North of KwaZulu Natal is an area of South Africa famed for its warm weather, game reserves, rich culture and superb scenery. It also contains the country’s largest concentration of battlefields.
The Battlefields route attracts visitors from all around the world. They flock to the area to learn more about Zulu culture and the historic happenings that transpired on this land. If you have British or Dutch ancestry you may find your surname amongst the names of the soldiers that fought here.
At one point these lush, verdant valleys were awash with thousands of Zulu warriors. They would have been carrying spears and rawhide shields clashing against musket-carrying foreigners who hoped to expand their empires. Now what remains of those turbulent times are historic monuments, ghostly fields marked by graves and the legends of long ago.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOUTH AFRICA’S BATTLEFIELDS
The history of the KwaZulu Natal Battlefields is a long and turbulent one. It is filled with many interweaving stories that are too lengthy to explain here. To get a real understanding of these conflicts, the Battlefields are best visited in person. But I will try to give you a shortened version as an introduction.
In the early 19th century, South Africa’s Zulu people, under the guidance of King Shaka and subsequently King Dingane, were a proud and powerful nation. They were spread out over all of what is now the KwaZulu Natal province.
However, white settlers known as the Voortrekkers were coming over the Drakensberg mountains, establishing their influence and threatening Zulu lands. There followed several fierce and ferocious battles for power. Not only between the Zulus and the Boers but also the English. This left bloody scars on the land and tales that will live on forever.
A HOME IN DUNDEE
To get the full feeling of the magnitude of the battles fought here it’s best to hire a local guide. A local who knows the area can recount the stories of each site and take you into the heart of the drama, bringing the place to life. There are many Battlefields tour guides to choose from. We decided to do our tour with Elisabeth Durham. She is the Francophile owner of the quaint Chez Nous Bed & Breakfast, located in the town of Dundee.
Dundee itself is well worth a visit not just for the Parisian-inspired home away from home that is Chez Nous. But also for the Talana Museum, a sprawling collection of historic structures built on the site of one of the area’s first farms.
As one of South Africa’s largest museums, there is much to explore and see here. From ancient clothing and glass works to stories of South Africa’s fight for independence. Also, Gandhi’s influence on Indians in the area, an insight into coal mining here and a closer look at how the people there once lived.
BLOOD RIVER BATTLEFIELD OF SOUTH AFRICA
Elisabeth’s full-day tour of the Battlefields takes you to the three main sites. These are the most accessible and offer a visual experience for visitors. In order of the historic dates in which they happened, you’ll visit the Battle of Blood River, Isandlwana and Rorkes’ Drift.
The first, and perhaps the most visually compelling, is Blood River. Here a Zulu museum, a newly revamped visitor’s centre and a laager of over 60 bronze wagons tell a tale of the Afrikaner’s revenge against a brutal killing. A killing of not only the men that came before them but also hundreds of women and children.
They were a god-fearing group with a clever plan thought out by the young commander Andre Pretorius. South Africa’s capital city now takes his name. Clearly outnumbered they faced a fierce battle against the Zulus. However, despite having the numbers on their side they couldn’t take the victory. It’s a battle that is still commemorated in South Africa every year on the 16th of December. It is now known as Reconciliation Day.
ISANDLWANA AND RORKES’ DRIFT BATTLEFIELDS
Travel deeper into the Battlefields and a good few years on and this time an outnumbered British Army faces off against thousands upon thousands of Zulus. The cunning trickery of the Zulus sent a worried commander off in totally the wrong direction. In doing so he left his camp and a smattering of his remaining men awaiting ambush. Fleeing on horses, over fields and through rivers they arrive at the third site, Rorke’s Drift.
Here, one lonely watchman, who was ill-advised that his job would be anything but exciting, is left to defend the residence and hospital of the British with what remains of a rapidly dwindling army. With some clever tactics, good positioning and perhaps some sheer luck, just 100-odd soldiers defend off some 4,000 Zulus. It would come to be known as one of the fiercest battles ever fought. This leads to the awarding of 11 Victoria’s crosses – the highest number ever awarded at a single battle.
However, this magnificent part of Zululand is not all about battles. There are local crafters to meet, Zulu villages to visit and stunning scenery to see. Not to mention, of course, gorgeous Chez Nous which is a destination in itself with its Parisian flair, homemade jams, breads and omelettes and passionate staff.
So, what are you waiting for? Be sure to add the Battlefields to your bucket list today.