Travel: Where the Zulu war-cry echoes

The Battle of Isandlwana was re-staged yesterday. Terence Kelly goes on the trail of Imperial conflict in 19th-century Africa
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The Independent Culture
Driving through the green hills of Zululand today, it is easy to realise why Queen Victoria's Welsh soldiers once felt that they were back in their valleys. But when Lt Charles Raw's patrol rode up the ridge overlooking the Ngwebeni valley on 22 January 1879, what they saw below was something never seen in Wales: 24,000 Zulu warriors awaiting battle.

What followed were the Battle of Isandlwana, one of Britain's worst imperial disasters, and the defence of the Rorke's Drift mission station, one of the most heroic fights, when 11 Victoria Crosses were won. The frequently televised film Zulu keeps Rorke's Drift fresh in the popular mind, whereas Zulu Dawn, recounting the Isandlwana defeat, is more of a collector's rarity.

These, and the other battle sites of the Zulu Wars, are largely intact. They form a grimly evocative itinerary in this part of eastern South Africa. The battlefields route includes the site where a Boer punitive expedition avenged the killing of their emissary, Piet Retief, in 1838. The laager of 64 wagons behind which their sharpshooters took cover has been re-created in massive bronze as a symbol of Boer triumphalism. In three hours, 3,000 Zulus died. The nearby river ran so red that it was rechristened Blood river. Only three Boers were injured.

By 1879 the lessons of this battle were forgotten. At the foot of the dramatic hill of Isandlwana, monuments mark the spots where British riflemen were drawn up, largely in the open. No defensive laager of wagons was constructed. After all, none had been needed to subdue less martial tribes to the south.

The Zulus still charged the rifle lines head on, suffering many casualties. But you can walk where their legendarily fast-moving impis outflanked the imperial force on each side with the deadly "horns of the buffalo" tactic. With their superb fieldcraft, courage and discipline - and their vast numbers - they were unbeatable. Some 1,300 British and colonial troops fell.

As a pilgrim to this remote and bloody spot, I felt it fitting to contribute some rands to a fund to have fresh whitewash spread to highlight the cairns marking the mass graves of the British. Some soldiers escaped, and vigorous visitors can walk and clamber along the Fugitives' Trail which they took beside the Buffalo river. The final swim across to the Natal bank is assisted today by an inflated tyre. On the ridge above, a monument stands over the graves of Lts Coghill and Melville, both awarded the VC for their attempts to save the regimental colours.

At nearby Rorke's Drift, stones mark out where Lts Bromhead and Chard improvised parapets of mealie bags and biscuit boxes, behind which just over 100 fit men fought off 4,000 Zulus that same night. The original buildings here have been reconstructed and one contains a museum.

Nearby lie the graves of 17 soldiers who fell, and that of Jim Rorke, the drunken Irish trader who had killed himself a few years earlier when his gin supplies ran out. Under his will, 3ft of concrete cover his corpse to prevent medicine men from digging up the bones to strengthen their potions.

Near Rorke's Drift, a new bridge crosses the Buffalo river where General Lord Chelmsford forded it. Zulu children now cross it returning from school, and the girls curtsy politely to picnicking visitors.

Chelmsford had divided his invasion force into three to envelop the Zulus and had then divided his own central column again to advance on the Zulu capital, Ulundi, leaving his reserve at Isandlwana. His supply columns and marching troops, fatigued by heat, thick uniforms and numerous diseases - and spread out over long stretches of track - were wide open to Zulu attacks, yet advanced largely unscathed.

However, the force on his left wing partly came to grief on the bleak, snake-ridden ridge of Hlobane. Colonel Redvers Buller's men mounted on one side to capture a herd of Zulu cattle. But, in spite of the lessons of Isandlwana two months earlier, he cannot have reconnoitred adequately, and found 2,000 Zulus coming up the other side. You can see the Devil's Pass down which the captured cattle were supposed to have been driven, but whose rocks proved diabolical indeed. Buller extricated the troops down this, winning a VC but losing some 200 men.

The battlefield guide recounts how two soldiers found themselves cut off by Zulu spearmen on the ridge. One put his rifle barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The other, an 18-year-old, galloped over a 70- ft cliff, fell into bushes and survived. So did his horse, but it died within 24 hours.

Next day, on the battlefield of Kambula, British troops manning a ridge killed more than 1,000 Zulus. A few years ago an American dealer cleared the site of spent bullets and other military debris to stock his trade, since when the South African authorities have been more conscious of what they have to lose from irresponsible souvenir-hunting

Chelmsford's right-flank column just escaped being overrun. It was surrounded by Zulus who crept up on it at night, but thought that the sentries calling to each other in the dark had spotted them, and crept away again.

Nothing remains of its siege camp, but nearby is Gingindlovu - "Gin Gin I Love You" to the troops - where Chelmsford, accepting the lessons of past battles, put his 5,600 men into a laager of wagons and trenches. Some 1,000 Zulu attackers fell, half of them killed by cavalry while retreating. Zulu warriors appeared to be untrained in orderly fighting withdrawals.

The drive to the Zulu capital, target of Chelmsford's second invasion, passes the spot where the Prince Imperial, the headstrong heir to Napoleon III, was killed while serving with Chelmsford. One of the commemorative trees planted long ago by his mother, the Empress Eugenie, was blown down in a storm and damaged his memorial. Battlefield tourists helped villagers, who earn an income from visitors, to clear the site and get repairs done.

In the battle for Ulundi, Chelmsford again kept his men in close formation, much like one of Wellington's squares holding off French cuirassiers at Waterloo. The square held, the attackers retreated, the cavalry went in and that was the end of the independent Zulu nation.

A memorial building on the site bears the names of the Zulu regiments that fought there, though such plaques are not a normal Zulu custom. The downfall of the Zulu kingdom is symbolised again on the Tugela river to the south, on the Natal border, where British officials seeking an excuse for war had presented the Zulus with an ultimatum that they could never accept. The Ultimatum Tree still stands, but a few yards away a motorway carries modern traffic into Zululand.

Terence Kelly's 10-day journey with 16 other travellers was organised by Holts Tours, Golden Key Building, 15 Market Street, Sandwich, Kent OT13 9DA (01304 612248; fax 01304 614930; e-mail address: infoatholts.; Website at http://www.

He paid pounds 2,549 for flights, visa, coach, guides, accommodation, all food and a final-day visit to the Hluhluwe game reserve