TRAVEL From the poignant battleground of Isandlwana, where British and Zulu empires clashed bloodily, to the great game reserves where elephants and hippos roam, the South African province of Kwazulu Natal leaves a haunting impression
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The Independent Culture
MY JOURNEY to South Africa began last June in the lecture hall of the Royal Geographical Society, a place redolent of an earlier, more heroic age of travel. There I was, worried about getting home late, musing on the day just past and the evening ahead, when suddenly tears were streaming down my cheeks as I heard of the death of a British army officer, a Lieutenant- Colonel Anthony William Durnford of the Royal Engineers, on a battlefield in Zululand in 1879.

I have no particular interest in things military and certainly no personal connection with Anthony Durnford. But I was moved by what I had heard of his troubled life, his withered arm and long moustaches, his gallantry and the love and loyalty his troops felt for him; all this, and how he bravely fought on the day Britain suffered the greatest defeat in her imperial history and the Zulus won their greatest victory.

Six months later, sitting on the shoulder of a hill shaped like the sphinx rising above a wide plain near the former border between Natal and Zululand, those tears returned. Last June's lecturer, David Rattray, an amateur historian and passionate raconteur, was retelling the story of the battle of Isandlwana to a group of battlefield tourists, directing our gaze enthusiastically with his walking stick. We were on the very spot where Lieutentant-General Lord Chelmsford, the commander of the British expeditionary forces, chose to pitch camp on the first day of his incursion into Zululand, 21 January 1879. Just yards away is the cave in which the last British officer to survive the following day's battle met his end.

It is an amazing story: a military campaign waged on behalf of "the great white queen" in a corner of the empire so insignificant that the great white queen had never heard of it. Hadn't, that is, until "a bunch of savages armed with sticks", as the British colonial governor described them at the time, inflicted an ignominious defeat on a modern army equipped with the latest in military technology.

And it is told by an amazing man. David Rattray's account of this battle, which lasted just two hours and in which more British officers died than at Waterloo and the Zulu casualties were between 1,000 and 3,000, captures the humanity, the dignity and the great courage of all those who took part. He weaves together accounts from the official historians with those pieced together from letters sent home by private soldiers, as well as the version of events handed down from father to son among the Zulu people.

"What happened here is a very simple story," he says. "In military terms the British line was too far out and the general split his force, something you are never meant to do unless you know exactly where your enemy is. He thought he did, but he was wrong. But the real story is in the little pieces. It's like an orchestra. You can get every little instrument to add its sound. Together they make the symphony."

David Rattray is in a unique position to tell this story. In the 1940s, his father bought a shack on the eastern bank of the Buffalo River, marking the boundary between Natal and Zululand. (Since the 1994 elections they are the single province of Kwazulu Natal.) The property included the spot, on the river's edge, where the first recipients of posthumous VCs, officers Coghill and Melville, died trying to save the Queen's colour, the flag that represents the regiment's honour. Their commanding officer had ordered them to take it from the battlefield at Isandlwana to a place of safety.

Rattray senior became fascinated by the Anglo-Zulu wars, particularly the great set-piece battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift - the latter the subject of the film Zulu, and in any case better known to us because we won that one. He read books on the subject and sought out people living in the surrounding villages who were keeping the story of the great Zulu victory alive. On these visits, he took his young son David, who remembers at the age of 10 sitting with an old woman in a village hut and hearing the tales of heroism handed down by word of mouth among the Zulu people.

Another account came from a family friend, George Bunting, a man whom David Rattray describes as the greatest white expert on Zulu culture. From the age of seven Bunting travelled 120 miles on horseback at the beginning and end of each school term from the remote family farm to the town of Glencoe, to catch the train to Durban. His chaperone was an old Zulu man who along the way would tell him stories from his people's history. The second night of their outward journey, they always camped in the lee of the weird-shaped mountain on the plain, and there the old man would tell Bunting of the great battle.

The Rattray "shack" at Fugitives' Drift, as the property is called, is now a collection of bungalows where up to a dozen guests can stay - and where the Rattray family lives. The place is run very informally by David and his wife Nicky; visitors are treated as family friends - which many have become over the years. Meals are taken around a communal table where the conversation and wine flow. The weekend I was there, my fellow guests were as interesting on modern South Africa as our host was on the country's past. With every encounter, prejudices were confounded. The widow of a prominent white anti-apartheid campaigner was coming to terms with one of the crueller realities of the new South Africa: five of her friends were murdered last year. Two lawyers from Durban were discussing law reform: would the proposed lay assessors in every court make the legal system be seen to be more just? What, still no juries? No, that wouldn't work here, my fellow diners agreed. My hackles and moral certainties rising, I was quietly reminded of Rodney King and OJ Simpson - and that was with the American racial legacy.

