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Culture vultures

Matt Lee’s Rorke’s Drift Battlefield Tour

Matt Lee March 15, 2016

On 22nd January 1879, at Rorke’s Drift in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, a tiny British garrison of 139 men – many of them sick and wounded – fought for 12 hours to repel repeated attacks by up to 4,000 Zulu warriors. This heroic defence was rewarded by Queen Victoria’s government with 11 Victoria Crosses, later immortalised by the 1964 film Zulu starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine.

137 years later I was part of a group of 10 enthusiasts all staying at the nearby, spectacular Fugitives’ Drift Lodge. The tour was part my epic journey to South Africa, on which I also went wine-tasting in Cape Town, horse-riding in KwaZulu Natal and cycling in Soweto. However, the battlefield tour remained my favourite experience.

We were privileged to experience a guided tour of this famous battlefield, and were escorted to Rorke’s Drift by guide Alastair Lamont of Fugitives’ Drift Lodge. Yet, in a region of endless vistas, the first surprise was its size. The world famous battlefield that you have heard so much about — the bit that mattered at Rorke’s Drift — was little bigger than a tennis court.

We learned that the average height of the British soldier was 5ft 3in, the average age was 23 and he weighed on average just 10st. Recounting the details of this horrific battle in minute detail, Alastair guided us through the battlefield bringing to life stories of the characters involved.

I will never forget the stories recounting the sheer bravery of Private Hook (the cook) or of Private Waters, who hid in a cupboard, dressed in Mrs Witt’s black fur coat. Waters slipped out of a window during a lull in the attack, before crawling into a pit of dead Zulus where he was trampled on all night.

We cringed as we heard about the astonishing exploits of Private John Williams who burrowed through the walls until he had no flesh on his fingers and by doing so managed to save a number of patients from being assagaied (killed rather gruesomely by a type of spear).

I was particularly touched by the story of Private Frederick Hitch, who, together with Corporal William Allen, was awarded the Victoria Cross for “holding together at all costs a most dangerous post, raked in reverse by the enemy’s fire from the hill.”

​They were both severely wounded, but their determined conduct enabled the patients to be withdrawn from the hospital. They were incapacitated but, after their wounds had been dressed, continued to serve out ammunition to their comrades during the night.

As with a number of the other soldiers, we heard stories of how Hitch had a rough time after being discharged from the army due to the severity of his wounds and ended up as a London cabbie. When he died in 1913, over 1500 cab drivers attended his funeral and to this day there’s a Hitch Award for Bravery awarded to drivers who have shown outstanding courage above and beyond the normal expectation.

Witnessing Alastair’s wonderful recreation of the extraordinary events of 1879 brought many of my group to tears. Even if you have never heard of these battles, or have never seen the film, this is a magnificent experience.

The battlefield tours are also an enigmatic way of experiencing the beautiful landscape of KwaZulu Natal and provide an invaluable insight into the rich history and culture of this diverse country. Visit our South Africa pages for more inspiration on safaris, city breaks and fascinating tours.