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A Family Story with echoes of Isandlwana
In October 2003 I was on holiday in Pennington near Durban staying at the Selborne Manor Hotel. One evening as I was enjoying an after dinner brandy, I was talking to one of the members of the family which owns the hotel and I mentioned that I had the previous year visited Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift battlefields as I was very interested in the Anglo Zulu War. He said that I should meet his father in law Denis Barker who was a grandson of one of the soldiers who had fought at Isandlwana and who had been lucky enough to escape. He said that Denis was writing a book on the subject.
Two days later I met Denis for the first time. I have to admit that at that time I did not know much about his grandfather, William Walwyn Barker but on my return home to fill the gap on my knowledge I read about him in the book by Ron Lock and Peter Quantrill Zulu Victory the Epic of Isandlwana and the Cover Up. Trooper barker was 18 years old at the time of the battle and was in the Natal Native Carbineers. His escape at Fugitives Drift and his subsequent heroism is well worth reading about.
In our conversation, Denis invited me to return to South Africa for the January 2004 celebrations of the 125th. Anniversary. It was such a kind invitation that even though I had not planned to go back so soon, I could not refuse especially as it was suggested that I join him and his family on the journey and so there I was in January 2004 back in South Africa.
We first went to Rorkes Drift where we had our picnic and spent some time in the museum, and then we went on to Fugitives Drift. There we met up with Roger Lane a great grandson of Sergeant Henry Gallagher who was there with his cousin and son in law. He wore a most splendid reproduction of the uniform of the 24th. Warwickshires made in the heavy serge material that the soldiers would have won in 1879. One could not help wondering how they managed in the heat with such heavy uncomfortable clothes which would have been not only intolerably warm but also would have soaked up and held the rain and there was a lot of rain in January 1879. Our private little ceremony was most moving. In that wonderful scenery, Denis read the portion of his book which deals with his grandfathers escape. We then all drank a toast to William Walwyn Barker and placed the wreath at the top of the ravine. The picture at the top of this piece is of Denis and his son Gary drinking the toast and holding the wreath and flowers. It would have been quite romantic to have cast the wreath upon the river below, but as anyone who has been there will know, the river is so much lower now than it was in 1879 and in throwing it, we might have missed!
We spent the first night of our trip at a Guesthouse near Helpmakaar and were once again joined at dinner by Roger Lane and his family and a very enjoyable evening it was.
The following morning we set off once again to Rorkes Drift where there was going to be a private wreath laying ceremony ahead of the formal celebrations and we were to meet again Roger Lane and his party. We were also to be joined by the great granddaughter of Surgeon Major Reynolds and also by four Zulu princes who were the descendants of some of the princely warriors at the battle. Unfortunately en route we had an accident which did not affect that day but did impact upon our later plans. Anyone who was there in January 2004 will remember the weather. It rained and rained and the roads were like mud tracks in places. Driving to Rorkes Drift we went into a skid and came off the road. None of us was hurt but we were very anxious about Denis. He had had major surgery to his back towards the end of 2003 and we were concerned that he was not to suffer any ill effects. After this little excitement we did arrive, a little late but without further mishap, at Rorkes Drift and met the Zulu princes.
We all, including the Zulu princes, went to the memorial and there Roger Lane, again resplendent in his uniform laid a wreath on behalf of his great grandfather. His cousin laid one on behalf of their whole family and a wreath was laid on behalf of the Jones family. It was all so sincere and so moving that it was hard to keep back the tears.
We then returned to Fugitives Drift where we stayed at the Guesthouse. Because of the accident we all decided that we would not risk the roads to Isandlwana the following day unless the weather improved. I remember being awakened during the night by the rain as it hammered down on the roof of my little chalet. All I could think was Oh, no!
The following morning we sat on the veranda from which there are the most magnificent views of The Hill of the Sphinx. We were visited by David Rattray who wanted to talk to Denis about his book. He sympathised with our predicament about the state of the roads and after telling us how many buses, coaches and other vehicles were likely to be on the roads that day, we decided reluctantly that we could not risk the journey. The Barker family were particularly upset for me but I agreed that there was no alternative as Denis health was far more important than the visit. After all, I had been there once when there was only a handful of people on the hill and it was so quiet that it was easy to absorb the special atmosphere of the place. I dont think I would have liked it half so much when it was crowded and after what I read later about the speeches I dont think I missed all that much. I shall return to it, hopefully when once again it is peaceful. We spent the morning sitting on the terrace with the wonderful view of the hill in the distance and discussed with Nicki, who had charts and maps with her, the battle and its heroes. Later that day we drove to Ladysmith to the Boer War site of Wagon Hill but that is another story.
I returned to South Africa in January 2005 and did a tour with Nicki of the Boer War battlefields. I was able to meet Denis again. He had during the intervening year regularly sent me chapters of his book for my comments. Unfortunately the book was taking him longer than he hoped because of on - going health problems but it is now finished and being published in South Africa.
The whole experience was, for me, truly magical. I could not believe that I was taking part in such wonderful experiences with descendants of the soldiers who were at the battles both Denis, my host, and Roger Lane who are rightly so proud of their ancestry.