The town in a forest

2012-11-12 00:00

IS Eshowe a town or a forest? Spend a few days there and you begin to wonder. Just a couple of streets away from Osborn Road, the town’s main thoroughfare, you find yourself on roads that weave through and around the Dlinza Forest. “This forest is the heart and soul of Eshowe,” Henry Bird, local historian and tour guide, tells me as we drive through it.

How did the forest survive in such close proximity to people? “The name means ‘sacred and mysterious’,” Bird says. “People kept out of it. Women and children came in during times of stress, but otherwise it was understood you didn’t enter the forest and left it alone.”

The 250 hectares of the indigenous Dlinza Forest has found itself on the international map thanks to its bird life and the Dlinza Aerial Board Walk, along which you can walk for 125 metres high up in the forest canopy. When I visited, a party of Americans was being led along it by an official guide to the 20-metre high observation tower, giving spectacular views across the forest to the surrounding hills and sugar-cane fields.

“Agriculture is the main driving force of the economy around Eshowe,” says businessman Gareth Reeves. “Sugar, citrus and timber.”

Social grants are the other big economic driver, reflecting the high level of unemployment in the area. On pay-out days, people throng the trading stores lining Osborn Road, where you also find the municipal offices of the uMlalazi Municipality, which, according to its website, “covers one of the largest geographical areas of all municipalities in South Africa, with a total area of some 2 300 square km”.

“There is high unemployment because there is no big industry in the area,” says uMlalazi publicity officer Ronel Hulley. “There’s some small industry, but no factories or mines. The town’s economy tends to be shops, businesses and crafters.”

Agriculture aside, the municipality is looking to tourism to create jobs, and Eshowe has cleverly capitalised on both its natural and historic heritage to boost its tourism potential — and then there’s Route 66. Stretching from the Dodokweni Toll Plaza on the the N2 and ending nearly 250 kilometres later at Phongolo, this stretch of the R66, echoing the iconic U.S. highway, has been dubbed Route 66, the main artery of the Zululand Heritage Route. This corridor features over 60 places of interest, including historical sites, annual ceremonies, such as the Royal Reed Dance, mission stations, forests, battlefields and numerous Zulu historic sites, such as eMakhosini, the Valley of the Kings.

Currently, the route is not much more than a classy website and a glossy brochure — don’t expect to find the enticing logo featured online — and funding is an issue at present according to Reeves, the man behind Route 66 and Zululand Heritage Route chairperson.

“Route 66 is about packaging what Zululand has to offer,” he says. “We have packaged the Big Five with various game reserves, but, as yet, we haven’t packaged Zulu heritage. This route represents the core of Zululand and the idea is to link all the municipalities along the route and create a force for tourism in Zululand.”

Reeves cites Eshowe’s George Hotel as an example of a key attraction. “Fifty Georges and it’s done. Fifty Richard Chennells then this place will cook.”

Chennells runs the George Hotel, under whose banner you’ll also find Chennells Guest House, Zululand Backpackers, Zululand Eco-Ventures and the Zululand Brewery. “The big attraction is the brewery,” says Chennells. “We brew in a shed at the back of the hotel, enough to supply our pub and a few functions. Then there’s our flagship beer, Zulu Blonde, which I was invited to brew at the J.D. Wetherspoons Real Ale Festival in the UK in 2010. After that it went crazy.”

Beer brewing was one of several ideas tried out to keep the hotel profitable during hard economic times. “It was a case of adapt or die. We’d look at all sorts of crazy things; some would work and some wouldn’t.”

One that worked was Zululand Backpackers. “In the late nineties, country hotels were going belly-up all over the place. At one stage, we were the number-one drop-off point for the backpacker bus service, the Baz Bus. It’s dropped off a bit — each year there’s a different buzz for places to go — one year it’s Zululand then it’s Thailand, but we have a steady flow.”

Zululand Eco-Ventures offers a contemporary view of Zulu culture, says Chennells. “You can attend a service at a Zulu Gospel Church or witness sangoma healing ceremonies. They go hand in hand — culture and history — that’s what Zululand is all about.”

