Monday, May 2, 2011

KwaZulu-Natal's perfectly preserved historic battlefields fascinate and overwhelm

Solemn sunset: A mass grave at the place where British
soldiers were killed by Boer shelling from across the valley.
Looking down from the rocky heights of Spioenkop in KwaZulu-Natal, the view across the aloe and acacia-dotted valley below is spectacular. The large Spioenkop Dam on the Tugela River to the south lies tranquil in the late afternoon light. The landmarks immortalised in history books - Twin Peaks, Aloe Knoll, Conical Hill, Green Hill and Tabanyama are all around us. Our guide, Omri Nene, a gentle young actor, relates the events of the Battle of Spioenkop quietly, holding our little party – my brother Philip, British father and son Mike and Thomas Crozier, and me – spellbound. From time to time he breaks the tension with a broad smile and a giggle as he returns to another of the comical blunders on both sides in the conflict.

General Sir Redvers Buller, VC, commander of the British forces in Natal, was attempting to relieve a British force in Ladysmith besieged by the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War. He delegated control of his main force to the indecisive General Sir Charles Warren, who had at his disposal an overwhelming number of infantry, cavalry and field guns. On the other side of the Kop were the Boers, totally outnumbered but well armed with modern Mauser rifles and a few other guns.

Omri told of the bayonet charge by British soldiers when they eventually reached the top in thick mist on the night before the main battle. A Boer picquet of 15 men were resting behind a low wall of rocks until they were alerted by the chilling rattle of multiple bayonets being fixed before the charge. One of the Boers failed to escape as the soldiers caught up with him and bayoneted him, his body left lying on the hard ground among the scattered brown rocks. His solitary grave marks the spot where he died.

The next morning the Boers began to pound the British position, shelling them and putting down a storm of rifle fire, initially from the adjacent plateau of Tabanyama. Meanwhile, Commandant Hendrik Prinsloo of the Carolina Commando captured Aloe Knoll and Conical Hill with less than 100 men, while about 300 burghers, mainly of the Pretoria Commando, climbed Spioenkop to launch a frontal assault on the British position. A furious fight at the crest commenced, with heavy losses on both sides.

In the end, after a bloody, gruelling and desperately confused battle – one that would become notorious in British military history - both sides departed from Spioenkop. Interestingly, a number of the world’s future leaders were there: Winston Churchill, Boer leader Louis Botha, who would become the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, and Mohandas Gandhi who organised an ambulance corps for the British army.

Today, as the sun sets and a chilly wind finds its way into our warm clothing, all there is to remind us of the dramatic events of January 24, 1900 are the white stones of mass graves and disconsolate memorials, most of the names inscribed on them being those of brave young Brits in their early twenties and younger. Young Thomas Crozier makes extensive notes from some of the memorials to take back to his wheelchair-bound granddad in the UK.

That morning we had visited the spot along the railway line near Colenso - site of an earlier battle - where the unstoppable young war correspondent Winston Churchill was captured after the derailment of a British armoured train. His later escape from Boer captivity was well publicised and at Spioenkop he was back, commissioned by Buller as a lieutenant in the SA Light Horse regiment in recognition of his exploits. Here he made himself useful as a kind of self-appointed scout and courier, riding hither and thither, keeping Buller informed of events.

History preserved: Three Tree Hill Lodge is a haven for
Boer War history enthusiasts.
 Today, on the other side of the valley, on a rise among the acacias, more or less where General Warren’s HQ had been, is a beautiful place of refuge named Three Tree Hill Lodge by virtue of its location. Proprietors Simon and Cheryl Blackburn (formerly of Singita Private Game Reserve and Kwando Safari Experience), both of them seasoned safari guides, share their knowledge and experiences with guests in the lounge and dining areas over farmhouse meals. Their easy-going style is what the Three Tree Hill experience is all about. The lodge has a marvellous little library of historical books and a large collection of historical photographs all over the walls - an attraction in itself. A portrait near the dining room table shows a fresh-faced young Winston Churchill gazing down benignly.

