There are few other places on earth where you can visit a battlefield area and see exactly what the soldiers of 130 years ago observed. The now-famous battles of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana are two of those places and the fact that they are located in the vast, and unspoilt beauty of Zululand add to their allure.
Isandlwana has a haunting presence, dominated (like Ayers Rock in Australia) by this massive granite block commanding the desolate savannah landscape. The rock, when viewed from certain angles, looks like a sphinx. This struck a chord with the men of the South Wales Borderers who fought and died on this parched piece of land. Their cap badge was a sphinx, and some of the men thought that this was a lucky premonition. It was tragically not so, and the British army suffered its greatest defeat against a native force that day in 1879.
The brave Zulu army then decided to chance its arm at Rorke’s Drift, about 30kms away as the crow flies. This time they were not so lucky and suffered a severe defeat at the hands of a very few but well dug in and determined British soldiers from the same regiment. This action was immortalised in the film ZULU, a staple of every English schoolboy since the mid-1960s onwards. The victualing station of Rorke’s Drift, still belonging to Swedish Lutheran missionaries, burnt down so you can only see the rebuilt Victorian buildings. The country surrounding it, however, is unchanged and the museum is well worth a visit.
The way to experience these two sites is by guided tour. I have long been a fan of Fugitive’s Drift Lodge. The lodge is owned by the Rattray family, and the late David Rattray was the pioneer of walking and historical tours and lectures on the Zulu battlefields. Anyone who ever listened to the deep and rich timbre of his voice passionately recounting the story of brave English and Zulu men will never forget it. He had a deep love of Zulu culture, and his legacy will serve to protect the beautiful environment of this part of Zululand as well as giving every visitor an understanding of the history and the realities of the Zulu people. Mass beach and sun tourism this is not.
Fugitive’s Drift is divided between the lodge and the guesthouse, with the latter being slightly cheaper. They both share this pristine bushveld environment slowly being repopulated by indigenous plains game with no life-threatening predators. Consequently, you can ride on hardy boerpad ponies or mountain bike at your leisure around this magnificent private reserve.
About 5 km away and with a slightly lesser profile but no less interesting is Isibindi Lodge. The accent here is more on Zulu culture rather than history, and the accommodation reflects this with the rooms being beehive rondavels (with all the mod cons)! Again, you are in a private reserve with no predators, so game walks and leisurely picnics in the bush are de rigeur.
Nearer the Isandlwana battle site is Isandlwana Lodge, a labour of love of an elderly Texan millionairess. Very different from both Fugitive’s Drift and Isibindi, the lodge overlooks the plain and rock of Isandlwana. It is a more contemporary structure (Afrochic comes to mind). The advantage here is that you can almost walk to the battlefield, accompanied by the resident historian, the excellent Rob Gerrard FRGS.
Travelling to this part of Zululand is slightly off the beaten track. It is about 3-4 hours of leisurely driving from Durban or the coastal resort of Prince’s Grant. As you drive and adjust your mental pace, your mind will drift as you meander through the unchanged landscape of millennia. The combination of history, culture and the unparalleled beauty of this simple land is a powerful aphrodisiac for me and will guarantee my return, again and again.
Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift Battlefields