The road to Nkandla — and beyond

2013-03-28 00:00

LAST week, I was shown the back door to Zululand. I drove the P15, the road that takes you from the heights of Ntunjambili down to Middle Drift in the Thukela valley, and then up the other side to Eshowe. From Pietermaritzburg, all you have to do is turn right before you reach Greytown.

The distance is about 180 kilometres, about 70 kilometres shorter than driving down the N3 and then heading up the N2 to the Dokodweni off-ramp, where you pick up the R66 to Eshowe. Time wise it’s about the same, but driving this route, instead of just applying foot to accelerator between cane fields, you get to experience one of the most scenic drives in South Africa.

Of course the road is not new. Years ago, after visiting Kranskop, I attempted the descent down into the Thukela valley, but the road deteriorated into shifting tectonic plates of tarmac that defeated my old Golf.

That’s all changed. Henry Bird, local historian and tour guide in Eshowe, contacted me to say the road has been repaired and is now officially open. We made a plan to meet at a convenient point and then travel in one vehicle to see what Bird described as “the hidden corners of this country that nobody knows about” — although one of them is now one of the country’s least hidden —  President Jacob Zuma’s homestead at Nkandla.

We met at the Ntunjambili Mission Church — about 110 kilometres from Pietermaritzburg and 70 kilometres from Eshowe, which was built by the 19th-century Norwegian missionary Hans Schreuder, who came to southern Africa in 1843, intent on working in Zululand. After initial rebuffs (plus an abortive trip to China), he was eventually welcomed into the Zulu heartland after restoring King Mpande kaSenzangakhona’s health, and he subsequently built the KwaMondi Mission Station at Eshowe in 1860. He later forged a relationship with Mpande’s successor Cetshwayo, participating in his coronation in 1873.

Just before the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Schreuder moved south of the Thukela and set up a new mission station at Ntunjambili. The church still stands, although it has been extended. “Fifty percent of the community here are practising Lutherans,” says Bird. Schreuder is buried in the adjacent cemetery.

The war saw a British defensive column, consisting of the Natal Native Contingent, placed at Middle Drift under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Durnford. Warned of a possible incursion from Zululand by Schreuder, Durnford was poised to set out across the river until his commanding officer, Lord Chelmsford, ordered otherwise. Shortly afterwards, Durnford was ordered to move up to Rorke’s Drift. A few days later his body lay on the field of Isandlwana following the famous Zulu victory.

Durnford must often have looked out over Zululand from the commanding heights near the mission station. Today, the best vantage point is on the crest of the hill next to the monumental sandstone butte named Kranskop — “cliff head” — by the first Afrikaner settlers. From there, the panoramic view is simply breathtaking. Spread out before and beneath you is the Thukela valley — homesteads dot the hill sides, corrugated iron roofs sparkle in the sun while the glittering Thukela River loops through the valley floor. To the north, green velvet mountains, among them Qudeni, the highest point in Zululand.

To the Zulus, Kranskop is Itshe lika Ntunjambili — “the rock with two holes” — thanks to two apertures in a collapsed bridge of rock connecting the butte to the main escarpment. These days, only one of these holes remains — clearly visible from the road beneath.

“There is a legend about Ntunjambili,” says Bird. “When the mist comes down, a spirit is heard calling and children are drawn to it, but if they go they are never seen again.”

“Sounds like it’s just a story, but when the mist comes down and the wind comes up the valley, you get this amazing moaning sound as it blows through the hole. Maybe children did come and investigate and fell off the cliff, and this story was built up around it.”

The huge outcrop is inaccessible by foot, and local lore once had it that even a baboon could not reach the summit. Back in 1879, Captain Alexander Montgomery decided to put paid to such beliefs and climbed it. Before descending, he set fire to the vegetation on the summit. A huge pillar of smoke arose from the blaze, clearly visible to the Zulus across the border, who were shocked at the sight of the “unconquerable” kop in flames.

Even without a smoky pillar, Ntunjambili is an ever-present sentinel above the Thukela valley, clearly visible from wherever we stopped.

Having got our bearings, we descended into the valley, down what turned out to be not a repaired road, but a totally new one. It narrows to a single lane for the bridge across the Thukela at Middle Drift, from where it’s eight kilometres to Zuma’s Nkandla homestead. There is not much to add to what has already been written about “ Zumaville”, except to say that right next to the road, it’s much bigger and more extensive than one imagines — an upmarket Ezemvelo Wildlife resort spread across a low hill side. Its presence explains the road — according to one report, the cost of the P15 from Kranskop to Eshowe was R582 million.

Six kilometres further on is the turn-off to the grave of King Cetshwayo. After his army was defeated by the British at Ulundi, Cetshwayo was deposed and sent to Cape Town. He was eventually permitted to return, but following the destruction of his capital by the forces of his rival Zibhebhu, he took refuge under British protection in Eshowe, dying in suspicious circumstances, possibly poisoned, in 1884.

The grave was once famously inaccessible, hidden in the folds of the Nkandla hills. The historian C.T. Binns records a visit there in 1961 where, after leaving his car at a trading store, he walked 18 miles “over rugged mountainous country” to get to the “sacred grove … a hallowed spot to every Zulu”. When he got there, lengthy negotiations ensued with the “guardians of the grave” because “none must enter that sacred grove without the permission of the chief who is appointed by the Royal House of the nation”. Once permission was granted, various protocols had to be observed, intercessions were made to the ancestors, praise songs sung, and a royal salute — Bayete!

Today, a tar road winds along the route walked by Binns, snaking beneath the Nkandla forest that cloaks the surrounding mountains and hills. The grove sits just off the road. Apparently someone usually pops up with a visitor’s book, but they didn’t appear on the day of our visit. Nor were there any guardians. Surprising, considering the importance of this king in Zulu history.

Cetshwayo lies beneath a granite slab within a fenced enclosure. A single paper-bark tree keeps him company. In the surrounding grove, sleek black drongos chirruped in the midday heat.

The inscription on the gravestone records that it was created from “contributions from the Zulu nation and is erected in loving memory and gratitude for all he suffered in defence of our land and heritage”, and was unveiled by “his great-great grandson heir and successor King Goodwill Zwelithini … on Saturday, 27 September 1980”.

We retraced our route through an area resonant with echoes of history: here the bloody final events of the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion were played out in Mome Gorge, while almost 100 years earlier, King Shaka moved his troops through the hills and forests of Nkandla in his second campaign against the Ndwandwe.

Back at the P15, we turned right, back to the Thukela. Turning left would take you on to Eshowe via Entumeni, where Schreuder first settled. His original church has been restored.

Driving back towards Middle Drift, Ntunjambili loomed over the valley. It had been visible from Cetshwayo’s grave and now it seemed to jut inquiringly towards Zumaville as we passed it for a second time. The air was clear with the promise of autumn. This time of year, and on through the winter months, is probably the best time to drive the P15 through Middle Drift and on to Eshowe — the air is clear, the mountains stark and the weather balmy. Just head for Greytown and turn right.


FROM Pietermaritzburg, take the R33 to Greytown. About 10 kilometres short of Greytown, turn right onto the R622 to Ahrens. When you reach a T-junction, turn right onto the R74 that goes to Stanger. Turn left to Kranskop and Eshowe — the sign is rather weather-damaged at the moment, but a big sign saying “Die Kop” points you in the right direction. You are now on the P15. First comes Kranskop, then the village of Ntunjambili, where there is a sign to The Kop (it’s a dirt road with a steep section, manageable in an ordinary car but not if it’s wet.). Continue down the pass across the river at Middle Drift and on to Eshowe.

For what to do when you get there, check the website

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