heart of Zululand, is set among majestic hills and the rugged valleys of the White Umfolozi River. The former capital of the Zulu Kingdom, Ulundi straddles Route 66, between Nongoma and Melmoth.
King Cetshwayo’s royal residence has been partially reconstructed at Ondini, just outside Ulundi and includes a small site museum that is worth a visit.
From Ulundi it is a fairly short drive to Pongola, the end of Route 665 and the sudden reality shift forward as you rejoin the N2 and all the hustle and bustle of modern life.