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.

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