Monday, May 25, 2015

Rorke's Drift - The Art Aspect

When I told people twelve years ago that I was moving to Rorke’s Drift I was met with blank stares, dropped jaws and incredulity. One person in particular derisively quipped back at me that “there is nothing at Rorke’s Drift..did you know?”. Luckily I can unequivocally state that she was so far from the truth as to be laughable, but I won’t berate her too much. What you find at Rorke’s Drift depends entirely on your level of curiosity and whether you have an enquiring mind and soul, or maybe not.
The work of Bhekisani Manyoni who was one of the printmakers who studied at The Rorke's Drift Art School
At the time of the Defense of Rorke’s Drift in 1879 the Swedish missionary Otto Witt was living in the house built by James Rorke in 1849. He vacated the building during the Anglo-Zulu conflict but returned once it was all over. In 1882 a sandstone church was erected on the site, a primary school was established and an old-age home. The Swedish mission also established a theological seminary to train Lutheran priests at Rorke’s Drift. It was not until the apartheid government was elected in 1948 that things would change dramatically at Rorke’s Drift. 

As a result of the area being declared a “white” area the Swedish Lutheran Missionary Church decided to relocate their seminary in the early 1960’s to Umpumulo (now known as Mapumulo) not too far from Stanger. At the same time Berta Hansson a visiting Swedish Art Teacher and Bishop Helge Fosseus of the Missionary Church of Sweden hatched an idea to start an Art and Craft Centre in Zululand. Fast forward through the all the little details and we meet Peder Gowenius who together with his wife Ulla, graduates of the Konstfackskolan in Stockholm, arrive in Rorke’s Drift in and around 1961. Their brief was to research the material culture of the area and consider the opportunities for marketing of arts and crafts among the local Zulu people with an emphasis on encouraging the women to produce work. 

Current work being produced by the potters at Rorke's Drift's ELC Art and Craft Centre.
After a trip around Zululand and then up to Johannesburg where they met Cecil Skotnes who taught at the Polly Street Centre they went back to Ceza Mission Hospital near Nongomo in 1962 and started teaching TB patients at the hospital how to weave, spin and sew as well as other art forms. They became critical of the government whom they felt were trying to keep the Zulu people from learning sophisticated art forms in preference to indigenous craft skills such as basket weaving. The thought of opening a school had its origins in a nurse Allinah Ndebele who was seconded as a translator for the Gowenius”. She had impressed them immensely with her ability to assist with their teaching and the Arts and Crafts Advisors Course was established to train therapists to help patients at other hospitals. They set up this course at the Seminary in Umpumulo. The students were expected to spend 50% of their time producing work for sale in order to help cover costs for their tuition.

Vases that come out of the Pottery Studio at the ELC Art and Craft Centre
In 1963 they made the move to Rorke’s Drift and with a lot of support from Sweden a weaving workshop was established. This was later expanded to a pottery and a printmaking studio. In the 1970’s the Centre not only produced beautiful carpets, pottery and prints it also saw the first black art students studying full time towards an art qualification all the while enduring raids by the police in an attempt to harass everyone living on the Swedish Mission Property. 

Some of South Africa’s most significant black artists studied at Rorke’s Drift. Amongst them are Azaria Mbatha, a printmaker of note, Sam Nhlengethwa, Thami Jali, John Muafangejo, Cyprian Shilakoe, Pat Mautloa and Bongi Dhlomo to name but a few. 

