south africa 5: kwazulu-natal history—from rorke’s drift to kamberg to shakaland

At the historic Anglo-Zulu battlefields in northern KwaZulu-Natal. What you see behind me, to the right, are sand storms in action. 

Day 1: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift: Where heroes were made

An endless expanse of dusty plains and stunted thorn trees sprawls for miles in front of me. We’ve been driving for five hours now. I’m on my way to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and am told it is just beyond the last mound that shimmers in the horizon.

It is incredible that these barren expanses in the middle of nowhere, absolutely nowhere, were once the scenes of key battles fought during the Boer-Zulu, Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer wars.

The few travellers who trickle up north to make this journey tend to be British, military buffs, or those tracing their family tree. But you don’t have to be any of them really. Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are a celebration of the human spirit during war, of courage against all odds. In the former, the valour was that of the Zulus. In Rorke’s Drift, the heroes were the British.

Isandlwana saw the British Empire’s first and biggest ever defeat by an indigenous army. On 22 January, 1879, Britain made an unprovoked attack on Zululand resulting in the death of its 1,300 British troops by a 20,000-strong Zulu army armed only with spears and leather shields.

Less than 24 hours later, another battle took place at nearby Rorke’s Drift in which 139 British soldiers defended their mission station against 4,000 Zulu warriors and displayed astounding nerve in saving the lives of the patients in the military hospital inside the barracks. Eleven Victorian Crosses were awarded to the British defenders, the highest ever granted to a regiment for one action.

I always refer to travel as a classroom. Today was human bravery class. 🙂

The battle at Isandlwana resulted in the British Empire’s first and biggest ever defeat by an indigenous army.

The tables turned at Rorke’s Drift where the heroes were now the British; 11 Victorian Crosses were awarded to the British soldiers for this victory, the highest ever granted to a regiment for one combat.

Day 2: The San Paintings in the Drakensberg

“No more do we Bushmen hunt in these hills. The fire is cold. Our songs are quiet. But listen carefully. You will hear us in the water. Look carefully, you will see us in the rock.” ~ San song

Millennia old rock paintings by the San people in the Drakensberg Mountains.

Guide: “Ok, there are two ways to see the San paintings. The easy way, we go to Giants Castle. And the difficult way, to Kamberg. What would you like to do?”

Me: “The difficult way!” [of course.:P ] “By the way, what is difficult about it?”

Guide: “It is a 3-and-a-half kilometre climb up zigzagging, steep steps cut into the face of the Drakensberg. The last part, climbing the basalt columns, up a height of 500 metres is well, tough.”

Me: “Let’s go for it!!!”

The 965-kilometre-long Drakensberg Mountains range, meaning Dragon Mountains in Afrikaans, is a dramatic, deserted wilderness of alpine grasslands and forests. Much of the mountains form part of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The mountains were granted UNESCO status for their natural beauty and the over 40,000 prehistoric San rock paintings high up on their walls in nearly 500 cave and overhang sites. Painted with minerals and the blood of the eland, the paintings are beautiful, yes. But more importantly were of great spiritual significance to the San people. They depict the images seen by the San shamans during their trance dances carried out in the caves.

The San or Bushmen were the earliest historically recorded inhabitants of South Africa, going back at least 20,000 years. Stone Age hunter-gathers, they were eventually forced into extinction through conflict with the Dutch settlers in the 17th Century. Today, a few pocketfuls still survive in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, protected by the efforts of Amnesty International.

My destination was Game Shelter Pass which contains some of the finest San rock art, and in particular, the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta painting was key in helping archaeologists interpret the exact symbolism in San art. When shamans painted an eland, they were not merely paying homage to a sacred animal; they were also capturing its essence. Their paintings on the rock surfaces, hence, opened windows for them to their own spiritual world.

My climb: I climbed up, too scared to look down at the plunging valley below me. Once back, I looked at the mountains and wanted to climb up again. ❤

Game Shelter Pass—the destination.

Hiking in the open spaces of Kamberg—the journey. That little blue-jeaned speck is me.

Day 3: Shakaland, King Shaka Zulu’s Land

Once upon a time, in 1787 to be exact, was born a man called Shaka Zulu. The illegitimate son of a chieftain, he became the most powerful leader of the Zulu kingdom after uniting the various Nguni tribes. Little written record remains of him. Some remember him as a heroic nation-builder, while others describe him as a brutal monster, wroughting much devastation and destruction in his pursuit of power.

What is indisputable is his creation of a unified Zulu realm based on revolutionary social and military tactics such as the age-grade regimental system, “buffalo horns” formation, and the short spear. At the time of his death he ruled over 250,000 people and had a 50,000 strong army.

Assassinated at the age of 41 by his two half-brothers, the kingdom he created still lives on in KwaZulu-Natal. Shaka Zulu’s story is what movies and grand novels are made of. It is incredible how some lives, in such short spans, literally write history.

Zulu culture is rich in traditions and rituals, forming an intrinsic part of its people’s lives even today, despite extensive urbanization. For outsiders like us, there are cultural villages which do a pretty fantastic job in recreating Zulu homesteads and explaining the various aspects of their layered lives. And that is where Shakaland fits in. Its best part, undoubtedly, is the one hour Zulu dancing in the end. The pounding drums, stomping feet, and quicksilver movements are an ode to the warriorhood that shaped the Zulu people’s identity.

On the way back I stopped for some hiking in the Dlinza forest, once the Zulu kings’ favourite haunt, and visited Shaka’s memorial in Stanger, the alleged site of his grave. The forest was hauntingly beautiful. The memorial a little forgotten. And somewhere inside of me, I felt I understood “being Zulu” maybe just a little bit better.


[Note: I travelled solo through South Africa—the Rainbow Nation also known as the World in One Country, and definitely THE most beautiful country in the world—for one month in September/ October 2010. This post, fifth in a 10-part series, was originally published on 24 September, 2010 in, a blog I have since deleted.]

6 thoughts on “south africa 5: kwazulu-natal history—from rorke’s drift to kamberg to shakaland

  1. Pingback: south africa: travel resources—where, what, why, how | rama arya's blog

  2. Pingback: south africa: travel resources—where, what, why, how –


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