Bringing battlefields to life
Nicki von der Heyde’s Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa will be launched this month countrybreaks
YEARS of guiding people to battlefields, coupled with exploratory trips of 6 000km in a Land Rover, camping every night, over 1 200km on a motorbike, and a more leisurely trip in a car have culminated in a book that has taken three years to write.
“It was a book that needed to be written,” said Nicki von der Heyde, a Durban resident who moved to Underberg, in the foothills of the Drakensberg, to write the book.
“This is the first guide book that covers a wide spectrum of engagements throughout South Africa – from the colonial clashes of the 18th and 19th centuries to the Anglo-Boer War II of 1899-1902. It will enable people to explore in their own time, using their own cars, and incorporate real history into their road trips.”
Von der Heyde – who read history and English at the University of Cape Town – is a specialist battlefields tour operator, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and an honorary life member of the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society. Her company, Campaign Trails, has been named KwaZulu-Natal Tour Operator of the Year three times.
The Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa presents 71 battles, giving directions and co-ordinates, while timelines place each battle in its context in South Africa and what was happening on the world stage at that time.
Inevitably, it is the research that goes into such a book which often accounts for the most fascinating stories – like following a rough path for 12km, opening and shutting 21 gates along the way, when Von der Heyde was trying to find Fabersput, between Douglas and Campbell, in the Northern Cape.
“This proved the most difficult battlefield to reach,” she said. “On arriving at the farmhouse, we found the farmer and his wife were in town.” A labourer gave her the wife’s cellphone number, and handed her a bunch of keys. Following instructions, she set off along a track… and encountered the multitude of gates.
“Later, I discovered there was an easier way in, from the other direction,” she laughed ruefully.
Her trip to Stormberg Junction, near Molteno in the Eastern Cape, also stands out in her mind.
“Though this was a very well-documented battle, fought at the outset of the second Anglo-Boer War, road signage was non-existent.
“None of the written accounts I had were accompanied by accurate maps, and it was difficult – and great fun – piecing together where things occurred on the ground,” said Von der Heyde.
Her efforts were further rewarded with two well-preserved stone blockhouses.
Most of those she has guided over the years have been British tourists, who were fascinated by the film Zulu, which is shown every year in the UK. Consequently, they wanted to visit Rorke’s Drift, the setting of the vintage film. “Most of the wives came along because their husbands had bribed them with a promise of shopping in Cape Town,” she said. As a result, she always tried to make the battles fascinating to women as well.
Women often ended the tour as her most enthusiastic audience. They were touched and inspired by the human stories of heroism, tragedy and pathos. They wanted to hear about the animals involved, relationships and acts of selfless bravery.
“There are plenty of these inherent in every battle story,” said Von der Heyde.
Expounding on her topic, she spoke of Jan Smuts’s invasion of the Cape in 1901, in an attempt to encourage Boers living in the British colony to join their compatriots in the war against Britain.
Von der Heyde retraced the route Smuts took from his crossing of the Orange River (near Zastron in the Free State) into the Eastern Cape, and ultimately to Van Rhynsdorp, in the Western Cape. In 1902, Smuts departed by ship from Port Nolloth to take part in the peace negotiations that ended the war.
Speaking of this extensive trip, she said it had been a lovely journey, with superb semi-desert landscapes.
Asked whether she felt the presence of the many men who, on both sides, died in battle, she said “no”.
While she was moved by their bravery, sense of duty and loyalty unto death, she believes men who die in battle do so peacefully, believing they have done what is right for their country and their comrades.
“They do not leave restless spirits behind them.”
People who visited battlefields in comfortable motorised transport often missed the incredible logistical problems of an army on the move in hostile territory, she said. Enormous distances, broken terrain and a lack of water all took their toll.
“For this reason, I pioneered taking clients through the battlefields on horseback. Unfortunately, it seems there are few people of an age when they are interested in history who are still fit enough to ride five for six hours a day,” said Von der Heyde.
While trail motorbikes were another fun way to visit battlefields, walking trails were the most popular.
“They give a good idea of how the foot soldier must have felt as he trudged over the veld in his heavy boots,” she said.
LOOKOUT POST: One of the well-preserved blockhouses Von der Heyde discovered while researching her book.
TOUR OPERATOR: Nicki von der Heyde