South Africa in Glorious 3D; History, Safari and Sand ... Sandra Howard's Triple-Centre Tour Reveals Very Different Dimensions of the Rainbow Nation; A 5.30am Call Then a Trek into the Mist

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Byline: Sandra Howard's

AZULU custom, still practised today, demands that a man pay a tabola of 11 cows to the parents of his prospective bride. It is a sort of dowry in reverse, and since the same rule applies for any subsequent wives, Zulu men have to be rich to practise polygamy. An American tourist during our trip was heard commenting that his luck was in, considering how many cattle he had on his ranch.

In the 19th Century, the payment of a tabola wasn't enough. Young Zulu men had to 'wash their spears' before being allowed to marry. It was a powerful incentive. They clamoured for a chance to draw blood, and when the British misguidedly invaded Zululand and pitched tents at Isandlwana, the Zulus attacked with fearsome might.

Our army suffered one of the greatest defeats of its colonial history at Isandlwana on January 22, 1879. It was a momentous, disastrous day, yet extraordinarily it was also to become one of triumph. At Rorke's Drift just hours later, 100 British soldiers defeated 4,000 Zulu warriors.

They received 11 Victoria Crosses, the greatest number ever awarded for a single battle.

Africa is in my blood after spending a couple of childhood years here. To be on holiday with my husband in KwaZulu Natal, smelling the warm, intoxicating air again, and driving over the majestic plains to visit the Zulu battlefields ... well, I felt emotional from the start.

We stayed first at Fugitives' Drift Lodge, previously run by David and Nicky Rattray and now by their son Andrew. David pioneered the idea of tours to the battlefields. He believed that the stories of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, tales of incredible endurance and courage, should be told and seen from both sides.

He died at the hands of a gunman, but was a friend to the Zulus and one of South Africa's great heroes. With Andrew taking over, his legacy lives on.

OUR room with views over the historic estate was comfortable and colonial to its core - from the Thermos of chilled water to the meltingly light shortbread, and a cosy over the teapot. The lodge's large swimming pool was a treat, and a marvellous new library building overlooking the dramatic Buffalo River Gorge has been added.

Arriving in the evening, we found the other guests settled with their drinks around an outdoor fire, while a full moon lit up the beautiful garden behind them. We all sat together at dinner too, which was home cooking at its best, in a magnificent dining room - the walls were laden with paintings, spears, original flags and fascinating historical documents. A big happy girl called Grace presided over the dining room and kept us entertained. At breakfast one morning, after I asked how she had slept, she replied: 'Like a log, but I didn't end up in the fireplace!' From my seat at the breakfast table, the arresting peak of Isandlwana was perfectly framed between two immense shady fig trees. Later, when we were there on the battlefield, standing where the men had fallen and seeing the simple piles of whitewashed stones that mark the mass graves, we stayed silent.

More than 1,300 soldiers in their redcoats were felled at Isandlwana, despite their firepower. They were disembowelled (to release their spirits) and left to rot in the baking summer sun. Only a handful of others survived.

To add to the terrible poignancy, there was an eclipse that day, meaning the battle was fought in an eerie half-light.

It was hard to comprehend the extent of the blunders made by the commander, Lord Chelmsford. Our guide, Mphuwa, a Zulu, told the story vividly and emotionally, yet always even-handedly.

That evening he took us to see the memorial to Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill, who lost their lives trying to save the Queen's Colour for their regiment. They received the first two posthumous Victoria Crosses in history for their incredible bravery.

Mphuwa's great-grandfather and grandfather had fought at Isandlwana, he told us, and he went on to describe bringing Lord Chelmsford's great-grandson to see the memorial. …