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kwaZulu-Natal: Bush, Berg and Battlefields

Cape Town may be South Africa’s vacation capital and the Kruger National Park may be the country’s flagship safari destination but seasoned international travellers who yearn to get off the well-trodden travel path are quietly finding a new destination: kwaZulu-Natal.

Lying on the east coast a mere 2-hour flight from Cape Town and a 45-minute hop from Johannesburg, kwaZulu-Natal is a small but diverse area. The coast is balmy, lushly sub-tropical and lapped by the warm Indian Ocean; the interior is defined by the craggy, jagged peaks of the snow-topped Drakensberg (literally ‘Dragon’s Mountains’ in Afrikaans), which is also known as uKhahlamba (or ‘barrier of pointed spears’) in the isiZulu language. Only about three hours’ drive separate these remarkable worlds. And, to the north, there lies another prize: the Big 5 wildlife areas of isiMangaliso Wetland Park, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Nature Reserve and Phinda Game Reserve.

With so much diversity KZN, as it’s known by South Africans, is perfect for families who love self-drive holidays, have been to South Africa a few times before and want to explore somewhere ‘new’ or groups with many different interests. 

KwaZulu Natal - walking safari
On a dawn nature walk with Simon from Three Tree Hill Lodge in Spioenkop Nature Reserve, near the Drakensberg Mountains.

The Bush - on Safari in kwaZulu-Natal

KZN’s best wilderness areas lie in the north. isiMangaliso was deemed South Africa’s first World Heritage Site and is a veritable treasure trove of natural splendour: eight ecosystems, swamp forests, Africa’s largest estuary, three lake systems, some of the world’s tallest beach dunes and 526 bird species. It’s a great place to learn more about turtle breeding and is much less visited than ever-popular Kruger.

One of our other favourite safari spots in the north is Phinda. Conceived in the early 1990s, Phinda is a true conservation success story – slowly and surely, the land has been converted back to indigenous bush from agriculture like pineapple farming, endemic species have been carefully reintroduced and a handful of extremely comfortable lodges have been built. Where fences and tractors once ruled, you now have the Big 5 and 4x4s. Each lodge has a completely different ‘feel’ based on its surroundings: Forest Lodge’s glass walls allow you to feel suspended in the thick tropical foliage, Rock Lodge’s eight rooms cling to a cliff face and Vlei Lodge’s suites look out over a popular natural pool. It’s a real treat to move lodge every few days as this allows you to explore different areas of the reserve.

KwaZulu Natal - lion at phinda
A huge male lion walks past our game drive vehicle in Phinda Game Reserve.
KwaZulu Natal - Phinda Forest Lodge
Forest Lodge is situated amongst thick tropical foliage in the heart of Phinda.

If you really want to spoil your family, consider checking into The Homestead at Phinda: a private villa that overlooks a waterhole and has its own pool, gym, media room, exclusive-use game drive vehicle and a gourmet chef.

How to get there

The easiest way is to fly into Richard’s Bay Airport, where you will be met by your driver. Alternatively, you could fly into King Shaka International Airport outside Durban (the provincial capital) and drive north but only if you are a very confident driver – the highway is a very busy transit route for loggers, farmers and coal miners. Alternatively, your personal Go2Africa safari expert will simply arrange for a driver to transport you straight from King Shaka to your accommodation.

KwaZulu Natal - the Drakensberg Amphitheatre
The Drakensberg Amphitheatre is one of the region's most popular sites.

The Berg - a Hiker's Paradise

The ‘Berg’ is the locals’ name for the Drakensberg, which forms a natural border with the small country of Lesotho. The gateway to the Berg is known as the Natal Midlands, a rural swathe famed for its pastoral quietness, extremely posh private schools and genteel, old-fashioned hospitality. The route through is accurately called the Midlands Meander – and meander is a great way of describing a pleasant road trip past fields dappled with horses, the craft breweries and pubs of Nottingham Road, and down-to-earth eateries.

An excellent overnight option – especially for foodies - is Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse. Swaddled by the protective embrace of the central Drakensberg near a soaring peak known as Giant’s Castle, Cleo’s is one of those ‘where time has stood still’ establishments. Meals are made from scratch, using dewy produce from the potager, and the owners will make sure your glass is always filled. Spend your days hiking, fly fishing or horse riding, breathing in the unblemished mountain air.

KwaZulu Natal - Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse
Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse is well known for its excellent home-grown produce and gourmet cuisine.
KwaZulu Natal - Flowers in the Midlands
Some of the beautiful flowers at Granny Mouse Country House in the kwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

How to get there

For self-drivers, the Midlands Meander is not far from Durban but many of its road are still dirt and there are many stretches without street lights, making driving at night or in the rain hazardous. Go2Africa can easily arrive professional drivers who will take care of the transfers and save you the hassle of missing the beautiful scenery because your eyes are glued to your GPS! 

KwaZulu Natal - aloes
Three Tree Hill Lodge is situated near Spioenkop Hill, an historic site in the South African War at the turn of the last century.

The Battlefields - An Historic South African Site

From the central Berg, it’s an easy drive along a major highway to KZN’s Battlefields area. If you want to extend your experience of the Drakensberg, a good option is two nights at Three Tree Hill, a laidback lodge packed with Anglo-Boer military memorabilia. Its enviable position puts you within short drives of the astonishing Amphitheatre of the northern Berg – widely thought to be one of the world’s most impressive cliff faces – and Spionkop, a pivotal battleground in the Second Anglo-Boer War when the British army were routed in January 1900. The owners of Three Tree Hill are former guides and enjoy taking guests to on dawn nature walks and mountain-bike rides in search of the surrounding giraffe and other plains game.

But it’s not only the Boers who took on the British Empire: the Zulus did, too, at Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana. Today, the clash of spear and rifle is recounted by skilled storytellers who evocative life in the 1870s when this was still very much frontier country. Fugitive’s Drift and Isibindi Zulu Lodge will provide you with comfortable beds, delicious meals based on South African staples and the magic of stepping back in history.

KwaZulu Natal - graves at Spionkop
kwaZulu-Natal's famous 'Battlefields' are dotted with graves, cairns and remembrance sites from the many clashes between Boers, Englishmen and the Zulu.
KwaZulu Natal - Isibindi Zulu Lodge
Isibindi Zulu Lodge overlooks the famous frontier country.
KwaZulu Natal - succulents at Three Tree hill
Interesting indigenous succulents at Three Tree Hill Lodge.

How to get there

Again, self-driving is possible and the N3 highway is in good repair for skilled and experienced drivers, although heavily tolled and very popular with long-haul truckers. Professional transfers will, however, allow you to arrive at your destinations relaxed and rested.

For a small region, KZN packs a punch and has good value accommodation, few crowds, incredible natural beauty and a diverse mix of cultures that make it unlike anywhere else in South Africa.

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Written and photographed by Angela Aschmann. Connect with her on Google+.

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