Battlefield South Africa

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May 20th 2015
Published: May 29th 2015
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Memorial headstones and cairns now lie on the battlefield, which is backed by Isandlwana Mountain.
Not for the first time, I am starting off another blog entry recalling the state I was in the morning after a heavy night’s drinking. And once again I am telling you that I didn’t actually feel that bad…because I was still drunk.
With a five hour drive ahead of me, I did the sensible thing and had breakfast before waiting a couple of hours to sober up.

What was supposed to be five hours ended up being six-and-a-half, with just one stop for petrol in Melmoth. I generally like making as few stops as possible when I am on the road – I just like to keep going as long as I can to get the journey over with. Also, you forget you’re hungover when you’re too busy concentrating on the road. Keeping yourself busy is often a good hangover cure.
The reason the drive took longer than anticipated was because I had to make a detour to Ladysmith where I was picking up a friend.

Introducing Yannick – an intelligent, happy-go-lucky Dutchman with boyish charms, and instilled with that typical Dutch self-belief. I first met Yannick in Coffee Bay as a man with no plan – and
British SoldierBritish SoldierBritish Soldier

Mannequin of a British soldier at Talana.
who liked the sound of my road trip with the Chevy Spark. I figured that driving around for eleven days by myself might get quite boring so I was happy to have the company and someone to split the costs with. It was this win-win situation that had lead me to a really nice country guesthouse in Ladysmith.

As well as mutual interests, it also turned out that we had a lot of mutual friends – we had met a lot of the same people in various places on our travels including Lewis who I met in Cape Town and hung out with in Knysna, and the two Stephanies I met on the Wild Coast. The South African backpacking trail is a clearly marked one and the group of people following it is small.

Our final destination for the day was Dundee, where we managed to get ourselves a twin room at the Royal Country Inn – a place that felt like a time warp into the 1950s as it looked like not a single thing has changed at the place in over sixty years. Unlike the last backpackers that I stayed at in St Lucia however, everything
Laager WagonsLaager WagonsLaager Wagons

On the actual battle site, there now lies a replica of the Voortrekkers’ wagons in the exact formation they were set up, in anticipation of the Zulu attack.
was clean and nothing was falling apart, as if all the grand old fittings had been preserved.

Our plan to walk around the streets of Dundee however, were scuppered by a phenomenon I had encountered for the first time in St Lucia the previous night – “low setting”.
Basically, electricity in certain areas of the country is turned off completely for a couple of hours to save resources and perform maintenance – or so the government says. A strange rationing of power. This sort of thing would never fly back in New Zealand or Western Europe. It is a scarcely believable inconvenience.
We end up staying in and having dinner in the hotel as all the staff and patrons are telling us it is too dangerous to be walking the streets at night in complete darkness with the power out – Dundee’s main street did look a bit ropey after all.

The reason we were in this rather non-descript town in the middle of South Africa is because it is a handy base from which to visit the various historic Anglo-Boer, Anglo-Zulu and Boer-Zulu battlefields which are all situated in the area around Dundee.
To give the various
Analysing The Battle Of IsandlwanaAnalysing The Battle Of IsandlwanaAnalysing The Battle Of Isandlwana

Using his impressive hand-drawn map on a large piece of cloth, Evan Jones takes us through the Battle of Isandlwana.
memorials and battlefield landscapes some meaning, we enlist the help of licensed battlefield guide Evan Jones, who has been in the business for decades.
I have inherited a little of my father’s interest in war tactics and this was a great way to learn more about the history of this country I have been travelling around for the last month or so.

The first battlefield that we visit the next day, is the site of the Battle Of Blood River.
This was a Boer-Zulu conflict which took place in 1838 and was a revenge attack upon the Zulus by the Boers.
The whole thing started when Voortrekker leader Piet Retief led a diplomatic party to visit the Zulu King Dingaan. Dingaan promptly invited the party for a feast – before having each member of the party rounded up and ceremoniously bludgeoned to death. This was a clear message Voortrekkers that they were not welcome here.
Outraged, the Voortrekkers sought to avenge Retief’s death by sending a laager to a strategic location by the Ncome River. Setting up their wagons in a large circle, the Voortrekkers waited inside for the Zulus to attack, singing hymns and praying to God for
Blood River MonumentBlood River MonumentBlood River Monument

Monument outside the museum where the Voortrekkers slaughtered 3,000 Zulus.
divine intervention.
The Boers were so pumped up and they were absolutely convinced they would win this battle – it turned out that their prayers were answered as 3,000 Zulus were massacred – the river running red with their blood, and hence the river was given another name; Blood River.
Armed with guns and plenty of ammunition in close proximity, the Voortrekkers cut down the Zulus as they approached armed only with their traditional spears. Because of the way the laager was set up, it became an impenetrable fortress – the Zulus could also only approach the laager on one side as there was a river on the other.
With only a dozen or so Boers wounded, the battle has gone down in Afrikaner history.
This was taken advantage of by the apartheid regime as they used the battle as embellished propaganda, the narrative being that Boers were sent by God to claim the land and tame the savages.
On the site itself is a full size replica of the laager on the exact location where the laager stood during the battle. It is an evocative memorial that is still regularly visited by Afrikaners today.

