The tranquil hills and grasslands of Zululand carry many a famous battle scar. The canvas os of the 19th century was filled with one historical drama after another as three forces pitted their armies against each other - fighting for land and supremacy.
Between 1836 and 1852, Zulu warriors clashed with boer settlers.Some years later the might of the British military was hurled against the Zulu nation during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and the independent Afrikaner movements twice took up arms against the British Empire - first from 1880 to 1881 and then for three years during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).
The largest concentration of battle sites in South Africa are to be found in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Visited by military history enthusiasts from around the world, the sites are visitor friendly and linked by the Battlefields Route. Several of the key towns on the Route are in Zululand, as are dozens of battlefields and fortifications, museums, war graves and memorials.
The Zululand towns on the Battlefields Route are Eshowe, Melmoth, Ulundi, Babanango, Vryheid and Paulpietersburg. Between them they offer a fascinating array of military landmarks that capture the atmosphere of a turbulent past.
The Route can be travelled as a self-drive adventure, and an excellent guide-map is available from all local tourist information offices. Alternately, join a tailor-made battlefield tour in the company of a specialist guide.
The earliest military engagements in the region began when King Shaka set out to mould the Zulu nation. A number of skirmishes and battles were fought against other tribes,displacing them in the process that became known as the Mfecane, and Gqokli Hill outside Ulundi is the site of one of these epic encounters.
The first of the Voortrekkers arrived in the land of the Zulu in 1837. Hoping to settle in this bountiful land, away from British rule, they began negotiations with King Dingane. These came to an end at uMgungundlovu, when a misunderstanding resulted in Piet Retief and his party being killed. A series of battles between the Voortrekkers, seeking retribution, and the Zulu nation ensued.
By the time the british sought to extend their control of Natal in the 1870s, King Cetshwayo was in power. In 1878 the Zulu king rejected a British utimatum that threatened to limit his power, and the first engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War took place in January 1879, when General Lord Chelmsford launched an invasion of Zululand. While the main force was routed at Isandlwana - when some 25 000 Zulus overran the British camp and killed 1 300 of the 1 500 invading force - which led to the defence of Rorke's Drift (where a record 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded for a single engagement), the coastal column was attacked at Nyezane and besieged at Eshowe. Further battles and squirmishes at Ginginglovu, Ntombe Drift, Hlobne Mountain and Kambula, with the British finally regaining the upper hand at the Battle of Ulundi on 4 July, 1879.
Zululand was again a theatre of war when the Boers of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek took on the British Empire from 1899 to 1902 in the Anglo-Boer War. Most of the fighting took place behond Zululand's borders but there are several significant battlefields in the region. These include: Scheepersnek, Lancaster Hill, Blood River Poort and Holkrans in the vicinity of Vryheid; and Fort Prospect and Italeni near Babanango. The historic military landmarks are sign-posted, and can be explored as part of your Zululand experience. A visit to the museums and interpretive centres on the Battlefields Route will provide additional information and insights into the forces that influenced these historical conflicts.