Interview: Nicky Rattray

It is six months since the murder of David Rattray at Fugitives’ Drift, his lodge in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. David was an extraordinary man, and one of South Africa’s greatest ambassadors. His spell-binding stories of the Anglo-Zulu wars, recounted on his battlefield tours, and for the Royal Geographical Society, the Army Benevolent Fund, charities and international institutions, convinced people all over the world to believe in South Africa’s future. David’s widow, Nicky, is adamant that Fugitives’ Drift should carry on. ‘If his murder meant our giving up, it would be a double tragedy all his achievements would have been in vain.’ By unravelling the pathos and detail of the history of South Africa’s conflicts from the standpoint of all sides Zulu, British, Boer he made understanding the key. ‘His passion was reconciliation.’

Nicky’s life has revolved around her husband. Now 44, they met when she was 17 and married when she was only 20. Immensely practical, with South African grit and a flair for hand-ling people, she managed the lodge, the tours and David himself with skill and equanimity. When threatened by the gunman, David pushed Nicky aside and charged their assailant: ‘He saved my life.’ It says much for Nicky’s composure and her own moral passion that she successfully argued would-be Zulu avengers out of their intention to burn the villages of his attackers.

David’s work fostered inter-national respect for South Africa and self-respect in Zulu land. The lodge was bringing 3,000 visitors a year to that area, and it is not about to alter. ‘We expected numbers to fall after David’s death, and many people were concerned they would be intruding. But from hundreds of reservations, we’ve had only one cancellation. That’s the British for you.’

Rob Caskie conducted tours with David for six years. ‘He tells the same stories, but in his own powerful style. Joseph Ndima became our second tour guide in 2005 after sailing through the government funded Heritage Programme David ran. Our third lecturer, George Irwin, graduated in history from St Andrews last year, and worked here every holiday. He came out for the funeral and stayed on.’

David had just completed his first book when he died. In A Soldier-Artist in Zululand, he set Lt Whitelocke Lloyd’s recently discovered paintings of the war of 1879 to his own inimitable narrative. ‘He worked on it for five years, and I typed every word. But he never saw a final copy only the proofs. ‘The day the books arrived, six weeks after his death, was desperately sad. But we have been supported by so many friends, letters and messages.’ Thousands attended his funeral and his memorial service at Southwark Cathedral, including The Prince of Wales, who was a close friend and contributed the foreword to the book.

The field guide for the game reserve, Mpiwa Ntanzi, graduated from the same course as Joseph. Fugitive’s Drift has 5,000 acres running down to the Buffalo River, and is a reserve for giraffes, zebra, six species of antelope and 275 species of birds. ‘David put so much into all this. Most of the land had been in his family, and he started building the lodge in 1989. It has been my home for 18 years, and that of our children?Andrew, 22, Douglas, 17, and Peter, 15. I cannot think of living anywhere else, nor would I want to.

‘We also have a responsibility to the local people. We employ 50 Zulus, each of whom has a dependent extended family of five to 10.’ In addition, the Rattrays founded two educational trusts supporting the schools for some 4,000 children around Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana, which will now be amalgamated. ‘These children are South Africa’s future. They are part of David’s legacy.

‘You can never know how strong you will be in adversity. But I have no choice.’ Nicky’s courage is indomitable. David would be immensely proud.

Fugitives’ Drift Lodge (00 27 34 6421842;