The Battlefields’ windswept hills and grasslands witnessed over 70 years of bloody conflict and historical spectacle, from clashes between Zulus and Boers in the early 19th century to the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906. These days, it is hard to believe that the sites where some of the most ferocious battles waged on South African soil were fought should be so peaceful and beautiful. Wild and lonely, the wide plains swept by sighing winds bear silent testimony to the struggles of our forefathers, and while Nature has done her best to conceal all traces, the crumbling remains of stone forts and grave-sites still mark the battlefields that have formed part of South African history.

The first clashes occurred in the early 19th century as the Voortrekkers headed inland from the Cape, seeking an independent haven where they could settle. They engaged in several skirmishes with the Zulu inhabitants, which culminated in the Battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838. The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 saw defeats and triumphs for the British as they were trounced with major loss of life at Isandlwana, yet celebrated the legendary defence of Rorke’s Drift by a small group of hopelessly outnumbered British soldiers. These wars were followed closely by the First War of Independence between the British and Boer forces (1800-1881) and then the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

While the haunting areas where the major battles were fought allow visitors to imagine the war-cries of Zulu warriors, the clash of steel and the crack of muskets, such places are not the only interesting sights in an area largely dominated by historical landmarks, and there are also exciting and diverse wildlife experiences.

The battlefields route, which also takes in areas of Zululand, stretches up the North Coast to Mtubatuba, inland to Nongoma, Mahlabathini, Ulundi, Melmoth and Eshowe, and then north-west to Vryheid, Paulpietersburg, Utrecht and Dundee. Some of the highlights include:
Blood River Poort, Battle of Blood River (Utrecht district)
Lancaster Hill, Scheepersnek, Hlobane, Holkrans (Vryheid)
Kambula (between Vryheid and Paulpietersburg)
Ntombe Battlefield (near Paulpietersburg)
Ulundi Battlefield, Dingane's Kraal, grave of Piet Retief, Umgungundlovu (near Ulundi)
Isandlwana, Prince Imperial Memorial, Rorke's Drift, Fugitives' Drift, Talana (between Dundee and Babanango)
Italeni Battlefield (near Babanango)
Spioenkop, Colenso, Tugela Heights, Vaalkrans, Elandslaagte, Nicholson's Nek, Surprise Hill (near Ladysmith)
Majuba, Laiingsnek, Schuinshoogte (north-west of Newcastle)

BIGGARSBERG acquires its name from the range of mountains between Glencoe and Ladysmith; although it is the largest peak – Indumeni – that lends its name to the local municipality of Endumeni. Biggarsberg lies between Ladysmith and Newcastle, where it can be reached via the N11. The gently sloping, green farmlands reveal nothing of the battles in this area. The town itself offers good farmstyle accommodation for those wishing to establish a base from which to conduct explorations of the surrounding Battlefields sites.

The mountains themselves form a natural barrier between Dundee and Ladysmith and it is precisely for this reason that so many skirmishes took place across 17 towns and 50 historical sites, since the valley formed by the lower area of the Biggarsberg was the focal point of the most battles in this country. This makes the town a convenient central point from which to tour the Battlefields Route.

COLENSO, which was used as a base by the British army during the Anglo-Boer War, was the site of the Battle of Colenso. The town offers access to sites that formed a crucial part of this battle waged on 15 December 1899, the first in a campaign of five attempts to relieve the siege on Ladysmith. While the British engaged in battle on three fronts, they won no victories as one attack was repulsed, their forces were ambushed on another, and the final front was subjected to such heavy fire that the attack had to be abandoned.

During this process the British forces struggled to recover their guns. The Gun Positions of 10 of the 12 British guns used during this battle and lost to the Boers under General Louis Botha are marked out. There are also monuments to the fallen, particularly Lieutenant Freddy Roberts, son of Field-Marshall Lord Roberts, who fell while trying to retrieve the guns.

