“Whomp, whap whap, Whomp, whap whap WHOMP!” The beat grew louder, and the tempo increased. Unamplified, the sound of the Zulu drums boomed, vibrating the very seat I sat in and echoing through the lodge. It was here, deep in Zulu countryside in South Africa, where I witnessed the most impressive and awe-inspiring show I have ever experienced.
The show was only one piece of a form of audience immersion that they put on here in Shakaland, north of Durban in the South African province of KwaZulu Natal. I had heard of the place before but, to be honest, had dismissed it as some type of Disneyland experience, most definitely not for me. But, after a few glowing recommendations I decided to head up there with my South Africa friend Veronique Palmer in October of 2010 to see what all of the fuss was about. What I saw blew my socks off…
The main focus of Shakaland is the life-size recreation of a traditional Zulu village that you can wander through. The village was created for the TV Series ‘Shaka Zulu,’ and they kept it around and converted it to Shakaland after the show was over.
What’s impressive about Shakaland is the fact that all of the actors remain in character the entire time you are there. They converse only in the Zulu tongue, play traditional Zulu games, and engage in activities that would have been performed during the time that Shaka, the great king of the Zulus, would have held control over this area.
You are welcome to wander around from one hut to the next and ask any questions you have about the traditional Zulu ways, or simply explore and take it all in.
There is some excellent attention to detail here, and you really do feel immersed. I can tell you that I normally turn my nose up at these type of ‘experiences,’ particularly when the actors that take place in it are from a different culture than the one in which they are portraying. But here, all of the actors are Zulu, speak Zulu at home, and live in real modern Zulu villages nearby, adding a real air of authenticity to the place.
The warrior actors would also let you try your hand at throwing a Zulu spear or wielding a short-range Iklwa spear, invented by Shaka Zulu himself and a formidable weapon with a gruesome history. Supposedly the name Iklwa stands for the sound it made as it pierced a warriors chest.
What was also impressive about this place was that no one was trying to force you to buy some worthless trinkets. It’s not to say you couldn’t buy some souvenirs if you wanted to, but in the Zulu village, at least, everything was focused on authenticity instead of shameless merchandising.
There was even an area where you could try out a traditional Zulu homemade beer, which is like a grittier and less alcoholic version of the beers we normally think of.
One of the real highlights of the experience in Shakaland was that some of the local kids were in on the act as well. We had a great time playing with them…the girl on the left could really dance up a storm!
Just when I thought that it couldn’t get any better, the entire group of actors made their way into the main lodge for a Zulu dance show. And what a show it was…thumping beats, fast action, and re-enactments of Zulu battles (see my video above.)
They did explain at various intervals the significance of some of the dances. In the video, for example, you can see at one point how it looks like they are loading a gun and ducking. That particular dance symbolized how the Zulus learned to wait until the British soldiers had emptied their rifles before they would rush to attack, a technique that worked for them very well during the British Army’s disastrous defeat at the hand of the Zulus in the Battle of Isandlwana.
I can honestly say that, to this day, this show was the most impressive one I’ve seen in my life…more impressive than the largest stage performances I’ve seen on Broadway or in Vegas. The entire lodge vibrated from the sound, and the colors and movement of the dance was hypnotizing, immersing you wholly into the experience.
They did all of this without any modern techniques or sophistication, no amplifiers, stage lights, or the like. It was simply a heart-pounding 30 minutes of incredible dynamism.
Shakaland was most certainly worth the drive out into the hills, and one that I’ve subsequently recommended to my friends and colleagues. While I was there, I found out that there are even overnight lodging options, something I would definitely consider for next time. In a country filled with some amazing sights, I really have to take my hat off to the actors and owners of this place, it truly was a wonderful experience and highly recommended!
Shakaland is around a two hour drive north of Durban. Drive north on the main coastal Highway 2 for just over an hour until you get to exit 277. Take R66 northwest from there until you arrive in the village of Eshowe and look for signs for Shakaland.
Consider renting a car or engaging with a tour company to transport you up there. I prefer the rental car option as it frees you from having to go as a group, and you have the flexibility to drive elsewhere as needed. While South Africa has a bit of a reputation as an unsafe place, I find most of that to be over exaggerated and based on the situation in South Africa as it was a few decades ago. The daily programs/shows start at 11am and noon, and they also offer an overnight show option, according to their website. Enjoy!