If you’re travelling through Kwazulu Natal, take the chance to walk the battlefields of Isanlwana and Rorke’s Drift with a historian guide. It’s an experience you will never regret. If you are travelling with children this will open their eyes to history in a remarkable and dramatic way.
In the late 19th Century and flushed with the success they’d had creating a federation in Canada, the British turned their attention to South Africa, believing the same might work there.
In order to make such a plan work, the Brits needed first to overcome the obstacle of the Zulu Nation under their chief Cetwayo. It clearly wasn’t going to work to have an independent nation or warriors at large within the federation. So the Zulus needed to be disarmed.
In order to achieve this the British issued an ultimatum and set about tripping the Zulus up by staging a number of border incursions (that bring the German invasion of Poland to mind) in order to justify an invasion of Zululand.
What followed was an extraordinary clash between two cultures, coloured by the hubris of Victorian England and resulting in carnage and defeat for the British on an almost unprecedented scale (at least in the short term). Most notable among these battles are Isandlwana (22st January 1879) and Rorke’s Drift (that same night).
The Brits invasion strategy – under Lord Chelmesford - was dominated by the firm belief that the hardest task would be getting the Zulu to turn and fight. Isandlwana – an eerie rock protrusion where the British set up a poorly defended temporary camp - was to prove quite how badly they had underestimated the military prowess of the Zulu nation.
To visit this site and walk the ground is to bring history to life with an immediacy that you will simply not be prepared for. To look at the battlefield from above and see the scattered cairns of white stones marking the site where soldiers died in their dozens, is to immediately – and chillingly - understand what happened here.
More than 20,000 Zulus (men who could comfortably cover 60 MILES in a day on foot) staged a spectacularly well orchestrated assault on the camp over a 5 mile front and almost entirely wiped out the camp, killing 1300 men.
From here the Zulus continued to Rorke’s Drift, the site of one of history’s most extraordinary defences and still the place where more VCs were won in a single day than any other battle before or since.
If you possibly can, include visits to these sites in your visit to Kwazulu Natal.