Rattray’s vision still thriving

2008-01-26 00:00

Nicky Rattray is an extremely resilient woman who seems eager to subvert prophecies of doom and prove sceptics wrong.

Despite having been thrust into international media limelight, following the murder of her beloved husband David a year ago today (Saturday January 26), Nicky is still reticent when it comes to media interviews.

She made no bones about the fact that her interview this week with Weekend Witness at Fugitives’ Drift Lodge would be quickly dealt with before the kindly proffered lunch with her and her guests, and openly voiced her loathing of such attention. She balked at posing for a photograph, but submitted with nervous grace, smiling shyly into the lens.

As she stood beside the image of her late husband, it was clear that there have been effects on Nicky after the night of January 26 last year. She has lost weight, but looks incredibly attractive. She munches her way through glasses of ice cubes, a habit formed after the shock of David’s death when her mouth was so dry, and not being able to face food or drink, she was given ice to suck.

But later, despite her initial protests at being interviewed, when seated under the shady trees at the lodge, she appeared to relax and spoke like she had been engaging with the media her whole life.

Nicky’s seemingly tough exterior belies the level of compassion she evinces when it comes to the beneficiaries of the David Rattray Foundation, founded in memory of her husband to help assist impoverished community members. Her passion for the work of the Foundation gets her talking fluidly and she relates current projects enthusiastically.

Nicky is heading to the UK next week to make plans for an overseas fundraiser for the Foundation in September. Funds are badly needed for the many projects that are planned. Currently, a library is being established at a high school at Rorke’s Drift, a primary school there is being electrified and a three block classroom at another school at Isandlwana is being constructed.

Another subject that gets Nicky talking animatedly, is the acclaimed book that David completed just months before his death and which was released shortly after he died. Copies of the first print run of A Soldier-Artist in Zululand:William Whitelocke Lloyd and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 were sold out by June last year. “We are onto our second impression and it’s still selling well,” she smiles.

Nicky is clearly comfortable talking about the lodge itself too. “It’s going fine. We had no cancellations last year.”

After the death of David at the hands of robbers, prophets of doom had declared that the tourism industry in the area would collapse. Busloads of tourists would cancel their trips, they said, and the impact would resound throughout KwaZulu-Natal.

“We have picked up the pieces and carried on and bookings are still coming in at a constant pace. It’s very reassuring,” said Nicky.

British guests at the lodge when The Witness visited, appeared unperturbed by any scare mongering as they flock to Fugitives’ to absorb the history imbued in the area, and soak up the welcoming hospitality.

When asked what she thinks of labels such as “brave” which have been widely applied to her following her insistence on staying at the lodge, she says she is surprised. “It’s home. I wouldn’t think of leaving. It’s also my children’s home. Fugitives’ is my business, livelihood and a really nice place to live.”

And the beauty of the place is entrancing. Set amidst rolling hills, the landscape is exquisitely African. Fugitives’ Drift nestles in the crook of a turn in the Buffalo River and in the words of David himself, is “not a bad commute to the office”. The Lodge itself is a haven of birdsong, peace and quiet comfort, with David’s indigenous rockery, from which the flowers which adorned his coffin were picked, a riot of colour at the end of the lush garden.

Nicky chats happily with guests between our questions and two dogs lounge around on the floor of the verandah area. She is clearly where she wants to be.

“But one also has no choice really. I have to carry on. With the Foundation there is a perpetual quest to raise money. We aim to improve nine schools ultimately, but it’s never-ending. There will always be more projects.”

Nicky said that she has not implemented stricter security measures, other than some very basic ones. “You can’t bar yourself in when running a business like this and it’s unlikely someone else will come here with similar bad intentions.”

The Lodge boasts eight rooms, with six more in the guest house just up the road. When asked how her children are doing, Nicky beams. “They are doing fine.” Two of her sons are at school at Michaelhouse, while her eldest is at university in Pietermaritzburg. She has planned a family trip to Peru for June and clearly, life for the Rattray children will go on.

With David having been a friend of Prince Charles, we asked if she had heard from the heir to the throne. She smiles, and an impression is formed that she does not want to give too much away. “Yes, we hear from him. I got a Christmas card.”

Nicky is then keen for us to speak to Rob Caskie, (perhaps a ploy to escape more questions?!).

Caskie is the tour guide who has the unenviable task of trying to fill David’s shoes. He has been at Fugitives’ for almost seven years and speaks with shining admiration for David.

We ask Caskie what the effect of David’s murder has been on the community in which Fugitives’ is situated? “We have had the support and empathy of the entire community. It’s been fantastic. The community themselves were responsible for the arrest of the culprits. But there is a quiet anxiety among them, which largely remains unsaid, about the continued existence of the business here and consequently the jobs which are provided for them. Another aspect is that what David did for the community may be lost.”

He said that there was a reticence amongst the community to talk about the crime. “They have been ashamed that Zulu people could do this to someone who was their champion.”

But Caskie insists that he and David had discussed his death, in terms of the fact that David travelled so widely, and David had been adamant that his work in the area among the local population, needed to endure. “He said there was a magic here which had to continue. Last year was a dramatically tragic year. But with the new year has come a sense of buoyancy and optimism. Our message is reconciliation and compassion.”

Come this Saturday, neither Nicky and her family nor Caskie will be at Fugitives’. “We’re all going away. We can’t face being here. We’ve been expectantly awaiting the first anniversary of David’s death, but as hard as it will be, after January 26th there will be more of that sense of looking forward.” But locally, guides registered with the Battlefields Guides Association will be laying a wreath in memory of David at Rorke’s Drift today (Saturday).

Nicky Rattray has faced the world with courage and has devoted herself to the work of the David Rattray Foundation which is an honourable cause and a very noble way to pay tribute to her iconic husband’s memory. She is forging ahead with the Lodge and is immersed in raising her boys. She is piecing her life back together and whilst doing so, has emerged as a strong woman and a survivor, refusing to entertain any thoughts of failure in any aspect of her life.

A lasting impression that was formed was that David must be really proud.

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