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Jo'Burg Days: Two Dedicated Men

Barbara Durlacher pays tribute to two outstanding South Africans.

For more of Barbara’s words please click on Jo’burg Days in the menu on this page.

Most countries throw up people woth unusual interests and talents. In the past few years South Africa has enjoyed the benefit of two exceptional men with widely divergent interests, but whose narrative skills and passion for their subjects are in some ways similar.

The first was David Rattray, the famous ‘battlefields story teller’, tragically murdered in January 2007 by a band of local thugs, and the second is Grant McIlrath, the ‘Meerkat Magic’ man.

David Rattray was known all over the world for his colourful story-telling of the battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift during which he re-created the drama and tragedy of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. In this year, the British Army suffered it’s first defeat on foreign soil since the Crimea, when a small force of red-coated British soldiers under the overall command of Lord Chelmsford were killed. Rattray’s wonderfully dramatic version told the story from the Zulu’s side, using authentic anecdotes handed down from the grandfathers of men now working in the area as farmhands and goatherds.

For years, Rattray had been giving his talks to fascinated groups of tourists as they inspected the battlegrounds and listened absorbed to his words, sitting in the very place where the action took place. Telling a narrative of excitement and valour he vividly recreated the battles from tales told to him by the descendents of the Zulus who participated. He told of the British soldiers’ courage as they attempted to save the Queen's Colour of their Battalion. How they defended themselves against overwhelming odds at Isandhlwana, and how the following day the 139 remnants of the battalion defeated an enraged mob of 5000 Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift.

Queen Victoria recognised their bravery by placing a wreath of immortelles on the staff of the Colour. Had it been possible in those days to posthumously award the Victoria Cross, both these brave officers would have been recipients. This omission was later rectified by her son, Edward VII. The crosses were sent to their next-of-kin in February, 1907. Remarkably, despite its tattered condition, the Colour remained in service and was carried across the Rhine in 1918. It was finally laid up in the Regimental Chapel of Brecon Cathedral, Wales in 1933, after sixty-seven years service.

David Rattray’s imaginative and dramatic story-telling was so vivid and mesmerising, that he was known to have reduced hardened members of the military to tears with his account. He addressed the Royal Geographic Society on over 20 occasions; was made a fellow in 1998, and awarded the Ness medal by the Society in 1999 for his work in raising funds for the rural school in his area.

Friend of the Prince of Wales, who, with the two young princes, stayed at his Fugitives Drift lodge after the death of Princess Diana, Rattray was subsequently invited to stay at Balmoral as a personal guest of Prince Charles. In 2002 he attended the private funeral of the Queen Mother at the Prince’s invitation, and the following year, again at the Prince’s invitation, he delivered the inaugural lecture in the Laurens van der Post memorial series at St James’s Palace. Subsequently, the Prince sent his personal representative to his funeral in January 2007, together with messages of sympathy and condolence to the grieving family.

His influence on South African tourism was of inestimable benefit and his loss is deeply felt by all who knew him.

Different, but sharing the same passion for his subject, Grant McIlwrath is also making a name in South African tourism with his “Meercat Magic: Shy Five” tours, during which he takes selected small parties of visitors into the wilds of the Little Karroo in the South Eastern Cape Province. Here, comfortably seated on garden chairs amongst the vegetation and silence of these beautiful open spaces, the visitors are introduced to the equally important, but virtually unknown animals of the area whom he has christened the “Shy Five”. Some of the more important members of the “Shy Five” are a tribe of the Meercats [Suricates] the only totally wild group of these animals habituated to humans, yet still living and reacting normally in their environment to natural forces.

Over a period of days, Garth McIlwrath takes his visitors to various locations in the area where he gives them the opportunity to view at a distance these shy and gentle creatures, explaining their life patterns and emphasising how important it not to disturb their environment and habitat by overgrazing and hunting. He explains the influence on the ecology of the Meercats, the Aardvark, the Bat Eared Fox, the Porcupine and the Aardwolf, saying they are as vital to the ‘chain of life’ and as important in their own way as the better known “Big Five” at the top of every visitor’s “wish list” in every game park in Southern Africa.

His efforts have created a different type of tourism awareness, and the local farmers now work actively in preserving the habitat of these small animals which were previously endangered and regarded as vermin.

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