A Patch Of dust That Changed History

Battlefield tour Isandlwana-Ward

A patch of dust that changed history

The notion of a ‘Battlefield Tour’ may evoke stuffy old historians going into intricate detail about some long-forgotten battle and a load of incomprehensible jargon. To many it is a niche pursuit solely reserved for military types, collectors of antique weaponry and nerds. Even to those who have previously ventured out on one – or been compelled to during their studies – it may mean disembarking from a perfectly warm and dry coach to stand around in a muddy field before being asked to conjure out of the grey drizzle of a Belgian farmer’s field ‘columns of tanks’ and ‘Battalions of advancing troops’ effecting ‘flanking’ movements into the enemy’s ‘rear guard’.

I am a military spotter, have a passion for history and an unhealthily creative imagination. So even driving rain, the cold and an unhelpful Belgian farmer would be unlikely to put me off. But for those who do think battlefield tours are all a bit of a waste of time, dull or irrelevant, I would say you have not been to Fugitives’ Drift in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. Take away the term battlefield tour, take away the dusty books, take away the military jargon. Replace them with exceptional stories of bravery, superhuman survival, incredible odds, superb military tactics, costly errors, leadership, pride, insubordination, alleged cowardice and unimaginably savage violence. On both sides. At Isandlwana, a force of over 1200 British troops – an entire battalion – was wiped out by the Zulus, “savages with sticks”. The latter only hours later, saw just 140 British soldiers, many sick and wounded, successfully hold their small missionary post, fending off repeated attacks by up to 3000 Zulus.

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The tiny and isolated post – Rorke’s Drift – held by 140 British against 3000 Zulus

Our guides transported us to 19th century South Africa, and a dusty brown plain in what was then on the border of Natal and the kingdom of Zululand. They told us the stories of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

We were plunged into the period, the political tensions and were introduced to the characters one by one. We felt the unbearable heat of the woollen ‘red coats’ and the excruciatingly ill-fitting steel-capped boots. We stood on the spots where hundreds of men fell in the space of minutes, skewered by Asagai spears or exploded by the then state of the art Martini-Henry rifles. These battles had more drama, colour and highs and lows than the very best Hollywood blockbuster.

We delved into the context, the repercussions and drew out the important lessons in history that are still applicable to the complicated, violent and messy world we live in today. The stories reminded us of the power of the media – even back in the 19th century – to influence the public’s perception of a war fought thousands of miles away. We heard witness contributions from both the British and Zulu sides, and extracts from the press articles and historical reports written in the months following. These highlighted the bias and inaccuracy – and national pride, political influence and selective memory – that creeps into chronicles of historical events.

Beyond the political and military story, we were introduced to the soldiers and warriors themselves, through their oral testimonies passed down through generations of Zulus, and through the desperate final lines scribbled to mothers and sisters back in Britain. They were young warriors who had to blood their spears before they could hope to attract a wife. They were terrified 19-year old boys barely out of training, thousands of miles from home, battling disease, a climate and an environment they could never have imagined.

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Rorke’s Drift

Thousands died on the field of battle, fighting literally to the death in hand-to-hand combat as they clambered over the bleeding corpses of their friends and colleagues. Those lucky enough to survive on the British side went home to a nation that had barely heard of Zululand or Rorke’s Drift, much less of the comprehensive defeat at Isandlwana. They went home changed men. Many would never recover from the apocalyptic scenes, the stench of rotting human flesh, the sight of the unstoppable ‘black wave of death’ careering down the hill or the blood-curdling fear of facing a painful, savage and bloody death again and again over hours and hours.

The formidable Zulus – the greatest warriors in all of Africa who towered over their red coat counterparts – lost thousands more men and just hours after a momentous victory at Isandlwana, would have their battle honour crushed at Rorke’s Drift. Their home and kingdom would be forever changed by the invaders in subsequent battles; invaders who had no real interest in Zululand other than to chalk up another conquest.