Then came the the devastating closure of the Art School in the early 1980’s but the weaving business thrived with carpets being sold to people all over the world. Both the pottery and printmaking studios continued production. Inevitably though without the on site guidance of the Swedish teachers the Centre went into decline in the 1990’s and almost ground completely to a halt.
Original work that tells a story from the ELC Art and Craft Centre
Some new life arrived in the person of Christiane Voith from Germany in mid 2000 and the Centre has now seen some new ideas and new life breathed into it. Much needed refurbishments have been done and the Centre has a production line going again. However, the sadness of time remains prevalent in the workshops as year by year crafters and artists age and retire and no one is there taking their place.
A carpet woven on the looms of the ELC Art and Craft Centre

The work executed by the Artists now at Rorke's Drift emerges as an art form born out of the history of the people. It is relevant in its place in the Art Landscape of South Africa and deserves pride of place in art collections around the world. The ELC Art and Craft Centre is just another place that visitors to the area can explore and enjoy. On the floors at Rorke’s Drift Lodge are some of the carpets that have come from the Rorke’s Drift Centre. We need to realise that unless we support this Centre of excellence, soon it will be no more and will only be found on the dusty shelves of libraries and archives.
Another carpet from the ELC Art and Craft Centre graces the floors of Rorke's Drift Lodge

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rorke's Drift - A Natural Progression

Today I stand and watch as the sun struggles to break through the clouds on the horizon. Autumn in Zululand brings days that start out looking like winter and then suddenly it is summer. Life on the side of a mountain exposes one to extreme changeable conditions especially when the seasons are changing. I guess that is why experienced mountaineers get caught out at times when they are scaling the heights. When your focus is on getting to the top you perhaps lose sight of what is going on around you.
The view over the Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana battlefields buried under mist in the early morning
But there are other aspects of mountain living in the countryside that takes one away from the hubbub of city and town life and offers the adventurous spirit a place to regenerate, to unwind and to become centred again.

As I take to the trails of the Biggarsberg on the property of Rorke’s Drift Lodge I am able to move towards finding that inner peace. Heading up the Sinqindi Mountain on a morning trail I expect I will be out for about 3 to 4 hours. Spread out in behind my back are the plains of Zululand where my view stretches 60kms into the distance. The track going up the mountain was apparently excavated around the time of the Anglo-Zulu war. Now, as time has taken its toll it has rocky sections that require careful negotiation and my walking stick comes in handy as a third leg. I am on a “spoor and scat” walk and I carefully look for signs of the wildlife that moves around in the veldt at night. I come across some jackal spoor that indicates there was more than one jackal on the hunt last night. The Blackback Jackal often serenade the guests at sunset at the Lodge below. Further along I come across a porcupine quill lying in the middle of the track that tell its own story. A little more investigating reveals signs that the Kudu have also been moving around just recently. As I get towards the top of the mountain in the distance I see some Mountain Reedbuck but as soon as they see me they quickly bound off into the distance, ensuring that they get as much ground between us as possible.
One of the demarcated walks up the Sinqindi Mountain where the aloes abound.
At the top of the mountain I take a swing to the right and head along a track that runs along the length of the farm. The grass has grown incredibly long and at times I disappear in amongst the golden stalks. Then suddenly, the long grass disappears and I am standing on the side of the mountain. In front of me the ground falls away dramatically in a sheer cliff. Above me I can see a black eagle drifting in the updraft caused by the cliff. It hangs there as it scans the grasslands for some movement that would indicate a quick meal. Spread over the rocks are tiny euphorbias defying all the odds growing on what seems to be solid sandstone. All the veldt flowers have now finished blooming and their seeded stalks stand blowing in the wind.
One of the many different species of veldt flowers that grow on top of the Sinqindi Mountain
Before I know it I have walked to the end of the ridge and I must turn around and head back again.  As I go I notice veldt grasses that I did not see on my way towards the peak and it is obvious that the top of this mountain in the summer must reveal a riot of veldt flowers.
The view across to the South of the property.
On the track down I stop to admire the different variety of aloes growing along the side of the mountain, along with the Cabbage Trees, Wild Pear, Red-leaved Rock fig and the deeply significant Buffalo-Thorn. The Zulu peoples have the Buffalo Thorn tree deeply inculcated into their belief system. When a family member dies someone from the family will take a branch of the Buffalo thorn to the place where the person has died. He will then capture the dead family member’s spirit with one of the thorns and he will then travel back home to bring the spirit to its resting place.

