Thokozani Mdluli looks out to Gaza peak from the top of Tshaneni

H. Rider Haggard, Ghost Mountain, & Nada the Lily

by Stephen Coan


"It is a great & strange mountain. It is haunted also, & named the Ghost Mountain, & on the top of it is a grey peak rudely shaped like the head of an aged woman." Thus Henry Rider Haggard writing of the mountain in northern Zululand in his book Nada the Lily.

Standing apart from its fellows in the Lubombo range & overlooking the Mkhuze river Ghost Mountain consists of two peaks, Gaza & Tshaneni, thrusting up & outwards from a natural amphitheatre.

Last week, with guide Thokozani Mdluli, I stood on top of the grey-green lichen covered dome of Tshaneni, looking across the bush-covered bowl to Gaza.

"That was the home of the Gaza family," Mdluli told me. "The head was Soshangane. He was attacked by Shaka in 1819 & went to Mozambique where he founded the Shangaan people. But Gaza was the customary burial place for their chiefs & they used to travel here in the night to avoid detection by the Zulus to bury their chiefs in a cave. The bodies were wrapped in the hide of a black bull."

Tshaneni is the peak most associated with the name of Ghost Mountain, though the meaning of its name in Zulu is far from supernatural. "Stone is itshe in Zulu, & a small stone is itshana," explained Mdluli. "Tshaneni means 'at the small stone'."

The peak has bestowed this name on the battle fought beneath its shadow in 1884. Following the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 Zululand was divided into 13 "kinglets" by Sir Garnet Wolseley. A disastrous arrangment that led to civil war involving two factions - the Usuthu, supporters of the royal family led by Dinuzulu (son of Cetshwayo) & the Mandlakhazi, led by Zibhebhu. The latter was the superior tactician & in order to defeat him Dinuzulu enlisted the help of the Boers in exchange for land. On June 5 1884 a combined Boer & Zulu force advanced on the Mandlakhazi who had taken up position near the mountain. The majority of Zibhebhu's men were hidden on the forested slopes of Tshaneni but a rifle shot (accident or betrayal?) gave their presence away & Boer firepower won the day.

Gaza peak from the top of Tshaneni
"Dinuzulu got a lot of support from the Boers," said Mdluli. "Among them was Louis Botha, who later became the first priminister of the Union of South Africa."

The battlefield was left littered with corpses & Deneys Reitz, in his book No Outspan, records seeing skeletons on the slopes of Tshaneni in the 1920s. Historians put the number of dead in the hundreds although local sources like Mdluli talk in figures as high as three & half thousand. "Many died here. Later when noises were heard people said this was the voices of the people who died here." As well as ghostly sounds there have also been reports of strange lights & flickering fires on the mountain.


I first saw Ghost Mountain in 1980. I was driving south from Pongola & though I had never seen the Lubombo mountains before they appeared oddly familiar, reminiscent of the sort of mountains described by Haggard in his many African adventures stories I had read in England as a child. Here was the flat veld & there the mountain barrier: grey, abrupt & impenetrable. The sort of obstacle through which Allan Quatermain & Co would find a narrow pass leading to some magical kingdom. So struck was I by the uncanny familiarity I stopped to take a photograph.

A little further on a sign indicated the turn off to Mkhuze & the Ghost Mountain Inn where a framed notice in the reception told of Ghost Mountain & its use by Haggard as the setting for Nada the Lily. So these really were Haggard mountains! The notice went on to say that Haggard had written the book "having done a spell of duty at the Ubombo Court House as member of the staff of Theophilus Shepstone, when Zululand was a British Protectorate."

Haggard was born in 1856, the same year that Soshangane is believed to have died & been brought back for burial on Ghost Mountain. Haggard came to South Africa in 1875, at first serving on the staff of Sir Henry Bulwer, Lieutenant-Governor of Natal, in Pietermaritzburg. He then went with Shepstone to the Transvaal where he took part in the 1877 annexation prior to becoming master & registrar of the high court. Haggard subsequently left government service in 1879 to farm near Newcastle finally departing South Africa in 1881. Back in England, & bored with a legal career, he turned to the pen, eventually hitting the bestseller lists with his fourth book, King Solomon's Mines. Haggard became a household name & further books followed: among them She, Allan Quatermain & Nada the Lily, published in 1892.

Ghost Mountain with its royal tombs, battles & skeletons would seem perfect grist to the Haggard mill, but in fact Haggard never set foot on its slopes or went anywhere near it. It seems Haggard's fame in the years after he had left South Africa led to all sorts of connections being made in hindsight. Even Killie Campbell, of the famed collection, credits Ghost Mountain with inspiring Haggard to write She. Similar apocryphal stories are attached to our own Otto's Bluff.

So if Haggard never went there where did he get his information? In the preface to Nada the Lily Haggard acknowledges his sources, citing works by John Bird, Bishop Henry Callaway, David Leslie & Fred Fynney. The name Ghost Mountain arose from the association with the burial of Shangaan kings.

Thokozani Mdluli at the survey beacon on top of Tshaneni
Appropriately enough, Nada the Lily is dedicated to Shepstone, as its main character, Umslopogaas, was based on a real-life servant of Shepstone's called M'hlopekazi. His fictional fame began with his appearance in Allan Quatermain where he dies a noble death in heroic combat.

