Published: October 1st 2007May 26th 2007
The Battle of Isandlwana
Evan Jones put on an amazing tour of the Zulu battlefields.
There we stood on the side of a dusty, dirt road in the warm early morning sun. We were surrounded by a band of proud Zulu warriors to be and we all stood there and listened in awe as our phenomenal guide, Evan Jones, told us a tale so fantastic and surreal that it seemed to be a masterpiece of fiction, one worthy of the highest praise, yet every word was true!
The story started with peace and harmony, like most stories do. The land was divided: on one side of the river were several colonies from Europe living in small settlements, on the other side of the river was the vast Zulu Kingdom, a formidable foe with one of the most powerful armies on the continent, an army that had swept across the land in the glory days under the rule of Shaka Zulu. They had superior weapons and unbeatable battlefield tactics, so army after army fell in their wake and tribe after tribe became a part of the ever expanding Zulu Kingdom. There was a colonist that went by the name of Rorke who lived on the bank of the Buffalo River, which was the dividing line between
colonial land and the Zulu Kingdom, at a shallow drift. The drift was the only place on the whole river that could be crossed with wagons. Rorke managed to make peace with the Zulus and they had a profitable trade agreement going. Even after Rorke died the peace remained for a while, but eventually a general named Chelmsford, who was bent on uniting the colonies under the British Empire and adding Zululand to his vast control, led an excursion across the river to deliver an ultimatum. The Zulu King didn't agree and the Zulu army was awakened from its long sleep - I am leaving out some details, of course.
At about this point in the story Mr Jones paused and described the Zulu weaponry and tactics and compared them to the weapons of the British Colonial army - This was clearly the young Zulu children's favorite part of the talk and it added a level of realism to the story for me. We were told how in the early days of tribal warfare the combatants would be in opposing lines on the battlefields and they would throw their spears back and forth, thus relinquishing their weapons to their
The Battle of Isandlwana (3)
The Zulu memorial at Isandlwana. The Zulus crushed the British army here.
enemy in hopes that they would be returned. Shaka Zulu saw the folly of this type of fighting and told his blacksmiths to melt down several of the throwing spears and reforge them into one large bladed spear. Thus was born the assegais, the famous Zulu stabbing spear, which was used much like a sword instead of as a projectile. He also increased the size of the ox-hide shields and changed their battle tactics. The famous 'horns of the buffalo' became the Zulus' secret weapon and it seemed unbeatable - Basically, the main Zulu front line made up the body of the 'buffalo' and the two 'horns' ran from the front lines in either direction with aims on flanking and encircling their enemy, thus trapping them. Behind the front line came the reserves of the Zulu army and they weren't even facing the battle, which was supposed to prevent the horrors of the fighting from seeping into their minds and dampening their spirits before it was time for them to fight. By the time their enemy knew what was happening it was all over. The last piece of Zulu weaponry was a heavy mace-like club, which was used mainly as
The Battle of Isandlwana (4)
In the grave yard. The white carins are graves and mark the places that people fell.
a means of 'mercy' if the assegui didn't do its job entirely! In contrast to the Zulus' 'primitive' weaponry, as the British undoubtedly felt, the colonial army had muskets with bayonets, cannon and rockets (and, of course, the backing of the most powerful military in the world at the time.) In their eyes, to pacify the savage Zulu army would be a simple task - Their arrogance prevented them from fortifying their camp as Isandlwana, which could have changed the outcome of the battle!
As we passed very fine examples of the Zulu weapons back and forth amongst ourselves our guide continued his amazing story: The date was January 22, 1879. The Zulu scouts had secretly learned everything they needed to know about their enemy and they had gathered near by in a hidden valley, an army 40,000 strong, and they waited for the right moment to present itself. The British scouts had also been busy. They had brought back reports of a 'huge' Zulu army rapidly moving to the south away from the encampment, as if retreating - They had seen only what the Zulus wanted them to see and it had the desired effect! The greedy general
The Battle of Isandlwana (5)
In the grave yard. The white carins are graves and mark the places that people fell.
wanted a quick and decisive end to the Zulu army so he set off after the retreating Zulus with a large part of his army, leaving the camp's defense under the command of one of his officers.
