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9th August 2005Question re: Driving
By Tim
Hello, I will be traveling to KwaZulu/Natal in October to visit Isandlwana, Rorke's Drift, and Ulundi (staying at Rorke's Drift Lodge & in Dundee). For those of you familiar with the area, do I need to rent an all-terrain vehicle to drive on the available roads? Appreciate any advice - Thanks,
9th August 2005Alan Critchley
generally, a normal vehicle is sufficient, as long as you keep your eyes open. The track to RD lodge is a variable and you should check with the owners. The road to the Prince Imperial site was something else when it had been recently graded. Take extra adhesive for your teeth. In any event, get an air conditioned version, if you're a whimp like me.
9th August 2005Mike McCabe
In normal dry conditions road access is not a problem.
A 4WD is by no means essential on the dry and recently graded tracks in the RD-Isandlwana area, and will pump up your fuel and hire costs disproportiomnately.
In dry conditions all main sites are accessible using a sufficiently robust 'normal' car. You should, though, be aware of how easy it is to skid in the dry gravel, and windrows left by grading. So, check your tyre pressures, and also check your hire car's wheel kit and spare tyre. Also, it is only courteous to slow down when passing people on foot, and not to shower them with dust. Be aware that many local Zulu adults speak only small amounts of English, or have Afirkaans as their second language - because their employers speak it.
Using common sense (of course) it is often very much appreciated if you give lifts - especially when people are carrying shopping or water.
-However, you should be aware that sudden downpours can materially change the situation, and certain routes may become considerably less trafficable than others. Also, towards the end of the maintenance interval, before the routes are regraded, you might find that there are ruts and windrows to negotiate. Take advice from your 'host' but do be aware that (in central Dundee) there may be no real knowledge of outer road/track conditions. However, people in shops and bars might know, and you can always seek advice from the information centre in the Talana Museum. They are exceptionally helpful, and might well telephone a suitable farmer to check for you.
In more detail:
- After rain, the direct road from Helpmakaar to RD has two potential hazards, both quite close to each other. A steep downslope from the plateau, leading onto what is normally a dry ford across a stream. Soon after rain, the slope may not be negotiable in an ordinary car until it has dried, and the ford crossing might run too deep for a few hours. Never try out your luck by splashing through water flows, and have the wit to get out and look and, if necessary, wade ovder first to be sure of the conditions.
- The road(s) into RD from Dundee are either the scenic route via Spitskop (accessed from the Dundee-Helpmakaar road) or the more often used route heading south from the Dundee-Nqutu road. This road is more frequently graded than the former - because it needs it. But you can usually get down both very easily by car.
- A good ploy is to take the main route into Isandlwana via Nqutu first, rather than via RD, and call into the Isandlwana Lodge for an opinion.
- Be aware though that the RD to Isandlwana direct route may well be in commission, when the RD to Dundee routes are very soft - having a common user stretch with a red earth sub base.
- If you are out on the trail and there is a very sudden downpour, then parts of the road on the West bank of the river will soften up quite quickly. If push comes to shove, you can always leave RD via Isandlwana, or the shorter routeof the Old Military Road which runsparallel with the river on the East side.
This will take you through the much populated strip developments and some peop0le are nervous of that. But, extra mileage is better than being stranded.
- The route to the Fugitives Drift survives all weathers, and you will only need to pay the small fee required by David Rattray if you walk down onto the western river bank from his land - which takes quite a time. You cannot drive down to the river level, the gate is (sensibly) locked.
On more general points, you can pre-arrange through your car hirer to hire a local cellphone (Vodafone) at JNB. For this you pay call charges, plus a daily (modest) insurance fee. This provides you with a vital lifeline, less any gaps in coverage, with an economic phone that you know will be compatible with local networks.
Also, read your hire contract small print very carefully. Even after paying all of the additional insurances you will probably remain liable to pay 10-15% of the assessed value of the vehicle if damaged/written off.
Do checy every item before you drive off in your hire vehicle. On my last visit I was almost killed in a collision because the tyre pressures were wildly wrong, diagonally opposed tyres being very serioiusly under-inflated. Also, ask to borrow some clean old sacks from your host. Should you start to skid/bog these can often give you a vital few feet of purchase to help you regain a trafficable surface.
In wet conditions, your car will get very dirty outside and in. If you ask politely, most rural lodges will valet your car with their staff on modest repayment - saving you potentially big bills with the hirer on return. At the end of each day try to park on a 'clean' surface so that you can spot any leaks - and, always, check levels etc at the beginning and end of each day.
