Unlikely though it might seem, Pietermaritzburg is the place where Mahatma Gandhi first flexed his political muscles and embarked on his lifelong struggle to stand up to social inequality and defend the rights of the oppressed using non violent methods.
Gandhi came from India to South Africa in 1893 and was employed by a local Indian businessman, Dada Abdulla, to act as his lawyer. One of his assignments required him to travel to Pretoria on business in June 1893, and he was issued with a first class rail ticket for the journey. He boarded the train in Durban, but a white passenger vehemently objected to the presence of a 'coolie' in the same carriage and demanded that Gandhi relocate to the van compartment on the train. Gandhi stood his ground and refused to give up the seat that had been bought for him - and was forceably removed by the police at the next stop in Pietermaritzburg, where he was forced to sleep overnight in the station waiting room.
In his memoirs, Gandhi recounts that, "It was winter ... and the cold was extremely bitter. My over-coat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered". He goes on to recount: “I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting-room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty? I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward with God as my helper, and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date".
Gandhi was to stay in South Africa for a total of 21 years, fighting for equal rights for the growing Indian community. From there, he moved his focus to reforming India's social inequities, and the rest is history ...
Unfortunately there is nothing but a plaque at the railway station to commemorate this momentous event. However, I was informed by an associate that at the time of writing (March 2012) the Natal Museum is developing a display based on this incident and Gandhi's legacy has been recognised by a bronze statue that has been erected in the Church Street pedestrian precinct.
The railway station itself is a very pleasing red brick Victorian building that wouldn't have looked out of place anywhere in rural England before the swinging of the Beeching Axe. The only clue that it is not in Britain is the 'broekie lace' iron filliagre work which decorates the station's eaves. This ornamentation is typical of colonial structures in Australia and South Africa - so named because it resembles the lace used to trim 'broekies' ('panties' in Afrikaans). This was a common form of architectural decoration in the Colonies as iron was often loaded onto the ships as ballast on the outward bound voyage.
Sadly this part of town has been sorely neglected and is somewhat rundown. However, it is safe enough if you take the usual sensible precautions, and well worth a visit to experience the place in which a unique form of protest to achieve social reform was first set in motion.
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Despite his diminutive stature, Mahatma Gandhi was a towering figure of 20th century history, and despite the multi Oscar winning biopic of his life, relatively few people realise how much of his adult life he spent in South Africa.
Gandhi arrived from India in 1893 to take up the position of legal advisor to a wealthy Durban merchant. In total, he spent 21 years in South Africa, during which time, he fought vigorously for the rights of the Indian community in the face of increasingly discriminatory legislation, and honed his trademark approach of passive resistance and civil disobedience that was to serve him so effectively thoughout his life.
Having been forceably removed from a train at Pietermaritzburg station in 1893 solely on account of his race, Gandhi decided to remain in South Africa to push for the burgeoning Indian population to be given equal rights. In 1894, Gandhi established the Natal Indian Congress - with himself as Secretary - to represent the interests of the Indian community and oppose discrimination against the Indian population imposed by the British colonial administration. After the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War, Gandhi maintained that if Indians were to be recognised as full citizens, they needed to support the war effort and formed the Indian Ambulance Corps. This unit comprised 300 'free' and 800 indentured Indians and was deployed to assist black casualties in the conflict.
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One thing's for certain: if you like red brick, then you're going to love Pietermaritzburg, and of all the red brick structures in town, the jawdropping City Hall is the hardest to ignore!
The city was originally founded by the Voortrekkers in 1837, following their famous victory over Dingaan's Zulu troops at the Battle of Blood River. It was named after two Boer commanders, Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz and was the capital of the fleeting Boer republic of Natalia before being taken over by the British in 1843. Thereafter, it was made it the seat of the Natal Colony's administration, and became the capital of Natal province after it was incorporated into the Union of South Africa in 1910, so it's been an important place for a long time by South African standards.
Its status is reflected by the Pietermaritzburg Town Hall is reputed to be the largest red brick structure in the Southern Hemisphere, and a National Monument. Build on the site of the original Voortrekker Raadsaal, it is a flamboyantly over the top late Victorian confection that is reminiscent of St Pancras Station in London, and boasts a 43m high clock tower and the largest pipe organ in the Southern Hemisphere.
As I wandered around Maritzburg, I often had to pinch myself to remember where I was. The ubiquitous red brick and architectural style is strongly reminiscent of other late Victorian and Edwardian colonial suburbs such as Albert Park in Melbourne, as are the verandahs and balconies decorated with white 'broekie lace' iron filagree. Well over a century on, the architectural hallmark of the British Empire is still unmistakable!
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Fortuitously, the reason for me being in 'Maritzburg was to liaise with one of the Natal Museum staff on a work-related project, which gave me a legitimate excuse to spend a little time exploring the museum.
The Natal Museum is a curiously endearing blend of old and new. It is housed in a venerable red brick Victorian edifice and my heart sank at the first couple of galleries that I visited, which were full of glass cabinets displaying hundreds of unfortunate little stuffed birds reminiscent of the living room of a Victorian gentleman-scientist. Clearly this is a legacy that has been inherited, but it is a misleading start, and fortunately things rapidly get much more interesting.