Next up, was the
Zulu Monument At IsandlwanaZulu Monument At IsandlwanaZulu Monument At Isandlwana

Monument celebrating the Zulu’s victory at Isandlwana.
Battle Of Isandlwana, an Anglo-Zulu battle that took place in 1879.
Evan gave us the whole background to the battle before we visited the site.
Basically, the British wanted to capture Zululand from the Zulus to expand their empire and were looking for a reason to start a war that they didn’t really want, what with their resources already stretched by a campaign in Afghanistan.
They got their reason when two female Zulu adulterers fled from Zululand into British territory as refugees – they were tracked by Zulus and murdered for the sins in full view for the British.
Although it was hardly an invasion, the British now had their reason to go to war – a flimsy, pitiful reason (“the savages are a threat!” – sound familiar?) – and an ultimatum was given to the Zulu which included a clause that the Zulu army be disbanded. This was not going to happen and both sides knew it – the Zulu army is not just the army but they are the police and the council labourers. They were integral to the way that the Zulu community functioned.
And so the ultimatum deadline passed and five columns of the British army
Cairn At IsandlwanaCairn At IsandlwanaCairn At Isandlwana

These piles of white stones cover the bones of the British soldiers killed in battle here.
began their advance into Zululand.
One of the columns, led by General Chelmsford decided to set up camp at Isandlwana, despite protestations about the strategic weakness of the site.
The Zulus then cleverly set up fires in the hills in the distance leading Chelmsford to assume there was an army over there and he promptly fell for the decoy, dividing his column and taking a whole lot of men over there to engage in battle.
The Zulus couldn’t believe their luck and approached the British camp in their famous buffalo horn formation, which surrounded their enemy on all sides.
The British were annihilated and the battle for them was a catastrophe. They lost almost 1,300 out of their 1,774 men against a force of 20,500 Zulu warriors.
Being heavily outnumbered, the British needed to be super-organised to stand any chance and organised they were not – quite the opposite, in fact.
A big contributor to their downfall was the rationing of ammunition – it was a valuable resource so every bullet had to be accounted for. Firstly, there was a mile between the ammunition supply and the front line; secondly, there were queues forming at the quartermaster’s tent as ammunition
British Headstone At IsandlwanaBritish Headstone At IsandlwanaBritish Headstone At Isandlwana

At such a vast and peaceful site, it is hard to imagine carnage that occurred here 175 years ago.
could not be given out with a signed requisition; thirdly, the ammunition boxes were designed to be difficult to be opened and they could not be opened quick enough; lastly, soldiers were running through long grass and would often trip up on rocks in the ground – spilling their freshly acquired ammunition into the grass, making them impossible to find again in the heat of battle.
The terrain was another factor – soldiers trying to retreat could only follow one route which involved steep hills, thick mud and crossing a raging torrent of a river. Most of the men in fact, were killed on their retreat.
So there was problem after problem which all compounded upon each other to end in disaster for the British. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the problem that got the ball rolling was arrogance. The Zulus had sent out scouts and spies to track the British position – the British never bothered. They thought that their guns versus the Zulu spears and their past military successes would be enough – it wasn’t.
As for the battlefield itself, Isandlwana is perhaps the most aesthetically rendered, with its whitewashed cairns and graves set to the iconic background of Isandlwana Mountain
Rorke’s DriftRorke’s DriftRorke’s Drift

The rather non-descript battle site at Rorke’s Drift. The area defended by the British is marked by the stone lines on the ground which only extend as far as the end of the main building in the picture.
and barren, browned land. The cairns were once piled from the bones found on the battlefield and are painted white to reflect this.

The last battlefield that we visited is arguably the most famous – Rorke’s Drift. This was the battle depicted in the 1964 film “Zulu”, which launched Michael Caine to stardom.
The Battle Of Rorke’s Drift took place just hours after The Battle Of Isandlwana.
Rorke’s Drift (named after the Irish founder of the farm; a “drift” is a narrow, shallow point in a river that allows it to be crossed) was an old farm that was taken over by the British to be used as a base and an ammunition supply store and was where most of the British fugitives from Isandlwana were trying to retreat to – but the Zulus knew this and cut off their path, and sent a force of between 4000-4500 soldiers to take Rorke’s Drift.
Upon hearing about the events at Isandlwana, the 105 able-bodied men at Rorke’s Drift then fortified their base with “mealie sacks” – sacks of grain – and unlike at Isandlwana, ensured that they had all their ammo to hand. One of the major pieces of luck
The LaagerThe LaagerThe Laager

