A battlefield tour leads adventure motorcycle enthusiasts through the remote and beautiful countryside of northern KwaZulu-Natal. Every hour or so, the group stops for a break at a place of historical interest. A lively talk by a specialist guide explains how Voortrekkers, Burghers and Boers battled heroically for survival, first against the Zulus and later against the British. And then it is back onto the bikes to enjoy country riding at its best, on the way to the next historic site.
A recent tour, over 3 days, where riders covered almost 1000 km and visited nine different battlefields with Nicki von der Heyde, specialist battlefields guide. The roads included open freeway, tarred secondary roads, good gravel roads, a few jeep tracks, railway servitude roads and, on one occasion, open veld. There was nothing a novice rider couldn’t handle and the routes were all pillion-friendly although there were some, more technical, alternative routes for experienced riders.
Bikers met up at Midway, near Estcourt and the tour began close by, at the site of a battle fought early on in the Boer war. Gazing out over peaceful farmland, the group listened to the tale of a British night attack through mist and rain on the Boer-held hill and the clever counter-attack which followed the next morning. From there, riders progressed northwards to enjoy lunch in the cool of the bar at Spioenkop Lodge (one GS recorded a temperature of 40 degrees that day).
A rather sweaty afternoon was spent exploring the site of a ferocious engagement fought on the summit of Spioenkop Mountain, which towers 500 metres over Spioenkop dam below. Everyone was pleased they could ride their bikes to the summit rather than walking up.
That night in Dundee the heavens opened in answer to fervent prayers from drought-stricken farmers and welcome rain poured down until dawn.
This made for interesting river-crossings as gravel roads turned to mud on our way to Khambula and then to Holkrans. There were a few muddy tumbles; fortunately the only bruises were to egos and we reached the lonely spot with all bikes dirty but undamaged.
From Holkrans, we rode towards Holbane, passing through the shoulder of a mountain inside a 2km railway tunnel. We were mid-tunnel when a train approached; five powerful locomotives hauling a massive train of 100 coal-laden carriages. It was an eerie to see arcs of light sparking between electrical contacts as the earth trembled and hot air rushed over us.
Someone (no names) left his ignition on and had to jump-start his bike. This operation took place in the middle of the road while a car waited patiently to get through.
Standing in the middle of the immense bronze wagon laager at the site of the Battle of Blood River, the realization dawned that the early Voortrekkers were just as skilled with their ancient muzzle loading guns, as were their Boer descendants with the modern Mauser rifle. And that God played a big role in this epic battle. A series of miracles unfolded; first the thick mist that concealed the laager until daylight, and then the damp gunpowder which nonetheless exploded without a single misfire.
Perhaps most dramatic of all was the vision seen by young Zulu Impi of an army of horsemen with streaming banners, led by a man with a shining sword riding a white charger, galloping to the defense of the Voortrekkers and compelling the young Zulu warriors to flee, only to be met and killed by the assegais of the older Impi behind them.
We rode home from Dundee towards Durban on the last day of our tour, breaking the journey at various Boer war battlefields including Elandslaagte, Colenso and Frere. As we said good-byes everyone agreed that it had been a bonding, emotive experience and one that they wouldn’t have missed.
Photos by PETER JARVIS
Nicki von der Heyde
Author of ‘FIELD GUIDE TO THE BATTLEFIELDS OF SOUTH AFRICA’
and three time winner of ‘Tour Operator of the Year’, KZN.