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A Walk on the Hlobane

A friend of mine - who has an effortless knack of upstaging my own travel stories - recently remarked that he had never managed to visit the summit of the Hlobane mountain without something untoward happening. His first adventure there had happened as long ago as 1959, when he was still a lad, growing up in Durban with his ex-pat parents. This was long before the days of tourism to the Anglo-Zulu War battlefields, of course, and visitors to the sites were by-and-large confined to die-hard local history buffs and Monuments Council officials, and indeed reaching some of the more remote places required careful planning. On this occasion he and his father had been invited to join a group setting out from the near-by town of Vryheid and planning to ride across the summit of Hlobane on horseback - horses, in those days, being rather more readily available than a Landrover, and arguably less liable to a damaged sump on such difficult terrain.

Whilst it’s true that each of the Anglo-Zulu War battlefields has an atmosphere of its own, Hlobane has always struck me as a particularly moody and evocative spot. It was, of course, the site of the British disaster of 28 March 1879, when mounted troops under the command of Lt. Col. Redvers Buller attempted to storm the mountain. Hlobane was the refuge of the abaQulusi people, descendants of a Zulu royal homestead, ebaQulusini, established in the region by King Shaka in the 1820s. The abaQulusi were not a chiefdom in the usual sense of the word but were regarded as followers of the Royal House, and ruled over by izinduna appointed directly by the kings. As such, they were particularly loyal to the Zulu crown, and from the first had played a prominent part in resisting the British invasion of northern Zululand in 1879. The abaQulusi homesteads were scattered around Hlobane but they did not live on the mountain itself, largely because - and I speak from experience - it can be particularly exposed to severe weather and storms. Instead, when they were threatened, they would drive their cattle up through steep narrow paths onto the summit. A great, irregular, flat-topped plateau, the summit of Hlobane is largely cut off by rings of cliffs and great jutting buttresses of rock which seem as impenetrable as castle walls from below, and the abaQulusi would seal their paths behind them with dry-stone walls, making it almost impossible for attackers to pursue them up to the top. Some estimates put the herds secured there under threat from the British in 1879 as high as 2,000 head, and indeed this may have been a factor in the British decision to attack the place, since troops were liable to a share of prize money for any cattle they captured during the campaign. The local British commander, Col. Evelyn Wood, was also looking to reduce the capacity of the abaQulusi to resist, and the attack was timed to make a diversion to draw Zulu attention away from a new offensive, launched at the end of March 1879, by Lord Chelmsford on the lower Thukela, at the other end of the country.

Wood’s plan was to attack the Hlobane complex at either end with mounted troops despatched from his camp at Khambula, and to catch the abaQulusi - and their cattle - in a pincer movement. The attack was launched at dawn on 28 March, but from the first it went badly wrong. The party attacking at the western end, under the command of a Lt. Col. J.C. Russell, ascended a lower plateau, known as Ntendeka, but found that the only way up to the summit of Hlobane proper was via steep, narrow and largely impassable staircase of rock. Russell would remain on the lower plateau, but at the far eastern end Buller had more luck. He had stormed one of the passes onto the summit and had begun to round up the cattle there, only to come under pressure from the abaQulusi who rallied against him, and who had cut the paths behind him by which he had ascended. Col. Wood himself, following in Buller’s wake to supervise the attack, found himself under fire from Zulu marksmen hidden in the rocks, and two of his staff, Captain Campbell and his interpreter, Mr Lloyd, were killed; Wood supervised their burial under fire and then, in one of the many controversial aspects of the battle, he withdrew from the field and returned to Khambula. On the summit, meanwhile, some of Buller’s units had became detached under the abaQulusi pressure and the battle had dissolved into a confused running fight. The British plight was made worse by the sudden arrival on the plain below of the 20,000 men of King Cetshwayo’s main army. These were en route to attack Wood’s base at Khambula and their arrival at the height of the battle on Hlobane was purely coincidental but they had detached several amabutho to assist the abaQulusi. Sweeping round the southern flank of the mountain they effectively trapped Buller’s command on the summit leaving the scattered British units no choice but to find an alternative way down as quickly as possible. The official reports and autobiographies of the British officers involved are rife with self-justification and obfuscation, but a Qulusi elder once summed up the end of the battle far more evocatively for me. After pointing out the key points on the battlefield, he drew his closed hands together in front of his mouth. ‘Those abelungu on top of the mountain, when they saw the king’s impi’, he explained, suddenly blowing sharply and splaying his fingers in all direction, ‘they scattered like this!’ And so they did, coming off the mountain wherever they could. One party, under a Col. Weatherley of the Border Horse, fought their way down on the southern side only to run smack into the approaching amabutho at the foot of the mountain - driven back until brought up short by a line of cliffs, they were largely wiped out. Russell’s command withdrew from Ntendeka (more controversy!) leaving Buller to descend unsupported down the rocky staircase under intense Zulu pressure. Buller’s personal courage might have been beyond reproach - he would be awarded the Victoria Cross for saving several of his men - but the British withdrawal was little more than a rout. According to the official roll 15 officers and 79 men were killed at Hlobane, together with an estimated 100 African auxiliaries - the highest British butcher’s bill of the war after iSandlwana. Only Wood’s success the following day, when the Zulu army attacked his fortified camp at Khambula, would save his reputation from the sort of savaging inflicted upon Lord Chelmsford.