The Clouston Koppie of Remembrance is a site to which memorials and graves were moved following the failure of General Sir Redvers Buller’s first endeavour to cross the Thukela River and relieve Ladysmith. Ambleside Military Cemetery is the burial site of soldiers of the 5th Irish Brigade, who were killed in the Battle of Colenso, while Chively Military Cemetery is the resting place of Lt Freddie Roberts, among others, and was the site of the No. 4 Stationary Hospital.

DANNHAUSER is said to have obtained its name from a certain Renier Dannhauser who purchased the farm Palmfontein from the former Natal Government in 1872. It is the smallest of three municipalities within the Amajuba District, and extends across an area of around 1 516 square kilometres. Once a major coal-mining centre, Dannhauser was proclaimed a village in 1937. While many of the coal mines have now become redundant, Dannhauser has preserved a pretty, small-town appeal, lying nestled in the valley of the imposing Biggarsberg Mountain range

DUNDEE acquired its name from a Scot who named has farm after his home town. It developed from a farm into town when this gentleman listed his Dundee Coal Company on the London Stock Exchange in 1899, and the area blossomed with elegant homesteads and a theatre. It remained popular for some time due to its convenient position at the crossroads of seven routes leading inland.

Dundee features prominently on the Battlefields Route because the main portion of the British contingent was massed around this area as well as in Ladysmith. The opening salvos of the Anglo-Boer War were fired at Talana, a hill on the outskirts of Dundee. The Talana Museum, which commemorates the memory of the Anglo-Boer War, was opened to the public in 1979. This museum not only depicts the history of the area during the various wars, but also the coal and glass mining as well as manufacturing times, as well as featuring information on farming. Each of the 16 buildings represents a different theme, and the cemetery has a Wall of Peace and Reconciliation which honours all who were engaged in the Anglo-Boer War. The museum itself is on the site of the ‘Battle of Talana’.

Another site of importance is Fugitive’s Trail. Signposted from Rorke’s Drift, it shows the route taken by the survivors of the Battle of Isandlwana who had to cross the Buffalo River at the now aptly-named Fugitive’s Drift. Lieutenants Melville and Coghill were killed while attempting to rescue the Queen’s Colours, and are now buried on the hillside above the Drift.

Just off the R22 between Dundee and Vryheid is the Blood River Battlefield and Ncome Zulu Cultural Museum. The Battle of Blood River was fought between around 12 000 Zulu warriors led by Ndlela and a Voortrekker commando of about 464 armed men who were laagered on the banks of the Ncome River. The Voortrekkers were victorious after a lengthy battle and the Zulus fled. The monument comprises 64 bronze full-size replica wagons set in a laager formation.

ELANDSLAAGTE is located between Ladysmith and Dundee along the R602 between Pyne’s Farm and the N11. The now obsolete railway station of this small town once played an important role in the Anglo-Boer War, when it was initially seized by the Boers and then regained by the British. The town is also a good springboard to all the major battlefield sites. One of the most famous battles prior to the siege of Ladysmith was fought here on 21 October 1899, and memorials on the hills and in two cemeteries record the struggle. A classic tactic in battle employed by Colonel Ian Hamilton achieved a resounding victory for the British over General Jan Kock and his men, with the general dying during the battle. The site is next to the Nambiti Hills Private Game Lodge.

ESTCOURT serves as the gateway to the central Drakensberg. Named after the English parliamentarian Thomas Estcourt who sponsored immigrants to settle in the area, it was originally known as Bushman’s River. On the 12th February 1938, Voortrekker laagers in the Bushman’s River area were attacked by the Zulus, whom they managed to beat off. A restored Voortrekker house now exists on the site and can be visited at Saailaager in Estcourt by following Alfred Street past the quarry and over the stream. The memorial can then be found at the fork in the dirt road. Fort Durnford, a striking stone structure overlooking Estcourt which was built soon after the Langalibalele Rebellion to counter raiding Bushmen, is also worth a visit.

