I’m a huge fan of horror films and the like; films, books, stories, I’m game for them all. I’ve never actually believed in ghosts (I have a theory that has to do with energy and some other stuff) and I used to scoff at TV series like Ghost Hunters, and I still do; those programs are as over-dramatic as school plays put on by drama teachers.
But here’s the thing; I’ve seen a ghost. It happened in one night though, and left an impression on me that is hard to shake. This is my story, a ghost story, and ever word of it is true.
It seems that most good ghost stories involve a hotel of sorts, or a mansion. Think Stephen King’s the “Overlook Hotel” in the his book The Shining, or the “Dolphin Hotel” in another of his books, “1408”. Or maybe “The Haunting of Hill House”. There are many more examples, but you get the idea.
My story took place at a hotel as well; fittingly, a hotel near a battlefield, the Rorkes Drift Hotel. During the day, the hotel is as unassuming as a cottage in a countryside. It’s pretty, it’s unique; it’s about as threatening as a Labrador puppy playing with a tennis ball.
At night though, if the mist rolls in, and you’re aware of events of 1879 that took place just a few hundred meters away, well then at night things take a slightly ominous turn.
The large windows that during the day offer a gorgeous view of the nearby Buffalo River, at night they became black as ink-wells of despair. The calls of birds, the bark of dogs, the cheerful sounds of insects during the day, they become menacing and desperate at night; the bark of fear, the screech of owl signalling the end of a rodent. You get the idea.
At night, the Rorkes Drift Hotel squats at the foot of the hulking Shiyana Mountain and it’s not a place you want to be wondering about. It’s here that my personal ghost story was played out.
I was booked on a 3 day tour to the battlefields by the friendliest British couple you could ever hope to meet. We had left Durban early that day, taking our time along the 4 hour drive to Isandlwana to stop and recount the fortunes of the Zulu and British during the early days of Durban’s history. We had stopped to take photo’s of some of the most outrageously spectacular landscapes, and had lunch cheerfully at a picnic spot surrounded by curious Nguni cattle.
We had walked the battlefield of Isandlwana from one end to the other, recounted the terrible story of the British slaughter and marveled in the heroic actions of the Zulu warriors. We had bowed our heads respectfully at the white cairns that marked the graves where brave men lay dead, and bent down to touch the earth where precious blood had split.
It was day of deep reflection on the impact that the actions of a few men had on the future of a lot of men.
Finally though, we arrived at our hotel for the next two nights, the Rorkes Drift Hotel. Built by Charles Atkinson, a retired British officer who against all odds negotiated for the land with the local authorities and took on the monumental task of building one of the finest hotels in the area. Charles tragically passed away during the covid lockdown.
But, on this beautiful July day, Charles greeted us with the cheerful reserve the British are so famous for, not only charming my guests but making me feel as if I, a humble guide, was one of his full paying guests. After a quick chat to catch up, I headed off to my room for a nap before dinner. The room that Charles had placed me was named “Chard”, named for one of the heroes of the battle of Rorkes Drift.
It’s an odd room, sort of half a room really. It’s where Charles would place the guides that frequented the Rorkes Drift Hotel. The hotel it self was odd. Picture two large rondaval (a round house”, one of which was the reception, dining and bar area, the second placed a 20 or so meters away, was the actual accommodation block. Shaped like a doughnut, the center being open the sky, sort of like a courtyard, and in the center burbled a small fountain.
Radiating outwards from the fountain are the rooms. Each room has large opening windows and double doors, the views being either the Buffalo River or Shiyane Mountain depending on where you were deposited. Each room had a TV, double beds, an ensuite bathroom, small fridges that hummed to themselves all night long and fans that were suspended from the traditional thatch ceilings.
All except the guides rooms of course. The guides rooms had a single bed, a single arm chair facing the bed, and a ceiling fan we all complained about; it sounded like helicopter taking off if you turned it past it’s most ineffective setting.
I napped as I always do (my military days taught me to sleep when you get the chance, something I do easily) and after a shower, I headed to dinner. I greeted my guests who were sitting through one of Charles’s famous lectures on John Chard, the royal engineer accredited with the successful defense of Rorkes Drift against the Zulu. Having heard this lecture many times before, I wondered off to the bar and chatted easily with of the hotel staff while I enjoyed a chilled beer.
Dinner was as enjoyable as it always was. One of the other interesting oddities of the hotel is that the dining tables are triangle in shape. At first a strange idea, but pretty quickly you realise it’s a grand idea, everyone can talk to everyone else, no one is left out. Now as I think back, the Rorkes Drift Hotel is a collection of oddities in general.
