The sun rose from behind the huge hill across the thorn tree littered valley. I sat and watched it in the chilly early morning air with a cup of tea clenched in my hands offering some warmth. I wondered to myself if ‘us’ British have always been obsessed with hills? More to the point fighting battles, on them, under them and for them. This particular hill I was looking across at is Spieonkop. The scene where just over a century ago, military blunders and miscalculations led to large scale loss of life for the British Army fighting the Anglo Boer War.
The story of that day and how the British easily took the hill under the cover of darkness, then lost it the following day is best heard on the summit. My guide for this battlefield tour was Simon Blackburn, of Three Trees Lodge, who portrayed the events of the Battle of Spioenkop excellently. Under a clear blue warm winter sky we walked the area from where the British army stormed the hill and took up a holding position. Many of those men are still in their holding positions where they lost their lives under heavy shelling and the accuracy of enemy snipers. “Seventy men were found at one end of their shallow trench with a single bullet wound to their right temple” Simon told me looking at the exact spot where these men still lay.
The shallow fighting trench forms the basis of the now war graves on spy hill, translated from the Dutch Spioenkop. Crosses and head stones stand amongst the white-washed rocks that now add height the distinctively shaped trench. The British may have suffered the heaviest casualties and loss of life but the Boers also endured losses of their own. Their dead are also remembered on a memorial only meters from the British positions. I will leave Simon to tell you of their losses and the outcome of the fighting.
It is amazing to think who was there on that infamous day witnessing the heavy loss of life. From a South African perspective there was Louis Botha, who went on to become the first Prime Minister of South Africa. We to had a Prime Minister in the making observing the day’s events. Winston Churchill was working as a journalist but was also a commissioned lieutenant in the South African Light Horse. Then there was the founder of the Scout movement, Lord Robert Baden-Powell. A stretcher bearer from the Indian Ambulance Corps, decorated for his efforts during the battle, was none other than Ghandi.
Three Tree Hill Lodge made a perfect base for my assault on Spioenkop. It also makes an ideal base for exploring other nearby battlefields, the Drakensberg Mountains and the EKZN managed game reserve it overlooks. The lodge also offers options for how you explore the area, hiking, mountain biking or on horseback.
Where ever you choose to explore and what ever mode of transport you opt for you will return to the luxurious lodge and comfort of your room. Each colonial style suit with corrugated tin exterior and matchboard lined interior has a spacious bedroom, bathroom and deck. The décor including botanical art and prints depicting scenes from the Boer war add the over all feeling.
The Lodge itself, also colonial style, is open plan and split into a dining area and lounge, with a large veranda. There is plenty of reading on offer in the lounge along with memorabilia donning the walls. There is a rifle and a short spade above the fireplace, a reminder of the events that took place on the nearby Spioenkop. In summer the veranda is the place to sit and enjoy your surroundings. In winter the leather couch adjacent to the open fire with biltong and beer before a home prepared hearty dinner suited me.
The attitude, qualifications and ethical approach of proprietors Simon & Cheryl Blackburn not only ensures a far more than comfortable stay for guests. They are award winners and their green approach is second to none. I was only disappointed not to be staying an extra night after taking a trip behind the lodges’ kitchen. There I could see and smell that evenings dinner cooking. A potjie nestled on a solar cooker sat simmering.