British soldiers and Zulu warriors do battle during the a re-enactment of the battle of Isandlwana, 23 January 22 2016. Picture: Rogan Ward
British soldiers and Zulu warriors do battle during the a re-enactment of the battle of Isandlwana, 23 January 22 2016. Picture: Rogan Ward

Battlefields, unlike beaches and the Big Five, are not straightforward. It’s not easy to notice the dead ground at Isandlwana unless you walk it, to appreciate how Boer trenches at Magersfontein foreshadowed events 14 years later in Europe, or agonise over Liverpool lads who were mown down by Mauser fire at the top of Spion Kop. It’s hard to even comprehend why all this blood should have been shed in the first place.

Nevertheless, for the tourist determined to get the best out of a battlefield, SA is a rewarding destination, and for those making a living from the battlefields there could be gold in them thar hills.

Battlefield tourism is a minuscule niche, according to statistics from SA Tourism. A recent Wits University study showed it attracts mostly white and older visitors (58% are over 60), but those involved say it could be a bonanza if properly marketed and organised.

Doug Rattray, who succeeded his legendary father David at Fugitives’ Drift Lodge near Dundee in northern KwaZulu-Natal and specialises in the Anglo-Zulu War sites of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, believes SA is "sitting on a hugely untapped resource as far as the Boer [SA] War [1899-1902] is concerned". Various 120th year commemorations of battles in that war are due soon, including that of Spion Kop.

Rorke’s Drift graveyard: memorial to British soldiers. Picture: Getty Images/Joe Sohm/Visons of america
Rorke’s Drift graveyard: memorial to British soldiers. Picture: Getty Images/Joe Sohm/Visons of america

Author Nicki von der Heyde and the owner of Spion Kop Lodge, Raymond Heron, say battlefield tourism has "enormous untapped potential". Robert Forsyth, who conducts tours of SA War battle sites in the Magaliesberg from his Kedar Lodge, situated on Paul Kruger’s old farm in the Rustenburg area, says SA "is sitting on a gold mine".

Arnold van Dyk, an SA War aficionado and author, says that in the current weak economy, battlefields tourism is one of the sectors that could provide the easiest growth.

Minister of tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane links battlefields to heritage tourism, saying it "still needs to be fully explored". She says the government will "work with the various players to ensure we give it the necessary exposure to tourists around the world and encourage them to visit SA for this experience".

Twin Mosia is a tour guide of Basotho and Boer battlefield sites in the southern Free State and is renovating an old railway station at Petrus Steyn to serve as a museum. He says that if the government is serious about helping battlefield tourism, it should make the areas safe and accessible, and eliminate red tape at local authority level.

"[The battlefields] are in a bad state; they are not safe," he says, adding that the government assurances are "cheap talk".

Von der Heyde, whose guide books are essential reading for a battlefield tourist, agrees. "We’ve had no government support. All the government ever did was to make my life a misery, which was one of the reasons for me hanging up my boots." She has since retired from tour guiding.

Rattray also says the state needs to look after the roads and guarantee the safety of tourists. Other operators are harsher, speaking of apathy and lack of interest from local and provincial authorities, who insist they are giving support and help.

Ladysmith in northern KwaZulu-Natal, which should be a hub for the greatest concentration of battlefields in SA, could benefit from battlefield tourism, but doesn’t seem to care. It’s on the skids and unwelcoming. Staff at the Siege Museum, which houses many valuable exhibits from the SA War, were indifferent to questions during a recent visit and route directions were almost nonexistent.

Agterryer/Attendant (Phill Minnaar, 2013): Anglo-Boer War Museum, Bloemfontein. Picture: Jo Buitendach
Agterryer/Attendant (Phill Minnaar, 2013): Anglo-Boer War Museum, Bloemfontein. Picture: Jo Buitendach

They "perceive this as a job" rather than something to be interested about, says Rattray.

A board member of the KwaZulu-Natal heritage agency, Amafa, which maintains the battlefields, says it last met the town’s senior manager for tourism two years ago.

At Magersfontein, an especially evocative battlefield with an excellent audio-visual display on site, the telephones don’t work (Telkom was blamed).

If all parties ever get their act together, which appears unlikely, battlefield tourism could become if not gold, then at least a valuable nugget. The upside is that though SA’s battlefields may not draw the numbers of Kruger or Cape Town, they are in one way unique.

Mint condition

The battlefields of Europe, spanning centuries and at the centre of two world wars, draw millions of tourists each year and have mostly been built over. SA’s are still as they were 150 or so years ago. Rattray points out that, apart from a guard hut and the memorials, Isandlwana is just as it was in 1879 when Cetshwayo’s Zulu warriors exploited the dead ground by getting up close and overwhelming the main British invading force.

The one blight, as Heron points out, is at the dilapidated town of Colenso, where a power station was built in the 1920s on the site of a great SA War battle.

It’s not only the unspoilt battlefields; great historical figures moved through the area, especially at the time of the Second SA War. Heron, whose stories alone are worth the price of staying at his lodge, tells of three men who were on the summit of Spion Kop during a three-day truce after the battle. If any one of Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill or Louis Botha had not made it back down, it could have changed world history.

Even during a minor engagement outside the small Free State town of Lindley, two future British prime ministers passed through with Lord Roberts’s invading British army. One, obviously, was Churchill, and the other was Ramsay MacDonald, who in 1924 became the first Labour PM.

Much official antipathy towards SA’s battlefields, especially those of the SA War, might be the result — though no-one will admit to it — of apartheid teaching, which ignored the participation of black people in the conflict. The Zulu, Xhosa, Bakgatla, Shangaan, Sotho, Swazi and Basotho all became embroiled.

Isandlwana hill: with soldiers’ graves in foreground, site of the Anglo-Zulu battle site of of January 22 1879. Picture: Jo Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Isandlwana hill: with soldiers’ graves in foreground, site of the Anglo-Zulu battle site of of January 22 1879. Picture: Jo Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Van Dyk says the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein has restored the role black people played in the war. He praises the museum’s director, Tokkie Pretorius, for performing "good, early transformation".

Andre Wedepohl, one of Forsyth’s knowledgeable guides at Kedar Lodge, tells of how the Bakgatla of Kgosikgolo Lentswe I, after much provocation from Kruger’s Boers, threw in their lot with the British during the SA War. They supported British troops in the battle of Derdepoort, where a Boer commander paid them this tribute: "They shot wonderfully well, in the same manner as the Boers, and their aim was excellent, infinitely better than the English." And they were using obsolete Martini-Henry rifles.

Selling the battlefields remains a challenge. Rattray and Heron visit the UK regularly to persuade tour operators, military academies and even the Royal Geographical Society.

Heron plans to meet the mayor of Liverpool and Liverpool FC, where the Kop end at the club’s stadium, Anfield, is named after the battle in KwaZulu-Natal.

Pam McFadden, the curator of the Talana Museum in Dundee, attributes much of the interest in the battlefields to the BBC, which shows the film Zulu every year around Christmas and New Year.

"It might be historically inaccurate," she says of the movie starring Michael Caine and Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and shot against the backdrop of the Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg instead of on location at the authentic site, "but it’s still the best marketing tool we’ve got."