Wandering through South Africa – Part 9

I have to raise my hand to the people of Aliwal North for the welcome they gave us and the graciousness with which they accepted our presence, we whose forbears had helped to destroy some of their heritage.  I was talking to a local politician Hennie du Preez, a councillor of Maletswai Municipality.  He wanted the names of the group for the local newspaper and I said I would write to him when we returned to Ireland.

Hennie,

I’m the fellow who laid the wreaths at the impressive and emotional ceremonies at the Boer Memorial and the British Cemetery at Aliwal North on Wednesday last.  Can I just say it was the highlight of our three week tour following in the footsteps of the Connaught Rangers of 114 years ago.  The reconciliation ceremony at your memorial remembering the dead of the concentration camp at Aliwal was mind-blowing.  The fact that 77% of those who died were children under the age of 15 and when multiplied by the number of such camps in South Africa meant a whole generation  of people were wiped off the reproductive map of the country, which is an everlasting stain on the history of Britain.  We were so glad to have been there and meet you all, the survivors of this holocaust.

Those from our party who were there want to express similar sentiments.  They were:-

Paul Malpas General Secretary of the Connaught Rangers Association from Boyle in Co Roscommon in Ireland

Kieran Jordan retired Lt Colonel in Irish Army from Limerick in Ireland

Thomas Gunn flag bearer and ex-Sergeant in Irish Army from Mullingar in Co Westmeath in Ireland

Michael Cryan Committee member of the Connaught Rangers Association from Boyle in Co Roscommon in Ireland

Mark Stewart Connaught Rangers official photographer from Liverpool in Lancashire in England

Please thank all the people from Aliwal North who made our welcome so special.

Paul Malpas

A day or so later Hennie wrote back:-

Dear Paul

Thank you for your communication.

It was indeed an honour and priviledge to share the company of honourable gentlemen (and soldiers) of the Connaught Rangers Association.

We were all deeply touched by your efforts to visit us.  The sincerity of your visits to the memorial sites and the respectful flag ceremonies gave honour and dignity to those before us who made the ultimate sacrifice – on all sides.  War never determines who were right, but only who are left behind.

Thank you so much for reminding us that, even after 114 years, we still need to carry the flag of remembrance for our fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who died and for our sons and daughters still to be born!.. Please convey our sincere appreciation to all members of your party, for sharing your mutual sentiments with us and helping us to reconcile the past with the future.

You will always be welcome to our mutual village of remembrance.  Rest assured that we will look after your loved ones (who stayed behind) even though they are more than 10,000 kilometres away.

I am doing this communication on behalf of our town, the farming community, the friends of the museum and all present during a very special day

Yours sincerely

Hennie du Preez

What a nice man and what a whole nice bunch of people the citizens of Aliwal North were.

On the day we said our goodbyes, we had to go, Bloemfontein was calling and another bloody game reserve this time called Emoya Lodge and we were stationed in the Bantu village, a collection of chalets resembling same.  Inside however was pure luxury but of an earthy nature.  Here cockerels, rabbits and other small animals roamed around, while giraffe, springbok and Zebra looked on as we ate our evening meal.  A nice friendly place who would not charge me for a phone call to Ireland.  A long day, a glass or two of wine and early bed.  None of us have the youth we once had.

Day 17 was another warm day, breakfast at Emoya was followed by a visit to the National War Museum in Bloemfontein.  I ducked, I had enough of museums, I preferred solitude and the pleasantness of my own company to catch up with my writing and actually do nothing if I liked.  For me solitude is one of life’s great gifts and I revel in it.

However the real purpose of the trip to Bloemfontein was to visit Arnold van Dyk.  He had invited us back to his house for a meal and a chat.  He is a really nice man and probably the nicest man of all the people I met on this trip and I have to say I met some decent people.  He is a doctor and historian and a world expert on the Boer War.  We drove up to the estate he lived on and our way was blocked by an imposing prison gateway structure with I think two gates in and two gates out with guard rooms on both sides.  There were six or seven security men in uniforms hanging about.  Going off on either side of the gates was a 6 metre high wall surrounding the estate.  You would not get in unless you had made previous arrangements and our driver Robert had a pin number he pressed into a keyboard and the gates opened and in we went.

