At the very epicentre of KwaZulu-Natal – the ancestral kingdom of the Zulu nation – sits Fugitives’ Drift. A refuge for royals, a sanctuary for history and a site of natural heritage, this beautiful private game lodge offers insight into South Africa’s colonial chronicles and the culture of the brave and mighty Zulu.
The dust settles on the single-track road leading up the ridge. Through the eddying billows, the elegant yet forlorn face of a young giraffe emerges.
It’s then that the rest of the tower of giraffes bend into view.
This is our welcome to Fugitives’ Drift Lodge – the homestead built by historian, storyteller and champion of Zulu culture David Rattray. And it’s from here we are to learn of the worst defeat in British colonial history… or as the Rattrays insist – the greatest Zulu victory.
The Rattrays’ indelible link to the Zulu nation comes from Peter Rattray’s vision of a plot of rugged bushland in the 1960s.
From 1989, his son, self-made historian, raconteur and national icon David Rattray and his wife Nicky realised the potential of the land’s location by developing the reserve to become the lodge it is today.
Using his exceptional storytelling skills and knowledge of Zulu history gleaned from decades of talking to tribal elders and from his father’s teachings, David crafted tours of the important historical sites on and near his land.
The Rattray family have transformed the once humble accommodations of Fugitives’ Drift into a luxurious lodge befitting the romance that resonates around Africa.
Here’s our video on our time at Fugitives’ Drift and the amazing landscapes that have so much history beneath their soil:
Click here to watch this video on YouTube.
Fugitives’ Drift Lodge
With shadows already lengthening and lights glowing to warmly greet the end of the day, our arrival at Fugitives’ Drift Lodge was a welcome one indeed.
From this high place, the views out over the valley of the Buffalo River all the way to the distant peak of Isandlwana are iconic and exultant; inculcators of place and time.
Check out Fugitives’ Drift Lodge for more information on room rates, tours and – most importantly – how to get here!
Connecting the villas throughout the property, a decked pathway leads you down to your own beautifully designed and decorated slice of KwaZulu.
Each room in the lodge is incredibly spacious and luxurious. Home to an enormous fourposter bed with gossamer netting draped elegantly from the frame.
The bed looks out through the huge glass double doors that open out onto your own veranda and views out across the private reserve. The game that live here often stroll past. It’s not quite the Giraffe Manor experience of Kenya – it’s much more natural than that.
Each villa has an en suite bathroom with both an indoor and outdoor shower. There’s also an opulent deep-fill clawfoot bath, perfect after a long day on safari. It’s a magical thing to watch grazing impala while you soak in your own tub.
Of course, when it comes to luxury, it’s always the details that really make the difference.
Beautiful Zulu art and objects decorate the walls and shelves, plump cushions in fine fabrics accent the bed and armchairs, and the bathroom offers proprietary amenities – there’s even a bowl of bath salts for you to use.
It’s exactly what we were hoping for in an African safari lodge.
With an appreciative nod to tradition, dinner is a communal affair at the grand table of the lodge’s main building.
Under the delicate light of chandeliers – or weather permitting – the sparkle of the African night sky, guests are served a delightful four courses each evening.
Usually a tasty soup starts, followed by a hearty main course – we enjoyed Greek lamb in filo parcels and salsa verde one night and chilli-infused pork fillet with roast sweet potato another.
Desserts of a sumptuous sachertorte and the spongy delight called malva pudding – a classic South African cake with apricot jam – greet our full bellies. And then the replete cheese board arrives for us to ‘fill up the corners’ with!
Dinner comes with plenty of South African wine, the enjoyable company of other lucky explorers and even the pleasure of dining with the Rattray family.
The bar here is wonderfully stocked with great wines as you’d expect, but also with as many gins – even these from small-batch craft distillery Cape Fynbos here in South Africa.
Breakfast is also served on the deck of the main building overlooking the lawn and now cooled fire pit. Fruit and cereals are the call of the day, as well as plenty of coffee, which is brought to your room before breakfast.
A lovely thoughtful touch.
