Did you know?
December 16 is now a South African public holiday called the Day of Reconciliation.
The most interesting feature of the Blood River heritage site near Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal is that it tells the story of the Battle of Blood River, an epic battle fought in 1838 between Zulu impis and Boer commandos, from two sides.
This site is a must-see if you're interested in the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields.
On February 6, 1838, Voortrekker leader Piet Retief and 67 of his men were killed by Zulu forces under the Zulu chief, Dingane. The Voortrekkers had come the royal kraal to negotiate the rights to settle in parts of Zulu territory. The Zulu impis (warriors) then killed more than 500 of Retief’s party at what was later called Weenen ('Place of Weeping'), on February 17.
Much later that year, on December 9, another prominent Voortrekker leader called Andries Pretorius and his group made a vow to God that if they were granted victory over the Zulus, they would build a church in his name and keep the day sacred. A week later they took on Dingane’s army.
When you’re standing in the middle of the Blood River Monument and Museum complex, surrounded by 64 exact-replica Voortrekker wagons cast in bronze, it feels as if the encampment will come alive at any second.
Your guide will take you back to the evening of December 15, 1838, when a massive Zulu force of between 10 000 and 20 000 warriors, divided into their various regiments, began to encircle the Voortrekker laager (encampment) of circled wagons. A heavy mist had begun to settle. Preparations for a pitched battle had begun on both sides.
The Boer laager was well placed, between the Ncome ('Buffalo') River and a donga (deep natural drainage ditch). Trekker leader Andries Pretorius and his 470-strong group had their muskets and two cannons at the ready. If the next morning brought rain, their gunpowder could be compromised as well as the visibility outside the laager. This would be a great advantage to the Zulu army, led by King Dingane’s generals, Dambuza and Ndlela kaSompisi.
But the next day was clear and sunny, and the sight of the massed Zulus around the laager must have been a thrilling and terrifying one.
The battle began, and wave upon wave of Zulus were repulsed by the Boer guns. By midday more than 3 000 Zulus lay dead, with only three Boers wounded.
At the nearby Ncome Museum – with its Zulu war horn formation displays and reed garden - you will hear a similar account of the battle. Where the two interpretive sites differ, however, is in their interpretation of events leading up to that fateful encounter at the river.
It is advisable to visit both sites to get a balanced view of this seminal bit of South African history.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Take the R68 east from Dundee to Nqutu, and head north on the St Paul's road for not more than 30km before you come to the site.
The Blood River site is 80km from Dundee and approximately 340km from Durban. Part of the journey (Nqutu to the site, 30km) is on a dirt road.
Best time to visit
Around the area
You're in KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields country. Check at the Information Centre in Dundee for routes and general guidance.
It's best to drive yourself there.
What will it cost
Blood River site: Adults R20; Children R8. Ncome Museum: free of charge (donations welcome).
Length of stay
Aim to spend half a day at each site – a full day in total. The museums are within sight of each other.
Where to stay
It costs around R400 per person per night at the History's Walk B&B.
What to eat
There are restaurant facilities at the Blood River site.
You can purchase Voortrrekker memorabilia at the Blood River Museum shop.