Wandering Through South Africa – Part 1

It was Day 1 of our trip, 13th October 1914, five intrepids gathered in the concourse of Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport, our destination KwaZulu Natal.  There was the Colonel from Limerick, Mad Mullingar from you guessed it but with a birthright of Tipperary, Flash Harry from Liverpool with 50% Roscommon heritage, our trip photographer, Boyling Scouse from that gem in North Roscommon but with Liverpool pretension and myself, who I shall politely call the Scribe, resident of Boyle but with that haunted look of a man who spent too long in Manchester.  We were all off on a trip of a lifetime to follow our own fantasies in marching in the footsteps of the 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers as they chased the Boer 114 years ago in the South African War.

My fantasy lay in the opening up of Connaught Rangers history, Boyling Scouse was trying to prove that The Kop at Anfield was bigger than Spion Kop near Ladysmith, Flash Harry was determined to take more photographs than all the media did in the near three years of the war as well as anticipating orgasms when touching the hundred year old ordnance, Mad Mullingar wanted to look at the weaponry of the war and hoped to drink South Africa dry, The Colonel wanted to understand what made the Irishmen tick who sparkled on both sides during the conflict.

As the organiser I was especially concerned that we gelled.  The Colonel was an officer and gentleman, Mad Mullingar an ex private. corporal, sergeant and back again several times and I suspected never the twain shall meet. Flash with his scouse barrow boy attitude to life would make it difficult for any decent chap to engage him in conversation.  Boyling Scouse had the superior advantage of not knowing where he originated and therefore had already determined to remain aloof.  I of course, the nurse maid of the other four wanted above all just to stand at the back of the bus and calm everybody down in what I perceived would be many moments of crisis.  My equable and hail fellow and well met aura, I felt would manage this onerous position very well but three weeks in the jungle with strangers could well test the nerve never mind the temper.

Just to fill you in with a bit of history 864 men of the 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers set sail from Queenstown in Cork on 10th November 1899 on the SS Bavarian and they disembarked at Durban on 1st December after stopping in the Canary Islands and Cape Town en route and immediately entrained for Pietermaritzberg and then headed on for Frere Camp.  They first met the Boers at Colenso on 15th December where because of General “Reverse” Buller’s idiocy they received a bloody nose and 150 casualties.  They were involved to a limited extent at further attempts to relieve the town of Ladysmith, at Spion Kop and Vaalkrans before making the final breakthrough at Tugela Heights on the 23rd/24th February 1900, losing another 140 casualties at Harts Hill.  Ladysmith was relieved and they sat around for six weeks expecting the Boers to return whilst a good few more of them died of enteric because of the dirty water supply.

On April 10th they were withdrawn to East London in Cape Province where for the next two years they combated the guerilla warfare that the Boers had taken up in the Northern Cape and the Orange Free State and mainly round the town of Aliwal North on the Orange River.  In June 1902 they returned to Ireland after losing 68 men killed, 49 died of disease including one officer 279 men wounded including 17 officers and 39 taken prisoner of war whilst receiving drafts of 857 men and officers bringing strength at withdrawal to 1286.  In the next six years they were mainly stationed at Mullingar before leaving for India in 1908, France in 1914, Mesopotamia in 1916, Palestine in 1918, Dover in 1919, India again in late 1919 and extinction in 1922 when Ireland gained Independence losing over another  1000 men on the way.

So there were the quintet at Terminal 2 looking for the Emirate Airways desk and furtively eyeing each other up as to alphas and betas.  Considering the time of early evening we sailed through the booking in, Ryan Air be aware, and security and over a glass of beer we awaited our call for boarding.  Whereas it took the Connaught Rangers 20 days to reach Durban in 1899 we were about to do it in about 16 hours.

After about 7 hours in a large Boeing with about 500 other people, being well fed and watered and attended to by a bevy of beautiful women who could converse in most of the world’s languages, we disembarked in that city they call an airport, Dubai, having flown over all the world’s worst trouble spots.  Only 35,000 feet had separated us from death as we flew over Liverpool, Manchester, Holland, Southern Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria where the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers came to grief in December 1915 helping defend Serbia after they had already come to grief that previous summer in Gallipoli.  Our journey continued over Greece, Turkey, Syria and Iraq following the line of the Tigris down to Basra, a river the 1st Battalion got to know very well in 1916-1917.  We then flew down the eastern side of the Gulf and dropped into Dubai, which for us was the start of Day 2.

