Fugitives Drift Lodge Offering The Best Zulu Battlefield EncounterBy
Fugitives Drift was started by David Rattray together with his wife Nicky and built an excellent lodge for travellers to indulge in this fantastic story. Sadly, in January 2007, David was killed by an intruder but Fugitives Drift is a wonderful legacy to something he created with his wife Nicky and it still remains today. Rob Caskie has taken over as the primary historian. Like David, Rob speaks fluent Zulu, understands the history thoroughly and is probably the best story teller I’ve ever heard.
The two battles I was focused on were the battle at Isandlwana when the Zulu army wiped out about 1,300 British soldiers on 22nd January 1879. Later on that day, a lesser force of Zulus who had missed out on the fighting at Isandlwana, sought their opportunity so against orders, they attacked Rorke’s Drift. The defensive action is now down in the history of the British Army as amongst it’s most amazing battles which saw eleven Victoria Crosses awarded. Under 140 British troopers battled with about 4,000 Zulus in a battle that went on all night.
My stay at Fugitives Drift started with the afternoon trip to the Rorke’s Drift site. It’s a few miles from the Lodge and we started off going round the museum that was hospital building at the time of the battle. As with most battlefield museums, there were several artefacts from the battle (rifles, bullets, buckles, spears etc) yet the most striking item I found was a model of the battlefield. It presented the latter phases of the battle when the hospital had been cleared out and the soldiers were defending the store behind their piles of mealie sacks. The model showed a small number of red coated troops surrounded on all sides by Zulu warriors several deep and this was the very first occasion I’d really been able to visualise the battle properly. All of the films and images I’ve seen in were generally close ups with a few people however this model gave a comprehensive impression that was quite frankly, astonishing.
To allow travellers picture the layout, there are lines of stones marking where the defensive lines had been. Rob began the tale describing what Rorke’s Drift was and the reasons why it had been attacked. He made you recognise there was clearly so much more to the fight than only a fight between black and white, British redcoat in opposition to Zulu warrior. Overall, the trip was approximately 3 hours and all of us simply sat listening to this wonderful story teller recounting the incidents of 22nd January 1879.
Back at the lodge, I freshened up in my wonderful room. It really was a shame I couldn’t spend longer in the room since it was so comfy but it was time for beverages just ahead of dinner so I made my way to the dining room. The room is like a museum with pictures, flags, notes, firearms and a lot more covering the walls. The food itself was fantastic. Everybody staying at the Lodge sat around the same table. It was a really satisfying evening but an early start the following day meant it wouldn’t be a late night.
My 6:30am alarm call was a nice hot pot of tea being brought to my room (its wonderful to see a few British traditions still live on). We’d a good hot breakfast before leaving for the morning excursion of Isandlwana. The battlefield is over the Buffalo river and our guide was a Zulu called Joseph. This was a very different battleground to Rorke’s Drift. The battle occurred on a massive plain in the shadow of a mountain and so the orientation took much longer as we first visited the museum ahead of being sent to the hill from where the Zulu commanders were standing 129 years earlier. Our group moved on to the battlefield itself and parked up. Now the talk would be a couple of hours consequently there were deck chairs that we took up the mountain to a vantage point that gave us a tremendous view of the battlefield. Bear in mind, the altitude was about a mile above sea level and so it wasn’t the easiest climb I’d ever attempted.
Joseph, like Rob gave us a fascinating lecture and genuinely made it easier for us imagine the scene. Next he said that despite the fact that he was a Zulu, he wasn’t there to offer ‘their side of the story’, he planned to give us the reality on what took place, sometimes in quite graphic detail. At the appropriate times, he would echo the Zulu shouts that had been made way back in 1879 and as his voice echoed all around us, it added even more realism to the setting. The tale was fantastic. We listened to Joseph recited what was happening and my eyes wandered around the scenery which was full of piles of white stones. These heaps of stones are the resting places of the British soldiers who are buried where the died. Every stack of stones represented 6-8 men with the exception of two substantial piles that were for as many as 40 men. The hard African soil meant it was nearly impossible to dig anything but shallow graves for the men and pile stones on them.
Immediately after the talk was over, we had time to stroll round a number of the graves and memorials at Isandlwana before going back again for lunch. This was an amazing destination and I almost certainly could have done with having an extra day as there is a Zulu village to take a trip to not to mention the walk down to the Buffalo river where Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill died saving the Queen’s Colour of their regiment and years later became the first men to be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
There was a time that when a white man in car was seen in this place, it usually meant they were lost. Today, it has an industry based on the work David and Nicky Rattray began meaning there is a huge interest in those battles between the army of the biggest Empire the planet has ever seen and the very best warriors Africa has ever produced.