by G R Duxbury(A brief account of the Society’s tour of these famous battlefields in Zululand and North-eastern Natal during the long week-end 31 August — 3 September, 1973)
The Society was most fortunate in being able to participate in yet another of the battlefield lecture tours which the S.A. National War Museum organizes from time to timc. On this occasion the principal speaker was Mr. G. A. Chadwick, Inspector of Schools, Natal Provincial Education Department. Mr. Chadwick is also a Trustee of the S.A. National War Museum, a member of the National Monuments Commission and a member of the S.A. War Graves Board. He is a leading authority on the battlefields of Natal. Mr. Chadwick was ably assisted by Mr. Alf Wade, well known resident of Vryheid and owner of the Central Garage. Mr. Wade was born in Vryheid and walked the battlefields visited as far back as he can remember, firstly in the company of his grandfather who fought in the Kaffir Wars and, later, when he had acquired a personal interest, at every opportunity. His knowledge of the area has become almost legendary. The Society was fortunate in having two such knowledgeable and interesting speakers and expresses its gratitude to them for giving up both their time and the knowledge gained by them by dint of hard and diligent research over many years.
To describe the battlefields visited and the instructive talks would take several pages but it would be an injustice to the organizers and the speakers if the matter were allowed to rest without a brief description. The group of seventy-seven, which increased to 127 on the Saturday when teachers and scholars of the Bryanston High School joined the tour, travelled by luxury bus, kombi and private cars.
Headquarters was established at Stilwatcr Motel, Vryheid, where the accommodation, food and service were excellent and more than justified the two-star rating. Good accommodation and a bus provided by the S.A. Railways that lived up to its luxury tag and ran to the time schedule almost as precisely as a Swiss-made watch or the famous Japanese bullet train ensured that the tour would be a success. Add to this the delightful scenery of Natal and Zululand, between Vryheid and Melmoth, and the pleasing results were a foregone conclusion.
The battlefield of Ulundi a vast plain, across the southern extremity of which winds the White Umfolosi River and which, when viewed from any of the hills that surround it within a radius of about five miles, resembles a giant chess board minus the pieces — was a scene of such peace and quiet beauty that it was easy to visualize the pathetically small red-coated British force crossing the vast open space to form the famous square which the thousands of black warriors, the pride of the Zulu Nation, knew from previous experience they could not hope to penetrate. Again and again they hurled their assegais and finally themselves against it, in a last desperate attempt to drive the White Man from Zululand but their onslaught failed and ended in the final and crushing defeat of the Zulu nation.
Dingaanstat, scene of Dingaan’s kraal and site of the massacre of Retief and his party in 1838, was another highlight of the tour. It is at present the scene of archaeological activity and a number of hut floors have been excavated among which are thought to be Dingaan’s brewery and an ‘armoury’ or hut which housed shields.
The party were the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Ben van Rensburg for a brief halt and inspection of their delightful and historic farm, Gelykwater, close to Babanango. Here Mr. Chadwick treated the group to a short talk on Botha’s brief excursion into that part of Zululand in September, 1901, during the South African War. The farm buildings, which were burnt by the British during the war, were subsequently re-built to resemble, as closely as possible, the original.
Cloud and an early morning drizzle slightly marred the visit to Hlobane. The talk was, however, most instructive and the excellent large-scale maps, which Mr. Chadwick had drawn to illustrate his talks, lessened the disappointment of not being able to see the actual mountain and places of interest which could on1y be indicated in a general direction or on the maps. The clouds, did, however, lift as the party travelled back along the road to Vryheid and for a few minutes Hlobane mountain stood out in all its beauty and the members were able to appreciate visually the difficulties and problems its precipitous sides must have presented to fugitives, rescuers and attackers. From Hlobane the group moved to Lancaster Hill which dominates Vryheid and which was the scene of a short but hard-fought battle during the South African War. Here Mr. Wade treated the members to a most interesting talk which included details and anecdotes seldom, if ever, written about and heard only by those previously fortunate enough to have Mr. Wade as a guide to this interesting battle-field.
The visit to the Kambula battlefield, later in the afternoon of the second day of the tour, was marred by a cold wind, but so beautiful is the setting of this field of battle and so enthralling the talk delivered by Mr. Chadwick that everyone put up with the discomfort, determined not to miss a word. The layout of the battlefield and the markers, which make the study of the battle a simple matter even for those visitors not fortunate enough to have a guide, are a tribute to Mr. Wade whose hard work and enthusiasm have brought about this change and put this beautiful spot on the tourist map during the course of the past five years.
The tour ended on the Monday with a visit, en route for Johannesburg, via Paulpietersburg, to the scene of the battle of N’tombi. Few in the party had studied this interesting battle and even fewer had visited this delightful spot. The tour ended on a high note although with reluctant farewells to the speakers and Natal members who left the main group at N’tombi Spruit.
The route via Piet Retief and Ermelo and past the SAAF’s Radar Base at Devon (on which Col P. M. J. McGregor, SM, gave an impromptu but most enlightening and interesting talk) was new to many who found much to see and discuss to relieve the monotony of the homeward journey. The group arrived back at the War Museum at 6.02 p.m. — two minutes late after an exciting weekend, having covered 1300 km across some unbelievably attractive countryside and some of South Africa’s most historic and exciting battlefields.
Warm thanks and appreciation are expressed to the staff of the S.A. National War Museum for organizing the tour and for procuring the services of two such knowledgeable speakers to whom the Society is greatly indebted and to whom sincere thanks are now recorded. Thanks and appreciation are also expressed to the many members who so ably assisted — Capt J. H. A. Speir, OC transport, photography and films; Mrs. G. R. Duxbury and Miss M. Vinjevold who distributed and sold précis; Cmdt Bert Simpkins, OC Public Address System, who kept the party in laughter and/or tears with his jokes; Mr. R. Hardy of the Museum Staff who came in at short notice to drive the Kombi and thus made it possible for the surplus members to attend; the specialist surgeon and medical officer of health who for professional and ethical reasons may not be mentioned by name whose skills, presence and willingness to help was a boost to morale; Mr. Leon Lipschitz for an abundance of sweets for the group and the many piccanins who came with outstretched hands whenever the party halted; Japan Airlines, S.A. Airways and Fun Fair, the latter through the good offices of Mr. Gavin Bester, for the loan of some most interesting films; Major D. D. Hall, Dr. F. K. Mitchell and Dr. Felix Machanik for augmenting the talks with interesting data concerning guns, small arms, weapons, medals and medical services and lastly, but not least, the management of Siltwater Motel, in particular Miss Gouws, for really extending themselves to make the stay an enjoyable and memorable one.
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