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Modest and beautiful: a rare Zulu memorial to those warriors who fell at Rorke’s Drift

I would challenge even the most hardened soul not to have a lump in their throat by the end of the tour. The haunting recordings of Zulu songs and British marching bands accompany you as the open safari Land Rover rattles across the gravelly uneven ground to the different vantage points and key areas of the battle. To the spot where the first two posthumous Victoria Crosses in history were earned – the highest award for valour in the British Army to this day. To the ridge line where thousands of Zulu warriors lined up with their shields and spears stamping their feet in deafening unison, before moving as one onto the ill-fated British line of defence. To the missionary house under siege and ablaze, where one man ground his fingers down to the bone scraping through mud brick walls to carry his injured comrades to safety. The unnamed and last red coat left standing at Isandlwana who from his hiding place in the rocks picked off as many enemy as he could with his remaining bullets, then watched as his boyhood friends were hung from meat hooks, disembowelled and left tasting their own testicles. The feathered barefoot warriors who could outrun cavalrymen on their horses and charged unfalteringly into an unrelenting barrage of lead.

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Painted cairns litter the Battlefield of Isandlwana – each representing the exact spot where soldiers fell and were buried

Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are tiny battlefields in the middle of the vast plains of what is now Kwazulu Natal, the peppering of painted white cairns, humble monuments of remembrance and a small museum the only signs left of the carnage of the 22nd January 1879. But they were momentous events in history: they played a key part in changing the face of South Africa as we know it today and the Zulu legacy. Isandlwana would be remembered as the greatest ever Zulu victory, and one of the worst defeats in British military history. The battle of Rorke’s Drift still boasts the highest number of Victoria Crosses awarded – eleven – in one single battle. After the carnage of the battle of Isandlwana, Britain would no longer send men under the age of 18 to war. But they were also battles that could and should have been avoided, invasions across territories that were not sanctioned by leaders or politicians on either side. For Britain, it was war waged when heavy losses were already being suffered on another front in Afghanistan. And it was a mission launched out of contempt and with a lack of cultural understanding of their enemy. The aftermath was a political cover up of the defeat at Isandlwana and a contrasting over-hyping to the press of Rorke’s Drift. Mistakes we continue to make more than a century later and lessons from which we must learn.

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Buffalo river, a raging torrent (at the time) in the path of the few surviving British on a desperate retreat from Isandlwana, which claimed dozens of lives

But the political and military lessons should never tarnish the undeniable and incredible courage of the British soldiers and Zulu warriors who took to battle that day in 1879 and the thousands of men who gave their lives for their countries and comrades without hesitation.

You come away from Fugitives’ Drift informed by the history lesson and intrigued by the political machinations of the day. But most of all you are moved and inspired by the ordinary Zulu and British men who marched to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and displayed unparalleled courage, resilience and dignity.

(our trip was booked through AfricaAndBeyond.co.uk)

 

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An Unspoilt Nature Paradise in KwaZulu Natal

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Rocktail Beach

The single-lane tarmac motorway runs almost exactly South to North, carving a straight line through small towns, villages and (very) isolated service stations with an incongruous bright red ‘Wimpy’ or ‘KFC’ sign protruding out of the bush. The ‘N2’ follows the coastline towards the Swaziland border and took us to our turn-off for the Maputaland Marine Reserve and our destination for four nights, Rocktail Beach Camp.

Off the main road, we were directed down a gravel road with surprisingly green and lush bush on one side and tall forestry blocks on the other. We had been instructed to park up at a place called ‘Coastal Cashews’ and wait for a 4-wheel drive to pick us up. A few kilometres down the track and a large brown sign outside a cashew plantation took us to our parking spot under an awning behind a barn and next to a row of tractors.

