True Tales, True Beauty
It’s hard to top a good story, well told- exceptionally portrayed would be more fitting. And the stories told at the sites of the battles near and on the property of Fugitives’ Drift, around the boma fire, or at the bar, are of such immense scale that one is swept up and along, heartstrings plucked as the events of 22-23 January 1879 are vividly presented.
The scale is matched by the vistas, which equally tug at the heart and feed the eyes and soul. The word Zulu means ‘Heaven’, the Zulu people, amaZulu, are ‘The People of Heaven’, and their home, KwaZulu, is ‘The Place of Heaven’. Easy to see why. The land is as rugged and majestic as the Zulus aspire to be.
Located in a natural heritage site on the lip of the Buffalo River gorge, approximately four and five hours from Durban and Johannesburg respectively, Fugitives’ Drift commands magnificent views across the plains to the mountains of Isandlwana, the Oskarberg, and down 1 150 metres to the river crossing on the Buffalo River which gives the reserve its name. The 22 km river boundary includes the spectacular Indaweni gorge.
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It is here that David and Nicky Rattray pioneered heritage tourism. In 2007, David was murdered, with Nicky standing beside him, but this self-effacing woman with indomitable strength remained and the family have continued and built on David’s legacy.
From humble beginnings of one cottage and a vehicle they built Fugitives’ Drift into what it is today: the lodge, guest house, Umzinyathi Farmhouse and KwaGeorge cottage.
Views from the lodge rooms are lovely and, from the wraparound verandah of the beautiful Harford library, just wow! If you go, do yourself a favour and stay for three nights so that you have time, in between battlefield excursions, to appreciate the beauty of Fugitives’ Drift, to while away some hours at the library, around the perfectly positioned swimming pool or swaying in the ridiculously comfy suspended seating on a lodge room balcony. If you’re in the guest house, you have your own perfectly positioned pool and much more besides.
In both the lodge and guest house, accommodation is spacious, attractively decorated, with full ensuite bathrooms, inside and outside showers, lounge area, huge and exceptionally comfortable beds and pillows, and private verandahs- all encompassing the views.
The bathrooms are a delight – all the touches from heated towel rails, bowls of bath salts to pump pots of body lotion. The practical is not forgotten either. Every suite comes equipped with walking sticks, umbrellas, torches, a bedside clock and mosquito spray (Fugitives’ Drift is not in a malaria zone).
Umzinyathi is essentially self-catering but meals can be taken at the Lodge or Guest House by arrangement. Guests at KwaGeorge take their meals at the Lodge or Guest House.
War and Peace
The battlefields region of KwaZulu-Natal is a landscape of rolling hills and grasslands over which were fought a total of 63 battles that shaped the history of South Africa. The main focus of Fugitives’ Drift is the history of the Anglo-Zulu Wars fought primarily at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift but you do not have to be a history boffin to enjoy tours. Against the background of war are the stories of ordinary people. Stories of adventure, bravery, heroism, treachery, betrayal and arrogance. It’s stirring stuff indeed.
Douglas Rattray- all of the guides actually- are consummate narrators and we were enraptured, most visibly emotional as the stories unfolded. They are dedicated, inspired and inspiring custodians of the history, not only of the Anglo-Zulu war, but of Southern Africa and its cultures.
But you can enjoy Fugitives’ Drift on so many other levels. You can stroll through the indigenous rock garden or walk through the reserve. Game is abundant on the 5000 acre property, as are species of birds. Without major predators to make them nervous, you may have to remind yourself that the animals are wild as they are pretty chilled and it is unusually easy to get close to them.
For the slightly more energetic there is coarse fishing in the Buffalo and for the really energetic there are trail runs and a network of single-track mountain biking routes ranging from flat to steep.
Lest you think all this sounds quite focussed on grownups, it was great to see how youngsters are entertained. An ex Gurkha officer and his family were staying while I was there. Understandably he was very interested in the military aspects, and he and his wife were delighted that their three children, aged six to 10, were so well engaged in interactive tours of their own, including a game walk and game drive, so that the parents could take in the tours which would have been a bit much for the kids.
Douglas was fantastic to the children during the afternoon walk, 15 minutes from the lodge, to where the first men in history to earn posthumous Victoria Crosses, Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill, were buried. He gave them much of his attention, his knobkerrie (walking stick) to parade with- and even persuaded them to adopt some pet rocks. Said rocks were quartzite, dating back to the beginning of the planet, and the area is a geologist’s treat, with plunging cliffs and crags of Karoo sandstone and dolerite.
The excursions are exceptionally executed. Not just the storytelling, but the timing, the thoughtful touches.
You are made to feel at home from the moment you arrive. There are several staff that have been at Fugitives’ Drift for 20 years or more. That, and their smiles, tells a story. Good management, happy staff, happy guests. Grace Ndlela is mentioned in many guest reviews. Smiling, singing, charming and guaranteed to brighten your day. The food deserves a mention too, as does the wine list. Whatever your dietary requirements or preferences, you will be pleased- especially with the pre-dinner drinks canapés which included the best little pastries I’ve had.
The library is a wonderful place to take meals too. Like the lodge, there’s wi-fi if you need to connect beyond the marvellous scenery. Apart from the amazing collection of historical literature and artefacts that the Rattray’s have accumulated (here and in the museum opposite the reception offices) it’s completely geared to host functions or special occasions but, more meaningful for me, geared to relaxing. Those views…
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
So said Aristotle. Micko O’Byrne- the Australian who came to visit and never left, marrying Nicky instead, probably best sums up what is so special about Fugitives’ Drift: “I was struck by the immensity of the stories that they tell here. But I was also taken by the people that started this because, as a business analyst, I thought it doesn’t make sense to have a business that just tells stories and your clients- 80% of them- live in England. But I knew that extraordinary people, with vision, make what appear to be unsuccessful ideas, work”.
Just one of the many nice touches is a washed vehicle for departing guests and water and homemade crunchies to keep you going on the way to your next destination.
What is absolutely certain is that you will leave having had a deeply enriching experience.
Fly into the cities of Johannesburg or Durban and drive from there- five hours from Johannesburg, four hours from Durban. Fugitives’ Drift partners with Three Tree Hill Lodge and Nambiti Private Game Reserve, which offers the Big 5 African game viewing experience, lies between the two lodges if you a rewarding roadtrip is what you’re after.