The dark timber of the buildings blends beautifully with its surroundings of the lodge itself. Guiding you through the property, the wooden walkways bring you through the trees and hedges, allowing occasional glimpses of the other villas.
It’s superbly private here.
Close to the main building and reception, there is a shop and museum displaying artefacts from the Anglo-Zulu wars, and proffering clothes and African ornaments for sale.
There’s also a 1:72 scale replica of the battle of Rorke’s Drift to give you a great overview of how it would have looked in 1879.
You can see up close the uniforms, bugles, swords, bayonets and Martini rifles the British soldiers relied on. Zulu counterparts are here too, with assegais, clubs and wooden shields hanging on the walls. It’s a fascinating room.
On the other side of the complex, overlooking the grand view of the valley, the Harford Library – named after Charlie Harford, a soldier of fascinating character in the war – is a stunning collection of books on the Anglo-Zulu conflicts curated by David Rattray.
The library’s balcony is a popular spot for the lodge to hold lunches too.
The 5,000 acres surrounding the lodge are teeming with life. You’re free (and safe) to explore this private safari – there are no big predators or dangerous game here.
We had a quick wander down the road from the lodge on our own just before sunset – something we could never do at !Xaus Lodge – but you can have full guided walking tours through the reserve as well.
Tours of the Zulu battlefields
The Anglo-Zulu war spanned much of 1879 and ranged all across the Zulu kingdom, but the most iconic and perhaps important were the two battles that happened nearby Fugitives’ Drift.
These battles are brought to life by the expert guides of the lodge, through their brilliant narration, passion and remarkable knowledge.
And as you walk amongst the rocks of this ancient landscape, you feel the very eons of history beneath your feet – the bones of the country.
This precipitous Sphinx-shaped mountain in the middle of the plain just a short drive from the lodge was where 24,000 Zulu warriors all but destroyed a British force sent to quell them on 22nd January 1879.
Our guide at Isandlwana was Mphiwa Ntanzi. He was brought up in the area of Isandlwana, and his grandfather and great grandfather fought in the battle. To hear the story of the battle, from which only a handful of British soldiers survived, is to hear the truth of what happened.
The landscape here is peppered with piles of white rocks. These are cairns – memorials of where brave men fought and died at spear-tip and gunpoint.
It’s a haunting revelation when you look out from the high point of Isandlwana – the place of last stand – and see all the white markers scattered across the land.
Three officers – fugitives of the battle – managed to escape with the Queen’s Colour of their regiment, but were hunted down and killed at Sothondozo’s Drift.
This ford of the Buffalo River was later renamed Fugitives’ Drift – the namesake and landmark of the Rattray homestead, lodge and legacy.
The day following the battle of Isandlwana, further down the Buffalo River and also not far from Fugitives’ Drift Lodge, an offshoot of the Zulu army attacked a British outpost at Rorke’s Drift. This historic battle was immortalised by the 1964 movie Zulu starring Michael Caine.
We were lucky enough to have David Rattray’s son Douglas guide us around Rorke’s Drift. From the stories we’ve heard of David and his ability to grip an audience with his words, Douglas is a chip off a truly eloquent block.
His telling of that momentous battle, which resulted in 11 Victoria Crosses awarded for valour in the presence of the enemy, brings to life the courageous moments that occurred there.
Douglas’ telling of the tale builds the terror, the bravery, the desperation and the honour of that day over 140 years in the past.
In 1997, shortly after the funeral of Lady Diana, Charles the Prince of Wales took Prince Harry along with him to South Africa on a series of engagements and also to reconnect with his youngest son.
During their journey, the princes stayed at Fugitives’ Drift Lodge and were guided around the historic battle sites by none other than David Rattray himself.
The visit struck a chord with both princes and ignited further the interest Harry had of serving in the armed forces.
Both Harry and Charles were deeply saddened to hear of David’s tragic murder in 2007.
Thankfully, David’s legacy lives on strong in his family. And the heritage that Fugitives’ Drift Lodge has created makes such a mark on all those who stay here.
For more stories from our time in South Africa, click here.