A soggy day on the battlefields, KwaZulu-Natal

Here’s a tip that no one but us needed: if you have a very limited knowledge of South African history, you are going to be very, very lost at the battlefields. In our defence, we had done a bit of (confusing) background reading and we knew that we didn’t know much. We had hoped that our visit would inform us somewhat. And it did…eventually.

First things first though. We used Dundee as our base for our battlefields visit and the drive there from Barberton was really beautiful.

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We stayed in a slightly weird place in a self-catering studio type thing with exceptionally dated décor. The light fittings were those combination light and ceiling fan jobs with metal pull cords to operate them and we half expected the bathroom to be a lovely shade of avocado, that sort of thing. The woman on reception was very nice but spectacularly unhelpful when we enquired about a tour of the battlefields. The guide they usually use was on holiday and she could recommend no one else but did let us know that it is stupidly expensive whoever you go with. So, through a combination of thrift and necessity, we ended up self-guiding.

Things didn’t start particularly well because we got lost on the way to Rorke’s Drift. In our defence, South Africans have been commemorating these battles for over 120 years; you would have thought that in that time someone would have put a sign up. And they have, if you arrive from a particular direction, which we didn’t. So, we were slightly irked by the time that we made it there and then it started to rain right on cue. Never mind, we paid our entrance and went in to the museum. Rorke’s Drift is probably the most famous of the battlefield sites, thanks to the movie Zulu. Despite its fame, if you have no idea what you are looking at (and haven’t seen the movie), Rorke’s Drift is not the ideal place to start your battlefields visit. The museum assumes a fair bit of prior knowledge and doesn’t give context, so all that we could gather was that it was a rather horrific and heroic encounter between Zulu and British forces in a hospital at the end of the 19th Century. James hurried back down to the ticket desk to procure the self-guided tour leaflet for some info, only to be told that they had run out. There is absolutely no point looking around the site without the leaflet because there is minimal signage so you don’t know what you are looking at. There is even less point doing it in the rain.

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We appreciated now why every guide book, blog, tourist information resource and our helpful friend on reception insist that the whole experience is greatly enhanced by going with a guide, which obviously we had chosen not to do. In our defence, a guide would have cost about £100 each and we simply could not bring ourselves to fork out that much.  We left Rorke’s Drift sullen and soggy and not remotely looking forward to the next site.

Fortunately, Isandlwana has a far more informative museum and they also had leaflets. The museum gave us context and detail about both the Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift battles. Now we had some understanding, we headed out to do the battlefield walk, in the car, because it was still raining. The self-guided leaflet was excellent and gave us loads of information about how the battle had progressed and the memorials on site for both the British and the Zulu armies.

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The site itself is large and sweeping and dotted with cairns, small piles of white rocks, that mark the graves of British soldiers. These are scattered seemingly randomly about the site and are dwarfed by the hill which gives the battlefield its name.

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We left feeling much better about our day and decided to complete our loop at Blood River, for an insight into another equally bloody era of South African history. All of the roads around the Battlefields are dubious dirt tracks that run through empty stretches of hills and occasional villages. In one of these villages our path was blocked by a large crowd of boys standing in the middle of the road. As we approached they surrounded our car, hitting the bonnet with flat palms, grinning widely and asking for money. We aren’t going to lie, this wasn’t the most comfortable that we had felt in South Africa. We politely declined and continued to push slowly forward, trying to run anyone over. The drive was beautiful, despite the rain. As with all of our trip around north east South Africa it was dominated by rugged landscapes.

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The Blood River museum is run by a man with the thickest South African accent that we have ever heard. It sounded like another language. He set us up with a highly informative DVD, after which we circled the room reading the many display boards about the history between the Zulu nation and the Boers, culminating in several battles and the massacre at Blood River. The Laager which the Boers built to protect themselves during the battle has been reconstructed in life size from bronze. It is located where the battle is supposed to have taken place, so now it’s just sat in the middle of farmland. It is a little odd, but intriguing. There is also a large stone monument, which is also a little odd.

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All in all, it was an interesting day and we are definitely more informed about the battles and a small section of South African history. We agree with everyone else that it would undoubtedly have been improved by having a guide with us but we decided to spend our money on safari, which was most certainly the right call.

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