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Zulu Nation

Our guide for the week in Zululand is the perfect accomplice for this. Dingani Mthethwa, who is getting his master's in history at the University of Natal, was booked for us through a South African travel planner. He grew up in a village in Maputaland, in KwaZulu-Natal's remote north.

After driving three hours northwest from Durban, first along the ocean, then into an undulating green landscape, we take a dirt road into Shakaland, a serene, luxurious place crouched low in the tall grass. Built on the set where the TV miniseries was filmed, Shakaland sits in the Entombeni Hills overlooking Umhlatuz Lake. The place is as posh as a quiet Caribbean retreat, with deluxe guest huts, a conference room on the site of King Shaka's great hut, and a video screening room called the House of Pictures. In a dining rotunda, a mural by the art director of Shaka Zulu depicts the life of the warrior who commanded 15,000 men. The images of bloodthirsty savages make Dingani cringe. I find them fun—history via showbiz. "A man without culture," the mural explains, "is like a zebra without stripes."

On the way out, Dingani asks a young man in Zulu getup, who is Xhosa, not Zulu, what kind of dance he does in the show. "It's supposed to be Zulu, but I dance Xhosa," he admits. "The tourists don't know the difference." His boss explains that it doesn't matter what tourists are seeing as long as they get a feeling from the dances. Dingani nods and smiles. He has seen similar things before. A shop in the Valley of a Thousand Hills sells crafts made in Taiwan. A nearby hotel lures tourists with a beehive-hut homestead (family installed) even though beehive huts were never used in the area. A guidebook suggests curdled milk is a staple food, when it isn't. Dingani doesn't want to live among "postcard Zulus." "Unless something is done," he says, "we will end up living in a history that never happened."

After lunch at Shakaland we drive a short distance to the Simunye Pioneer Village & Zulu Lodge, near Melmoth, and are relieved to be greeted by a staff not in costume. We ride on horseback to the lodge, looking into the Mfule Valleyand at the Zulu villages on the horizon. The lodge itself is set between river and cliffs. Simunye (owned by the Protea Hotel Corp.) is the former homestead of a white South African whose family purportedly maintains a close relationship with members of the local Biyela clan. It was designed to give tourists a sense of how Zulu people live today. "But then visitors started complaining that they wanted to see villagers in animal skins," says François Meyer, a Protea manager, "so we threw in some skins. Now the biggest criticism is that it isn't authentic enough."

That may be, but Simunye, built as it is so close to nature, seems to take a somewhat more subtle approach to promoting Zulu culture. Although I've been told that the place is not running at a profit, I can see how it has the potential to succeed: it's rustic enough to seem almost like the real thing—the rooms are comfortable but basic; there is no electricity; you can smell the cooking fires from neighboring villages. At dusk, we walk with a dozen other guests in a torchlit procession behind a Zulu guitar player. At the gate of a beautiful village (or kraal) built for display purposes only, we are introduced to a chief who tells us, through the lodge's interpreter, that taking photos is allowed. Even though he's only an actor, he's imposing, with cow-tail tufts around his upper arms, patches of calfskin around his waist, and leopard skin, the mark of power, around his shoulders. We are shown the inner corral where the cattle—a form of currency for Zulus, although increasingly less so as grasslands are overgrazed and modern life replaces tradition—are kept. "The price for a bride is eleven heads of cattle," the guide tells us, "unless she's been married before; then it's only nine." Offered a calabash of sorghum beer, one tourist takes a long drink. "Very yeasty," he says. We laugh. Perhaps it's the setting, but the modern world finally feels light-years away. Who could complain?

Back at the lodge, a bonfire is burning, and some performers cross the water with torches, voices soaring above the roar of the river. Their dances—a "bull dance" invented by miners, a shield dance dating back to Shaka's time, a women's hunting dance—are performed at shows all over KZN. Many of them require high kicking, and the dancers' enthusiasm, as they sing and entreat us to join in, is infectious. "It's lovely here," one happy tourist says. "I want to remember everything." Dingani is not so approving. Some of those dances aren't even from South Africa, he says, and he hears that the staff is overworked and underpaid. But the hearth fire is burning so brightly, the singing is so pretty, the spot so wild yet unthreatening, that it seems almost cynical to bring up politics. "Listen, I don't want to know," I tell him. "This is a great place."

The following morning, after a demonstration of ox-plowing and stick fighting, we sit in a "hut" where we inhale heather incense and hear about marriage customs still practiced today: two-day weddings and polygamy. Later, we leave the property with a lunch , prepared for us by the resort, that's meant for three but could easily feed 15. Dingani is taking us on a walk to visit some nearby villages.

Past a shack of a store with a Pepsi sign, on paths through tall grasses bowing to the wind, we walk from one village to the next. A boy accompanying us gives a traditional yell at each one, asking if we can enter. There is not much to the villages. No stores or gardens. Just empty areas where cattle used to be and a few tiny houses. We sit in variously shaped huts. Some are bare, with cleanly swept, polished clay floors and rolled-up straw mattresses. Others have furniture and Western mattresses, and one even has a tape player and a battery-powered TV. Women whose husbands are out working or looking for work, a regular task in a region that has 34 percent unemployment, talk to us in weary voices while holding children in tattered clothes. We give out toys and crayons and smile a lot. The villagers smile a lot, too. At our last stop, we sit with an elder under a tree. "Simunye doesn't give much back to the community," he tells Dingani. And unlike Shakaland, which allows cattle to graze freely on its property, this resort does not enjoy good relations with its neighbors. "How do you feel about an actor playing a chief?" Dingani asks him. "A shame, but it's a way for a man to give bread to his family," the man replies.

I am finally having an authentic Zulu experience and I am miserable. The land may be pretty, but it is no longer arable and cattle cannot survive. The people may seem at peace, but they are anxious about jobs, about feeding their families. Dingani is making me see that this is not a happy place at all.

Back at the car, we set out our copious lunch—a giant platter—under a tree on a dirt road. Nearby, kids are walking home from school, and we entreat them to join us. Suddenly, we are surrounded by friendly faces. With me on ukulele and Sarah on drum, we give a goofy, impromptu concert. The kids are tickled. In response, they sing for us. Dingani is impressed. These people, as patient as they are with affluent tourists, have been seeing them for far too long. I feel less guilty looking at them when I'm a novelty myself. That night, with only a few guests, the dance performers (each is paid a dollar per show; some have to get up the next day for school) seem strained. I applaud for them until my hands hurt.

In The Interpretation of Cultures, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz compares the work of learning about a society to a journey that, "like any genuine quest," takes you through "a terrifying complexity." Terrifying complexity is inescapable on our trip through KwaZulu-Natal. Yet despite the discomforts of being on a South African vacation freighted with the politics of race, authenticity, and land management, we are having what could be called a good time.

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