Gin, Gin, I Love You! (Zulus, Hippos & Rhinos)

We were now in Zululand. We had chance to find out a bit about the Zulus and the 1879 Zulu War as well as do lots more wildlife viewing including lots of hippos (at St Lucia / iSimangaliso Wetland Park) and white rhino (at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park)….

Overview: 5 days, 795 km (of which 278 km in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, not shown on the map below)

Having bypassed Durban and entered Zululand, we thought we’d better learn a bit about the local history and culture. Our first stop was KwaDukuza (formerly Stanger), where we went to the King Shaka Visitor Centre. We hadn’t expected too much but as it turned out we got a guide who explained lots about Zulu history and culture.

The Zulu Nation really started with King Shaka in the 1820s. Before him, the Zulus had just been one of a number of local clans, and one of the smaller ones at that. At one one time, these clans had coexisted peacefully, but this all changed in the early nineteenth century – increasing population, a famine in the first decade of the 19th century, and trade with the British (particularly in ivory) had increased competition between the clans for precious resources.

It seems generally accepted that King Shaka was a pretty despotic leader, but what the heck – he subjugated the other clans and created the Zulu Nation, so he’s been revered as one of history’s winners. As well as defeating and integrating the other clans, King Shaka is also credited with the introduction of many characteristic Zulu fighting techniques, including the use of the assegai (a short stabbing spear, used in close combat – previously, longer spears would have been thrown at the enemy from a distance) and the “horns of the bull” attacking formation whereby the opposing army would be outflanked and surrounded by the Zulus.

Our guide was a wiry young lad who, one suspects, might himself have been quite handy with an assegai and a shield…. He explained that we were standing on the site of one of King Shaka’s homesteads, which would have comprised around 2,000 circular huts clustered around a cattle enclosure in the centre. When a leader died, they’d be buried in the centre of their cattle enclosure so they could continue to keep an eye on things.

In 1828, King Shaka was murdered by two of his half brothers whilst sat on a rock. That very same rock (yeah, right….) has been moved and placed by his grave site (though we did notice other signs in the town pointing in a different direction to his grave, and information online suggests that no-one really knows where he’s actually buried.

There seems to have been quite a lot of killing of brothers / nephews / uncles among the Zulu leadership…..

We spent Tuesday night at Howard Johnson Nature Reserve. KwaZulu Natal has an outfit called Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife that run a number of parks in the region; unfortunately we got off on the wrong foot at Howard Johnson Nature Reserve. The camping was really cheap and our Wild Card got us into the reserve for free, but even so, I can’t bring myself to recommend the place. The one staff member was completely and utterly clueless and the toilet block was the grottiest I’ve seen in a long long time, so much so that I opted for a wet wipe wash in the van on Wednesday morning, and even Mark took the bucket with him when he ventured out to the shower so as to be able to rinse away as much of the dead wildlife as possible from the shower tray before venturing in…..

One of the reasons that we’d visited Harold Johnson Nature Reserve, apart from it having a camp site, was that it also contains the site of Fort Pearson and the Ultimatum Tree.

Here’s Mark trotting up the very overgrown track in search of the site of Fort Pearson…..

One thing we did discover on the way was a new grasshopper for our collection. We think this is the Elegant Grasshopper (zonocerus elegans):

Getting back to the Zulus, let’s rewind to 1878…. King Cetshwayo was now the leader of the Zulu Nation:

The British in Natal felt that the Zulus had been getting a bit too big for their boots and that there was little to stop the Zulus crossing the Tugela river and invading their territory, so in December 1878, a delegation met King Cetshwayo and his entourage under a tree by the river and delivered an ultimatum. The demands were quite extreme (including disbanding the Zulu army). Cetshwayo did what any self-respecting Zulu King would and just ignored the ultimatum. Unfortunately, this left the Brits feeling honour-bound to invade…..

The Ultimatum Tree died following floods in the 1980s, so we couldn’t see that, but we visited the site of Fort Pearson, built on the bank of the river at a crossing point into Zululand. The British army set up a ferry crossing here (with cables attached to the Ultimatum Tree) to move troops across the river into Zululand in January 1879.

We came across a British cemetery from the period nearby:

All of the graves bear the inscription “Here Rests a Brave British Soldier”:

On Wednesday, it was time for a bit more of the 1879 Zulu War. The war didn’t start well for the British after their invasion of Zululand:

On 22 January 1879, a 1200-strong British army camped at Isandhlwana was attacked and almost annihilated by a Zulu impi (army) numbering 20,000. On the same day, 100 British soldiers held off 4,000 Zulu warriors for twelve hours at Rorke’s Drift. When word reached London on 11 February, it was decided to send reinforcements at once.

