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Visit the ghosts of some of SA's bloodiest battles

Touring the battlefields where epic clashes took place is about experiencing South African history in some spectacular settings

16 July 2017 - 00:02 By Paul Ash

Touring South Africa's old battlefields may seem like a ghoulish pastime, but those who do it will visit some spectacular places - and see something of our turbulent history.
These three battles took place as British forces tried to break the Boer sieges of key towns:
They say if you stand on top of Magersfontein Kop on a still, dark night, you can hear the skirl of a lone piper and see the bobbing lanterns of stretcher-bearers come to fetch the wounded.
Magersfontein is one of six sites that make up the N12 Battlefields Route, where a string of short, sharp clashes in late 1899 marked the opening stages of the Anglo-Boer War as Lord Methuen's army advanced along the railway line from the Orange River.
Methuen's task was to break the siege of Kimberley, where the diamond magnates and other townspeople were running out of both food and options.
The Boer fighters, dug-in at the foot of a range of koppies near Modderrivier, waited for Metheun's Highland Brigade to come striding out of the inky darkness, then brought them down with blisteringly accurate Mauser fire.
The visitor centre has excellent pictures, maps, dioramas and artefacts, including a Krupp field gun, but the best is an audiovisual presentation in a reconstructed trench, in front of which the battle plays out in photos and the sounds of gunfire, voices and rain.
How to see it: Call Northern Cape Tourism on 053-832-2657 or e-mail info@experiencenortherncape.com.
At Spioenkop (Spy Hill), two small hills rise to a flat rump with a steep face looking down upon a river, where hundreds of British soldiers fell on a bitter night in January 1900.
To get the most out of a visit to this evocative and atmospheric site, you need a guide who knows its history and can tell a good story - none better than Raymond Heron, owner of the nearby Spionkop Lodge, who leads daily tours up the mountain.
His stories about the battle include the little ones that say so much, like the one about the grieving mother who brought a cedar tree sapling all the way from England by ship to plant on her son's grave.
More than a century later, despite having been struck by lightning numerous times, the tree still guards the soldier's grave.
How to see it: Phone 036-488-1404 or see spionkop.co.za.
It was from Molteno that General William Gatacre - "Backacher" to his men, on account of his belief in their stamina - advanced on Stormberg Junction on December 9 1899.
His 3,000 soldiers marched off into the night, planning to approach from the west and take Commandant Jan Hendrik Olivier and his 2,300 Boers by surprise at dawn.
It was a night of blunder and incompetence. From stone sangars dotting a ridge lying across the British advance, a picket line of Boers would have seen an army of tired British troops crunching towards them, blinded by the rising sun.
The British had no chance. When the first Boer volley spattered across the veld, they could not see where the fire was coming from. Their artillery responded, firing blindly and with little effect.
The advance became a rout as Gatacre's men turned and fled. Nearly 100 men were killed or wounded, and another 600 - left behind during the retreat - were taken prisoner. Some of the fleeing troops paused long enough at a farmhouse to steal livestock, or so the story goes.
How to see it: The battlefield is on private land but you can visit by prior arrangement. If you stay at Olive's Cottage in nearby Molteno (045-967-1040, e-mail jimgstretton@gmail.com), the owners can help put you in touch with him...

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