The Battlefields of KwaZulu Natal Zulu Dawn

“A striking and remarkable mount is Isandlwana; not another hill around is there in the least like it.” Bertrand Mitford - Traveller and Author.

Review by Jo Kromberg

I don't like crowds as a rule, but in the scorching heat of a typical December day in the hills of Natal I find myself totally surrounded by thousands of people. Dead people. I can't seem to turn without tripping over another dead or dying, eviscerated, dismembered body. We are standing on the site of the Battle of Isandlwana and the tortured, terrorised screams and death rattles of British soldiers are ear shattering. The scarlet of their jackets is sharply juxtaposed by the deep red of their blood seeping deep into the dry African soil - probably resulting in the tree under which I stand amid this massacre almost 130 years later.

'The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.' -- Marcel Proust

"I can hear the cries when I do tours here at night in the moonlight. I never see them. I only hear them..." So replies our historian guide Rob Gerrard ominously when I ask him if he has ever seen their ghosts in the fourteen years that he's been telling the story of the battle to mesmerised audiences.

The drama that unfolded here on the 22nd of January 1879 in the undulating hills of the KwaZulu Natal midlands of South Africa is the stuff of epic, salient legend. It's the stuff that follows its victims and victors generations into the future as descendants ,of those branded cowards on a single day over a hundred years ago, still grapple with feelings of shame. Such as the descendants of the egregious Lord Chelmsford who lead the regiment. He extended his line of march in enemy country, split his forces and failed to co-ordinate them in the slightest degree.

It was the greatest defeat suffered by the British Army during the Victorian era. A Zulu army of 24,000 warriors had moved undetected to within striking distance of the British camp in the shadow of Isandlwana Mountain. From the start the 1,700 defenders underestimated the danger descending upon them. They were swept aside with horrifying speed and the final stage of the battle consisted of desperate hand-to-hand combat amid the British camp. Over 1,300 men were killed; scarcely 60 Europeans survived.

Isandlwana Lodge is situated in the very heart of this historic location where these remarkable events took place. Rob Gerrard, author, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and ex-Gordon Highlander, is a remarkable battlefields historian. He gives an almost minute-by-minute account of the events of that day and makes the leading characters and their cornucopia of fatal decisions come alive with the fervour of a RADA trained actor. He is gentlemen of yore, conjuring up a time where good manners and enunciating one's words still counted for something.

And he is a most splendid raconteur - Heaven help you though if you disrupt his train of thought. At one point after my photographer, a burly, impatient and inquisitive man had interrupted him with yet another question for the umpteenth time, he says haughtily: "You must forgive me but I'm not used to being interrupted." To which Peter replies: "Oh no, please, my fault. I am not used to not interrupting people..."

After our excursion at Islandwana, we travel to Rourke's Drift. The iconic defence of the mission station, by a small force of British and colonial troops, took place immediately following the Islandwana massacre. It saw a record award of Victoria Crosses, and restored the faith of Victorian Britain in their Army.After an exhausting day of battle ,we return to the cool relief of the lodge for a welcome beverage. Isandlwana Lodge has twelve luxury en suite rooms, all) beautifully decorated in a mixture of traditional and modern styles. The Lodge is carved into the iNyoni rock formation on top of which the Zulu commanders stood during the battle. The pool is built among the rocks and looking at the view from the water I realise the concept of the "infinity pool" must have originated here. From my bedroom I have a similar unparalleled view stretching out across the plains and hills which infuses me with reverie about battles, wars and the endlessly futile quests of men for invariably fragile and fleeting power...

Later we join barman and local resident, Dalton, upstairs for a pre-dinner drink. He wears a couple of hats; aside from barman he is also the battlefields guide, telling the Zulu side of the tale and in retrospect I'm somewhat regretful that we didn't have time enough to join him on a tour for that side of the story.

The food at the lodge is an epicurean dream; tasteful and exceptionally well prepared yet not pretentious. And the service is genuinely warm and friendly. The people here smile broadly and often and they mean it

We turn in early after an exhausting but totally exhilarating day.

I ascend from my gorgeously warm, beautiful big bed with its high thread count cotton at some ungodly uncivilised hour of the morning - I think it was 7 am or something silly - for a scrumptious breakfast with all the trimmings.

Shortly thereafter we set out on foot to the local village just beneath the lodge. We enter a dimly lit hut and a hushed silence ensues as we await the local Sangoma or faith healer. He enters and sits quietly opposite us, cross-legged. Dalton explains that he is preparing to communicate with the ancestors. The locals believe that the only way to communicate with God is through a Sangoma who is a conduit to the ancestors - Sangomas are thus revered and even feared.

The Sangoma then starts dancing and swaying to the hypnotic rhythm of a drum played by a young woman. The sounds emanating from deep inside his body are raw and primordial. The experience is ethereal and rather disconcerting actually. Every nerve in my body seems on end. Drugs are for sissies I think to myself...After we have said our goodbyes to this motley crew, we head to a typical mud hut where we're invited in by the occupant - one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She must be in her late eighties or even nineties and her eyes spill over with the wisdom of a thousand lives. Dalton explains just how extraordinary the architecture and design of the place is; cool in summer and insulated in winter, completely sheltered against the elements.Later that day, as the sun sets slyly behind the staggering cumulus bellow of clouds, the sound of children's voices, women singing ancient songs and the odd bleat of a goat lazily float up to where I'm sitting on the veranda at the lodge. I stare at the silhouetted sphinx of the hill where the anguished cries of the soldiers have now gone quite. A sense of peace envelopes me in this unique twilight. Maybe war is like that. Like the one lover that lives forever in the corners of your memory, these men may have been forgiven but never forgotten.A while later lighting starts dancing across the horizon like frenzied crazed strobes accompanied by an ominous rumble of thunder. The entire night is alive with an enormous surge of electricity as the storm comes closer and closer with every wisp of the wind blowing in my face. Suddenly the wind changes and the entire spectacle of noise and light passes in front of us as if nature thought it a fitting ending to an experience that will stay with me vividly for many years to come. The Anglo Zulu War is an enduring story of courage and self-sacrifice, bloodshed and tragedy.

About Isandlwana Lodge

Visit Isandlwana Lodge

The lodge is within comfortable driving distance of several of Africa's most spectacular game reserves, enabling guests to combine enjoyment of Zululand's rich wildlife heritage as well as the living history of the battlefields. The adjoining Umfolozo and Hluhluwe game reserves, (the most long-established on the continent), host 'The Big Five' (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo), but are perhaps best known for the part they played in preventing the total extinction of Africa's rhino population.

Both the black and white species of rhino are found here. Mkuzi game reserve (superb natural parkland beneath the Lebombo Mountains, is world famous for its abundance of bird life. More than 500 species of birds have been recorded in Mkuzi, where visitors are encouraged to use the numerous hides on the river bank and lakeside to view the passing panoply of wildlife.

Among numerous other reserves run by the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service, the newly proclaimed Itala Game Reserve in the north offers visitors an opportunity to mingle with herds of giraffe, zebra and an amazing variety of antelope in a unique setting of valleys surrounded by almost mystical rock formations, reminders of the wild and untamed Africa of yester-year.

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