The word is obviously out on the new momentum at Hartford House. The weekend reservations call for a four to six week lead time, and with spring beckoning and the dance season dawning, the phone rings with a fresh intensity. By "dance" I'm referring to a pledge we made to our resident dance troupe almost nineteen years ago that, weather permitting, they would be on duty most Saturdays for the entertainment of our guests. The genesis of this relationship was rooted in my own upbringing in rural Pondoland, where I thought I'd witnessed every traditional dance under the sun, yet here was a plea to sacrifice a rare Sunday off to witness an audition by the kids from the farm school, who rated themselves above the ordinary. In company with a handful of the newly-opened Hartford's guests, I made my way to the front lawn of the hotel; decked out across its width were six drums strapped together with cattle hides, awaiting flagellation by garden hose.
We've been much awarded at Summerhill and Hartford over the years, but this was the most extraordinary dance performance I had ever seen, and the adulation the Ngobamakhosi enjoyed at last year's Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo as the big hit of the world's biggest arts and crafts festival, was little surprise to us. We all have our strengths in life, and when it comes to song and dance, our Zulus are up there with the best anywhere.
The origins of their show lie in the age-old ritual dance of the Zulus on the eve of the departure of the King's armies for their military sorties. Its purpose was to wish the warriors well on their way and a safe passage home, with promises of bounty, wives, cattle and corn, as the spoils for victory. That they were the first in the festival's 65 years to interrupt proceedings in Edinburgh with a two-and-a-half minute standing ovation, was a tribute as much to their pulsating talents, as it was to the rhythm and beat that resides in the African bosom. Their perfection of the art was acknowledged a decade ago at the world championships in Tokyo and Hong Kong, where they ranked 3rd and 2nd among 143 countries. Pinch yourself: here we are, uniquely featuring a world class hotel on a world class stud farm, with a dance act to match and the capacity to wow international audiences to their feet.
Now picture this: January 1879 and the British army has declared war on the kingdom of Zululand. King Cetshwayo has summoned his army to the Royal kraal at Ulundi for a briefing. He commands them to go forth and confront Victoria's legions, subject to two prohibitions: one, they're not to cross the Buffalo River, the boundary between his territory, Zululand and colonial Natal, for fear of provoking an accusation of invasion; two, while His Majesty did not live by the western calendar, he forbade his warriors to engage in warfare on a given day which, it turned out, was Wednesday the 22nd January 1879. Understand, in Zulu folklore, ill winds blow for those who foment violence in the face of an eclipse; the King's advisors predicted that on that particular day, the sky would be darkened by the sun's collision with the moon. It was.
Which begs the question, since it was always thought civilization was a thing of the chosen people of the north, what possessed the séances of a "savage" Zulu king sitting in Ulundi, to know that an eclipse was in the offing? We forget of course, that this was Africa, which gave birth to the pyramids, which sculpted the sphinx thousands of years ago. It was Africa that spawned the ancient civilizations of Mapungubwe, Tulumela and Great Zimbabwe, and it was Africa that divined the gift of mankind's evolution, thousands of years before the trappings of wealth and the great edifices of empire were erected on England's shores.
A force of 40 000 departed Ulundi on the 17th January; 20 000 warriors and 20 000 support staff, marching barefoot at the double, with all the accoutrements of war in the general direction of Nqutu, where the British army was reportedly bivouacked in the lee of the sphinx-like mountain of Isandlwana. There was no let-up in the pace until they were within striking distance of their foes, whence they holed up in a deep gully some six kilometres from their target.
Their discovery by a scouting party of the "red coats" forced the hand of the Zulu generals. Mindful of the King's command and the imminence of an eclipse the following day, they determined that delaying their attack beyond tomorrow's dawn, would surrender the significant tactical advantage their sudden arrival had invoked. If you've never been to Isandlwana, allow me briefly to describe it. The British camp had been struck in a semi-circle on the northern foot of the mountain. Running downward from it was a plain that stretched for several miles to a semi-circular ridge of hills resembling an amphitheatre. It was the perfect scene for a battle, more so one involving the formation for which the Zulus were revered: the horns of the buffalo. Believing the main Zulu army to be some way off to the east, it seems the British were ill-prepared for the fury the morning would bring. While their lines were deployed as you might have expected at the foot of the camp, what should have been an impregnable defensive position on the high-ground in the lee of a mountain, was compromised by pitched tents and a dearth of battlements in the foreground.
As the sun rose on that fateful day, the Zulu battalions, obscured from sight by the crest of the hills from whence they would launch their attack, gathered under their regimental generals. The brunt of the assault would be borne by the "chest" of the buffalo, the King's own "impi", the Ngobamakhosi. On both sides, veterans of many conflicts showed the way to hordes of those who'd never seen a shot fired in anger. Among the Zulus were adolescents craving the maiden "dip" of their spears; for most of the men in red, average height just 5'4", this would be their first encounter with an angry Zulu.
As the first rays of the summer sun pierced a sultry sky, these Welshman witnessed history's greatest act of military choreography. In one instant and as one man, the entire Zulu army emerged from the shadows of the hills, 20,000 of them, looking at the distance like twice their number with their shields at their sides. To a moviegoer there would be no more magnificent sight, this great army, resplendent in their battle colours, charging down from those verdant hills to their dreaded war cry "Habe, uSuthu! Habe, uSuthu!" But this was no movie; it was a fight to the death between the continental champions of Africa and the greatest fighting machine the world had ever known.
Put yourself in the shoes of those diminutive coal miners, the Williamses, the Jones, the Thomases and the Lewises, as those dark columns snaked down upon them from every direction, distinguished by the regimental finery of their shields. The vanguard was led by the royal "impi", girded in white goatskin head, ankle and wristbands, while shields of white cattle hide interwoven with three shards of black, concealed a mass of sculpted, ebony Adonises honed in physical perfection.
There was a point in the heat of one of the great contests of all time, when the Zulu onslaught wavered under a withering fire from the Martin Henrys; a point that best illustrates why history is so often defined by the single act or valour of one outstanding individual. Surrounded by men on the retreat, the veteran Zulu general Chief Ntshingwayo ka Mahole rose to his feet and urged his men to return to the fray. "This is not as our King commanded us", he cried as he surged back into the face of a blast that would soon subside into a whimper. Here was the tipping point, the pivotal moment when the courage of his men, superior generalship and outstanding tactical acumen would change the face of the globe forever. In 90 minutes the greatest army on the planet was in flight down the Fugitive's Trail, decimated at the hands of an African foe armed with assegais and shields of raw hide. In the minds of many historians, Isandlwana signalled the first signs of the end of the British empire, and while redemption was only twelve hours away at Rorke's Drift, things would never quite be the same again.
While the guns of Isandlwana have been eerily silent for more than a century now, the throbbing vigour of the Ngobamakhosi on a warm Zululand evening in the precincts of what was once home to the family of Natal's Prime Minister of that time, is a vibrant reminder of how far we've come as a nation, and the ecumenical balm of music and song.