A TREK BACK IN TIME

31 March 2002

Brough Scott traces the route his grandfather took on horseback during the Boer War.

We rode as they had ridden more than 100 years ago – hot and wary as you hacked around the thorn trees and the boulders, not too sure of your exact location. Not until you saw Spioenkop.

The most famous summit in Boer War history, where Churchill, Gandhi and Botha were all involved, rose green and defiant to the north-west under a spangled sunlit African sky. If you want an idea of the problems faced by British troops from the numerically inferior Boers as General Buller tried to push north-east to lift the siege of Ladysmith, there is no better way to experience it than on horseback, moving at the pace and with the perspective of those making the decisions at the time.

Behind us rose Mount Alice. Here Buller watched with increasing bafflement and frustration as his plans and heliographic signals went disastrously wrong on Spioenkop to the tune of 1,700 casualties – almost 10 times as many as his opponents. In front lay the serpentine, silently flowing strength of the Tugela river, and across it to the right a green plain and the slopes of Vaalkrans where, 10 days after Spioenkop, Botha again inspired the Boers to bloody the British nose.

But on horseback you don’t have to be a Boer War buff to enjoy the view and all it embraces. With the right guide, and Jennifer Russell of VDH Classic Safaris was absolutely first rate, this was not so much a history lesson as a ride into another time. As this part of KwaZulu-Natal is largely unchanged territory, you are presented with the location and the sensation; all you need is your imagination. And that does not have to work too hard when you remember that at Spioenkop three stray shots would have taken out the subsequent saviours of India (Gandhi – there as a stretcher-bearer), the Western world (Churchill – war correspondent) and South Africa (Louis Botha – the first Prime Minister of the Union).

My own imagination was trying to create images for a book I am writing on my grandfather who was here in 1900 on a white Arab horse called Maharajah – which he had dyed brown at Southampton docks when told that the colour was bad for camouflage. His diary recorded hot days and cold nights on this high (5,000ft) veld, but it also logged the strain and depression of trying to pin down elusive opponents in their own environment – no Americans and B52 bombers then. Riding the trail was a great place to think.

While I am lucky enough to have spent my working life in or around the jockey’s saddle, no great riding skills are required on these battlefield treks. We were on Basuto ponies whose sure-footed hardiness put to shame so many of the British officers’ handsome hunters a century ago. The saddles were the cowboy’s deep-seated, high-backed Western type on which Mike Bentley and Lorna Harris, our hosts at the Rolling M Ranch, could make even a beginner comfortable in a few minutes. But for your own benefit you are well advised to get a bit of practice – if only to harden the leather on your own posterior.

You also need to have your stomach ready for the wonderful hospitality. We had come over the mountains from Harrismith in the gathering gloom. By the time we had bumped down the track to Rolling M, pitched our things into our little cottage across the garden, there was already a delicious piece of pork turning on the barbecue.

The river at the end of the lawn may have been a barrier for the British troops in 1900, but it was also where one Dutch family halted their ox wagons and set up farm and homestead as part of the Voortrekker journey from the British-controlled south. It was an extraordinary demonstration of that almost super-cussed Afrikaner determination which first won independence but then for too long led into a denial of the inevitable changes in society.

Mike Turner is a magnificent old bull of a man who has been here since boyhood and can still conjure up all the different yodelling calls which used to halt and turn and start those huge 16-strong teams of oxen that did all the heavy work on the farm. “That,” said Lorna Harris, a shade misty-eyed after Mike had finished a bravura performance, “is part of our heritage too.”

In the morning the guy with the mistiest eye was the white Appaloosa stallion who had begun his day the way all stallions should. Next to him the charming sight of a gambolling, squeaking bush pig piglet was just a fraction sobered by the thought that we had eaten his brother the night before. Beyond the willows at the end of the lawn, the Tugela swept by in all its brown and flood-swollen pomp.

In fact it was so swollen that our horses were unable to ford it on the normal trail which would have taken us on a two-day journey to Spioenkop. Instead we settled for a fascinating four-hour hack around the bends of the river and under the shadow of Swartkop, the mighty tree-lined hill up which on February 5, 1900 the great 15-pounder naval guns were dragged in a huge – if ultimately fruitless – effort.

Little good it did the British for, despite the bombardment, the Boers held out on the Vaalkrans koppie across the river, and this second attempt to relieve Ladysmith ended with another 350 British troops killed or wounded. It could not last, of course, but there was one final blow three days later. As the British withdrew, Louis Botha swam with a party of troops across the stream and surprised a dozing patrol. At the river side a dozen stone crosses bear witness to the event – a beautiful, timeless spot but a brutal reminder, in my old grandpa’s words, “of the harsh realities of war”.

This physical blending of the scenic and the historic was an addictive mix. That evening Jennifer stood us on Spioenkop for the sunset tale of so many who never lived till dawn. That night we enjoyed almost five-star luxury in George and Herta Mitchell-Innes’ 130-year-old farmhouse at Mawelawela north-east of Ladysmith. Next morning we saddled up new ponies for a five-hour trek to the battlefield of Elandslaagte.

Once again I took a thousand times more from the experience than any book or video could give. The land here was flatter, more open, allowing us to canter off towards the horizon. A group of blesbok sprinted away from us as we crossed the fields; a great white secretary bird suddenly swooped up and away at our approach.

An hour into the ride we reached the old station of Elandslaagte. On the night before the battle, the Boers held a concert party here, liberally fuelled with whisky captured from a British train, the performance reinforced by songs from captive passengers, both national anthems rendered with respectful gusto. This was like pre-match Twickenham but the next day’s war game was bloody and for real.

Almost 700 killed and wounded may not sound many in Battle of the Somme terms, but as we stood on the summit memorial the savage pointlessness of it all became clear. The suicidally easy targets presented to crackshot Boers by the glinting sporrans (ouch) of the Gordon Highlanders, the sudden thunderstorm which gave the Devons the chance to take the crest with bayonets fixed, the “white flag” confusions which riled the cavalry into a horrific “pig-sticking” slaughter of the fleeing Boers.

A British “victory” that still ended with them retreating to be besieged at Ladysmith.

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