Front page slideshow

HOLTS TOUR TO THE ANGLO-ZULU WAR BATTLEFIELDS 2015

     My apologies - it's been a bit of a hectic summer at home, not least because I have moved my study, an experience which has proved to me that everything my wife says about my pathological inability to organise my working space is true. Something which I had thought would take a few days actually ran into weeks, not least because of the prodigious amount of dust which needed to be brushed off nearly everything at the back of the shelves. And this put me behind with my writing, and so, here we are, not having updated my blog for several months.

      There is, however, plenty to say, and I'll be sharing my thoughts as we gird our loins for the long slide through autumn towards winter. This time - just to get me back in the habit, you understand - I'm going to begin with a shameless plug for Holts Battlefield Tours. Their 2014 Anglo-Zulu War Tour took place back in April, and the 2015 is provisionally scheduled for about the same time next year (go to - http://holts.co.uk/tours/revolution-empire/the-zulu-war-2015-tour/ )

        I've had the privilege of leading this tour for over ten years now, having taken over from Dr Adrian Greaves of the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society, and - although I'm hardly an unbiased observer - I still believe it is the best tour of the battlefields out there. It's been honed by years of experience and tweaking, and runs - as much as anything can in Africa - like a well-oiled machine; a claim I make with no regard to myself, but rather to the people at Holts, who have years of running battlefield tours behind them, and to my friend Paul Marais, who is both a registered Battlefield Tour Guide and 'their man on the ground'. It's true there are plenty of other tours which give you the edited highlights of the history - it's easy enough to get yourself now to one of the luxury lodges at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift - but none attempt to draw out the deeper context of the conflict, as this one does, and to visit all of the principle sites associated with the war.

    After years of practise, we have learned that the best way to tackle the sites is to go in a great meandering circle. We arrive at Durban - which of course was established by British adventurers in 1824 under the sufferance of King Shaka, and was the portal through which the outside world flowed in to confront the Zulu kingdom - then travel slowly up the coast to Eshowe. Along the way I'll tell you the story of one of those adventurers, Henry Francis Fynn, as we stand on the dunes beside the crashing surf of the Indian Ocean, and we'll look at King Shaka's grave, and the site of the 'Ultimatum Tree', where the British engineered their war with the Zulus. Across the other side of the river we'll visit the battlefields of the coastal campaign - kwaGingindlovu and Nyezane - and look at the remains of the KwaMondi fort, where Col. Pearson's column was invested for three months. We'll look, too, at the fascinating Fort Nongqayi Museum, built in the 1880s as a barracks for the Zululand Native Police, the bodyguard of the first British resident in post-invasion Zululand, and which now houses a rather nice Museum. We'll stay at Shakaland - which offers some entertaining demonstrations of traditional Zulu life - and, on perhaps the most moving day of the tour, we'll journey out to the spot where King Cetshwayo was buried in 1884. For the best part of a century this was a private spot, watched over by local guardians of the grave, and to visit it was a difficult undertaking; things are beginning to change (not least because the roads have been improved to access the controversial new home of President Jacob Zuma nearby) but even today no more than a handful of visitors go there. The grave lies in rugged and beautiful country which gives more than a flavour of how Zulu life was lived a century ago - and which, incidentally, was the subject of a good deal of fighting during the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion, since the rebels made the grave their rallying point, and Colonial troops harried them there. The Mome gorge, where the Rebellion in Zululand was ruthlessly crushed, is just a few kilometers away.

    From Eshowe we travel north, stopping to explore King Cetshwayo's partially reconstructed oNdini royal homestead - burnt by the British on 4 July 1879 - and the battlefield of Ulundi nearby. Then we head up to the majestic Ithala Game Reserve on the banks of the Phongolo river, which serves as our base to explore the battlefields of the northern campaign. The hutted camp at Ithala nestles into the sort of brooding and musterious rocky hill-sides that would have done Rider Haggard proud and, although it doesn't include lion, we were lucky enough to get some great viewing this year, not least of two young elephant bulls who were waiting around a turn in the road, and were not inclined to give us the way!

     From Ithala we strike at to the Ntombe battlefield, where Captain Moriarty's detachment of the 80th Regiment was over-run in a well-planned dawn attack on 12 March 1879. The last leg of the modern track ends at the monument and mass graves of the 80th dead, but if the water is low enough - and you are feeling adventurous - we can wade across to visit Moriarty's position on the other bank.

