Pat Rundgren

The intriguingly sphinx-shaped mountain known as Isandlwana in Zululand lies in a flat valley carved out mainly by the Nxibongo River. To the north, the valley is fringed by the Nyoni heights and iThusi Mountain. Behind those is the next river valley, the Ngwebeni.

 

The battle of Kambula (29 March 1879) is the definitive battle of the Zulu War. After the disaster at Isandlwana, when Lord Chelmsford’s Centre Column had temporarily ceased to exist, the focus of the Zulu War had turned to Evelyn Wood’s Column in the north. Not that the British had yet fully learned their lesson about underestimating the Zulus. The Northern Column suffered two disasters – one at Ntombe Drift (12 March) and the other at Hlobane (28 March), before the rampant Zulu army tried their luck on the British base camp at Kambula the following day.

Nita Meyer and her husband, Izak, farmed at “Twyfelfontein” near Laffnie’s Drift on the Buffalo River. Her original diary, written in high Dutch and covering hundreds of pages, is held at the Talana Museum archives.

Izak was a burgher of the Utrecht Republiek and a brother of President Lukas Meyer of the Nieuwe Republiek at Vryheid. Nita was the daughter of Doctor Aveling, of Harrismith. They had two children, Marthie and Izzie.

Just prior to the outbreak of the Boer War, the small mining and railway village of Hattingspruit, only a few kilometres north of Dundee, grabbed some reflected limelight. This was due to the incredible physical exertion of 7 000 Zulu workers who walked from the Witwatersrand Goldfields back to their homes in Zululand.

Sotondose’s Drift on the Buffalo River is not really a drift at all. Situated at the bottom end of an upside-down triangle with Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift comprising the other angles, access is down very steep rocky hillsides on either flank. At low water it consists of a difficult boulder-hopping crossing for foot traffic only. It is marked by a curiously shaped so-called “coffin rock’.

 

It’s always a thrill to meet up with someone who has specifically come thousands of miles to the KZN battlefields to trace where their ancestors fought so long ago. On 17 February 2016, I had the privilege of meeting the Michell family, from Edington in Somerset. Simon Michell was born in Zimbabwe, which gave us immediate commonality. But even better, Simon’s ancestor, Captain Charles Michell, had fought in the Zulu War of 1879, and Simon had the campaign medal and a studio portrait of Charles wearing it to prove it.

It is early March 1879 in Zululand. It is the end of the rainy season and it is bucketting down on a daily basis on those men stationed at Fort Clery near the German Lutheran church and settlement at Luneberg, tucked away in the north west quadrant of Zululand about 6 miles from the Transvaal border. It is hot, sticky and sweaty in the intervals between showers. Roads dissolve into glutinous rivers of mud and the men are wet though and shivering most of the time. Shelter is, at best, corrugated iron or thatched lean-tos.

“I have had, in the last four years, the advantage, if it be an advantage, of many strange and varied experiences. But nothing was so thrilling as this: to wait and struggle among these clanging, rending iron boxes, with the repeated explosions of the shells and the artillery, the grunting and puffing of the engine – poor, tortured thing, harassed by at least a dozen shells, any one of which, by penetrating the boiler, might have made an end to it all”. W.L.S. Churchill.

 

Battle of Isandlwana painting - via Ditsong Museum

Physical combat has to be the most exhilarating experience that any man can have. Obviously, all-out effort, commitment and ferocity are required to win the day. None have displayed this more effectively than the Zulus, and their reputation is legendary. However, over some time various authors have postulated that, apart from an adrenaline-induced state of hyper-aggressiveness, the Zulus were “doctored” with hallucinogenic material to enhance these effects prior to engaging in battle.

"An ancient song, as old as the ashes, Echoed as Mageba’s warriors marched away." South African Contemporary Folk Song. Johnny Clegg and Savuka.

Colonel Anthony Durnford is probably the most enigmatic, controversial and colourful character associated with the British defeat at Isandlwana. Incontrovertibly the senior officer present, history has blamed him for the disaster for failing to exercise effective command and control.

 

A casualty rate of 10% of forces engaged in battle is today considered as catastrophic. British casualties at Isandlwana number some 70%, which constitutes annihilation. Zulu numbers have always been exaggerated, but current thinking is approximately 3000 dead out of an attacking force of about 20000, which works out at more than 10%. So the battle may also be considered catastrophic for the Zulus, although they did come away with the entire contents of the camp, which was their ultimate objective.

When the Boer raiding party rode into Elandslaagte on 19 October 1899  they first made a turn at David Harris’ imposing red-brick residence. Harris, the General Manager of the Elandslaagte Colliery, was having dinner with Simpson Mitchell-Innes of the farm “Blanerne”, who was also one of the Directors of the Colliery. The ten minutes spent in conversation there gave the acting Station Master, G.P. Atkinson and his clerk, D. Christie, an opportunity to warn Ladysmith of the Boer’s arrival via the telegraph.

Known as “Long Toms”, the four 155mm siege guns installed in the forts to protect Pretoria, were supposed to be far too big and cumbersome to move, yet one of them (nicknamed Schanskop Tom), which had originally been installed at Fort Schanskop, was used to drive the British out of Dundee. It was manoeuvred up Impati Mountain and shelled the British camp on Ryley’s Hill. Unable to retaliate, the British were forced to withdraw from Dundee and make a hazardous, but mostly uncomfortable (in the pelting rain) retirement to Ladysmith.

Dawn. Dundee, Natal. 20 October 1899. It was bitterly cold. Indeed, it had uncharacteristically snowed the previous week. Huge banks of fog covered the town and surrounding high ground. Intermittent drizzle made everything clammy and miserable. Breath puffed out like a steam train. All in all, a time for any sensible person to be indoors, in bed.

Although suffering from the worst drought in decades, one hopes that the rainy season is going to hit Zululand with a vengeance this year. From mid October onwards the heavens open up and the countryside transforms itself from harsh, barren, rock strewn tawny hillsides into rolling slopes covered with emerald green grass, rushing rivers and sparkling air. Looming massively on the skyline, and lit most afternoons by truly spectacular forked lightning streaking across the pitch black sky, Itala Mountain has a particularly eerie feel to it.

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