Read more about South Africa's famed battlefields and learn how they played an intrinsical role in the development of the Rainbow Nation.
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06 Jul 2021
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South Africa - a nation of diversity. The big wildlife may top the agenda for many visitors but South Africa, particularly Kwa Zulu Natal is intrinsically linked to the nation’s history. The region was the stage on which many of South Africa’s bloodiest chapters were played out with stories of fierce battles, heroism and tragedy; all having a pivotal role in how modern-day South Africa came to be.
Some may think it’s a strange thing to do, visiting battlefields whilst on holiday, yet in South Africa they’re a hugely popular destination for many tourists. Whether it’s morbid fascination, historical intrigue or simply as a mark of respect, these famous sites from the 19th Century Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer Wars are some of the most visited battlefields in the world.
Here we take you on a journey to learn about some of the more famous sites which are just a small example of the 82 battlefields, museums, old fortifications and places of remembrance that the ‘Battlefields Route’ boasts.
Knotted rock formations, vast open plains and mountains dot the horizon. Today, everything is still and peaceful. But this a far cry from events in the 19th century. The area was a maelstrom of action as British, Boer and Zulu armies clashed in several bloody encounters.
Thousands were killed, their bodies in some cases buried beneath piles of white stones that you can still see dotting the landscape (the ground was too hard to dig proper graves).
How to explore
The Battlefields echo with a violent past and to get the most out of understanding them and their historical significance they should not be explored in a haphazard manner. Rather choose an era, war or campaign and then select the sites you want to visit. There are several structured tours available but sometimes (and we would recommend this) it’s a lot more fun to self-drive from site to site, spending a few days exploring the northwest region of Kwa Zulu Natal.
If you do decide to drive and explore on your own, we recommend that you have a good road map in your vehicle at all times as well as a reliable SatNav/GPS. Roads in the area are generally gravel roads but are certainly passable in a ‘normal’ rental vehicle and it makes for an excellent adventure.
There is a myriad of specialist books available where authors, who are specialists in the field, take you on a historical journey. But for maximum enjoyment, it’s far better to be shown the different sites by on-site specialist guides. At some of the more popular sites, there’s sometimes no need to pre-book a guide as there are plenty waiting to eagerly show visitors around the historical monuments, giving detailed accounts of events leading up to the battles, the tactics at play, and the lives of those affected. All woven into engaging stories for you to lose your imagination in.
You can visit a collection of sites from across a number of confrontations. Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift were caught up in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. In 1900, Spioenkop saw conflict in the Second Anglo-Boer War, which had Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi among its campaigners. Blood River witnessed the 1838 clash between the Boers and Zulus. The Battlefields echo with a violent past.
Eleven days after the British invaded Zululand, some 20,000 Zulu warriors descended upon the 1,500 strong British forces, overpowering them at the foot of the Isandlwana Hill. If you employ a local guide, they will describe how the Zulus adopted a ‘buffalo horns’ formation, flanking the British on all sides before closing in. All but 300 of the 1,500 British soldiers were killed that fateful day. It remains the single greatest defeat of the British Army by native defenders, and the site of the battel still feels a little eerie to this day.
It’s well worth climbing to the top of the hill and gaze down over the battlefield from an elevated position, it’s difficult to comprehend the stamina and bravery of the Zulu warriors as they ran head-first into the British troops. Most were only armed with assegai (iron spears), compared with the rifles carried by the British.
The battlefield itself is extremely evocative. Piles of White rocks form cairns and memorials marking the spots where the bodies of British soldiers were gathered en masse for burial. Each cairn holds around ten soldiers, so it’s easy to grasp the scale of devastation.
The Isandlwana Visitors Centre has a small museum; with an entrance fee payable, which does include the entrance to the battlefield itself. There is generally no shortage of local guides eager to show you the sites and explain the dramatic history.
The nearby Buffalo River formed the border between British and Zulu territories, so the area was strategically important for both sides. On the evening of 22nd January 1879, just over 150 British soldiers defended the trading-post-turned-field-hospital here against 4,000 Zulu warriors.
