Rituals and reptiles populate safari park in Durban, South Africa

That’s why we headed to PheZulu Safari Park, which offers a “Zulu experience” in a replicate homestead (with huts made from thin branches formed into a beehive shape, and covered with a grass-thatch roof). There’s also a Zulu shield and spear factory here, as well as a game reserve and reptile park.

“We have a privilege of being exposed to a little window into their culture, which goes back quite a few centuries,” King said during the hour-long drive from Durban to PheZulu through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, with its lush forests and flowering trees.

The “Zulu experience” may seem like a compromise to an authentic experience, said King. “But those people are not actors, they are authentic people who have very strong ties and roots in the valley, coming there to promote their culture and express their pride and enthusiasm for the continuance of their culture,” he said. “One could possibly mistake it as … a stage performance, but in this case, it is authentic.”

Here, the Gasa clan performs a dance of courtship and betrothal, and demonstrates the “throwing of bones” by a sangoma.

“The village was obviously built that way for tourism, but what you learn, there are facts, there’s nothing made up,” said PheZulu’s general manager Tristan Dickerson. “We don’t put in special lights and fancy drums . . . the dances that they do are real. They will do them at the next wedding they attend.”

While the Zulu experience provides cultural education, PheZulu also offers “a bit of adventure, a bit of fear,” said Dickerson. In the reptile park, you’ll find indigenous and exotic snakes, such as the green mamba — an electric-green snake that’s strikingly beautiful, even to someone like me who is terrified of them — as well as lizards, tarantulas, and Nile crocodiles.

You can pet a tarantula or touch a harmless brown snake. If you dare, you can handle the 40-kilogram Burmese python “Cleo.” (I took a pass.) The truly fearless can opt for the Fear Factor Experience, which involves eating a meal in one of the crocodile enclosures. With crocodiles. The park has plans in the works to add a Segway game drive and ziplines over the croc ponds. “Even though (the park) is cultural and educational, we want to bring the elements of adventure in over the next two years,” said Dickerson.

Tourists come to this part of the world for adventure, to see lions and elephants and rhinos, and to soak up the year-round sub-tropical climate (which makes it a favourite holiday spot for South Africans). It’s also a chance to get a glimpse into Zulu culture, past and present, that goes beyond picking up a few handicraft souvenirs and brings their heritage to life.

Vawn Himmelsbach was hosted by Durban Tourism, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When you go

Get there: Fly to Cape Town or Johannesburg with KLM ( ) or Air France ( (connecting in Amsterdam or Paris), then catch a short domestic flight to Durban with South African Airways ( ). You’ll need a rental car or tour guide to get around.

Stay: The newly renovated three-star Protea Hotel Durban Umhlanga (by ) is located in trendy uMhlanga Rocks, a few blocks from the beach (with some of the best surfing spots in town) and next to restaurants, lounges and bars.

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