A small band from the PSASA visited Isandlwana – the scene of the greatest defeat, in colonial times, of the British army. This report will tell you a little of the tourism experience and reflect briefly upon the lessons gleaned by speakers, from the stimulating talks delivered on the killing grounds by a master of the speaker’s craft, Rob Caskie.
We arrived for lunch on Friday at the guest house that is attached to the lodge, a half kilometre or so from the main lodge – named after Fugitives Drift, where many of those who were fleeing the slaughter which had taken place at Isandhlwana, were killed by the pursuing Zulus.
Looking North across the valley which leads the Umzinyathi River past the site of the Lodge, one sees, rising above the plains and the hills of Zululand, the menacing outline of the mountain that was soaked with the blood of almost five thousand warriors from both armies. The outlook does not suggest  the unspeakable violence that occurred one hundred and fifty years before; there are thorn trees aplenty, grassy plains wandered by water buck, thousands of ‘candelabra’ aloes with their fiery blossoms. Lazily but elegantly, giraffe wander amongst the trees, nibbling the green shoots on the high branches.
The guest house is the epitome of luxury. Visit the web site and gaze with envy upon the comfort of the lounge, the roaring fire in the grate, the long, gleaming dining-room table within, where we enjoyed great food, good wine and stimulating company. View the boma without, where we lunched beneath the thatch. Canvas chairs encircle the open fireplace alongside the pool, where we enjoyed cold beer and rich red wine before the evening meal. The food, I might mention, was of the highest quality I have eaten at any hotel – or restaurant – anywhere. The service, mainly rendered by charming young Zulu women, was exceptional – they knew all our names within a short time after our arrival. No request was any trouble at all.
On the Friday afternoon, we strolled down to the cliffs overlooking the famous drift. A herd of waterbuck gazed at us with curiosity as we passed within a few meters. Overlooking the benign river, Rob explained the significance of the place, bringing it to life for us before we walked to the spot where two of the survivors had staggered up the hill from the river and collapsed in exhaustion, believing they had escaped. They were wrong. A group of Zulus arrived and executed then instantly.
Following a comfortable night in our various cottages among the trees, Saturday saw us depart in a Landrover after a wonderful breakfast. We headed for the might of the monumental Isandhlwana, listening to the recorded voice of the late David Rattray, recounting the harrowing story of the execution of most of the fugitives, at the Drift. Rob paused both vehicle and recording from time to time, to orient us and to fill in details of the saga that unfolded all those years ago. The interest and the tension mounted as we neared the area where the action took place. Before approaching the mountain itself, he took us to the heights overlooking the plain to the East; it was over these heights that the main force emerged to charge towards the British encampment, the two horns outflanking the British and cutting off all hope of escape. Then, we moved toward, and onto, the mountain itself. Numerous cairns of white-painted rocks, each higher than a tall man, mark the spots where groups of red-coated soldiers fell and were later buried. Disembowelled and slashed, most were unrecognisable by the returning troops, who buried their remains.
I shall not even attempt to recount the harrowing stories of the battle that lasted a mere two hours and shocked the British nation.  Rob recounted these in riveting detail. His style and his skills as a story teller are such that the duration of the talk – roughly the same as the duration of the battle – is never dull. We hardly noticed the wind howling across the exposed flank of the mountain, the chill in the air and the desiccating heat of the sun that cracked our lips. Suffice it to say that, by the time we returned to the guesthouse for lunch, we had an understanding of the might of the Zulu army and the courage of warriors on both sides as they fought to the death of so many men in that stark, unforgettable place.
After lunch, we proceeded to Rorke’s Drift. After the huge arena of the battle at the mountain, the diminutive size of the battleground at Rorke’s Drift is remarkable. The extent of the horror that unfolded is however, huge. The stories of heroism and death are shocking in their magnitude. This is no place to try to repeat them. I can only say, that the experience of listening to Rob speak, as we moved from spot to spot where the action took place – sometimes, only moving a few meters – will be with me for the rest of my life.
What did we learn as speakers? The lessons are numerous. He easily kept out attention, using various techniques, such as mentioning our names in the course of the telling, as in “Roger, I must tell you that the darkness in which these men fought for their lives, was almost impenetrable,” and, “Fortunately for the soldiers within, Claire, the fire on the roof above them, lit the gleaming bodies of the warriors, making them easy targets for the riflemen.” He varies his tone, the volume of his voice and he is a master of the pause. He understands and employs, drama. His changes in pace reflect the surges of the fighting. He speaks with reverence of the soldiers on both sides, and of the waste of warfare, without judgment. When he repeats the orders of Zulu commanders, or the battle cries of their men as they executed the bloody thrusts with their short-shafted spears, his voice thunders with credibility. The Zulu language flows off his tongue with such power that one suspects that his mastery of that language equals that of his use of English. There is even some humour, to relieve the tension of the battle.
Rob’s descriptions are concise, but chillingly accurate. Obviously, many hours of research and practice preceded the delivery of the first of his three thousand renditions of this story. Details had been checked with military reports and with the stories related by descendants of the Zulu warriors who actually fought in the battles. The listener is never in any doubt that this man is a subject-matter expert. He is also a master of his craft.  Don’t miss any opportunity that presents itself, to hear him tell his stories of the bravery and loss, in the tapestry of South African history.