Monday, March 7, 2011

Ripping Yarns of Empire

4-5 March, Champagne Valley, Drakensberg Mountains KwaZulu-Natal

If you aren't into 'Ripping Yarns' of late 19th century colonial folly, blood and guts, high drama, human heroism, all set in darkest Africa, skip this section!

To fully appreciate the grandeur of this tale, we need a quick history lesson. Condensing several hundred years of South African history into a few sentences is a bit of an ask, but here we go.

When the early Dutch first settled around the Cape of Good Hope in the 1650s, the locals were various groups of Bantu-speaking people who had begun migrating into southern Africa around 500AD. By 1700 the Dutch (Boers) had begun to expand north, looking for suitable farming land. Dutch power was declining internationally by the early 19th century and so guess who slipped into Cape Town to fill the power vacuum? Yep, the British.

About the same time as the British began to assert their presence in the Cape, a chieftain by the name of Shaka began to create a militaristic Zulu state in the north. Under Shaka, the Zulu began to expand their territory through violent conquest, leading to the virtual depopulation of large areas of north and north-east South Africa. This was around the 1830s when, coincidentally, the Boers, who had had enough of the British, began their Great Trek north into what they thought was 'vacant land'.

So it was that three great forces came into play - the rugged, pioneering Boers, the fiercely territorial Zulu and the greatest empire since the Romans, the British - in the the rolling hills and craggy peaks of what is today KwaZulu-Natal.

Hmm... three paragraphs. Not bad for 300 years of history. In comparison, Australian history of the same period could be summarised as: Convicts arrived, squatters took up land, gold was discovered, we became a nation. Everybody prospered.

Yesterday we stayed in the town of Dundee, in the very nice Royal Country Inn. The room we slept in was in the old part of the Inn that survived a fire in the 1920s. In the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, this part of the Inn was used at various times by both the British and the Boers as their headquarters. Our very room would have been an office in this command post! Well, we were excited!

But we've jumped ahead.

Blood River was the site, in 1838, of the first serious clash between the Boers and the Zulu. It was a retaliation for the slaughter by the Zulu of a Boer group led by Piet Retief, who sought land concessions from the Zulu. So here's the start of the gruesome bits. The Zulu executed the Boers by impaling then on stakes, from the bottom up, and then disembowelling them, excising their gall bladders and eating those gall bladders. You were warned!

Today there are two monuments at Blood River. We only visited the Zulu one. More than 1000 Zulu were killed for no losses by the Boers.

Not far away from Blood River is the site of the Battle of Isandhlwana, 1879. In the 40 years between Blood River and Isandhlwana, the British had taken a serious interest in South Africa. Oh, did we mention the gold??

So, yesterday we found ourselves beside the sphinx-like hill that dominates the scattered village compounds of the modern day descendants of the warriors who, on 22 January 1879. slaughtered over 1300 British soldiers, inflicting a defeat that shattered the Empire's view of itself and brought down the government. Up to 25,000 Zulu ran down from the hill in their classic 'horns of the buffalo' formation. We could almost hear the swish of their assegai (stabbing spears) and their war cries as we walked around the stone cairns that marked the graves of the British soldiers.

The classic movie, ”Zulu”, captured the final scenes of the battle as the few remaining soldiers formed a fighting square with fixed bayonets and fought to the death.

Leaving the battlefield we, of course, got lost on the rough dirt tracks that led to these rather underdeveloped battle sites. But, for once, it wasn't a frustrating disorientation. We drove through some of the poorer areas of the Zulu homelands. Traditional homesteads, with their rough sapling kraals and circular huts, were scattered as far as the eye could see. Some of the very few old men who walked by the road as we drove by, would probably have heard stories of this battle from their fathers, who may well have sat as children in the smoky cattle kraals listening to the stories of their fathers who survived the battle.

There was no power to most of these homes and water was still being drawn from hand pumps. But everywhere along the rough country tracks, people waved and smiled as we bumped and rattled past. These are probably some of the poorest people in South Africa, but still the proud descendants of the Zulu kings and still living in KwaZulu (the Zulu's Place).

Next morning, (5 March) we were back on the battlefields at Rorke's Drift, the site of what might be seen as a face saver for the British army following the crushing defeat of Isandhlwana. Queen Victoria, “The Great White Queen” to the Zulu, awarded 11 Victoria Crosses to the defenders of Rorke's Drift, the most ever awarded in any single engagement.