    We also visit Hlobane mountain, where Redvers Buller's horsemen were trapped and defeated on 28 March 1879. Of all the 1879 battlefields, Hlobane remains the most inaccessible, since the fighting raged across the summit and upper-slopes, and the famous 'Devil's Pass' cannot easily be reached by vehicle. In the twentieth-century the area mountain was mined for coal, and although mining operations have ceased now the scars can still be seen in the great fissures which have opened up on the summit, and the old maintenance track which once led up the slopes and across the summit is largely abandoned and become steadily overgrown. We offer the chance to consider the battle from several points around the base of the mountain - and for those who are willing to chance the long distances and rough ground we will walk across to the Devil's Pass itself.

    We also go to Khambula, site of the decisive battle of the war (29 March 1879). Apart from a grove of wattle trees growing on the site of the British laager, Khambula is largely unchanged, and standing on top of the low remains of the old British redoubt one can get a good view of the sweeping countryside which makes it easy to conjure up the dramatic events which took place there.

    After several nights at Ithala we head off - via the 1838 battlefield of Ncome/Bloedrivier, and the lonely spot where the Prince Imperial of France was killed when a patrol he accompanied was ambushed on 1 June 1879 - to the grand climax of the tour, our stay at the luxurious Isandlwana Lodge. There are, of course, several famous lodges in the area, all of whom deservedly have their partisans - but I must admit Isandlwana Lodge has always been my favourite. It's built in a lofty game-reserve style, all high wooden beams and thatched roofs, nestling into the rocks of the iNyoni ridge, over which the Zulu attack developed on 22 January, and nearly all the rooms  open onto a balcony which overlooks the battlefield. In the evening you can sit there, unwinding after a hard day's slogging across the site, and watch the sun go down behind iSandlwana mountain, and often, in the morning, you can open the curtains to see it rising sternly like an island from a sea of mist that sits at dawn across the plain. More than that, the place was built by agreement with the local community, and I like the vibe of the place, and the way the staff are prone to giving impromptu displays of dancing and singing to the guests.

    Our exploration of the iSandlwana and Rorke's Drift is the most intensive part of the tour. We go out to look at the Ngwebeni valley, where the Zulu army bivouacked the night before the battle, and we consider their attack from the high ground where the Zulu generals stood. We'll go down and walk across the British camp-site, visiting the memorials there, and wander out across the firing line and down towards the Nyogane stream, where Col. Durnford made his famous stand to hold up the attack of the Zulu left. In the evening we'll go out to the hills around the headwaters of the Mangeni river, where Lord Chelmsford spent that fateful day, and you'll have the opportunity to look back, and see exactly what his men could or couldn't see of the country around the camp. There is also a chance to walk the so-called 'Fugitives' Trail', the line of the British rout at iSandlwana, ending on the Natal bank of the Mzinyathi River at the graves of Lts. Melvill and Coghill, who were killed after their tragice and unsuccessful attempt to save the Queen's Colour of the 24th Regiment. It's not a particularly easy walk - there is some tough terrain along the way, and of course the river has to be negotiated at the end of it - but it is a rewarding one, and has always seemed a potent one to me. In 2000 I was the historian attached to the archaeological survey of parts of the iSandlwana battlefield, and one of the areas we were allowed to excavate was a seemingly insignificant cairn that was crumbling into a donga near the beginning of the trail - it turned out to contain the remains of the artillery horses slaughtered when one of the gun-teams was over-run at the height of the fighting. We usually do the walk early in the morning, before the sun is too high, and there is never a soul about, and it's not unusual to come across the small herds of impala and zebra which inhabit the iSandlwana reserve, but which are usually too shy to be seen - another reminder of a rather different Africa gone by.

      Then, on the last day, we'll go to arguably the most famous site of them all, Rorke's Drift. Here I'll tell you the story of the battle on the ground where it all happened, and there will be time, too, to look at the monuments, explore the museum, and perhaps walk to the top of the Shiyane hill to take in the magnificent view of the whole campaign from there.

 

     What sort of people do we get on the tours? Well, it's usually a fairly intimate group, between 15 and 20 people, and yes, people do bring their partners along, even if only one of them is interested in the history! We are well aware that the story of the battles is only part of the rich heritage of the region, and we hope you'll also enjoy the spectacular countryside, the local culture, and the wildlife. Most people of course are from the UK - although this year we had one very keen Australian along who swears he wants to come back next year, which must tell you something about it! - and the level of interest varies. Some are quite keen students, looking to pick over the war and its debates in some detail, whilst others have been lured by the film ZULU, and simply want to find out something of the truth behind the myth. Hopefully we will cater for you all - although don't expect me to sing Men of Harlech!

     To finish, here are a selection of photos from this year's tour - and I look forward to meeting some of you in 2015.