As usual, instead of my guests and I having our own table, we were joined by Charles, his partner and two other guests spending the the night, Fact is, the Rorkes Drift Hotel was never very busy. On one memorable occasion I once had the entire hotel to myself, Charles having traveled to Joberg, the staff left for the night, and I was the only guest, the whole hotel to myself, it was disconcerting to say the least.
I remember that dinner dragged on on this particular night. My guests enjoyed Charles and he enjoyed them. His stories, many I had heard before, becoming longer and longer. I waited for a pause in the conversation and announced my decision to head to bed, reminding my guests at the same time that we all had an early start the following day. Our good nights said, I headed off.
I left the reception area and walked along the short gravel pathway to the accommodation part of the hotel, as I said, it’s maybe 20 meters. Stepping off the gravel onto the concrete entry way I approached the door to my room key in hand. As I stepped to the door, I heard footsteps behind me; I had a moments thought that it couldn’t be my guests, but rather the 2nd pair of guests at the hotel, I thought this because the step was heavy, the sound of the heal striking the concrete floor echoed, and the gent was large, not wanting to be rude, I turned to bid them good night
The entry way was completely empty, there was no one behind me. I stood waiting, monetarily convinced that they guests must appear since the sound of their footsteps were so clear and seemed so close behind me. There were no no steps, there were no guests, only the sound of the river, my breathing and the call of a frog near the water feature.
I don’t know how long I stood there for, now confused as to what I thought I had heard, or imagined. I realised I couldn’t stand there all night regardless of what I thought I heard. and so I turned back towards my door and inserted the key and placed my hand on the door’s handle.
And right there, is where I froze as my blood truly ran cold.
I remember seeing a documentary many years ago. It was about why animals freeze at the sight of oncoming lights. I forget what the final theory was. But at that moment, standing in front of my hotel room, one hand on the key, one hand on the door handle, I froze like that rabbit in the documentary caught in the lights of an oncoming car.
I froze, because I knew beyond any certainty of doubt, that waiting inside, was it. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but I knew that it was something I did not want to see. I had the overwhelming feeling that it would be nightmarish. The hairs on my arms and on the back of my neck all stood up as if preparing to run, but my feet were rooted to the spot even as my heart raced to provide a boost of oxygen for a quick getaway.
When I think back to the moment, even now years later, my heart quickens a bit. I cannot explain it to another human being, just how convinced I was that something waited patiently on the other side of that door. For me in that moment, time stood still. I stood focused on that door, even now seeing how the white enamel paint emphasized the grain of the timber, and how the painter had been careless and allowed the paint to slump in spots.
And then, just as suddenly as that feeling came to me, it vanished and I stood in front of the door feeling foolish, very foolish.
The sound of footsteps and laughter coming up from the gravel pathway brought me back to the present, and not wanting to speak to anyone and explain why I still stood outside my door, I quickly unlocked and slipped into my room. I examined the room from where I stood and still feeling slightly embarrassed, mentally rolling my eyes at myself.
The next 30 minutes were taken up by trivial moments as I prepared for bed; changing, brushing teeth, setting the alarm, all thoughts of what had just happened vanished like the early morning mist. I lay back in bed and ran through the itinerary of events for the next day as I always did, and then I switched the lights off and made myself comfy as I slowly drifted off to sleep, only distantly aware of the my hotel neighbors as they themselves prepared for bed.
Hours later (it felt like hours) I slowly came out of a dead sleep. I tried not to move at all, to keep my breathing steady, and to slowly open my eyes. I did so because I became aware of a heavy breathing, a breathing that came from a darkened corner of my room.
Facing the bed, was an arm chair. It wasn’t a very comfortable arm chair and like most guests I’m sure, I used the chair to store my clothes when I changed for bed. But, as I lay there in the bed, not daring to move a muscle and give away the fact that I was awake, I knew that something sat in that arm chair and watched me and waited.
Ever since that night, I have tried to remember a time I was as scared as that moment. I remember facing off a school bully and being scared, but nothing like this night, I remember the feeling of being fired on while in the defense force, the sounds of the bullets snapping past, and I wasn’t as scared. The only time I think I’ve ever felt that fear, was when I was involved in a car accident, and my girlfriend at that point was rushed to hospital; seeing her strapped down to a gurney, the fear rose in me so violently that I rushed to a bathroom and let it overcome me.
