The Fugitives' Trail, Isandlwana to the Buffalo River

South Africa

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Zululand, 22 January, 1879. A column of an invading British army has been surprised by some 25,000 Zulus and its defences are disintegrating into a desperate rout. In imperial Britain's worst disaster on African soil, more than 1,300 soldiers and camp followers are to die around the base of the great sphinx-like rock of Isandlwana.

The overstretched defensive lines in front of the rock have cracked under the weight of the onslaught and are driven back, in surrounded groups, to their camp under the rock.

Colonel Durnford's Natal Native Horse, on the right, have fallen back to try to hold the saddle between Isandlwana and the neighbouring hill and are dying heroic if futile deaths, outflanked and surrounded, in hand – to – hand fighting in their famous last stand. Like the rest of the force, they have run out of ammunition.

A substantial number escape the battlefield, back across the saddle towards the Natal border 5 miles away at the Buffalo river. The fugitives are a motley collection of Natal Native Contingent, who have fled en masse as the collapse began, mounted volunteers, camp followers and those few regular soldiers who have escaped the slaughter.

The disaster need not have happened: inadequate defensive preparation of the site, a temporary split of the army while an advance column has gone to secure the next campsite, faulty information, poor troop positioning and, unthinkably, a resupply breakdown causing the troops to run out of ammunition, have all contributed to an unnecessary catastrophe.

The victors and (collectively) the heroes of Isandlwana are the Zulus and their generals. They have allowed the British to advance, and have set their careful trap, hiding their huge, silent army in gullies in the high plateau overlooking the plain. They have caught the British army divided and, armed only with their spears, have attacked the defending lines head on and broken them, surrounding them with their famous “buffalo horns” deployment. The British, who were there on a thin excuse, are driven humiliatingly out of Zululand.

But the Zulus' glorious victory is a pyrrhic one. The loss of over 3,000 warriors (estimates go up to 6,000) at Isandlwana is, in the words of Cetsawayo, the Zulu king, a “spear driven into the body of the Zulu nation” and the first step in its long decline.

The British did not get back to bury their dead until May, when they gathered the scattered skeletal remains into groups near where they fell and buried them, mingled with the remains of those Zulus who did not have family or friends to carry them away, under piles of rocks in shallow scrapings in the hard ground. These cairns, white painted now, dot the grassland, coalescing into a mass to mark the finalslaughter on the saddle, then dribbling away down the slope back toward the Buffalo, where the fugitives were picked off. They make the site extraordinarily immediate and poignant.

The Fugitives' Trail starts among the groups of cairns just before the saddle. Ahead stretches a vast, dry plain between its flanking escarpments. The gusty wind billows the grass around the white graves: the bodies must have been piled high here. It is a lonely, melancholy place.

We sat, earlier, at the great rock's base, listening, spellbound and occasionally tearful, to the explanation of the battle by the remarkable David Rattray, who had made these battlefields, and Zulu-Anglo reconciliation, his life's work. Too few others were to receive this privilege, as David was murdered, pointlessly, by gunmen in his home some six months later.

We are walking with Mphiwa, our guide, whose grandfather and great-grandfather had fought in the battle.

From the top of the saddle, we can see Rorke's Drift through the haze 8 miles away. Below, the Manzanyama stream curls away to the left, rocky hills separating it from the Buffalo River. Today, it is peacefully slumbering bush; then, the fugitives would have met a horrifying sight. The Zulus' “buffalo horn” had worked to good effect: the right horn had swung behind the great rock and cut the road back to Rorke's Drift. The left horn had already outflanked Durnford and were streaming off the hill above the saddle: the only gap was half-left, across the Manzanyama stream and over the tangled hills to the Buffalo River. The trap was soon to close entirely. Mphiwa told us in his soft, intense voice how his ancestors had been in these horns and then gone on to join the famous fight at Rorke's Drift. His grandfather became, in one of those ironical twists, the first pastor at Rorke's Drift.

