On the western heights of the Biggersberg, the great massif of Mkupe towers above the headwaters of the lnkuzi River and looks down on the strategic pass to which it gives its name. In 1879 and 1881 during the Anglo-Zulu War and the 1st War of Independence, this pass was of vital concern to the British Army, as it was their supply line between military HQ in Pietermaritzburg and the frontier stations of Newcastle and Dundee. It was the shortest route for any Boer invading force to strike at the communications system of the British defending forces and the quickest route to take to Ladysmith.
“Mkupe” is and old Zulu name meaning the fouling of the “Eagle’s Nest”. To this day the black eagles nest along its orange cliffs and soar across its mighty northern flanks towards Leeukop Mountain and the Chelmsford Dam. In the north the ill-fated Amajuba (Hill of Doves) etches the skyline and in the East the sweep of the Drakensberg Escarpment marks Utrecht with the hump of Uys Kop. The hill is a memorial to that famous Voortrekker family of which many died heroically in battle.
Further east is Mt Nonni with its signal fort of 1881 and the 1901 Border Mounted Rifle Fort. It also houses the twin forts “Carolina” and Lindisfarne”. Mt. Mpati with its memories of General “Maroela” Erasmus and the young Denys Reitz on Commando, close the view to the east and the disputed Buffalo frontier.
In the South cannibal-haunted Jobskop dominates and on a clear day the Twin Peaks of Spioenkop are conspicuous against the blue haze of the Drakensberg wall.
From Mkupe one can compile a catalogue of our history, for it was also here that Fort Mistake was built more than 100 years “ago. The fort is still riding the waves of history as bravely as it did then but it is a young historical relic of Mkupe’s long past. Many an apocryphal tale has been told of its origin and its quaint name. It originally was named Fort Carey but a jealous neighbour, who did not like Carey, thought that it was a mistake and that the foolish British (again and without proper maps) were looking for Zululand. In 1879 they built the fort on the wrong road facing the Transvaal and on a spot where there was no water.
The clue to the truth lies in a series of drawings and a brief report by the famous war correspondent of the “Graphic”, C E Fripp. Sometime early in March 1881, after the disastrous defeat of Majuba, he was hastening down country from Newcastle and found frenzied activity at Mkupe Pass. During the armistice the British were preparing for a fresh outbreak of war, in the event of peace negotiations breaking down. Reinforcements from India had marched up from Durban and Colonel Sir Evelyn Wood recognised Mkupe as one of the strongest strategic positions in Natal. He had marshalled the troops into camp and supervised the erection of a series of forts as signal stations on the line from Ladysmith to Newcastle, – at Sunday” River, Mkupe, Dannhauser, Ngagane and at Newcastle itself. The fort at Mkupe was built on a small knoll marked on the map as One Tree Hill. The fort took this name and 16 years later in 1897, when Major Henderson submitted his Intelligence report and maps for the area, he referred to two forts overlooking the vital road link – Fort One Tree Hill and Fort Mkupe. In 1899 Bacon’s Map of the Seat of War used the same names, marking a small circle to the west of the road and a large rectangle to the east of it.
A certain Mr Fripp was a war artist/correspondent and on his outbound trip had just enough time to make some sketches. of the camp of the 80th Regiment, fresh from their exploits in Afghanistan, and of the buildings. “A neat, dry stonewalled fort overlooking the Newcastle road”. The mountain in the background is recognisably Mkupe and the rest of the skyline is an accurate reproduction of the lnkunzi valley. Moreover, to coin a phrase, the fort is unmistakable!
A week or two later on his return trip, Fripp briefly recorded details of a daylong battle at Mkupe and did a drawing from eye-witness accounts of the fight at fort Eagle’s Nest in the Biggersberg.” It appears that the Free State Boers, who had swarmed down the neighbouring passes after Majuba, had established their laager at Leeukop, directly opposite Mkupe. The British, sensing a threat, had hastily mounted heavy guns on the buttress of Mkupe and a large wooden stockade above it on the flat heights of Mkupe. Again the drawing was accurate and the position recognisable.
The “Mistake” indeed may be the responsibility of an unknown cartographer. Up to 191 O “One Tree Hill” has always been shown to the east of the road and Mkupe’s Mt. written large and to the west. The road has not changed position, but after 191 O the name Mkupe slipped off the map and “One Tree Hill” took its place. By 1924 an expedition from Witwatersrand University came to marvel at the remarkable and unique fort. They then also asked for its declaration as a National Monument, (a request at last acceded to after 55 years), its name was firmly fixed in local minds as Fort Mistake and as such “Fort One Tree Hill” remains. It is a rueful and typically humorous reminder of the exasperation that local folk of British stock felt for the bumbling ways of the British army. They had sharp and sore memories of the humiliations of lsandlwana and Majuba and of the retreat from Talana and the siege of Ladysmith. It is a quaint coincidence of history that the Mkupe position in 1881 was commanded by the current hero of the day, Colonel Redvers Buller V C, later to be ignominiously labeled “Bungling Buller” by the men of the Biggersberg. He sat shivering in his tent, describing the snow-shrouded valley of May 11881 as the “coldest in a lifetime” of soldiering.
After the peace of 1881 the British army continued to hold this position and it was re occupied after the relief of Ladysmith when the retreating Boers fortified the Biggersberg. “Fort Mistake” stands as a gallant symbol of those rollicking, fighting days of the last century.