Like most people, my trips to South Africa have been limited to the usual suspects: Cape Town, Winelands, the Garden Route and on safari in Kruger and Madikwe. I’d never contemplated a holiday to KwaZulu Natal. I think in my mind I’d written if off as place just for history and war buffs and I’m not sure a very, very long film with Michael Caine depicting the Anglo-Zulu war did it any favours - I’ve never yet got to the end of it! But, I have to admit, on a recent visit to the area I was more than pleasantly surprised by what I found.
KwaZulu Natal - or “KZN” as it’s fondly referred to - is sandwiched between the mighty Drakensberg Mountains to the west and to the east, one of the best coastlines of all the Rainbow Nation, lapped by the warm waters of the India Ocean. Inland the green, rolling central area is reminiscent of England’s countryside whilst to the north are the beautiful waterways and forests of the St Lucia wetlands. Throw in some wonderful wildlife viewing and the intrigue of the Battlefields and you have a place which is well worth a visit.
Here are some of the highlights of my recent trip:
Durban - a coastal, cultural melting pot
The cosmopolitan city of Durban, South Africa's third largest city, is likely to be your gateway to KZN. It has a heady mix of cultures with local Zulu ladies weaving beaded products on the streets next to Indian temples, spice markets and skyscrapers. A half day city tour is enough to get a feel for the place and on mine I learnt that Durban has the largest Indian community outside India - and sampling a bunny chow (a large bread roll hollowed out and filled with curry) is a must - and that in his early twenties, Ghandi arrived in Durban and stayed there for 22 years.
I personally wouldn’t stay in Durban itself and would instead head to the seaside suburb of Umhlanga Rocks where you can look out from the balcony of your colonial style hotel over the crashing ocean and the iconic lighthouse. Here you have a pretty promenade, plenty of restaurants and shops and, if it’s your thing, some excellent golf courses. It’s a perfect place to spend a few days at the start or end of your trip.
Outdoorsy activity, rock art and spectacular scenery in the Drakensberg
So named because the rising peaks resemble the spikes of a dragon’s spine, the Drakensberg form South Africa’s highest mountain range. The area is vast and stunning with a huge biodiversity and it’s a great place for outdoor activities. Here you can rock climb, abseil, go white water rafting, enjoy gently riverside ambles or take challenging hikes that lead you to spectacular views. The area was granted UNESCO World heritage status because of its outstanding natural beauty and also the vast collection of San Bushman rock art with over 3,000 paintings to be found at 600 sites.
The Nelson Mandela Capture Site
Another fact I learnt on this trip - and maybe I should have already know it - is that on 5 August 1962, on an unassuming piece of road north of Durban, armed apartheid police flagged down a car in which Nelson Mandela was pretending to be the chauffeur and, despite being on the run for 17 months, Mandela was finally captured and proceeded to disappear from public view for the next 27 years. The site of Mandela’s arrest is now home to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site exhibition and a powerful sculpture which is quite possibly one of the best I’ve seen and definitely worth a visit. The extraordinary sculpture - by artist Marco Cianfanelli - comprises 50 steel column constructions, each between 6.5 and 9.5 metres tall, which look like nothing until you stand in the correct position on a path in front of the sculpture at a distance of 35 metres. At that spot, a portrait of Nelson Mandela, looking west, comes into focus as the 50 linear vertical units line up to create the illusion of a flat image.
Historic battles and tales of bravery
Some of the bloodiest and most important battles in African history were fought on KwaZulu Natal soil. However, being a bit of a philistine I wasn’t looking forward to sitting for hours listening to a boring history lesson about the titanic struggles between the British Army, Boer commandos and Zulu warriors. Luckily for me I had the opportunity to stay at Fugitive’s Drift, a wonderful lodge that sits serenely above Buffalo River between the battlefields of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana. Here the guides are second to none and - with the absolute passion of the Lodge’s founder, David Rattray - they reignited the fear and courage of the British soldiers as they brought the battles to life. Even I was moved by the thought provoking stories told as we proceeded round the battle sites and my spine tingled as our guide hollered the Zulu’s haunting tribal chant, knowing the brave soldiers would have heard this sound getting louder and louder as thousands upon thousands of Zulu warriors approached.
I learnt that the battle of Rorke’s Drift was one of the greatest military disasters of British colonial history, but that out of it came the most Victoria Crosses awarded in one day, with eleven handed out to the gallant men. I even taught Julian something he didn’t know about his beloved Liverpool - the “Kop” at Liverpool’s football stadium is named as a reminder to the fallen soldiers of the Lancashire Regiment at the battle of Spionkop.
Sea and safari in one
In the north of the country you’ll find KZN’s non-malaria safari region which has a cluster of excellent game reserves. I stayed at Phinda, a reserve with just 6 luxury game lodges on 23,000 hectares. Here you ae almost guaranteed sightings of most of the coveted Big Five in a few days. Not because the animals are in any way tame, but because with only a maximum of 120 guests, and guides in constant contact via radio, it makes it simpler to find the animals and as one vehicle leaves another pulls in with only two allowed at a sighting at any one time. In my 2 days on safari I spotted lion, elephant, giraffe, buffalo, cheetah, zebra, white rhino and even the more elusive black rhino.
Also Phinda, unlike many reserves, has seven distinct biospheres giving a wonderful diversity in scenery, vegetation and species. One of those biospheres is the ocean and although you feel in the middle of the African bush, you are actually only 45 minutes from the coast (or 15 minutes by light aircraft) which means it’s possible to spot the Big Five before breakfast then head to the beach for diving, snorkelling, whale watching (in season) or horse riding along the deserted white beach of Sodwana Bay - rated as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world - before a luxurious beach picnic under a shady canopy all set up by the Phinda staff. Then if that’s not enough, head back to the bush for your evening game drive and sundowners.
Should I visit?
If you’re on your second (or third or fourth) visit to South Africa and are looking for something different, you really should consider KwaZulu Natal. It’s a perfect place to do a self-drive and you can easily combine all the highlights mentioned above in a relaxed two week trip. Plus, it can easily be combined with a stay in Cape Town, which is what I did - read about that trip here.
If you’d like more information on this trip, or any other, then please do get in touch.
[Images: my own]