In foreign fields
A touching tour of Boer War battlegrounds in South Africa
MOST travellers planning to visit South Africa look forward to wildlife safaris full of elephants, rhinos and zebras. But substitute remote cemeteries and off-the-beatentrack towns for game reserves and you can have a fascinating military-themed tour of the Rainbow Nation.
It’s not for everyone, of course. If guns and battles, tactics and blunders, death and glory all leave you cold, don’t even think about it. And if you demand five-star luxury, forget it.
But with official commemorations of the Anzac centenary scheduled for 2014-18, military history is a growing travel niche and specialised tour operators are preparing for a rush of Australians heading to World War I battle sites in Turkey, France and Belgium.
Most will go in search of a relative’s grave; others will be ex-servicemen and women. And then there will be those who, like me, simply have an interest in military campaigns and their influence on history.
In South Africa, I travel by coach across the country’s northeast on a journey far less dangerous than that undertaken by the 16,000 Australians who fought in the Boer War between 1899 and 1902.
Battles often took place in out-of-the-way places, and so we find ourselves in towns and hamlets where few other tourists tread. Our accommodation is generally three-star, partly to keep costs reasonable, but often as it is the best available.
However, because the locals so rarely see tourists, let alone a busload of cheery Aussies asking for directions to a cemetery, we become objects of curiosity. And this is the charm of it. You can learn a lot about a country so far from the traditional tourist attractions.
The itinerary starts in jacaranda-lined Pretoria, the nation’s administrative capital. Australian politicians argued for years over the location of our national capital, but the South Africans never reached agreement. Thus, Pretoria is home to the public service, Cape Town hosts the parliament and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital.
On our first cemetery visit in Pretoria we pause at the grave shared by Henry (Harry) ‘‘Breaker’’ Morant and Peter Handcock, the only Australian soldiers to have been executed for war crimes. They are in interesting company. A few steps away lies Prince Christian Victor, who was the favourite grandson of Queen Victoria and who died of typhoid in 1900. About 100m further on is the black granite tomb of Paul Kruger, vanquished president of the South African Republic at the time of the Boer War. And nearby, in a plot called Heroes’ Acre, lies Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, whose shadow still falls darkly across the nation.
Apartheid ended and a new era of reconciliation and democracy arrived with the multiracial elections won by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in 1994. However, although political power now lies with the black majority, economic power is still held by the white minority.
The unease inherent in this is obvious everywhere: high, spiked, electrified fences, closed-circuit television cameras and an abundance of razor wire testify to a feeling of foreboding that lingers throughout the city and in many industrial areas.
The region southeast of Pretoria is heavily industrialised and confronting to visit. The towns are gritty and grimy, with shanty settlements housing huge black populations. Full equality will be a long time coming.
We reach the vast grass veld (plains) that attracted Boer settlers in waves, beginning in 1835. Another foreign invader soon appears — Australian eucaly pts. Initially imported to provide a source of tough timber for shoring up the tunnels in coalmines, they are now regarded as a threat to the region’s water tables.
We are travelling in a 48-seat bus and must make quite a sight as we visit a memorial to the Battle of Onverwacht, near Ermelo. We leave the bitumen road to cross 2km of rocky paddock, guided through fence gates with millimetres to spare on either side. At a lookout high above a valley we see where 500 Boers ambushed a British and Australian column. Eighteen horsemen from the Queensland Mounted Infantry died, along with the commanding officers of both sides.
Our hosts are delighted by our visit — a first involving Australians — and promise our organisers that if we return next year, they’ll put on a feast of cakes and scones. They are trying to foster tourism in the Highveld and the memorial is one of few local attractions.
To the west of Pretoria, the countryside resembles the low scrub of central Australia. This is the main route to Botswana and the tourist resort of Sun City. In the town of Swartruggens we eat a packed lunch on the banks of the Elands River. Here, 500 Australian bushmen held off 2500 Boers in an action described by war correspondent and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle as ‘‘the finest resistance of the war’’.
Mahikeng was the site of another Boer siege and its heritage is on show at a down-at-heel museum. (The name was once spelled Mafeking and later Mafikeng, but like many places in South Africa, it has recently been renamed.) The city is scruffy and full of rubbish, but other towns, such as Warrenton, 200km to the south, are well kept. The signage around here is almost exclusively in Afrikaans and English is rarely heard, as if the events of 1994 have yet to reach this far into the bush.
For me, the highlight of the tour is Kimberley, the capital of Northern Cape Province and birthplace of the De Beers diamond empire. This city of 250,000 is home to the Big Hole, where the diamond digging began 130 years ago. The pit is no longer worked and is now a tourist destination, with an excellent simulated underground tour, diamond-industry displays and a recreated mining village that has shops, cafes and bars.
If you’re interested in souvenirs, buy here, as there is a wide range of tribal jewellery and trinkets of higher quality than at Johannesburg airport, and prices are reasonable. The high Australian dollar makes South Africa a very inexpensive destination — unless, of course, you are interested in a $500,000 diamond.
Mark Day was a guest of Military History Tours.
top The shared grave of ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock in Pretoria top right Heroes’ Acre cemetery in Pretoria contains the graves of several noted figures above ‘Breaker’ Morant was executed by the British for war crimes during the Boer War