For those that are fans of history, there are few sites in South Africa that compare with the hallowed battlefields of Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana. It’s not just South African history buffs that are drawn to these distant fields, but international travelers from all over. How fortunate then for us, that there two destinations are within a day trip from Durban.
Make no mistake, this is not an easy day trip, it’s long one, you’ll spend at least 8 hours driving (if not more) and 4 hours tramping the battlefields themselves. But I promise you, it’ll be worth it.
Just before lockdown was announced in South Africa, My friend “S” and her fiance asked if I would take them out to the battlefields. They were expecting family from the UK and were hoping to surprise them by taking them to Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana, and they wanted to get a feel for area.
I said “of course” because a) I love the battlefields, the history and the amazing vistas’s of Zulualand and b) it means I have a captive audience who have to listen to my opinions the whole way there and back – it’s the price they have to pay.
Getting to Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana
There is no way around it, this is a long, long day trip from Durban. I have never completed this trip in nothing less than 12 hours. There is a lot to see on the way to the battlefields themselves, so if you are able, I would strongly suggest turning this into a 2 day or even a 3 day trip to take advantage of all these is to see.
I am going to create a separate blog post that deals with the drive to the battlefields and back, from the best routes to what you can see on them – so subscribe to the site and you wont miss it (or just keep checking in).
The Battlefield of Isandlwana
I picked up “S” and fiance from Durban North and by about 6:15am we turned onto the N2 north. When we first discussed the trip, we planned to stop somewhere along the way to get some breakfast but just the day or so before we all agreed on breakfast and lunch packs, that way we could get there and back without wasting too much time.
After filling up at Melmoth we finally arrived at the runoff from the R66 onto the dirt road that leads to the battlefield of Isandlwana. I always stop here because as I explain to my guests, it’s from this direction that the Zulu attack. This is important because the road is around 5km’s long and uphill all the way, meaning the Zulu’s ran uphill for 5km’s before throwing themselves into a major battle – respect!
I’ll be posting a very detailed guide to Isandlwana in the very near future, so subscribe to my weekly newsletter to ensure you do not miss out!
We arrived at 10am on the dot and our first stop before getting onto the battlefield itself is the museum and ticket office located next door to St Vincents church. After parking I showed “S” where the small museum was and I headed into the office to pay. It’s costs R35 per person (in 2020) to visit the battlefield (R25 per pensioner) and you’ll need your ticket to show the chap at the gates guarding the battlefield itself.
The museum is great, it’s not big but it has perfect displays that not only deal with the “why’s” of the Anglo Zulu War but also deals with the events of the day in a non-judgemental manner – the museum doesn’t take sides. There are also artifacts from the battle such as lead bullets, a rifle, a bugle and even the 9-pound rockets fired from the rocket battery.
There’s great posters depicting both British and Zulu commanders as well as posters depicting movements on the day. It must be mentioned that the museum was designed and put together many years ago, so not everything on display is 100% accurate. This is no fault of the museum, it’s just the new information has come to light but it doesn’t really affect the displays to a large degree.
At the office we purchased a coffee from the “WOW Zulu” coffee shop at the museum – hands down the best coffee any where in the area! Wow Zulu is a non-profit tourism initiative to establish small businesses to try and help alleviate poverty in small rural towns. It’s a great project and I urge all to purchase a little something.
If you are feeling up to it you can probably get by without a guide; just purchase a printed guide from the little office (R5 each) and have at it. But I would recommend organising a guide to walk you through the days events.
Coffee’s in hand we jumped back into the car and headed over the road and showed our tickets to the gate keeper and drove onto the actual battlefield of Isandlwana. The battlefield today is actually private property, belonging to a game farm nearby; there’s a good chance you’ll see some Zebra, an Impala or perhaps even a Waterbuck grazing nearby. Because the local community have access, there is always a few curious Nguni cows nearby and some couldn’t-care goats.
The first thing I always do with guests is stop at the memorial to the Zulu warriors. Would you believe that it wasn’t until after 1994 that the Zulu presence was even acknowledged on the battlefields? The memorial I think is one of the best on the battlefields.