Arnold met us outside his stately pile and welcomed us in through various rooms until we came to the heart of the house.  A pool through the sliding doors and a massive built in barbecue with its own flu fired by lumps of logs.  Whilst his lovely wife came round generously pouring out wine and beer into large glasses, Arnold was throwing what looked like two sheep onto the grill.  Satisfied that things on the barbecue were under control, he took us round his house which really was a literary museum of the Boer War.  I was amazed at the high quality in terms of original documents from political and military leaders that he had collected over the years.  As I said before if there was such a person as the world expert on this conflict, Arnold is your man and so affable and modest.  About a dozen of us sat down to this ovine feast and we ate the lot, a delightful meal.  More wine and it was time to go.  It was an absolute pleasure to be in the company of the pair, our farewells were brief, we had an early start the following day.  Back through the charade of the security gate; I could not live like that if you paid me to do so.  All the people within the walls were white being guarded by security that was black and serviced by people who were black.

Because I had left my hat at Arnold’s house we had to go back there at 6.00 am next morning, Arnold met us at the gate, the servants were being dropped off by vehicles that had to stop 100 metres from the gate and everybody had to walk down to security and be let through by very diligent guards.  Who is sheltering who from what and because of that South Africa could never be my country. Day 18 started with a 670 kilometre trip across the heart of South Africa.  We set off at 6.30am and Des nosed us into Durban Airport at 4.00pm for our 6.30pm flight to Dubai, an eight and a half hour flight, a break of an hour and onto a six and a half hour flight to Dublin and seamlessly into a taxi for a trip to Boyle dropping Mullingar off at the place he knows best, the Colonel had gone off to Houston Station for his train to Limerick and Flash started looking for Terminal 1 and good old Ryan Air.  Boyling and myself arrived back in Boyle at 3.00pm after 33 hours continuous travel but a glass of wine and a quick reminisce with our loved ones, for those that had loved ones to reminisce with and then to bed.  So ended this unbelievable trip of a lifetime.

I would like to thank Des Armstrong of Howick in KwaZulu Natal for planning, organising and driving us round.  In retrospect there was a lot of hard work and long hours put in to make the trip such a success.  I would also like to thank Des’ wife Ulla for coming so far with such a lovely lunch as we had at Clouston and Robert his son for spelling the old man in the driving seat.  I would also like to thank my travelling companions, Flash Harry for his constant attention to duty, Boyling Scouse for his patience in always hogging the back seat in the bus, Mad Mullingar for parading the flag so well and always being able to curb his natural tendency to drink South Africa dry and a special thank you to the Colonel for being able to say his prayers in 30 different languages and keep a straight face, four honourable gentlemen.  I suppose I should give myself praise also, I took all the flak, I was the one to always face their irritability, to cover up their bad manners and to always look into my glass that was always half full and certainly never half empty.

I hope the reader forgives my thoughts on South Africa because they are only the thoughts of a man there for three weeks.  I could only look at it from the white man’s side, we were never introduced to a black man.  I did not like the way the whites were as nice as pie on the surface and then spitting on the black man’s culture and philosophy once his back was turned.  No matter what you say and think racial prejudice runs riot in South Africa and until that is sorted out the country will continue to drive itself backwards.  There are signs of improvement, I could see it in Drakensberg School, I saw it at Charles Barrett’s house but those signs were few and far between.  I saw a lot more of the Apartheid South Africa than I wanted to see, the South Africa that was internationally blanked until 20 years ago.

For future reference the high spots were  and purely in chronological order, The Fernhill Hotel in Howick, The Champagne Castle Hotel, the Drakensberg Choir School, the battlefields and cemetery’s of Spion Kop, Colenso, Harts Hill. Isandlawana, Rorkes Drift, the luxury of Nambiti, Aliwal North in all its forms, Sarie Mehl and Arnold van Dyk.  The low spots were few and it is not really decent to mention them but I had indifferent thoughts about the Sandstone Estate, Game Reserves in general, racial prejudice, long hours spent driving, the mucky ex-service man’s club in Dundee and those pestilent camp followers in Dundee.  We did not really need their presence and in fact they scared me to death.

