A Battlefields Experience by forum member Springbok.
The battles between the Zulus and the British of 1879 have long been of interest to me, in particular the events around the iSandlwana plain in Northern Zulu Land.
The iSandlwana Mountain and scene of the bloody battle in which 7400 British, Colonial and Zulu forces lost their lives looks over the iSandlwana plain, to the left is the Nqutu ridge and to the right the Malakathi and Hlakazi hills and ahead some 15 kilometres away the Magogo and Silitshane hills shimmer in the distance. [You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
The battlefield looking across the plain to Magogo.
I have walked over all of the Battlefield and most of the surrounds, this time I wanted to trace the steps of the Natal Native Contingent lead by Colonel Hamilton Brown. [You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
Me on the saddle at iSandlwana.
The path they took on that long ago march leads from the campsite under the shadow of the iSandlwana hill and wanders across the plain to the north of Malakathi, over the neck separating it from Hlkazi, then south parallel to the uMzinyathi River before turning north into the Mangeni gorge. My intentions were to find the path leading out of the gorge onto the Mangeni plain and camp between Magogo and Silitshane hills. The place long ago used as a breakfast stop by the Commander of the British invasion force, Lord Chelmsford. [You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
My target area, Lord CHelmsford's breakfast spot.
I left my 4x4 under the shadow of Malakathi, well of the beaten track, hefted my 12kg pack and set off. The climb over the neck was surprisingly tiring and left me short of breath. I shrugged it off deciding I really needed to get fitter and took the easier downhill section towards the uMzinyathi.
The 10 kilometre walk seemed endless and I stopped frequently to catch my breath and take photos. The shortage of breath was worry sum but I put it down to the hot dry weather. The shade as I turned into the Mangeni Gorge was a welcome relief from the thirty plus degree heat and a drink from the ice cold Mangeni stream tasted better than the finest champagne.[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
The Mangeni Gorge with the rockpools below
Another hour brought me to the waterfall and the magnificent water pools totally unspoiled by man. I unrolled my sleeping bag under the shade of a tree and debated on resting for a while, boiling a kettle for some bush coffee and just enjoying the surrounding peace. Looking at the cliff face opposite I was sure I could discern a faint inclining line in between the growth. Could it be this easy to find the track used all those years ago?
All thought of resting was gone as I waded over the stream and searched around for the disturbance in the growth I had seen from the opposite bank. I found what seemed to be a game track and followed it upwards, getting stepper as I climbed. Before I got to the top my breathing had quickened and I was labouring. I sat down and decided to get back down and rest up for the day, the sun was going down and twilight in Africa is a fleeting time. [You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
The uMzinyathi river
This is that magnificent time when Africa becomes Africa; that small period in time when the landscape changes, the water reflects the contentment and the heat of the day gives way to the cold of the evening.
I got back to my camp site and in quick time had my coffee boiling away and was dipping into my re hydrated stew and mash with relish. By the time I was finished eating my eye lids were starting to droop and my body was feeling the effects of the day’s exertions.
As the night closed in the temperature started to drop so the welcome feel of being wrapped in my sleeping bag lulled me to sleep.
I awoke with a start and panicked trying to get my sleeping bag open to get rid of the weight pressing on my chest. As I burst out of its warm into the cold night air I realised the chest pain wasn’t some nocturnal beast cuddling up for warmth but a solid pain. My mind leapt back to the last time I had felt this pain, three years ago and the spell in hospital recovering from the heart attack. I Scrabbled for my emergency bottle of pills and broke the top of in my eagerness to try and relieve the pain. A few minutes after slipping a pill under my tongue the pain subsided to a level that allowed me to assess the situation.
No cell phone coverage; at the bottom of a gorge no one goes to; the family doesn’t know where I am and a heart attack threatening. Not good at all, I couldn’t wait for help, it wasn’t coming. My survival depended on my own resources and ability to walk out of the situation and get to a hospital.
It was cold, very cold, but I needed to travel as lightly as possible, I had slept in my shorts and socks so it was a matter of minutes to slip the socks of, tie my boots around my neck with a T shirt stuffed into one. I loaded my pockets with cell phone, car keys, wallet, pills, torch and a water bottle. Everything else was wrapped in my sleeping bag and pushed into the undergrowth.