Something you cannot help but notice on the battlefields are all the white “cairns” scattered about. After the battle was finished (some 6 months later) the British returned to the battlefields and began burying the dead. Owing to the concrete-hard ground and the fact that so much time has passed, the remains were simply placed in shallow graves and covered over with rocks. For us today, these morbid relics left over helps guide us as to who the battle took place since the dead were for the most part buried where they lay. It becomes quite obvious that the battleground is a great deal larger than most assume.
From there were made out way to the “saddle” and parked and I began explaining to “S” and her fiance about what actually occurred on the day. We then walked to all the memorials and discussed what it must of been like on the day. I still find it difficult to reconcile the difference between the now and then; the blue skies, chattering birds, the random greeting from passerby’s compared to the savagery of of the 22nd Jan, 1879.
Once done with my little store, “S” and her fiance then walked about the battlefield, looking at the various memorials and cairns and even climbed the steep hill leading up to the shoulder of Isandlwana which opens up to amazing views over the wide open plains to the east.
There are also little numbered signboards scattered about which match up to the visitors guide you can purchase from the office when you get your tickets.
A Lunchtime Picnic at Rorkes Drift
It was now about 12:30pm and we were all getting a little hungry. We had all packed a picnic lunches and so I decided to drive on over to Rorkes Drift where we could enjoy our lunch at one of the picnic spots under the acacias. You don’t have to pack a picnic basket though I do recommend it purely because of time. There are 3 places I know of to eat while visiting the battlefields – restaurants that are close by and offer a good meal.
- Isandlwana Lodge – you can eat here but you must call ahead and reserve a table. The lodge overlooks Isandlwana battlefield so you could easily enjoy lunch and then take some amazing photo’s.
- Rorkes Drift Hotel – about 20 minutes from Isandlwana is Rorkes Drift Hotel. Simple home homely food overlooking the Mzinyathi River and the originally drift from Natal into Zululand. Again, reserve before you head up to Isandlwana.
- Rorkes Drift Cafe – situated on the grounds at Rorkes Drift, this little cafe serves toasted sandwiches, wraps and the like. They are slow but the food is great. Please note that this is a cash only cafe.
Rorkes Drift is definitely the most well known battlefield of the Anglo Zulu Wars. This is in no small part thanks to the 1970’s production of ZULU starring Stanley Baker as Chard and an as yet unknown Michael Cane as Bromhead.
Again the first order of business is to purchase tickets for everyone and at R35 per person, it’s hardly breaking the bank. From the little office we walked up the pathway to the museum which is located inside the building that a part of the fighting took place.
Although it’s not the original building, this was destroyed during the battle by fire, it was rebuilt soon after, though it is smaller and slightly different to the original. As soon as you enter the museum you can then walk through it an enjoy the static displays, the artifacts and or course the informational boards and signs dotted about.
I’ll be posting a very detailed guide to Rorkes Drift in the very near future, so subscribe to my weekly newsletter to ensure you do not miss out!
Once we were done with the museum we headed out and walked around the site. As we did I pointed out to “S” the markings that have been placed out to show visitors where the defensive lines were established during the battle. I also took them up to the small cemetery where the British dead lay buried and then to the mass graves (3 of them) where the Zulu warriors lay buried (some 360 or so).
I also walked “S” up to the Zulu memorial at Rorkes Drift – this is hands down my favorite and depicts a leopard lying down on a pile of shields signifying that the Zulu King is looking after his men and that the fight again the British is over – strong symbolism for sure.
Again, it’s best to book yourself a guide to walk you around the Rorkes Drift battlefield because there is a lot going on you can easily miss.
It was now around 3pm and knowing it’s a 4 hour drive back we all agreed to purchase a few snacks for the trip back from the local store – again, please buy something, it’s small home businesses like these that keep our economy turning!
I decided to head back to Durban the same way we came simply because there was one or two things I intended to point out to “S” and her fiance but within maybe 30 minutes they were both fast asleep (it is a long day after all). After a quick stop to fill up again in Melmoth we were back in Durban by 7:15pm.
