KZN’s very own Route 66

2012-02-11 00:00

LIKE its iconic American counterpart, the South African Route 66 (provincial road R66) in northern KwaZulu-Natal offers both the gravitas of history and the spirit of fun and adventure — for young and old alike.

The route begins at the Dokodweni toll Plaza near the Siyaya Coastal Park and winds northwards through the heart of Zululand, following one of the oldest settler trade routes through Eshowe, Melmoth, Nongoma and Ulundi before ending in Phongolo. The area is steeped in history, natural beauty and culture and is the main access route to battlefield sites and game reserves. It also offers a range of activities to keep young children entertained.

The order in which you sample the area’s pleasures is optional, but the official start of Route 66 is the Prawn Shak — an idiosyncratic seafood restaurant and bar on the Amatikulu beach which attracts hordes of lazy lunchers and youthful party-goers. Shack manager Wesley Ngonyama said regulars come from as far afield as Durban, for a relaxed food tasting experience and to enjoy the house’s idiosyncratic specialities — live shrimp in tequila.

Upstairs, on the expansive wooden deck, courses are laid out — just a couple at a time — in a buffet-style arrangement. Don’t expect fast food, or peace and quiet for that matter.

Fun is taken seriously here and noise levels are fairly high. As the menu states, they cook new courses at regular intervals so you can relax, snack and socialise. Tired of waiting, the four children — aged between eight and four — entertained themselves by digging in the sand, playing on the novel bar swings, clambering on the playground equipment and generally soaking up the party atmosphere. While the nine-course menu has a bias towards prawns (the prawn shack used to be the site of a prawn farm), there other options, such as chicken pasta and Zulu (beef) sushi. Ngonyama said if you have children, phone ahead and they will make special arrangements.


Peaceful Mtunzini

If it’s peace you are after, then lodging in Toad Tree Cottage near Mtunzini is a good idea. Staying in this superbly-appointed double- storey­ cottage is an event in itself, but its position — just inland from the Mtunzini N2 toll plaza — also makes it a perfect base from which to enjoy as much or as little of Route 66 attractions as you please.

Imagined and built by Mtunzini resident Bruce Hopwood about 12 years ago, Toad Tree Cottage sits, along with the original farm house, on an island of indigenous forest in a sea of sugar cane. Inside the cottage, the décor is intriguing, with each of the three spacious bedrooms following a cultural theme. Hopwood spent time trawling through demolition yards for the building materials for the house and the result is eclectic, but curiously harmonious. He also planted the forest and aloes surrounding the house about 20 years ago and runs an indigenous nursery. The children delighted in the ambience of the place, leaping into the tepid pool, exploring the magical garden by day and at night spotting bush babies in the high trees by torchlight.

From Toad Tree cottage, its a short drive to the Twin Streams Environmental Centre, just south of the Umlalazi Nature Reserve which forms the green heart of Mtunzini. Established in 1952 by Ian Garland, but now a joint project of Wessa and Mondi and run by the engaging Steve Untiedt, Twinstreams is the oldest environmental centre in South Africa, attracting around 4 000 visitors a year, mostly school groups which come from various parts of the province for a fun, experiential learning experience. Despite its success, however, the centre, and the town of Mtunzini itself, face an uncertain future in the face of a proposed heavy metal concentrate mining operation by Exxaro Mineral Sands. According to the town’s official website, the proposed mine will start a mere 100 metres from the southern boundary of the town and extend 13 km towards the south-west and will have an irreversible impact on the natural environment.

The proposed mining is all the more trenchant because Mtunzini markets itself strongly on its pristine natural environment — it became a conservancy in 1995 — and it certainly is able to offer a nature-filled experience. Untiedt led our party on the Mangrove Trail, home of skittish fiddler crabs and mudskippers. The children wallowed in the tepid mud pools and plastered their bodies with the mangrove sludge. Further along, they swam in John Dunn’s Pool, said to have been dug to provide a safe bathing area for the legendary white Zulu chief’s 48 wives.


Missionaries and butterflies

Mtunzini is notably Dunn territory and his life is also immortalised in the Zululand Historical Museum which is housed inside the picturesque turreted Fort Nongqayi in Eshowe, built by the British in 1883 as a Zulu police force training camp. Part-time tour guide and local school teacher Ayanda Ntuli, gave us a tour of the well-kept precinct, which also includes the Mission Museum which pays tribute to the early Norwegian Christian missionaries. Across the courtyard is the Vukani Museum of Zulu Art and Culture, a custom-built circular-shaped building containing some of the province’s best pieces of art and craft, including the clay pots of the late Nesta Nala and the exquisite basketwork of Angelina Masuku­ and Reuben Ndwandwe.

Looming over the museum village is the Eshowe­ Butterfly House — a large steel geodesic­ dome produced by Sharp Metal Pressings for African Conservation Trust (Act).

The Eshowe butterfly house is one of four being established by Act in the northern KZN region to encourage the conservation of endangered indigenous butterflies.

A literal high point on Route 66 is the Dlinza Forest Aerial Boardwalk, situated in the heart of Eshowe. If you or your children are scared of heights, some patches might be a little­ daunting, but for most of us, walking the boardwalks among the trees and climbing the 20-metre high viewing tower was exhilarating. We were rewarded at the top with an eye-level view of an African Crowned Eagle airing its wings and striking purple-crested Louries swooping between the tree tops as a light mist rolled in, amplifying the sound of birdcalls, and intensifying the magic.

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