Throughout the 19th century, South Africa was a turbulent place. Battles were fought all over the country, but one place more than any other stands out as the place where the three great cultures clashed. The rolling grasslands of northern Kwazulu-Natal, to the east of the Drakensberg and north of Pietermaritzburg became the scene for a series of bitter and bloody showdowns that quite literally made history. These then are the sites of the Kwazulu-Natal Battlefields.
In the east of the country, the Zulus, led by fearsome warriors, Cetshwayo, Dingane and Shaka were forging armies and molding disparate tribal groups into a formidable nation. Ahead of their warlike advances, more peaceable peoples fled into to mountain retreats. Into a seemingly abandoned wilderness arrived the Voortrekkers (the Boers), the Dutch farmers with their oxen and wagons, spreading out from the Cape to escape the hated British, in search of land to settle and plow. In the main, they were hard, ill-educated, God-fearing folk, well-meaning in many ways, blindly prejudiced in others. And then there were the British, swooping in with their red-coated soldiers to hoover up Africa for crown colonies.
The first clashes took place from 1836-53 between the Boers (Voortrekkers) and the Zulus, the Boer-Zulu Wars setting the scene for all future disastrous relations between Afrikaans and black South Africans, with the massacre of Piet Retief and 101 of his followers, followed by the horrific Battle of Blood River.
The British arrived in 1879. First blood went to the Zulus who virtually wiped out the British forces at the Battle of Isandlwana, before heading down the valley to the mission hospital at Rorke’s Drift, where a handful of men fended off an army of 4,000 winning heroic status in the eyes of the Zulus as well as the world. Between the 150 men who took part, they won 11 Victoria Crosses (Britain’s highest military honor), an achievement never repeated before or since. Some think it would have been more, but it was not given posthumously at that time. The battle became even more famous as the inspiration behind the Hollywood epic movie, Zulu, starring Michael Caine.
With European firepower inevitably winning out over Zulu courage and stabbing spears, it was now left to the British and Afrikaans to sort out the pecking order. There were two Anglo-Boer Wars, in 1880-81, and in 1899-1902. The Natal Battlefields played their parts in both. The peace treaty that ended the first was signed in Newcastle. The siege of Ladysmith was probably one of the single most famous actions of the second. The most unlikely people were there. Winston Churchill, as a young reporter, was captured by the Boers on an armoured train at Chieveley, near the foothills of the Drakensberg. Gandhi, at that time living in South Africa, was a stretcher bearer on the battlefields. It was a war that introduced the khaki uniform, guerilla warfare and the concentration camp. It was, quite simply, a local war that changed the world.
To visit the Kwazulu-Natal Battlefields you definitely need wheels. Most people do it as a self-drive touring holiday and it’s a great way to wander around the countryside, allowing yourself time for sidetrips to Pietermaritzburg, the Drakensberg and simply to luxuriate in the fabulous local scenery. Allow plenty of time as distances are long and once you are off the main roads, the driving isn’t always fast.
There are brochures and maps available from all the local tourist offices and museums. The local tourist office has put together an official Battlefields Route incorporating 14 local towns and listing attractions including battlefields, museums (those in Ladysmith and Dundee are particularly good), and even local game parks.
Our self drive tours will include maps of the area as well as all your accommodations and selected meals and your vehicle rental. We will even include a couple guided battlefield day tours with a local expert who will take you back to the battlefield days. Below are a few suggested itineraries which may interest our visitors, however if this is not exactly what you are looking for contact us for a customised self drive holiday which will include the Battlefields.
4 nights in the Battlefields – Anglo Boer War & Anglo Zulu War
6 Nights – Battlefields & wildlife twist – Anglo Boer Wars & Anglo Zulu Wars and a visit to the Nambiti Private Game Reserve.
The Talana Museum in Dundee also hires out a series of excellent Walk’n’Talk audio guides, complete with sound effects.
There is however one massive drawback to doing any battlefield tour on your own. And that is, sooner or later, you are going to end up standing in a field, clutching a bit of paper and wondering what you are doing there. It is, in the end, a field. There will usually be a monument of some sort, but there is rarely much interpretive material to help on site. Any number of brochures cannot take the place of a crash hot guide with a true passion for his (or her) topic. To get the best out of a battlefield tour, you need someone who really knows what they are talking about to bring the action to life.
Take the tour
I am no military history buff, but it was in the KZN Battlefields that I first realized quite what incredible stories there are to be told. The tour guides here are extraordinary and as someone who doesn’t particularly like guns, I stood mesmerized for hours listening to rifles bark and men scream across the plains of Isandlwana, amongst the rocks of Spioenkop, the misty morning of Dundee and the main street of Ladysmith. These empty hills were peopled with ghostly armies, heroes of all nations fighting, one and all, for God, King and country in a tragic clash of cultures that left thousands dead and dying. It seems hard to imagine when it’s just you and the wind whistling across the open vlei.
We arrange guided tours with local guides of the areas who know the battles of this area intimately and have a certain passion for the stories they tell.
Where to stay
There are a number of excellent hotels in and around the Battlefields area, and there is also the possibility of camping, should you fancy that.
Fugitive’s Drift, near Rorke’s Drift, was founded by Dave and Nicky Rattray in the 1980s. Dave Rattray was a pioneer of heritage tourism in South Africa and achieved near legendary status as a battlefields tour guide, lecturing around the world before his tragic death in 2007. His son Andrew has now taken over his fathers passion and providing the quality tours of the battles fought between the British and the Zulu.
Three Tree at Spioenkop (Three Tree Hill Lodge), near Spioenkop, is old colonial in style, corrugated iron with a wrap-around verandah, magnificent views and supreme comfort and style.
Isandlwana Lodge is carved into the iNyoni rock overlooking Mount Isandlwana, the site of the historic Anglo-Zulu war battle which took place on the 22nd of January, 1879.
Isibindi Zulu Lodge, also in the Rorke’s Drift area, is set on a private game reserve and uses the traditional thatched architecture of the Zulu nation as its inspiration for a small lodge.
Nambiti Private Game Reserve, combine game viewing with your battlefields tour at this a top-end 20,000 acre Big Five private game reserve near Ladysmith.