I have a particular penchant for flightless birds, so it was a bonus to find a gallery devoted to them, which contains a small dodo exhibit: your piece of trivia for the day is that dodos were so big and meaty that four birds were sufficient to feed a hundred ravenous sailors (which goes a long way towards explaining why they were driven to extinction). It was also a treat to be dwarfed by a reconstruction of the colossal moa, whose thunderous thighs would make even generously proportioned women feel slender limbed by comparison!
Sticking with stuffed animals for the moment, the curators have used their collection of large mammals particularly well and it feels rather like you've stumbled into the midst of a large and very diverse herd. The collection includes some unusual exhibits such as aardvarks and striped hyaena, and the sheer scale of the family of eland from Giant's Castle in the Drakensberg is particularly impressive.
However, it is in the recently developed cultural sections that this museum really shines, and it is a joy to encounter such original exhibits. The museum has been successful in accessing Lottery grants, and these have been used to great effect in developing exhibits on often-overlooked aspects of Southern African history, such as the pre-colonial cultures that developed Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe between about AD500 and AD 1500 and the impact of the Portuguese colonial influence on African trade.
There is also a fascinating exhibit on the history of Indians in South Africa, dating back to the arrival of indentured Indian labourers to work on the sugar farms of Natal in the 1850s. KwaZulu Natal still has a very sizeable Indian population, and it is nice to see their seldom-recognised contribution to the economy and history of the province being celebrated.
Of course, no exhibit on Indians in South Africa's history would be complete without considering Mahatma Gandhi, who lived and worked in South Africa for a couple of decades around the turn of the 20th century. It was in Pietermaritzburg that he embarked on his world-changing career of passive resistance by refusing to vacate a railway carriage when a white passenger objected to his presence, and the museum is currently busy with developing an exhibit to commemorate this event. Until this exhibit is unveiled, visitors keen to explore Gandhi's legacy can visit the Pietermaritzburg railway station where this drama unfolded, as well as the Gandhi statue which has been erected in the Church Street pedestrian precinct (just close to the intersection with Chief Albert Luthuli Street). At the time of my visit in March 2012, there was a small but very interesting temporary exhibit devoted to Ghandi's wife Kasturba.
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Maritzburg is a city that has more than its fair share of beautiful buildings ... unfortunately this is not one of them!
This hideous confection is hard to miss as it's right on Alan Paton Drive, which links the N3 highway to the Maritzburg CBD. To my mind, it is entirely devoid of any redeeming features, and to add insult to injury, it is decked out in ice cream shades of pink and cream, which elevate it from being merely grotesque to being both ludicrous and grotesque.
With no respect whatsoever to the architect concerned, even at the age of five, my son can produce more aesthetically appealing buildings out of Lego!!!
The On Air Raptor Centre has a spectacular location on the top of a hill, on the Comrades route between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. They are concerned with the conservation and rehabilitation of Birds of Prey. I highly recommend their bird flying display - you could see an owl, goshawk, yellow-billed kite, falcon, and eagle. It is quite a moving experience to see these magnificent creatures circle above the wide mountain vista, and then - amazingly - to return to the bird handler. They also allow you to put on a thick leather glove and "hold" one of the owls - she perches on your arm, on the glove. Go to their web site and read the story of each of their show birds - amusing and moves your heart. None of the birds that they fly in their shows are releasable into the wild. The shows are held on weekdays at 10h30 (closed on Mondays), and on weekends and public holidays at 10h30 and 15h00. You can buy food and drink at the site, as well as curios. At R25 for adults and R15 for children, it's well worth it.
There are plenty of cultural villages located between Durban and Pietermaritzburg to visit.
Of course we only felt the need to visit one, and as we had previously visited a Xhosa village when we were in Coffee Bay we did feel that this was touristy and was only here for the simple reason of tourists! But it was fun, and we did learn a lot about the Zulu traditions and culture even if the whole village was made to cater to us!
The best way to see an indigenous forest is from above and there is nothing better than flying above the forest canopy attached to a steel cable. A canopy tour was my 31st birthday present from my family and what a present!!! You traverse from one platform to another along a steel cable that is above the forest floor, I think the highest point is about 40m. You can check out the scenery and the birdlife from a truly unique perspective and it gets the blood pumping for sure. The longest of the 8 'slides' is about 170m long and it is quite something. The guides are brilliant and make you feel completely safe. If you have a chance then give this a go!!!
A stop at the Rob Roy hotel is a must. Not only to sit on the picnic benches and eat a delicious cream and jam scone, but to gaze out at the amazing views from here.
You can visit even if you are not staying in this hotel, walk from the car park towards the back of the property and take a seat, you will soon meet the staff who are friendly and will take your order.
The snake and crocodile park was so much fun, you must take a guided tour during which the guide takes you around and gives you tons of information on the crocs!
He then took us through to see all of the different snakes that call this home and Matt soon had a huge python hanging around his neck!
A fun experience for the family!
The drive out here is just so beautiful, we stopped many times to breath in the fresh air and take hundreds of snaps of the area!