“A striking and remarkable mount is Isandlwana; not another hill around is there in the least like it." Bertrand Mitford, traveler and author.
I don’t like crowds as a rule, but in the scorching heat of a late March day in the hills of KwaZulu Natal I find myself totally surrounded by thousands of people. Dead people. I can’t seem to turn without tripping over another dead or dying, eviscerated, dismembered body. We are standing on the site of the Battle of Isandlwana and the tortured, terrorized screams and death rattles of British soldiers are ear-shattering. The scarlet of their jackets almost seamlessly combine with their bright red blood seeping deep into the dry African soil - probably resulting in the tree under which we sit amid the memory of this massacre almost 140 years later.
"I can hear the cries when I do tours here at night in the moonlight. I never see them. I only hear them..." So replied our historian guide many years ago when I visited this fascinating place for the first time.
The stuff of legends
The drama that unfolded here on the 22nd of January 1879 in the undulating hills of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa is the stuff of epic, salient legend. It’s the stuff that follows its victims and victors generations into the future as descendants, of those branded cowards on a single day over a hundred years ago, still grapple with feelings of shame. Such as the descendants of Lord Chelmsford who lead the regiment. He extended his line of march in enemy country, split his forces and failed to co-ordinate them in the slightest degree.
This Battle of Islandwana occupies the embarrassing number 5 spot on the list of top 10 all-time British military blunders according to a website called List Verse (http://listverse.com/2014/03/04/10-of-the-most-embarrassing-british-military-blunders/)
"For chasing glory at the expense of his command and ignoring several warnings about the danger to the Isandlwana camp, Chelmsford received multiple honors and a promotion." states the website.
A certain young man by the name of Douglas Rattray doesn’t necessarily agree. "He made mistakes, definitely," he says as we sit, enraptured by his compelling rendition of this fateful day, in camp chairs under a sliver of shade on this hot day at the foot of Islandwana. "There were many factors and faults that culminated in these ultimate events, so to say Chelmsford alone is to blame is not accurate or fair."
It was the greatest defeat suffered by the British Army during the Victorian era. A Zulu force of approximately 24,000 warriors had moved undetected to within striking distance of the British camp in the shadow of Isandlwana Mountain. From the start the 1,700 defenders underestimated the danger descending upon them. They were swept aside with horrifying speed and the final stage of the battle consisted of desperate hand-to-hand combat amid the British camp. Over 1,300 men were killed; scarcely 60 Imperial soldiers survived. 24,000 pairs of eyes, pupils blackened with murderous rage, hypnotized by their own war cries and thirst for revenge... 24,000 Zulus went berserk on this day.
Of course, exact figures differ but the figures of the amount of people involved in this battle are as accurate as I could ascertain.
Fugitive’s drift lodge
It is a tad surreal being here again after all these years, but this time my experience is quite different. For a start, we are staying at the beautiful and characterful Fugitive’s Drift Lodge owned by the Rattray family. David Rattray is considered a legend and his untimely death a few years ago spurred on his luminary persona even more. Apparently he could tell a story like no other. People would listen in wonder as he weaved a yarn, a talented great. A true raconteur he was and people would come from far and wide to listen in mesmerized silence to his tales of Africa, especially to the story of this battle. The spectacular Fugitives’ Drift property, a 5,000-acre Natural Heritage Site, overlooks both Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. It is located in the heart of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa and it was here that David and Nicky Rattray pioneered Heritage Tourism in South Africa and created an award winning lodge for visitors to savor this extraordinary saga.
Our reception upon arrival the previous day could not have been more welcoming. Fugitive’s Drift Lodge has a reputation for unparalleled hospitality and this I can attest to.
|Dining at Fugitive's Drift Lodge (Photos by Willie Smit )
Relaxed and friendly reservations manager Shane showed us to our chalets. Fugitives’ Drift boasts two ‘camps:’ The Lodge and The Guest House. Both offer a high standard of fully catered, en-suite accommodation and are 600 meters apart. There is also more basic self-catering accommodation at Umzinyathi House which is 2 km from The Lodge. All guests, whether staying at the Lodge, the Guest House, Umzinyathi House or KwaGeorge, experience the same tours with the same guide. Our lodgings at the Lodge are quite gorgeous. Consisting of a huge en-suite bungalow with massive double bed and all modern amenities, the rooms have such character about them, without compromising on luxury. Lovely touches like a walking stick, heated towel rail, umbrella, ice cold water and robes has that paying-attention-to-detail quality.
