Zulu Sundown





South Africa
Trip Participants




"But it is so obvious that the Zulus got the better position. No wonder they won the battle!"  The comment comes naturally while looking over the Isandlwana battlefield from the lounge of the eponymous lodge. Located on the steep slopes of the Nqutu plateau, where the "chest" of Zulu bull-horn-shaped attack came from. One had full command on anything happening (or not happening) in the field from this position. Framed by remote hills in the East and South and the characteristic Mount Isandlwana from the West. The etymology of the word "Isandlwana" apparently has to do with small huts and the second stomach of a cow. Like in "Hey buddy - doesn't this mountain look like the second stomach of a cow?"  Whatever. The point is that while the Zulus got the 4 star deal on the hill, the British had to settle for camping (no facilities) in the field. Their visibility to what was going on around them was severely restricted which contributed to some severely misjudged tactical decisions. Like Lord Chelmsford splitting his party and scouting the wrong valley. Question still is (131 year later) - which was the right valley to look for? This is where the Exploration Society comes to its element: explore on the field and draw your own conclusions.   ESSA had decided on a Zulu campaign in the best British military traditions – two separate columns, approaching Isandlwana across different battlefields. The South column (Denise, Simon, Dimiter) took the route via Ladysmith and Rorke’s drift battlefield. Somewhere before Helpmekaar they stopped to inspect young Zulu warriors training on the boxing ring.   Later on they suffered a setback, when one of the pneumatic rubber wheels of their vehicle burst into shreds and needed to be replaced. Gone are the days when good old ox-wagon wheels were reliably made of wood. Still they managed to get to Rorke’s Drift mission station before sunset and listen to (local witness?) Xolani’s story about the battle. He had chosen the popular among tourists “gentlemen’s” interpretation – that the whole war was like a cricket match. The Zulus won the first inning, then the British got the second and then they all sat and had a cup of tea. Just a little bit overromanticiced on account of the thousands who lost either life or lifestyle or both in the process.   The North column (Paul and Ian) took a route via Volksrust and the Majuba Hill battlefield (where the British lost an inning in the First Boer War). Then they attended a Zulu wedding. It was traditional in more than one way (timing, costumes, carnivorean menu), with just a little scent of non-traditional flavours – the minister was a woman and openly gay revelers where having good time like everybody else. On Saturday morning Ian Knight, ESSA’s honorary guest speaker, told us the story. Ian lives in the UK and has dedicated a substantial part of his researching and writing career to this war, having published several books already. The story started with the political background at the height of British colonialism, Sir Henry Frere’s Ultimatum, and then flowed to the tactical background of the war itself – the movement of the British columns and the mobilisation of the Zulu army on the call of King Cetshwayo to protect their land. Then he explained the progress of battle of the 21/22 January of 1879. And then the question of the Zulu army’s hide out came up. It was raised by recently discovered source document – something like a treasure map of the area, where some anonymous person with Victorian handwriting has put an “X” sign with the claim the “he believed” this was the spot where Lt.Charles Raw’s scouts first spotted the bulk of the Zulu army. That famous “Uh-Oh!” moment when they look over the hill only to discover 25 000 armed Zulus, quitely waiting for the day after the new moon to attack. Thus forcing them to attack immediately and win, slaughtering every single soul, defending the camp within the next couple of hours. Previous research, Ian’s included, had placed this event several kilometers further to the North-East. But could it really be that the anonymous map writer knew better? Or are his beliefs as reliable as iPhone 5’s notorious brand new map software? So, we hiked to the X-spot and looked around. One could arguably hide a couple of dozens warriors in the dongas, but hardly a whole army, where not even all the regiments got along in perfect harmony. And we could not see any landscape feature around, which would count as a “hill” even in someone’s prone to most daring exaggerations imagination. Like calling a tiny second-stomach-of-a-cow-looking feature a “mountain”. Well, it didn’t look so tiny, when we scrambled to the top, but the real reward of the day was to hail the sundown from that particular spot. After a cloudy morning and a clear bright afternoon the sun graciously set over the area where Michael Cain’s character of the classic "Zulu" (Lt. Bromhead, VC) casually hunted leopards right at the time when the of battle at Isandlwana got it's hottest deadly climax.    


South Africa
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Friday, September 21, 2012 (All day) to Monday, September 24, 2012 (All day)