Still fresh from our attentions, we skittered through the airport on a robotic train and before we knew it we were boarding a similar Boeing with similar beautiful attendants who would feed and water us extremely well on our journey to Durban in KwaZulu Natal.  We had one criticism of Dubai and that is unfair really but because the Arabs are a bit like camels and only drink every blue moon, they have no need of pissoires.  Dubai airport was lamentably short of urinals and those that did exist had queues like it was Sales Day at Harrods.  We closed our eyes, thought of our country, tied a knot in it and waited to board, where we knew there was ample accommodation.  The problem was that 500 other people had the same idea.

The flight down to Dubai was easy, the pilot did not need a map, he took off over United Arab Emirates, turned right over Oman, Saudi Arabia and the Yemen before touching base with Africa at the Horn in Somalia and down for 6500 miles through Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Swaziland before landing in South Africa.

Our host/guide/travelling companion Des Armstrong was there to greet us outside baggage reclaim and he shovelled us into an eight seater Mercedes while he and Ulla is wife brought us to a lovely little hotel, The Fern Hill on the outskirts of Howick where we ate, drank and quickly fell asleep after our marathon journey.

An early start beckoned Day 3 so after a sumptious breakfast we hit the road.  It was to be a busy day and our first stop was the Lion River vineyard, the only winery in KwaZulu Natal.  We waited there while Ulla took Mad Mullingar into Howick to buy a pair of runners, living up to his name he had only brought a pair of dancing slippers and he realised they were not suitable for the bush.  Reunited we pressed on our next stop was the Mandela capture site where young Nelson was captured in August 1962 by the Special Branch.  Nelson Mandela is the patron saint of South Africa and the government have turned this site into a museum which tells the story of his life.  Overlooking the spot where he was caught is a remarkable sculpture  by an Italian consisting of hundreds of steel serrated posts set into a concrete base.  From afar the thing looks unremarkable but as you close to a hundred metres Nelson’s face becomes apparent through the serrations, an amazing sight.

As we sat looking back at the monument, the railway on the far side of the road was obvious.  It was on this line the Connaught Rangers traveled 115 years ago in open topped cattle wagons (30 men or 10 cattle) up into the hills bound for Frere Camp some 15 miles from Ladysmith.  We travelled on and we became aware of the original settlers of this area, the Dargle Valley, Athlone Coach Tours, Ardmore Ceramics.

At Estcourt we take a deviation and turn left through Winterton into the jagged heights of the Drakensberg Mountains and some unbelievable scenery.  Our destination was the Champagne Castle Hotel, a luxurious hotel set high in the mountains with a backdrop of rock wall ascending into the heavens topped by the serrated dragon’s teeth  from which the mountains are named.  After a splendid lunch we were off to school and not just to any old school but to The Drakensberg Boys Choir School.  An internationally famous school of about 100 boys who have been selected on musical ability alone.  They tour twice a year to different destinations and give a concert on most Wednesday afternoons.  My initial reaction was how can I get out of this, I was to be massively surprised.

We were led into a packed 500 seater auditorium, the whole school were in the choir and aged from 9 to 18.  They sang songs in all languages and notably Zulu.  I wrote at the interval in the concert “What a performance, what a truly emotional experience.  I cried, I laughed, I clapped, I was enthralled with their mixture of international, Zulu, Afrikaans arrangements directed by a choirmaster under full control of his choir.”  The choir was 84 strong with 35 black lads amongst them.  These black lads tended to lead the animation and the choreography with great zeal and their voices were heard in many solo performances.

The interval contained a guest performance by a mainly black girls choir with a scattering of boys, obviously choral music is strong out here and it does bring people together which is badly needed where above all, time is needed to try and bring these disparate cultures together.  At least here it seems to be working.

I return now to my contemporary writing, “We now have the second half.  It surely cannot beat the first half.  For a while we will forget about the travails of the Connaught Rangers and concentrate on the present day, a day of forgiveness, acceptance and brotherhood and they did and it was wonderful.  It seems that the fees are 115,000 Rand per year, about £8,000 which seems cheap but the real equivalent is about £35 to £40,000 per annum, obviously there are scholarships and bursaries.  In the grounds after the concert whilst everybody was buzzing with the performance we met an old man of Irish stock by the name of O’Neil.  He was over the moon to have met us and he told us the peace treaty to end the first Boer War in 1881 was signed in their farm house.  History is only yesterday in these parts.

We wandered back to the hotel, the sun peeping between the dragon’s teeth on top of the mountain.  It is 6.oopm and time for an apero before dinner, a wonderful meal in truly magnificent surroundings, our tiredness a thing of the past and in our enobled state we drank our fill and went to bed late.  We regretted it the next day but at least my plan is working.  We are all the best of pals.

This unraveling of the trip looks as though it will take several postings to reveal so I hope all you readers hang in there because it really was the trip of a lifetime

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