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.
We have been invited to visit Isandlwana Lodge, located on the edge of the famous Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift battlefields - battles of loss and victory never before witnessed. “Wow,” I say as we drive along the gravel road winding between a sprinkling of local huts and the ominous hill of Isandlwana jutting out to our left, “Is that the lodge?” To our right, set majestically on the side of Nyoni rock, is the magnificent Isandlwana lodge.
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)
It’s stunning waking up at Isandlwana lodge. A belt of mist has been draped across the valley floor as though it were a shroud in memory of the fallen. Only the stark landmark of Isandlwana peak appears above the shroud.
“I am Dalton,” Lindizwe says giving us his English name. “I am a descendant of Chief Sihayo.” As the descendant of one of the chiefs of the epic battle that played out on this stage of history, Lindizwe is the master conjurer. We are transported from the verandah where we stand overlooking the battlefields straight into the heart of the battle. Around us the smell of sweat permeates the air as thousands of Zulu warriors squatting on their haunches pause to take some snuff before the battle begins. Down below the red uniforms of the British soldiers look like tiny red ants as they scuttle between the white tents below the hill.
After painting a vivid picture of the background, we all eagerly pile into a vehicle and head to the Isandlwana battlefield, where we come face to face with the bravery and horror of this most epic battle. Climbing up the Isandlawana peak past countless white cairns is a somber reminder of the sad cost of war. Political decisions made thousands of miles away in gilded rooms that forever stamp red blood blotches all across the African planes.
“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.
Isandlwana Lodge has 12 stylishly furnished en-suite bedrooms, each with a private balcony overlooking the panorama of the battlefield and plain. It's an ideal retreat for writers, photographers, hikers, adventurers, and anyone else wanting more than just a holiday. Besides the attraction of the history of this area, there is the beautiful scenery, quiet solitude, great food, and even exciting activities like hot air ballooning. To find out more visit the lodge's website.
Pack pack…quick quick - that's the joy of timeshare - too easy. We are headed to a place we have never been before, the Magoebaskloof area…wherever that is? Leaving Hazyview we head back through Hoedspruit and then on towards Tzaneen and then to Magoebaskloof.
As we ascend the Magoebaskloof pass the weather begins to change rapidly. “Wow. Look at that. It's 19 degrees,” we say looking at the temperature gauge. Then it's 18…17…16…15…14. A thick mist hangs over everything as we drive through a transformed world. What a contrast to what we are used to.
There is an air of excitement. It feels like we are arriving in Europe. We’re staying at my cousin Susan and Don’s home, and we’ve been told to wait for them at pre-determined spot so they can lead us to their home, because “there are no signposts or road names”. Sounds interesting. We follow them in their Jeep along a gravel road, past a dam, through forests…
“My hat,” I say as we wind along, “how did they find this house?”
The mist is thick as we pass sheep roaming in the road before finally arriving at a beautiful home set above a stunning dam. We have stepped out of Africa and arrived in Scotland, made even more authentic as we sip whiskey next to a roaring log fire, while outside the mist wraps in cold wisps around the house.
Arising in the morn, in this wee bit ‘o the Scottish highlands, we ease into the day chatting over a cuppa tea while a log fire crackles warmly away in the hearth. “Let's go and look at the village,” Susan suggests, and so we leap into our cars and are soon winding our way along the misty gravel roads. Haenertsberg is a tiny little village set at the top of the Magoebaskloof pass.
The quaint little shops and pub are like a small version of Franschhoek. We wander along the street in the light mist, which creates a surreal feel, looking at the shops. “This is the cannon the Boers blew up when they were retreating from the British,” Don says as we stare at the remains of a large Long Tom cannon. There's even a small museum with more about the fascinating local history.
After our stroll we stop at the pub for some lunch before following Don on a different route back, through a lovely forest where the mist hangs like a bridal veil in between massive pine trees that reach heavenwards like silent sentinels in silky garments.
“Ask Don about the bikes.” Susan whispers to us conspiratorially. “If you don't get him moving it will be too late.” And so we raise the topic of the quad bikes - much to the glee of he children. Soon Don has taken the four bikes out of the garage and kids, Don and dog are off on a quad adventure.
After a while, the kids arrive back with coat hanger grins stuck to their faces. “This is so amazing,” they gush, “there are so many cool roads to ride on.” It's the parents turn and so Nicky and I head out. We wind our way along gravel roads, dirt tracks, through dark forests, past ponds and grazing sheep.
It's a stunning ride in beautiful surroundings. I can see why the kids enjoyed it so much.
Returning home we're in time to catch sunset over the lake and the somewhat disappointing exit of the Scottish rugby team. However, as the log fire crackles away again, I raise my glass in toast to a grand display of rugby and a beautiful country - Scotland….in South Africa!
