‘These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.’ This is how Alan Paton describes the green lovely heart of KwaZulu-Natal in his world-famous novel ‘Cry, The Beloved Country’.
But for 70 years, this tranquil landscape was the scene of bloody conflicts that not only shaped South African history, but also shook Queen Victoria’s British Empire to its very foundations. Here, Boers, Brits and Zulus battled it out in some of history’s most dramatic and infamous military engagements.
The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 – the result of an impossible ultimatum from the British government to King Cetshwayo, ruler of the Zulu nation – was perceived by the British as a potential walkover. They were proved horribly wrong.
Isandlwana, sphinx-shaped mountain (Image courtesy of Kate Turkington)
I’m standing on a high hill above Isandlwana. The sphinx-shaped mountain (perceived as a bad omen by the British troops deployed here from Egypt and whose cap and collar badges represented a sphinx) rears up to my right. In front of the looming mountain, cairns of white stones are poignant reminders of the 1 300 British officers and men who died that fateful day when they were overrun and defeated by 20 000 Zulu warriors armed mainly with spears and shields, who were working to a brilliant strategic plan, the ‘Horns of the Bull’.
Later, I drive down to the battlefield itself. The topography has not changed since that day on January 22, 1879, when a sizeable force of Britain’s experienced Imperial Army was abjectly humiliated.
A shiver runs down my back as a chill wind blows across the desolate plain. My guide reminds me that at 2.29pm when the battle was at its height, there was a total eclipse of the sun that briefly plunged everyone and everything into a terrible eerie darkness.
Lieutenants Melville and Coghill bravely saved the regimental colours but were cut down at Fugitive’s Drift.
Rorke's Drift (Image courtesy of Kate Turkington)
Later that day, a force of some 4 000 Zulus attacked the Swedish mission station of Rorke’s Drift, some 30km from Isandlwana, where just over 150 British soldiers held out for 12 hours, losing only 17 men before the Zulus retreated. Eleven Victoria Crosses, Britain’s highest military honour, were awarded for that engagement – to date still the most ever awarded to a regiment in a military encounter.
Information inside Rorke's Drift (Image courtesy of Kate Turkington)
Rorke’s Drift lacks the dramatic atmosphere of Isandlwana, but you’ll be fascinated by the evocative little museum (a replica of the original buildings where the battle took place) and its dramatic displays.
Spionkop, mass grave of British soldiers (Image courtesy of Kate Turkington)
One of the most infamous battles of The South African War (formerly The Anglo-Boer War) took place at Spionkop, on the on the night of January 23rd, 1900, and the following day, December 24th. There were three men on the hill that day whose death would have changed the face of world history. All three survived – General Louis Botha, subsequently the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa; Mahatma Gandhi, who was a stretcher-bearer; and Winston Churchill.
Spionkop was yet another crushing defeat for the British Army, and when you stand, as I have done several times, on top of that hill and see the long trenches of the mass graves of the British soldiers stretching away in front of you, it’s impossible not to philosophise about the ongoing futility of war.
But do the Battlefields Tour yourself. It’s a memorable experience like no other, especially when linked to other destinations in the region like on our 'Luxury KwaZulu Natal Itinerary' or at a stay at Isandlwana Lodge.