Visiting the battlefields of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa
South African battlefields...
16 Jan 2018
05 May 2021
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It’s a strange thing to do, visiting battlefields whilst on holiday, yet here in South Africa they’re a 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 in KwaZulu Natal are some of the most visited battlefields in the world.
As a youngster I remember being captivated by Michael Caine in the film ‘Zulu’. Not because of the acting, or even the impressive scenery, but because I couldn’t understand why we British are always portrayed as the good guys whilst invading land that isn’t ours. I still don’t really agree with our aggressive colonial past, so it was quite a strange feeling visiting the battlefields here in South Africa. Should I have felt pity for the fallen British or embarrassment that they were trying to take what wasn’t theirs? Either way it was a moving and memorable experience, and a great way to appreciate some of the country’s troubled history.
There are several tours available on what is known as the ‘Battlefields Route’, but it’s a lot more fun to just drive around them yourself. You could spend days visiting all the different sites (there are a fair few) but I recommend Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift and Spioenkop as the major players.
The isolated hill of Isandlwana and nearby Rorke’s Drift are the two main battle sites from the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, where the British and Zulus fought to gain control over the land. Isandlwana was the most brutal battle of the war, where almost 1,800 British soldiers lost their lives. It remains the single greatest defeat of the British Army by native defenders, and still feels a little eerie today. Although the land at the foot of the hill honours the memory of the fallen with monuments and graves, I’m not convinced that they’re all yet at peace.
It was here at Rorke’s Drift where a hundred British soldiers famously held off 4,000 Zulu warriors, an event subsequently immortalised by the film. 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.
At first glance, the desolate hilltop of Spioenkop didn’t seem like anything special. Yet it was here where the Brits and the Boers fought tooth and nail for the strategic advantage that the peak would bring during the Boer War. It was warm and hazy during my visit, so to picture the battle where the British suffered a crushing defeat by the Boers was a little beyond my grasp, but the startling sight of grave trenches all around the seemingly innocent hill was pretty sobering. Apparently there were so many dead that they were just buried in the trenches where they fell.
As an antidote to the battlefields, the area surrounding Spioenkop is beautiful, and known for its watersports (there is a dam there). There’s also a small animal reserve where you can get out of your car to view game as there are no predators.
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!