Blood River Heritage SiteEnquire Now
46km from Dundee
+27 34 271 8121 www.ncomemuseum.co.za
It is said that Blood River was so-named when its waters ran red with the blood of the slain warriors on its shores. The site marks the place where 470 Voortrekkers, led by Andries Pretorius, went into battle with 10 000 to 15 000 Zulus on 16 December 1838. There were around 3 000 Zulu mortalities, while three Voortrekker commandoes were wounded in the battle, which was instigated by Voortrekker occupation of Zulu land.
Today the Heritage Site is a tribute to the Voortrekker victory as well as a dedication to the fallen Zulu warriors. An important part of South African history, the battle of Blood River had a resounding social and political effect, forming part of the legacy of racial divisions that scars the face of this beautiful country. Currently, in South Africa’s famous spirit of reconciliation, both sides are represented at the site, which is shrouded in such exquisite landscape that it is almost understandable that nations would fight to possess this territory. In keeping with the post-apartheid shift in politics, this is now a peaceful place and an interesting destination for all visitors.
The unbiased nature of the place is represented in the two museums on either side of the river. On the west is the Blood River granite Monument and Museum, which is considered an important part of Afrikaner cultural heritage in South Africa. Here, there is a bronze wagon memorial lager built on the site of the original lager - the formation of which was the decisive factor in the otherwise improbable Voortrekker victory - as well as three replica cannons. The Museum has an interpretation centre, curio shop and restaurant in the style of an old Boer kitchen.
On the east is the Ncome Zulu Museum, constructed in the distinct Zulu ‘bull horns’ war formation. The Museum offers a different perspective on the events of the battle and its build-up, as well as insight into general Zulu history and custom.
The juxtaposition of these facilities gives visitors a comprehensive sense of the events that took place at the Battle of Blood River, and encourages an appreciation of the ‘new South Africa’. Once a day of celebration for Afrikaners, 16 December is now a national holiday and has been renamed Reconciliation Day. Scheduling a visit to the site on that day offers visitors the benefit of an annual re-enactment of the battle in full traditional dress by both sides – transporting guests back in time to witness the battle in action.
It was from the bush and grassland of northern KwaZulu-Natal that the impis of King Shaka emerged, sweeping down onto the other tribes of the hinterland and eventually engaging the British forces and shaking the very roots of the Empire. At the height of its power, the Zulu nation covered 30 000km2, but 60 years after it was first formed, its reign was over. In those 60 years, the Zulus shaped the future of the country and were engaged in battles with the Boers and the British, but these were not the only bloody conflicts in the region.
After the Zulu empire was broken, the English and the Boers fought for control of South Africa, with many battles taking place in Natal. While the best-known battles in the area are undoubtedly Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, as well as the siege of Ladysmith, there is fascinating history to be had at countless other ones.
The beauty of the scenery clashes harshly with the devastating past, while the rough terrain makes one wonder how the machines of war were manhandled across the country, and how the Zulu impis managed to cover such vast distances in a single day, barefoot.
The regions of Zululand and the Battlefields merge together and are hard to separate, stretching from the northern and western KwaZulu-Natal borders to the towns of Ladysmith and Colenso in the south and towards the Elephant Coast in the east.
Zululand has managed to remain largely unaffected by industrial expansion and much of it remains farmland, timber plantations and rural wilderness, including beautiful Big-Five game reserves and grasslands.
On the other hand there is the industrial hub of Richards Bay, the largest port in South Africa.
Tourism revolves around the natural beauty and diversity, as well as the haunting battlefields on which so many lost their lives and which are simply fascinating to visit, especially with a knowledgeable guide, of which there are a few.
Since this is the birthplace of the Zulu nation, it is also the place to come to grips with Zulu tradition, culture and history.
A number of cultural experiences exist, where tourists can become immersed in the local tradition and culture, learning a huge amount and enjoying themselves even more.
A few reserves in the region offer good game-viewing, from Weenen and Spioenkop in the south up to Ithala in the north. The diverse ecosystem means that hundreds of bird species are present, and a few notable bird-watching spots include the Dlinza and Ongoye forests, as well as the wetlands of Richards Bay.
An area as large and diverse will always have an almost endless array of attractions, and Zululand and the Battlefields are no different, from fishing in Richards Bay to horse-riding, mountain-biking, game-viewing and bird-watching. There is even a brewery to lighten the spirits when the history gets a little heavy.
Look out for
Zululand Brewery in Eshowe is a great place to pop in for a relaxing Zulu Blonde Export Ale, a beer that has won awards and rave reviews internationally. While you’re sitting at The Happy George Bar, ask around for recommendations on what’s new to do in the area.
The Dlinza and Ongoye Forests are serious birding hotspots and both are easily accessible. In fact, the Dlinza aerial boardwalk is something that even non-birders will enjoy and appreciate.
Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are the two seminal battlefields in the Battlefields tour and are both intensely fascinating and moving. A good guide is invaluable in bringing them to life. Ulundi and Blood River are also well worth visiting, giving different insights into the bloodshed that shaped this land.
Take a hike up Majuba or Spioenkop mountains, both of which offer sensational views in addition to stirring battlefield history. The historic O’Neills cottage, where a peace treaty was signed to end the first Anglo-War, lies at the base of Majuba.
The majestic Ithala Game Reserve in the very north of KwaZulu-Natal offers good game-viewing and bird-watching, as well as epic scenery of mountains and valleys. While there is a variety of accommodation, the pick of it is undoubtedly the bush camps that can be booked out for your group.
Every year the Zulu nation holds the Reed Ceremony near the eNyokeni Royal residence in Nongoma north of Melmoth, thousands of maidens gathering to pay their respect to their king. This happens in spring and visitors from all over the world come to watch the women dance and sing to King Goodwill Zwelithini in his ceremonial regalia.
The eMakhosini Ophate Heritage Park should not be missed by anyone with a sense of history. It is the birthplace of the Zulu clan and what is known as the Valley of the Kings. The Spirit of eMakhosini memorial and an educational multimedia centre are worth a visit, and there is also game, including the rare oribi antelope and black rhino.
Immerse yourself in the Zulu culture at a place like Shakaland and watch Zulu dancing, ask a sangoma (witch doctor) for his sage advice, sample traditional Zulu beer, listen to singing and perhaps try out a few simple phrases for yourself. Arts and crafts are also on sale and make wonderful gifts and souvenirs.