We emerged into the sticky heat from the luxury of our air-conditioned rental car and were soon met by Abi, one of the team from Rocktail Bay. Having hauled our luggage and us into the back of the open-topped safari truck, we set off further down the gravel road. The gravel gave way to yellow sand as we travelled deeper into the forest and towards the sea. After about half an hour, we pulled up to a small sign: we had arrived at Rocktail Beach Camp.

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View from our treehouse

Natalie and her husband Willem welcomed us off the truck and led us up the stone steps into a small clearing with a bright blue swimming pool, a few sun loungers and a thatched open dining area that led into a bar populated with comfy sofas and glossy marine life coffee table books. They apologised profusely that our ‘room’ was the furthest away up in the treetops. It was rather secluded as it was the honeymoon suite and did we mind being upgraded? The ‘room’ was more of a tent-cum-house on stilts. The pathway through the woods led us up the hill through the woods delicately lit at regular intervals with forestry lamps, and eventually onto a deck that wrapped around a thatched house. The deck was level with the treetops, affording a breath-taking view across the forest and out to sea. The ‘room’ consisted of a living room, complete with tea and coffee making facilities and a complimentary decanter of sherry, a bedroom with a bed big enough for a family of five, and a shower room in between – also big enough for a family of five. The panorama across the ocean was uninterrupted across all three rooms, with a series of glass and mosquito net panels across the front. Standing in the shower while trying to spot dolphins jumping became a particularly entertaining pastime, but one which was not conducive to short ablutions – a requirement in a nature reserve suffering from a drought.

As is the African weather’s wont, the skies went from bright blue and sweltering sunshine, to torrential steamy downpours and back again in a matter of minutes. Whatever the weather, the beach – a 10-minute walk through the forest – was spectacular. Quite literally not a human being to be seen on it as far as the eye could see. The waves crashed up the fine yellow sand, disturbing the odd Red Duiker (a diminutive bush buck) that had strayed out of the treeline and sending the small Bambi-like figure scampering back over the dunes.

Our hosts could not do enough for us – insisting we have lunch on the beach on our second day. We expected a picnic basket and a couple of bottles of beer. We got a feast of cured meats, cheeses, pickles and homemade bread. With it came an overflowing basket of fresh fruit and a cooler box filled to the brim and topped with a surprise bottle of bubbles. The spread was carried onto the beach for us, laid out on a tablecloth, salt and pepper sellers, champagne glasses and all. We were then left to our own devices – finishing off a perfect and utterly undisturbed afternoon by body-surfing the incoming tide like teenagers – until the leftovers were spirited away again and we wandered back up to the camp on the forest track.

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Lunch on ‘our’ beach

We could not visit the Maputaland Marine Reserve in the summer season without going out on a turtle drive. Between November and March each year, hundreds of turtles make their way into the bay and lay and bury their eggs on the beach. The numbers had dwindled but thanks to a wildlife conservation project, they are booming once more. We set off with our turtle guide at midnight, driving along the beach looking out for the tell-tale signs of turtles emerging from the waves. We passed a number of flipper tracks before stopping by what was the jewel in the crown – a rare Leatherback turtle – the largest species in the world. It had laid its eggs and was busy scuffing up sand with its enormous and powerful flippers. Our guide straddled the beast to measure it– a whopping 1m60 long and 1m20 wide. We did not stay long, leaving it in peace to complete the burial of its eggs and make its way back into the water. During our outing we also spotted the smaller and more common Loggerhead turtle and watched quietly in the darkness, swatting away thousands of tiny flies buzzing around our heads, while it laid egg after egg into the deep hole it had excavated. An unforgettable sight and one which I would recommend to anyone visiting the Reserve.

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Measuring the huge Leatherback turtle

We did not get around to snorkelling on the nearby reef during this visit but that leaves us something to do next time we visit. Other guests were drawn to what we hear is exceptional scuba diving with a wreck to explore as well as the unpolluted reefs.

