Richards Bay, South Africa
Founded in the 1880s, during the Anglo-Zulu colonial wars, Richards Bay was named after British Rear Admiral Sir Frederick William Richards, who landed a naval force here. An early claim to fame came in 1891, when colonial adventurer John Dunn killed a 22-foot crocodile in the estuary-still one of the largest ever documented-but the town remained a backwater with a population of less than 200 people until as recently as 1968. Today, Richards Bay is the major port in the region and is adjacent to significant mineral deposits, which have contributed to the town's massive growth. Visitors may be more interested in what awaits beyond in the hinterland. Richards Bay is the gateway to the land of the Zulu, one of Africa's most fascinating tribal peoples, and from here you have easy access to some of the world's finest wildlife game parks, including the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, which protects the highest concentration of white rhino left in Africa.
The Greater St. Lucia Wetland. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, the Greater St. Lucia Wetland encompasses a number of disparate natural African environments including the Umfolozi Swamp Forest and the Maputaland Marine Reserve, an important nesting site for endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles. The most carefree way to enjoy the reserve is on a boat trip, where you'll be able to get close to hippos and immense Nile crocodiles and try to spot some of the over 500 species of birds that call the park home. The park protects myriad river and coastal environments, including the estuary of the St. Lucia River, coral reefs, sandy beaches, coastal dunes, inland and tidal lakes, swamps, mangrove forests, and papyrus wetlands.
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve. Originally two separate parks, Umfolozi and Hluhluwe, the sweeping savannah was the traditional hunting grounds of the Zulu chief Shaka. Both parks have been protected since the end of the 19th century. In 1989, the two reserves were linked by a corridor of land, and the expanded boundaries now encompass an area of 237,000 acres. This is one of the few reserves in South Africa with populations of all the so-called "Big 5" animals (lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo, and leopard-though the actual five differ depending on who you ask) backed up by large numbers of cheetah, zebra, giraffe, and numerous deer species. A safari here offers an excellent chance of seeing these majestic animals as nature intended. Hluhluwe-Umfolozi is most famed for its white rhino, having been at the center of the operation to save the white rhino from extinction in the 1960s. The reserve now has the largest number of white rhino in South Africa, and its preservation efforts are now concentrated on the black rhino, whose numbers have plummeted across Africa since the 1980s.
Richards Bay Game Reserve. Closer to Richards Bay, just south of town, the lagoon formed by the confluence of the Mzingazi and Mhlatuzi rivers has populations of hippos, crocodiles, monkeys, fish, and eagles. In 1935, 2,961 acres of the lagoon was saved from development and named the Richards Bay Game Reserve. It is particularly important as a bird habitat, with over 300 documented species, and offers permanent hides from which you can watch wading birds on the tidal flats and swamp wetlands.
Zulu Heritage. The Richards Bay region offers several alternatives that will allow you to visit a living museum of Zulu culture. Made up of traditional round mud huts with woven roofs, set in a circular pattern with a kraal (cattle pen), these villages now keep alive this unique way of life and allow tourists to explore the many rituals relating to life around the Zulu umuzi (homestead) and watch traditional craftspeople at work. The sangoma (spirit healer) is much revered within Zulu society, and one will surely be present, who may be persuaded to tell your fortune by the throwing of bones. Singing and dancing are important social rituals for the Zulu, so all the cultural villages offer some chance to see traditional dances and songs; you may even get to watch a Zulu wedding ceremony or a demonstration of the dramatic umshiza (stick-fighting) competitions. Two of these cultural villages are within easy reach of Richards Bay.
Dumazulu Cultural Village has a royal connection, having been opened by the current King of the Zulu, Goodwill Zwelithini. It's the largest traditional cultural settlement in KwaZulu-Natal and home to 50 permanent residents. Off N2, north of St. Lucia.
Shakaland was built initially for Shaka Zulu, a TV mini-series about King Shaka that was made in South Africa in the mid-1980s, but the attention to detail by the set designers meant there was little work needed to transform it into an authentic cultural experience. R66, near Eshowe.
Zulu art and handicrafts are the must-have souvenirs from a visit to Richards Bay. The beadwork objects are of particular interest because the traditional colors and patterns on the belts and bands were developed as secret coded messages from the Zulu women who made them, telling of love, jealousy, and loneliness. Needless to say, these days most pieces produced for the tourist market are simply pleasing to the eye rather than having any symbolic significance. Other handcrafted objects include pottery, used as everyday utensils, and carved wooden spears and shields once carried into battle by the Zulu warriors. The skill of carving is also put to good, and less bloody, use to produce statues of warriors and African animals (make sure that any wooden artifacts you buy have been treated against termites). Zulu handicrafts are best bought directly from the artisans at tribal villages, but they can also be found in craft markets and street stalls throughout the region. In Richards Bay, the Gazi Tuzi Waterfront shopping mall has a range of shops and, with its restaurants, boardwalk, and leisure marina, it s a great place for strolling and browsing.
Beaches and Water Sports. This part of the African coast has some exceptional stretches of sand and warm waters, perfect for soaking in the sun or getting more active. The closest to Richards Bay itself is Alkanstrand, which has swimming areas protected by shark nets, which are a necessity in this part of the world. The offshore currents make the KwaZulu-Natal a major destination for surfing, with Richards Bay having a reputation for high, clean rollers hitting the beach every day during the summer (November through April).
Diving. Sudwana Bay in the St Lucia Marine Reserve, north of Richards Bay, is regarded as one of the prime dive sites in the southern Indian Ocean for its populations of turtles, sharks, marlin, and other large species.
Dolphin Watching. Several boats set out from the harbor of Richards Bay to spot the humpback dolphins that inhabit the waters just offshore year-round, along with visiting common and bottlenose dolphins that follow the sardine run into the area in June or July.
The Zulu peoples belong to the larger Nguni group, whose origins have no written history but whose other tribes include the Xhosa of the Eastern Cape and the Swazi of Swaziland, all of which have a distinctive 'clicking' sound as part of their vocal range. One of three pre-eminent African migrant groups to have colonized the continent, they forged their way thousands of miles along the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers into southern Africa before splitting into two and settling each coast at what is now Transkei in the west and KwaZulu in the east. It's thought that a final Nguni migration in the 16th and 17th centuries into the heart of KwaZulu brought the settler Malandela, whose second-born son Zulu (Heaven) gave his name to a new clan, the tribal peoples we know today. The warrior King Shaka united the disparate herders and farmers into a coherent nation during the early 1800s.
Throughout the 19th century the Zulu put up fierce resistance against both the Dutch Boers and, later, the British, inflicting embarrassing defeats on the Europeans, who were attempting to conquer them and take their lands. This led to the Anglo-Zulu War, which began in 1878. The Battle of Isandlwana in January 1879 saw the British army suffer their heaviest defeat ever against a non-European force, but later the same day, 139 British officers and men successfully defended a mission station at Rorke's Drift in neighboring Natal against a force of Zulus estimated to number 5,000 (this battle was depicted in the film Zulu , starring Michael Caine). The British eventually triumphed in the war, taking the Zulu land taken later in the same year; in 1887, they swallowed up the entirety of what is now South Africa.
In the later stages of the apartheid system in South Africa, the South African regime created a semi-autonomous KwaZulu homeland in 1970, when the Zulu people ceased to be South African citizens and many were forced to move to this new state on their old tribal land. In 1994, KwaZulu was joined with neighboring Natal to create the modern KwaZulu-Natal, a region within post-apartheid South Africa. Currently, there are 10.4 million Zulu people, with 7.6 million living in KwaZulu-Natal.