I had two options, go back the way I had come but that was a ten kilometre walk or climb out of the gorge and head across the nearly flat plain, around 6 kilometres. I decided on the shorter walk
I pushed another pill under my tongue and set of over the steam, pausing just long enough to pull on my socks and boots I set of up the game path I had found earlier. Thank fully I had taken the time to explore earlier; it was probably that one action that saved my life.
The climb was slow motion hell trying to balance the need for speed without increasing my chest pains, as long as that pain level didn’t rise I had a chance, but God I was scared.
It took an hour and a half to do what should have been a twenty minutes climb and despite the minimum clothing I was sweating badly enough that I feared dehydration. I drank my water bottle dry and headed across to the upper stream to fill it again. This was the last water before I got back to my car.
The Mangeni plain is in fact a bowl with a ridge separating it from the iSandlwana plain. I slowly made my way up pausing often. I had been told by my Cardiologist to take a maximum of 6 emergency pills a day, by the time I reached the top of the ridge Id taken eight. [You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
iSandlwana from the ridge separating the two plains and the distance I covered.
The slight wind on top of the ridge was enough to bring on a strong chill factor and I started to shiver. I contemplated briefly, moving of my course to get into the lee of the Hlakazi hill. But the deviation was too far and could mean the difference between life and death. I carried on down the plain, there was no moonlight to go by and the route ahead was pitted with rocks and dongas.
There is a big donga that leads from East to West splitting the plain this was I decided my best route to follow, shelter from the chilled wind and a highway to my car.
I moved of trying to locate it, without falling in and breaking a leg. [You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
The route from the ridge across the iSandlwana plain, the Donga
I found it!
Sliding down to the bottom, it’s around three to four metres deep, the relief from the wind was instant and it seemed as some of the day’s heat was trapped in its steep sides. I knew the direction the donga took and had only to stay with it until it started to turn south.
I finished of my water and discarded the bottle, the torch was of little help so that was dropped as well, any weight reduction helped to extend my rapidly diminishing strength. My will power was strong boosted by periodic glances at my cell phone and its picture of my son’s two year old twins.
After what seemed an eternity but was in effect around two hours I realised that the sides of the donga were getting shallower and more visible. Dawn wasn’t too far away. I scrambled to get up the sides but kept slipping back so walked on a short distance to get a better place to climb out of what I was rapidly coming to terms would be my coffin. [You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
The end of the Donga
With the sky getting lighter ever moment I realised I’d come too far and had to backtrack across the plain towards my vehicle. All my concentration, my will, my desperate need to survive was focused on the gap in the hills. I was so intense I almost bumped into the car. My hands were cold and I had difficulty opening the doors but eventually I crawled in and managed to start the engine, the heat kicked in straight away and I almost fell asleep. In the car was my bush jacket so I slipped it on and opened the windows. It was now almost light enough to see the track and with being out of the cold and the exertions of walking my chest pains had subsided. I still had a choice to make, drive to Dundee a small town probably without cardiac equipment, Ladysmith or Durban. I opted for Durban and regret to say I broke every speed regulation there was. The drive to Durban is now a blur, I’m sure at times I was semi conscious. I don’t remember arriving at the airport, I had in my delirium elected to fly home rather than visit a local hospital. Possibly the homing spirit that every little child experiences, get hurt and run home straight away, or maybe that I had consumed twenty of my pills.
I managed to get a flight without too much delay and remember phoning my Doctor in Cape Town asking him to meet me at the Airport. He wisely contacted my wife who did, and without any fuss got me into hospital. I only realised when I got to Cape Town that I was missing my shoes and socks! I must have presented a strange sight walking through the airport, filthy feet cut and bleeding with no recollection of when my boots had disappeared.
I had over the next few days two operations, contacted pneumonia (hardly surprising) and had a partially collapsed lung.
All that is now behind me, a magnificent medical team lead by Dr Zaid Mohamed, and some 6 weeks later after the ministrations of the Angels and Guys from the Sports Science Institute of Newlands I’m getting fit, my hearts getting healthier and I’ve gone back to the Mangeni Gorge with my son to collect my belongings.
We camped overnight in the Gorge at my campsite. My son fell asleep but I stayed awake I have to admit waiting for the demons to go away.[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]