Gather round the campfire, folks, because it’s story time in the Natal Midlands and we’ve been lucky enough to shanghai legendary storyteller and local history buff, Rob Caskie, into sharing a few gems with us. So, if you are keen on really meandering the Midlands, in the historic sense, then read on!
Despite a manic schedule involving jaunts to the West Coast of Africa, Ascension Island and St Helena and yearly whirlwind expeditions to far flung destination like the Arctic, we managed to pin Rob down and get him to tell us his story and how it intertwines with that of the Midlands.
A born and bred local, Rob (who grew up on a diary farm in Mooi River) confesses that he initially had no intention of becoming a storyteller. He was, in fact, at university studying Agriculture when he had his first brush with the art. He began telling tales to his varsity mates about his trips around Africa on his motorbike. The agricultural canteen was “a small space”, remembers Rob, and eventually it could no longer contain his audience - so they moved outside to the banks bordering the parking lot to hear Rob relate his adventures.
However, it was ”a chance meeting”, as Rob puts it, in 2000 with legendary Battlefields raconteur David Rattray, that led him to truly pursuing this art form. He seized the opportunity offered by Rattray to follow this calling and his life underwent a “180 degree change” which lead him to where he is today - a world renowned storyteller and guide.
Rob’s love for the region is patently evident as he lists all the reasons why he calls the Midlands one of his “favourite parts of the country”. He mentions the fair climate, the rolling green hills, the fertile valleys, good trout fishing and the ancient Drakensburg mountains. But above everything else, Rob says, it’s the people who make the Midlands special. “The Zulu have a word ‘uhlobo’, which means your sort, your kind”, he states and, the Midlands folk, he pronounces, “are the sort of people you connect to.”
So, who better to divulge the best historic places to see in the Midlands, then a famous local storyteller? It’s no secret that the KwaZulu Natal hinterlands is rich in history and culture. As the canvas upon which is painted the long, and often violent meetings of cultures, the place is awash in significant sites. But which ones get Rob ‘s nod of approval? When asked, he rattles off an astounding number of places to visit and relates several tantalising tales of the Midlands.
Rob suggests stopping at any one of the many Midlands Meander venues and asking the locals about nearby places of interest. Then embarking on your own adventure along the Midlands’ back lanes and byways, to uncover the past.
His enthusiasm cannot be contained as he tells of the history of Fort Durnford in Escourt and its intrinsic connection to the Langalibalele Rebellion of 1873. Not only will you find the original stone fort erected to safeguard the British from Zulu incursions, but it is now a museum that also houses artefacts from bygone eras - fossils, stone and iron age relics and old wagons. From Fort Durnford Museum, you can also organise a trip to the site of the Battle of Willow Grange, where the British and Boers clashed in 1899 in a pitched encounter that was beset with chaotic leadership decisions and end-of-days lightening strikes and hailstorms.
A visit to the Rensburg Koppie can also be arranged at Fort Durnford. The site that commemorates the brave actions of 20 year old Marthinus Oosthuyse, who heroically rode through Zulu lines to deliver ammunition to help save the beleaguered voortrekker families besieged on the koppie.
Rob also mentions Bushman’s River Pass, near Giant’s Castle, where the Colonial forces under Major Antony Durnford, first attempted to capture Chief Langalibalele and his uamaHlubi who were attempting to flee into Lesotho. A disastrous affair for the Natal Carbineers, who lost 5 of their men in the skirmish and ended in a rout for the government forces.
And how about all those willow trees that flourish in the Midlands? Did you know almost all of them came from cuttings taken from the willows trees growing around Napoleon’s grave on the island of St Helena? Rob relates that settlers on their journey to South Africa stopped off on the island and collected cuttings that would eventually find their way to banks and streams along the Midlands Meander.
Although more widely known for his Battlefield tours, when Rob takes guided tours of the Natal Midlands, he often visits places like the Mandela Capture Site, where 50 laser cut steel columns optically merge to reveal the face of the anti-Apartheid movement’s most recognisable figure - Madiba. He then moves on to Fort Nottingham, where a fort was erected in 1856 by the British to guard against raids by the indigenous San people. On to Curry’s Post to marvel at the faded wagon tracks where fortune seeker en route to the old Transvaal gold and diamond rushes of the 1870s and 1880s, would stop, rest up and re-provision. They look at the fascinating old gong stones - which were banged to send messages vast distances. He takes them to explore the old drifts, where settlers would ford rivers with their wagons carrying all their earthly possessions and embodying all their dreams of the future.
“Scratch just a little below the surface” is Rob’s advise, and you will be amazed at the stories the region has to tell. The Midlands, Rob states “is a plethora and playground for people who want to see a little of the less obvious”.
An even better way to explore any place is through a well-versed guide, skilled in the art of spinning dry historic facts and figures into darn good yarns. Rob says he often sees people with maps or using information boards at places of interests who only get “a very, very superficial impression of the site”. He is emphatic that a good guide can “enhance the experience exponentially”. Good storytelling “allows [people] to go back in time and imagine the incidents taking place”, leaving visitors with something to remember a site or experience.
Rob’s relating of the story of commander Brian Duncan illustrates this point. We could go and visit Howick Falls to enjoy the sight of tumultuous water cascading violently down a precipice. We could read the information boards and marvel at the fact that the falls is 95 metres high, that thousands of gallons of water tumbles over the drop. Yet, how many of us will remember much about Howick Falls by the time we hit the car park? But let Rob tell you the macabre tale of ex-commando Brian Duncan - a man who struggled to re-enter society after the horrors of World War 2 - and his Indian business partner Passing Show. Their business venture? Growing copious amounts of dagga - or “Karkloof Gold”, as it was known owing to the fact that the plant thrived in the region. In their financial dealings, Passing Show was said to have done Duncan down on a deal, leading to the ex-commando bashing him on the head with his hammer and throwing Passing Show’s body over Howick Falls. For the first time in South African history, a white man was hung for the murder of a “non-white”. According to Rob’s father (who knew the accused), Duncan was recorded as singing Song of Songs on his way to the gallows…Will you better remember Howick Falls now? You betcha.
It is through great storytelling that places truly come alive. So, if you can, get yourself a great guide. Not one, as Rob puts it, who “works mechanically and methodically”, but a true fabler.
Captivating storytelling is “like a good piece of music”, says Rob, “It has a beginning, a middle and an end.” Make the beginning engaging to draw the audience in. Keep to the spine of the story during the telling and end with a bang - because that is what you will be remembered for.
Now when you meander through the Natal Midlands, remember to visit the out of the way places that evoke our shared history... and if you can’t hire a guide, try researching beforehand and becoming your own storyteller. It’s never too late to uncover the latent storytelling talent in yourself!