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zulu basket

In the land of the Zulus, everything seems backward. January is the hottest month of the year. You have to drive on the left side of the road. orion upsidedownEven Orion stands on his head in the night sky; his sword becomes a celestial erection.

And, of course, white people are in the minority.

And though in America the name of a place is indicated by suffix – PIttsBURGH or FayetteVILLE — in the Nguni languages of southern Africa, it is a prefix. So Zululand is kwaZulu.

And what is more, because in that part of the South African province of Natal, where the Zulu people have traditionally lived, kwaZulu means the ”place of heaven,” heaven is underfoot. You can tell it is heaven just by looking at it.kwaZulu

The road inland from the Indian Ocean roller-coasters up and down grassy hills that have grown electric green in the nurturing humidity. In the valleys, you find a darker green of trees and the euphorbias that mimic cactuses. It is a land closed in by its own fertility, with few of the vast panoramas familiar from the desert.tugela river

January is the rainy season; the Tugela River is swollen and has washed away the bridge on Provincial Route N2, so the bus I’m riding has to detour several miles upstream and cross the churning brown water on an old railroad bridge.Eshowe

My goal is a Zulu kraal north of Eshowe in the community of kwaBhekithunga.

A kraal is an old-fashioned Zulu family settlement. The standard kraal consists of a number of beehive straw huts encircled by a palisade of wooden stakes.zulu kraal

In the center of the kraal is a corral holding the village animals, which are its wealth. Some of the huts are large enough to serve as dormitories, but most are about the size of a Navajo hogan. And as with the hogans, most people no longer live in them regularly but keep them maintained for cultural or religious reasons.

Zululand has gone through terrible cultural upheaval since it was first brought together politically in the 1820s under Shaka, the George Washington of Zululand. Nowadays, 82 percent of the population of kwaZulu is female. The men have gone to the cities to find work, mainly in the mines of the Transvaal. Those males remaining in Natal are mostly old men or children.

ZuluBut in the time of Shaka — who was born two years before Washington became president of the United States — things were different. Under the charismatic military leader, a disciplined army of 20,000 men conquered most of Natal, increasing the area of kwaZulu by a factor of more than 100 and incorporating the many small Nguni-speaking tribes into a larger political unit called Zulu.

Shaka’s kraal at kwaBulawayo was the size of a city, and he successfully negotiated treaties with the new ”sparrows,” or white men, who had recently colonized the area of Natal south of kwaZulu.

When Shaka was assassinated in 1828 by his own brothers, the kingdom began its long political decline and finally lost its sovereignty at the end of the century to the white South Africans. Zululand was annexed to Natal in 1897.

At kwaBhekithunga, there is none of the grandiosity that marked the reign of Shaka. The footpaths are muddy, the huts are dusty and several of them are under much-needed renovation.

The village’s headman is Bancusa Fakude — the ”c” is really one of those characteristic South African ”click” sounds — and he and his family spend the evening with the kraal visitors teaching us about Zulu culture and performing music and dance.Zulu dance

He explains that the hut floors are made of an adobe-like cement made of animal dung and that the door of each hut is protected by a line of animal urine drawn in the dust. ”It keeps the snakes away,” he says. ”Never had one here, so I guess it works.” We drink a cloudy liquid from a pitch-lined basket. It is the Zulu sweet-sour home-brew beer. And we eat such dishes as phutu, or cornbread crumbs, and istampu, a corn and butter bean succotash. When the village fire burns down, we head to our huts in the dark to sleep in the unsettling silence of Africa under an upside-down sky.

And when I want to point home to North America, I have to point down to the ground.

Hiking to the lake in Nwadeni Provincial Park

Hiking to the lake in Nwanedi Provincial Park

In America, when you see a Land Rover, it’s likely to be in Beverly Hills. Here it is a shiny status symbol for those whose ”other car” really is a BMW.

But in the veld country of southern Africa, the Land Rover is a necessity. Usually beat up and painted with an inch or two of dried mud, it is a life support system in a region, like the Venda region of South Africa’s Limpopo Province, that has only seven miles of paved road.

