The day of the dead moon, 22 January 1879, remains one of the most popular stories in South African history.
One thousand eight hundred unfortified British soldiers were engulfed by 20 000 Zulu impis in the horns of the buffalo formation at the Battle of lsandlwana. On the same day, at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, Martini-Henry rifles glowed red – dislocating shoulders, bruising cheeks and breaking collar bones as 20 000 rounds of ammunition shot down 7 000 Zulu warriors. The garrison lost just 39 soldiers to the broad-blade spear, making it one of the greatest British victories. They received 11 Victoria Crosses for their efforts.
It was the Rattray family, owners of Fugitives’ Drift Lodge, who breathed life into the stories of Rorke’s Drift and lsandlwana, taking visitors on an emotional journey, while standing next to historical landmarks where the battles once raged.
How the Rattrays became embedded in this history is a tale of its own. George Buntting, the previous owner of the property, received the original accounts from Shezi, a Zulu who fought in the battle of lsandlwana. George then shared the stories with David Rattray as a child, who later narrated these accounts to his own sons Andrew, Douglas and Peter, and to the world. Guides Bryan Mcube and Mphiwa Ntanzi also contributed to this melting pot of stories: Ntanzi’s grandfather and great-grandfather fought with the Zulus.
The legendary voice of the late David Rattray gave us the preamble to the Anglo Zulu War tour on audio on the way to lsandlwana. Upon arrival, black crows circled above the ghostly cairns of fallen soldiers that still scar the landscape while guide Bryan Mcube, knobkerrie in hand, began the story of lsandlwana.
As he painted the scene, you could imagine the white British graves replaced by white army tents surrounded by tall stands of grass, sweltering temperatures and the gushing water of the Buffalo River. Unbeknown to Queen Victoria, Major General Chelmsford and the British army marched into Zululand looking to antagonise King Cetshwayo into battle.
The shenanigans of that day were not lost on Mother Nature. At the height of the battle an eclipse plunged the battlefield into darkness. Only 55 British soldiers survived, fleeing on horseback. On both sides. “they fought like lions and fell like stones”, Mcube told the group. He sang the praises of Zulu heroes like Mkhosana kaMvundlana Biyela who restored the impis’ courage when the British cannons began to fire.
That afternoon we learnt about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift fought on the same day. It raged for nearly 12 hours, dramatically lit by the burning mission station. The right horn of the Zulu formation, which had not seen much military action during the Battle of lsandlwana, crossed into Natal on the other side of the Buffalo River. They too wanted to bathe their spears in the blood of the enemy.
Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande’s right horn, up against 139 soldiers of the 24th regiment commanded by garrison leaders Chard and Bromhead, would have a different outcome. Andrew gave us a room-by- room account of the battle in the Rorke’s Drift museum. Parts of the original building still stand today.
He described how Private Williams used a bayonet to dig through four mud walls. backed by the “redbearded cook, Hook”. He explained how “spider-like surgeon Reynolds” removed 36 pieces of scapula from Private Hitch’s shoulder without anaesthetic. And how the tea-addicted Hitch was barricaded in the hospital room with the incapacitated, and four pots of tea.
The Zulu Kingdom would go on to lose the Anglo-Zulu War at the Battle of Ulundi. Shaka’s proud nation would be divided. The craft to storytelling is knowing when to pause … so eloquent is his gift of the
gab, Andrew Rattray paused. A feeling of melancholy settled on the tour group.
Keen to learn more? Fugitives· Drift Lodge offers historical on-site tours of lsandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Visitors also get insight into the quirky, personal tales of the soldiers who fought in these battles. The Rattray family captivates visitors from near and far and had the honour of hosting Prince Charles in 1997.
Facts about the Rattray family
- David and Nicky Rattray are regarded as the pioneers of heritage tourism in South Africa
- The lodges on the property: Fugitives· Drift Lodge, the Guesthouse and Umzinyathi Farmhouse.
- The topography and views can be enjoyed while hiking or from the pool. Giraffe and other wildlife are seen on the property
- The David Rattray Foundation was set up in 2007 to help improve education in the Rorke’s Drift area through Khula Education.
- David. being an entomologist. had a fondness for Harford, who was known to collect beetles in battle. The Harford Library is named after him.
Written by Georgina Lockwood
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