As I scrambled up the steep, well-manicured lawn below Rorke’s Drift I could almost see Michael Caine’s head popping up over a parapet. The setting for the classic movie ‘Zulu’ couldn’t be more evocative.
The old farmhouse still stands. The roof is no longer thatched and the building has doubled in size, but it’s the actual farmhouse – replete with a fascinating, if quaintly old-fashioned museum, displaying mementoes of that memorable bloody day when around a hundred highly disciplined red coated British soldiers – most of them Welshmen – held off four thousand brave spear wielding Zulu warriors whose fellow tribesmen had only that morning slaughtered a far bigger British force below the nearby mountain known as Isandlewana.
More Victoria Crosses were won that January 22, 1879, than in any other battle in the British Army’s history.
In recent years, battlefield tourism has become a fast growing sector of the global travel industry but while sites of the American Civil War and World Wars One and Two are now well trodden, those of South Africa are yet to be widely discovered.
Yet they are to be found in abundance, especially across KwaZulu Province. The rolling hills and grasslands of this beautiful country were fought over by British and Boers, Zulus and the other tribes for at least 200 years before the release of Nelson Mandela and the birth of ‘The Rainbow Nation’ at last allowed peace to descend.
Battlefield names like Blood River, Cashways, Colenso, Ladysmith and Spioen Kop resound across history
It’s a long drive from the surfing paradise of Durban – up through the sparsely populated farmlands, bypassing the siege town of Ladysmith on the way, to reach the welcoming eponymously named lodge at Rorke’s Drift (034 642 1805, rorkesdriftlodge.com), the last 10 miles or so over a deeply rutted dirt road, along which witty signs advise against venturing there with a Ferrari, not that anyone would be so crazy!
My deeply knowledgeable local guide, Thulani, brought the Zulu Wars era back to life with his store of tales of daring-do. At Isandlewana, we followed the riverbank to the spot were the Queen’s colours were lost, then scrambled up the scrubby hillside to where the brave lieutenants Melville and Cogill met their gruesome end at the points of assegai spears.
Some 1,200 British troops perished that day in a disaster that was a near mirror image of Colonel Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn, just three years earlier. Today, the lonely hillside is peppered with memorials and white painted rocks that mark the spots were soldiers, British and Zulu alike, fell.
Nearby is the site of Blood River, where Boer voortrekkers, seeking to escape the control of the British authorities at the Cape in order to forge a homeland of their own, had decades earlier slaughtered a whole Zulu army.
The Zulu nation had been created by the great King Shaka who, between coronation in 1816 and assassination just 12 years later, rampaged across present-day KwaZulu-Natal, crushing other tribes with his brilliant tactics of warfare.
The Eastern Cape, where nine wars raged over a 100 year period through the 1800s, has the richest legacy, as I discovered courtesy of the highly enthusiastic and deeply knowledgeable Ron Prentis, owner and chief guide of Edgeworld Tours (073 346 3289, edgeworldtours.co.za) who spent a day with me, visiting various battlefield sites dotted across truly spectacular scenery. The highlight was gazing down from lofty Fort Selwyn as Ron vividly explained to me the little known but key Battle of Grahamstown and the ever-shifting alliances between the various protagonists – black and white.
Crossing the lofty Ecca Pass, we explored the scene of the Fish River Battles before arriving at sleepy Fort Beaufort and inspecting the unique Martello Tower there. Our morning ended with a sumptuous buffet lunch at the Katberg Hotel (027 40 608 1005, katleisure.co.za), a luxurious golf and spa resort set grandly amid low mountains, right in the middle of nowhere.
Like the Aussies, South Africans are addicted to barbeques, as I found next night at the comfortable Areena Riverside Resort (043 734 30555, arena.co.za), a collection of wooden chalets delightfully situated next to a slow flowing river.
An industrial city, East London is not much to look at but it is the key to the Buffalo City region, which boasts such attractions as the Nahoon Nature Reserve and the superb Inkwenkwesi Private Game Reserve, with its elephants and near-tame ostriches.
I loved Port Elizabeth, with its wealth of exuberant colonial era architecture, including the traditionally styled Kelway Hotel (042 584 0638, thekelway.co.za), and sweeping bay. It was there that I got the chance to visit a township and a shabeen drinking den, where a newly formed but immensely talented song and dance troupe entertained me before I set off for a more sobering visit to the new Red Location Museum – named after the long-established township in which it is situated and which brilliantly but chillingly tells the story of the apartheid era and the lives of those who fought, and in some cases died, for freedom.
Right now, Durban’s attractions naturally centre on the World Cup legacy. The city’s Moses Mabhida Stadium is a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, featuring a towering 196-metre high central arch, which can be climbed either by a 550-step skywalk or aboard a world’s first SkyCar cable car, for amazing views across the city.
Joburg, Kruger National Park, Cape Town, the Winelands, the Garden Route and sa fari tours are now well established on the UK tourist’s radar. Now the time is right for KwaZuku Natal and the battlefields to come to the forefront.