Wandering Through South Africa – Part 8

Day 14 it was and a very long drive round the top of Losotho, an independent country surrounded by South Africa.  We were headed for Ficksburg in the Orange Free State, a journey of about 270 kilometres.  The lads in the back had snuggled up to each other on the journey and were like the Babes in the Wood.  It was early afternoon by the time we got to our destination, The Sandstone Estate which must be the biggest museum of agricultural, locomotive and military hardware in the world as well as being a farm of some 20,000 acres.  The Irish flag was fluttering in the breeze as we made ourselves at home in a cluster of chalets.

However Des had a different agenda and he had us back in the bus to go visiting.  We were already a few miles off the asphalt road and he was taking us further into the hinterland along a track that a tracked bulldozer would find a challenge.  After 30 minutes of this cross-country expedition we arrived at this farmstead and we wondered how anybody could live in such isolation.  The farmer Charles Barrett and his wife were there to greet us and welcomed us into their house as though we were one of the family.  He took us into his museum which contained every piece of weaponry used in the Boer War from machine guns down to bayonets and every piece in perfect working order and licensed for use.  Mullingar and Flash were drooling, armaments like animals do absolutely nothing for me.  The only thing I remarked on was the weight of these pieces, even the revolvers.  Charles was telling us that unlike all the rest of the farmers round there, he has no trouble from the marauding Basuto people from Lesotho who cross the trickle of water that is the Caledon River for rich pickings in the Orange Free State.  The South African army are on constant patrol along the border and have a camp at Sandstone but Charles has told them to steer clear of his place.  He seems to have a relationship based on mutual respect with the very poor native population and it obviously works.  I saw it nowhere else in South Africa which is much to the detriment of the country as a whole.

The Barrett family have farmed this land for over a hundred years and Charles was an officer in a Durban Regiment before retiring and taking up his historic duty at home.  He specialises in making liqueurs and brandy from the acres of cherry trees on his land.  We tasted them all and his wife served us biltong, sausage and pizza and we were nicely set as we bade our goodbyes and headed back to Sandstone.

For all its publicity there was nothing really grand about the accommodation.  The evening meal was a bowl of stew, the meat from undefined source, the bar was basic and spoiled by the manager keeping a large diesel engine running belching fumes into our bottles of Castle.  Bed we decided was our best option.

Day 15 improved matters somewhat.  After a hearty breakfast we were taken on a tour of the place.  Firstly a ride in an ox wagon pulled by eight massive long horned beasts whilst the guide explained how they trained these animals.  It was a bone jarring ride as we covered about half a kilometre in 30 minutes.  We were then piled into a armoured personnel carrier, another uncomfortable ride, but quicker, as we headed out to the border lands overlooking the Basuto town on the far side of the valley.  All buildings round here had had their roofs stripped off.  The guide said that anything they can carry, they take.  He had a different tone than Charles with obviously different results.

Sandstone has a massive collection of railway equipment, locomotives, carriages and other rolling stock.  They even had a large locomotive built by Beyer Peacock in 1900.  Beyer Peacock was the largest locomotive manufacturer in Manchester and exported steam engines and later diesel locos to every part of the world closing down in 1966.  It was dear to my heart, as we demolished the said works in Gorton in the 1970s.

In a way I was glad to be off from Sandstone, it did not offer me much and we had another long drive, 320 kilometres to Aliwal North which was in northern  Cape Province in the Eastern Cape to be exact, over five hours continuous driving again keeping Lesotho on our left hand side We hit Aliwal as it was getting dark and parked up at this twee little place called La Riveria on the side of the Orange River.  It consisted of a series of bungalows around a pond full of birdlife, fine accommodation but no food and no bar.  We ate out at a local pub/restaurant that Des recommended, the beer and wine was good but we waited for hours for the food and when I got mine it was the shittiest plate of grub I had had in years.  I should have had the steak like the rest of them.  You live and learn.

Muted comments by the locals, La Riveria was full of black tax officers on a convention, it was thought that they should not be staying in accommodation as good as this.  I do not see why not, there would have been no comment if these civil servants were white.  Another example of the white attitude towards the blacks.  It wore me down this tongue-biting way the whites carry through their miserable lives. Day 15 was a fine day made better by a good breakfast.

On April 10th 1900 The Connaught Rangers left the Ladysmith area, entrained to Durban, leaving their sick and wounded behind and were put on a boat to East London, a port south of Durban in the cape.  They were taking on the Boers in guerilla warfare as the Boers with depleted resources could no longer take part in set piece battles after wandering around a little the Rangers eventually centred themselves round the town of Aliwal North where they remained until the peace treaty was signed in May 1902.  They created quite a name for themselves in Aliwal and the local population had great time for them but on 14th July 1901 chasing Commandant Myberg’s commando of 170 men, they were led into an ambush on Becker’s farm at Zuurvlakte just off the Jamestown Road about 10 kilometres out of Aliwal, where on open ground Commandant Fouche commando of 300 men opened fire at a distance of 400 yards and killed seven men and wounded three officers and 15 men and took five men prisoner.  Darkness came and the Boers retired.  The next morning two men were brought in off the battlefield and were buried with a man who had died of his wounds overnight in a grave adjacent to the Becker family burial ground

2405 Pte Bernard Hegan 5th Battalion Age 20 of Ballina Co Mayo

6702 L/Cpl Michael Cryan 1st Battalion from Gurteen Co Sligo

6454 Pte M Cullen 1st Battalion

and that afternoon three other bodies were brought in and buried with a man who had died of his wounds that afternoon:-

5368 Pte J Brown 1st Battalion

1682 Pte T Hanley 5th Battalion

6716Pte M Leonard 1st Battalion

1513 Pte T Lohan 3rd Battalion

A young 18 year old Boer officer by the name of Olivier was also buried. Over the nexfew months three other Connaught Rangers were buried in this plot:-

6835 Pte Henry Speers 1st Battalion who died of his wounds after an ambush at Jamestown on 28th July 1901.

6399 Pte J Rooney 1st Battalion captured at Lemoenfontaine on 16th November 1901 and executed

6538 Pte M Cunnane 1st Battalion captured at Lemoenfontaine on 16th November 1901 and executed.

So the little family cemetery at Zuurvlakte contained the graves of 10 Connaught Rangers.  These graves along with other graves of Connaught Rangers killed locally were exhumed in 1972 and reinterred in Aliwal North cemetery.  Others exhumed were:-

4261 Pte R J Casey 1st Battalion who died of disease on 22nd September 1902

4477 Pte M Fogarty 1st Battalion Age 34 who died of disease on 2nd June 1902

Others also in Aliwal North Cemetery who died in town of enteric:-

6927 Pte P McNally 1st Battalion who died on 11th February 1902

3594 Pte P Myers 1st Battalion who died on 22nd August 1901

the name of 925 Pte P Sullivan is remembered on the memorial stone who was accidentally drowned in the Orange River on 23rd February 1901  and his body never found.

We met up with a crowd of local people at the Museum in Aliwal and led by Arnold van Dyk from Bloemfontein, an ordnance expert Johan Loock and Mr Becker who owns the land, we were taken out to Zuurvlakte in a convoy of white 4x4s.  A pleasant open area of about 4 or 500 acres with an artificial lake to the south, a hill to the north and a series of small rises to the east where Fouche commando lay hid. Nothing has changed in 113 years and you can still kick up empty casings of 303 Lee Metford rifle ammunition.  They are all over the place, I picked one up and Mr Loock confirmed by its markings that the ordnance was made at the Kynot factory in Birmingham.  Arnold and Johan talked us through the day of 14th July 1901 and the following day of the burials.  Mr Becker had brought with him his foreman, a black man, who had lived on the farm since 1950 and was present at the exhumations in 1972.  He explained how the grave with the bones of three men in it was recognised as Cryan, Hegan and Cullen’s grave by the presence of a corked bottle with the names of the three men written on a piece of paper.  The contents of the other graves were then recognised by a process of elimination.  The Boer, Olivier’s grave is still there and marked by a gravestone. Prayers were said in Afrikaan and Irish, I read out Jourdain’s description of the day and the burial process ordered by Major Moore at the time and we all came away sadder and wiser men and women.

Back in town we stopped at the Boer Memorial on the site of the Aliwal North Concentration Camp.  These concentration camps were a stain on the history of the British Army and were a result of Kitchener’s scorched earth policy in dealing with the Boer guerilla tactics.  By gathering up the Boer women and children and old men, killing all the livestock and burning down the farms, it stopped the Boers chain of food supply.  In the Aliwal camp there were some 2700 women, children and old men, 735 of them died of disease of which 561 were children under 15 years of age, some 76% of all deaths.  Throughout South Africa some 37,000 died in these camps a whole generation decimated.  We laid a wreath of reconciliation, we lowered our flag, our piper played a lament, the attendant Boers wept and so did we, certainly a highlight of the trip and the most emotional.

We then moved on to the military cemetery where 14 Connaught Rangers are now interred and for the last time another wreath, another lowering of the flag and one last lament.  These occasions never fail to produce tears and the respect by the Boers was palpable.  We then went back to the Museum where the burghers had laid on lunch for us, speeches were made, the Colonel once again proving what a good sort he was and then we were honoured with the presentations of various gifts for our museum in Boyle.

We were then off for our 200 kilometre drive to Bloemfontein our day was not yet done.

Wandering Through South Africa – Part 7

Day 11 was a lovely sunny day as most of them have been.  We called to Talana Museum to fetch our guide and off to Blood River about 30 kilometres away which I suppose makes Dundee an ideal centre for touring the battlefields.  I can hardly believe that warring factions over 100 years ago could have come up with this policy of centering all their squabbles in an easy arc round the town.

The Boers had decided to give the Zulu a lesson after 60 or 70 of their ilk were murdered by the Zulus in 1838 by tricking a peace party to lay down their arms at a peace conference and then slaying the whole party and then the Zulu king sent out his impis and killed another 500 men, women and children in local Boer camps.  470 Voortrekkers assembled at Wasbank where we had dinner two nights previously at Sarie Mehl’s house, under the command of Andries Pretorius.  They set out in 49 0x-drawn wagons for the Zulu encampment on the Ncome River and practiced lagering every night for a week.  Lagering means the drawing of wagons etc together into a protective circle.  They reached the river and set their lager up on high ground and tempted 15,000-20,000 Zulus to attack.  Each Voortrekker had two muskets and a black servant to load the one just fired.  They killed 3000 Zulu with only three of their rank slightly wounded, the river ran red with blood, hence the name of the battle.  Peace was declared and more or less lasted for 40 years.

It is a proud moment in Boer history and the monument there is massive consisting of a rehash of the original lager with the 49 wagons and three guns finished in bronze and gathered in a circle.  It is quite an amazing sight as you approach with the Zulus having built their own monument across the river.  A bridge between the two was mooted but neither side would have it.  It all happened 166 years ago.  Talk about Northern Ireland and the orange and the green.  Memories certainly rule in this spot.

Back to Talana Museum and lunch and another tour of the parts of the museum we had previously missed.  It really is that big you could spend a few days touring round it.  Then it was back to Lennox for our last night on this lovely farm.   By now the five of us had gelled sufficiently to nod each morning at breakfast.  Flash Harry was boasting he had used up his third memory card having taken 3000 photographs so far, Boyling looked at him askance and took another bottle of Castle from the crate,  Mad Mullingar was mithered with couriers, stuff he had left behind him in various places was turning up and now as he had brought so much stuff on the road he could not fit everything into his cases and he was trying to off load his dirty underwear to any fool who felt sorry for him.  The Colonel, officer and a gentleman that he is, promised to take the most of it but by god it did smell.  I was the only one who had kept up to date with his dhobi and I resonated freshness and violets.  Boyling and Flash had given theirs to the Zulu women on the farm and they had been ripped off with these good ladies wanted all of two rand to clean and iron their nearly two weeks dhobi, all of 15 cents in Euro money.

We had our last drink at Lennox, packed our bags and slept for tomorrow would be another day and it should be Day 12 by my reckoning.

Day 12 and a good day began with our last breakfast, we then settled our mess bills with Dirk and bade him goodbye, a smashing fellow but not taking a dram is a severe disadvantage in our company.

We headed south towards Ladysmith, we had a destination the Nambeti Game reserve at Elandslaagte, the site of a battle before Ladysmith in October 1899.  The 1st Devons and 1st Manchesters attack put the Boers to flight and General French’s cavalry finished them off with sword and lance.  The only plus for Britain in those days.  The victors were recalled to Ladysmith and that is where they stayed for three months until Reverse Buller relieved them.  We found a small graveyard here by the side of the railway track it contained the graves of a few hundred soldiers, victims of enteric which ravaged the ranks at the end of the siege and after the relief.  There were four Connaught Rangers buried there who had died at Modder Spruit, 893 Pte R Gill who died on 27th March 1900, 2058 Sgt T McGarry who died on 4th April 1900, 4799 Pte George James Dowler who had been wounded at Harts Hill but had died on April 23rd 1900 and 2014 Pte R Gough of the 5th Battalion who had died on 1st May 1900 and had come over in a draft of 216 men and three officers on 30th January 1900.  The poor lad did not have long in South Africa.

After this we visited the Boer Memorial for this battle situated high  The monument was in a hell of a state and because it was difficult to access seems not to have been discovered by the authorities.  Grave stones had been turned over and the ground beneath disturbed.  The problem is a social one when you keep ignorant indigenous people on or below the poverty line.  They have to make money where they can, scrap iron is one of their ways.  They also believe that a man’s riches are buried with them, little did they know that the poor old burghers buried here did not have a pot to piss in when they died.

We eventually landed at Nambiti and as I think about it I must have lost a day somewhere because we were at another Game Reserve in Dundee owned by the Klusener family, a big construction outfit, famous for Lance Klusener the South African cricketer.  We went because it was next to Dirk’s place.  It was a freezing cold night and the boys wanted to sit up top in the vehicle while I was forced into the freezing cold cab of this monster 4×4, we saw the usual stuff and a few hippopotami if that is the plural but one animal is like another to me I have no interest, so that is why I forgot about the experience.  One interesting thing is that on our way back from our circuit, it was a black night, we could see a torch flashing in the distance, when we came close, a solitary figure came into view.  It was this man’s job to patrol the inside of the security fence looking for poachers breaking through, all night long he would tramp this solitary path.  Better him than me I thought.

So we could be on Day 13 now not 12 as I suggested before, how things fly.  Well Nambiti is in another league, security is massive.  There are lots of dangerous animals on their land and I suppose onlookers need protecting.  However to my mind I have no interest in enclosed animals, they remind me so much of the enclosed whites of South Africa, hiding behind high fences with the backing of visiting security guards.  By going to Nambiti I am just following our tour organiser, to me it is somewhere to put my head down and what a luxurious head down it is.  We were met at the car park by our personal game reserve guide and brought down to our lodge or hotel, where we were offered warm towels to wipe the dust of travel from our faces and a glass of fresh lemonade and given the keys to our tents.  We are in Springbok Lodge which has about 20 tents scattered round it.  In this case tent is a misnomer albeit that is what it is.  It is a raised structure 1.5 metres off the ground with a wooden floor, the superstructure is canvas, as is the roof but inside is sheer luxury.  The floor area is  10 metres by 5 metres approx and as you walk in on the right are two armchairs and a side table with a decanter of sherry poised delicately on top, in front of you is a bed the size of a 5 aside football pitch with a mirrored headboard incorporating an air conditioning unit.  Behind the bed are the facilities, a large porcelain bath, two wash hand basins, a flush toilet and a large dressing table 3 metres long and through a door at the rear a rather large outside shower protected by a bamboo screen from prying eyes.  To the left of the entrance door is a snack station, tea,coffee, biscuits etc.  The whole a luxurious affair suitable for the likes of a Connaught Ranger on leave.

