In the heart of Zululand
With a name inspired by the sound of the wind blowing through its famous forest, Eshowe takes Shelley Seid's breath away
It's a special place, this 127m-long forest boardwalk set 10m above the ground so that, in the dappled light, you can see the epiphytic orchids hanging off the upper branches of massive wild plum trees and birds' nests in the giant umzimbeets. Even more magical is climbing to the top of the tower at the end of the boardwalk where, now 20m up and with a bird's-eye view of the world, you can look over the giant, green canopies and all the way to the sea.
Dlinza Forest, 250ha of pristine coastal forest around which the historic town of Eshowe has wrapped itself, boasts 84 species of butterflies, at least 65 species of birds and over 130 species of trees. If you are lucky - and quiet - you may see duiker or bushbuck or even bush pig. "You will only see vervet monkeys at the margins of the forest," says field guide Nomusa Ntuli, who has been escorting guests since the boardwalk opened in 2001. "If they venture in they'll be hunted by the pair of crown eagles who live here."
Local resident Jane Chennells was the catalyst behind South Africa's first aerial boardwalk. While strolling through the forest a decade or so ago, Jane came upon an elderly scientist precariously stuck at the top of a long ladder, butterfly net in hand. "It would be so much better if we had a walkway," she thought - and promptly formed a committee with like-minded citizens. They set to work to raise the necessary funds to build the boardwalk, which has thrilled 4500 rural schoolkids over the past three years and a 97-year-old tourist a week or so back.
Standing at the top of the tower, listening to the birds arguing with the cicadas, we see a single crowned eagle showing off his aeronautical agility.
Local tour guide Henry Bird sighs. "Forty years ago, I came to Eshowe for a six-month work stint. Then the forest got hold of me and wouldn't let me go." Bird has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the history, culture, flora and fauna of the area. He is keen to take me to see a pretty little clearing in the forest named Bishop's Seat, where, apparently, the first Bishop of Eshowe composed his sermons. The spot, a popular picnic site for locals, is so charming that it's been used as the venue for the town's nativity play since the 1950s. We leave the forest via a winding road called the Royal Drive, built for the visit of the British royal family in 1947. "Don't forget that Eshowe was the administrative centre of Zululand," adds Bird.
Eshowe's history goes back a lot further than that. Zulu King Cetswayo was born here, King Shaka lived here, Norwegian missionaries settled here and it's where the white Zulu chief John Dunn, his 49 wives and 100-plus children hung out.
There's as much history as you can manage at the scenic Fort Nongqayi Museum Village in the centre of Eshowe. The 130-year-old fort houses the Zululand Historical Museum (along with some tasteful - and very English - furniture that once belonged to Dunn), and the Norwegian Mission Chapel Museum. If you need a guide, Gerty, who manages the craft shop, will toot her bicycle horn and Zanu, the hip, dreadlocked tour guide, will appear as if by magic.
If history's not your thing, then go directly to Adams' Outpost Restaurant. It's an old farmhouse that was moved from its original location in its entirety and put back together here in the museum village. It's cosy and quaint, the bread is homemade and the custard slices are well worth the surplus calories.
The Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum houses an incredible collection of craft (as in functional art, not cheap, beachfront trinkets) and there's plenty of quality craft on sale at the shop next door. I am now the proud owner of a family of wild dogs - one stretching, another mid-wash - delicately carved from jacaranda wood by the "laughing crafter" Bheki Myeni. A great find, Myeni's carvings have been exhibited as far afield as Chile and he even gets a mention in The Rough Guide to South Africa.
My treasures properly packed, we head off to the George Hotel, named not after a British king but after the lesser-known George Robinson, who bought what was the Provincial Hotel and obviously thought the name didn't have the necessary sophistication. The actual residence has been around since the days of the Bambatha rebellion. It's now owned by members of the Chennells family and is one of the quirkiest residences in the country, thanks to resident artist Peter Engblom of Zulusushi fame (go to www.zulusushi.co.za for a better look) who has, through his art and his design, turned a staid, old hotel into an irreverent, shocking, witty, erotic and curious dwelling. It's cutting-edge stuff for a Miss Marple village. Even if you don't stay over, pop in for a drink - the bar décor alone deserves your undivided attention. The bar was mostly empty the night I stayed over. All the action was taking place in the conference room, where the Trivia Society was holding its 10-year anniversary quiz. I was graciously allowed to join in and I came stone last.
There's lots more besides in this quirky little place, where nothing is predictable and the townsfolk Get Things Done. At the very least, it's worth a weekend on which you can walk along the forest floor, visit the Saturday morning market at potter Ilona Andrews' home or try to get a glimpse of the emu that lives in an indigenous garden at the forest's edge.
WHAT TO DO: Get hold of tour guide Henry Bird (0824847406) for a day jam-packed with fascinating facts and more than your fair share of laughs.
WHERE TO GO: The Dlinza Forest offers two trails as well as the wheelchair-friendly boardwalk. There is a visitors' centre with a refreshment kiosk, a picnic area and a curio shop. There is a nominal entrance fee. Open daily except for Christmas Day. Phone 035 474 4029.
Fort Nongqayi Museum Village: Three museums, a restaurant and a craft shop, and home to a number of other projects. Phone 035 474 2281.
The Martyr's Cross on a hill to the east of Eshowe commemorates Madamusela Khanyile, who was executed for his Christian beliefs in 1877. The story and the view are astonishing.
WHERE TO STAY: I stayed at the George Hotel. The food is homely, the services standard, but the interior is a feast for the eyes. Phone 035 474 4919.