Following the murder of Piet Retief and his followers at the hands of Dingane, further attacks took place since Dingane allowed his junior regiments to attempt to drive the remaining Boers from Natal. At this time, many Voortrekkers had left the safety of the main laagers to strike out on their own as they prepared to settle and establish farms. Many were killed as they were caught unprotected and in the open. A memorial on Bloukrans, off the dirt road between Colenso and Estcourt, marks the site of one of these attacks. On 17 February 1838, three Boer families were saved from a Zulu attack at Rensburg Koppie (now situated on a private farm between Estcourt and Mooi River) by young Marthinus Oosthuysen.

If a visitor travels from Estcourt, taking the Wagendrift Road across the N3 then the turn-off marked Moore Park/Blue Haze Country Lodge, and follows the dirt road to Greystone resort, they will find a monument commemorating the attack of Veglager (the actual site now lies beneath the Wagendrift Dam) 700 metres from the entrance to Greystone. This was the site of a Zulu offensive on the Voortrekker laager which took place over the course of three days (13 to 15 February 1838). A plaque describing the battle and the Voortrekkers’ tactics can be viewed.

During the Anglo-Boer War, there was an exciting episode where Sir Winston Churchill (a war correspondent at the time) coerced his friend Captain Haldane into allowing him to tag along on an armoured train monitoring the railway line between Estcourt and Colenso. On its return the Boers captured Churchill and the soldiers. A plaque, which can be found on the R103 turnoff on the old Estcourt Road, commemorates this event.

Heading south from Estcourt along District Road one can reach the site of the Battle of Willow Grange fought on 23 November 1899. Although the Boers had the advantage, they chose to withdraw to the Thukela. Here General Piet Joubert was wounded and sent back to Pretoria. A stone wall used by both armies during this exchange is still visible has been made a national monument.

Wagendrift Reserve near Estcourt is a 980-hectare protected area incorporating Moor Park Reserve and Wagendrift Dam. Quiet and picturesque, the resort’s main activities are boating and fishing. A three-kilometre self-guided trail along the Bushman’s River offers many opportunities for game viewing. This area abounds with birdlife, including fish eagle and black eagle which have nested in the reserve for many years. Species of fish commonly caught in the dam are scaly, bass, carp, eel and the occasional trout. Dating to approximately 1300 CE, one of the oldest Iron Age sites in KwaZulu-Natal can be found on Makhabeni Hill overlooking Moor Park.

GLENCOE, like Dundee, has a link to Scotland, being named by Scottish settlers in the late 1800s after a valley in Argyleshire. Nestled in a valley among the Biggarsberg Mountains, its proximity to numerous battle sites made it a pivotal stopover for both factions long before tourists came to the area. During the Anglo-Boer War, General French was often stationed at Glencoe, while President Paul Kruger stayed over twice during the siege of Ladysmith. Karel Landman’s house makes for an interesting visit. Landman was a commander at The Battle of Blood River, and his house (which is said to have been self-constructed) is a typical example of a Voortrekker house. Iron Age smelting sites can also be visited in the Glencoe/Dundee area.

ISANDLWANA is the site of greatest defeat suffered by British troops at the hands of the Zulus. This terrible battle left around 1 300 British troops and between 1 500 and 2 000 Zulus dead. The British casualties were buried where they fell several weeks later and the cairns marking these sites are still visible. Three British columns under Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford had crossed the Thukela and Buffalo Rivers and invaded Zululand when the terms of the British ultimatum to King Cetshwayo were not met. The battle took place on 22 January 1879 when the British camp was attacked and overwhelmed by the Zulu impis. The site is located just off the R68 between Nqutu and Babanango, and access is via the Interpretation Centre.

LADYSMITH on the banks of the Klip River is probably most famous for the siege that took place here during the Anglo-Boer War. The town, which was established in 1850 and named after Sir Harry Smith’s wife, served as a stopover fortune-seekers on their way to the goldfields of the Transvaal or Kimberley’s diamond mines. Ladysmith was besieged between October 1899 and March 1900. The area abounds in in interesting locations, including the Spearman’s Military Cemetery, which lies on the R600 between Ladysmith and Winterton on the site of a former British Field Hospital.