Each boasts a veranda with a beautiful view of the valley below. The lodge is still a lodge as well and boasts wildlife like giraffe (outside the reserve), zebra and a variety of antelope apart from a great variety of birds. The undulating landscape is dotted with little traditional Zulu villages where people live traditional lives as they have done for hundreds of years.
We were in time for a delicious lunch at the dining room perched high up, overlooking Isandlwana Mountain in the distance and the Buffalo River Gorge below us. The view is simply spectacular.
This is also where we first meet Grace, a staff member I will probably remember for the rest of my life. Ne’er have I had the pleasure to meet someone so kind, generous, considerate and observant. If I could, I would have kidnapped her and I suspect many guests feel the same way. A remarkable thing here is that all staff remember and greet guests by name - very special. We also met the busy and vivacious Nicky Rattray who welcomed us warmly.
We were invited on an afternoon hike to the site where Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill lost their lives attempting to save the Queen’s Colour of their regiment, but we politely declined in favor of savoring the lush property with its beautiful gardens and stunning swimming pool. There are little cobble footpaths, alcoves and benches here and there, almost like a fairy garden.
Guests gather for drinks around the fire at sunset before dinner is served, which is an occasion here. All guests are seated at one massive table (unless you ask to be seated separately in which case they will gladly oblige) and the atmosphere is that of joviality and fun. To say nothing of the delicious food! Mushroom roulade was followed by beef phyllo parcels and finished off with chocolate brownie cheesecake. My photographer stared at me with utter incredulity as I finished this latter thing off - me, not at all fond of anything sweet... Animated conversation flowed seamlessly between people who were minutes before strangers and we laughed and exchanged stories late into the evening. A soft wake-up knock at the door at 6:30 the next morning from Grace - with wonderful freshly brewed coffee - announces the beginning of an extraordinary day.
Doug introduces himself to us after breakfast as our guide and his effusive and disarming nature is certainly accredit to his family and the Lodge. "We will go and see where the Zulus and Brits smashed seven shades of daylights out of each other," he says, to the mirth of everyone. I guess a joke now is not too soon...
We are with elderly British guests en-route to the actual battle fields and Doug explains that during the journey we will hear a recording of his famous father’s voice in dulcet tones providing the background and events running up to the Battle of Isandlwana. The recording begins as an introduction to "the day of the dead" and a cold shiver runs down my spine despite the heat.
Echoes of battle
Doug tells us that Zulu means "heaven" and when Shaka Zulu became the leader of the Zulus he trained them in military tactics and strategies still taught at prestigious military colleges all around the world.
He relays the history of the Zulus and Boers in South Africa faultlessly and in vivid and remarkable detail.
We eventually get to where the white kerns under the shadow of Isandlwana litter the land and can be seen for miles. This is where the story finds us now. He stands before us under the shade like a RADA trained actor, animatedly and in detail telling the story of the battle. From the previous two days until the fatal attack by the Zulus, catching the British regiment totally unawares. His version of events is spell-binding, taking us back to those moments almost as if we were there. Also - and this is very important - it is as unbiased and objectively told as possible as he takes unobtrusive pains not to take sides in this brutal tale.
He also evokes a lot of emotion in the British tourists. Understandably I suppose.
Back at the lodge we have a lovely lunch of lasagne and spend the afternoon reading, enveloped in the silence as the sun casts the hills in a soft golden hue towards evening.
The afternoon tour consists of a tour to Rorke’s Drift where the remaining regiment managed to hold off thousands Zulu warriors and for that eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded.
I cannot possibly tell you the whole history of that day here. For that you have to go to Fugitive’s Drift. Oh, and what an experience awaits you!
Fugitives Drift Lodge is located about 500 km from Johannesburg via N3 and R34. The easiest is to get their by car and it helps if you have an off-road vehicle although not essential.