This is where my great great grandfather John comes into the story. John had joined the army in 1876 at the age of 21, and found himself joining the S.S. Pretoria at Southampton with thirty officers and 905 other men on 19 February 1879. He had been transferred from the 41st to the 91st regiment on 15 February 1879, which suggests that he was probably one of the 374 men from other regiments (including the 41st) who volunteered to serve in Zululand and were transerred to the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders prior to the departure of the S.S. Pretoria.

The troops arrived in Durban on 16 March. They were then to march to Eshowe to relieve a British force that was surrounded by Zulus and running low on provisions. They reached the Tugela River on 25 March and crossed into Zululand by means of the previously mentioned pont (ferry) attached to the Ultimatum Tree. They had a pretty miserable time as their march progressed from there towards Eshowe, with heavy rain and their tents having been left behind at Fort Pearson for maximum speed.

On 01 April they camped at Gingindlovu, which means “swallower of the elephant” in Zulu. British troops apparently couldn’t pronounce this, so named the place “Gin, Gin, I love you!” instead. John’s military record says that his “habits and conduct in the service, temperance etc” were “good & temperate”, so perhaps he wasn’t the principal gin lover present. Mind you, the British troops could probably have done with some gin the following morning, as their camp was attacked by an impi of 10,000 Zulus. A memorial now stands at the side of the road:

The battlefield itself is covered by a sugar cane plantation:

The Zulus first attacked on the opposite side of the square camp (laager) to that where John would have been, then advanced around the camp in their usual “horns of the bull” formation before attacking decisively at the rear – where John’s regiment was positioned. Their close combat style turned out to be the undoing of the Zulus at Gingindlovo: the British had come armed with two Gatling guns (early machine guns). The Zulus got within 25 yards of the British lines but were beaten back by the superior British firepower and fled.

Apparently, Gingindlovu was the first occasion on which the British army had fired a Gatling gun in battle. Of the 22 British officers and 801 men present, one officer and four men were killed / five officers and 39 men injured. Casualties on the Zulu side were much heavier, with over 500 bodies counted within 400 yards of the camp alone and many more strewn further afield where they had been cut down by the pursuing British cavalry.

John came through the battle of Gingindlovu and the rest of his stay in Zululand and South Africa unscathed – a good thing really as he had yet to marry and have children (including my great grandfather). It’s strange to think that I might owe my existence to the invention of the machine gun……

We’ll come across the 1879 Zulu War again later in our trip as Mark is keen to visit Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, but for now it was time to get back to wildlife viewing…..

One of our options for Wednesday night was another KZN wildlife reserve with camp site, but this time I was more cautious. Having looked it up on Tripadvisor and found a review that said that the toilet block didn’t appear to have been cleaned – ever, we headed instead to Richards Bay Caravan Park, which was absolutely lovely. It’s a big commercial camp site, so it might not have been for us at busier times of the year, but as it was we had one end of the site and a toilet block all to ourselves……

Our next stop was St Lucia in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The park itself is huge but we just visited the small tourist town of St Lucia and did a hippo- and crocodile-watching boat trip on Lake St Lucia.

There are apparently over 1000 hippos in and around Lake St Lucia, so sightings are pretty much guaranteed. The hippos are even known to wander through the town at night munching on the grass verges.

As well as the hippos and some (not very photogenic) crocs, Mark also spotted a brown hooded kingfisher:

The KZN campsite at St Lucia was very nice, a far cry from the one at Howard Johnson nature reserve! After a good night’s sleep, we were up early on Friday morning for the short drive to the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is the fourth largest park in South Africa, covering an area of 372 square miles. It’s white rhino central – from a low of 20-50 animals in the late nineteenth century, this park is now very well populated and over 3500 animals have been moved from here over the years to repopulate other parks and to supply zoos around the world. We spent two days at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi and saw 22 white rhinos on Friday and 37 on Saturday. You’d really struggle to visit this park and not see a white rhino!

We did also see a range of other wildlife including giraffe, antelope (impala and nyala), zebra, buffalo, and elephant:

A small selection of the birdlife:

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is KZN’s flagship park, and very nice it is too. Despite lots of other accommodation options, though, there is no camp site within the park so we ended up staying half an hour away at a place called Bushbaby Lodge & Camping. As well as being a really nice camp site, it did have resident bushbabies which were fed bananas at 7.30 each evening:

There were lots of game reserves, both private and belonging to KZN, that we didn’t visit in this part of Zululand. You could spend a lot longer here than we did, but Kruger was now calling. First, though, we had to drive north through Swaziland to get there…..


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