About two-thirds down the pass the road sneaks through a side ravine with a concreted dip. The exit angle is steep enough to leave you with only a view of the sky and some cliff face on the right. The road builders have installed three tall poles with chevrons on the left, to help you gauge where the road is going. Aloes decorate the slopes as altitude is lost down into the valley.
Once through the third hairpin bend, you have to lean forward to look up the mountain to see the road above you. It is at this point that the Elands Pass really gabs you and you realise just how steep and dramatic this pass actually is. Finally the last hairpin is negotiated as the gradient levels off and a faded sign pronounces "Welkom in Die Hel"
The vegetation is dense in the valley and hidden in the thick bush on the left is the perennial stream that provides life giving sustenance to the farmers and animals that have lived here through the centuries. The first few buildings belong to Cape Nature and consist of a few self-catering cottages and some neat and well shaded camp-sites, but none of them are grassed. All the sites and cottages are named after the original klowers that pioneered the settlement of the valley. The moment you stop and get out of your vehicle, you become aware of the birdsong. Baboons bark in the ravines not far away - a reminder to keep vehicles, doors and windows firmly locked during daylight hours.
An easy drive of about 6 km through the dense bush reveals baboons, monkeys, duikers and kudus who all seem to thrive in the valley. The focal point is in the middle of the valley at a farm called Fonteinplaas. It's owned by the inimitable Annatjie Joubert (nee Mostert); the last land owner and direct descendant of the original klowers. We have booked all the cottages on the farm - most of the cottages are over a hundred years old. The walls are thick, the windows small and the doors are low.
We have arranged for a sit down dinner in the thatched restaurant and asked Annatjie to chat to us about the history of Die Hel. She was a razor sharp mind and her wit borders on being in the league of Monty Python. The lamb chops served were out of this world!
The stars are bright overhead as the guests all head off for a good night's sleep, interrupted by the call of the night-birds and kudus foraging for food.
PODCAST: This week our radio chat centres around Elands Pass and Die Hel. CLICK TO LISTEN.
SA History (Part 7)
Shaka: Zulu Militarism and Expansion
Sigidi kaSenzangakhona was born in July 1787, the illegitimate son of the chief of a small clan called the Zulus. When the elders of the tribe discovered that his mother was pregnant, his parents tried to deny it, and claimed that her bloated belly was a symptom of iShaka, an intestinal and parasitic beetle. This is how the boy acquired the nickname by which he would later become so famous.
When he was six years old, Shaka and his mother were exiled from his father’s kraal and they later joined a different tribe, the Mthethwa. In his late teens, Shaka was assigned to an amabutho, a military regiment of young men based on age group. During this time, he caught the attention of the premier chieftain, Dingiswayo. Shaka displayed great valour, skill, and strength, and an impressed Dingiswayo became his mentor.
After the young warrior had led his troops to victory in a number of skirmishes, Dingiswayo made Shaka his commander-in-chief, and helped to organize a reconciliation between Shaka and his estranged father. But as he was illegitimate, Shaka had no valid claim to succession. After his father died in 1816, he killed his half-brother Sigujana and took over as chief of the Zulus. At this stage, his army consisted of just 1,500 warriors.
Inter-tribal battles at this time consisted of a show of strength with very little bloodshed. The opposing forces would line up in two long lines facing one another just more than a spear-throw apart. They would begin by hurling insults, then warriors from either side would run forward and throw a spear at their opponents. Many could be warded off with a shield or dodged. If one side received more casualties than the other, this would be seen as a sign that it was not a very auspicious day and they would usually retreat, with the resolve to seek a return engagement on a more favourable occasion.