After lunch of barbecued meats, salads and vegetables we relaxed over a beer and about 4.00pm the lads went off on a three hour game drive.  The reserve is vast and of thousands of hectares in extent and contains all indigenous animals, however I chose the pen and paper drive and sat down to write this report.  The boys unless they are eaten by lions will be back at 7.00pm. I am going to read, write and snooze.  The boys did return full of talk of rhinoceros, hippo, lions, leopards, giraffe, elephants and all forms of antelope and zebra.  While they were gone a massive thunderstorm hit the area, lightening in all its anger lit up the darkened sky and me in my secure, dry, warm, snug tent felt a tinge of pity for my fellow travellers as I settled down in my vast bed, poured another sherry from the decanter and tried to forget their travails.  The rain stopped at about 6.00pm and I walked up to the lodge for a refreshing and much needed apero and waited for my returning and no doubt soaking friends.

They returned with brave faces and discovered while they were away the staff of the lodge had gone to their tents and filled each bath with hot water and sprinkled the petals of many flowers on the surface of the water.  They enjoyed this unexpected soak and dried out over a beer or in Mullingar’s case a bottle of Jameson.  The colonel happy not to have to say mass this evening reached for the wine and kept on reaching.  We had dinner and retired early to our individual boudoirs and gave the decanters a bashing.  What is included should be consumed.  We slept until a probable Day 14 arrived.  Boyling and Flash were up at five o’clock for the early morning drive, Welsh men and sheep come to mind.  They returned, we had breakfast and we eschewed this luxury and hit the road after a very satisfying breakfast.

Wandering Through South Africa – Part 6

Day 8 was the last day of the conference and again I cherry picked and again the PA system was not quite there.  The little hut for so many people, too many speakers and not enough time to say what was needed to be said,   all jarred somewhat on the visitor, some of whom had traveled some distance to be there.  The quality of what was said was a bit of a curates egg.  It was as though they were dragging any one in who was passing to fill the numerous slots but I suppose overall the organisers nearly made it and hopefully will learn the next time.

We had the afternoon off in the pleasant surroundings of Lennox, time to relax, time to write up my notes of the trip so far.  We had been promised a treat in the evening the ex-servicemen’s club in Dundee had offered us dinner and a trip round their museum.  Des was telling us all about these men, the salt of the earth, the food will be great.  However what we got was a salad and a bit of barbecued meat served out in a dingy old bug hut.  Not my idea of a treat, not that I was after treats.  Nor was I after the presence of these two weird women and I have a feeling one of them probably wasn’t.  They had been stalking us for days now  and they were getting on my tits.  However certain elements found them amusing but each to his own.  We had a few drinks and were glad to be out.  Back to Lennox by 9.00pm to find Dirk in bed and the bar shut.  You win some but lose a hell of a lot more.

Day 9 was a tour round Dundee and a visit out to the countryside to look at some sights.  I was not feeling 100% so I demurred preferring my own company and some writing to what was proposed.  A lovely morning, I had a doze and wrote and read and a nice Zulu lady came over with a toasted cheese and ham sandwich and a pot of coffee at noon.  By the time the boys returned I was well on the mend.  This evening we had been promised another treat. Sarie Mehl, the Boer lady , who had given a talk on her ancestors at the conference, had invited us over for dinner at her old farmhouse, Wasbank, south of Glencoe.  She is the great great great granddaughter of Karel Landman, the Voortrekker leader who was second in command at the battle of Blood River and great granddaughter of Lodewyk de Jager who ran a spy ring for the Boer forces behind British lines during the conflict.  During the war the Dublin Fusiliers and the Natal Carbiniers were stationed at the house.  As with Boer tradition the family have their own burial plot in the grounds and there is an extra grave in that space that is not attributed to the family.  The story goes that in 1901 when the Natal Carbiniers were stationed there, two of them over dinner had a heated discussion over a particular lady and one shot the other.  It was covered up by the authorities at the time and there is now no record to suggest anything, except this extra grave with no markings on it to make it unclear as to who lies under.  Sarie has plans to get in an archeologist to investigate.  Meanwhile the house which is 120 years old is deteriorating, Sarie lives now in Pretoria and visits the place once a month and has let the land to a tenant farmer thrown out of Zimbabwe.  The history of the place makes it dear to her heart but her children have no interest.  It is sad really and like with everything kids do not want to be encumbered and parents wish they would attain maturity quicker than nature intends.

