Wednesday 14 September 2016

"I came up here to build a bridge"

Rain overnight washed away the hyaena spoor. We woke to a fresh new day, the liquid notes of the well-named gorgeous bush shrike, repeated pleas of "Good Lord deliver us" from the fiery-necked nightjar, a gentle tapping from a woodpecker and, as always, the soothing murmuring of doves. 
We packed up, carefully pulling the lift-type gate across the kitchen doorway, then closing the wire mesh door, pushing the bolt across and finally fixing the metal clip onto the bolt - there are vervet monkeys and baboons here, nimble, quick, opportunistic and dextrous, and never to be trusted. They were sitting in the trees all around, watching us, just waiting for their chance. They'd already been into Shelley's tent yesterday, slipping through a gap in the zip and going through her bag, helping themselves to a box of macarons I'd given her. There were only tiny crumbs left.
There was more wildlife on the way back out of the reserve: elephants, of course, impala, kudu, zebra, giraffes... And then we were back in civilisation again, on the road. There was litter everywhere, traffic, people walking along the edge of the motorway, eucalyptus plantations, rivers, smaller roads mostly good but with random huge potholes, big open country of dry, bare hillsides. 
It looked empty, but closer to the increasingly traditional villages of compounds with round, thatched huts, there were herders watching over sheep, goats, and Brangus cattle (Brahman and Angus cross). Schoolkids in uniform got out of class to go and fill water containers at the bore pump, people were digging, washing clothes, chatting, sitting. We saw distinctive mesas, and then, happily, encountered a Landrover with a familiar name on it, and followed it to our destination: Fugitives' Drift Lodge.
We came here for one reason: the movie 'Zulu'. During my time in the UK (and since, I believe) this 1964 film ("Introducing Michael Caine" the opening credits announce) was played on TV on Christmas Day year after year. It was a ritual. And so it felt meant, since we were in the general area, to come and visit the location of the movie's central action: the Battle of Rorke's Drift. It's no accident that 80% of the area's visitors are Brits - including, during our stay, a sizeable contingent of Welsh people. In fact, of the dozen or so staying along with us, only one, an American, had never seen the movie. So, after a pleasant lunch in the Guest Lodge dining room hosted by Doug Rattray, one of the sons of the lamented David whose intense interest in the Anglo-Zulu War led to this operation, we were driven to the actual site of this 1879 battle and shown around by his older brother Andrew. 
'Shown around' is a feeble way to describe the experience. Really, it was a performance: 90 minutes of narration, quotation, description, opinion. Pretty much a tour de force, and irresistibly emotional, especially for the Welsh contingent (there's a strong Welsh connection). Perhaps finishing with the famous quote from Laurence Binyon's poem was a shade manipulative - but that's just me being cynical. There's no doubt that, despite having told the story what must be hundreds of times, the Rattrays are sincere in their recounting of this impressive battle. If you're not familiar with it, the bare facts are these: 139 British soldiers, many of them sick, held off an attack by 4,000 Zulu warriors, earning 11 Victoria Crosses in the process. Even without all the dramatic licence indulged in by the movie, it was a fantastic achievement.
Standing on the very spot where it all happened, lines of stones in the grass marking out the barricades built of biscuit boxes and mealie bags, walking around the (rebuilt - the original was burnt down in the battle) hospital and the commissary store, now a church, listening to the impassioned account of the story as the sun began to set... I'm so glad we made the effort to go.
Add in gorgeous accommodation, excellent service, delicious food and interesting over-dinner chat with the other guests and lodge hosts, and you have a brilliant package.

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