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  • Shelley Dark

7. Isibindi

It's 11.30pm on Thursday night in Cape Town. We've checked in to the Cape Grace Hotel, I've had a shower, and I'm so looking forward to telling you what's happened. Actually check-in tonight was exciting enough on its own - we were given an upgrade from normal rooms to a two-bedroom apartment, and we've been ogling a famous movie star. But I'll tell you about that in another post. :-)

This is about our first day at Isibindi with more to come. Tomorrow night (our Friday night) we are going to the township to hear the capella choir, so there won't be one tomorrow night. Back to normal the next night.

What a marvellous three days we had at Isibindi Lodge! Take your mind back to Tuesday, which is where I take up the story below...............


I'm writing to you from the bed in my beehive hut at Isibindi Zulu Lodge. My back is propped against three pillows and I’m looking out through the (inappropriately!) French doors at a dust storm howling outside.

So I'd much prefer to be writing to you, even if I have no wifi to post!

We were so excited to come to Isibindi, but we were also truly sad to leave Athol Place Hotel in Johannesburg yesterday. Even the breakfast yoghurt decoration looked amazing.

If I ever return to Johannesburg, without needing to see any other hotel, I would never stay anywhere else.

In common with designer hotels like those of Kit Kemp, every single feature of the decor: colour scheme, furniture, lights, fabrics (to die for!), art works, everything, has been carefully chosen and is a delightfully eclectic mix in my favourite palette! For example, this carved wooden mirror on my bedroom wall - it’s taller than I am. There’s a truly African flavour here, but the ambiance is very cosmopolitan. Staff are extremely well trained and quite sophisticated.

The only negative if you can call it that, is that four of the bedrooms are in a different building from reception and dining, so you have a short walk across a garden to the main building for your meals - I enjoyed the walk in the brisk mornings. But there are other bed rooms in the main building I believe.

Both times we’ve left we’ve been given a huge biscuit each in a grey striped packet - very hard and difficult to bite, but well worth the effort because they're buttery and beautiful.

The Gautrain ride to the airport went off without a hitch. Tau drove us to the railway station, showed us how to buy our travel card and charge it, took us down to the platform for OR Tambo airport, and waved goodbye as a guard helped us put our baggage on board. He was like a mother hen with his chickens.

Darling Jo had phoned me earlier to say that when we got off the train fifteen minutes later, we should stay on the level of the rail terminus, go right, and stay right, and hey presto before we knew it we were at the check-in desks in a typically big busy airport.

I think I told you that before we left home we decided we would have our bags wrapped at airports. As we approached the bag-wrapping area at OR Tambo, a young man said to us mumma, what you want? Would you please wrap these two bags? we asked. As quick as a flash they were done. I’m always keen in a strange country to make an effort to speak at least something of the language. If you call me mumma, I said to him, what should I call you? Jabu, he answered. I wrote it down in my phone. Jabu. So when young people call us mumma, we should call them jabu. We repeated it as we walked away.

A quick one-hour flight and at Durban arrivals we were picked up by Mike, holding a placard with our names. He’s one half of a husband and wife travel agency team. Soon the luggage was stowed and we were on the road. Mike drives 20,000 kilometres per month ferrying tourists hither and yon. Normally a nervous passenger, I relaxed with his easy but very fast driving style and non-stop conversation. The land on the coast looks very much like the country around Byron Bay - lush and green.

He told us about the sugar industry still having manual cane-cutters using pangas who are paid by the kilogram. He also spoke of his surfing boyhood, of his children who have gone to live and marry in Australia, of the business he and his wife have started. He stopped at a supermarket to allow me to buy some shampoo, conditioner and body oil. The best shampoo and conditioner I've ever used!

I couldn’t see any body oil on the shelves, but a bottle of glycerine seemed a likely substitute. It’s turned out to be perfect too, if a little sticky.

Just behind Durban’s coastal plain are a beautiful line of mountains, then undulating hills. There’s kilometre after kilometre of eucalypt forests planted for sale to the paper mill companies at Richards Bay, north of Durban.

Most of the reservation country we passed through is called homelands, owned by the Zulus. It's still a feudal hierarchical system where benevolent chiefs own all the land, much of it treeless with sparse hayed-off winter grass. The people on the route we drove live in huts and dongas and roll big blue poly barrels to the well or creek for water. Children walk many kilometres to school, well-dressed in school uniform despite the modest means of their parents who mainly depend for income on social security, although there are better homes here and there.

Cattle are run on the better country and roadsides.

Don’t hit a cow because it’s sure to be the chief’s favourite, and you’ll be expected to reimburse him to its value. President Zuma is a Zulu and in the pecking order, the king of the Zulus is more important than he is. On any loyalty scale, he’s a Zulu first and an African second. Political affiliations work the same way.

I asked Mike if women are called mumma, what are men called? Baba, he said. I asked him the derivation and actual meaning of the word jabu. Jabu? Mike asked, What’s the context? I explained what the luggage wrapping boy had said. What exactly does jabu mean, I asked. Does it mean boy?

He roared with laughter. It doesn’t mean anything, he said. That’s his name!

We arrived just as the sun was setting, turning the hills pink and mauve.

Isibindi Zulu Lodge is far from five star but the staff are five-star +++! I could wrap them all up and take them all home. They’ve all got so used to Helen and I being unable to stop laughing that even when we approach they all begin laughing too.

The lodge consists of an office, main building and kitchen, and six huts and is built along a high scrub ridge overlooking a valley and hills. The beehive rooms are plaster to waist high stuck with rocks outside. A plaster wall divides the bedroom and bathroom and there’s a small balcony with two chairs overlooking the view.

This is Nokubonga who works in the office and speaks in a very slow, carefully enunciated way, her head to one side. Tall and very slender, hair braided and wrapped in circles on top of her head, she comes from up north.

Her yes comes out as yair-uhsssss. With a stunning smile. Yair-uhsssss you will enjoy this walk. Yair-uhssssss breakfast is at eight. Yair-uhsssss dinner is served. It’s catching! Yair-uhssssss.

It's hard to remember her name, and we've called her Nockatunga a couple of times. (For you non-Aussies, that's a cattle station in Queensland Australia).

This is princess who does the cooking. A beautifully sweet girl who cooks like a dream. The food we’ve had so far on the whole trip has been sensational. Fresh and wholesome, wonderfully cooked, great flavours, and delicious. Isibindi is no exception.

This is Princess and Thobile, pronounced toe-bee-lay. She's extremely capable, seems to have some responsibility and helps in the kitchen. Her name means quiet one.

Her mother died before she can remember, and her father only recently. She lives close by in Rorke’s Drift and her aunty looks after her child while she works. She will be part of the dance for us tomorrow. The word for granny is ugogo, pronounced OO-gogo. Thobile has adopted us as her ugogos.

After the photo they fell about laughing.

This is another Thobile. She helps wherever she is needed and her eyes twinkle in that beautiful black face.