Zululand is the ancestral home of the Zulu people. The site of many a bloody battle between the British, the Boers, and the Zulus during the 19th century, it abounds in significant towns, memorials, and battle sites that form part of the historic Battlefields Route.
This land once encompassed the Zulu kingdom led by legendary Shaka Zulu, and then by his half-brother Dingaan, who clashed with both the British and Afrikaner settlers in what are today recorded as some of the most important battles in South African history.
Over a period of about 70 years, the plains, rolling hills, and river valleys of this region saw numerous brutal, blood-soaked conflicts over land ownership, political independence, and colonial domination.
The first major battle, and one of the most terrible, took place in 1838 between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus in what became known as the Battle of Blood River. Then followed the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 in response to British dissatisfaction regarding the increasing strength of the Zulus, and the battles that took place at Isandlwana Hill and Rorke's Drift are remarkable for their tales of heroism and brutality.
In 1880 and again in 1889, anti-British sentiment among the disgruntled Voortrekkers, as well as a desire for Afrikaner independence, led to the two Anglo-Boer wars, now collectively called the South African War. This captured the attention of the world and resulted in heavy loss of life among both the Boers and the British. The devastating siege of Ladysmith and the Battle of Spioenkop are among the most famous battles that took place during the second Anglo-Boer War between 1889 and 1902.
Following a long period of conflict and mistrust, including the treacherous murder of Piet Retief and his companions at the hands of the Zulu chief Dingaan, the Voortrekkers, led by Andries Pretorius, prepared for battle against the Zulu kingdom on the banks of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838. The 460 Voortrekkers formed an impenetrable laager, a defensive camp encircled with their ox-wagons, and fought the 15,000-strong impi attack until the Zulus finally retreated, leaving thousands dead and the river red with blood. The violent encounter became known as the Battle of Blood River. About 3,000 Zulu warriors are thought to have died in the battle but the Voortrekkers sustained only injuries. The Blood River/Ncome Heritage Site commemorates this significant battle with monuments and museums to both the Voortrekkers and the Zulus on both sides of the river. This gives the visitor a more complete perspective of events. On the east side is the Ncome Monument and Museum Complex, dedicated to the fallen Zulu warriors, while the Blood River Monument and Museum is located on the west bank and features a life-size replica of the Boer wagon laager. The Ncome Museum building was designed in the shape of buffalo horns, recalling the battle formation in which the Zulu army attacked. It is definitely advisable to visit both museums.
The battle at Isandlwana Hill on 22 January 1879 stunned the British Empire in what was to be the worst defeat in their imperial history. The news that an entire battalion of British troops had been wiped out by a 'native' army was unbelievable. Led by King Cetshwayo, the Zulu Kingdom had refused to submit to British rule and had been gaining strength. Consequently, it was perceived as a threat to British colonists. British troops were ordered to invade Zululand, but grossly underestimated the Zulu warriors. The surprise attack on the Isandlwana Hill British camp left hundreds dead. Isandlwana was the first major encounter of the Anglo-Zulu War. A force of about 20,000 Zulu warriors attacked a portion of the main British column, consisting of about 2,000 soldiers. British fatalities numbered about 1,300 and the Zulus sustained almost as many fatalities, but their far greater numbers gave them a decisive victory. The far superior weapons technology of the British should have enabled them to withstand the attack but they were very poorly deployed.
Today, the battlefield is dotted with memorials, and mounds of white stones that mark the British mass graves. The beauty of the place belies the horror it once witnessed.
Fought on the same day as the nearby battle at Isandlwana Hill, the Battle of Rorke's Drift is remembered as one of the most famous sieges of the Anglo-Zulu War. Survivors from Isandlwana fled to the Swedish mission station that was used as a British field hospital and storehouse, and sounded the alarm. Inside, the 139 men, many of them ill or wounded, barricaded themselves in and prepared for the onslaught of 4,000 Zulu warriors. The Battle Museum dramatically tells the tale of the 'Heroic Hundred' who desperately defended the station for 12 hours, until the Zulus finally retreated with a heavy loss of life. Seventeen British soldiers and about 500 Zulu attackers were killed in the siege. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, not the most ever given at any battle in British history, as is often claimed, but a prestigious honour nonetheless, and the most ever awarded to one regiment in a single action.
It is generally thought that although the courage of the defenders warranted recognition, the awards were also made to distract public opinion from the disastrous British defeat at Isandlwana. Interestingly, just before the Zulus arrived, a number of defenders fled Rorke's Drift and those remaining were so angry at the desertion that they shot after their own men, killing a corporal.
During the South African War, Ladysmith was besieged for 118 days between 2 November 1899 and 28 February 1900. Thousands died, either during battle or from disease and the lack of food and water. 21,000 Boers advanced into Natal from all sides when war was declared between the Boer republics and Britain. After two notable battles, the Boer forces surrounded the garrison town of Ladysmith, where the British commander and his core force were deployed. The siege was eventually broken by the British when a relief force entered Ladysmith - a force which included a young Churchill. But as with many battles in the war, it was a more a voluntary dispersal than a defeat, with the Boers choosing to fight another day rather than face British reinforcements. One touching story from this tragic and protracted siege is the tale of how the Boers sent a single unexploded shell into Ladysmith on Christmas day. It contained a Christmas pudding and a note wishing the British troops compliments of the season.
The museum is considered one of the best Anglo-Boer War museums in the country. Its collection of artefacts, documents, firearms, and uniforms, as well as its series of excellent photographs tell a vivid story of battles between the Boer and British forces.
The Battlefields Route covers 14 historical towns, including Ladysmith and Dundee, numerous national monuments and informative museums, and over 50 battlefields in the surrounding countryside.
These are best explored on a self-drive adventure or as part of a tour. If visitors are confident drivers, self-driving is probably best as they can take their time and divert off the route to see lesser known attractions.
Zululand is a beautiful area and the scenic splendour of some of the battle sites, many of which now seem to be in the middle of nowhere, is poignant. Many of the battles that took place outside of towns and settlements are now marked only by graves among the long grass and rolling hills. At some sites there are museums and memorials, but at others, visitors will need to use some imagination to recreate past events.
Every town on the route has a story to tell or an event to commemorate said story. Tourism offices throughout the region provide maps and guides to assist visitors in making the most of the history, culture, scenery and wildlife.
Exploring this region is a must for military history buffs on holiday in South Africa, and even those not generally interested in such things can't fail to be moved by the stories of courage and brutality and by the lovely landscapes.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination