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 and lose some.
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, 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 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 the 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 clear 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 canp was spread out over many hundreds of acres with the large rocky outcrop of Isandlawana at his back 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 traveling 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 real 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 frail 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 that night 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.