In for­eign fields

A touch­ing tour of Boer War bat­tle­grounds in South Africa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MARK DAY

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.

ALAMY

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

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