A Parting Word
I spoke to “S” about a week ago, she contacted me because the trip we had all taken before the lock-down had inspired her to check out other sites that she may not have ever thought to visit.
It wasn’t just the history (although her fiance seems to have caught the “battlefield” bug) but “S” was excited to explore more of KwaZulu-Natal since traveling anywhere else currently not an option, and may not be for the foreseeable future; for her it was about the amazing views she never realised existed and of course the friendly and warm people encountered along the way.
After some back and forth, they’ve planned out a route that will see them visiting some very historic sites such as Spionkop, Ondini, Gungundlovu and so many more and I hope they in turn, encourage more!
Good To Know
- Neither Isandlwana nor Rorkes Drift accept credit or debit cars, both are cash based. So you’ll need R70 for each person (R35 per site) plus any extra cash for snacks or cold drinks.
- There are perfectly adequate bathrooms at both sites, but take hand wash and sanitizer with you – there is a drought on the go and so water for had washing may not always be available.
- Although both sites advertise site-guides available to walk your around the battlefields, don’t count on it – rather contact one of the guides off the Battlefields Route website (or contact me and I’ll help you to find someone).
- The roads are usually pretty good, but watch for potholes, they are not uncommon.
- There is a very small selection of curios at both the Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana sites – remember to bring cash and please do buy something, even if it’s small.
Getting to the Battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift
I will be posting a far more detailed description on the roads to these battlefields and what you can see along the way. For the time being I’ll just describe the route we took today. All in all I usually do around 650km’s there and back from Durban.
Durban to Isandlwana
- From Durban, take the N2 north. There are two tollgates you’ll be passing through on the way, one near King Shaka airport and a second just before KwaDukuza.
- Look for the Eshowe / Gingindlovu / R66 turnoff. It’s 110km from Durban give or take. There is a third toll at the turn off.
- From the turnoff turn left onto the R66 to Eshowe / Gingindlovu and keep heading straight until you get to Eshowe – roughly 40km. This road has people, goats and cows crossing so keep awake.
- Head straight through the traffic lights on the R66, your next destination is Melmoth, about 50km away. Much like before, loads of goats, cows and people. Watch your speed as well, there are a number of camera traps and plenty traffic police.
- Once in Melmoth considering filling up at one of the two stations in the area. If you’re hungry, there is a Spar, a Steers and a KFC all close by in the small town.
- From Melmoth continue on the R66 for roughly 5km’s and look for the left turn onto the R68.
- Get onto the R68 and keep going for about 30km’s. Beware, this road is used a lot by timber trucks, there’s lots of steep hills and often the area is shrouded in mist. Don’t worry though, I’ve down this trip for years and have seldom had an issue.
- At the 30km mark, the R68 suddenly bares right at a T-Junction, so keep an eye out for that, it’s easy to miss and if you do, you’ll be visiting Nkandla instead.
- After the right turn it’s another 30km’s to the small town of Babanango. Turn left in the center of town (the road is marked clearly) and then carry on for the next 41km – again, this is road used by logging trucks, cows, goats, sheep and people – keep an eye out. The views though to the right are astounding!
- After about 35km’s are up, keep looking left and you’ll see Isandlwana hill start making an appearance. Keep an eye out for the signboards that marks the left turn to Isandlwana.
- Turn left onto a dirt road and keep going from 10km’s and you will have arrived at Isandlwana.
Isandlwana to Rorkes Drift
- From Isandlwana, turn left onto the dirt road you arrived on and keep going for about 10km’s. This road has loads of people, cows, goats and sheep wondering about, so keep your wits about you.
- Watch out for the “Rorkes Drift Hotel” signboard and turn left at the T-junction. From here it’s about 6km’s until you cross the Mzinyathi River and come up to another T-junction. Turn left and Rorkes Drift is about 1km up the road on the left.
Back to Durban
Just follow the route I laid out in reverse.
Just So You Know
I have done my best to ensure that the information here is all accurate. But naturally things change and so by the time you read this blog post, entry fees may differ, another route maybe more suitable that than one described here and so on. Please double check by calling the attractions ahead of time to ensure they open and so on.