Since Ladysmith’s siege lasted for so long, many terrible battles were waged in an effort to relieve the town. The Battle of Spioenkop was one such struggle. Taking place on 23 and 24 January 1900, its claim to fame is that while it was one of the fiercest battles fought in the war, it was also one that achieved the least. The British occupied Spioenkop while the Boers tried to take it. The Brits hung on grimly until eventually retreating under cover of darkness. The battlefield is located off from the R616 between Ladysmith and Bergville. Considered to be the best Anglo-Boer War museum in the country, the Ladysmith Siege Museum in Murchison Street displays an enormous array of maps, uniforms, relics and interpretive panels detailing the actual siege and other events of the Anglo-Boer War.

The area around Ladysmith is also endowed with great variety and biodiversity. The Nambithi Private Game Reserve proudly supports the Big Five and a terrain which comprises savannah, woodland, grassland, thornveld and acacia trees. The Spioenkop Dam Nature Reserve some 35 kilometres from Ladysmith offers 4 400 hectares to explore as well as the tranquillity of the dam itself and the opportunity for yachting and water-skiing. There are numerous picnic sites around the dam and a Discovery Trail provides a three or six kilometre loop in an area free of dangerous game. Visitors can also take in the Wagon Hill Battle Site and the Burgher Monument on Platrand, admiring the old forts and gun positions.

LüNEBERG can be found close to Paulpietersburg, almost on the border of Mpumalanga. It was originally settled by German Lutheran missionaries in 1854 and named after their hometown in Germany (meaning ‘place of the moon’). It is now the site of the oldest German school in northern KwaZulu-Natal and supports a quiet farming community. Two beautiful churches are worth seeing and Fort Cleary, which was erected in 1879, can also be visited. Opportunities exist for biking, hiking, birding and horse trails.

NEWCASTLE was originally known as Post Halt Two when it served as a stopover en route from Port Natal to the Transvaal. The national road no longer runs through the town but it is certainly worth visiting since it is deeply rooted in the battle history of the area and offers easy access to a number of major viewing sites.

Fort Amiel, built in 1876 by Major Charles Frederick Amiel and his 200 troops of the 80th Staffordshire Regiment, was used during the Anglo-Boer War and also as a commissariat depot, a transit camp and hospital during the Anglo-Zulu War. It was rebuilt in the 1980s and now serves as a museum showcasing the history of the Anglo-Boer War, military displays and information about Rider Haggard, while a Zulu hut or ‘umuzi’ with a detailed interior is also open to visitors.

Just beyond Newcastle lie the battle sites of Laing’s Nek, Majuba and Schuinshoogte. Hilldrop House, once the retreat of novelist Rider Haggard, and O’Neil’s Cottage, which served as a makeshift hospital during the Anglo-Boer War, are also of interest, while attractions such as the Hindu Temple on Kirkland Street and Snowy’s home-bakery ensure that highlights are not merely historical.

RORKE’S DRIFT, located about 45 kilometres southeast of Dundee, lies near a natural rock formation, the ‘drift’ which enables the Buffalo River to be forded at that point. Just four kilometres below this position the river enters a gorge which allows no place for crossing until it joins the Thukela River much further on. The position is therefore of strategic importance in providing an easy passage into Zululand past Isandlwana and the Siphezi Mountains. The farm near the drift was owned by James Rorke, who lent his name to the crossing. Upon his death the farm was occupied by a Swedish Mission.

Today a well-known landmark, Rorke’s Drift is where 140 British soldiers occupying the Commissariat and Mission Station Hospital fought valiantly, against tremendous odds, for a total of 11 hours before finally repulsing the attack of some 4 000 Zulu reserves from the Battle of Isandlwana. In the aftermath of this heroic stand, eleven Victoria Cross medals were awarded. The Rorke’s Drift Museum has achieved international acclaim for its Anglo-Zulu War displays and audio-visual recreation of the actual battle.

