Today has been a day that I don't think I will ever forget in my lifetime - truly spectacular in every way, and one of the highlights of the trip thus far.
It starts off much as any other day, save for the fact that we get a little bit of a longer lie in this morning. So the alarm goes off at 7am, another hotel room is duly vacated, and we set off at 9am. We seem to have lost our sunshine today, the overcast skies threatening to imminently drench us.
First stop of the day is Lake St Lucia for a two hour boat cruise. With a size of 350 sq. km, Lake St Lucia lies in the centre of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the oldest protected area in South Africa. It is home to 530 species of bird, among them White Stork, Fish Eagle, Bee Eater, Oriole and Curlew. Oh and this little Spectacled Weaver, flying in and out of the nearby reeds to feed chicks in its nest.
The Lake holds an equally diverse range of reptiles, with leatherback turtle, Nile Crocodile and the African python.
As we make our way to the boat, we are greeted by the local sellers, singing and banging drums for us in welcome, and of course to entice us to view their handmade goods. The craftmanship of many Africans is second to none; intricately woven beadwork, carvings etc that are hard to resist, the only thing keeping me in check being the weight allowance for the flight back home. So, with gratitude for the African welcome, I pop some Rand into their carefully placed basket, and make my way to the boat.
In addition to the aforementioned wildlife, Lake St Lucia is home to many pods of hippos. It doesn't take long into the cruise before we start to almost trip over them.
I've seen hippos already on the trip, but there is something very special about being out on the water, and having them so close. Equally it is quite intimidating as these are huge beasts, with extremely temperamental natures. But we are with an experienced skipper, who knows how close is 'close enough' to these very territorial animals.
Most of the hippos who become aware of our boat just slip under the water and out of our way as we get near to them. Others just carry on enjoying a little afternoon nap, completely oblivious to our presence!
The camera click clicks away for the duration of the cruise, the only thing working against me being the light, which is getting poorer by the minute. But I hope for a few shots that are 'keepers'.
I have to say that me and my camera seem to be attracting quite some attention as we make our way across South Africa. Granted the lens I carry for wildlife shots is quite a monster, but I am unprepared for the reaction of some people. After the boat trip alone I was approached by two people - a German woman who wanted to know if I worked for the National Geographic (I wish!), and another gentleman who felt the need to approach me as a stranger, and tell me I had "a very impressive piece of kit". Feeling the pressure of the limelight, Mr Nikon and myself scurry off back to the bus, before we are accosted further!
It is lunchtime when the boat trip finishes, so it's pizza in a nearby town before the bus moves on to Shakaland, our next overnight stop. Shakaland is a traditional Zulu village, offering visitors a better understanding of the Zulu nation, its people, and their intriguing customs. As we make our way there, the tour guide gives us a heads-up on what to expect; we will each be staying overnight in our own Zulu hut (surely not??!), we will be treated to a Zulu cultural show of singing, dancing and foot-stomping, before being offered some traditional Zulu food for dinner.
As soon as we arrive, I know that what we are about to embark upon is something a little bit different - and very special. This is a true-to-form tribal village with bumpy mud paths, buildings constructed of thatch and wood, and chickens and goats running about the grounds.
Half the village comprises a museum of sorts with individual Zulu huts, each representing the equivalent of a 'hotel room'. We are all given the keys to our huts, each key attached to what looks like a mini wooden spoon! I am no 31 Shakaland, and feel like all my Christmases have come at once when I see my dwelling. It really is a hut!
It is circular in shape with a thickly thatched roof and, when I open the door, the inside surprises me. It is cosy and warm, with two single beds, a bathroom hidden around the back of the 'circle', two little low height windows, and walls adorned with Zulu relics such as spears and furs. Never have I stayed in a place like it. Never will I probably do so again.
The other half of the village is the residential quarters of the Zulus, where the living accommodation is not quite as salubrious!
We have a 4pm gathering to start our 'Shakaland Experience' with one of the Zulu warriors.
He is in traditional Zulu dress, and starts walking us around the village, explaining various Zulu customs and practices as he does so. Such as making beer.......!
In Zululand, the brewing of beer is the duty of the women. Course sorghum and maize is steeped in water for a day. On the second day, it is boiled and dry sorghum added and the mash allowed to cool. On the third day (pictured above), the brew is filtered through a sieve and served and consumed on the same day. We were all offered a drink from the ladle, and of course it would be rude to refuse. Let's just say I couldn't drink a pint of it!
This chap here though looks like he will need that pint after what he has planned.....
I wonder if it will be delivered to him with a nice head......
Alas the rain that has been threatening all day decides to put in an appearance.
The skies darken, spectacular thunder and lightening rolls in overhead, and the heavens burst open, sending down a torrential downpour. Mr Zulu Man is fine, as he's hardly wearing much anyway, but the rest of the group get pretty wet. But somehow the storm seems to add to the ambiance of being in this magical place, with life going on as normal, like this open air market;
The walk about finishes at 5.30pm, and we have only an hour to go back to our huts and freshen up before the evening's festivities begin. And what festivities they prove to be!
The Group is led by the Zulus up through the village to 'Grandma's Hut'. It is now dark, so small village fires lead the way, together with Zulus singing and dancing ahead of us. The atmosphere is incredible. We reach Grandma's Hut, which is again circular with a thatched roof, albeit far larger than the residential huts pictures above. Grandma must be particularly important in the village! One half of the hut is full of seats for the audience to sit. The other half essentially forms the stage.
We all take our seats, and the show that then unfolds before us is absolutely captivating.
The Zulus sing, dance, foot stomp, kick......
..... both sexes...
......and of all ages.....
They even try for some audience participation! My camera goes into overdrive, and I can only hope that some of the photos I am taking do the show justice.
The audience are loving it, and the Zulus are throughly enjoying putting on the show for us.
I can't help but think of the normal 9-5pm routine of home life, and how sitting here in Shakaland, in a hut, thunder and lightening overhead, watching spectacular tribal dancing, is just another world entirely. Absolutely magical.
All too soon the show comes to an end and we are once again led through the village by fire, dance and song - this time to the restaurant where we enjoy a magnificent Zulu feast, tested and declared as delicious by the King before we are allowed to eat. The food is spectacular, and the wine goes down a treat too!
And on that contented note, I retire to my cozy hut for the night, thinking how it will be very hard for this day to be bettered.
Please note I have been unable to include all the images taken on this day in the Blog (I took so many!) but if you want to see more, you will find them in the South Africa album.
Thank you for reading.