ISANDLWANA; WALKING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF HISTORY
In November I was lucky enough to spend a week at the wonderful Isandlwana Lodge in the company of a small group of enthusiasts who were keen to explore the battlefield in greater detail than most tours – or even independent travels – allow.
Now, it’s true that I have spent a good deal of my life at iSandlwana over the years, from my first visit for the centenary back in 1979 to expeditions in the ‘80s and early ‘90s with my mentor, ‘SB’ Bourquin and more recent adventures staying with friends nearby or leading regular tour groups. I’ve seen that rocky outcrop in many moods. Sometimes, at first light, it hangs like an island above a sea of mist that pools across the plain below whilst the sky shifts through various subtle shades of mauve and pink. During the late afternoon storms which characterise the summer months iSandlwana’s rocky face glows with a fierce yellow light against a brooding skyscape of sharply contrasted whites and greys whilst the rising wind ripples the grass along its foot. Often the storm comes to nothing, all bluster and bluff as the lightning streaks down on the surrounding hills but the air remains stubbornly dry. When it does break, however, the rain comes down in long stair-rods, so much of it that the dry earth cannot absorb it, and it turns tracks and roads and dongas into bubbling sheets of water for a while as it rushes away. On drizzly days iSandlwana can look grey, lifeless and flat, its distinctive outline somehow squashed and pressed down among the surrounding hills. On one memorable occasion I took a group there and the mist at noon was so thick we couldn’t see the mountain from a hundred yards away – which rather tested my interpretation skills. Mostly, iSandlwana just sits there in the heat of the day, the ancient rocks on its enigmatic face reflecting back the sound of the cicadas and the occasional monotonous cry of a bird, the whole thing redolent of some ancient mystery which makes its impact on the modern imagination in ways that can’t easily be understood. How much of this is due to the extraordinary events that took place there – those white cairns scattered across its approaches may cover the last fragments of the remains of the British dead but there were many more besides, over a thousand Zulus but hundreds of animals too, oxen, horses and mules – and how much to the place itself it’s impossible to say; most visitors bring their impression of the battle with them, after all, and people the hillside in their imagination with struggling figures and heroism or horror, according to their inclination. I once saw a Zulu inyanga high on the shoulder of the mountain, dressed in traditional regalia and calling out to the ancestral spirits – he was calling for rain, and when I asked him why in that spot he replied that iSandlwana is a place of great spiritual power. Because of the battle, I asked him? ‘No’, he replied thoughtfully – ‘it just is’. And well it might be, for there were once ancient graves high up on the small grassy plateau on the mountain’s back, and there are still traces of smelted ore there where some long-forgotten smith had worked his craft. Alchemy and blood – a combination potent enough to leave a mark on landscapes a lot less brooding than this one.
These days, of course, the area around the foot of the hill is fenced off and protected. Whilst this is generally a good thing it does encourage the impression that the battle was confined to this area. Put up a fence, after all, and you are making a statement that the area outside is, well, outside. It isn’t, of course, for technically the battlefield extends from the furthest point in the Ngwebeni valley where the Zulu amabutho bivouacked on the night of 21/22 January 1879 right the way down to the Mzinyathi river where the British fugitives got across, and it encompasses the furthest sweep of the Zulu ‘horns’ on either side. Indeed, there is even an argument that it extends all the way to Rorke’s Drift, since although that battle is usually treated separately it was, after all, all part of the same day’s fighting; the amabutho who comprised the Zulu reserve at iSandlwana – and who went on to attack Rorke’s Drift – had after all started the day at the far end of that same bivouac.
On this trip, although we walked over the firing lines and clambered about the caves that pit the eastern cliffs of iSandlwana as usual, we were keen explore the furthest reaches of the battlefield. We walked into the open mouth of the Ngwebeni valley, picking our way through the boulders that line the banks of the stream where that great Zulu army slept on the eve of battle. We walked further up the valley – after a few hundred yards we were completely sheltered by the hills on either side – and emerged up the steep slopes in the footsteps of the Zulu centre. We followed the line of Durnford’s advance towards his likely point of first contact with the young warriors in the Zulu left ‘horn’ – and we traced back the possible routes from the valley taken by that ‘horn’. We drove out to the Silutshana and Magogo hills, where the troops under Lord Chelmsford spent the day, and we looked back from the very hillside where Chelmsford’s ADC, Lt. Milne, had famously watched the camp through his telescope. Milne has always endured a rather bad press over this, and indeed in later life he admitted to feelings of guilt that he might have missed something crucial to the camp’s fate – but in fact the timing worked against him. From his position a shoulder of Silutshana hill in between blocks out much of the high ground to the north of the camp, where the Zulu had first appeared early in the morning, and Milne was down from his vantage-point before the attack proper was underway; when he was up there, there was nothing much to see. We drove out, too, to the point at the eastern end of Hlazakazi hill, where Major Dartnell had bivouacked the night before the battle – it was his report of a Zulu presence nearby that had tempted Chelmsford to divide his force – and we climbed the stony ridge much nearer to the camp from where Hamilton Browne and his NNC had watched the attack unfold. We crossed the Batshe stream by the same - long since disused - drift as Chelmsford's troops, and we scrambled among the boulders where the first action of the war, the attack on inkosi Sihayo's followers on 12 January 1879, took place. We pored over maps and eyewitness accounts and debated the veracity of various conflicting interpretations of the battle.
