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vtravelled loves: Isandlwana, South Africa

by Moderator April 2010 - last edited November by Community Manager

I have to confess, I'm not really into battles. My eyes tend to glaze over at the mere mention of them and I nearly died of boredom watching Braveheart. So it was with some trepidation that I began my visit to Isandlwana in Kwazulu Natal, site of the most famous battle in the Anglo-Zulu wars, where in January 1879 the army of the British Empire was roundly defeated by that of the Zulu Kingdom.

 

Isandlwana Battlefields from the Isandlwana Lodge

The Battlefields from the Isandlwana Lodge

 

The battlefields, however, are home to a most extraordinary hotel, Isandlwana Lodge, and battlefield tourism is the major draw. The lodge is built directly into the iNyoni rock escarpment, right below the spot where the Zulu commander stood during his famous victory over the British. And within minutes of arriving, the overwhelming weight of history takes over. It's impossible to stand and gaze over the surrounding landscape without feeling a huge sense of awe at the spectacle that played out here.

 

Isandlwana Lodge Pool

Isandlwana Lodge Pool

 

The lodge itself is the result of a rather unorthodox venture between the local Tribal Authority and two American businesswomen with a passion for South Africa. The Inkosi (chief) of the tribe had already identified the site as a potential spot for a development that would create jobs for the local community and revenue for providing medical care and schools for the villagers.

 

Dining Room at Dusk

Dining Room at Dusk

 

Shaped like a shield, and made from the rock of the immediate area, the low thatched building slips harmoniously into its surroundings. It has just 12 en-suite rooms, furnished in a mixture of ethnic and modern styles, all with private balconies with 180 degree views. A huge double-height dining area, bar and lounge with floor to ceiling windows offers the perfect spot to sit and watch the cattle graze, or in my case, witness an incredible purple sky and violent electrical storm.

 

Isandlwana Lodge at Dusk

Isandlwana Lodge at Dusk

 

Despite all this, I woke up on my first morning still not feeling particularly enthralled by the prospect of a battlefields tour. It was raining and foggy and I could have quite easily holed up in an armchair by the fire with my books all day. I am so glad I didn't. Paul Garner, the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic guide I have ever had the privilege to be entertained by, filled the day with a story so compelling, so suspenseful and ultimately - as we looked out at the cairns of white rocks marking the graves of fallen soldiers - so moving, that it became the highlight of my stay.

 

Isandlwana Village

Isandlwana Village

 

Learning about the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift (the latter rather inaccurately immortalized in the 1964 film Zulu) is indeed one of the main reasons people visit the lodge, but it's not the only one. This is the heart of Zululand, and if you want to learn something about its culture and traditions, this is the right place. The lodge has very close ties to the villagers and one of them, a young woman called Poppy, took me for a walk.

As we tramped through the long damp grass she spoke shyly of her impending marriage and of the issue of the lobola or dowry, which her fiancé's family needed to give to her father - eleven cows, in this instance. Cattle are extremely important to the Zulus and a large herd represents power, wealth and status. Without cattle a man cannot get married, feed his family or placate angry spirits!

 

Sangoma's Hut

Sangoma's Hut

 

Inside the hut of the village Sangoma (medicine man) who unfortunately wasn't present, I sat at the side and watched as his female apprentice donned ankle bells and rattles, and chanted, stamped and swayed herself into a trance while Poppy knelt on the floor beside me and beat a large drum.

Further down the hill is the village school, a place very popular with lodge guests. Many want to help the school in some way after their visit and recent donations have manifested themselves in the form of new computers and a dedicated teaching space.

 

Mount Isandlwana

Mount Isandlwana

 

Back at the lodge, when you're all walked-out and battle weary, it's time for a cocktail by the pool, chess in the lounge, or a coffee on the terrace. Manager André Broerse, a down-to-earth and supremely affable host, will cater to your every whim before you've even thought of them. It's the kind of service you want in a luxury hotel - invisible, not gushing. After my walk with Poppy I left my very muddy trainers outside my room, and when I opened the door again they were clean! And on my second night, after an unseasonably cold day, I pulled back my covers to find a furry hot-water bottle placed inside my bed. This made me very happy. I'm not a fan of the cold. It's these kinds of thoughtful touches that really leave a lasting impression.

Isandlwana Lodge is not the most obvious choice for a holiday in South Africa, but it was a truly unforgettable experience. I would recommend staying 2 or 3 nights as part of a wider exploration of Kwazulu Natal, and you'll need a car. It's an easy four hour drive from either Johannesburg or Durban, and you'll pass through some pretty spectacular scenery on your way. Visit the lodge's website for more information or book direct through Virgin Holidays.

Virgin Atlantic fly direct from London Heathrow to South Africa.

The author stayed as a guest of the hotel. Have you ever stayed at this lodge or been to anywhere else in Kwazulu Natal? What do you think of this region of South Africa? Would you recommend it as a holiday destination? Do you have any other tips for visiting the area? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below.


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Rosie April 2010
This is funny, I am South African and last year my partner and me went home to visit (on Virgin!) and on our way home we had to drive from Durban to Jozi to catch our flight back to the UK and we *so* nearly broke up our journey by staying at this lodge but decided not to at the last minute and ended up staying somewere really terrible instead and now after reading this i really wish we had just stuck to our first instinct!!! IT looks so lovely, the view!
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April 2010
Shame - you will have to go next time you go home :) It really is very, very unique. And does indeed have an amazing view!
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WeFlytheEngl June 2010
Africa’s many beautiful safari lodges. Check out our reviews of the Amakhosi Safari Lodge and Isandlwana Lodge, both in Kwazulu Natal, to whet your appetite.Photos by iphillip and Shine 10 on Flickr.Virgin
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vtravelledlove June 2010
visiting Amakhosi as part of a wider journey through Kwazulu Natal. Check out our review of the Isandlwana Lodge, a couple of hours west of here. If you have more time, consider combining a Zululand adventure in
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About the author: Maxine

Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.