No other place seems to have played as pivotal a role in the history of South Africa as that of KwaZulu-Natal. Specifically, the battlefields region around Dundee. All three powers of the early South Africa met here – the Boer and Zulu in the 1830s, British and Zulu during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, and British and Boer during the late 1800s/early 1900s. This area formed the meeting point between three nations’ territories – British Natal, Boer Transvaal and Zululand, home to the powerful Zulu nation.
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The battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal
Bevan and I have been interested in the early history of South Africa for quite some time. When we saw our route would lead us straight into the heart of the KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields region we couldn’t resist a stop. We were given the opportunity to join the Fugitives’ Drift Lodge for tours of the Anglo-Zulu battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.
Without going into too much history, these were the first battles of the British invasion of Zululand in January 1879. The British campaign ultimately led to the destruction of the Zulu royal kraal at Ulundi and the dismantling of the mighty Zulu nation, but the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift will never be forgotten.
The Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift
The Battle of Isandlwana represents Imperial Britain’s biggest defeat by a native army. It was a battle that the British with their superior fire-power should easily have won, and I think well into the heat of battle still believed that they would. Nevertheless, the entire camp was destroyed by the Zulu warriors and none left in it survived. Later that same day, a small group of some 150 British soldiers were to defend the mission station at Rorke’s Drift against between 3000-4000 Zulu warriors in a battle that raged almost throughout the night. Given the small number of men fighting, the highest number of Victoria Crosses were awarded to British soldiers during the battle at Rorke’s Drift for gallantry in the face of the enemy than in any other battle.
These battles are the stuff of military legend. More than the history however, what stands out are the stories of individual acts of courage and bravery in the face of death from men on both sides. You cannot help but be moved to hear tales of men like Mkhosana kaMvundlana of the Biyela Clan who rallied the Zulu impi when they were withering under British rifle fire, or Colonel Anthony Durnford who stood with his men, fighting to the end. Take a walk through the hospital building at the site of the battle of Rorke’s Drift and think about Private John Williams (VC) who dug through dividing walls with his bare hands to save himself, eleven hospital patients and other defending soldiers from the pursuing Zulu.
The experience of a guided tour through these two battlefields is one that I don’t think Bevan or I will ever forget. Today, the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift remain largely unchanged. Spending time there, and walking the grassy slopes of the sphinx-shaped mountain between the white stone cairns, you can still feel some of the bone-chilling magic of that day.
Thank you to the Rattray family and staff of the Fugitives’ Drift Lodge for an incredible experience that we thoroughly enjoyed.