We had a lovely meal and drank lashings of good red wine, only once more to be plagued by one of these women I wrote about last night.  From the looks of the other Boer women she was not at all welcome and neither was her history.  The colonel was again asked to do his sacerdotal duty and I am not certain whether is prayers tonight were not in Welsh but it went down a treat.  We thanked Sarie, a wonderful lady, said our goodbyes and we were off, away from the pestilent French woman.

Day 10 looked good after breakfast at Lennox our guide for the day met us, Patrick Rundgren.  A mountain of a man of Swedish lineage and an ex-sergeant in the South African Army.  He was taking us to Isandlawana and Rorke’s Drift, which were about 40 miles south west of Dundee.  On the way he explained the situation in January 1879.

Lord Chelmsford ,the leader of British Forces in South Africa had been persuaded by the British authorities to invade Zululand to put down Chief Cetshwayo and his unruly warriors and claim the land for the British Empire. His army of 4,000 men plus followers, cattle and numerous wagons crossed the Orange River at Rorke’s Drift in early January, the wet season.  So overloaded were they and they could only proceed as fast as the 0x wagons, they were only averaging a couple of kilometres a day.  Eventually after five or six days they came to Isandlawana, a majestic setting, which he decided was to be his temporary camp while he sought out the Zulu.  He gave orders not to entrench or lager as that would take a week so his camp was spread out over many hundreds of acres with the large rocky outcrop of Isandlawana at his back and with a wide expanse of plain to his front and left.

On news from scouting parties of Zulu presence he left the camp with about 3500 men and went off in pursuit.  The Zulus who were travelling at about 16 kilometres a day easily by-passed his force and descended on the camp at Isandlawana with surprising speed.  The engagement lasted no more than an hour 1300 men lay dead, the rest had made off for Rorke’s Drift pursued by Zulus most of the way and being killed as they ran.  The massive difference in numbers 1800 against 24,000 and the fact they were not lagered meant the result was inevitable.  The Zulus also probably lost about 1300 men but gained so much in terms of cattle, armaments and food supplies that it was for them a massive victory both physically and psychologically.

You look at the massive valley floor now scattered with hundreds of white cairns, every cairn a place where a soldier was found and then buried and wonder why they had not lagered, formed a square or even gathered on the hill on the right hand side but it seems it all happened too quick for the inexperienced Pulleine who had been left in charge. Today the place so little changed in a 135 years has a mystical air about it, a place of real sadness inhabited by the ghosts of some very brave men.  Few places impress me on battlefield visits but this place, Verdun and the south west side of Ypres send shivers up my back.

We left there and followed the fugitive’s trail back to Rorke’s Drift where the following night 120 British soldiers held off 4500 Zulu warriors until they were forced to withdraw the following morning.  Rorke’s Drift has gone down in military history as being a unbelievable victory and it is certainly a lesson in being small, well prepared and well managed.  12 VCs were won that night, probably a political gesture after Isandlawana but the two Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead certainly earned their spurs and undoubtedly there was a lot of incidents of remarkable bravery amongst the British regular army soldiers.  But who won the engagement is difficult to say.  The British lost a few men the Zulus possibly a thousand but the Zulus made off with several hundred head of cattle which meant a hell of a lot to them.  I would say a draw with a generous advantage to the Zulus.

Before we actually walked the killing field we had lunch at the Rorke’s Drift Hotel, a splendid place overlooking the Buffalo River and the historic Drift built by an Ex-Irish Guards officer Charles Aikenhead, but it is literally in the middle of nowhere and is approached by a haul road fit only for 4x4s.  It must be the importance of the place that keeps it viable, I did not see any guests but Charles Aikenhead proved to be an excellent host and we spent a relaxed few hours in his company.  We moved on to the station afterwards and we could see what an excellent place it was to make such a stand against overwhelming odds.  I would suggest anybody in the vicinity of KwaZulu Natal should visit both these places, soak up the atmosphere and marvel at the remarkable bravery of the private soldier in the British Army of 135 years ago.

Well that was enough for one day and we retired back to Lennox, a slap up meal, wine by the vineyard and Castle by the crate load.  Everybody in ruminative mood after the stirring events of the day and we all slept the sleep of the just,  Day 11 beckoned.

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