Arriving for lunch on the terrace, at the Harford library at Fugitives Drift, and overlooking the Buffalo River I could see Isandlwana. The mountain, where over 1300 British, colonial and native soldiers lost their lives on January 22nd 1879. They were not the only casualties that day as the Zulu army, it is estimated, also lost over 1000 men. If you have watched or like me are huge fan of the film ‘Zulu’ you may recall the films opening. Richard Burton reads a despatch from Lord Chelmsford to the secretary of state for war giving the news of that disastrous encounter. However the defending of Rorke’s Drift, as depicted in the film, has always overshadowed the huge defeat, only the day before, at Isandlwana.
Fugitives Drift is located in very close proximity to both Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. The lodge is set in a 5000 acre game reserve and it is where the Rattray family pioneered heritage tourism. The luxury rooms, the library and dining room all contain memorabilia and artefacts of the Zulu war. And you do not have to be an enthusiast or historian to enjoy this venue. You cannot however fail to be impressed and drawn into an era of colonial warfare glorified by Stanley Baxter and his portrayal of the defending of Rorke’s Drift.
Over lunch the conversation was mixed. The usual introductions of guests, staff, and hosts, I am always nosey and want to know where everyone is from. The weather, and in particular the lack of rain as the area was desperate for some. And of course history had to be mentioned. I was asked if I was a keen historian and if that was why I had travelled to Fugitives Drift. I had to confess that I was not, but I did have a general interest in the Zulu War. After all my wifes great grandfather had fought in the war and my father in law, travelling with me, had at home some of his personal belongings. These included his hand written diary.
So now it was time to head out to Isandlwana with our Zulu guide Mphiwe. En route we listened to David Rattrays excellent audio CD, Day of the Dead Moon, and Mphiwe pointed out various locations in the build up to the battle. We stopped off at points, where Lord Chelmsford, and his army including Fred Symons, had themselves stopped. Our first good look at the mountain came from a vantage point where the Zulu generals had looked down upon the British camp. It was from this point that over 10,000 Zulu warriors descended onto the battle field. We to now made our way down. After a look around the museum we sat in the shade of a thorn tree and Mphiwe took us through the days events. His story was animated and told with true passion. Coming from a Zulu, with terms, phrases, gestures and clicks, we were engrossed. “My grandfather passed the story down to me, he and my great grandfather were here fighting” He said looking up towards the mountain. So here I sat on a Zulu war battlefield with two men whose grandfathers had been here just over 130 years ago, fighting on opposing sides.
Thankfully all family members survived the days encounter. Fred had been ordered from the camp on reconnaissance as Lord Chelmsford split his fighting force. Mphiwes grandfather and great grandfather left that battlefield unscathed ready to fight again. They were now running with close on 4000 other Zulu Warriors to Rorke’s Drift.
It was Andrew Rattray who led us to Rorke’s Drift. Fifteen of us stood where 150 British soldiers had, and against all the odds and a mighty Zulu army, defended and held their post. A story that became immortalised in the epic film Zulu. Where Michael Caine, playing Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, aided and gallantly fought for queen and country.
“First comes the trader, then the missionary, then the red soldier” were the words of the then Zulu King, Cetshwayo. This was very appropriate as James Rorke had established a trading post and Norwegian missionary Otto Witt was in residence when war broke out.
Andrew walked us through the battle stage by stage. He told us of the truly heroic events and the slices of luck that came and went. We learnt the fates of many men and the stories of those who had earned their Victoria crosses. I stood with a lump in my throat as Andrew described how men had gone from battlefield heroes to, in some cases, poverty, anonymity and eventual lonely deaths.
This is not the place for me to tell you the story of Isandlwana or Rorke’s Drift. I cannot recreate the atmosphere of the mountain slope where white cairns mark the mass graves of those British, colonial and native soldiers. Neither can I get across the emotion or desperation those men felt at Rorke’s drift.
There is no doubt that Mphiwe and Andrew are true story tellers. They are also armed with the facts and knowledge to keep any visitor engrossed. And of course prior and post their battlefield tours there is the comfort, fine food, and relaxing surroundings of Fugitives Drift.