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The hills are alive with history

Talana Museum in Dundee

By Garth Johnstone

As a bit of a history nerd, the Talana Museum in Dundee has been on my bucket list for some time.

Its reputation for authenticity and the extent of its displays has made it a must-see for anyone interested in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

It is, it must be said, just one of many interesting museums in the province, among them the KwaZulu-Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg, the Himeville Fort and Museum, and Fort Nottingham Museum, but is rated by many as possibly the best country museum in South Africa.

When cabin fever struck recently and it was time to get away for a few days, the perfect opportunity presented itself to get to Dundee and see if the museum was all it was made out to be.

Battlefields missions

We decided to build in a few more battlefields missions into the expedition to make the trip more worthwhile.

The route was: Nottingham Road-Colenso-Ladysmith-Dundee. We camped at a camp site in the middle of Dundee itself which was noisy but very pleasant. The Kwa-Rie Caravan Park has everything you need, but if you’re a light sleeper the fondness for drag racing in the town might be a bit of an irritation. It didn’t bother us though and we enjoyed our spot next to one of two small lakes in the park (which used to function as a quarry).

Paying respects to the indentured Indian labourers who worked on KZN’s coal mines. The museum has records of the names of individuals, where they hailed from and on which vessels they arrived in South Africa.

Back to the history. The morning after we arrived in Dundee we set off for the Talana Museum, and we weren’t disappointed. It’s more like a history complex than a museum, with many buildings housing exhibits covering the Anglo-Boer War (or South African War, as some call it); an excellent section on the history of coal mining in the area; a thought-provoking commemoration of the Satyagraha campaign in South Africa (Mahatma Gandhi had strong links to the town); The Great War exhibits (1914-18); a glass museum (glass making was at one stage a big industry in the town); a bead gallery; the original 19th Century cottage of the Smiths, some of the founders of Dundee; collections of transport memorabilia, agricultural implements, ox wagons, trains and much more.

In the building with exhibitions/records marking The Great War and the role played by South Africans.

You could easily spend more than a day if you wanted to slowly go through all the exhibits, read all the notes and soak up the atmosphere.

According to its website, the Zulu name “Talana” means “the shelf where precious items are stored”. Quite appropriate, I would say.

We rounded off our stay of a few hours with a coffee at the aptly named Miner’s Rest coffee shop and restaurant.

Blood River

The next day we drove about 45km from Dundee to Blood River.

Not knowing exactly what to expect, it took us a while to get used to the set-up. On one side of the Buffalo River is the monument to “Die Gelofte”, or the vow made by the Boers after their one-sided victory over the Zulus. There is a building housing historical pieces, a restaurant and shop and visitors, after paying the entry fee (R110 for two people), are shown a DVD with a historical perspective of the battle.

Monument to “Die Gelofte” at Blood River.

Then one crosses a bridge to the Ncome Museum and monument on the other side of the river which tell the Zulu side of the story (if you’ve paid on the Gelofte side, then there’s no charge at Ncome). I thought the idea of a reconciliation bridge, linking the two sides was a great innovation.

The bridge linking the two sides in reconciliation. I’d like to think the design pays tribute to the shape of ox wagons and the trademark attack formation made famous by King Shaka – the horns of the buffalo.

We were welcomed by our genial guide who took trouble to wait while we went through the exhibit, answering any questions we had. It was fitting that we now had a different perspective and both sides of the story. Exhibits on beadwork, clothing and weapons caught the eye.

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The Blood River battle site is an eerie place. On a broad plain with hills and koppies in the distance, it has a silence quite unlike any other I have experienced. It all feels a little other-worldly. As you stand within the laager of ox wagons, it’s hard to believe that thousands of people gave up their lives in this desolate place.

After packing up on the Monday morning we drove home via two stops at the small site commemorating the battle of Elandslaagte, near Ladysmith, and the site of the capture of the guns in Colenso.

A small cemetery and monument to those who fell at Elandslaagte is found close to Ladysmith, adjacent to one of the entry points to Nambiti Reserve.


Again, the Elandslaagte grave site, which pays respects to some of those who lost their lives there, is an eerie place. One is left with feelings of great respect for the dead, but can’t help but register the utter futility of their sacrifice, so far from home in a fairly inconsequential battle.

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The gun site in Colenso was a let-down. We followed a sign along a corrugated road, across a bridge and on to dirt, only to find some neglected stones and no signage or indication that you had arrived anywhere of significance. This was not a highlight and I would recommend battlefield enthusiasts try some of the other sites in the Colenso-Ladysmith area.

Driving home from Colenso we nipped in to the Aloes shop to buy some venison for the pot and were left reflecting on war, soldiers, warriors and the many great stories to be told in the hills and veld of Northern KZN.


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