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Beyond the Battlefields

Beyond the Battlefields

Nov 2014

Words & Pics Andrea Abbott

It might be in the KZN Outback but in Dundee there are no crocodiles.  Still, the town has seen many epic (non-celluloid) struggles in the wars that waged across the wider region, shaping so much of our country’s history.  The gateway to the KZN Battlefields, Dundee has the dubious distinction of having more battle sites within a 100 km radius – around 65 – than any other town on Earth.  Thus, within shelling distance, are sites whose names resonate far beyond South Africa: Talana, Isandlwana, Blood River, Rorke’s Drift, to name a few.  

Linked with this there are arguably more battlefield tour guides in Dundee than anywhere else in the country. They’re a professional lot, military history their passion, storytelling in their blood. And to tour with one, is to find yourself on the front line.

The guides besides, another outfit brings these battles back to vivid life. The Dundee Diehards military re-enactment team is a stalwart bunch, and they regularly take up authentic weapons to demonstrate how it was in those terrible battle zones. And while combat might stir the imagination of the gung-ho, the team makes one thing very clear, especially when visiting schools: war is a complete waste of human lives. Says Diehards team advisor, Peter Jones, “We honour the bravery of soldiers, but stress that war should be avoided at all costs and only resorted to after all other avenues have been exhausted.” 

Warfare might be in Dundee’s blood, but the town is rich in other history, the marks of those past times yet evident. Like many places, Dundee originated as a farm, herds of cattle once grazing the site now occupied by Talana Museum. Cattle are still important for the local economy, the monthly stock sales among the biggest in the country. “Dundee sales are an indication of the country’s overall livestock market,” says Stoffel Mouton of auction firm, BKB.

Dairy is big too and Dundee is home to one of South Africa’s oldest private dairies. Orange Grove Dairy began with seven Jersey cows in 1927, the milk delivered in cans by bicycle. Still in the hands of the Durham family, it has grown into a sophisticated enterprise that takes its social responsibility seriously, contributing to causes like the daily feeding scheme run voluntarily by a group of townsfolk. 

In exchange for bags of recyclable litter, indigent people are given dairy and other food products. “About R80 in value for each person,” says project leader, Carol Bradley. Orange Grove has also given a leg up to entrepreneur Belinda Lee, who buys the dairy’s short-dated cream and, in her home churn, transforms it into the best butter. Another cattle-based business in town that had small beginnings is AfriTan, famous for Nguni hide products like handbags and rugs. Craig van Heerden started out in a farm shed but soaring demand soon necessitated bigger premises. The factory shop draws many visitors, while other customers, some from as far as Russia, buy online. “The internet has opened up the world to us,” says Craig.

Mpati Mountain stands guard over Dundee.

Not to underestimate the generosity of the humble cow, it has to be said that what really kick-started Dundee’s economy was the discovery of coal on that eponymous farm in the mid 1860s. Almost overnight, Coalopolis, as it was nicknamed, became a boom town, its fame spreading with the listing of the Dundee Coal Company on the London Stock Exchange. Most of the mines have since closed, perhaps much to the relief of many Dundonians, who now revel in the area’s clean air. 

However, rich pickings are still to be had. At Lennox Guest House, owned by ex-Springbok rugby player, Dirk Froneman and his equally accomplished wife, Salome (a Master Chef if ever there was one), our fellow guests included a team tasked with installing a massive piece of equipment at one colliery. “One of the most powerful machines ever built,” says Dirk Reichardt, showing us a picture. Compared with the historic mining equipment displayed at Talana Museum, this thing is a monster. (Can’t we just invest instead in the good old sun, the cleanest fuel generator of all?)

Still, mining brought prosperity, electricity and public buildings that are still in good shape, many of them part of the Dundee Heritage Trails devised and inaugurated last year by Talana Museum’s curator, Pam McFadden. With a copy of the trails booklet (available at the museum) in hand, a walk through town is also a walk back in time. 

For example, at the Magistrate’s Court in Gladstone Street, picture Gandhi on trial there in 1913 for inciting Indians to leave Natal and cross illegally (a permit was required) into the Transvaal. In your mind, hear the judge sentence him to a £60 fine or 90 days in prison. Gandhi chose jail but was released the next day. Not smart to make a martyr of the Mahatma.

History was perpetually in the making, and it’s not just the deeds of the famous that are worth the telling. Often, the essence of an era lies in the stories of ordinary people. And so, if you’re wandering down colourful Wilson Street, take time to enter the crammed-to-the-ceiling shop where Mr A Dass plies his trade as mender of shoes – and everything else besides. 

A quiet-spoken man, Mr Dass’s unassuming nature belies a steeliness that equipped him to survive after Indians were effectively chased out of Kenya in the late 1960s. His family possessed British passports and they left for England. Having only a South African birth certificate, Mr Dass became a stowaway, jumped ship at Lourenço Marques, walked to Komatipoort and slipped into South Africa only to be arrested. “I did hard labour in Barberton Prison for a year before I was released.” 

Further down Wilson Street is the rare sight of a red-and-white-striped pole outside an old-fashioned barber’s shop complete with authentic chairs. Orie’s isn’t just a barber shop, it’s a 57-year-old institution where Dundee’s menfolk and visitors have always gathered to chew the fat. “What’s discussed in here stays inside these walls,” says Sam Mungal, who took over from his uncle, Barath Orie whose own uncle started as a pedalling barber, cycling from house to house. 

Sam continues that tradition, making ‘house calls’ to pensioners unable to get about. The difference is that Sam roars up on a motorbike. “The best thing about Dundee,” he says, “is that there’s still a sense of community here.” That’s partly because of people like Mr Dass and Sam, whose small enterprises bring unique character to a place. There are others. Back in Gladstone Street is a century-old row of shops. One houses a pukka book exchange. “My mother opened it in 1973,” says proprietor Michelle Fleishman, who is also one of South Africa’s top Siamese cat breeders. “More than a book exchange, we’re something of an information bureau for locals and visitors.” 

In her McKenzie Street studio, Michelle Hamman creates gorgeous ceramics and fabric items, no two pieces ever the same. Nearby, at Leisha Coetzee’s art classes, young artists are creating enchanting greeting cards that are a hit with tourists. Leisha also mentors up-and-coming painter, Khanya Mbatha, whose talent was first recognised and nurtured by Pam McFadden. Another gifted local artist (and cake decorator) is Edy Potgieter, whom Pam appointed to paint the murals in a new exhibition that opened on 4 August this year. It marked the centenary of the Great War and honoured the South Africans who fought in it. A permanent exhibition, it’s entirely appropriate for the town. “A high percentage of Dundee’s male population answered the call to arms,” says Pam. “The casualty rate was 25 per cent.” 

A tragic waste of human life, as the Dundee Diehards emphasise, but Dundee will never forget its valiant soldiers.

Belinda Lee with the butter she makes.

Source: Country Life

Talana Museum
Blood River Heritage Site
Rorke's Drift

Country Life