Nada the Lily tells the story of his earlier life & is set at the time of Shaka, the Zulu king, around whom much of the action turns, but essentially the book is the story of Umslopogaas & "his love for Nada, the most beautiful of Zulu women." During the course of the novel Umslopogaas teams up with Galazi the Wolf, who lives on Ghost Mountain & has power over the resident wolf pack (read hyenas). In true Romeo & Juliet style all ends tragically when Nada, fleeing the wrath of Dingane following the assassination of Shaka, takes refuge in a cave on the mountain. Galazi dies in her defence but the cave proves her tomb as she is unable to open the stone door she has closed behind her.

Though Haggard never visited Ghost Mountain his book & its setting can be credited for inspiring another, much more famous book: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Writing to Haggard on October 20, 1895, Kipling noted that "it was a chance sentence of yours in Nada the Lily that started me off on the track that ended in my writing a lot of wolf stories. You remember in your tale where the wolves leaped up at the feet of a dead man sitting on a rock? Somewhere on that page I got the notion."


Twenty-one years after my first visit I found myself heading once more for Mkuze & the Ghost Mountain. On June 27 to be exact. The trip had been planned weeks earlier & it was only later, while reading Haggard's autobiography The Days of My Life, I discovered this was the date he sat down to begin writing Nada the Lily in 1889. This happy coincidence helped fuel the long drive north on the N2 as it ploughed on past sugar-cane fields & forestry plantations that finally, just past Hluhluwe, give way to the green-limbed fever trees that grow in abundance on the veld hazing towards distant mountains.

At Hluhluwe I stopped to visit George Meintjes whose grandfathers fought on the side of the uSuthu at the battle of Tshaneni in 1884. "They were C.F.H. Meintjes & George Alfred Friend."

"For his help in the battle Friend was granted a farm called Witteklip near Babanango. Meintjes was granted a farm outside Vryheid."

These farms, on the land obtained from Dinuzulu, were part of the New Republic which had its capital at Vryheid & extended to the coast. "The Boers wanted the land because they needed a harbour," said Meintjes. "But the British interpreted this as the old Transvaal Republic stirring up problems & wanted to stop them getting an outlet to the sea. So the British annexed Zululand."

Zululand was annexed in 1887 & formally incorporated into Natal in 1897. It was around this time the magistracy was established at Ubombo in the mountains above Mkuze & overlooking Ghost Mountain. Long after Haggard had left these shores.


The Ghost Mountain Inn has undergone a major makeover since I last stayed there. Originally built in 1962 by Roy Rutherfoord, the son of Richard Rutherfoord, founder of a well-known trading business, now run by Peter & Susan Rutherfoord. They have turned the inn into the perfect jumping off point to explore northern Zululand, Maputaland, the game parks and, of course, Ghost Mountain.

As the sun went down Susan Rutherfoord took me for a drive around the mountain. "When the first road was built here in 1902 they found lots of skulls," said Rutherfoord. "The local magistrate instructed they be collected & put along the side of the road. All rather macabre."

Ghost Mountain: The peak on the left is Gaza & Tshaneni is on the right
Talking of the strange lights reported on the mountain Rutherfoord recounted how a visiting scientist commented that it could have been the phosphorescent glow of the bones lying there. "Apparently, if the conditions are right, cemeteries in Europe exhibit this yellow phosphorescent glow at night."

From the banks along the Mkhuze river we then drove up the winding mountain road to Ubombo. There was the stone-built magistracy where Haggard supposedly worked. At the gate was a roofless rondavel. "I was always told that rondavel was where he lived," said Rutherfoord, rather sadly, & I was glad a previous visitor with a literary bent had told her the Haggard stories were spurious.

The next day I tackled Ghost Mountain with the help of Thokozani Mdluli. We approached the mountain from the south-east where it is possible to drive fairly close to the rising ground of the saddle between the two peaks. Once on the saddle we walked through the thick bush along the ridge towards Tshaneni following faintly marked trails. "Game trails?" I asked Mdluli. "No. The trails are made by inyangas who come to look for bark & roots - there are trees here not found anywhere else & they come for those."

Every now & then Tshaneni was visible through a break in the trees & our ascent echoed an exaggerated description in Haggard's book: "The trees were great that grow there ... & their leaves are so thick that in certain places the light is as that of night when the moon is young. Still, I wended on, often losing my path. But from time to time between the tops of the trees I saw the figure of the grey stone woman who sits on the top of Ghost Mountain, & shaped my course towards her knees."

After a final scramble we ended up sitting on her head while Mdluli told me what he knew of the mountain, its history & the Zulu meaning of Tshaneni. "But why Nada the Lily?" he asked me. "Nada is not a Zulu name." No it's not. It's Portuguese. Nada's grandfather was a white man, "a Portuguese from the coast."

Nada was buried on the mountain along with Galazi the Wolf while Umslopogaas went on to enjoy further adventures. I wonder, do their fictional shades now haunt Ghost Mountain? "I have heard," says the narrator of Nada the Lily, "that they hunt there at night with the ghost-wolves, but I do not know if it is true."
Copyright 2001 by Stephen Coan. First published in The Natal Witness July 9, 2001.

See also Stephen's essay on H. Rider Haggard & Pagadi's Kop

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