14 April 2012 by Chris Marais

When battlefields speak

The battlefields at Isandlwana and at Magersfontein are today evocative of 2 hard battles in harsh terrain from 2 different South African wars. Visit them to feel the past come back to life.

Magersfontein Hill - some say a Black Watch piper still plays his bagpipes here in the dead of night.

Old battlefields are interesting places to visit. Some still have their ghosts marching about, while at others you feel simply nothing.

In South Africa – to my mind, at least – the 2 most atmospheric battlefield sites are Isandlwana in KwaZulu-Natal and Magersfontein, just south of Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

The legendary David Rattray - pioneer in South African heritage tourism.

I was privileged to have been on a number of battlefield tours with the legendary (but late) David Rattray, owner of Fugitive's Drift Lodge on the Buffalo River, not too far from the Rorke’s Drift mission, where the dog-end of this battle played itself out in 1879.

Sitting in a rapt group on the side of Isandlwana Hill, Rattray would transport us right back with his fantastic oratory and knowledge of which trooper did that and what clan a particular Zulu warrior came from. It was those fine details that did it for me.

One morning I was trying to drive to the ‘back end’ of Isandlwana to get the perfect dawn shot of the battle site. I managed to get my trusty bakkie well stuck in a muddy river crossing. Within minutes an old Zulu on an even older tractor came chuffing down the hill. He hooked me up and off we went. I got my sunrise shots and my rescuer was happy with the thank-you money I gave him. More atmosphere.

Standing up next to the Celtic cross on Magersfontein Hill, where more British soldiers were massacred in a different war, it doesn’t take much to mentally conjure up a Black Watch bagpiper marching on the flats below.

Standing up next to the Celtic cross on Magersfontein Hill, where more British soldiers were massacred in a different war, it doesn’t take much to mentally conjure up a Black Watch bagpiper marching on the flats below.

There is no Rattray at Magersfontein, but there are local Kimberley guides who will tell you the story. There is also an excellent presentation at the Magersfontein Interpretive Centre.

At both battles, the use of a British hot-air balloon and a couple of spyglasses would have saved the day. At Isandlwana they would have seen the massed positions of the Zulu impis around the hill. At Magersfontein they would have seen the Boers waiting in ambush in their slit trenches at the foot of that particular hill. But, as they say, hindsight is always 20-20...

Getting some local assistance on the way to Isandlwana.

Category: Culture & History


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