It is said that mist descended on the laager at Blood River at the same time fire was going within it, while the Voortrekkers sang their Christian hymns. Apparently this ethereal combination spooked the Zulus out of their first attack in the middle of the night.
the British received here was the fact that they were defending an ammunition supply store, so they had everything they needed to defend the base. Another was the fact that the Zulus had to climb up a small escarpment only to be confronted by a wall of mealie sacks with British soldiers atop it – it made it easy for the British to pick off the Zulus. Also, the defenders all moved themselves out of sight of the Zulu musket positions on the rocks above the farm – and finally, the Zulus never thought to pierce the mealie sacks which would have collapsed the wall and allowed them to overrun the British.
The most heartwarming stories of individual heroism from Rorke’s Drift were the stories of soldiers dragging patients from the on-site hospital to safety while the hospital was under attack and set fire to by the Zulus. A few of the Victoria Crosses – the highest medal of honour that can be awarded in the British military – were awarded to these soldiers. In total, 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded at Rorke’s Drift – the most ever awarded to a single regiment at the same time – and the
The VowThe VowThe Vow

The vow made by the Voortrekkers before the attack by the Zulus began at Blood River.
story of how 105 British men held off 4000-4500 Zulus for 12 hours has been enshrined in British military history.
The battlefield at Rorke’s Drift itself is pretty non-descript – it is now basically a group of farm buildings (which includes the Rorke’s Drift Museum) and you would never know that this was the site of one of the most famous battles in British military folklore. The size of the patch that the British defended was also quite astonishing – the whole area would not have been more than 400 square metres. Much like Blood River, the Zulus met their downfall after attacking a heavily fortified enclosed space – which ironically, their king warned them against when they set out to attack the British.

It was a lot of information to take in, but the fact that I have managed to retain most of it can be put down to Evan Jones who was an excellent storyteller. He knew so much detail about each battle – all the dates and times of events, and all of the individual protagonists. His hand-drawn map of Isandlwana was impressive as was the way he pointed out key events on the actual battlefield
Talana HillTalana HillTalana Hill

The Boers gathered at the top of this hill and fired shells into Dundee to start the Battle of Talana.
sites themselves. Anyone visiting these sites without a guide would just see a whole lot memorials, buildings and vast stretches of land – with Evan at our side, he brought the battlefields to life.
I was exhausted from the day and the information overload – but also from the bumpiest gravel roads I have ever driven on. It was all low gear driving and it required large amounts of concentration just to avoid a big rock ripping out the bottom of the car.

After another night holed in at the hotel thanks to another scheduled power cut, we visited the Talana battlefield the next day, where the first battle of the second Anglo-Boer war took place in 1899. Boer forces came down from their territory in the Free State and gathered on Talana Hill to attack Dundee, but the British managed to chase them off.
Other important battles in the Anglo-Boer war include Elandsgaate, the siege of Ladysmith and Spioenkop – where a lot of the British killed there were from Lancashire. Football fans may be interested to learn that as a result, the famous “Kop” end of Anfield – home of Liverpool FC – was named as such
Talana Heritage ParkTalana Heritage ParkTalana Heritage Park

This complex has a museum dedicated to the Battle of Talana as well as WWI, the Anglo-Boer Wat, the Anglo-Zulu War and Mahatma Gandhi, who was imprisoned just down the road in Dundee while he was in South Africa.
after Spioenkop. Nope, I didn’t know that either.
The on-site museum not only details the Battle Of Talana, but also the entire Boer War and South Africa’s role in World War I. An interesting fact about each war; about 6,000 New Zealand soldiers fought alongside the British against the Boers; South African minister Jans Smuts is the only man to have signed both peace declarations for both WWI and WWII.
I was also interested to learn that WWI actually spread to Southern Africa and that there were skirmishes in German South West Africa (what is now Namibia) and German East Africa (modern day Tanzania).
Also at Talana are a museum and a memorial statue dedicated to one Mahatma Gandhi. I was surprised to learn that Gandhi was a stretcher bearer here in South Africa during the Boer War and that he served at Spioenkop. He subsequently came back to South Africa to fight for the rights of “indentured Indians” – Indians who came to South Africa to work as servants and to perform other menial work. It was the work he did here that paved the way for his more famous exploits back in India.
As detailed as all the
Graves At TalanaGraves At TalanaGraves At Talana

Memorials for those who died in the Battle Of Talana.
information was at Talana, although we got the gist of everything we were seeing, it wasn’t nearly as colourful or as detailed as what we had gone through with Evan.

Anyway, it is time to swap epic history for epic scenery as Yannick and I make our way to Clarens & The Drakensberg.


Additional photos below
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Memorial Tree At IsandlwanaMemorial Tree At Isandlwana
Memorial Tree At Isandlwana

The Zulus use thorn branches to ensure a person’s spirit joins their ancestors upon death – this thorn tree is planted at Isandlwana for all the Zulus who died here during battle.

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