David Rattray does not shrink from moral ambiguities either. "There are few angels in the history of this country," he says. "But there is no point in indulging in recriminatory history. The story I tell of these two great battles is one of huge human dignity."

The background to this conflict, which visitors hear during the minibus ride to Isandlwana on the first morning of their stay, confirms this. To save his voice, David plays a tape he has made recounting the lead- up to Lord Chelmsford's invasion of Zululand. This clash between two previously friendly nations was over land. Two expanding forces, the Zulu and British empires, and the displaced Boers, all laid claim, made deals, broke promises and exercised what they considered their God-given right to power. All this would have been long forgotten here, had it not been for these battles - first the defeat at Isandlwana, and then the restoration of British honour at Rorke's Drift.

It's 12km as the crow flies between the Rattray property and Isandlwana, across the Buffalo River and rough terrain; by road it takes an hour. When the minibus turns off the main road and over the lip of a hill, a strange and eerie landscape opens before you. When Lord Chelmsford's troops arrived here 116 years ago, they too felt its effect: letters home record their presentiment of coming evil. For one thing, the mountain resembled the sphinx - the emblem on the regiment's cap badges, incorporated after its victory over Napoleon in Egypt. "Isandlwana is one of those precious places where you need no imagination," says David. "It's a place we can use to soften people's attitudes to each other. All you've got to do is soften your focus and let yourself be carried along by the story. Let this marvellous topography do its work of hypnosis."

And it does, with a bit a help from David's skills as a storyteller. First, from the shoulder of the hill, we look down: "You can just make out the soft white blob of the British camp; you can hear the soft clink of saddlery, the crunch of thousands of steel-shod boots and the murmuring voices." Later he directs our gaze back to the track we have just descended in the minibus, and quotes from an eyewitness account: "Over the lip of the hill came the Zulus. We watched as the snake of Zulus got longer and fatter and curled behind the conical hill and out on to the plain." As he said this, half a dozen pairs of binoculars were raised towards the lip as if we too would see that snake. We almost did.

The shared hallucination continues as the narrative weaves around short histories of the main players, descriptions of weapons, accounts of the sources for this story. Dramatic moments are in the present tense, characters sharply and crisply drawn. Repetition, epithets and full-blown rhetoric are used to create a tale that is positively Homeric and certainly hypnotic.

What is particularly compelling about David Rattray's account is that it is not told just through the eyes of the generals, nor do you hear only the British perspective.

"I am interested in the little man: in the courageous Nkosana-Ka Mkundana, in privates Owen Ellis and George Morris of the 24th regiment of foot." (The regiment recruited in Wales.) He names the 15 regiments of Zulu warriors and imagines the feelings of their general, Cetshwayo. "This was his day," he says. "He was in his seventies, 6ft 2in in height, a big-boned, hardy, handsome fellow. He had run all the way from Ulundi [the Zulu capital] with his men; it was his day."

In David's account the battle was won and lost when one of the regimental chiefs, an older man, recklessly exposed himself to British fire, urging his men on into the enemy line. "Don't you dare run away," he said. "Your leader Cetshwayo never told you to run away." The next moment he was struck by a bullet; his men did not turn back. Iswandlana was not a British blunder, David says, it was a Zulu victory.

Stirred and sunburnt we came down the hill. Around us, scattered on the lower slopes and across the landscape we had been drawn into, were small cairns, painted white. Each marks the spot where many fell.

In the afternoon we toured Rorke's Drift, a small mission station (in 1879 and still today), over the Buffalo River in former Natal. This battle took place the night of the same day as Isandlwana. Eleven VCs were awarded, more than for any other battle in history (some say it was partly to distract British public attention from the day's defeat); it was for this engagement that the posthumous VC was invented.

This, too, is an amazing story, told with some poetic licence and by an unlikely toff in the shape of Michael Caine, in the film Zulu. We heard it from David Rattray's assistant Ross Opperman, who has learnt a few tricks from the master. So enthusiastic was his account of the Zulu impi assault on the mission hospital (now a small museum) that he swung the head of his walking stick through a closed window, shattering the glass. This battle ended with the retreat of the Zulu impi back into Zululand, and the position held by the British.

I wasn't able to get to the Royal Geographi-cal Society for David Rattray's account of the heroic defence of this mission station by 140 soldiers against 5,000 Zulus. But I will certainly be going when he returns this June. What he brings to his subject is a rare compassion; he believes in history. He believes we can learn from it and that our understanding of each other can grow from it. To him the events he describes are particularly prescient today. "Underpinning the whole saga is the inescapable fact that they underestimated the Zulu people. Kwazulu Natal today is as close to crisis as it has ever been. We must not make the same mistake again."