Their success resulted in 11 Victoria Crosses being awarded — the record for a single engagement. This was an event which was later immortalised by the film ‘Zulu’ starring Michael Caine – wait ‘til you see the whites of their eyes…. Boys.
Perhaps one of the most exciting ways to explore the site is by horse. There are several hidden trails in the area and it’s a great place to put aside the history for a few moments and enjoy the scenery, which today is unspoilt and peaceful. It’s also worth popping into the Museum here to help understand just what went on during the battles of the Anglo-Zulu War.
Blood River (Bloedrivier)
This unique heritage site near the town of Dundee in Kwa Zulu Natal is probably one of the most unique battlefields and historical sites in South Africa and here both sides of the fierce battle between the Zulu Impi warriors and the Boer Voortrekkers, are interpreted in two neighbouring heritage sites. Two incidents of historical significance occurred at this site.
Firstly, on 06th February 1838, Voortrekker leader Piet Retief and 67 of his men were killed by Zulu forces under the Zulu Chief, Dingane. The Voortrekkers had come to negotiate settlement rights in local parts of Zulu territory. Later that month, the Zulu impi warriors killed more than 500 of Retief’s party at a place which was later called Weenen – Place of weeping, on 17th February.
Secondly, an epic battle was fought in December 1838, Trekker leader Andries Pretorius and his 470 strong group of boers defended themselves against a mighty Zulu army with estimated numbers between 10,000 and 20,000.
The boers’ laager (encampment) of circled wagons was well placed between the Ncome (buffalo) River and a deep donga/ditch and due a series of fortunate events by midday had killed over 3000 Zulus with only three of their numbers being injured.
As mentioned, the site is split in to two separate museum complexes:
On the Voortrekker side, the Blood River Monument and Museum complex is surrounded by 64 exact replica Voortrekker wagons cast in bronze. Visiting and seeing the wagons is an almost haunting feeling, with the encampment having a sensation that it could come alive at any moment.
On the opposite, nearby stands the Ncome Museum – shaped in the Zulu war horn formation and a encompassing reed garden.
It is certainly advisable to visit both sites as they give their own interpretation of how events unfolded and give you a balanced view into this important part of South Africa’s past.
Battle of Talana Hill
The first battle of the Great Boer War, also known as the Battle of Dundee, fought in Northern Natal on 20th October 1899 between the British and the Boers. The now peaceful gardens and lawns once reverberated with the roar of cannons and the crash of musketry, as the first battle of the Anglo Boer war began. It was not merely another war in South Africa's tapestry of conflict, but a major event which left a lasting legacy on South Africa’s evolution, development and modern history with the eventual victors finally uniting South Africa as one country under British rule.
Now, lonely monuments, a quiet cemetery and a magnificent museum are reminders of the past.
The Talana Museum itself lies at the base of a hill of the same name, which is Zulu for ‘the shelf where precious items are stored’ - rather an apt name for a museum.
There are displays that show the diversity faced by early settlers to the area showing what life must have been like, as well as displays of the Zulus and the Bushmen in the area.
Visit this place of significant historical importance at the right time of year and experience a re-enactment of the battle of Talana and other battles in the vicinity. This takes place during the closest weekend to the anniversary of the battle in October each year. Stay at Three Tree Hill Lodge
Very little of the 19th Century war legacy remains in South Africa today, and it is difficult to believe that these wind-swept plains peppered with the remnants of forts and graveyards ever witnessed such ferocious battles. Yet those with a little imagination will be able to conjure up the past with equal measures of sorrow and awe. It isn’t a place you’ll forget any time soon!
These are just the tip of the historical iceberg when it comes to exploring the Battlefields region of South Africa, with many, many more sites to explore and tales to enthral. If visiting this region is something you would love to experience, get in touch with one of our South Africa travel experts and we’ll create your perfect tailor-made journey through this very special region.
But, don’t forget – this is South Africa so within the same area, or close by, there are also fantastic safari experiences to enjoy with award winning lodges and reserves where you can see the Big Five, or explore this magnificent land.