Visit the interesting towns, discover the natural attractions and experience the traditional culture and unmatched wildlife that Zululand has to offer. There are several gateways through which to enter the magic that is Zululand - by road from the north, south or west; by air and even by sea - but for our purposes lets commence our journey in the south.
Heading south from Pongola we reach the Magudu area, a favourite with hunters and many private game farms, hunting lodges and photographic safaris operate here. The sacred mountain of Magudu is the site of a historical village that was once the home to Magudu, the Zulu rain queen.
Continuing inland, we set our sights on the north-western corner of Zululand via Louwsburg. Shortly before the village of Louwsburg is the turn-off to the magnificent Ithala Game Reserve. One of the youngest of the formal wildlife parks, it offers almost 30 000 hectares of prime game viewing and bird-watching.
A majestic expanse of indigenous mountain forest is located south of Ithala. A gravel road winds its way into this hidden heart of Zululand, where we find the Ngome Forest and, within it, the Ntendeka Wilderness Area, considered by many to be South Africa's most beautiful wilderness area.
With its breathtaking waterfalls, lush forest and rolling grasslands, it is a remote but rewarding adventure for nature lovers.East of the forest, the hillsides are covered with a different type of green - that of tea plantations! The Sapekoe Tea Estates welcome visitors to tour the estate.
Dipping back into history, the town of Nongoma - South-east of Ntendeka - was established in 1887. Once the home of Zwide, an early Zulu king, it is today a bustling trading centre.
Vryheid (meaning freedom in Afrikaans) is the largest town in the north west. A major regional centre, it has remained a welcoming and characterful town that is as rich with history as modern infrastructure.
Vryheid began life as the centre of a short-lived independent Boer Republic in the 1880s, and has an entire block of buildings declared national monuments - three of which are now attractive and interesting museums.
Vryheid is on The Battlefields Route and there are a number of significant battle sites in the immediate vicinity. It also offers much in the way of outdoor activities, including walking, watersport, fishing, riding and hang-gliding.
Paulpietersburg is situated some 50 km north of Vryheid, and is listed in the Guiness Book of Records as "the healthiest town in South Africa". Spread around the base of the Dumbe Mountain, the town is the first Zululand stop on the Rainbow Route - the name given to a scenic and convenient tourism initiative linking inland South Africa with the Zululand coast.
The district is justifiably proud of the quality of its water, with two spring-water bottling plants in the area, and therapeutic sulphur springs at nearby spa resorts.
Paulpietersburg played its part in the military shaping of the region. The peace treaty that ended the Anglo-Boer War was signed at the nearby Egode River, while the Anglo-Boer War site of Ntombe is 30 km away.
Close to that battlefield is Luneburg, one of the strong pillars of German culture in KwaZulu-Natal. Founded by Lutheran missionaries and colonists in 1860, the area attracted many German settlers and farmers during the 19th century and their descendants continue to make a rich contribution to the cultural tapestry of Zululand. Let's take the Rainbow Route back south, passing through Vryheid, as we aim for Ulundi at the centre of Zululand.
Ulundi - The High Place
Heading into the heart of Zululand we find the historic Zulu
capital of Ulundi. Set among dramatic hills and the rugged valleys
of the White Mfolosi River, the town straddles the R66 between
Nongoma and Melmoth. It boasts a modern airport and is a gateway to
many of the game reserves in the region.
Ulundi is the legislative capital of KwaZulu-Natal. The noble Assembly Building is decorated with spectacular hand-crafted tapestries depicting historic events in the growth of the zulu nation.
History is also woven into the surrounding landscape. Over a
hundred years ago, King Cetshwayo selected 'uluNdi' or 'Ondini' -
which means the high place - as the site of his capital, but the
entire complex was destroyed by British forces after the Battle of
Ulundi. Reconstruction of the original capital has been
meticulously carried out by the KwaZulu Monuments Council, together
with the creation of a cultural centre and museum, as well as the
Ondini Historic Reserve.
About 10 km south of Ulundi is Gqokli Hill, site of King Shaka's first military success, and Fort Nolela, the British camp from which Ulundi was attacked in 1879.
Heading south-west from Ulundi connects us with the R34 and the Rainbow Route link between Vryheid and Melmoth. Turning right, we drive into more 19th century history. South of this road is the Mkhumbane valley where King Dingane resided. He named it uMgungundlovu (secret meeting place of the elephant). It is now a museum with an interpretive centre and the core of the original complex has been rebuilt to provide a fascinating insight into Zulu cultural traditions.
Slightly north is the grave of Voortrekker leader Piet Retief and his followers, killed at King Dingane's command in January 1838. Nearby is eMakhosini (Valley of the Kings).
Here many royal Zulu ancestors lived and are buried. Dinizulu, is buried in the Nobamba site while Siklibheni is the site of the grave of Senzangakhona, who fathered three Zulu kings: Shaka, Dingane and Mpande.
Another stop on both the Rainbow Route and the Battlefields Route is Babanango, a short distance as the crow flies from historical sites and well known Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift battlefields, Babanango village has a characterful water-hole and accommodation to suit all needs. Scenic highlands make for great birding, and the area is known for 4 x 4 trails as well as hiking, game viewing and Zulu cultural experience outings.
Some 30 km south of Ulundi is Melmoth, a feeder town for the capital and agricultural and business centre. The town stands 800m above sea level in a lush green mist belt that boasts the cleanest air in the country.
Bushveld horse trails, hiking and birding add to the attraction of being on the Battlefields Route and having Zululand's game reserves close by.
The final leg of our journey takes us through the misty heights of an escarpment covered with lush, dense vegetation. Wattle and sugar plantations give way to grassland then bushveld and the mountainous terrain of the Nkwaleni valley, where King Shaka built his second capital, kwaBulawayo (the place of killing).
Our final stop is Eshowe. Situated at a cool 500m above sea level, it retains much indigenous rain forest within its boundaries, including the Dlinza Forest nature reserve.
Equally rich history, the place of the wind in the trees was once a fort during the Anglo-Zulu War. Today the fort is a national monument, as is Fort Nongqayi, which is now the Zululand Historical Museum.