You do not necessarily need an air conditioned car, and hiring one will pump up your fuel bills. If you go for a small car, be careful that it has enough power to weight ratio and ground clearance. They are not usually a wise choice, as a combination of cold and rain can suck out the battery as you use all systems (demisters, wipers etc).
You also need a car that will do reasonably well on the long routes in and out of JNB. So, 1800cc and above (though one person can usually get by with 1600cc).
Whatever you hire, you need to be able to conceal all luggage from view, lest it attracts theft when parked up somewhere. Take some bottled water with you. It can be used to top up a radiator, provides you with fluids if you break down, and is a well received gift on the open road if you meet local Zulus.
Don't chance too long a driving day. Night falls very rapodly, and if you have a sudden problem as evening falls the cmplications of getting help to you much increase. If it does rain overnight, it is sometimes worth just having a leisurely breakfast until the tracks dry out a bit.
All of this having been said, hundreds of people a day visit the main sites in ordinary family cars, without experiencing any problems. If you want safeguards, then by all means hire a 4WD. You could (very remote probability) turn up on a few days when the tracks are 'out'. However, you should also practice with one before you travel to KZN. Unless you know how best to get the 4WD to perform in its envelope, it might be more trouble to you than it's worth.
9th August 2005Mike McCabe
Do think carefully before you plan visits to Ntombe Drift (can be hard to find the way in),Khamule (last mile or so can be impassable to ordinary cars), O'Neills Cottage (ditto), Prince Imperial site (long way to go to see very little, very remote).
Access to Blood River site can appear floded out after heavy rains, but there is usually a trafficable alternative (ask locals). The final slop up Spion Kop can be impassable after rains whilst still wet.
Be aware that many local Zulus are terribly poor, and begging (though thought shameful to Zulu convention) is widespread. Carry boiled sweets, small size bottled water, ballpoint pens, or whatever. A small gift given pleasantly (with Ubuntu) is usually well received. Occasionally you will meet what are obviously very sick people (children, mothers, nursing mothers). If you are minded to give money, it is far better to keep it in fairly small denomination notes or coins. Too large a denomination note may not be 'cashable' or might simply be stolen by a larger child, or ruthless adult.
And, finally, do try to visit and patronise the ELC Craft Centre at RD (ceramics and batik prints are usually the nest bargain, though rugs are excellent),the Tea Rooms at RD (which are immaculately and charmingly kept, and provide excellent snacks), the small craft shop at Isanlwana, which provides authentic Zulu traditional items at modest prices.
If you get the chance to visit St Vincent's church at Isandlwana, then see if you can find a parish council member and make a donation. Failing that, you can leave money with Pat Stubbs/Rob Gerrard at Isandlwana LOdge in the confident knowlefge that they will passit on to the Rev Ntshali. Don't take the usual monster packed lunch. Eat at either RD tea rooms or, if peckish, ask to have lunch at Isandlwana Lodge. You can just drop in and take pot luck, but a call in advance is more sensible.
If you have time to pre-arrange it, then Isandlwana Lodge might be able to make Lindiswe Ngobese (Dalton) available to guide you around the barttlefield or to Fugitives Drift and back (walking both ways).
You can very easily self guide, and should consider climbing to the top of both Shiyane (Oskarberg) and Isandlwana crag itself (easily accessible by a short rock chimney (15 ft) at about '10 o'clock'). If the weather puts the tracks out (rare, but possible) then you can always visit the Ladysmith area Boer War sites, or even Majuba Hill. Obviously, don't go climbing to the tops of things if thunder threatens. You could become the lighting conductor, with electrifying effect. Beware of hailstorms. At their very worst they can knock people senseless, and may damage cars.
9th August 2005Mike McCabe
Don't try to self-guide along the Fugitives Trail.
The trail is nly partly marked by painted stones and if you do not connect with those then you can simply flounder about.
The regenerated bush in the low lying areas is like a sauna, and accelrates heat stress. Also, it is possible to be confronted by fed up wild life - including snakes. And, you are (just possibly, but not impossibly) vulnerable to being mugged if seen to be too far away from help.
9th August 2005Martin Everett
Dear Tim,
You might find Rattray's Battlefield Guide useful pre-visit reading. It contains useful hints and tips about KZN. See shop
9th August 2005Martin Everett
Dear Tim,
If you are staying the RD Lodge - then this is some 6-8kms from RD along a very rough track. I had to abandon my hire car after 1 km along the track. Unless the owner has now improved the route I would not attempt it in anything less than 4WD. RD Lodge seems a quiet and tranquil place to stay - but significantly off the beaten track. You could do no better than to stay in Dundee where you could employ a local guide to conduct you over the Battlefields. Contact:

[email protected]
10th August 2005Keith Smith

After the welter of advice offered above, I have little to add, other than to warn you against offering lifts to anyone. The vast majority of Zulu people are kind and hospitable but there is a small minority who are not. When driving in major conurbations such as PMB or Durban, keep your doors locked and your windows up or just rracked open. Take similar precautions in smaller towns and even places like Tugela Ferry. The quality of the dirt roads is really quite good but keep your speed down. Buy a decent tourism map of KZN, supplemented by a moder book such as Laband and Thomson, "Field Guide to the War in Zululand". This can be found in several editions, preloved, at

With these sensible precaustiuons you will have a wonderful time - KZN is a beuatiful part of SA.

10th August 2005Tim
Many thanks to all of you, I much appreciate the advice. Mike, a special thanks for all your many tips. I already have the Rattray Guide and the Laband/Thomson Field Guide and will spend some time over the next six weeks with them. Thanks, Martin, for the information regarding RD Lodge. Alan and Keith, thanks for your suggestions. You have all contributed greatly to my planning in ways I could not anticipate. I am much obliged!
Best regards to you all,
10th August 2005Rich
Welll looks like Tim has got a good road map now for his trip..
And just an fyi, with me, since I'm so far beyond the pale here in the US I enjoy reading all your comments about the environment down there. I learn much. I don't know if Chelmsford et al employed weathermen but it's a wonder to me how a British army could operate in the conditions noted. Sometimes I think Chelmsford would have been better served with pontoons rather than covered wagons.
10th August 2005Dawn
You've raised a point that I've often thought about. We all know that the rains came late in 1878/1879 and that the Buffalo was in flood. In the movies, the land is shown as dry and dusty but, at that time of the year and with the rain just gone by, the land was more likely to have been muddy and wet. Its no wonder the wagons took so long to get anywhere.

Have a good trip, you seem to have got heaps of advice. KZN has dry winters and wet summers and you're going at the change of season so be careful when it rains, as per above.

11th August 2005Michael Kent
My advice Tim. Go with Holts. Ian, Isobel, Paul and Hadyn were fantastic company. And Billy the driver too.
11th August 2005Melvin Hunt
Some of the hire car companies offer an additional spare wheel. If you have the room in the car then it is worth thinking about. The small stones which litter most of the minor roads are a problem.

Have there been many instances of mugging in areas such as the Fugitives Trail area?
11th August 2005Edward Bear
Averages out at about £300 per day, over 9 days including flying time. Last trip was May 05, next trip not yet scheduled.
Hardly, I suggest!
PS Oh, regards to Billy the driver
11th August 2005Mike McCabe
Wanted. Bear that will not impersonate. Apply above!
11th August 2005Mike McCabe
There was a reported instance in mid 2004 - I'm told - when a group of three walked to the Fugitives Drift and then found it impassable. They decided to head off to the North and regain the RD-Isandlwana road and said they were menaced and asked to hand over money and possessions by two - possibly drunk - men encountered. Not in the interests of the source to reveal the source, but such opportunity crime might reoccur.
12th August 2005Rich
Remember now I'm a little out of the way so all I know is what I "hear".
Are these instances of crime around Isandhlwana the rule or the exception?
And who "owns" Isandhlwana? I'd think it would be in the interest of the SA government or the Zulu people to kind of keep tabs on crime around the battlefields.
12th August 2005Mike McCabe
The fenced Isandlwana Bettlefield Heritage Site - which includes the greater part of the first mile or so of the Fugitives Trail is under the direct management of Amafa Heritage KZN, aimed at preserving the site and encouraging local development, including tourism. Amafa is not purely a 'heritage' body and has wider remits - see its various website mentions. Amafa (as the legally constituted and empowered heritage body for KZN also carries out the role formerly discharged by the National Monuments Council (NMC) for all NMC-designed National Monuments. It does not necessarily maintain them directly as a charge against its budget, but by various means ensures that they are are maintained within SAHRA/NMC principles and policies. So, for example, St Vincent's Church Isandlwana (which is not within the Amafa controlled heritage site, but is a designated National Monument) must be conserved as such by the responsible body - the Anglican diocese of KwaZulu.
There is not a constantly obvuous pattern of crime in the Isandlwana area - visible to tourists that is. But there are occasional high profile crimes - for example, a break in at the Isandlwana Visitor's centre, and there is a minority criminal element in the area. This activity only infrequently involves tourists and accommodation sites, but there have been some audacious crimes at very infrequent intervals. These are not often formally reported, and tourist 'victims' are sometimes simply glad to get away relarively unscathed.
This activity is deplored by the vast majority of decent law abiding Zulus who themselves suffer from greater levels of petty crime being inflicted upon them and their belongings.
The bottom line is that this is very rare activity at big time intervals. Anecdotal evidence suggests that those falling victim to it more often than not have acted so as to have taken what can only be viewed as stupid risks.
There is a Police Station at Isandlwana, on the old route to Mangeni Falls. Such criminals that exist enjoy enormous freedom of action, and identification, detection, and prosecution are fairly unlikely.
That said, persistent criminals within the local community are usually caught fairly quickly. The 'one off' offence fuelled by drugs or drink is quite likely to go undetected especially if there are no local Zulu witnesses. I cannot be certain, but I believe that the Isandlwana Police Station crew are largely monolingual Zulu speakers. However, they may enlist the linguistic help by telephone of the various English speaking Zulus known locally - in places like Isandlwana Lodge etc.
13th August 2005Keith Smith

