The starting time of three forty-five made Hugh hesitate just a little, and Nola said she needed a confirmation wake-up call at three, but they both agreed on leaving early. The target area was Spioenkop, looking at the scenery, visiting Spionkop Lodge to see Raymond Heron, trying to find Lee and Claire Fuller at Tugela River Lodge, and a visit to the top of the hill that had been the scene of the bloodiest battle of the Boer War in 1900. Hugh and Nola both made the deadline, and even managed to look happy.
The early light of what threatened to be a torpid summer day strengthened as we drove, and by the time we passed Winterton we were bathed in decidedly chilly clear sunlight. We sought vantage spots for photographing the wonderful landscape, set as it was against the magnificent backdrop of the Drakensberg. Many of our efforts were thwarted by the ubiquitous power lines and even now-useless telephone lines, and we resorted to walking out into farmlands to escape the modern technology.
A single hot-air balloon climbed from the floor of the Midlands to etch itself against the mountains and the early sky, and I could only guess and shudder at the temperature up there.
Life had started the day on the ground too, and the farms and homesteads were stirring. The local farmers went about their duties while herdsmen tended the livestock, and the rural folk headed out to collect the water and firewood they’d need for the day. The sunlight quickly penetrated the low-lying areas, slowly warming the people and their animals, revealing also the splendour of the region. We stopped to record the things we saw, even using the tarred road as a vantage point. A local farmer stopped to ask if we were lost, and I had a fascinating chat with him about the current drought conditions there. I wouldn’t be a farmer for anything.
As Hugh and I went about finding suitable images the effervescent Nola befriended the folk of a cluster of homes, coming away with permission to build a home there! She has a wonderful gift with people. At this homestead we saw the stark reality of the drought, water having to be brought in over a distance, firewood collected and carried in huge bundles on the women’s heads, the ground bare of growth as the livestock searched in vain for morsels. The people were friendly, inured to tough conditions, and went about their daily tasks much as we might do in our far more luxurious homes. With the exception of a single TV aerial dish there was no technology in evidence, and two young boys busied themselves playing soccer with a punctured bright orange plastic ball, a termite mound and a small rock serving as the goal posts. Life is simple beyond our city limits.
The current drought in Kwazulu-Natal, and indeed in many parts of South Africa, has devastated the area. Farm dams lie empty while there has been no Spring growth to speak of. Livestock animals are in poor condition as they compete among themselves for the few scraps that are to be found amongst the rocks and stones that lie upon the dusty baked earth.
We called in at Spionkop Lodge and were lucky enough to find Raymond before he left with a large group to give them his inimitable account of the Boer War in that area. He’s a wonderful narrator, a great tour guide, and has the distinction of having been invited to address the Royal Geographic Society a few years ago. The lodge itself almost doubles as a Boer War museum, providing visitors with many relics and photos of those dark days, making them witnesses to the folly of mankind.
Off we went, then, via back roads, an interesting girder bridge across the Tugela River, a short stretch of tarred road and more back roads through farmlands and bushveld to arrive at the entrance to the Spioenkop memorial. We paid the entrance fee to a cheerful individual who bore no uniform or identity but issued us with a valid Amafa receipt, and crawled up the hillside in first gear, negotiating many fierce rainwater diversion humps and ditches, all of them spectacularly redundant in the drought conditions, arriving at the summit to be greeted by the stiff breeze that is nearly ever-present there.
We drove past the beautifully located Tugela River Lodge, perched, of course, on the bank of the Tugela River downstream from the Spioenkop Dam. The operators, Lee and Claire Fuller, specialise in accommodating school groups and showing them the wonders of the bush and the Berg. Lee is a highly experienced game ranger and Claire a practising physiotherapist. A stay at this lodge is a wonderful experience with all manner of outdoor activities to be had including cycling, trail running, hiking, canoeing and paddling. Or just lazing in the abundant sunshine.
Spioenkop is a place of deep atmosphere, as many visitors will testify. There seems to be a presence of the past, unheard voices telling the story of the deeds and deaths of hundreds of brave men, of the bravery and fear, the silence of stealth and the cacophony of battle, the freezing rain at night and the searing heat of the days, the agony of the wounded attended by the intrepid field medics and stretcher-bearers. The story of the battle of Spioenkop is one of the utmost courage, ferocity, slaughter, pain, suffering, humanity, mercy, and of military ineptitude and stupidity. This hill witnessed one of the strangest battles in the annals of military history, and has never shrugged off its role as the host. It’s not possible to view the graves and the trenches that held scores of bodies without feeling the past.
For a time we three went our separate ways with our cameras, harnessing the past in the present. We were almost alone on the hill, each of us trying to capture images that would contribute to the context of this world famous site. For me the overriding sensation of the summit of Spioenkop is one of loneliness, as if the soldiers of both sides have departed. There’s a poignancy there, especially just a week away from Remembrance Day. Enough. It’s a very special place.
And so, hometime arrived, with ninety minutes of speeding tarred and concrete surfaces taking us away again from the solitude that had been our mantle for the day. We’ll be back before too long.
Although we'd seen the stark and crippling effects of the worst drought in many decades, several aspects of the trip linger and provide endless pleasure. The friendliness of the local people, the quiet and peace, the lovely lodges, the pervasive aura of war and history. More than anything else, though, is the power of the beauty of the countryside, reeling from lack of rain, but with the scent of the Paperbark Thorn flowers everywhere and the purple-blue backdrop of the mighty Ukhahlamba Drakensberg.
Note - The pictures of Spionkop and Tugela River Lodges were taken on a previous trip to the area