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About umfolozi big five reserve

in the Heart of Zululand

The rolling hills of Zululand, home to Biyela Lodge and Mthembu Lodge, were formed millennia ago by glaciers on the southern-most polar tip of Gondwanaland. In these verdant valleys, formed once the continents would drift apart, small clans of stone-age people discovered a fertile area within which to settle as herders - with abundant waters gushing towards the ocean, and free from tsetse-fly and its dreaded sleeping-disease. Small skirmishes among tribes were in the order of the day, yet the wild new land provided sufficiently for a relatively peaceful co-existence.

This period of relative calm would change dramatically when a tall, imposing young King Shaka took the reins of his tribe in 1816. Trained and serving as a warrior and commander under Dingiswayo, chief of the Mthethwa clan whom he would eventually replace, the young man honed the skills that in due time would make him the fiercest and most innovative, forceful and effective commander this area would ever see.

When Shaka became chief of the Zulus his tribe numbered fewer than 1,500 and was among the smaller of the hundreds of other tribes in southern Africa. In the short, tumultuous twelve years to follow, the Zulu would become a force of over 250,000 people, and by as early as 1823, control all of the area from the Pongola River in the North to the Tugela River in the South.

Under Shaka, great warriors were rewarded by being appointed as Indunas and given their own districts over which to rule. The current Chieftaincies of Biyela and Mthembu both trace their ancestry back proudly to Shaka’s time. The first two five-star lodges have been named after these chiefs, descendants from Shaka’s warrior chiefs, to honour their commitment to conservation and to economic development for their people through the UMfolozi Big Five Reserve wilderness project.



Before becoming a chief, the current Chief Biyela’s ancestor was a trusted warrior and commander of Zulu impis. Shaka called for him and at this meeting, dispatched him to go and kill a rival tribe that had gotten on the wrong side of the King. There was nothing unusual about this request. But this fair commander felt that there was reason to spare the tribe from their designated fate, and helped them to hide where Shaka could not find them. When a few months later, some of Shaka’s terrain on the coast was under attack, this commander summoned the tribe he had saved and who were in hiding, to assist with defending Shaka’s underlings. When Shaka heard of these events from his commander, he looked at him and said: “Truly, you are a Biyela (protector)” and made him one of his trusted chiefs.

He bestowed upon the first Chief Biyela the large swath of land on the White iMfolozi that includes the section where visitors to UMfolozi Big Five Reserve will overnight in the lodge that carries the clan name. Now, the latest Nkosi Biyela still does justice to his clan’s name, by protecting both humans and wildlife under his auspices.

Chief Mthembu chairs the iMfolozi Big Five Trust, where the tribal land incorporated into the Ezemvelo game areas of Hluhluwe iMfolozi reside. Like many Zulu boys in the area, he grew up with the stories his elders told of Shaka. He recalls being fascinated as a kid with how Shaka had a thorn tree near Eshowe, where warriors would endure a barefoot pain test to see if they were fit to join the ranks of his impis. The Mthembu clan earned their chieftaincy and domain of this land through service to several Kings, right up to the battle of Isandlawa, and the Mthembus developed a reputation for their skill in the sharpening of spears.

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