Thursday 15 September 2016

Isandlwana: black, white and red

No complaints about waking in a very comfy bed to the murmurings of doves, being brought tea and oatcakes with the wake-up call and then having freshly-cooked sweetcorn fritters for breakfast. It was an excellent start to a day of more fascinating historical stories. The first event described took place earlier on the same day as the1879 Rorke's Drift battle we learned about yesterday, and it was far more bloody.
Our guide was Mphiwa, whose grandfather and great-grandfather fought at Isandlwana, which was one of the greatest colonial defeats that Britain has ever suffered: bolshily invading Zululand on their commander's own initiative, 1,300 soldiers were overwhelmed by 25,000 (that's TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND) Zulu warriors, armed with a few dodgy muskets but mostly just oxhide shields, assegais - stabbing spears - and a whole lot of courage. The casualties were huge on both sides since, despite being so massively outnumbered, the British did have the advantage of rifles and cannons, though they were hampered by being totally unprepared.
Mphiwa took us to a hill overlooking the battlefield, a wide undulating plain surrounding the distinctive small mesa called Isandlwana, and described how his people crept up on the troops camping below. Though the battle occurred in January, when the grass is lush and taller than a man, and we were there in the burnt brown dryness of September, we could picture the rows of soldiers' tents, helped by distant views of the many cairns of white-painted stones that now mark their burial places.
Then Mphiwa sat us on chairs in the shade of a tree down on the battlefield itself and told - acted out - the battle, from both sides, from beginning to end, sound effects included. It was marvellous, and the personal connection he had with events really added a whole extra dimension, bringing the Welsh contingent to tears, again.
After lunch, some of us went on a short walking tour to visit the sites and hear the story of both the loss (and later retrieval) of the regiment's Queen's Colours in the Buffalo River, and the nearby graves of Lts Melville and Coghill, who were trying to rescue it, and a vestige of honour, from the dreadful defeat. They both received the first posthumous VCs ever awarded.
And that wound up our visit to Fugitives' Drift. I would have liked a longer walk, and especially to go horse-riding through the Lodge's game reserve, but time ran out. We sat that evening under a sky that should have been starry but was dominated by a full moon, toasting our toes around the fire pit before another delicious, chatty and entertaining dinner, and a peaceful night that brought an end to our last full day in Africa.

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