‘The sultry city of Durban hugs the Indian Ocean, drawing crowds to its expansive beaches and warm waters, teasing with a relaxed confidence myriad attractions and rich cultural diversity. From the jetting piers, surfers are seen beyond the break, as they wait to catch the perfect wave. Along the promenade rickshaw, driver’s charm tourists and restaurants spill happy patrons onto wide sidewalks.
Hot in climate, character and local curry, this east coast city invites you to make discoveries old and new and you’ll want enough time to take in the history, visit the spice market and enjoy a tasting at Distillery 031. Maybe even leap from the swing at the Moses Mabhida Stadium, if you’re feeling brave. But beyond the country’s third-largest metropolis lies a land to be discovered. One with emerald green hills scattered with rural settlements and a mix of game reserves stocked with wildlife, indigenous forests, commanding mountains and impressive rivers.
These are my recommended things to do in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).
1. uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park
The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, whether you go by the Zulu name uKhahlamba, meaning ‘barrier of spears’, or the Afrikaans name Drakensberg, meaning ‘dragon mountains’, is a mountain range that impresses in every way. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this is South Africa’s highest mountain range and has exceptional natural beauty in its soaring buttresses, dramatic cutbacks and golden sandstone bastions. The most scenic sights in the park carry evocative names such as Cathedral Peak, Giant’s Castle and Monk’s Cowl. Particularly renowned are the Amphitheatre and Mont-aux-Sources summit, from which spills the impressive Tugela Falls. This is a place for hiking, rock climbing, bird watching and fly-fishing, as well as searching out ancient rock art.
2. Anglo-Zulu Battlefields
The Zulu War of 1879 is famous throughout the English-speaking world for the great battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Fugitives’ Drift overlooks both these historic sites and includes the place where Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill lost their lives attempting to save the Queen’s Colour of their regiment. It is here that the Rattray family created an award-winning lodge where guides and raconteurs bring to life the events of the battles in emotionally charged tours daily to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Walks and horse rides through the reserve to view abundant game and birdlife are offered, as well as fishing in the Buffalo River. The reserve offers a choice of accommodation in either the Lodge or the Guest House.
3. Aliwal Shoal Diving
Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area off the sleepy southern KwaZulu-Natal town of Umkomaas is one of the top dive sites in South Africa and is said to be among the world’s top 10. This is where ragged-tooth sharks mass for months on end, along with dozens of other tropical and subtropical species. The reef here is an ocean anomaly and is not made out of coral. Instead, this is a piece of ancient fossilised coastline or sand dune. Adding to the diversity are the Nebo and the Produce shipwrecks, which lie in relatively shallow waters. This is an excellent diving destination. Down in the deep you encounter various kinds of corals and sponges growing on the wrecks or ancient coastline, a world of tropical fish, moray eels, the occasional sea turtle, and almost certainly a brindle bass. From the land, you’d never guess how special this undersea area is; yet thankfully divers brought it to the attention of conservationists, and it was declared a Marine Protected Area in 2004.
4. Nelson Mandela Capture Site
The Nelson Mandela Capture Site is where in 1962 police waved down a car on a lonely country road and at the wheel was Nelson Mandela posing as a chauffeur. The arrest and subsequent trials would ultimately see him spend those 27 years in prison. Today this site is marked by an impressive sculpture that through an optical illusion from a distance has the 50 steel poles of varying heights merge to form an image of Mandela’s face. Mandela’s arrest that day was not only the start of a long, dark period in the liberation struggle, but also set Mandela on the path to becoming the world’s most famous political prisoner, and ultimately the first president of a democratic South Africa. There’s a well-presented museum and always a guide on site. It’s an iconic and moving visit.
5. Ardmore Ceramics
Ardmore Ceramics is world-renowned for their international sort after surreal and exuberant sculptures that celebrate the country’s endangered species and offers a blend of animals and art in their imaginatively moulded bowls, t-pots, platters, fabrics and collections. Established by Fée Halsted and Bonnie Ntshalintsha, over the years artists have been trained and encouraged to express their spirit and imagination. Today, Ardmore Ceramics tells a story that goes far deeper than simple ceramics; rather, it has become a story about the Zulu people, whose sense of rhythm, colour, dance and song exerts its influence through art. You’ll have tea after your tour and the opportunity to take in the views across the soft rolling hills of the surrounds, as well as consider a purchase or two in the shop.
6. Anglo Boer Battlefields, Spionkop
As significant as the Zulu Wars, the Midlands area would later bear witness to the South African War between the British and Afrikaans. Stop here for a lesson in the events of the renowned Spionkop battle with raconteur Ray Herron, who expertly talks you through the history of the country and area, with emphasis on the individual soldiers, and the influence the war had on the country’s future. The Spionkop battlefield is famous for another reason too. It was here that three extraordinary men who would one-day influence the course of world history crossed each other’s paths. Louis Botha (the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa), Winston Churchill and Red Cross ambulance volunteer, Mahatma Gandhi.
7. iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site stretching for 200km from the Mozambique border to Maphelane, at the southern end of Lake St Lucia. With the Indian Ocean on one side, and a series of lakes on the other, the 328,000 hectare park protects five distinct ecosystems, offering everything from offshore reefs and beaches, to lakes, wetlands, woodlands and coastal forests. Loggerhead and leatherback turtles nest along the park’s shores, whales and dolphins occur offshore and antelopes, hippos, zebras and more, occupy the game reserve. The ocean beaches attract crowds during the holiday season for an array of water activities, from diving to fishing.
iSimangaliso means miracles and indeed, given its extraordinary beauty, it’s an appropriate title. There’s an excellent range of accommodation, from camping to private lodges, and the town of St Lucia offers a look at local living.
8. Sani Pass Pub
The Highest Pub in Africa lives up to its name at 2873m above sea level. The pub is found at the top of the Sani Pass, a steep 4×4 trail with 27 corners and a number of tight switchbacks. Only 4×4 vehicles are permitted to use the pass. Situated between KZN and Lesotho the pass was built circa 1950 and remains a challenging drive, but that is what would be expected of a pass with a summit altitude of 2876m above sea level. That equates to 9400 feet and at 10,000 feet aircraft need pressurised cabins. From there the scenery is incredible and the drink tastes extra good. Go prepared for cold weather at any time and expect snowfalls as late as October. Daily 4×4 tours are offered for visitors who do not own 4×4 vehicles.
9. Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park
The Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park is the only park under formal conservation in KZN where the big five occur. Established in 1895, this is the oldest game park in the country and is set in the heart of Zululand, where Zulu kings such as Dingiswayo and Shaka hunted and put in place the first conservation laws. Game viewing is the main attraction with guided game drives, self-drives, and viewing hides overlooking pans and waterholes allowing one to observe the animals at close range. As the home of Operation Rhino in the 1950s and 60s, the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park became world-renowned for its white rhino conservation. Other areas of focus include wilderness trails which originated in Umfolozi in the 1950s and its Game Capture unit, a benchmark for animal capture throughout Africa.
10. Shayamanzi Houseboats
Experience the first luxury Houseboats in South Africa on Lake Jozini, while soaking up the stunning scenery of the Lebombo Mountains and superb wildlife of the Pongola Game Reserve, as you enjoy the calm serenity of the open waters. Days are spent relaxing or tiger fishing and there is the option of mountain biking in the heart of the bushveld for the more adventurous. Shayamanzi is about taking time out to appreciate Africa’s special wonders and there is much to be relished with Lake Jozini bordering Pongola Game Reserve to the one side, and Swaziland to the other.
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