The village of Melmoth first came into being as magistracy in 1887, after Zululand was annexed by the British. It wasn’t long before farmers recognised that conditions were perfect for growing wattle trees, used for the tannins in their bark. Today the town remains the centre of a sizeable wattle and timber industry, while the district contains a number of important and fascinating historical elements.
Head north from Melmoth on the R66 and you’ll soon enter the Mtonjaneni area, the cradle of the Zulu nation. Tradition says it was here, in the Mkhumbane valley, that a man named Zulu settled with a few followers, and it was from this handful of people that the Zulu people emerged. It is in the same valley that King Shaka built his first kraal, KwaBulawayo, and where many of the first Zulu kings resided, leading to it being known as the Valley of the Kings.
Carry on north and you will pass the site of Mgungundlovu, Dingaan’s kraal, where Piet Retief and his followers were murdered on a hill of execution called KwaMatiwane. A little further is Ulundi, where the Zulu nation was finally defeated by the British in a brutal but short-lived battle that lasted just 45 minutes. Memorials mark all the pertinent historical sites and a good guide can bring this bloodthirsty but intriguing history to life.
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The eMakhosini Ophate Heritage Park is 30 000 hectares of unspoilt hills and valleys that contains much of the Zulu history, including the partially rebuilt royal kraal at Umgungundlovu and the Valley of the Kings, as well as the site of Retief’s murder. A multimedia centre educates you on all of this history.
Visit Shakaland, a recreated Zulu village overlooking Phobane Lake where you can stay in traditional Zulu beehive huts, but with all the mod cons. Learn all about Zulu life and culture, experience beer-making, stick-fighting and the sangoma’s witchcraft.
Simunye Zulu Lodge is another cultural experience that offers the opportunity to learn about life in Zululand and experience Zulu dancing.
Thula Thula Game Reserve has become known the world over thanks to Lawrence Anthony’s book, The Elephant Whisperer. A beautiful private game reserve, Thula Thula offers excellent game viewing and luxurious accommodation, and the chance to meet the larger-than-life characters of that great book.
Ulundi was the scene for the final battle of the Anglo-Zulu War. About 5000 English soldiers defeated an army of almost 20000 Zulu warriors, breaking the back of the nation. A memorial has been established to honour the fallen.
The Zulu Reed Ceremony is one of the most colourful cultural events in South Africa and takes place every year in spring, near Nongoma, north of Melmoth. More than 20 000 Zulu maidens form a procession to celebrate their nation and their king.