Pamela Wade visits the site of a classic movie and learns its tragic true story.

"On this one day there were 14 Victoria Crosses awarded, including the first two posthumous VCs in history: that's over 1 per cent of all VCs ever earned, won in a single day in this insignificant little campaign fought next to a remote and almost irrelevant little British colony. You couldn't script this story."

But, of course, someone did. That's why we're all here, the Welsh contingent, the Poms, the American, and two Kiwis, sitting in a small stone church deep in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province, listening to an imposing man with a cut-glass Eton accent.

Though Andrew Rattray didn't go to Eton: born and bred here, the first words he spoke were Zulu, and his family's specialty is giving equal weight to both sides when telling the story of the battle that took place on this spot on January 22, 1879, after the British army invaded Zululand.

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Two battles, in fact: the first at nearby Isandlwana was arguably Britain's most ignominious defeat, and the second, here at Rorke's Drift, perhaps its most glorious victory and certainly one of its most famous, when one company of the Wales-based 24th Regiment of Foot fought off 4000 Zulu warriors.

No one who has spent a Christmas in Britain can have missed seeing the 1964 movie Zulu. Watching it on TV has become as essential a part of Christmas tradition there as mince pies and pantomime.

There is always amusement at the end of the opening credits, at the small-print caption "and introducing Michael Caine"; but it's a stirring, absorbing watch.

Nearly all of the visitors to the Rattrays' lodge, Fugitives' Drift, come here because of that movie, and standing on the actual site of the battles to hear the stories told in detail is, especially for the Welsh, an emotional experience. It helps that the guides, the Rattray brothers and others, are passionate about the events, and consummate story-tellers.

Having filled in the background as we sit in what was the commissary store during the battle, Andrew leads us out to stand in front of the reconstructed building that was the garrison's hospital. He points to where the hastily-erected walls of mealie bags and biscuit boxes stood.

Michael Caine in the film, 'Zulu'. Photo / Getty Images
Michael Caine in the film, 'Zulu'. Photo / Getty Images

"This defensive arrangement was designed for a total strength of 450 men but 311 have just deserted. All that's left here now are 139 men: but 35 are sick, 28 seriously, 16 cannot even move. There are only 100 fighting men to take on a force of 4000 Zulus."

We look up at the nearby hill, behind which he describes the Zulus standing, beating their shields with their assegais before the attack.

The scale is astonishingly small, the main action taking place in an area the size of two tennis courts. "Adams, Chick and Scanlon are killed right where you're standing now," he tells us, before leading us around the outside of the building, recounting the events in colourful, often horrifying, detail.

It's as much a performance as a narration, the bare facts given life by names, personal background and informed opinion, and we the audience are frequently brought to tears.

Though the movie is given its due, mistakes are corrected, most notably its portrayal of Private Hook: "People see this man as a drunk and a malingerer turned good, but he was a good man, right from the start."

It's Hook's vivid account of the battle that Andrew draws on for much of the detail he shares with us as we circle the building, following the action that made Rorke's Drift so famous. Courage, self-sacrifice, desperation, fear and even cowardice feature, along with respect for the enemy: "Fine, disciplined warriors, these are brave men, there's no-one braver than a Zulu."

Martini-Henry rifle barrels glow red-hot, cartridges jam, the hospital burns, Zulu bodies pile up eight deep beyond the biscuit box barrier, men fight on despite dislocated shoulders, gaping wounds, exhaustion… and finally, after 12 hours and 20,000 rounds of ammunition, the battle is over. Just 17 soldiers lie dead, and possibly 1000 Zulus; dawn is breaking, the Zulus sing their battlefield retreat, and finally reinforcements arrive, the two armies passing each other with not a shot fired.

It's a terrific story, and Andrew has told it brilliantly. On its own, it would be entirely worth the journey here: but there's more.

After an excellent dinner, entertaining conversation and a night in the comfort of the lodge, Mphiwa Ntauzi takes us out to see what happened in the morning of that same fateful day. On a wide, rolling plain surrounding the strange, Sphinx-shaped mountain called Isandlwana, hubris, inexperience and mismanagement led to one of the British Army's greatest defeats.

The former hospital and storehouse at Rorke's Drift are now a museum and church. Photo / Getty Images
The former hospital and storehouse at Rorke's Drift are now a museum and church. Photo / Getty Images

The dry brown grass is dotted with white-painted conical stone cairns marking where 1329 young soldiers are buried, after 2500 troops were overwhelmed by the co-ordinated attack of 25,000 Zulus: "a huge black wave of an ocean," says Mphiwa, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were among those warriors.

We sit in the shade of a tree, feeling the 40-degree heat of that day, picturing the tall green grass, higher than a man's head, seeing the onslaught of fit, fearsome Zulus sweeping over the unprepared British in the weird half-light of an eclipse, blood turning the earth to mud. Mphiwa lives the battle for us, speaking in an intense monotone, clicking his fingers for sound effects, mimicking the ululation of the women and boys behind the warriors, and their own low, menacing "usuthu" war cry.

It's another dramatic performance, and everyone is enthralled. The story is horrible, but fascinating, and to hear it from a descendant makes it extra special. When Mphiwa reaches the end there is silence, and more tears.

That afternoon, standing above the Buffalo River by the graves of Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill, who earned the first posthumous VCs for their gallant attempt to save the regiment's Queen's Colours, we remember Mphiwa's words. "War is a waste of life. We have to learn from history, but we don't."

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Qantas

flies from Auckland to Johannesburg, via Sydney, with return fares starting from $2618.

ACCOMMODATION
The lodge is a three-hour drive from Durban.

DETAILS
A visa is needed for all New Zealanders visiting South Africa and must be applied for in person in either Auckland or Wellington. By April, e-visas will become available.