Ben West recounts the context of the bloody Anglo-Zulu War as well as describing his experience of visiting KwaZulu-Natal’s emotionally charged battlefields
If you have seen the 1964 film Zulu, starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine, no doubt you’ve wondered what it must have been like to experience one of the bloodiest battles ever recorded. The epic war film depicted the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, one of South Africa’s most famous conflicts in the Anglo-Zulu War, during which no more than 150 British soldiers successfully held off a force of more than 4000 Zulu warriors.
“The film displayed considerable artistic licence,” said fellow passenger John Stephens on my Air France flight to Johannesburg, as we sipped Champagne and Cognac (I was surprised to see them dished out in Economy) over the Sahara. “That film is about five per cent accurate — and that’s being generous.”
I was to meet a number of history enthusiasts such as John, who had read up on and knew South Africa’s military events surprisingly well and who wanted to see the actual battlefields for themselves. John had been spurred on to visit last year since it was the 200th birthday of the Zulu nation.
The country is the location of many other combats too, all part of the Anglo-Zulu War and the First and Second Anglo-Boer Wars, not to mention numerous colonial and frontier conflicts and indigenous and Voortrekker skirmishes. There were more than 70 battles, but KwaZulu-Natal, aka Zululand, was the setting of the lion’s share, with 37 notable historic clashes within its borders. The main sites, memorials and museums can be viewed along the so-called Battlefields Route here, and lodges and guides in this area specifically focus on enabling visitors to discover this volatile period of South African history in depth.
I went on tours covering two legendary battles: Isandlwana and, immediately afterwards, Rorke’s Drift of Zulu fame, which unfurled like a Shakespearean tragedy in January 1879. For the Brits, it started with monumental losses at the former, followed by victory and valour in almost unbelievable circumstances at the latter. Isandlwana was the first major campaign of the Anglo-Zulu War and represented the worst defeat the British ever suffered in Africa. About 20,000 Zulu warriors armed only with spears made a surprise attack on 1800 British troops camped below Isandlwana Hill. More than 1300 troops and around 1000 Zulus died. Rorke’s Drift followed immediately afterwards, with just 150 British soldiers fighting off more than 4000 Zulus and an unprecedented 11 of them being awarded the Victoria Cross.
I chose to stay at Fugitives’ Drift, a very comfortable lodge near Rorke’s Drift. I heard so many British voices that I almost felt as if I were in Guildford! Situated within a 20.23sq-km Natural Heritage Site with wonderful food, a convivial atmosphere, charming and very comfortable rooms and a fantastic collection of battle memorabilia, it offers outstanding tours.
The lodge was the home of David Rattray, one of the world’s great oral storytellers, who did much to initiate battlefields tourism and help the community. He noticed that many accounts generally neglected the Zulu side of the story and set about interviewing local people and compiling detailed, dramatic accounts of the struggles. Tragically, he was killed in 2007 but his widow and children have continued his work, running the property and expeditions.
On the drive to the Isandlwana battlefield, we heard a taped introductory explanation of the background to the battle by Rattray, which was extremely enlightening and bristling with humour. En route, we briefly stopped by the visitor centre to pore over the informative displays. With the topography unchanged, its numerous memorials to the dead, the hill towering over the plains where the British and colonial soldiers were camped, so exposed and unprotected, and the many white stones making up the mass graves, it was certainly a sombre sight.
It was especially poignant to be guided on this tour by Mphiwa Ntanzi, a Zulu whose grandfather and great-grandfather actually fought at the battle. He painstakingly took us through each stage of the fight, pointing out the exact spots where each event, attack or retreat occurred. He told of disembowelled soldiers, their throats slit, their lack of defence, the misinformation, the Zulus facing guns yet fighting with only spears. This all brought it to life and helped us appreciate how truly gruesome a day it must have been.
We sat overlooking Isandlwana’s little colonial cemetery there, and contemplated the horror of it all. Eerily, the battlefield was very peaceful, with just the sound of birdsong.
