Battlefields is in the northern part of the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. During the nineteenth century it was the scene of battles between the Zulu and the Voortrekkers (Boers), between the British and the Zulu and between the British and the Boers.
- 1 Dundee — a coal-mining town and the site of the Battle of Blood River in 1838
- 2 Estcourt - a country town on the main Durban Johannesburg route, home of the Eskort brand of meat products
- 3 Greytown
- 4 Ladysmith — an industrial town at the foot of the Drakensberg mountains
- 5 Van Reenen — At the top of the Drakensberg escarpment. It has an interesting 8-seat church
- 6 Newcastle — an industrial town that is a gateway to the Zulu Kingdom
- 7 Volksrust Located on the Mpumulanga side of the Mpumulanga/kwaZulu-Natal border.
- 8 Vryheid
- 9 Weenen
The province of KwaZulu-Natal is bounded in the west and in the north by the Drakensberg [mountains] (”Berg” is Dutch for “Mountain”) and in the east by the Indian Ocean. The main river in the province, the Tugela, flows from west to east cutting the province into two half-way between Estcourt and Ladysmith. One of the main tributaries of the Tugela, the Buffalo River flows from the province’s northern border close to Majuba, south-eastwards and joins the Tugela half-way along its course to the sea.
The Battlefields area of the province occupied much of the north-west quadrant of the province. The area to the east of the Buffalo River, which includes the towns of Vryheid and Utrecht are in the area formerly known as Zululand.
At the start of the nineteenth century, the area was inhabited mainly by the Nguni people. The Zulu were a small clan within the greater Nguni linguistic area. During the first decade of the century, a small clan, the Zulu, asserted themselves and became the dominant clan. In the 1820s a small number of British adventurers established a base in what is now Durban and in 1837 numbers of Voortrekkers (from the Dutch word for “pioneers”) entered the area from across the Drakensberg with the intent of establishing a republic outside British control. Their leader, Piet Retief, negotiated the sale of the land south of the Tugela River, but immediately the negotiations were complete, he and his followers were murdered as were many of those hoping to acquire land. A retaliation raid followed, the Zulu were beaten in the Battle of Blood River and Mpande installed as King of the Zulu. Memorials now exist to this conflict at Bloukrans and at Blood River.
In 1842 the Natalia Republic which was set up by the Voortrekkers in the area south of the Tugela River passed into British hands. For the rest of the century, the area south of the Tugela was effectively British territory, the area east of the Buffalo River was effectively Zulu territory and the area between the Buffalo and Tugela Rivers was under partial Boer and partial British control. ("Boer", from the Dutch word for “farmer”, was applied to the Voortrekkers once they had settled and started farming.)
In 1879, after the death of Mpande, the new Zulu king Cetewayo, attempted to invade the “white man’s” territory, resulting in battles at Islandwana and Rorke’s Drift and elsewhere and also resulting in the death of Prince Louis Napoleon during a reconnaissance trip.
At about the same time, Britain annexed the Transvaal (a Boer republic) territory. One of the results was the First Boer War of 1880-1 which spilled over into the Natal Battlefields area at Majuba.
During the last two decades of the Nineteenth Century, the politics of Southern Africa were dominated by the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand. Tensions between Boer and Briton resulted in the outbreak of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). As soon as the war broke out, the Boers swept through Northern Natal and laid siege to Ladysmith. The Tugela River became the effective front line. British attempts to cross the river failed at both Spioen Kop and at Colenso but they finally broke through at the Battle of the Tugela Heights and relieved Ladysmith.
There is a small regional airport at Ladysmith, but flights to and from Ladysmith are extremely limited. The closest international airports to the Battlefields area are in Durban (150 km to the south of Estcourt) and Johannesburg (200 km) north-west of Volksrust.
- From Durban, follow the N3 road for about 150 km, then take the turning to Estcourt which is one of the most southerly towns of the area.
- There are two routes from Johannesburg:
- Follow the N3 southwards for about 250 km. About 30 km after you enter the province of KwaZulu-Natal, take the R103 for another 10 km which will bring you into Ladysmith.
- Follow the N3 southwards out of Johannesburg for about 20 km. At Junction 59, follow R23 (signposted for Standerton). After 150 km, you will reach Volksrust, a town which is on the border of the KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields area.
Unless you are on an organised tour, the best way to get around is by car using SatNav. Note that under South African it is illegal to conduct a guided tour unless the guide is accredited and registered with the South African Tourism Authorities.
These sites are listed in chronological order. Many are spread over several square kilometres. The directions and grid coordinates are for the museum associated with the site, if one exists, otherwise to the largest of the monuments.
In the area of Ladysmith, there are five important sites: the Bloukrans Memorial (Weneen Massacre),mthe Siege of Ladysmith memorials and museum; the Battle of Colenso (the Robert E Stevenson Museum, memorials and graveyards); the Battle of Spion Kop; and the Battle of Tugela Heights.
In the area of Dundee, you will also find four important sites: the Ncome-Blood River Heritage Site (monuments and two museums, one commemorating the battle from a Afrikaner point of view, and the other from a Zulu perspective); Isandlwana Battlefield (memorials, a visitor centre and museum); Rorkes Drift Museum; and the Prince Imperial Memorial.
The Battle of Majuba memorials and O'Neil's Cottage, near Newcastle, host a museum and a cemetery.
The Battlefields area of KwaZulu-Natal is spread over many hundreds of square kilometres and has few roadhouses. Most of the towns have various restaurants. It is recommended that the user refer to the list of towns in this article to find suitable places to eat.