UTRECHT, titled after a Dutch town of the same name, has a history deeply enmeshed in the Anglo-Boer War. Both Lord Chelmsford and Sir Evelyn Wood had their headquarters here. In the Anglican Church, visitors can view a plaque commemorating the death of a Polish solder, Leo Pokrowsky following a skirmish with the British in 1900.

The history of the town itself is interesting. Following the British Annexation of Natal in 1843, nearly two-thirds of the Voortrekkers decided to leave the area. In 1847 a small group of them decided to settle in this beautiful area east of the Buffalo River on land granted to them by the Zulu King Mpande. First called the ‘Buffalo Rivier se Maatschapij’ (the Buffalo River Company), it was also known as the Old Republic before the name of Utrecht was adopted in 1856.

The Old Parsonage was first used in 1888, having been originally built for the Reverend and Mrs Neethling. It is a National Monument which, having been restored by the Municipality, now houses the Utrecht Museum. One can visit a monument in the grounds which commemorates all the foreigners who lost their lives fighting in the Anglo-Boer War.

The Petrus Lafras Uys Monument was erected in 1881 to honour Uys, who was one of the original settlers in the area and the first Landdrost appointed once Utrecht was incorporated into the Transvaal in 1859. Together with his four sons he fought with the British in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 and was killed in the Battle of Hlobane. The Burghers and British soldiers with whom he had served erected the monument. Of great historical interest, the residence of Commandant Dirk Uys of Utrecht, known as Uys House, is yet another National Monument, as is the Town Hall erected in 1913.

The Old Cemetery contains the graves of British soldiers who served with Colonel Evelyn Wood’s No. 4 Column as well as the Reverend Ailington, the first Vicar-General of the Anglican Church of Zululand. The sandstone section of the gaol is one of two remaining portions of the gaols of the old Transvaal before 1900.

Besides all the sites of historic interest, the town also enjoys some nature-based attractions. Lying within the Balele Game Park and the Utrecht Community Game Farm, it boasts a total reserve area of 2 500 hectares and at least 11 species of game, including blesbuck, bushbuck, waterbuck, blue wildebeest and many others. Since the town itself falls within part of the game park, it is not unusual to see small game frequenting the parks and gardens of the town.

WEENEN is the second-oldest centre (1838) settled by Europeans in KwaZulu-Natal. It lies near the banks of the Bushman’s River some 47 kilometres east of the town of Estcourt. The name Weenen, which means ‘weeping’, stems from the massacre of the Voortrekkers by Zulus at Bloukrans and Moordspruit. The Weenen Museum contains a display of Voortrekker artefacts, including Andries Pretorius’s waterwheel. Between 1907 and 1983 a narrow gauge railway, which was known as the ‘Cabbage Express’ because of its fresh produce cargo, linked Weenen to Estcourt.

The picturesque Weenen Nature Reserve, with its undulating thornveld valleys and spectacular gorge cut by the Bushman’s River, is a small but superbly appointed wildlife destination, accessible for both day and overnight visitors. Containing an excellent road system and walking trails – with guided tours available – there are many scenic and game viewing opportunities. Since the reserve was proclaimed in 1974 it has been repopulated with both black and white rhino, giraffe, buffalo, red hartebeest, eland, zebra, klipspringer, ostrich and roan antelope, with other species such as bushbuck, black-backed jackal, hyena and mountain reedbuck also re-colonising the area. Amenities include two game-viewing hides overlooking the dam, a vulture feeding site, and three picnic sites and caravan and camping sites.

The Thukela Biosphere Reserve, which covers the Thukela, Bushman’s and Bloukrans river valleys and incorporates the Weenen Nature Reserve, integrates conservation with farming. Activities here include horse trails, game viewing and bird watching, in particular the innumerable white storks that populate the reserve. The reserve encompasses steep forested valleys, riverine bush and grasslands with wildlife such as giraffe, buffalo, kudu, leopard, hyena, elephant, rhino, zebra and wildebeest, among many others. For adventure seekers, there’s white-water rafting along a 30-kilometre stretch of river, with the period between November and May thought to provide the best conditions.

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