The Greater Cradle Nature Reserve (GCNR) was the obvious choice on which to build four crucial sets for the highly anticipated 12-part television series Shaka iLembe which starts airing on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) on June 18 at 8pm.
Situated within 9 000 hectares of pristine nature, this unique ecotourism destination is the birthplace of humankind where human civilization began and is home to two active paleoanthropological sites as well as the Cradle Boutique Hotel.
For Desiree Markgraaff, executive producer at the award-winning film and TV company Bomb Productions, who produced Shaka Ilembe, the telling of this pre-colonial story is vitally important.
“African history is seldom depicted on screen and remains largely locked in academic volumes. We want to bring these exciting and important stories to life, to encourage young people to learn more about this epic history, to celebrate African Kings and Queens and real heroes from African history,” she says.
Filmed in isiZulu, the series tells the origin story of the famous Zulu King and the events that shaped his remarkable life. While the series is an entertainment title and a fictional interpretation of historical events, the producers have taken care to ensure that Nguni culture is authentically portrayed and respected. Fittingly, Shaka Ilembe was filmed in 4K, with state-of-the-art visual effects, ensuring the best screen treatment for the sweeping dynastic saga.
In addition to large parts of the show being filmed on location across KwaZulu-Natal, more than 120 builders and thatchers from KwaZulu-Natal were engaged in building the GCNR’s sets, all experienced in traditional hut building methods. They joined artisans from Gauteng to construct the 4 main kingdoms built within the GCNR, complete with raised watchtowers that served as an early warning system.
When the set with its sculpturally beautiful rounded thatched huts was complete, filming began on the property. The creative team comprised Oscar-nominated director Angus Gibson; executive producers Nomzamo Mbatha, Nhlanhla Mtaka and Markgraaff. They also worked with cultural and historical adviser Professor Hlonipha Mokoena while Royal praise singer, Inyosi Mdletshe called on the ancestors to bless the land and the project.
When it airs next month, the prime-time ensemble drama will have the singular honour of being the biggest production ever undertaken by the MultiChoice Group, whose ongoing investment into local content creation has made it Africa’s most loved storyteller.
The filming of Shaka iLembe was particularly poignant for the CEO of The Cradle Boutique Hotel and GCNR, Kobus Botha. He was a cameraman on the first Shaka Zulu television series which was filmed in 1986.
“For me it’s come full circle”, he says, “what a privilege it has been to host this ground-breaking series. We, at the Cradle Boutique Hotel and guests who joined our Origins Tours that traverse our property on game drives, have watched in wonder as the sets took shape. The authenticity was astonishing. We are delighted to have been chosen as a prime destination for the filming of this iconic story.”
Meanwhile, for Markgraaff, one of the highlights to the Shaka Ilembe GCNR shoot was a visit from the reigning King of the Zulu Nation, His Majesty Misuzulu kaZwelithini.
“Our Nguni herd was mixed with cattle already owned by the Cradle Boutique Hotel. As a sign of respect and gratitude, the production and CBH made a gift of one of these animals to the King. There was a wonderful ceremony in which the elders who had accompanied the King on the visit helped to select the best animal as a token of our appreciation.”
Other high-profile guests to the Shaka Ilembe set included the Miss South Africa 2022 finalists also visited the location while on a tour of the reserve during the build-up to last year’s pageant.
However, in keeping with the strict rules of the nature reserve, the filmmakers had to stick to a rigid building schedule and abide by the prescribed on-site protocols.
Says Botha: “No lasting structures are allowed to mar the pristine natural setting, ensuring that the land is allowed to return to its original state once the set has been dismantled.”
The Greater Cradle Nature Reserve (GCNR) is a unique ecotourism destination and monies spent at the GCNR are poured back into conservation, education, and the protection of the environment through the work of the Cradle Foundation.