Our dusty vantage point was at the base of Isandlwana Hill, which rose up in front of us in a gradual slope of tall grass. The hill was capped with two rock promontories, one larger than the other and shaped like a sphinx, with a gently sloping saddle between the two. From where we stood the only things that broke the continuous surface of the grassy slopes were a few marble monuments and white piles of rocks, which gleamed in the sun, and a few picturesque trees, but in our minds we could see row after row of orderly, white tents, rows of arrogant, inattentive soldiers and several civilian spectators hoping for a good show. We watched in awe as the Zulu warriors marched past us in the horns of the buffalo formation, still concealed in the tall grass, and surrounded the doomed army. By the time the British army could see their foe it was too late - We sat there
This is Rourke's Drift, one of the only places waggons could cross the river into Zulu Land.
and watched as wave after wave of ebony skinned warriors swept in from every direction and consumed the entire colonial army and all of the spectators at Isandlwana - A few people managed to escape, but not many! The general returned from his fruitless campaign to discover that he had already lost at the first battle of the war!
We learned about the battle while standing among the Zulus (literally), but it was time to experience the battle from the battlefield and from the point of view that we would have actually seen it from were we there on that fateful day. We said farewell to the proud Zulu children who had flowed out of their small school house and surrounded us with their own 'horns of the buffalo' maneuver and then we drove to the museum. There we saw several nice exhibits and some weapons that were actually used in the battle, but our guide was so good that it was difficult to learn any more from the displays. We left the museum and headed down the road a little further to the battlefield, stopping first just inside the lovely ornamental gate to see the fine memorial to
The Museum at Rourke's Drift
The hospital burned down in the battle, but the museum building is a replica of it. This is where a small group of British fighters held off a massive force of Zulus and eventually won.
the brave Zulu warrior, which took the form of a giant, bronze bravery necklace like the ones worn by exemplary warriors. We then stopped near the saddle and examined the white piles of stone, which turned out to be grave markers. We stood near the large monuments to the colonial army and we looked back down the hill towards the tiny white school house that we had been parked near. We had seen the battle through the eyes of the victor and it was and exhilarating experience, but now our minds were filled with terror as we watched the previously unseen army explode out of the tall grass all around us and sweep in...
It is easy to pick apart the battle of Isandlwana, with the help of hindsight, and count the mistakes made by the colonial army. The fact of the matter is that no modern army at that time would likely have fared better, because none of them had ever faced an army like that of the Zulus! As fate would have it the Zulu army was, in the end, defeated and they were absorbed into the British Empire, but their overwhelming victory at Isandlwana is, to
The Zulu Memorial at Rourke's Drift
This is one of the most beautiful memorials I have ever seen. Many Zulus lost their lives here and the battle wasn't even supposed to happen.
this day, a source of pride that is very evident everywhere you look in Zululand - The proud Zulu people, while still poor, have managed to retain their identity even through the difficult apartheid years! Isandlwana also stands as the worst defeat of the British Military at the hands of a native force!
We said farewell to Isandlwana and we headed across the river to Rorke's Drift, a place of intense pride to the British, especially to the Welsh, as my friend Alan clearly portrayed. We sat in the shade of a small tree and we ate lunch and we learned about the famous battle of Rorke's Drift. The drift, while a very strategic river crossing, was nothing more than a small hospital and a few other small buildings. There was a British regiment, made up mostly of Welshmen, stationed there who had been charged with guarding the drift. Word of the battle at Isandlwana made it back to Rorke's Drift thanks to an engineer who had left just before the battle started and managed to escape (engineers always save the day!) Sounds of the fighting drifted over the mountains and confirmed his story. In a huge push, the
Under the African Sky
We stayed on a nature reserve in Swaziland and we had a braai under the stars.
people at the drift managed to fortify the hospital and store house using an ingenious wall of grain sacks and biscuit boxes - They were as ready as they could be!