The sun’s just rising as it breaks through the dark clouds. I sniff the air sensing danger but I’m not sure what it is. Hearing nothing I turn to to eat the new leaves from a tree next to the gently flowing river. Moments later I look up again. Something is wrong. I sniff the air again. I can hear something. It’s seems far off. What is it? The others in the herd are also looking up now, all staring in the same direction searching for the source of the strange sound. My muscles are tense, ready to propel me away from danger. All of a sudden one of the herd breaks into a gallop and I instinctively respond by leaping off in the same direction. Moments later a thunderous sound rises behind me. My heart is pounding as I strain to outrun the sound. My nostrils flare as I snuffle the air still trying desperately to identify the danger. And then I see it. My eyes roll in horror. I renew my effort to avoid it, but…
We drive along a gravel road that looks like we are lost and simply heading off into the Lost World, but all of a sudden a group of buildings appears and with the crunch of our tires on the gravel we park our Pajero. We’ve arrived at the West Coast Fossil Park. Inside the building offers welcome respite from the heat outside. We’ve come here to do a tour of the fossil finds that have been made in this area. As we wait for a guide to do a presentation we look around at the displays describing what they think happened in this area. The eerie frozen posture of a stuffed lassie alongside other stuffed animals gives the place a “Night in the Museum” feel. I wonder if these creatures run riot here when all the tourists have left?
Our guide introduces herself and then shows us a brief video of what archaeologists think happened in this area gazillions of years ago. However, while this is interesting, the reason we are here is the promised tour of the fossil dig site. Soon we have left the slightly ageing museum and are following our guide’s bakkie back along a dirt track to the dig site. The trail of four cars comes to a halt in a cloud of dust as we all emerge to cluster around an information sign. Beyond the sign is a valley with several dome covered structures. Our guide explains the history and geology of the land as we look on with expectation of what lies within the covered dig sites.
Soon we shuffle down uneven, rudimentary stairs and arrive at a sorting deck. It contains thousands of small stones that are shaken to let the dirt drop through in order to allow archaeologists to search for potential fossils. It looks exhausting, and we are just looking at the pile of it-all-looks-the-same stones not trying to sort it.
Entering the covered dig site we find we are walking on a suspended platform and below us a crisscross arrangement of strings has been strung to organise the various sections of the dig. A mass of bones can be seen protruding all over the place. It looks like Night at the Museum gone wrong, with so many bones sticking out of rocks.
“This is a Sivathere,” our guide says pointing at a bone half protruding from what looks like hard mud. “It’s a short necked, long horned giraffe.” I’m not seeing much giraffe, just a few bones that look like they fell off some dude’s braai. “This is a section of the Sivathere’s jaw,” he says pointing with a long stick at one of the bones. Sure enough it does look like a jaw bone, a pretty large one at that. This giraffe-like animal which looks more like an impala on steroids, stands 3 meters in height. It’s a monster giraffe.
“Check out how big it is,” Josh says, standing next to a drawing of it. This gives me an appreciation of its size. It’s massive. “There are over 500 Sivatheres entombed in the mud in this area,” our guide continues. “It seems that they were grazing in this area and a flash flood came roaring down the valley drowning them all.” This is amazing as there is no river in sight anymore. Our guide explains that this area was once a forest with a river and the sea was a lot closer than it is today. Looking outside at the dry, dusty area its hard to believe. But there's no doubt there are lots of these Siva things all over the place here. Either something disastrous happened to them or it was a mass suicide or some bushmen had a big Siva Steak party one night!
It is truly amazing standing there looking at the scene of obvious destruction with hundreds of animal bones all scattered around. “Each square,” our guide says pointing at one of the hundreds of squares in the excavation, “takes a week to excavate.” I’m not sure I would have the patience for this. This is confirmed a few minutes later. After ending our tour of the dig site we drive back to the admin building where we are led through a sorting center. Our guide holds up a jar with thousands of tiny white sticks in it. “Any idea what these are?” he asks. It seems like a silly question to me. “Tiny white sticks,” I answer knowing I’m going to get the teachers-bright-spark-award. Alas, I’m to be disappointed. “No," he says casting me a disdainful look, "these are the frog tibias,” he replies. "Hang! How did I not guess that," I wonder. “All femurs, tibias, etc. are sorted and kept together, like in this jar here,” he says pointing to another jar with millions more tiny white sticks in it.
It’s now that I realise I’ve made the correct career choice. Hey this is fascinating. I loved learning about the Siva-thing and how it may have met it’s untimely end, but wow, I can’t see me dusting off bones for weeks on end to then be rewarded with sorting frog sticks into bottles. I can hardly keep my socks sorted.
“I’m just grateful there are people that enjoy this,” I say, as we enjoy a snack in the tea garden at the end of our tour. One of my in-laws friends who accompanied us says, “I’m just grateful they allow fossils to visit fossils”, laughing as he digs into his huge lemon meringue slice. There’s no doubt, this has been a fascinating experience, stepping back in time. What is most amazing is that we walk not just in a place but in a time. Where I now stand others have once stood and others will one day stand. We live for just a moment, we should make the most of our time and not let our legacy be just a frog bone in a jar of history, but a meaningful difference in the lives of those we pass by in our brief journey.