Where Zulu spears silenced guns

Isandlwana: Two American women have built a luxury lodge with a fine view of military history.

March 12, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,sun staff correspondent

Pat Stubbs, a native of Florida, has done just what President Clinton urges American entrepreneurs to do -- invest in a foreign land and help an isolated community.

With her partner, Maggie Bryant, chairwoman of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, she has sunk $1 million into a cliff-side luxury lodge in South Africa to create an oasis of peace for high-spending tourists in the middle of Zululand.

Ironically, the Isandlwana lodge overlooks a historic battlefield where two warrior nations, the Zulus and the British, shed an appalling amount of each other's blood more than a century ago.

In the valley that once rang with the battle chants of the Zulus and the guns of the British, there is today only the quiet of the African vastness, broken by the occasional crack of a cowherd's whip, the low mooing of the animals, the lilt of a local songstress or the beat of an African drum.

"One of the neatest things to do is to watch the cattle come out in the morning and go back at dusk," says Stubbs, sitting in the glass-walled lobby of the 12-room thatched lodge, which sits above the valley on the Nyoni Ridge in Isandlwana.

Each room offers a spectacular view of a 20-mile-long plain dotted with villages of rondevals -- the traditional round Zulu dwellings with conical thatched roofs -- and surrounded by flat-top mountains.

"Every sunset and every sunrise is different," says Stubbs.

Growing out of the valley floor is the Sphinx-like 4,500-foot outcrop of Isandlwana, from which the lodge takes its name. Here, on Jan. 22, 1879, the British suffered their worst one-day military defeat in the old colonies.

The British, in their bid for territorial expansion, had given the Zulus an ultimatum: Disband your forces or face attack. The Zulus defied the threat.

The redcoats advanced, preparing to launch an attack on the Zulu king's compound at Ulundi, 50 miles away. The soldiers were so confident of victory that they neither dug in nor circled their wagons. They simply pitched their tents at the foot of Isandlwana and threw out defensive lines.

The Zulus swept down each side of the valley, followed by the main force of 10,000 spear-waving, shield-banging warriors, urged on by 14,000 ululating Zulu maidens.

The death toll within three hours: 1,329 British soldiers, now buried in 220 mass graves marked by white stone cairns at the battle site.

An estimated 3,000 Zulus were killed in the fierce fighting, much of it hand to hand, while Zulu King Cetshwayo KaMapende commanded his troops from atop the ridge.

Ten miles away is Rorke's Drift. There, later the same day, the British engaged in one of their most famous battles when 100 redcoats fought off 4,000 Zulus. The battle was the subject of the 1964 film "Zulu," starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker. The British lost 15 men; the Zulus almost 500.

Isandlwana Lodge's resident historian, Robert Gerrard, a former army officer, takes visitors on a tour of the sites while narrating the progress of the battles as recorded in the diaries and letters of British soldiers.

Gerrard points out that the British defeat at Isandlwana paralleled the American humiliation at Little Big Horn 01 1/2 years earlier.

In both cases, well-armed forces were defeated by enemies with little more than spears and bows and arrows. Both battles were fought over territorial expansion, protection of white pioneers and greed for land.

Sixty years before the back-to-back African battles, Shaka, the most famous of Zulu kings, decreed that only young men who had washed their spears in the enemy's blood could marry.

This led to the Zulu attack on Rorke's Drift. The warriors involved had been ordered during the battle of Isandlwana to block a potential British escape route. They had seen no fighting there.

Desperate to "wash" their spears in blood, they defied an order by King Cetshwayo not to cross the Buffalo River, which formed the border between Zululand and Natal, now joined as the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Within an hour of silence falling on Isandlwana, the defiant Zulu force was attacking Rorke's Drift. The British, warned of the Zulus' approach, had hurriedly built makeshift defensive barricades of sacks of corn and biscuit boxes. Behind these, they withstood 11 hours of onslaught by the Zulus.

Africa's intrigue

What brought Pat Stubbs deep into Zululand, almost 8,000 miles away from her native Florida?

"Most of the people I know said, 'Why are you investing your money so far from home?' " she recalls. "Maybe I'm just a little bit of a dreamer. Africa sort of intrigued me. It was doing something different."

Retired, she first thought of investing in a game lodge in Botswana, and while on a trip there she bumped into Maggie Bryant, who became her 50-50 partner. The two kept in touch while researching possible investments in southern Africa.

Then they heard of this site, for which the Zulu Mangwe-Buthanai Tribal Authority had been seeking a developer for 12 years.

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