* * *

The name Eshowe is possibly derived from the Zulu word meaning “wind in the trees” — that forest again. It could also be from the name of a tree Itshowe xysmalobium that once grew locally and was used in the preparation of hides. But before the town of Eshowe came into being and needed a name, it was here that Cetshwayo ka Mpande, the future Zulu king, set up his homestead eSighwagini in 1860. He later allowed the Norwegian missionary Ommund Oftebro to establish a mission close by, which became known as KwaMondi, courtesy of Oftebro’s first name.

The military ethos of the Zulus and the peaceful philosophy of the Christian missionaries were bound to come into conflict. No more so than in the killing of Maqhamusela Khanyile, the first Zulu Christian martyr, in March 1877, just outside modern-day Eshowe. The missionaries fled. Two years later, in 1879, British soldiers, part of a British invasion force, found themselves besieged in the fort they built on the site of the mission station. The earthworks are still visible.

After the Zulus were defeated at the battle of Ulundi, Cetshwayo was deposed and sent to Cape Town, while Zululand was divided into 13 chiefdoms. It was a recipe for disaster. After a period of civil war, Zululand was partitioned into three areas. Cetshwayo was 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.

After the annexation of Zululand in 1887, Eshowe was selected as its capital and in 1892 sales of land saw the beginning of the town as we know it today. Today, on an island in the middle of a quiet suburban street, stands a monument: “A memorial to King Cetshwayo ka Mpande who died on this spot in 1884”.

“Although Eshowe is surrounded by Zulu historic sites, this spot represents the only Zulu historic site in the town itself,” says Bird.

The site of the king’s death also adds another resonance to the meaning of Dlinza, the ever-present forest. According to Zameka Yamile, curator of the Zululand Historical Museum: “Dlinza means grave — and Cetshwayo died here and he was almost buried here.”

The museum is housed in Fort Nongqayi, a Beau Geste-style fort built in 1883 for the Zululand Police, and forms part of the Fort Nongqayi Museum Village. “We have everything on the site, so you don’t miss anything,” says Yamile. Attractions include Adam’s Outpost Restaurant (good enough to pull punters from Durban an hour-and-a-half’s drive away); the Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum, housing over 3 000 items of Zulu basketry, pottery, beadwork and sculpture; and the Zululand Mission Museum Chapel, showcasing Norwegian missionary history.

The missionaries returned after Cetshwayo’s defeat in 1879 and a century later, two Swedish missionaries, Reverend Kjell Lofroth and his wife Bertha, earned a special place in the affections of Eshowe. “They started the Vukani Association and created a market for crafters in 1972 — and also saw that they weren’t ripped off,” says Vivienne Garside, curator of the Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum. “The Lofroths insisted on high standards and the resulting work had an incredible impact on craft in this area. It’s known as the Vukani effect.”

Their project was hugely successful. Vukani means “let’s wake up and get going”, but in 1982 Bertha’s ill-health saw the couple return to Sweden. They left behind over 3 000 craft items as the basis to create a museum. When it looked as though the collection would be broken up, the Zululand Arts Association bought it from the Vukani Association and created the Vukani Collection Trust. A dedicated building created to house the collection opened in 2001 in the Fort Nongqayi Museum Village.

“Eshowe is very rich in history and culture,” emphasises Yamile. “Here you are looking at some unique stories. For example, Khanyile, the first Zulu Christian martyr. He’s a significant figure and part of our national history as well as that of the Lutherans.”

I visited the site of Khanyile’s death on the edge of the town with Bird. On a prominent outcrop providing a panoramic view north and east to the coast stands a memorial cross close to the site where Khanyile was executed, apparently on Cetshwayo’s orders, for his insistent adherence to Christianity. His body was never found. “There was a great storm and it possibly was washed away,” says Bird. “Thereafter jackal and hyena did their work.”

Driving back into town from the monument, Bird speaks of a friend who fought in Europe during World War II and met his future wife in Amsterdam.

“They returned to South Africa and literally drove around the country to see where they would like to live and bring up a family.

“They decided on Eshowe because ‘it was the nicest village in South Africa’. In 2012, I would say it’s still the nicest village to live in.”


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