Fort Mistake is neither a fort nor a mistake

Building of Fort Mistake overlooking Newcastle Road EVO - 04 3365 - Talana Museum
Building of Fort Mistake overlooking Newcastle Road

On the western heights of the Biggarsberg, Mkupe towers above the headwaters of the Inkunzi 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 Anglo Boer War, this pass was of vital concern to the British Army, as it was their supply line between military head quarters 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 an old Zulu name meaning the fouling of the “Eagle’s Nest”. To this day the black eagles nest along its cliffs.
Other mountains with historical significance can be seen from these heights to the east. Mt. Nonni (with the signal fort built in 1881 and the Border Mounted Rifles Fort “Carolina”(built in 1901), “Lindisfarne” with its twin forts and Mt. Mpati with its memories of General “Maroela” Erasmus and the young Denys Reitz on commando in October 1899

Many is the tale told of the origin of Fort Mistake and its name

  • that the British (without proper maps) were looking for Zululand in 1879 and built the fort on the wrong road facing the Transvaal
  • it was named Fort Carey and a jealous neighbour, who did not like the Carey’s thought that a mistake
  • that the British built the fought where there was no water
  • That is was built by a prison detail of troops

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.
At Mkupe Pass he found frenzied activity. During the armistice the British were making preparation for a fresh outbreak of war, should peace negotiations break down.

Reinforcements from India, who had marched up from Durban and Colonel Sir Evelyn Wood, who recognised Mkupe as one of the strongest strategic positions in Natal, was marshalling the troops into camp and supervising the erection of a series of forts as signal stations on the line from Ladysmith to Newcastle – at Sunday’s River, at Mkupe, Dannhauser, Ngagane and at Newcastle itself. At Mkupe the fort was a building on a small knoll marked as One Tree Hill on the map.
The fort took this name and was referred to 16 years later when Major Henderson’s Intelligence report and maps for the area in 1897 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 the road.

On his trip through, Fripp had just time to make some sketches of the camp of the 80th Regt., and of the building, a neat, dry stone-walled “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 Inkunzi valley. The fort is unmistakable.

A week or two later on his return trip, Fripp briefly recorded details of a day long battle at Mkupe and did a drawing from eye-witness accounts of the “Fight at Fort Eagle’s Nest in the Biggarsberg”. It appears that the Free State Boers, who had swarmed down the neighbouring passes after Majuba, had established their laager at Leeuwkop, directly opposite Mkupe. The British, sensing a threat, had hastily mounted heavy guns on the buttress of Mkupe facing Leeuwkop and in a day had put up a stone redoubt commanding the transport road and a large wooden stockade above it on the flat heights of Mkupe. Again the drawing was exact and the position recognisable.

The “Mistake” indeed may be the responsibility of an unknown cartographer. Up to 1910 “One Tree Hill” is always shown to the east of the road and Mkupe Mt. written large to the west. The road has not changed position. But after 1910 the name Mkupe slipped off the map and “One Tree Hill” took its place.
In 1924 when an expedition from Witwatersrand University came to marvel at the remarkable and unique fort and to ask 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 quaint coincidence of history that the Mkupe position in 1881 was commanded by Colonel Redvers Buller V.C. He sat shivering in his tent, describing the snow-shrouded valley of May 1881 as the “coldest in a life time” of soldiering.

The British army continued after the conclusion of peace in 1881, to hold this important position.
The position was re-occupied after the relief of Ladysmith in 1900 when the retreating Boers fortified the Biggarsberg.

Where is Fort Mistake?

Fort Mistake is on the N11 between Ladysmith and Newcastle.
Fort Mistake Country Lodge is on the opposite side of the road.

Should you wish to climb up to the signalling post check with the receptionist at the lodge before proceeding onto private property.

Recommended further reading

The battle of Majuba Hill – O. Ransford