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SSouth African society is a fascinating blend of many and varied cultural groups that rub along together in a manner that is, for the most part, peaceful and happy. A historical tour of famous battle sites will bring home to you just how remarkable this is.
The clashes that occurred in this strife-torn land are brought to life as you stand on remote expanses of once blood-soaked ground where Dutch, British, Xhosa, Voortrekker, Matabele, Zulu, Boer and others fought to the death. The beauty (if one can call it that) of the battle sites in South Africa is that they are, for the most part, unchanged. They haven’t been altered by urban development or sophisticated theme parks or ordered graveyards as they have been in many other parts of the world. Often, the graves of fallen soldiers lie close to where they fell in battle, and this gives a unique insight into troop movements during the battle.
II have yet to meet a visitor to the battlefields who, after hearing the story of the battle of Isandlwana, a strange, sphinx-shaped mountain in KwaZulu-Natal, has not been moved beyond words. It was there that the British and the Zulu armies clashed in 1879. The British were well equipped with modern weaponry but were outnumbered and out-manoeuvred by the Zulu generals, and 1 329 British soldiers were killed on the battlefield that fateful day. The terrifying sounds of violent slaughter seem to reverberate still, between the lonely white cairns that mark mass graves.
The highest concentration of South African battlefield sites is in KwaZulu-Natal, where Zulu, Brit and Boer battled it out over a turbulent period lasting almost 70 years. Conveniently, the major battles all occurred within a fairly small area in the north of the province, which makes it possible to visit sites of four different wars, spanning 60 years, in only a few days. A tour to KZN could include the Voortrekker/Zulu Battle of Blood River, with its emotive ring of life-sized ox-wagons; battles fought during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, including Rorke’s Drift, and the lonely site of the death of the Prince Imperial of France. It could also encompass the iconic battle of Majuba where the Boers won a decisive victory over the British during the 1880/1 Transvaal War of Independence. And it would also include many battlefields of the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) of 1899/ 1902.
In the last category falls Spioenkop, one of the most spectacular battlefields in the world. On this hilltop of carnage, the British attempted in vain to break through the Boer defensive line that prevented them from reaching Ladysmith. White-washed stones lining a mass grave reach eerily over the summit of the hill, against a backdrop of the Drakensberg mountains.