The area is a rare unspoilt and unpopulated tourist destination and huge work has gone into the preservation of its beauty and its flora and fauna. It seems perverse to encourage people to visit as it is precisely its seclusion and remoteness that is appealing. But if you are up for peace and quiet, a privileged insight into nature going about its business undisturbed, and do not balk at the prospect of being cut off from the outside world, then this is the place for you. Natalie and Willem and their team go to every length to make your stay as perfect as possible, while giving you the space to feel like you are all alone in your own personal paradise.

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Our own personal paradise

The idyllic setting and relaxing stay made it all the more difficult to readjust to everyday life back in grey and wintry UK. Three days later I am still in denial, reluctant to discard my flip flops. But the onset of frostbite and odd looks from Christmas shoppers are a price worth paying for the pleasure of clinging on to the utter bliss of Rocktail Beach Camp for just a few more days.

(our holiday and itinerary was booked through AfricaAndBeyond)

 

A Hidden Gem in Residential Cape Town

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A Christmassy Cape Town by night

Tucked away up a quiet leafy residential street in Cape Town, we nearly drove past Four Rosmead boutique hotel assuming it was one of the many white-washed gated private properties in the affluent hilly district nestled under Table Mountain.

Its unassuming but polished exterior is reflected in the discreet and immaculate interior of the property and its warm and welcoming staff. We were greeted with the warmth of familiar guests returning to their country retreat. We were led through the comfortable sitting room complete with fireplace and complimentary evening drinks tray and out onto a balcony overlooking a walled garden. A handful of rattan loungers were arranged over a gravel suntrap near a small swimming pool, opposite which was our room. Four Rosmead has generously upgraded us to a suite – a huge living room with kitchenette, bedroom and vast bathroom – with its own private sunbathing area and outdoor shower. There were building works going on in adjacent properties but they were confined to a few hours during the day, during which time we were exploring Cape Town and the surrounding area.

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A welcome cup of tea in the haven of Four Rosemead

Breakfast was plentiful and freshly prepared to order. Dinner was available on request, although we chose to eat out on the V&A Waterfront one night and had the inevitable ‘braai’ with family and friends the other.

Four Rosmead is a small and cosy setting in the hustle and bustle of Cape Town. The owners and staff clearly take great pride in delivering a personal and exclusive service while making guests feel at home in the cosy surroundings. The attention to detail, beautiful setting and quality of the service are what makes Four Rosmead a hidden gem: easily accessible to the shops and sights of Cape Town, but secluded from the hustle and bustle after a busy day exploring the South African city.

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A South African protea – the national flower

An African Thunderstorm

African thunderstorm Rorkes Drift

There’s nothing quite like an African thunderstorm.
In the UK we are treated to grey skies and clouds that can’t seem to make up their mind if they’re just going to float above us indefinitely, push off to Belgium or be decisive enough to whip up something spectacular. More often than not, they decide to hang there and spit on us for days at a time – the kind of rain dubbed ‘miggie-pis’ (pronounced mihhy piss) by my Zimbabwean husband – then sit around some more before the next half-hearted offering.
In Africa there’s no pussy-footing around. The flamboyant display arrives unannounced in between two stretches of scorching sunshine and bright blue sky. It makes a brutal cacophonic entrance then deafens, blinds and blows you away. The only warning is a subtle smell of damp in the air and a quietening of birdsong. If your nostrils and ears are tuned, you may have just enough time to find shelter and move the ‘braai’ under cover.

African thunderstorm threatensAfter a short spectacle, the billowing clouds, torrential rain and deep drum rolls of thunder are gone. Blue sky and bright sunshine return. The ground sizzles and lets off steam, grateful to have had its thirst quenched even for a minute. The birds re-emerge from their hiding places and resume their chattering. The braai is nonchalantly rolled back out into the open and smoke rises off the coals. As the sun turns a deep shade of orange there is no more than a wisp of cloud high in the sky. The silhouette of a lone tree appears on the horizon as steaks the size of suitcases are laid across the grill. The only remnant of nature’s onslaught is the perfume of wet jacaranda tree flowers competing with the cooking marinade.