As I lay in that hotel bed, not daring to move a muscle, the image of a British soldier from 1879 came to me and I realised that it was him that sat in the chair; even today I can see him clearly. He bore the awful injuries of a ferocious battle; his tunic covered in blood and ripped apart at the waist displaying the jagged raw wounds of having been eviscerated. One eye was a bloody, empty hole and his left arm was sliced open to the bone. But the most terrible injury of all, the injury that had me frozen in fright, was the missing jaw.
It seems terrible now in our modern days, but during the Anglo Zulu War of 1879, both sides, Zulu and British, were known to take mementos. It’s said that the British soldier of the time grew wonderful full and bushy beards, and the Zulu’s, who could never quite manage the same impressive growth of facial hair, would often remove the lower jaw as a keepsake. It’s for this reasons that the British tommy from this moment onward, shaved religiously.
My visitor continued his labored breath through his ruined features as I continued to pretend to be asleep. As I lay there I tried to squint int the corner of the darkened room, wanting to to see but at the same time, wishing to to see. I had this idea, that if this visitor became aware that I was awake, he would want to come over, that he would want me to see him and the corruption he had become.
I have no idea how long this went on for, but it was a while. At one point a dull ache began in the hip I lay on, but worse, my body began sending signals that I would seen need to relieve myself.
Finally I could bear it no more and decided to simply make a stand. In one panicked moment, I sat up and reached for the light and as I my finger touched the light switch, I felt an icy grip on my wrist, and then the light snapped on and I yelled.
The room was suddenly impossibly bright and my eyes hurt for an instant as they became accustomed. I glanced around the room looking for the object of my fear but saw nothing but an impersonal hotel room filled with nondescript furniture, a wheezing small fridge and an armchair covered in clothes. Of my visitor, nothing.
My room was empty. It seemed that with the darkness being expelled so was my irrational terror. I began to wonder if I had dreamed it all, and I would have rather accepted this rational explanation if it wasn’t for my wrist which not only burned as if an ice block had been held against it, but a vibrant red mark wrapped around the wrist, the type you may get from what we as kids called an “Indian burn”.
As I sat in he bed I became aware of the normal sounds of night, the stillness of it all. My bladder reminded me there was business to be taken care of so made my way to the small bathroom, snapping on the lights as I went.
If it weren’t for what happened next, I would have written-off everything that had happened up to this point as nothing more than an over excitable imagination and the effects of two or three beers at dinner. But, I was now wide awake, and anything from this point onwards could not be explained away as easily.
I grabbed hold of the door knob and as my hand touched the brass knob and I registered the coolness of the knob, I knew in an instant that he waited in there for me, this poor mutilated soldier. I tried to close the door but it was to late, the door continued to open; it was almost as if I had an insatiable morbid curiosity to satisfy.
The door swing all the way open, and there he stood in front of me. Or rather, I should say he appeared in front of me, since he was not solid at all. I stared into the bathroom and looked him in the face, his lower jaw missing, one wild eye staring back at me, I felt the gorge rise in my throat and I fought to avoid voiding my bladder right then and there.
He stood in front of me, as real as the laptop I type this on. But at the same time, I could see through him to the toilet behind, it was as if he was a reflection -and perhaps that is what he was, perhaps all the entities we refer to as ghosts are nothing more than that, reflections from somewhere else, a different realm, or universe, or phase or whatever you wish to call it.
And then a strange feeling of calm began to take over me. It was almost as if I had accepted my fate for this moment for what it was, and in doing so, my mind had given up it’s paleolithic response to fihgt or flee. And as this acceptance took hold, and the calmness reached in to me, so the apparition in front of me slowly began to fade.
I think about this experience often, thought I’ve only spoken about it once that I can remember. I was asked not that long ago if I believe in ghosts and I answered “no, I didn’t”. And I don’t. How then, can I say I saw a ghost. I don’t believe that ghosts exist in the sense we understand ghosts. I believe in energy, and that sometimes, when life is violently ripped from a person, the energy they have is left behind, and it;s this energy that we, the living, feel and experience,
I never used the bathroom in the end, Instead, I left the bathroom and the room and in the dead of night, I peed into the garden. I returned to bed and fell asleep easily with no interruption and woke feeling refreshed, I packed everything up and on seeing Charles at breakfast, asked for another room.
I should have asked him then why he didn’t question my desire to move to a new room, he simply nodded and asked one of the hotel staff to prepare another room. I guess it’s too late now.
I’ve returned to the Rorkes Drift Hotel many times after that, but I’ve never stayed in the same room again, and I’ve never experienced what I did that night. I still guide visitors to Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift and I still do research and look at old photographs from the Anglo Zulu War. And when I do, I examine each and every old British soldier’s face, looking for my visitor.
I’ve never found him.