The walk has been invigorating and as I walk down to the Lodge I feel the crisp mountain air has cleansed my soul and I can start finding myself again.

Some of the nine horses in the Rorke's Drift Lodge stables
In the mid afternoon I am off on my next adventure. I go down to the stables at the edge of the Lodge gardens. The very efficient stablehands have got my horse all saddled up for me and two of them are going to accompany me on my ride. We head off in the opposite direction of my walk that morning to the flat open area of the farm. The horse has a shiny coat and I am told his name is Bles. Aptly named as he has a white flash across his face. I follow behind the leading horse and settle comfortably into the saddle. I bask in the warm afternoon sun as we carefully weave our way across the veldt. Riding on a horse gives one a completely different aspect of the landscape. As we ride among the Paperbark Acacias we come across a small herd of Impala. They have a few youngsters in the herd and the older animals do their best to hide them from our view. However, they seem unperturbed by our presence on horseback. It is such a privilege to move among wild animals and get so close without them scattering off in all directions. The ride takes us to the very bottom of the farm and we turn back moving along a huge donga system. The “donga” is local terminology for a deep gash in the side of a mountain or slope where the fast rushing waters of the summer convectional thunderstorms cuts into the soil and washes it away. These donga systems were what aided the Zulu in moving up onto the British Forces in 1879 completely undetected.
On an outride at the top of the Sinqindi Mountain
Before I know it we have circled the bottom end of the farm and I am back in the stables, my hair all mussed up from the wind and sun and I head off back to my chalet for a much needed G&T that tastes so much better in the African bush.

It is daylight once again and I stand mesmerised by the view as the sun starts pushing out from beyond the horizon. In the distance I can hear some Southern Ground Hornbills booming to one another. It is a melodious call with different intonations that rhythmically sound across the plains. The one call is the male and the other the female and each morning and sometimes during the day they will call to one another to ensure that they don’t wander too far from one another.

The Southern Ground Hornbill that didn't get the memo that they are supposed to be strictly carnivorous.
My birding guide informs me that at Rorke’s Drift Lodge they have a family of very unusual Southern Ground Hornbills who have established a behavioural pattern of their own. Each year they produce a young chick despite the fact that they’re reputed to only produce every 5 or so years. Someone forgot to send them the memo I think. These Hornbills are also not strictly carnivorous as stated in the Roberts Bird Guide to Southern Africa. This little family has a penchant for pecan nuts and as the Lodge has a giant pecan nut tree in the garden they are regular visitors in the winter when the nuts have fallen off the trees.
The Southern Bald Ibis burying its razor sharp long beak into the lawns looking for earthworms.
We walk around the Lodge gardens and the birdsong is varied and frequent so early in the morning. More than 130 different species of birds can be seen here during the year. Summer will bring in the Paradise Flycatchers that nest in the giant Ficus trees in the gardens and The Bald Ibis can be seen strutting around on the lawns of the Lodge probing the ground for earthworms. Resident in the gardens are some sunbirds that spend their time searching for nectar between the aloes, hibiscus and other flowering trees. They can also be seen catching moths and insects that have collected under security lights that burn at night.Too soon the sun is high in the sky and our feathered friends become silent once again. 

The adorable Paradise Flycatcher. A tiny little bird on the tiniest of nests to be found here in the summer months.
As the sun dips behind the Sinqindi Mountain the birds take up their song again. But it is a different set of notes that can be heard ringing out over the airwaves. The entrancing call of the Fiery-necked Nightjar is a sound that transports one back to Africa in a second. I can hear it just as soon as it starts getting dark and I can see the birds swooping back and forth, back and forth as they start feeding on the insects that are attracted to the lights. Perched on a telephone pole is a Spotted Eagle Owl patiently sitting and eyeing the Nightjar activity. Soon the Nightjars move off and it is the turn of the Owl to search for food. Hot favourite on the menu is Dung Beetle. In the morning after the night before the ground is littered with the heads of Dung Beetles who have been efficiently despatched by the Owl. During the night I hear a frantic flapping of wings and a thud on the roof, followed by a desperate squeaking that seems to be interminable. A mouse has been nabbed by the voracious Owl.

