While it is commonly known that the town of Ladysmith was named after the wife of Sir Harry Smith, the governor of the Cape, few imagine that her name was actually Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon and that she was a famed Spanish beauty. Just think of what the town could have been named with a little more creativity.
It was the Siege of Ladysmith in 1899, during the Anglo-Boer War, which made the town famous throughout the world. For 118 days, from November 2, 1899, a Boer army cut off the town from the rest of the world, its main goal being to prevent the British from reaching the Transvaal. It was only on February 28 that Ladysmith was relieved, by Sir Redvers Buller and his column, who had been trying since mid-December.
These days the country around Ladysmith is mostly cattle and crop country, while the town itself is an important commercial centre. And, as you’d expect of a place so steeped in history, it is a significant tourism hub.
While the siege and its history are fascinating in themselves, it would be amiss not to take in the bigger picture. For that, one would need to do a bit of travelling, driving from battlefield to battlefield, preferably accompanied by a knowledgeable guide. Majuba, Spioenkop, Colenso and Fort Mistake are all interesting spots on the Anglo-Boer War map.
If your interest includes the Zulu-Boer War, then Blood River can simply not be missed, while the pivotal battles of the Anglo-Zulu War, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, are also within an easy day drive, all the time listening to the late David Rattray’s Day of the Dead Moon – an incredible account of the Anglo-Zulu War.
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Hike up Majuba Mountain. It’s an easy walk and the mild exertion is paid back many times over by spectacular views over KwaZulu-Natal. Monuments on the hill allow one to get a feel of what happened on that day in 1881, when the Transvaal forced the British to the negotiating table.
Spioenkop is another piece of history with unbelievable views, mainly of the game reserve, where you can spot the occasional rhino. Walk among the graves or organise a cycling tour of the area for an insight into the battle.
Visit the site of the Battle of Blood River, where a lager of 64 bronze statues has been erected as a memorial to the overwhelming Boer victory over a force of 10 000 Zulu warriors.
Weenen Game Reserve offers a pleasant day of bird-watching among bushveld and grasslands, with sightings of rhino and antelope also on the cards.
Head north out of town and you’ll soon be in Biggarsberg, a country town that offers scenic horse-riding trails. After lunch carry on to Fort Mistake, an interesting place for war trivia.