I have made a number of visits to Isandlwana and the other battlefields and have never had any difficulty. That said, however, there are parts of the Isandlwana area, and others, that are not comfortable to visit without a Zulu guide. Two in particular are known not to welcome visitors - the area around Mabaso Hill and the top of Hlazakazi and Malakatha hills. I visited both a couple of years ago in company with a good friend, Petros Sibisi of Rorke's Drift, and he said that neither were 'good' areas. On Malakatha we came across one guy carrying an assegai, the first and last I have seen throughout Zululand. As I said in earlier post, take precaustions wherever you are, there is always the lunatic fringe, but for the most part the Zulu are a wonderful people.
14th August 2005MIke McCabe
It's a bit like people not being bitten by snakes - as most people never are. But, snakes abound in the Isandlwana area (including on parts of the Fugitives Trail) and if you are careless or deliberately go looking for one, then you might well find one.
On my last visit, local Zulus asked for a lift to the Isandlwana police station to seek police help to rid themselves of a pair of black mambas lurking in the open grasslands by the road about 2 miles east of Isandlwana - so constituting a risk to those passing by on foot. A German tourist encountered later the same day - and believed - had left his car parked at Mangeni with the windows open (amazing, isn't it) and returned to find a snake of some unidentified sort in the seat well at the back. Now, that would have been a real hoot if discovered while driving a few miles down the road.
That said, this is obviously fairly unusual stuff.
Very few people travelling to KZN experience any difficulties but being wise beforehand is always best.
14th August 2005Peter Ewart
For what it's worth, I arrived at FDL a few years ago on the day of the funeral of a little boy who had died from a snake bite. He'd lived in the little community between FD and RD (on the former "Natal bank" obviously). Unfortunately, being so young, he had apparently failed to follow the "rules" following a bite, and had run as fast as he could back home.

15th August 2005Rich
Well there's a great deal of good "inside" information here to get an indication of the lay of the land. Doesn't appear that it's necessary to get all jacked up while jaunting about Zululand. For me, I see it as "trust but verify" just like any new place I'd find myself in. From the looks of it though I know it's best to go with another person or group and also to maybe bring along a guy like that Australian fellow who has that tv show where he's always hunting for crocs. I'm afraid my "urban" street smart skills won't be useful around that Zululand menagerie. I think I'd need him to survive...;-)....
15th August 2005Mike McCabe
Up to a point Lord Copper!

15th August 2005Rich
Very apt MC McC very apt in more ways than one!! you are how shall I say diplomatic?..thanks.....;-)..(you know we don't use that phrase here!) .Now you've got me going back to Mr. Waugh....
15th August 2005Rich
And speaking of Waugh I know he'd have alot to say about Oprah Winfrey, tee vee's popular show host here in the afternoon, claiming she is of Zulu blood. Prince Buthelezi
was quoted as saying, " I hate to tell Oprah this but she is sorely mistaken".