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Driving the beloved country

1 May 2019

A literary pilgrimage inspired by Alan Paton

The Beloved Country is big. Wooded hills soar up to 1,400 metres and valleys, cut by the Umzimkulu, Mkomazi and Mgeni rivers, plunge down broad and green.

“Lovely beyond singing” is how Alan Paton described Kwazulu Natal where his novel Cry, the Beloved Country is set.

To follow in the footsteps of the Rev Stephen Kumalo, the hero of Paton’s great South African novel, start your journey in Ixopo. This town, with its circular encampments of Zulu villages, lies 150km from Durban. It’s a morning’s drive from the humid coast, first south down the R102 and then inland on the R612.

When Alan Paton described Stephen Kumalo’s journey in 1948 he talked of “a lovely road that runs from Ixopo to the hills” and that is still the route to follow to Johannesburg today, driving up high into the mist. Nowadays Ixopo is a small, prosperous settlement with one wide, clean street containing a bank, a supermarket and a hotel called Off Saddle. The British laid out the settlement in 1878 and named Stuartstown after the local magistrate. He was killed three years later at the Battle of Ingogo between the Boer settlers and the British army and eventually his town reverted to its local Zulu name.

Back in 1948 notices of death and execution were posted on Dead Men’s Tree in Ixopo. The tree is still there outside the Post Office but it no longer serves the grim purpose witnessed by Stephen Kumalo.

From Ixopo Alan Paton’s sad hero travels north to PMB (Pietermaritzburg). To get there, Rev Kumalo takes a small train out of the Umzimkulu valley. He is travelling in search of his missing son. Today no trains run across this baking hot landscape but driving the quiet road to PMB you may pass the occasional lone Zulu youth carrying an assegai spear.

It’s an 85km drive to Pietermaritzburg that sits, surprisingly delicately, in the broad Msunduzi valley. In 1893, a young Indian lawyer was thrown off a train there for refusing to leave the first-class compartment. His name? Mohandas Gandhi.

A plaque now marks the spot where the future Mahatma’s journey came to grief and he decided to fight for second-class citizens the world over.

A second, more recent plaque from 1997 commemorates the occasion when Gandhi’s grandson, at that time the Indian High Commissioner in South Africa, received the posthumous Freedom of Pietermaritzburg on behalf of his grandfather.

With its large brick-built City Hall and Stock Exchange, its stone memorials, civic art gallery and rectangular grid of buildings, PMB looks not unlike the English city of Manchester. There is a good old-style hotel with balconies here called The Imperial that makes an ideal point to break this journey. It was built early in the 20th Century and has a touch of the Wild West – or is it the British Raj? – about its wide verandas.

The following day it’s worth diverting 10km off this route to the University of Natal, where the Alan Paton Centre is housed in a charming old red-tiled campus bungalow. Here visitors can browse a re-creation of Paton’s study and learn about the process of reconciliation in the new South Africa. Some of the documents now on display were hidden for 28 years during the worst years of apartheid.

Cry, the Beloved Country tells the story of a journey of discovery that ends in Johannesburg. On his way north, Stephen Kumalo heads through what Paton called “the battlefields of long ago”. In the 19th Century, the British, Boers and Zulus fought again and again over this land. Today, the N3 – a road that connects Johannesburg and Durban – passes through the battlefields via the modern Midmar Dam and picturesque Howick Falls, a spectacular drop where Zulu men and women are often to be found selling woodcarvings or dollies made out of grass, wire and beads.

Further north still lies Tsiamelo, where a marble plaque marks the place in 1964 where a disguised renegade – one Nelson Mandela – was captured and sent to trial. By a remarkable coincidence, only a few kilometres away at Frere, another plaque marks the place where Winston Churchill, a war reporter at the time, was captured in 1899 during his country’s fight with the Boer settlers. Churchill was imprisoned for two months but escaped by train in 1900. He was fortunate. Nelson Mandela by contrast spent the next 26 years in prison. It’s a remarkable coincidence that two men, captured so close together, both went on to lead their countries in old age.

East of these memorials lies Fugitive’s Drift Lodge, an unusual visitor centre-cum-B&B that was run by the historian David Rattray until his death in 2007. Rattray spent many years researching the 1879 imperial battlefields of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana. Both of these clashes between the British and the Zulus took place close to Fugitive’s Drift. Later they were turned into the successful films Zulu (1964) and Zulu Dawn (1979) respectively. Rattray interviewed descendants of the Zulus warriors who destroyed an entire British army at Isandlwana but fought themselves to a standstill against just 150 British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift the next day. The Zulu forces eventually withdrew to the disbelief of the defenders who were subsequently awarded 11 Victoria Crosses.

After a night at Fugitive’s Drift, drive on to Isandlwana where a great rock rises out of the grassland like the head of a sphinx. Scattered below are hundreds of white stones marking where 1300 of the defeated 1700 British troops were killed.

You can climb the rock to get a panoramic view of this most beautiful, if frequently fought-over landscape. From Isandlwana it is a two-and-a-half hour (150km) drive to Spion Kop, another important historic site. Stop off en route at Ladysmith for lunch. This small town is famed these days for the Ladysmith Black Mambazo a cappella singing group. The township itself was established in 1847 by the Boers as the Republic of Klip River but when the British seized it in 1850 they first named it “Windsor” and then “Ladysmith” after Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon, the Spanish wife of the Cape Colony governor Sir Harry Smith.

In front of Ladysmith’s very English-looking town hall you can still see Castor and Pollux, howitzer canons used by the British during the famous siege of Ladysmith (1899-1900) when the Boers almost forced the British to surrender.

Spion Kop itself lies 35km west of Ladysmith. Here in January 1900 a dramatic battle took place on this hilltop as the British army tried – and failed – to relieve the people of Ladysmith.

The battlefield of Spion Kop itself doesn’t have the dramatic features or haunting resonances of Isandlwana. But it is remarkable for the presence of three men who would go on to be world leaders: Louis Botha, commanding the Boer forces, would become the first Prime Minister of South Africa; Winston Churchill – who would also go on to be a prime minister – was here, post captivity, as a young war reporter; and Mohandas Gandhi was running a voluntary Indian ambulance corps for the British. Had one shell gone astray during that battle, the 20th Century might have turned out very differently. But it is too easy to get waylaid by history and Johannesburg still lies 340km north along the N3. On the way this route will pass through the Drakensberg Mountains, the tallest mountain range in southern Africa. Their name derives from the Afrikaans word for Dragon mountains. See them glowing dramatically at sunrise or sunset and you will understand why they were named after fire-breathing creatures.

Cry, The Beloved Country ends sadly. On the evening before his son’s execution for murder, Rev Kumalo goes into the mountains to await the moment when Absolom will die. On the way, he encounters the father of Arthur Jarvis, and the two men speak of their lost sons, and the plight of their beloved country. Recreating Stephen Kumalo’s journey from Durban to Johannesburg is to engage with some very dramatic moments in South Africa’s history but it is also a route of great beauty. Lovely beyond singing, as Alan Paton put it.

Words: Adrian Mourby

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