If you have read some of my previous articles you will know that I am a huge fan of the film ‘Zulu’. A now cult, cinematic marvel from 1964, that seems to be on TV every week here in the UK. I have visited the battlefields of the Zulu War including Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. The latter providing the ‘story’ for the film ‘Zulu’.
If you have been to Rorke’s Drift you may have noticed that the surrounding scenery is very different from that of the film. If you have not been there but have seen the film you may have marvelled at the scenery in the background. However there is no mountainous landscape with an amphitheatre backdrop behind the mission station at the battlefield. The vision of Stanley Baker, the Drakensberg winter vegetation, and a cast including Michael Caine bought the film to life. The wonder of ‘Technicolor’ enhances the British soldiers red coats and white pith helmets against the Zulu army’s black skin and deep blue sky.
I knew roughly where the film was made so I decided it was about time I explored the area and pin-point the exact spot. I wanted to see for myself where Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Jack Hawkins, Nigel Green and other legends of the silver screen had acted out the heroics of battle. Armed with old maps, my lap top and stills from the film I headed off to Royal Natal National Park. My brother in law Brett, who had worked as a tour guide, accompanied me and knows the area well. I should add, he has never actually watched ‘Zulu’.
The film was shot in mid-winter, normally a dry time of year, under clear blue sky. Now it was mid-summer and a time of year associated with afternoon storms. Because of this we arrived at the parks gates not long after dawn. We drove to a public parking area and decided to walk in the direction of Tendele. This is a self-catering resort owned and operated by EKZN Wildlife with magnificent views of the mountains. All views from here are dominated by the magnificent amphitheatre. With our maps and film stills we planned to line up various landmarks and physical scenery with that of the position of the set. A major condition of filming within the national park was that everything was cleared post filming leaving nothing behind. At Tendele we drew a blank. Trying to match the stills with physical features it became obvious we were too close to the Amphitheatre.
We hiked a little more but were hampered by low cloud from the previous nights rain storms. Visibility of the mountains was restricted but the cloud did seem to be slowly lifting. It was time to head back to the car, be patient, and work out plan B. Our stills lead us to believe that what was a dirt road was now a new tar road that ran along one side of the set. Our black & white photographs, that were between twenty and fifty years old, also showed a thorn tree on one side of the road and a cabbage tree on the other. What were the chances of these trees still being there? If we could find them they would need to match up with a rock formation called the Lion. The three points would form a triangle. To our amazement we found ourselves under the canopy of a large thorn tree, now overhanging most of the tar road. Then to our left a cabbage tree and beyond that the exact angle of the Lion from our stills.
So here we were right on the set. I could clearly see the backdrop to a still of Michael Caine, Lieutenant Bromhead, sitting on his horse. I was standing where a defensive wall constructed of mielie (dry corn) bags had been built. It was whilst sitting on this wall that Pvt Hitch was shot in the leg. Looking up, there were the Zulu snipers positions from where the shot came. Across the valley and to the left of the Lion was where the mighty Zulu army assembled on the ridge. The cloud never fully lifted to reveal the whole magnificent amphitheatre but it lifted enough to show its enormous ridge and two buttresses.
During the filming of Zulu in 1963 the cast and crew stayed at the Royal Natal Hotel. The hotel is only a short walk from the main film set and we wanted to take a look before leaving. In 1947, the then Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 21st birthday at the very same hotel. The English Royal family, including the late King George VI, Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, were guests of the South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts. He insisted that the Royals use the hotel to take a break from their gruelling two month tour of South Africa.
The hotel was founded in the early 1900’s by Walter Coventry who had emigrated to South Africa from Bristol, England. He built the hotel as a hostel, using his homestead, and it was predominantly used by hikers and climbers. It developed over the years into a grand hotel and favoured destination of mainly foreign tourists.
Several decades ago the hotel closed its doors for the last time. The reasons for this have been debated. Some say the rent from the Natal Parks Board was too high, others say the owners simply ran out of money. Whatever the reasons the hotel is now a very sad looking derelict shell. The exterior carved sandstone, solid in some places crumbling in others, is mainly overgrown with wild grasses and shrubs. The grand entrance doors and windows are smashed and broken. The royal dining rooms and quarters are now littered with rubble, broken glass and collapsed ceilings.
There cannot be many hotels in the world with such a magnificent view. There must be even fewer with such a mixed history. All is not lost though as there is a tender out for the redevelopment of the hotel. I really hope that ‘someone’ can see the enormous potential here. Maybe now is the time to do the maths based on the current exchange rate offered by the South African Rand?