After the storm

A FLEETING CITY-HOP TO KAMPALA

It’s just a flying visit.  I arrived at Entebbe airport yesterday evening from Mogadishu via Nairobi.  I’ve turned my hand to a spot of recruiting for the vacancies that have come up over the last few weeks at AMISOM’s Information Support Team in Mogadishu.  Intent on spreading the net across the region a bit; I’ve done Skype interviews with candidates from Mogadishu, Nairobi and Kampala.  Now I’m on a manic city-hopping extravaganza to meet the front-runners in person.

We landed to glaring dry and hot sunshine – my kind of weather – and I shared my ride from the old capital Entebbe (and location of the country’s only airport) to today’s capital Kampala with a couple of gentlemen from Djibouti, also on their first visit to Uganda and firing questions at our driver about the sites, the politics and the history.  I had been told by one of my team in Mogadishu who lived here for a few years that it was a beautiful country.  What I saw as we drove through the countryside confirmed it.  The lush green rolling hills, the vast Lake Victoria with its beaches and resort hotels dotted around it, the banana plantations all made me wish I was here as a tourist rather than a would-be recruitment consultant.

The traffic and its behaviour reminded me of the roads around Sri Lanka where moped drivers take their lives into their hands (and yours) competing for tarmac with the seemingly never-ending supply of Toyota minibus taxis.  Weaving around the road and barrelling into oncoming traffic, on a couple of occasions, they forced our driver to swerve into the gravel, narrowly missing them and lulling me out of my sight-seeing reverie.  By the time we rolled into Kampala just under an hour later, the clouds had gathered and droplets were hitting the windscreen.  Seconds later, the road was a river of orange mud-laden water, with the regular speed bumps creating mini waterfalls at pedestrian crossings.  Clearly a regular occurrence during the rains season though as suits, dresses and school uniforms alike navigated deftly through torrents without so much as a brolly in hand.  It did serve to slow down the moped maniacs though, who were suddenly nowhere to be seen amongst the criss-crossing rush-hour traffic.  I realised as we went past a couple of service stations that these kamikazes on two wheels were not quite as hardy as their pedestrian counterparts.  I found them all cowering under the forecourt awnings waiting for a break in the clouds; swarms of bikers patiently chatting and eyeing up the more glossy, more powerful and desirable mount parked up alongside them.

For my twenty-four hour flying visit, I’m staying at the Grand Imperial Hotel.  One of the smarter hotels in town but of an older era than the luxurious modern chains; with wide ornate corridors, leather sofas and writing bureaux made of dark polished wood lining the lobby area.  I’m just sorry that with meetings and interviews, I’m spending far too much time in it working, than exploring well beyond its ornate pillars and welcoming staff.  Barely a taste of Uganda, but enough to say I’ll definitely be back.

Giving Somali women a voice

When I meet Ikran and Deko, I’m struck by how ordinary they look.  There is nothing superhuman about them, nothing of a stereotypical militant feminist.  And yet they have chosen one of the most controversial and challenging careers for a woman in Somalia.

Working in the media is frowned upon here if you are a man.   If you are a woman, it’s madness.

And yet despite qualifications in business and nursing; both these women are determined to make a difference to their local communities and their country by giving women a voice.

