In 1997 I took my father to South Africa for his seventieth birthday to watch the British and Irish Lions play the Boks at rugby. It was a fabulous trip, from the beauty of Table Mountain and the incongruity of the Penguins of Boulder’s Beach to the joy of experiencing two Test victories and the delights of Stellenbosch.
After the last game we had a day before we went on Safari and I organised for us to go on trip to Isandalwana and Rorke’s Drift. These two places are linked in a lot of minds by the film Zulu and especially the ludicrously heroic defence of the latter by the British forces, led by a Royal Engineer lieutenant.
We enjoyed both elements of the trip but for me, it was our time at Isandlwana that stands out. It was a place of British hubris and humiliation on a grand scale. Here’s the summary from Wiki
On the morning of th[e] day [of the battle] Lord Chelmsford split his forces and moved out to support a reconnoitring party, leaving the camp in charge of Colonel Pulleine. The British were outmanoeuvred by the main Zulu army nearly 20,000 strong led by Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza. Chelmsford was lured eastward with much of his centre column by a Zulu diversionary force while the main Impi attacked his camp. Chelmsford’s decision not to set up the British camp defensively, contrary to established doctrine, and ignoring information that the Zulus were close at hand were decisions that the British were soon to regret. The ensuing Battle of Isandlwana was the greatest victory that the Zulu kingdom would enjoy during the war. The British centre column was wrecked and its camp annihilated with heavy casualties as well as the loss of all its supplies, ammunition and transport. The defeat left Chelmsford no choice but to hastily retreat out of Zululand. In the battle’s aftermath, a party of some 4,000 Zulu reserves mounted an unauthorised raid on the nearby British army border post of Rorke’s Drift and were driven off after 10 hours of ferocious fighting.
What makes it so special for me is how it changed my relationship with my father. On the coach to Isandalwana he told me how his father, my grandfather, would recount stories from South Africa to him as a boy. From the Boer Wars to the battles of the Anglo-Zulu wars. Grandfather couldn’t bring himself to recount the horrors of the First World War which he had gone through from near beginning to the very end. So it was to the history of Southern Africa he turned for tales of derring-do to engage the mind of a patriotic little boy.
By the time we arrived and decanted from our coach Dad had gone quiet. Our guide led us across some rough gravelly ground and slowly up a conical hill – a kopje – to sit, spread out on the escarpment. As he explained the events of the two days that led to this historic battle, I was entranced. He was a brilliant speaker, captivating all of us with the pictures he painted of red coated English and glistening Zulu warriors. The talk was done, the spell broken and we stood to return to our bus. Dad didn’t move. His eyes were red-rimmed, damp.
This man didn’t cry. He was the ultimate example of the stiff upper lipped Englishman. He didn’t do anything so banal as overt emotion.
‘I wish Dad were here,’ was all he said.
I understood. He had had a difficult time with his father from his teenaged years on and it was only towards the end, by which time Dad had married and produced one grandson (the Archaeologist, who they named after Grandfather) that some sort of equilibrium was restored. Grandfather died in 1957 when I, no. 2 grandson was six months old and that rapprochement still had a ways to go.
Here he was, with his own son, at the end of a fabulous two weeks. Two weeks we both knew we would remember for ever. And, just then, he wanted to have those two weeks as a son as well as a father.
We hugged. We didn’t hug, not really, not much, not with the intensity of that hug on that hill in that sun on the soil of a faraway land. We pretty much didn’t stop hugging after that. As it turned out he had another eight good years of hugging and he never ever turned down any hugs thereafter.