Venda is stuck in the northeast corner of South Africa and is slightly larger than Delaware. It has only one city, Thohoyandou, where most of the pavement can be found. Outside the city, you depend on gravel roads and dirt. rondavals

It is a land where most people farm and raise cattle. Almost everyone lives in a round mud hut called a rondavel that is at most 15 feet in diameter. Small villages are scattered through the hills. You can tell who has status, or at least who has money. While most rondavels have thatched roofs, some of them show off by having tin roofs.

Even more ostentatious are those with double-hung windows cut into the mud walls and at least one rondavel in the capital is two stories tall. giraffe

And in the north, about 30 miles south of the Limpopo River that divides South Africa from Zimbabwe, there is a primitive provincial park called Nwanedi. Covered with low hills and scrub vegetation, it is a place where your Land Rover may very well have to stop to allow a herd of giraffes in front of you to cross what passes for a road.

The grassland passed by and we headed up into the hills. We passed the defining baobab and acacia trees of the region. The baobab is built like a gargantuan broccoli, with a massive trunk and only the wisp of foliage floating around its top. The Venda people say that God planted the baobab tree upside down, with its roots in the air.

Baobab

Baobab

The acacia is the tree you see in every photograph of Africa, where the top of the tree seems spread out like the anvil on an aging thunderhead. It is a spiky tree and sometimes called the ”umbrella thorn.”

But two other trees were more interesting to our guide. One is the marula tree, which is related to the mango, and bears a sweet, tasty fruit that ripens just as it falls from the tree. Tasting a little like a persimmon, the fruit quickly ferments on the ground where it is sometimes eaten by animals. Elephants have been known to go on a bender when the marula fruit ripens.

And the mopane tree, with large leaf pairs that look like the twin prints of a deer hoof. A type of caterpillar feasts on the tree and in turn the Venda people feast on the mopane worm.

Marula fruit

Marula fruit

Unfortunately, the worms were out of season when we were there.

It’s a dusty trip, and in January on the other side of the equator, quite hot.

So our guide — who would make Crocodile Dundee look like a sissy — suggested we drive up to a little place he knew for a swim under a waterfall.

The Land Rover left anything that could even be mistaken for a road and went into the bush. When we crossed a dry stream bed, the Land Rover climbed over boulders the size of Holsteins and dipped and lifted its wheels individually as the engine pulled us along at the speed of a snail. lake vertical

When we could drive no more, we got out and walked. At the end of the path was a waterfall and a pool cut into the rocks underneath a 50-foot yellow sandstone cliff.

Sunlight angled in from one side and the blue sky and yellow rock were fragmented and reflected in the pool.

And the most extraordinary thing happened. A troop of baboons peeked over the top of the cliff at us. There were eight or a dozen of them — it was hard to count them as their heads tentatively bobbed up and down among the rocks — and they were led by one aggressive alpha male who picked me out to negotiate with, probably because I was the only one out of the water at the time, sunning myself on the rocks.

While the rest of the baboons would poke their heads up and squawk and then disappear, the leader stared at me and bared his teeth. He sat on a promontory and rocked slowly back and forth, holding himself up with his arching front legs.

Watching the baboons

Watching the baboons

I didn’t know what the body language meant exactly, but I thought I’d reciprocate. So, I faced him, bared my teeth and bobbed back and forth. It drove him nuts. He screeched and ran behind a rock. When he reappeared, he went through the process again. So did I. He screeched and ran behind a rock. baboon teeth

We did this four or five times before he seemed to give up. I don’t know if he accepted me as his new boss, or whether he just thought the water hole wasn’t important enough to defend at that moment, but it felt to me as if I were communicating with an alien. He might as well have been from another planet, and we made halting and fretful attempts to figure each other out.

At any rate, they left us alone and went back to gleaning through the grass at the top of the rocks.

And I wondered if I were now an adopted baboon.