From the tragic slope behind the saddle, bare ground dotted with cairns under the lowering presence of the great rock, the path winds down over rocky ground, through classic Zululand savannah - long dry grass dotted with thorn trees and aloe cactuses toward the Manzanyama stream.

Small single cairns litter the grasslands or nestle under the shade of an acacia tree. Occasional larger clusters indicate where exhausted or trapped groups stood and fought. Young bodies speared to death, then ritually disembowelled – an act of mercy, releasing their spirits – but now lying peacefully in the warm African grassland.

Few of those making off on foot got away: those on horseback fared little better. Many were speared by the swarming Zulus along the way, or even outrun on the rocky ground. The Edendale Contingent of native volunteer mounted infantry – devout Christians and well-trained fighters – withdrew in tight order and made it across the Buffallo. Otherwise, most of the survivors were alone and very lucky.

We emerge onto the rim of a ravine where a field gun crashed, leaving its horses suspended over the edge in their harnesses, to be speared by the Zulus.

We clamber down into another narrow little donga (gully) and wind along the shady bottom, emerging onto the sunlit banks of the Manzanyama stream. It is ravishingly pretty, the shallow waters glistening in the sun as they gurgle over wide slabs of rock between banks of tall grass and scrub. Sitting with your toes in the water, it is hard to imagine the terror with which the fugitives must have struggled down the banks, slithered across and panted away up the steep Mpete hill.

The hillside is a long, steep clamber among thorny scrub and aloes. To the left and behind is the beautiful valley side they traversed, still dominated by the Isandlwana rock. The thirsty, exhausted fugitives, must have been sick with horror as they scrambled desperately away from the river in their thick red coats in the summer heat.

The path picks its way across the long, rocky hilltop between acacia, sporting, when we were there, their strange, bright red, tumescent flowers, and around patches of reedy marsh. The glimpsed views are of big country now – the hillside across the now distant Manzanyama stream has fallen away, revealing the dry, grassy plains and mountains south of Isandlwana.

The ground begins to fall steeply through impenetrable thickets and jumbled boulders. Although the vegetation was more open then, it is hard to conceive how the horses coped with this ground: no wonder the Zulus were able to run faster than them.

At a sudden cliff top, we are gazing across the beautiful Fugitives' Drift. The Buffalo careers down a series of rapids here, the highest of which provides the waist-high drift (crossing) – although it was under 20ft of water that day. On both banks, the rough hills give way to small plains of long, whispering grass. On the far side – Natal and supposed safety that day - steep, broken hillsides were the last barrier to escape.

In full flood after heavy rainfall upstream, 40 yards wide and surging round the vast rocks in its course, the Buffalo presented a last, terrible barrier, drowning many men and horses, snatching his regiment's Colour from Lt. Melville's exhausted arms, its banks, where native cattle now dopily contemplate the occasional passing walker, the final killing fields of the rout.

We cross the river in a little dinghy manned by David Rattray's lodge, then rustle along a narrow path through the waving grassland. Here, the Edendale Contingent, disciplined even after their escape, regrouped to save a number of lives, pinning down the Zulus who had crossed to the Natal bank with covering fire. Others, though, having survived the rout, the flight and the raging river, met their ends here at the point of a Zulu assegai. Melville and Lt. Coghill, who had gone back into the Buffalo from the relative safety of the Natal bank to help Melville, stumbled across this little plain and up a steep gulley. Exhausted, they collapsed below a rock, where they were found by the pursuing Zulus. Although courageous, they were arguably no more deserving of the Victoria Crosses they were awarded than many others who died that day. Today, the track winds up the hillside to where they lie together under the battlefield's only tombstone, below a white-painted boulder. In the peaceful warmth of the African noon, it is a poignant last stop on the trail.

From the lip of the waterfall above their grave, the trail winds for 20 minutes through the grassland of David Rattray's reserve, past groups of Impala and Kudu, to the welcome cool of his veranda.

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