What had intrigued me in my friend’s tale of his visit in 1959 was their choice to go on horseback, a decision which undoubtedly brought them closer to the experience of Buller and his men. Already by the 1950s Hlobane had seen some physical changes, and a coal-mine, which had first burrowed into the southern flank of the mountain decades before, was then at the height of its production. But the mine property was more contained then, and there were still foot-tracks leading up the mountainside, many of them no doubt the historic ones used by the abaQulusi. The horses were hardly BaSotho ponies, famously comfortable in mountain terrain, and several Zulus were hired to guide them. The party had no difficulty in picking their way up past the graves of Campbell and Lloyd - hardly touched then since the monument was there was erected in 1880 - and onto the summit, which they had crossed with an easy confidence at a half-trot. The descent of the so-called Devil’s Pass, which had so devastated Buller’s command, remained a challenge, but the horses were turned lose and, under the watchful eye of the Zulu guides, had simply picked their own way down through the rocks, placing each foot with due care - as no doubt many had, under more trying circumstances, on the day of the battle. It was only once they were on the lower plateau, Ntendeka, that the weather turned against the party, and a pleasant day’s expedition was brought to a premature close as they hurried down to the plain to avoid rain sweeping in. The party had eventually returned to their parked vehicles, leaving the Zulus - in the manner of the day - to find their own way home with the horses.

I’ve explored Hlobane from many angles myself over the last thirty years, and indeed have only recently returned from leading a Holts group across the top (see for next year‘s tour). It‘s not a trip to be undertaken lightly, even now, and there are a number of areas for caution, not least regarding the weather. Our usual policy has been to walk up at the eastern end, where Buller went up, then right across the summit to the Pass - and back the same way. There is a little-used mine track that at least offers a safe way through the cliffs and reduces the risk of getting lost. But it’s a long walk and on two recent October tours - and despite having checked the forecast before-hand - the weather has turned against us at the most inconvenient point - once we had already reached the Pass, with the same distance behind us as we had already walked. From the western end of the mountain there are wonderful views of the surrounding countryside and you can see the clouds rolling in - and if they catch you the weather can turn in just a few minutes from warm sunshine to rain driving almost horizontally across the flat surface of the plateau. We’ve been deluged by sudden flurries of hail up there, and on one occasion were caught in a thunderstorm which saw a bolt of lightening strike the rocks just a few hundred yards off. Scary stuff, when you realise you are the highest thing up there.

The hope of more predictable weather is one reason why Holts have recently changed their itinerary from October to April - the South African autumn - but this year in any case we opted to change our route. Rather than reach the Pass then return the way we came, we decided to take the group down through the rocks and onto to Ntendeka, then to return by a farm road, recce’d by our local guide, Paul Marais, which follows the winding contours of Hlobane at a lower level. In the event this shaved a few kilometers off the total length of the walk but was not quite the short-cut we had hoped. Nor, this time, could the weather have been more pleasant, with a clear sky, hot sun, and just a hint of pleasing autumn coolness in the air. Even so, we were relieved to find an alternative to being trapped on the top should things have proved otherwise, and the walk back offered us some stunning and seldom-seen views of the rugged mountain-side.

In truth, Hlobane as a walk is only ever really going to suit experienced hikers and hill-walkers. The distances are great and the gradients steep, and any descent of the Pass is inevitably going to involve a certain amount of undignified scrambling - preferably with the centre of gravity as low as possible, and one‘s backside skimming gently, we hope, from rock to rock.

Yet the rewards are worth it for those willing to risk a few days of stiff limbs afterwards. The Hlobane colliery is closed now, the great towers of mining machinery rusting away like the remains of some post-industrial dinosaur, and some of the rehabilitated slag-heaps are grassed over, although the effects of more than half a century of its work can still be seen in the dangerous chasms which split the surface here and there. The old track onto the summit is no longer maintained and only the most adventurous 4x4 could risk driving along it, but it does at least provide a viable hiking trail. It passes close to the graves of Campbell and Lloyd - repeatedly vandalised in the years since my friend’s visit in the ‘50s, for reasons that remain obscure - and within sight of the great jumble of huge detached boulders scattered along the foot of the cliffs where they were killed. Once on the summit, the traces of the more recent passed are left behind. Passed over to farmers now, who sometimes, as the Qulusi once did, graze their cattle up there, it is nonetheless a lost world, a lonely and open crazy-paving of rocks worn almost flat by aeons of exposure to the elements, where little grows apart from short, tough grass and alpine-like flowers. Away from the edges the surface is slightly dished and the peaks of surrounding hills fall out of sight, and in the meandering hollows along the beds of shallow streams - mostly dry now, in any case, thanks to the effect of the mining on their water-table - all sense of direction is soon lost. Up here, it becomes easy enough to understand the confusion that beset some of Buller’s horsemen, and to see how small groups became detached and isolated. There are stories of men following blind tracks down to the edge only to find they ended in sheer drops, and falling to their deaths among the rocks, while abaQulusi elders still remember seeing as herd boys the bones of men and horses scattered around the hill-sides. One Boer veteran of the battle, Daniel Kritzinger, had recalled years afterwards the confusion caused by a stone wall built before the battle by the abaQulusi across the top of the Devil’s Pass, and which had caused Buller’s men to bunch up under fire as they tried to negotiate a way across it - that wall is still there today, just as it was. Reading aloud to my group the account of a young trooper of the Frontier Light Horse, George Mossop, who had tumbled at one point into a narrow cleft between two high boulders, it seemed too much of a coincidence that a great riven slab of stone a few yards to the left of where we were sat was not indeed the very spot.

A walk on the Hlobane may indeed be challenging but up there on the summit, cut off, it seems, from the ordinary passage of time, there is an extraordinary and palpable sense of the past, and if we can no longer quite reach out and touch the lives of those men of both sides who made such dramatic history, well, they can certainly still touch us profoundly.