Zulu Warrior Memorial at Isadahlwana

Along with amazing wild animals and beautiful terrain, South Africa has a long and complicated history. Before we left on our trip in March, I read A Short History of South Africa as I wanted to know more about the history of the country. I remember bits and pieces of Apartied, the terrible policies of segregation, that crippled the lives of millions of people. But I also wanted to learn about the settling of the land by the Dutch during the early circumnavigations of the globe. Hamilton has read extensively about the military history of South Africa and wanted to see some of the famous battlefields north of Durban and experience first-hand these historic places.  Battlefields are not necessarily my interest, but I was happy just to see the land and I’m always content with beautiful scenery.

We spent the first night in South Africa near the Johannesburg airport so we could catch a morning flight to Durban.  We hired a private guide, Don Botterill, to take us around the battlefields in the KwaZulu-Natal province. Don picked us up at the King Shaka Airport and took us to a charming guest house by the Indian ocean.  We wished we had more time to enjoy the property but we did get our feet wet in the ocean and walk on the beach.  That evening we met with a business acquaintance of Hamilton’s and his wonderful family for cocktails and dinner. I love making new friends and hearing about life in South Africa. We did get to experience the infamous rolling blackouts that plague life in South Africa.  Around twice a day the electricity is cut off for a couple of hours. The big businesses and hotels have generators but homes and small business have to deal with this big inconvenience every day.

Indian Ocean, Durban South Africa

Don picked us up early to start the drive deep into Zululand north of Durban. I was interested to see so many people walking along the highways on their way to work. Most of the people living in the countryside don’t have cars and depend on walking or microbus taxis for transportation. Don began telling us the history of the area and about King Shaka who turned the Zulu’s into fierce warriors in the early 1800’s. We stopped briefly by his simple grave on the way deeper into the lush countryside.  The late summer rains made the land very green and rolling valleys gave way to rocky hills and outcroppings.  We soon were on narrow roads winding through the countryside and the occasional village with traditional Zulu round houses.  The places of worship were stone painted white formed into circles.  On Sundays the people will dress in their best clothes and gather at these stone circles under the great cathedral of blue sky.  We stopped to get gas and some local snacks for our picnic lunch under a tree.

The first battlefield on our tour was Isadahlwana (1879) where 4000 Zulus decimated a British regiment of 1500 soldiers. I must admit I didn’t listen to the details but couldn’t help but be moved by the piles of white rocks covering the graves of the soldiers still on the battlefield for almost 150 years. We then moved to Rorke’s Drift, a British encampment and hospital where a small number of British soldiers were able to hold off the Zulu warriors the day after the terrible loss at Isadahlwana.   The movie Zulu (1964) staring a young Michael Caine is a fairly accurate account of the battle. Once again, I didn’t listen very closely to the story but instead enjoyed the bird calls, gentle breeze and songs of nearby school children—much more my interest.

That night we stayed in a wonderful guest house overlooking a valley.  We were in the middle of nowhere but in the past, there was an active German community that build an impressive sandstone church and now is part of a youth retreat center. After a lovely lasagna dinner, we headed to bed and enjoyed the exotic night sounds of Africa, the distinctive song of the firey-necked nighjtar, the African cousin of our beloved whip-poor-wills. We woke to a beautiful sunrise and soon a hot cup of coffee. I wandered the grounds and for the first time had coffee with vervet monkeys—very curious little guys with black faces. The early European settlers of South Africa were Dutch and Germans and their decedents became the Boers, now called Afrikaans and the Afrikaans language, spoken by several million South Africans, is a form of Dutch.

