KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields

From the Drakensberg mountains, we headed into the heart of KwaZulu-Natal.

Since I’m basically in the posh corps, and we were in the area anyway, I arranged for us to visit some Peace Corps Volunteers in Zululand.

This wee village is home to Chad, who tweets and blogs.

Chad was nice enough to show us around a real Peace Corps site, and scored this sweet photo for us. Tourism!

The primary reason we were in the heart of rural KwaZulu-Natal was to visit a few of the many battlefields in the area. Stiff-upper-lipped UK types are undoubtedly familiar with the so-called Zulu Wars that took place here.

Our first stop was Isandlwana. We scored another Peace Corps visit, as Volunteer Katie lives in the area. Here, we muster in the museum and Katie does a guido impression:

When the British decided to invade Zululand, they grossly underestimated the Zulu army. Isandlwana, the first battle of the invasion, was a major victory for the Zulus. Bunches of redcoats were slaughtered. Every cairn (rock stack!) is theoretically a spot where a soldier died:

After the Battle of Isandlwana a few thousand Zulus, high on their victory, meandered a few kilometers to a place called Rourke’s Drift. Rourke’s Drift was an old trading post garrisoned by the British Army. Thanks to advance warning, tactical planning, and clever improvisation (walls made of cornmeal bags for example), the British were able to repel the Zulus in something of a flip of the prior events at Isandlwana. If you’ve seen the movie Zulu, you know (a highly dramatized) version of this.

For the record, there was a prequel to Zulu, called Zulu Dawn, that depicted the Battle of Isandlwana. Seeing as the imperialists lose that one, it wasn’t as big of a box office smash on the home front.

What no movie can prepare you for are the dioramas at the Rourke’s Drift museum:

The contrast between Rourke’s Drift and Isandlwana as tourist sites was easy to see. We were the only visitors at Isandlwana. The museum is a ways from the battle site, and is quite small.

Rourke’s Drift is much more developed. The museum is large, comically overdone, and the buildings at the site have been restored. There are places to eat, vendors, and guides with serious British accents dramatically retelling the events of the battle to paying groups of foreign tourists. It’s always easier to commemorate a victory.

That night, we stayed in a powerfully awkward hotel:

In addition to rooms with decor from around WW2, there was a large, kitschy collection of Zulu War memorabilia:

After our visit to Isandlwana and Rourke’s Drift, we explored the history of the first set of white invaders: the Voortrekkers, Afrikaner (white South Africans descended from Dutch settlers) pioneers fleeing the British occupation of the Cape coast.

One of the clutch moments in South African history is the Battle of Blood River. I’ve previously blogged about this battle, as it forms the central historical event cut into marble at the very intense Voortrekker Monument.

The Battle of Blood River is historically controversial (with some going as far as to say it never happened), but I’m going to try for some sort of neutral retelling. A few hundred Voortrekkers knew that battle with the Zulus was eminent. They prayed a bunch, and formed their covered wagons into a laager–basically a fortified circle of linked wagons.

The Zulus attacked. They failed to breach the laager, and only gave up after a lot of Zulus died.

From an Afrikaner perspective, the Battle of Blood River is one of the most important events in South African history. Other perspectives differ. But the Afrikaners are the ones who built the memorial, so this is their time to shine.

As shown in the proceeding picture, the memorial is primarily a reconstruction of the laager in cast bronze.

Despite their utility against the Zulus, the laager was no match for a teenage American (he promptly repaired it):

It also features an awkward cairn in the center that resembles a…uh, controversial human anatomical feature:

Wow, all of this Afrikaner pride! This can’t go unanswered in the “New South Africa”…

The answer is the Ncome memorial (the nearby river is the Ncome river). Unfortunately, the New South Africa still has not mastered the design of museums/memorials (see my post on Robben Island), and the Ncome memorial, although interesting, just doesn’t pack the same feeling of awe that the old Blood River Memorial does. The big architectural reveal of the Ncome memorial is that it is shaped like a Zulu Shield

Unfortunately, you need some sort of wide angle lens to capture it.

Following our history lesson, we passed through Piet Retief, the armpit of South Africa, on our way to Swaziland:

I hate Piet Retief. Bad things happen there. Latest story is a bunch of volunteers passing through got cornered by a mentally insane person who made them kiss her because she was HIV positive. While you can't contract HIV from kissing, it's still generally considered bad form to ask strangers to kiss you.