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audio Caiphus Mthabela, Drakensberg Guide [audio]

music Traditional Zulu Songs, Mweni, Drakensberg [music]

See all Great Stories by Roddy Bray

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Sharing a traditional Zulu meal of 'inkhomani' and 'ndoko'

Caiphus - Drakensberg, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org]
Sharing a traditional Zulu meal of 'inkhomani' and 'ndoko'

Caiphus Mthabla is a mountain guide in the spectacular Mnweni region of the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. At his homestead we were given the warmest welcome. Young men began to sing songs and danced for us and three Sangoma’s also danced (see below). We recorded Caiphus as he described his life, which has been radically transformed through tourism, and his Zulu culture...

Leaving behind the resorts of the northern Drakensberg we drove south and west, through a landscape of scattered Zulu homesteads, with our guide, Cyndi Jonker. We passed the bizarre tin ‘helicopter’ that Punch Mbhele, an artist, has built as his home. We turned onto dirt road in the uThugela District, fording streams, stopping for unhurried cattle, passing women with buckets on their heads, and children walking to school.

The rocky road up the Tonyelane Valley petered out at a shop. We parked and walked up ‘dongas’ (eroded animal tracks) that serve as paths. We passed maize fields and homesteads, small clusters of thatched homes round and square. The people greet us as we pass, ‘Sawubona!’ The giant mountains above are cloaked in dark clouds. Our Great Guide to the Drakensberg, Cyndi Jonker, has worked in this communal area for years on environmental, hiking and social projects.

Caiphus - Drakensberg, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org] - Caiphus Mthabla: The Mweni - Great Guides
The spectacular Mnweni mountain range
She introduces Caiphus, a tall, lean Zulu man with the broadest grin. We sit in his rondavel, looking at the family beadwork. His father comes to greet us, his wife, his children; water from the spring is served. He shows us his noisy geese and his vegetables; we see the forest where his family gather wood, the rooms he has built for tourists to sleep, the ancestral hut where they cook. Caiphus hangs his phone on a pole, the one spot you can get reception. Above us the stormy clouds over the mountains begin to clear, revealing the points, pinnacles and domes of the Mnweni range: the Chessmen, the Rockeries, Little Horn, the Twins, the Mitre, the Bell, and the magnificent ‘Saddle’, a sweeping, curving rockface.

Lunch appeared, unrequested.. sweet, soft susu ‘inkhomani’, potato and maize and ‘ndoko’ sorghum desert. As we finished we could hear young men laughing. We went out, and recorded them as they began to sing.

Caiphus - Drakensberg, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org] - Caiphus Mthabla: The Mweni - Great Guides

The young men had come not only to sing but to show us their dancing. Caiphus beat the drum and the men and boys sang, moving together in that deliberate, dramatic manner of traditional Zulu dancing. Then one would step forward, crouch, move his arms, then sweep his leg up high and roll backwards. By now everyone in the village was gathering. The women ululated, adding their encouragement to the music. A little boy ran out and tried to do some impressive kicks and rolls. Everyone clapped and laughed.

Local youth dancing outside Caiphus' homestead

From out of the hills came first one, then another and finally a third sangoma to join the festivity. Distinctive, in their head coverings and elaborate beads, these elderly traditional diviner-healers took their place to watch the young men. Then they stood to dance. Their dignified, joyful swaying, like poetry, so different to the proud displays of the young men. Their movements were accompanied by the shingle of can tops woven around their ankles.

Caiphus - Drakensberg, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org] - Caiphus Mthabla: The Mweni - Great Guides

We ask Caiphus to tell us his story. His youthful aspirations and his repeated efforts to find work, came to nought. He became a marijuana (dagga) smuggler in the mountains; then became imprisoned. One listened to an evidently good and loving man, whom poverty had reduced to a criminal sentence. The chance to become a mountain guide finally gave him the opportunity he needed, which he has taken with both hands, as can be heard on the recording, above.

Caiphus Mthabla, once a victim of poverty, now a leader

When we finally left the village, with everyone waving and thanking us for coming, I asked Caiphus why they were so welcoming. He said that in Zulu tradition if a home is unvisited there is a problem, but when there are visitors they rejoice, and we had certainly been caught up in their joy.

To visit the village, stay overnight or hike in the Mnweni, contact Cyndi Jonker who runs the camp at Sungubala.

Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 16 Mar 2010
Location: Southern Africa | South Africa
Themes: skills and interests, natural world, travel | parks and trails, inspiring, conservation