After the lecture we were given time to walk up the hill, survey the landscape and view the various monuments to the dead. One of our party asked whether remnants of the war could still be found on the field. Mphiwa walked a few paces to the nearest grave and started scratching at the earth. Within seconds a button from one of the soldiers’ tunics appeared. It was remarkable to see this and made the battle seem even more tangible and real. Before leaving we also visited a modern and striking memorial to the Zulu dead.
On the way to the Rorke’s Drift site, later, we listened to another narration by Rattray. The tour was conducted by his son, Doug, who has carried on his father’s work admirably. Like Mphiwa, his account of the battle was an incredible feat of memory, around two hours recounting fact after fact. It was peppered with jokes, possibly to alleviate the gloom of the grisly proceedings.
This battlefield today has additions, some modern buildings and trees, but the hospital featured in the film still exists as a small museum. Similar to the experience at Isandlwana, being exactly on the location of the conflict, with each development pointed out to you, certainly transports you to that dreadful day. It is surprising how small the area was — just the size of five tennis courts. Doug described vividly how the soldiers faced so much, desperately fighting for their lives many miles from home in completely unfamiliar surroundings, against a backdrop of sweltering heat and deadly tropical diseases. He focused on the key figures involved and, with passion, explained the catastrophic blunders and vital twists of fate that occurred. “Think of the sounds here, the screams, the hum of the approaching Zulus, the thud of bullets…” he said. You could not help but become increasingly drawn into this vivid and vicious Jackanory for grown-ups.
There are many lesser-known battlefields to explore, too. Other notable highlights of the area to discover are: Blood River (December 1838), where 468 Boers felled 3000 Zulu warriors, turning the Ncome River red with blood; Ulundi (July 1879), the last decisive battle of the Anglo-Zulu War; and the Anglo-Boer battle of Spioenkop (January 1900), which left 383 British and 58 Boer soldiers dead and many wounded. Rather remarkably, three future leaders took part at Spioenkop: Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi and Louis Botha. This is historical tourism at its best.
• Getting there Air France flies from London Heathrow to Johannesburg daily. From there,
you can fly with Mango Airlines to Durban, which is within easy driving distance of the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields.
• Where to stay The writer was hosted by Fugitives’ Drift (doubles from US$212, full board), which has excellent battlefield tours (at an extra cost), and Ghost Mountain Inn (doubles from US$120), which offers fascinating cultural experiences. Another good alternative is the high-end Isandlwana Lodge (doubles from US$510, full board).
• When to go The climate is temperate and subtropical, with sunshine year round. The province has hot, humid summers from October to April, with mild winters from May to September.
• Health Visit your local GP or travel clinic for any necessary vaccinations. A Yellow Fever Certificate is necessary if you have come from a country where the disease is endemic.
• Further reading Bradt’s South Africa Highlights by Philip Briggs; Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa by Nicki von der Heyde; Lonely Planet’s South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland; The Rough Guide to South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland. You should also visit zulu.org.za.
Beyond the battlefields
KwaZulu-Natal is not just about the history and past wars. There are plenty of other activities to keep you busy after your tours. We outline a few:
1 The coast For a complete contrast, travel up the Elephant Coast of Maputaland to experience wonderful beaches, snorkelling, scuba diving and fishing.
2 Safari Comfortable Ghost Mountain Inn offers game drives and other activities. For a Big 5 wildlife safari, head to Cheetah Ridge in the nearby Nambiti Game Reserve.
3 Culture Ghost Mountain Inn also has cultural tours, including an authentic visit to a local homestead where you can really get to understand what life for the modern-day Zulu is like.
4 Horse riding Pakamisa Lodge offers equestrian safaris in unspoilt wilderness, from beginners to advanced. On my ride we encountered a herd of giraffe, which was truly unforgettable.
5 Bush walks Pakamisa can also arrange adventures on foot, where you can appreciate the little creatures, finding out how termites build their colonies and how dung beetles survive.