But Shaka set about to revolutionise traditional weaponry and tactics, with far more deadly intentions. Rather than using long assegais that were thrown at an enemy, Shaka adapted the spear into a close-quarters weapon with a short, thick handle and a massive blade known as the iklwa, so called because of the sound it made when it was thrust and pulled out of an enemy’s body. Shaka also introduced a larger, heavier version of the Nguni shield, and he taught his warriors how to use the shield's left side to hook an enemy's shield to the right, exposing his ribs for a fatal spear stab. Instead of all-out frontal charges, Shaka developed the famous “bull horn" attack formation, composed of three elements; the “chest”, a main frontal force normally comprised of senior veterans; the “horns”, which would flank the enemy from both sides and encircle them; and the “loins”, a reserve force hidden behind the “chest”.
Shaka imposed a rigorous system of discipline on his troops, and drilled them without mercy. He organised various grades into regiments, and quartered them in special military kraals, with each regiment having its own distinctive name and insignia. He forced them to practice his encirclement tactics, and to undertake marches that sometimes covered more than 50 miles a day in a fast trot over hot, rocky terrain, usually without any footwear. Any warriors that could not keep up or that objected were killed.
In 1818, Shaka began a massive programme to expand his kingdom. He used various methods, including forging alliances, negotiation, diplomatic pressure, patronage and reward, but if none of these was successful, he killed, enslaved or assimilated any tribes that resisted his forces. As more and more tribes and territories became incorporated into Shaka's empire, others moved away to be out of the range of his impis, becoming in turn aggressors against their neighbours. The ripple effect caused by these mass migrations would become known as the Mfecane (“the crushing”).
Within ten years, the Zulu nation had ballooned to a total of about 250,000 people covering a vast territory, and the warrior king ruled over his lands with an iron fist. He could assemble more than 50,000 warriors at any given time, and he would ruthlessly crush any uprising or resistance amongst his subjects. Shaka was known for his cruelty, and it is estimated that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, although this figure is sometimes hotly disputed.
As there were only a few white hunters and traders living in his kingdom during this period, Shaka never came into conflict with any of them. Indeed, he accorded them favoured treatment, ceded them land, and permitted them to build a settlement at Port Natal. He was curious about their technological developments, was anxious to learn more about European military methods, and he was especially interested in the culture that they represented. Moreover, he was alert to the advantages that their trade might bring.
Shaka was an undisputed ruler and a cruel tyrant, but he had always maintained very close ties with his mother, Nandi. When she died from dysentery in October 1827, he proclaimed a period of national mourning which would last for 12 months. He ordered that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk should be consumed, and that any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people that were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed. The killing was not restricted to humans; even some of his cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what it was like to lose a mother.
On 24 September 1828, Shaka was assassinated by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana. His corpse was dumped in an empty grain pit, which was then filled with stones and mud. The exact location of his final resting place is unknown, although a monument was built at one alleged site.
Much of the legend and mystique around the figure of Shaka has been garnered from African oral history and praise poetry, and from the few written accounts of his interactions with European settlers. There is some dispute amongst modern scholars as to the veracity of the stories, but there is no doubt that he was a both a brilliant military tactician and a brutal despot. Despite his violent methodology, Shaka created a large and powerful nation that would forever leave its mark on the history of South Africa.
PASS OF THE WEEK
This week we head up into the northern part of KZN to the unusual town of Utrecht with it's claim to the only town in South Africa completely surrounded by a nature reserve. It is also a town with an interesting history.
* * * * * K N I G H T S P A S S * * * * *
New passes added this week:
Witnek - A small gravel pass on the S162 between Rosendal and Paul Roux in the Free State.
Van Ryneveld's Pass - A short tarred pass on the R63 close to Graaff Reinet, originally built by Andrew Bain.
Schuilkrans Pass - An interesting gravel pass on the S379 near Marquard in the Free State.
Lebelonyana Pass - A major tarred pass on the A4 route in Lesotho (Provisional video)
Three Grape Poort - An insignificant little poort in north West province with a most unusual name
Lekhalo La Molimo Nthuse Pass (God Help Me pass) - A big tarred pass in Lesotho on the A3 (Provisional video)
Vuilnek - A small pass in the Northern Cape linked to the historical Langeberg Rebellion
Thought for th day: "We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us" - Robyn Young