The Zulu King had not approved the excursion across the river, but a large band of Zulu warriors, mostly made up of the reserves who did not participate in the battle at Isandlwana and wanted their own glory, decided to attack the British position, so they headed across the Buffalo River - One humorous anecdote that our guide told us regarding possible reasons for the unapproved attack was that in Zulu society a warrior was not allowed to take a wife until he had decorated his assegai with blood and, since the Zulu Kingdom had experienced a long period of peace, there were lots of aging, but unmarried warriors in its ranks!
The fighting was fierce, but the fortifications held, giving the defenders the upper hand and they laid waste to the Zulu warriors. Eventually the Zulus burned the hospital and gained access to the inside of the fort in that way - Some of the fiercest fighting was said to have taken place in the hospital!
Traditional Swazi Dancing
This was a very touristy show that was put on for us in Swaziland.
Some of the patients in the hospital managed to escape with their lives to the trees around the fort where they rode out the rest of the battle unnoticed by the warriors swarming all around them, but the rest of the surviving defenders pulled back to a hastily built wall of biscuit boxes that sectioned off one end of the inside of the fort and there they prepared for their last stand. They fought valiantly, so the story goes, and, just when all hope seemed lost, the Zulu warriors called off the attack and disappeared - The soldiers and patients had managed to hold the drift against overwhelming odds and several survived with their lives! The Zulu losses were huge and an important oversight, it seems, played a huge part in their defeat - All of the Zulu warriors were carrying razor sharp assegais and all of the main walls were made up of grain bags, so all they would have had to do was slice the lower bags open on the outside and the walls would have fallen and, with their superior numbers, the Zulus could have easily overwhelmed the defenders regardless of how nobly they fought! Hindsight again
This guy challenged us on our morning walk. We won.
None of the original buildings have survived at Rorke's Drift, but a museum has been built on the site of the old hospital building, which maintains the original floor plan. Several excellent exhibits inside, including some nicely made dioramas and several archaeological finds from the site, are one display and they help to form a good mental image of what happened there so long ago. Outside of the museum in the grassy yard, the outline of the grain-bag fortification walls has been reconstructed in stone. The whole site is now a sort of grassy park with lots of trees and a few monuments. The Zulu monument is one of the loveliest and most moving I have seen - It is a haphazard, yet graceful mound of life-sized Zulu shields in bronze with a bronze leopard laying on top! My friend paused to unfurl his Welsh flag in the British memorial cemetery (the same Welsh flag that was flying above the bark Europa when we sailed into Capetown) and then we said farewell to Rorke's Drift. I am normally opposed to tours, in fact, I despise them, but the tour that Evan Jones gave was a true pleasure.
He captivated us with excellent props and unfailing enthusiasm and he clearly knew his stuff - I never thought I would say it, but his tour stands as one of the highlights of my time in South Africa!
By the time we had made it to the heart of Zululand and learned of the Zulu war we had covered a lot of ground. It was late in the day when we had left Lesotho and we pushed Val, our small white car, to her limits and arrived in Sani Pass on the same evening. We had intended on spending some time exploring Sani Pass, but it was overcast when we woke up the next morning and we decided to just push on to Durban - Our mountain experience in Lesotho would have been difficult to beat anyway! I am normally happy when I visit a fortified city, but Durban's fortifications are modern creations built in the name of fear and segregation! It seemed like every home was surrounded by imposing walls and electrified razor wire. As we walked along the pleasant, but deserted sidewalks, we were continuously reminded of the vicious, man-eating beasts that lurked on the other side
This gal walked up to see what was happening during breakfast at the lodge.
of these massive walls! All of the security made me wonder if there was really a problem, but I never noticed any dangers other than the luxury cars that sped the people from their fortresses to where ever it was that they were going and back again - I suppose it is easier to hide from your neighbor than to get to know them, but I do pity the people who keep themselves locked up inside their fortresses! I had two goals for my time in Durban. The first was to get my blog caught up, which I sadly failed at because of some strange Internet hours. The second was to eat some good Indian food, which Durban is known for, and I succeeded marvelously on that point! When we left Durban we drove straight for Dundee in the heart of Zululand and that is where we crossed paths with Evan Jones.
