Sunday 24 March 2019

Ten Inspirational People - No. 1

David Grey Rattray

One of my most treasured possessions is a set of cds entitled 'Day of the Dead Moon' which is the oral recounting of the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. Islandlwana took place on a day when a solar eclipse occurred, hence the title. These battles were of course those which took place in KwaZulu Natal in 1879 between the British and the AmaZulu nation who had refused to accept British rule. Rorke's Drift is the conflict which is better known to the British public, possibly because this was the fight in which that although the British were not victorious, they managed to fend off enormous odds. The Zulus though are more likely to recall Isandlwana, where their impis were wholly triumphant, massacring almost 2,000 of the invaders of their land, an engagement in which only a handful of British soldiers escaped with their lives. At Isandlwana the British encampment was attacked and eventually overrun by 20,000 Zulus. At Rorke’s Drift, just over 150 regular troops faced up to 4,000 Zulu warriors and managed to hold their ground.

In the late 1990s I began planning two novels which would cover the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The first would concentrate on the events at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, the second on the final battles ending with the British victory at Ulundi, the Zulu capital and seat of their king, Cetshwayo kaMpande. During the period of my research I acquired fellowship of the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society and had access to a myriad of books and also the audio tapes of a one David Rattray, a white South African who had grown up with Zulu children and had heard, and had become fascinated by, the stories of Isandlwana. He is the first of the ten people who have been the inspirational writing gurus who I intend depicting in my blog.

In the 1990's David Rattray lived at the site of Rorke's Drift and conducted tours of the battlefields. When I played the tapes (I now have the cds) I was totally mesmerised by this man's gift for oral storytelling. I had never heard anything like his soft powerful voice and the tremendous talent he had for recounting a war between a nation with primitive weapons and an army bearing modern armaments. It was spears and hide shields against Martini-Henry rifles and field artillery. I played those tapes over and over again, absolutely lost in the hynotic retelling of two engagements that took place in the shadow of the Drakensberg Mountains.

In his recounting of the history of these battles, David Rattray took no sides, praising the 24th Foot (later the South Wales Borderers) and the Zulus alike for their courage. He did however state that Isandlwana should not be looked on as a British defeat, but a Zulu victory, a subtlety that impressed me. I am also a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and in the early 2000s I was privileged to hear him speak at the society's lecture hall in London. When he visited my grandson's school at Felsted in Essex and gave a talk to the students there, I spoke to the man and shook his hand. Sadly, he was murdered at the age of 48 in his home at Rorke's Drift while being burgled by six men. I understand the person who fired the killing shot was a young Zulu and one wonders whether his killer knew that a great deal of the money David Rattray earned lecturing and guided tours was spent on the education of poor Zulu children.

David Rattray was an inspirational man. Being a teller of tales myself, albeit in print, he filled me with awe and admiration for his storytelling. In 1999 some Welsh troopers visited the battlegrounds and held a memorial service in the chapel at Rorke's Drift. Thousands of Zulus came from their homes to meet their erstwhile enemy and the two groups, both famed for their ability to sing, joined together in a chorus that soared into the surrounding hills. David Rattray was present to witness the event and apparently he stood in the audience and wept. He is survived by a wife, Nicky, who I understand carries on the work he so loved, amongst the people he loved.

(For those interested in the two historical novels I wrote on the Anglo-Zulu War, they are: 

The Scarlet Sash and Dragoons.

I also wrote a poem on Isandlwana:

The Iron Wind

[In 1879 2000 Zulus charged into a hail of
fire from 2000 Martini-Henry rifles.
It was at a place called Isandlwana and after their
total victory the Zulu youths used the battle cry:
‘We are the boys of Isandlwana’.]

We are the boys of Isandlwana
who faced the iron wind.
A furnace wind,
like the Saharan Simoom
or Haboob of Khartoum,
bringing madness on its breath.
No shield can turn it,
no mask,
no magic cloak.
Warriors are whisked away
like broken straws.
it takes our heads clean off.
We are the boys of Isandlwana
who race at the fiery rush,
into the bulleting blast,
for wind is only wind
and tomorrow the enemy
will be calm
and quiet
and utterly still.

Thursday 31 January 2019

What I did on my holiday by Garry Kilworth aged 77 and three quarters.

On the 7th of January, 2019 Annette and I flew to Sri Lanka and set foot on its soil for the first time. (Actually, I had done that in November 1958, but was on my way for a tour in Singapore as an airman and we had simply stopped to refuel the Britania aircraft which was taking us to the Far East). We had booked a cheapish hotel near the airport and were catching the 'Express' to Ella on the next morning from Colombo's Fort Railway Station. We had booked the Observation Car, since the train was travelling through some of the lushest and most beautiful countryside Sri Lanka had to offer.

