Rorke’s Drift, South Africa: The Complete Guide

Rorke's Drift in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
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Rorke's Drift

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Rorke's Drift, South Africa

Anyone with interest in South Africa’s long and turbulent history should consider paying a visit to the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields and Rorke’s Drift in particular. The latter was the site of one of the most critical engagements of the Anglo-Zulu War, during which just over 150 British and colonial troops successfully defended the Rorke’s Drift border post against 4,000 Zulu warriors. After the attack, 11 of the defenders were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery in the British honor system. Seven of the recipients were from the same regiment, setting a record that still stands today for the most VCs awarded to a single regiment during a single action. 

The History of Rorke's Drift

After establishing a federation in Canada, the British Empire set out to do the same in South Africa. The independent Kingdom of Zululand was a significant obstacle to the goal of a unified nation, so on Dec. 11, 1878, the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, sent an ultimatum to the Zulu king Cetshwayo with several demands, including that he disband his army. Inevitably Cetshwayo did not comply. On Jan. 11, 1879, the British invaded Zululand under the command of Lord Chelmsford. 

The invading force was divided into three columns. The center column was led by Chelmsford himself and crossed into Zululand over the Buffalo River at Rorke’s Drift, an Irish trading post turned Swedish mission station. At first, the three columns advanced into Zulu territory without any opposition. Then, on Jan. 22, the center column split when Chelmsford led troops out to support a reconnoitering party, leaving the rest of his men camped near Isandlwana. In his absence, a Zulu force of almost 20,000 warriors attacked and destroyed the camp, killing over 1,300 men and seizing all of its supplies, transport, and ammunition.  

After the destruction of the British camp at Isandlwana, a force of some 4,000 Zulu reserves decided to launch an attack on the border post at Rorke’s Drift that same afternoon. The mission had been turned into a supply depot and hospital and left under the protection of a small garrison of British and native African troops. Two survivors from the massacre at Isandlwana managed to warn the men at Rorke’s Drift about the approaching Zulu impi. Under the leadership of Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead, the camp prepared to defend itself.

Several of the British and colonial troops fled from Rorke’s Drift as the Zulu reserves approached, leaving just over 150 men to defend the post, including walking wounded from the hospital. The Zulus, known as the Undi Corps, arrived at Rorke’s Drift in the late afternoon, led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, the half-brother of Cetshwayo (who had not sanctioned this second attack). Once the fighting began, it lasted for over 11 bloody hours. By the time dawn broke the following day and the unsuccessful Zulus had abandoned the attack, 17 British and colonial soldiers had been killed, and more than 350 Zulus were dead.  

On Jan. 23, Lord Chelmsford and the men he had taken to support the reconnoitering party arrived at Rorke’s Drift. Many wounded and captured Zulus were executed in retribution for the massacre at Isandlwana and the attack on Rorke’s Drift, increasing the Zulu death toll by several hundred. With their forces and supplies depleted, all three of Chelmsford’s columns were ultimately forced to retreat, and the first British invasion failed. A second invasion launched later in 1879 had better success, and Cetshwayo’s forces were decisively defeated on July 4 at the Battle of Ulundi, resulting in the eventual annexation of the Zulu kingdom.  

Visiting Rorke's Drift

Today, visitors can learn about the conflict and its heroes at the Rorke’s Drift Orientation Centre, which is located on the site of the original mission station. Models and audiovisual displays describe what the battle would have been like, while Zulu guides give tours of the various landmarks and memorials erected on the site. These tours provide valuable insight into the Zulu perspective of battles like Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana, which were fought in an attempt to defend their kingdom and their way of life from foreign invaders. 

Also located on the site is the ELC Craft Centre. Set up by Swedish missionaries, the center was one of only a handful of institutions to provide artistic training to black students during the apartheid era and has helped develop the careers of some of South Africa’s best artists. You can peruse and purchase high-quality fabrics, ceramics, and artworks. There are picnic facilities and toilets at the site as well. 

How to Visit

It is possible to visit Rorke’s Drift independently. The Orientation Centre is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Monday to Friday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Entry costs 35 rand for adults and 20 rand for children. If you have time, it’s well worth visiting Isandlwana Battlefield as well. It’s located a 20-minute drive from Rorke’s Drift. Also of interest for South African history buffs is Blood River Battlefield, located an hour’s drive north. It marks the site of a conflict between Dutch Voortrekkers and the Zulu warriors of King Dingane on Dec. 16, 1838. 

One of the best ways to visit Rorke’s Drift is on a battlefield tour led by an expert local historian. Perhaps the most respected tours in the area are those offered by Fugitive’s Drift Lodge. They offer half-day trips to both Isandlwana (in the morning) and Rorke’s Drift (in the afternoon), allowing you to visit both in the correct chronological order. If you choose to stay overnight, the lodge offers luxury en-suite rooms with verandas overlooking the Buffalo River gorge. It also has a restaurant, a swimming pool, and its own Fugitive’s Drift Museum full of battlefield artifacts. 

Getting There

Rorke’s Drift is accessed via gravel roads leading off the R68 highway between Nqutu and Dundee, or the R33 highway between Pomeroy and Dundee. Whichever route you take, the turn-off to the battlefield is well signposted. For international visitors, the main gateway to the KwaZulu-Natal province is King Shaka International Airport in Durban. From there, it’s 170 miles to Rorke’s Drift. You can hire a car from the airport and drive there in under four hours. 

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Rorke’s Drift, South Africa: The Complete Guide