And, thanks to the passion of one member of the group, we spent a lot of time pondering the fate of the rocket battery, following their tracks from iSandlwana and comparing the various accounts of their demise. Did we find the elusive spot where they were over-run? Well, we certainly did to our own satisfaction, a small patch on the eastern slopes of the iNyoni ridge which fits the tantalising clues left by the survivors like nowhere else. It’s an area that has been compromised over the years by a nearby roadway and by cultivation, but even so perhaps one day another archaeological survey will find some traces of what went on there, and prove us right – or wrong.
In the meantime, it’ll be nice to get back again this year – and if you fancy joining us, come along!
Spend a week at iSandlwana in 2016 with Ian Knight, the author of 'Zulu Rising'!
The concept of this tour is to spend a week exploring the defining campaign of the Anglo-Zulu War in depth. If you have already been on a general tour of the war as a whole, or if your particular interest is in the battles of iSandlwana and Rorke's Drift, this tour is for you. This year we break the journey from Johannesburg with an overnight stop at the Ithala Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu Natal, from where we visit the area where King Cetshwayo was captured in August 1879 (please not that the exact spot is difficult to access - we will get as close as we can). After that, we will be staying at the wonderful Isandlwana Lodge, which overlooks the battlefield itself, for the remainder of our stay. From here we can drive out each day to visit aspects of the campaign - this allows us the flexibility to amend our itinerary or to respond to the particular interests of our guests.
Please note that we will walk the battlefields where we can to gain a better appreciation of the terrain; those not wishing to partake of all the walks are welcome to stay and enjoy a break at the Lodge's pool instead!
PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS TOUR BEGINS AND ENDS IN JOHANNESBURG; PLEASE MAKE YOUR OWN FLIGHT ARRANGEMENTS - WE WILL MEET AND DROP YOU OFF AT THE AIRPORT.
Cost of the tour is £2330.00 per person sharing - single supplement is £360.00.
Your tour will be accompanied throughout by IAN KNIGHT and by your experienced locally-registered guide PAUL MARAIS.
Day 1 Thursday, April 28, 2016 Pick up at Johannesburg International, drive to Royal Natal National Park for overnight stay.
Day 2 Friday, April 29, 2016 Visit the location where the movieZULU was filmed in the Royal Natal Park in 1963.
Day 3 Saturday, April 30, 2016 Drive to the stunning Isandlwana Lodge, our accomodation for the remainder of the tour, taking in historical sites along the way.
Day 4 Sunday, May 01, 2016 'Crossing the Buffalo'; Chart the first shots of the iSandlwana campaign, beginning at the Mzinyathi River - the old Anglo-Zulu border - where we will explore James Rorke's crossing (the original 'Rorke's Drift') and the remains of Fort Northampton, built on the Zulu bank during the troubles of the 1880s. From there we will follow the line of the British advance along the old wagon track over Batshe river. Here we will investigate the site of the homestead of inkosi Sihayo, who commanded the border region on behalf of the King, and the place where his followers were dispersed on 12 January 1879 - the first shots of the war.
Day 5 Monday, May 02, 2016 A general over-view of the iSandlwana campaign. We will drive out to a viewpoint overlooking the Ngwebeni valley, where the Zulu army bivouacked before the battle, then view the battlefield from the iNyoni escarpment, from the perspective of the Zulu commanders. From there we will visit to the battlefield interpretation centre and camp area.
Day 6 Tuesday, May 03, 2016 Descend into the Ngwebeni valley, where the Zulu army bivouacked the night before it's attack at iSandlwana. Then follow the line of the advance of the Zulu left horn and its encounter with Col. Durnford's command. Climb Amatutshane, 'the Conical Kopje'.
Day 7 Wednesday, May 04, 2016 Follow the line of Col. Anthony Durnford’s advance forward from iSandlwana, visit the iNyogane stream - 'Durnford's donga' - and explore the site where his rocket battery was over-run.
Day 8 Thursday, May 05, 2016 Explore the movements of the Zulu right horn, starting at the mouth of the Ngwebeni valley and walking across to the outlying spurs occupied during the battle by Mostyn and Cavaye’s detachments. This is an opportunity to consider some of the more controversial aspects of the campaign regarding the initial contact between the two armies.
Day 9 Friday, May 06, 2016 Explore the area forward of iSandlwana where the itinial encounters took place - Dartnell's encounter on the evening of 21 January 1879, and Lord Chelmsford's operations on the 22nd. Visit the spot where Chelmsford's ADC, Lt. Milne, climbed Magogo Hill to look back at iSandlwana.
Day 10 Saturday, May 07, 2016 'The road to iSandlwana'; on this day we will drive down the British line of communication to Fort Bengough in Msinga, then the site of Fort Pine, the impressive colonial 'laager' at Helpmekaar. Then we will drive to the graves of Lts Melvill and Coghill for the story of Fugitives’ Drift. Next, Rorke’s Drift! Explore the site of one of the most iconic battles of the Victorian era.
Day 11 Sunday, May 08, 2016 Return to Johannesburg International, return flights home.
To Book contact firstname.lastname@example.org
PLEASE NOTE; This tour requires a minimum of five people to proceed.