Fugitives’ Drift: the legacy, the raconteur, the guest who never left

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.

Fugitives’ Drift Reserve Views
Fugitives’ Drift Reserve Views

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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Resolve Realised

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.

Lodge boma and deck dining area
Lodge boma and deck dining area

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.

Harford library view
Harford library view

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.

 

Rest Easy

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.

Lodge bedroom
Lodge bedroom

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).

Lodge room
Lodge room

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.

Guest House
Guest House
Guest House bedroom
Guest House bedroom
KwaGeorge interior
KwaGeorge interior

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 at Isandlwana
Douglas Rattray at Isandlwana

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.

Mphiwa Ntanzi at Isandlwana
Mphiwa Ntanzi at Isandlwana
Rorkes Drift at sunset
Rorkes Drift at sunset

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fugitives’ Drift museum
Fugitives’ Drift museum

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.

Giraffe with Isandlwana in the distance
Giraffe with Isandlwana in the distance

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.

 

Rorkes Drift Battlefield Tour
Rorkes Drift Battlefield Tour

Homely Luxury

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.

Grace Ndlela at the bar
Grace Ndlela at the bar
Lodge lounge
Lodge lounge

 

 

 

 

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.
Visit www.fugitivesdrift.com

Listen to a podcast with Nicky and Doug Rattray and Micko O’byrne here
Watch and listen here

Getting there

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.

Three Tree Hill Lodge- My Favourite History Lesson

One learns all the time, especially when travelling.

If nothing else, names of places, people and species- often forgotten or partly remembered.

Three Tree Hill rooms in the mist
Three Tree Hill rooms in the mist

I learned something I won’t forget at Three Tree Hill Lodge, which overlooks the secluded Mfazimnyama Valley of the Spioenkop Game Reserve, in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu-Natal.

Molly Blackburn Library
Molly Blackburn Library

Seated in the recently completed Molly Blackburn library, with the late Black Sash activist’s portrait and Philosophy PhD on the wall, it seemed that the apple did not fall far from the tree in her son Simon’s case.

Owners Simon and Cheryl Blackburn are well read and podcasted and Simon, who recounts the terrible battle that took place on the Spioenkop massif across the valley, changed my perspective on history when I asked if, with the passing of time, younger generations and colonial history not flavour of the month, whether interest in the South African battlefields had waned.

 

 

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Simon Blackburn- battle stories in the grass
Simon Blackburn- battle stories in the grass

“No” was the short answer, as he gathered his resonating thoughts. Simon hated history at school- and his and Cheryl’s lack of interest in history stalled their purchase of Three Tree Hill Lodge.

A Rich History

Fatherhood- and a sense of mortality, changed that. Legacy, his own and his forebears, became an interest and, listening to expert David Rattray’s recounting of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, he fell in love with the narrative and the humanity of history.

Ron Gold battlefield talk
Ron Gold battlefield talk

Simon’s tour of the battlefield was an emotional experience for me and elicited simultaneous applause and tears, such were the human stories within stories of the most devastating clash for both Boers and English in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War- both sides incurring their highest casualties in a single day on 23 January, 1900. Whether it be Simon or resident historian Ron Gold who guides you, I do recommend it.

Although the wood and iron buildings are thoughtfully constructed in the style of the period, Three Tree Hill Lodge is about far more than history. It’s about relaxation, nature, family, escape.

Painted matte green, the buildings melt into the surrounding acacias and aloes, giving a sense of glorious isolation. New to me since I last visited are the family cottages with very comprehensive self-catering facilities. No microwave, no tv- in line with the emphasis on sustainable and responsible tourism.

Michael Poliza- aerial view
Michael Poliza- aerial view

Fair Trade Status

Three Tree Hill was the first KwaZulu-Natal holiday destination awarded Fair Trade status. Fair Trade practice was established to serve the interests and rights of farmers, workers and producers in South Africa- as well as to promote sustainability across the board- and Cheryl and Simon carry these practices through to every aspect, from the solar stove to the handmade toiletries in the bathrooms and other cleaning products; from staff employment (no lay-offs during the Covid 19 pandemic) to involvement in community projects.