Big mistake

The Observation Car, which we had expected to be the sort of goldfish bowl you get in the Canadian Rockies. It was not. It was a dilapidated, seedy carriage at the end of an incredibly long train which fishtailed uncomfortably for the whole journey. The glass dome we had expected turned out to be a window at the very end of the carriage through which you could see where you'd been, but of course not where you were going or to the sides. The wonderful green mountains, covered in rainforest, sped by and yes, we did see them through the dirty side windows, but actually the whole thing turned out to be a great disappointment and a very trying ride. The book said the journey from Colombo to Ella would be 7 hours. It was not. It turned out to be 11 really heavy hours which landed us at our destination well after dark had thudded onto the landscape.

Once we had found our homestay, a delightful place called Sita's Heaven, high up in the mountains, overlooking an incredible valley covered in rainforest, our spirits felt lighter. The small town itself had given its soul over to coffee houses, cafes and bars where the young could indulge their palates. There was a beautiful waterfall just outside the town and 625 steps cut into the rockface which took you to a high cave. Annette and I managed 300 of the steep steps, while our Aussie friends, Carolyn and Peter went on to do the rest. (They're younger, dammit). We waited for them in a tiny rock overhang where an enterprising local woman made tea on a Primus shove and pointed out Langer monkeys clambering around in the rocks and trees below.

After two pleasant days of dithering the four us took a car to Tissamaharama to the south, where we hoped to visit Yalla National Park and Bundala National Park. We were staying at Lakeside Cabana, a homestay with four huts on stilts overlooking a wonderful lake full of waders and water birds. It was indeed the sort of venue we'd hoped for and I managed to photograph several birds there including the beautiful scarlet Flameback Woodpecker. I did see a Paradise Flycatcher with its long trailing tail feathers, but it was too quick for my camera. It was ever thus throughout the whole trip with this elusive ball of feathers. Our one day visit to Yalla was disappointing. There were over a hundred jeeps chasing the animals in the park and twice we got hemmed in by vehicles and couldn't move for 20 minutes or more. We had been warned that it would be so, but we'd taken no notice and booked anyway. In fact we didn't see the leopard we wanted to see and it was, as I say, a disappointing trip. Bundala was much better. Only six or seven jeeps and plenty of wildlife, though sadly no leopards in that park. One day out walking I was approached by two young local students who had seen me snapping birds with my Lumix bridge camera. They turned out to be studying local ornithology and took me to three hidden forest places where there were owls to be had. A Jungle Owlet, a pair of Scops Owls and pair of Brown Fish Owls.

After Tissa, Peter and Carolyn left us, to do their own thing at Galle, while we went north again to meet with our 25 year-old grandson, Jordy, who had been in Australia for a few weeks and had agreed to spend some time with the oldies in Sri Lanka on his way home to UK. The sad thing for Jordy was, he is a single good-looking guy and there were many Scandinavian and other continental girls backpacking too, but who was going to look at a young man travelling with his grandparents? Anyway, we met with him at Nuwara Eliya and stayed a couple of nights in the mountains before going south again, to Udawalawe. This was one of our favourite places, where we swam in the river and had a great day in the game park, seeing Crested Eagles, Serpent Eagles, mongooses (yes, not mongeese), many elephants, buffaloes and a fantastic Black-Shouldered Kite. 

At the end of four days, we said goodbye to Jordy, who went north to Ella and Kandy, looking (I hope) for those girls we had been a barrier to. We haven't heard from him since. Annette and I then went to Sinharaja, to a lovely homestay where the owner's son was a rainforest guide. What a wealth of wildlife was in that forest where we trekked the next day! Kangaroo Lizards, rare Blue-Faced Leaf Monkeys, several snakes, kingfishers, Hump-Nosed Lizards, Tarantulas, a Sea Eagle, an air battle between to Black Eagles (the largest eagles in the sky of Sri Lanka), lots more. It was a perfect end to our search for wildlife and we made the most of it.

We finished the tour of south Sri Lanka with three days in Marissa and Galle, where we went whale watching and saw two Blue Whales, the largest mammals on the face of the Earth. Well, truth be told, we saw bits of them, since you only get to witness the curve of their backs and the fluke of course. When I wrote home about it, I said, 'We saw two Blue Whales, but it was just a fluke'. Nobody got it, so far as I knew, because all that came back was, 'How wonderful.' Actually, yes, it was wonderful, the whole trip.