This is where the Ripping Yarns of 'derring-do' come into play.

Just hours after Isandhlwana, a bare 139 able-bodied British soldiers fought off over 4000 Zulu. There were characters, heroes and doers of derring-do aplenty at Rorke's Drift. In their red serge coats and pith helmets, armed with their single-shot, breech-loading, Martini-Henry rifles, in the heat of mid-summer, these plucky (mostly Welsh) soldiers, epitomised the British Empire at its zenith.

The site of the battle that we walked around today is smaller than 5 tennis courts. On the grounds are marked the lines of defence that were hastily constructed from corn sacks (mealie bags) and boxes of biscuits. These simple defences didn't alone save the small garrison. It was the courage of the defenders that sent 4000 Zulu back across the Buffalo River.

After fighting through the moonless night, the defenders of Rorke's Drift were on their last legs when dawn came. On the terraces above them, the dark shadows of the Zulu army massed for what they thought would be the final attack. The defenders had less than 6 rounds of ammunition per man. Many had dislocated shoulders from the constant recoil of their rifles. They were spent. Then the unbelievable happened. Silently, the Zulu moved off the field in disciplined ranks, dragging their dead behind then on their great war shields. They had seen the British relief column of 2500 men moving across the valley from the killing fields of Isandhlwana.

One name sticks in our mind after walking the battle site. Corporal Hook (the cook). Fighting a retreating action through the burning hospital building, Hook dragged numerous injured comrades to the safety of the fortified area of the camp while under heavy Zulu attack. Hook survived the Zulu wars and died at home. He is buried in Churcham in Gloucester. We hope to visit his grave when we go to the UK in a month or so.

Another 'Ripper' is the story of the death of the heir to the Imperial throne of France, Louis Napoleon, the son of Emperor Napoleon III and grand-nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, in a less than heroic incident in an isolated cattle kraal. How this son of an Emperor of France came to be brewing tea on the veldt of South Africa in 1879 is most simply put as the adventurous folly of a young man caught up in the glory of colonial conquest. Zulu warriors ambushed the hapless Louis and his small party. Captain Carey, and the soldiers detailed to protect him, managed to escape the attack, believing Louis was right behind them. Unfortunately for all, Louis' saddle broke as he attempted to mount. He was speared through the eye with an assegai. His body was later recovered and you can visit his grave out on the veldt in an isolated corner of what was the once mighty British Empire. Captain Carey was court marshalled but, following the intercessions of Louis' mother, the Empress Eugenie, no penalty was imposed. He was, however, transferred in disgrace, to eventually die under mysterious circumstances in another isolated corner of the British Empire, the North-west Frontier in India.

Seeing how 'these savages armed with sticks' routed the British, the Boers began to revolt. In just over 10 years, the battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal were again alive with the bitter conflict between the Boers and the British. If you want to get a feel for these battles, book Room 35 at the Royal Country Inn in Dundee and spend some time looking at the history adorning the walls of this historic building.

We are grateful to our friends, Jenny and Les, who lent us the audio book of Day of the Dead Moon which so enlivened our visit to the battlefields.

6 March Champagne Valley, KwaZulu-Natal

Our accommodations are again excellent. Champagne Cottages are at the head of the valley adjacent to Bell Park Dam in the Drakensberg Ranges.

We have probably become a bit demanding in terms of what we expect of 'spectacular scenery'. For us, breath-taking means just that. Even some of the sights raved about at home in Australia have not hit the 'breath-taking' mark for us. The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, most of the Southern Island of New Zealand are some of the overseas sights that have stopped us in our tracks. Now we can add the Drakensberg area!

Today we drove to the northern area of the escarpment to visit Royal Natal National Park. At almost every bend, we pulled over for a photo. None of them of course will do the landscape justice.

Not having walked further than a few hundred metres in the past couple of weeks, we thought the hike to Tiger Falls would be just what we needed. The track started off as more like a bike path than a hiking trail, but that all changed as we strode up the escarpment to the falls. It was so steep that we almost grazed our foreheads leaning into the slope as we climbed. It was a tough climb, but well worth the effort. Fantastic views and sore legs!

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