The next battlefield we visited was Spion Kop.  We drove to the top of a hill with an amazing 360 view of the plains below with a wide river and dam.   On this fateful hill in 1899 the British army engaged the Boer army in an early battle of the Boer Wars that last to about 1903.  The British were terribly mismanaged by the general and it was a massacre. Once again there were mass graves and monuments to the soldiers who died in battle. This time the stories did capture my attention because the aftermath of this battle was witness by two of the most pivotal men in the 20th century.    Winston Church was a young reporter and saw the terrible scene and sent reports back to England.   Mahatma Gandhi was a stretcher bearer removing the wounded from the field down the hill to the hospital.   Both were deeply affected by the horror of this massacre and the suffering and death. This battle informed the direction of the lives and then the history of the world in the decades that followed. The Boer Wars were the end of England’s empire building era. 

War Memorials, Spion Kop. Gandhi’s name is 6th on the list of stretcher bearers.

After a brief visit to a museum in Ladysmith and a lunch at a local coffee shop, we headed back to Durban on the highway. After two days of bumpy unpaved roads, it was a bit of a shock to see traffic and the modern world. I really loved being off the beaten path and immersed in history and the landscape not usually visited by American tourists. But never fear, more off-road adventures were coming! 

The next day we said goodbye to Don and flew to Cape Town and then had a transfer to the beautiful town of Stellenbosch, in the heart of South African wine country. We spent the night at a charming hotel tucked amongst lush gardens and vineyards. That night we met up with Sarel and Johan and their wives, our hosts for the next few days.  Hamilton has been corresponding with Sarel and Johan for many years about business matters and have become email friends. They were kind enough to become our guides for an adventure deep in Tankwa-Karoo, a thinly-populated high desert north of Cape Town.


We packed smaller duffle bags and left our suitcases in Stellenbosch and packed Sarel’s 4WD truck and headed for the mountains and through a 4 km tunnel. There were signs to beware of baboons and fortunately we saw a couple of baboon families including babies on their mother’s backs. Once through the mountains the landscape became more desolate. We had a final fuel stop in a small town, Ceres, then the pavement ended. The next town Calvinia was over 200 km away with just a dirt road between them. It is the longest dirt road between towns in South Africa. We drove for around 2 hours briefly stopping at an outpost that reminded me of something you might see in a Mad Max movie. There was a little store with the strangest mix of merchandise; yoga mats, incense, candy and toys—all covered in a fine layer of dust. We finally turned off the “main road” heading toward our rental cottage. We saw some flocks of ostrich crossing the road. They are the perfect bird watching for those of us with poor eyesight. And I must say they look ridiculous as they run–fluffy feathers like tutus just bouncing around over their spindly legs.

We finally arrived at our off-grid cottage and unloaded the suitcases and food. It is a beautiful setting overlooking a reservoir. The landscape is almost lunar –nothing but rocks. But the thatched cottage has two bedrooms, a sleeping loft, bathroom and nice kitchen. There are solar panels for electricity, propane for hot water and kitchen appliances. It is a wonderful retreat for a few days. I was not surprised that there is no internet and quite ready for media free retreat to finish some reading and relax in this windswept world.

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset then full moon with Venus rising on the horizon. Later I saw the Southern Cross for the first time and Orion high above –but here in the southern hemisphere he is upside down with his sword pointing up. Sarel made a fire from old grapevine roots and cooked beef sausages over the coals. We ate them in buns with cooked onions in tomato sauce and canned guava and custard for dessert. 

Over the next couple of days, we explored more of the territory, visited a raisin farm and the local school. I spent long hours reading and napping. The guys talked endlessly about guy stuff but every evening we would gather round the fire and grill something for dinner and enjoying the stars and moon rising over the high desert.

A few days later it was time to leave our desert oasis and travel the rough but scenic road back to Cape Town. It was even harder to say goodbye to Johan and Sarel, now dear friends who live on the other side of a very big ocean. I would be very sad never to see them again—so maybe South Africa will call us back again.  I hope so.

Over the next few days, we enjoyed more of the region; Babylonstoren and Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, several wineries, the Cape of Good Hope, a penguin colony in Simonstown, a Saturday market and Dutch church in Franschhoek.  There is so much to see and do in South Africa that I was glad to have almost three weeks to explore and most of all wonderful new friends to enjoy it with. 


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