The story of the  founding of the youth exchange programme, in 1983, that led to the first Zulu Trail, in 1985, involves many dirt roads as well as bringing together people from two distant continents to help connect the separated peoples of South Africa.

Hannes Zoellner

In the early 1980s, Hannes Zoellner, the founder to the Zulu Trail, took early retirement from his position as an architect and town planner in Germany, to settle with his wife Kristin, in Cape Town.  They were contacted about an unaccompanied group of South African learners, studying German at school as a third language, who were travelling through Germany and in urgent need of an itinerary that included an opportunity to spend time living with typical German families for a few days. It soon became evident that there was a need in this particular field of travel - 'cultural tourism' or 'cultural exchanges'. And so, in 1984, Hannes and Kristin found themselves organizing the South African Youth (SAY) Exchange Programme between Germany and South Africa.


In October 1984, the first  youth group from South Africa travelled to Germany. The first German SAY Exchange group travelled to South Africa in 1985.  One of the young female students from this group, who was attached to a new trail project in the Ciskei (now the Eastern Cape) went on the first eco-cultural trail that has now become the Zulu Trail.

German youth would spend a year in South Africa, where they attended school and participated in family life. In this manner, they learnt about the country and its people.  As is the case in many youth exchange programmes,  scholars lived mainly with white “upper-middle-class” families, which resulted in them having a very one-sided impression of South Africa. To provide them with a fuller picture, Hannes started making contact with the black African communities and cultures in the country.  Despite the worldwide trade and cultural boycott against South Africa, and the opposition towards South Africans because of the country's apartheid policies at the time, the SAY Exchange organization became extremely successful.


In cities like Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, it was relatively easy to make contact with the African population by visiting the townships - the black suburbs, typically on the distant outskirts of the cities.  Hannes was personally curious about the living conditions of his domestic workers and gardeners and hoped to build mutual trust by visiting the places where they lived. Furthermore, he wanted to examine his interpretation of African culture to ensure that he was passing on information gained from firsthand experience to the youth. His search soon led him to the so-called "homelands", like Lesotho, Ciskei and Zululand, originally known as "reserves".

As a young boy, Hannes had lived in Tanganyika,  then German East-Africa (now Tanzania) where he had close contact with Africans, before the family was repatriated to Germany soon after WWII.  His unfulfilled yearning for the life he had experienced in his childhood certainly played a role in his quest to reconnect with African people, and motivated him to start creating the Explore Programme.

Due to various reasons, completing this Explore Programme was not easy.  The Explore Programme incorporated journeying through rural "homelands" with practical work projects such as the construction of pre-schools, building water resources and creating community gardens. The German youth were not intended to be tourists but to be productive and physically involved in collaborative work. To be active and to leave footprints, rather than remaining a passive onlooker, demands and promotes a completely different relationship to both the country and its people.  It is this notion that led Hannes into the field of Development Aid again.


The area stretching from the Kingdom of Swaziland to the Eastern Cape, with its Wild Coast, and lying respectively to the north and south of KwaZulu-Natal, had always attracted Hannes.  He chose the KwaZulu-Natal region for the implementation of the Explore Programme, because of its balanced infra-structure, as well as the existing cultural and natural diversity existing between the Drakensberg mountains and the Indian Ocean.  This choice was also influenced by Hannes' introduction to the small private Mhlopeni Nature Reserve, in 1986, under the management of Richard and Joy Allcock, who are still living there. more than 30 years later. Richard and Joy familiarized Hannes and SAY Exchange students from Germany with local 'low tech' skills such as how to build a mud hut and construct a warm water shower system.  These experiences were gainfully used at a later stage at camp Mabengela in Zululand.

Hiking was already included in the Explore Programme, initially along officially established trails, like the Wild Coast trail along the east coast of the Transkei.  The German exchange students enjoyed the landscape, but rarely met any of the Pondo or Xhosa inhabitants because the trail provided huts specially reserved for hikers.  With the opening up of the Zulu Trail through projects in KZN, opportunities for close contact with rural families and communities became easier.

The hikes associated with the Explore Projects were intended to impart a sense of meaningful engagement possibilities in line with the Programme's limited financial resources. The intention was to attain local inclusion to ensure the continuation of the projects, even with limited skills and artisan’s equipment.  However, it was not only about helping, but also about enabling German and rural youth to inter-act. Above all, the Explore Programme attempted to engage the women in the development of the village, because the men either did not feel themselves responsible for such matters or were absent because they were working in faraway cities.

Church organizations, mission and development organizations, including the local representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Konrad Adenauer Foundation) in Durban, were approached.


Dionnis Dlamini, the co-ordinator for the training of the community workers at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, took Hannes and the Explore Programme team on a tour into Zululand to visit several places offering work/project opportunities. Being a Zulu, Dionnis knew Zululand and the people well and, above all, he understood their needs and desires.

In 1988, the Explore Project assisted with the building of a preschool in Tophet, the home town of Dionnis, situated in the southern part of KwaZulu-Natal. The Kinder-in-Afrika Foundation in Reinbek, Germany, financed this project.  The German students and Explore Programme team erected their tents in Dionis’ kraal, and were able to use his huts for cooking and other general purposes during their comfortable stay. Dionis had already replaced two of his round huts with a modern, new building.

The youth from the nearby school were asked to help transport the required stone from the river and construct the foundations. The building site had been prepared and levelled by the members of the community before Explore's arrival, thereby enabling the quick laying of the foundations and the first row of cement blocks. The building of the walls followed in a few days.  After almost a week, the joint team were ready to begin to construct the roof.  These activities culminated in a traditional German topping-out ceremony (Richtfest). Approximately 6 months later, the building was fully completed. The ceremonial inauguration was celebrated with traditional Zulu dances and a German Richtschmaus (topping-out ceremony meal).

Many similar projects were completed after this, including the production of  bricks. This led to the introduction of simple building projects and ground work that was practiced together with the local youth.  Through this type of joint work with rural Zulu communities, the Explore Programme achieved its goal of undertaking projects together with the community rather than doing something for the community, and, in the process, promoting a deeper understanding between very different cultures.