Bring­ing bat­tle­fields to life

Nicki von der Heyde’s Field Guide to the Bat­tle­fields of South Africa will be launched this month coun­try­breaks

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - MYR­TLE RYAN

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

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