In the distance I hear that haunting sound of the Blackback Jackal and I know that another sublime day in Africa has come to an end. What a privilege to share this earth with so many special creatures and so many unforgettable experiences. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rorke's Drift Part 1 - A Pilgrimage

A view over Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift from Sinqindi Mountain
One seldom thinks of your backyard as a desirable destination that others would like to read about but this morning I am woken very early for a half a dozen reasons that includes a text message on my phone about someone’s breakfast.  I take care of the problem and then move to the window.  The sun’s rays are just starting to paint the sky and slowly the landscape starts emerging. First to appear are the ridges of the mountains that skirt the flat plains of Zululand. Then off in the distance I see the little koppie called Isandlwana come into view and then the whole scene starts to colour itself in the warm tones of autumn.
The monument at Isandlwana with some Zulu men in full battledress in the background.
This is definitely one of South Africa’s hidden gems and if it were not for the epic events of 136 years ago it would probably be largely ignored.

However, as it is the name of Rorke’s Drift is etched forever on the South African landscape. Back then the race was on amongst the European nations to colonise as much of the world as possible in an effort to enrich their growing nations. Most of the available landmasses had already been colonised starting with the voyages of discovery of the early 15th Century. Now, in the 18th Century the Colonial Powers had their sights set on Africa.
The Redcoats with a view of Isandlwana Koppie in the background.
In 1879 under the watch of the Governor of the Cape Sir Bartle Frere, Lord Chelmsford led an invading force into Zululand in order to “sort out” the Zulu population who were not kowtowing to the new Empire. History tells a story of gore and guts, of tragedy and hardship and many men now lie buried on the plains of Zululand. Most of them are nameless as no one kept any records of the Zulus who died at the epic slaughter at Rorke’s Drift while on the slopes of Isandlwana the redcoats of the British Empire lay dead on the battlefield. Their skeletons were only buried months later in mass graves where they had fallen.
Zulu Battle dress
Now Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana are pilgrimage sites. Descendants of the heroic men who died make regular visits to the grave sites to pay homage and respect. They are joined by the countless travellers who have read some of the accounts of the battle, or seen the movie Zulu that starred Michael Caine in his first role on the silver screen or they are military men who come to learn from the mistakes of the past. And thus a tourist destination has been born.
The newest monument to the fallen at Rorke's Drift 
Today I sit and listen as a storyteller recalls the details of that battle so long ago. The account vibrantly brings to life a tragic story of human greed, failure, despair, tragedy and bravery such as I have not encountered before. The story is filtered with personal anecdotes of the men learnt from reading letters to family members. Histories have been traced of the men who were inexorably pushed into a corner and how they improvised at the time and then how this devastating event impacted their lives. I shed more than a tear or two listening to the telling of unthinkable hardship and human suffering. Today, I too sit as a pilgrim at the site of Rorke’s Drift and know that sacrifices have been made and that history is not fair in its account of human loss and tragedy.


1. The Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana sites can be visited almost every day of the year except Christmas Day and Good Friday.
2. Entrance fees at the battlefield sites are R30 per person per site (2015).
3. Guides/storytellers can be contacted through The Battelfield Route Association.
4. Accommodation - Rorke’s Drift Lodge is 5kms from the Rorke’s Drift site.           Accommodation is either self catering or on a bed and breakfast basis.
5. Rorke’s Drift is 45kms from Dundee. 
6. Distance from King Shaka International via Greytown 256kms
Distance from King Shaka International via Ladysmith 413kms
Distance from OR Tambo International 419kms
7. Last 30kms or so is dirt road and sometimes is not in a good state so a car with good ground clearance and very good tyres is needed. Don’t head into this area is a sports car.