Our road from the battlefields took us through the heart of the Zulu tribal lands and it was an impressive drive - They really do seem to have their act together there! After a few entertaining detours on roads more suitable for a Hum-vee and a brief
It was a bit cold in the morning when we set off to walk through the reserve.
altercation with a speed camera, we turned off of the main road and headed into Saint Lucia Wetlands Park - That is where we saw our first giraffe! Our destination was Sodwana Bay on the lovely Indian Ocean coast of South Africa. We found a few tents at the Sodwana Bay Dive resort and we settled in for three days of SCUBA diving and relaxation and what a pleasant time it was. The resort itself was nestled in a sandy, forested area. There was a nice common area with a restaurant and pool and there was a humorous band of thieving vervet monkeys to keep us entertained. When we weren't diving we spent our time relaxing, which was much needed after weeks of touring around South Africa. The diving itself was not all that spectacular, mainly due to the poor, surgy conditions and the low visibility, but it was still enjoyable. The coral reef was in great shape and, while there weren't a lot of fish, there was a lot of different species to watch. In the four dives we did we saw a few white tipped reef sharks, a small, but friendly turtle, several HUGE honeycomb Morey ells and
Miliwane Wildlife Sanctuary
I liked Miliwane because we were allowed to walk through the reserve.
an amazing number of beautiful tropical fish. We also know, from another group, that there was a small tiger shark on the reef with us, but we didn't see it! For me, one of the best parts of the diving was the wild ride from the beach to the reef - The conditions, as I said, were bad, due to huge waves rolling in from the south. These waves hit the beach at an angle, which meant that we had to quickly push the zodiacs out and get moving. We would jump the waves and force our way through as best as we could. The screaming motor and the jarring crash every time we landed, coupled with the full speed, sweeping turns and the warm salt spray in our faces added an element of adventure to the outing so that we were excited before we even made it to the dive site! Going back in to the beach was even better, because we had all of the same maneuvering as the ride out with the addition of a full speed drive up onto the beach at the end - The driver said, "Hold on!", and then he put the throttle
The Hippo Pond
They were there, but very difficult to see.
to its stops and raced the white-horse breakers to the beach and then we skidded to a stop in the sand - What a wild ride! These dives also served as my first time swimming in the Indian Ocean - Now I just have to swim in the Arctic Ocean and I will have been in the seven seas!
It would have been nice to spend a few more days at Sodwana Bay, but we were on a tight schedule. We had three days to make it to the north part of Kruger Park and it was about three days worth of driving to do so. We did our last dive on the morning of our last day and then we packed up the car and hit the road. We did some souvenir shopping at Ilala Weavers, where I found a nicely made Zulu Spear (not the cheap touristy stuff) - The Spear would later prove to be the source of a not so enjoyable border crossing, but it was what I was looking for so I bought it! Our road then turned towards the north and the border with Swaziland. Admittedly, we didn't have enough time to
Another view of the hippo pond.
get to know Swaziland and from the looks of it I would have liked to do so. We ended up stopping for the night at Mlilwane Game Reserve in the heart of Swaziland and what an amazing place it was! We spent our evening eating dinner around the bonfire under the African sky! There were no fences separating the animals from us (there were no big predators either), which was a lot of fun! The following morning we did a long walk through the park amongst the animals - There were zebras, wildebeests, kudu, impala, warthogs and some really noisy hippos. It was a lot of fun walking through the wilderness amongst them and it was a thrill that we would not be able to repeat in Kruger, so I am glad we stopped.
From Swaziland we headed back into South Africa and stopped for the night at Blyde River Canyon - I didn't see the canyon, which may have been a major oversight looking at pictures of the place, but I had my mind pointed towards Kruger Park and the wilds of Africa!
There are more photos below