Omri was never far away, serving drinks and joining in the conversation around the table. He grew up in a local village and studied theatre at the University of KZN, later serving as a community liaison officer for the university’s drama department. He has performed at the Grahamstown Arts Festival and travelled to the US to play Macbeth in a production in Detroit. Coming to Three Tree Hill Lodge presented an opportunity to learn history and hone his skills as a raconteur, he told me.

On the day of our arrival we took a leisurely hike with Cheryl and her dogs alongside the game reserve adjacent to the lodge, with beautiful views of Spioenkop and the surrounding veld, stocked with game. It is a little-known and virtually undisturbed official conservation area.

Accommodation at the lodge is in attractive cottages with views across the valley. I was delighted by the green-painted historical-style corrugated iron structure of the cottages, with a timber finish inside. They are unusually user-friendly and comfortable, without the pseudo-luxuries found at some more pretentious lodges. Fugitive’s Drift, which we visited next, follows the same formula of luxurious but uncluttered comfort with a strong historical feel.

We travelled to Fugitive’s Drift via Ladysmith and Dundee, stopping to view the exhibits at the Siege Museum in Ladysmith, all of which were of much more significance after our previous days’ experiences than would otherwise have been the case.

Arriving at Fugitive’s Drift, we were given a warm welcome by our affable and now well known raconteur and tour guide, Rob Caskie, and we soon found Nicky Rattray, widow of David Rattray, in relaxed mode among the other guests. Rob had long been an associate of David Rattray, the world renowned speaker on history, particularly the Battle of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, as well as Zulu cultures. David was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and lectured internationally.

Chilling tale: Rob Caskie keeps visitors to
Rorke's Drift enthralled.
That afternoon a long-standing intention of mine was fulfilled when we found ourselves at Rorke’s Drift where, in what is virtually a yard between the hospital (now a museum) and a storehouse (now a church), the terrible battle between a small garrison of British soldiers and about 4000 Zulu warriors took place when the Zulus attacked the fortified mission station. Rob’s rendition of the story of the battle was enthralling, with frequent and powerful use of the Zulu language, as well as gruesome details you don’t find in regular accounts of the story which has been popularised by more than one movie.

Rorke’s Drift was defended by 139 British soldiers (a number of them seriously ill in the hospital), who inflicted serious casualties on the attacking Zulus and successfully beat them back after a long and terrible night’s fighting. But some of the most harrowing action took place in the hospital, whose thatch roof was on fire. A few soldiers were assigned to defend the hospital, eventually saving a number of patients at great personal sacrifice as the relentless onslaught by the Zulus continued to hammer at the tiny building.

Some commentators have suggested that 11 Victoria Crosses was excessive for such a small group of soldiers simply defending themselves against attackers, but looking around that tiny and now perfectly peaceful piece of ground with a stone cattle kraal next to the church, one can understand what a desperate battle it must have been.

Because of the time of our arrival we visited Rorke’s Drift first and Isandlwana the next morning, when in fact the battles took place the other way round on January 22 and 23, 1879, respectively.

Big battle: Isandlwana was a battle rated as one of the
greatest military disasters in British colonial history.
Isandlwana was a battle rated as one of the greatest military disasters in British colonial history. Again our group sat in folding chairs overlooking a beautiful vista on a glorious morning with the famous mountain lying like a sphinx to our left as Rob entertained us with the story of another dramatic battle. Again, the facts described in great detail. Again, Rob’s performance was a wonderful tribute to his predecessor. We were particularly impressed by the way he could remember every guest’s name and use it to punctuate his story most effectively.

Out on that slope, all that remain are scores of white stone cairns and other memorials. And Isandlwana, the mountain, remains unmoved by time or history.

See and This story appeared in Diversions leisure magazine.