Ikran and Deko are part of the management team running the output and developing the programming at Kasmo Radio, the first radio station run by women, for women in Mogadishu and launched just four months ago on International Women’s day.  The station broadcasts seven days a week with a staff of just ten women.   Knowing that to stir up friction would mean being taken off air at best, and incurring severe repercussions at worst, Ikran tells me they avoid all political programmes and focus on subjects that cannot possibly threaten or cause controversy, but can still have a real impact on the lives of people and families in Somalia.  Ikran says their aim is to “be different, raise morale and help Somali women raise their children”.  As head of scheduling, her programmes include cookery shows hosted by celebrity chefs, children’s story-time, and educational programmes about health and hygiene.  A favourite with listeners she tells me, is effectively a ‘how to outdo your neighbour’ in the dinner party and decorations stakes.  Deko, who is part of the management team at the station says there is now room for these more light-hearted pastimes; “a lot has changed, salons are opening now – you know, we get our nails and hair done – restaurants are opening and women are finding careers, but also pride in their work in the home”.  Money is coming in and so are the female entrepreneurs eager to fill the gaps created by years of conflict and uncertainty.

Deko insists women always went to work – “let’s face it the men were always out fighting” – she had two jobs, was studying nursing and was pregnant with her first child during the worst days of the war.  But she says confidence in women and their abilities is building and that is infectious.  They even have men calling in on their radio shows to praise the work they are doing and the effect it has on their sisters, daughters and mothers.

It is not all plain sailing of course.  The Somali government is currently tabling a new media law which it’s feared if passed will seriously limit the ability of media professionals to do their job – not exactly the incentive needed to encourage youth, let alone women, into the profession or the media more widely.  And these women are hampered by the total lack of media training available to them.  They simply are not allowed access, so they and their staff are left with limited skillsets and a hunger to learn more about production, editing, story-writing and technology.  But Ikran and Deko are determined to do this their way; without having to hand over their hard-fought project to the more experienced and skilled men.

They may not yet be leading the way in political argument.  They are playing the long game and understand that change happens gradually.  And by bringing communities together through cookery programmes, chat shows and youth projects, these women are instrumental in building a strong home-front against anyone intent on threatening the new-found cohesion and fragile stability of their community.

This blog was published for Albany Associates and can be found at: http://www.albanyassociates.com/notebook/2013/07/giving-women-a-voice-in-somalia/

(Kasmo radio was set up by Somali NGO called WARDA – Women’s Association for Relief Development Actions and is sponsored by UNESCO)

BLOG: Mogadishu – city of colour

If I expected subdued or morose when I arrived in Mogadishu, or imagined that for Somalis life was a tough war-ravaged event to survive through gritted teeth, it was yet another preconceived idea that was very quickly dispelled.

Whereas in many other Muslim countries, I’ve seen women cloaked in black and resolutely avoiding any eye contact with anyone, here the swathes of fabric covering their modesty could not be more vivid.  Fuscias, lemon yellows, bright greens flash past confidently as I make my way down shopping streets.  And far from averting their eyes, I’m greeted with beaming smiles and waves.

Primary school children bob down the street in apple green shirts with their beige shorts, competing for attention with those from the secondary classes, in their canary yellow smocks and headscarves.  Buildings join the rainbow with walls of one house clashing furiously with its neighbour.  Trucks carrying charcoal and straw are not immune; with their slats painted every shade of pink and purple.

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Illiteracy gives shop-keepers a worthy reason to get the paint brushes out.  They’ve devised an ingenious and artistic way to advertise their wares to passers-by unable to read.  Plastered across the walls either side of their entrances are large elaborate cartoon-like drawings of the items that can be found on the shelves inside.  So the streets become one long picture book; burgers depicting snack bars, an open mouth with tongue sticking out directing you to the dentist, hand-drawn computers – a technical shop and a haphazard selection of squiggly-shaped women’s footwear – a fashionable shoe shop.

The aim of the bright billowing gowns may be to conceal.  Their effect is an African celebration.  The aim of the childlike drawings along every wall may be to entice and inform.  Their effect is to draw the eye away from the pockmarks in the cement and  bring vibrant hues to the dusty streets and remnants of buildings torn apart by years of bloody war.  They shout out in big bold print, that cracks no matter how traumatic, can be painted over.  And as long as they can draw it, they’ll be selling it on the streets of Mogadishu.

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