Family Friendly Cottages

The family cottages don’t only accommodate kids, they are kidcentric. From toys and children’s books in the rooms to little kiddies’ backpacks for hikes and kids’ toiletries, they have your little ones covered. I loved seeing children just being children- their bikes left mounted on the family cars as they used the playground, careered about the property, or made fiery patterns in the air around the outside fire after dark with burnt sticks.
     

The property is great for mountain bikers of all levels. Horse riders too. You can take yourself on nature walks and Simon (the Blackburns are vastly experienced safari and mountain guides) takes guests through the game reserve.

Nature Walks and Stunning Views

Rhino among the acacias (Vachellia nilotica)
Rhino among the acacias (Vachellia nilotica)

Rhino among the acacias (Vachellia nilotica)

Sundowners

The views over the valley from the cottages are lovely, but more beautiful aspects present themselves on a guided walk- as do game, including white rhino. While the cottages face the valley and the morning sun, the afternoon vistas from the other side of the property, over Spioenkop Dam and surrounding hills toward the Drakensberg mountains, are equally compelling.

There is really just so much to do and all the animals on the property make the lodge so much more homely and welcoming. If you like dogs, they’ll accompany you on a walk or a ride. If you like cats, Gin, Tonic and Squeak are happy to visit and Tonic has been known to enjoy a game walk or two.

Main swimming pool
Main swimming pool

Burchells lounge

Burchells lounge

Burchells Cottage

There is a swimming pool and sun deck away from the main buildings and Burchells, where we were ensconced, has a lovely pool area with loungers.

Burchells master bedroom
Burchells master bedroom

Burchell’s is a superb, 105m2 space for a family of six and whilst there, choose to take a mid-morning bath and take your binoculars with you.

A Birder’s Paradise

The massive clear window looks out onto pristine rocky hillside alive with exciting birds. Looking towards the valley, the skyline is broken by fantastic aloes; marlothii and excelsa, stretching up to 4 meters.

In winter, unless prewarned, birding becomes quite bewildering as “subspecies” emerge. Orange-headed mousebirds, weavers, starlings, sunbirds are quite a sight, after having plunged their heads into the deep, powdery orange pollen of the flowering aloes.

The bird-buzzing aloes lure the odd raptor in; sparrowhawks, goshawks and the likes break the peace, darting through on an opportunistic hunt.

Aloes and weaver bird
Aloes and weaver bird

Each chalet or cottage has polished cement floors, sash windows, ceiling fans and verandah completing the historical feeling.  The attention to detail and design is impeccable.

Twin bed room
Twin bed room
Twin room cottage verandah at sunrise
Twin room cottage verandah at sunrise

The theme continues in the main building with its huge lounge and dining room and deep, wrap-around verandah. The furnishing is an eclectic collection of solid, comfortable and tasteful pieces. Below the well-stocked library is a lovely, possibly better stocked wine cellar.

Many of the pictures on the walls are taken from newspapers of the period, with advertisements extolling the benefits of eating Bovril – “the food of men on the front” – Keane’s mustard and adding Scrubbs cloudy ammonia to your bath.  It’s quirky and fun.  Even the place mats on the dinner table recall political cartoons of the time.

Main lodge eastern entrance
Main lodge eastern entrance
Verandah dining
Verandah dining

If you’re not self- catering, meals are taken around the long, scrubbed wood tables in the main building, encouraging conversation among guests.  I vividly recall lively banter between a somewhat fortified guest and a couple who did not consume dairy, gluten, processed sugars, meat, alcohol or caffeine. Not dull, but I was most impressed by the lengths taken to produce tasty treats for those guests, as well the superb repasts prepared for us less evolved scoffers.

Golden Gate National Park and Much More

Three Tree Hill is centrally situated for a host of activities the non-history buff would hope for: hot air ballooning; hiking; helicopter flips; a canopy tour; raptor centre and the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School.  Clarens and Golden Gate are just an hour-and-a-half’s drive away, and Champagne, Cathedral Peak and Royal Natal 45 minutes.

It’s all there to do and enjoy, but with the overarching bonus of peace and tranquility as constant companions, broken only by bird and jackal calls and the laughter of children.

The final word:  book in for at least three nights.

Visit threetreehill.co.za and listen to the podcast here

View a video slideshow here.

 

Chobe – What’s The Buzz?

