Silence. Nothing stirs under the oppressive blanket of the harsh African sun. A ripple in the tall grass as a gentle breeze rolls across the valley floor. I pull at the collar of my uniform as I try and loosen its throttling grip. A trickle of sweat runs down my back, causing me to shiver, despite the heat, as though prescience of something coming. At first I think it’s my eyes playing tricks on me, as the green grass seems to shimmer and suddenly turn black. I rub the sweat out of my eyes with the back of my hand, shifting my rifle to my other shoulder. It’s not a cruel trick of the heat. The hill beyond out camp has instantly transformed. Thousands of Zulu warriors have materialised out of nowhere. I stare in horror - the depths of which I would never have imagined - as suddenly the chilling sound of the beating of thousands of shields mixed with an eerie ululation sweeps across our camp in warning of what is coming - a battle unparalleled in our nation’s proud history.
After a royal welcome from Shane, the manager and his team, we are shown to our room. I’m distracted from the comfortable, elegantly decorated room by the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that provide unfettered views of the story before us. It’s like a time travel portal as I stand for a moment on our balcony clearly seeing the hundreds of dotted white stone cairns marking the graves of the thousands of British soldiers who lost their lives here.
“The Zulus attacked the British at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879,” Shane says as we stand atop the hill behind the lodge, looking out at the battlefield below. “A Zulu force of 20,000 warriors attacked the British camp of 1,800 soldiers.” A cool breeze sweeps across the remote outcrop we’re standing on, sending a shiver down my spine - or is it the tangible feeling of loss and victory forever etched on this landscape that I’m feeling? History, loss, death and senseless suffering mingle with stories of incredible bravery, hope and human compassion.
In the evening we are seated around a warm log fire, the mercury has plummeted to 8c. Sipping gluhwein and chatting about lives and history is the perfect segue into dinner - a delicious affair, and a fitting conclusion to the opening act for what lies tomorrow - our visits to the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift.
“Day waned and the night hung over the hill as we reached the last ridge beyond which had been our camp…in silence we marched down into the gloom below, where lay shrouded by a mericful pall the horrors of the past day…when we saw what had happened every man could not help crying to see so many of our poor comrades lying dead on the ground, which only a few hours before that we left them all well and hearty” (Col Crealock’s account)
“In memory of James Adrian Blakie…Killed here in battle, 22nd January 1879. Aged 19 years,” says one of the countless graves. It’s the British army’s worst defeat ever against an indigenous foe.
From Isandlwana we head, after a delicious lunch at the lodge, to Rorkes Drift, where once more we are drawn into the most epic battle. A battle where more Victoria crosses are handed out than at any other time. A story of incredible bravery, but one written in the sad waste of lives of both British and Zulu alike.
"As the Zulu army retreats from Rorkes Drift,” Lindizwe says as we stand next to the small stone strucutres where the battle took place, “they pass the returning reinforcements of Lord Chelmsford. Silently both armies walk right past each other. Not a word is said. Not a weapon is raised. The death - the loss - the horror, has been too much for both sides. Wars futility is etched on every face. Wars painful cost exacted in sons never to return, in wives left widowed, in wounded never to be whole again."
Back at the lodge as the sun sets over our time here, we enjoy an amazing braai outside on the deck, while warming ourselves around a roaring log fire. What a contrast as we sip our wine and look down on the lights of the huts dotting the plane below. The battle may be a distant memory, but the scars are all too visible under the silvery light of the rising full moon, in the endless white cairns dotting the valley like discarded bones.
We have travelled across a century and returned convinced both of the futility of war and of the need to celebrate and share our beautiful country and its epic history. Why just visit a place for your next getaway, when you can visit a place and a time - and have not just a holiday, but an unforgettable experience.