Beauty To Fill The Soul and Lens

If you have an eye for natural beauty, you’ll know as soon as you reach the Chobe River, in north- eastern Botswana. It’s a wildlife lover and nature photographer’s dream.

 

For elephant lovers and safari fanatics, the great elephant concentrations on the Chobe River occur during the winter months. For birders, the wet summer months are the drawcard, when the migrant birds are in full colour, and antelope start dropping their young. Any time of the year, the Chobe provides the most spectacular sunsets.

 

Game viewing in the dry season pretty much guarantees excellent sightings, since animals have to visit the river to drink when all the watering holes dry up. And viewing game from the water is possibly the nicest way. And possibly the nicest way to do that is aboard Flame of Africa’s Chobe Explorer.

Chobe Explorer

Chobe Explorer
Chobe Explorer

 

On board this triple decker, spacious, wood cladded river cruiser you have what my fellow “shipmates” described as their best Chobe experience ever- and between us we had had over 50 such experiences.

Skipper David Twembuchi, barman and charming front of house Ronald Rungwe, with Kabelano, Mercy and Malebogo running the kitchen, were warmly welcoming. Then, it was a short hop from the Flame of Africa jetty in the town of Kasane, Botswana, before the boat nudged in at the Chobe National Park offices to gain entry permit to the park (the cruise is on the Chobe River and there are happily no immigration formalities). After our welcome briefing and drinks from Ronny we were sedately on our way.

Raise Your Glasses

Drinks glasses became prism glass as guests reached for cameras when skipper David got us up surprisingly close and personal- especially considering the boat’s size- with a plethora of wildlife. One such involved a massive bull elephant swimming across a river channel and then taking a keen interest in the long grasses at the boat’s prow, causing an evacuation of the lower dining deck.

 

 

After 1 ½ glasses of Nederburg Brut bubbly, backing off from one sighting was a giddy delight as David spun the big vessel almost 360 degrees.

 

The dining deck is where we enjoyed a superb lunch: delicious Botswana beef steak, boerewors, chicken, various salads, potato bake with excellent freshly made bread- followed by a delightful dessert and accompanied by a selection of wine.

The five adults at our table- repeat visitors to the area and one a riverside resident- repeatedly exclaimed that this was their best Chobe River experience. Exclaimed may not be the correct term. We were too laidback for that, lulled by the sumptuousness and the pace. And it is the pace, together with the service and the space afforded, that sets the Chobe Explorer apart. Another plus is that you have a head start on the usual afternoon mass launch, seeing plenty of wildlife long before, without any jostling for photo opportunities.

 

Above the dining deck is the bar and lounge, with ample, comfortable couches which seemed even comfier post-lunch- and the top deck has a formation of suspended, luxurious loungers which really top off the show.

 

Gently swaying atop the boat is the dreamiest way to top off the day. And, having launched around 11 am, it was on the stroke of 6pm that we nudged up to the jetty again- pretty much the whole, glorious day.

Plugging Away

I shamelessly plug Flame of Africa, simply because of my experience using them. It was a Google search for a transfer company that kicked it off and I have extensively used them for transfers between Kasane and Victoria Falls, 80 km distant, and/or Livingstone. I’ve also experienced lodges they market and activities they provide in the Chobe area.

Another recommended river outing, if all day is too long, is aboard the sumptuous Chobe Style- perhaps with lunch on The Raft. Flame of Africa owner, Brett McDonald, lives most of the time on the Chobe and constructed this unique 64-seater floating restaurant from scraps and throwaways.

A trip to the Chobe or the Zambezi would not be complete without trying your hand at fishing. These waters are home to the voracious, powerful tiger fish- a true thrill to every serious or amateur angler. Capture and release is the policy with tiger, while “hook and cook” is adopted for the delicious bream that frequent these waters.

Brett McDonald
Brett McDonald

Impalila Island is well worth a visit. It has a  colourful history and is uniquely positioned, straddling the intersection of four countries. Here you can enjoy a Zimbabwean Zambezi beer, a Botswana St Louis, a Zambian Mozi and a Namibian Tafel and know that the countries from whence they came are not more than 200 metres away.

Also try to make time for a visit away from Chobe- in particular to Victoria Falls, if you’ve never been. Even if you have, it never loses its awesomeness.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve- something very special

Spring is sprung, but winter is coming- or have you not been following blockbuster series Game of Thrones? And when it does, I’d recommend heading to Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in the Western Cape. Yip, the Cape of Storms, in winter.

Botany, Bespoke, Community

Luxurious Grootbos is a favourite for me and travellers return time and again to this botanical reserve above the town of Gansbaai. Their five-star rating is based on meticulous service, genuine hospitality, fine dining, accommodation in bespoke settings and a truly care filled conservation approach that benefits guests, the local communities and the planet.

My first day in winter was remarkably summery. After a delicious creamy Caesar salad with pork belly, free range poached egg and crispy anchovies on the Forest Lodge terrace, taking in the grandeur of the sweeping views across the slopes and over the wide Walker Bay to the mountain headlands above distant Hermanus, field guide Nashlin Groenewald, a local lad, took me hither and yonder on the balmy afternoon to experience one of Grootbos’ winter wonders- the endemic Erica irregularis. This pink blossom that turns the surrounding mountains pink, is so localised that 85 percent is only found on the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve.

You won’t find the Big Five here. What you will experience- and be moved by- are nature’s more subtle nuances in this eco reserve protecting 1768 hectares of the unique Cape Floral Kingdom, with over 750 species of indigenous plants. Since the establishment of the reserve, six fynbos species, new to science, have been discovered on Grootbos. The limestone sugarbush was also in showy bloom, as were other fynbos species.

We also explored the beaches of Walker Bay Reserve and the Klipgat Cave. I have spent half my life on beaches but now view them with appreciably more insight. I also learned how to make a fresh kelp potjie pot- and marvelled at the caves, the site of an important archaeological dig containing artifacts indicating man’s presence over 70 000 years ago.

Foraging For Freshness

We were joined by executive chef Benjamin Conradie and foraged for mussels, seaweed and other indigenous edibles such as succulents-samphire and dune spinach.

That was to be my dinner starter. I’ve always been a bit iffy about mussels but it was sublime- as was the rest of my meal. I could fill this space as much as I filled my tummy with the delightful menu options but I’ll skip to the must-have dessert, Grootbos’ fynbos honey ice cream.

Founding a Future

That delicious creaminess warranted heading up the road to the Growing the Future Organic Farm, where I gained some insight into the workings of the meaningful Grootbos Foundation from hands on operations manager Lindsay Hannekom and farm manager Johann Strydom. It’s hands on for guests too and I donned beekeeping gear for a real education.

Honey is made here from fynbos and the Erica irregularis. You can collect your own eggs, pick fresh organic fruit and veggies and then head into the kitchen and explore the best ways to prepare your hoard- actually make it yourself- under the tutelage of Benjamin Conradie.

While I was making gnocchi the worst storm in 30 years was spectacularly raging, tossing the hardy fynbos, with giant swells alternately under squalls, then lit by bright shafts of sun. We took to admiring this from the comfort of the glass walled champagne bar. The gorgeous suites are equally great places for storm watching too and the only thing I missed out on was whales, which cavort in the bay in great numbers from June through November.

The name Grootbos, Afrikaans for Big Forest, comes from the Milkwood forests with their gnarled branches and mossy beards. Amongst these ancient forests Grootbos has artfully laid out their accommodation, with sweeping views across fynbos plains towards the sparkling ocean and distant headlands. These vistas dominate everything- whether viewed through the sliding doors in the lounge or bedroom with its huge canopied bed, from the vast bathroom or the lodge itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can only imagine what the distant uber-exclusive villa, where Brad Pitt spent time recharging, must be like.

Touching Stories

he exquisite freestanding suites have all the amenities and luxuries you might want- and then some, like the scarves that came in very handy in the storm.

Such touches are indicative of what makes Grootbos special. That, and the staff. In an industry where staff turnover is high, it speaks volumes about a place when the executive chef and other key staff grow with the establishment over a decade and more- or have left to explore further shores and have been welcomed back.

Hence Grootbos has frequently returning guests like Germans Susan and Christoph Vornholdt, who jested about their “shareholder” status, referring not to their nine previous visits but to their support of the non-profit Grootbos Foundation which runs environmental and social development programmes.

 

There’s much more to tell, but best you find out for yourself. Visit, or at the very least, visit www.grootbos.com