Joe discovers the history, wildlife & beaches of KwaZulu-Natal

It had been a few years since my last visit to South Africa – a trip which took me north of Johannesburg with my father tagging along to assist with driving (and bag-carrying of course!).

This time, he joined me again as we embarked on a 2,220km (1,380 mile) road trip around KwaZulu-Natal in the south-west of the country incorporating battlefields, mountains, big game and wild oceans – such variety.

We flew with British Airways overnight from London to Johannesburg landing in the morning and collecting our hire car. It is possible to fly into Durban too, although not direct from London. Departing from Johannesburg we travelled south on the N3 highway, a toll road which would put UK roads to shame – no litter and no potholes! Once we left the tarmac, this did change but dodging potholes is all part of the adventure. A five and a half hour drive led us to the historic battlefields of the Anglo-Zulu War.

Rather ashamedly, my knowledge of these wars is limited to Michael Caine’s performance in the film Zulu where the British troops fought off 4,500 brave Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift. I wasn’t aware of the history of the battle of Isandlwana, but this was to change as our full day in the area included two tours with the fantastic guides from Fugitives’ Drift Lodge. We began with Isandlwana which was around 30 minutes’ drive from the lodge, listening to a recording of the history told so eloquently by the late David Rattray en route. Our guide Mphiwa was Zulu and his grandfather and great grandfather both fought in the battle. Historical tours can sometimes be a little stale and uninspiring, but Mphiwa’s passion and vivid description brought the day of 22nd January 1879 to life, with a balanced account of both sides. Around 1,500 British soldiers had invaded Zululand and came to face the wrath of 40,000 Zulu warriors – it was a heavy loss for Britain. The tour was both sobering, terrifying and fascinating.

Later in the day, we visited Rorke’s Drift – a more famous battle. Again, our guide Bryan was wonderfully passionate as he recalled the battle which also took place on the 22nd January after Isandlwana. This time just 150 British soldiers (and compatriots) defended their position at Rorke’s Drift against the odds, fending off 4,500 Zulu warriors.

The following day we drove west to Spionkop, which is arguably the most well-known battle of the Anglo-Boer War of the early 1900s. Again, we enjoyed a tour but in rather bleak conditions, which ironically matched what the troops encountered on the day of the battle.

One of the great things about the battlefield tours is that they cater for both avid historians and naive ones alike. Our guides added perspective by giving insightful detail about the history of each area and the political backgrounds that led to the battles – we found all the tours fascinating.

From the battlefields, we continued south-west into the Drakensberg Mountains. There are a number of highlights and areas to focus on in the mountains, all of which have stunning views. The mountains are carpeted in green velvet grass, which gives them an incredibly beautiful appearance. At times the landscape felt akin to the highlands of Scotland or the Lake District and, like these areas, the hiking is wonderful while there are also opportunities to trout fish, play golf, horse ride or simply relax. There are a number of resort style properties which offer a great base, but also a few smarter options and gourmet retreats which work well as a combination.

From the mountains, we headed east towards the coast. The provincial capital of KZN is Durban, which is located on the southern coast. Rather than staying in the city itself we recommend staying north of the city in the suburbs of either Umhlanga Rocks or Ballito – they are close to the airport and quieter than the city itself. There is a range of accommodation, from comfortable guesthouses to upmarket hotels. In most cases, Durban (and surrounds) is used as an overnight for logistics pre or post flight.

From Durban we continued on our way, driving north-east along the coastal N2 highway which actually follows the entire cape of South Africa from the west coast in Cape Town to the eastern coast of KZN. Driving north along the N2 you pass mile after mile of eucalyptus plantations through Richards Bay and towards the towns of Hluhluwe and Mkuze. This area of KwaZulu-Natal is home to numerous private game reserves and offers great opportunities to add a safari into a KZN itinerary. We spent three nights in this area, visiting five private reserves. As with other areas of South Africa, a lot of these reserves are former farmlands which have been repurposed for conservation, reintegrating wildlife onto the land and returning the flora to its original state. The reserves in the area differ with regards to size and then of course in terms of species, with some being home to the ‘big five’. From a wildlife viewing point of view, these areas don’t compete with the game rich private reserves of the Kruger, but the sightings you do have are excellent and the fact that there are few vehicles means the experience is wonderfully exclusive.

A highlight was learning about the conservation work that is happening in this pocket of KwaZulu-Natal. Reserves such as Manyoni and &Beyond Phinda are privately managed and therefore can prioritise wildlife conservation projects focusing on particular species of flora and fauna. Manyoni in particular comprises 17 former farms which dropped their fences in 2004. Since then the reserve has become a WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project as well as having dedicated programmes for pangolin rehabilitation, cheetah and other endangered animals.

Following our time on safari, we continued to the coast. The coast of KZN is long, varied and in some areas very beautiful; but also very wild. The beaches are long and largely empty, so great to walk along and take in the coastal air. This area of the coast isn’t home to gently lapping waves and instead a little rougher. However, it is also home to a number of superb dive sites with snorkelling opportunities too. We spent the night at Thonga Beach Lodge which is reached by a 90 minute transfer through rough coastal roads and sand dunes. Having visited Mauritius earlier in the year, it was great to experience such a contrast. The beaches were equally as picturesque, but much less touristic. Activities in this area revolve around the Indian Ocean as you would expect, either in it, on top of it or alongside it. A highlight for me during the stay was walking along the beach before breakfast and sitting high on a dune with no one else around. We sat there for a good 40 minutes or so with pair of binos watching humpback whales breaching out to sea without another person in sight – incredible! Whales can be seen from June to October (mostly humpbacks but some southern rights too).

Turtles can also be found from November through to March, during the egg laying season. Over these months activities can also involve helping with turtle monitoring and conservation. Both loggerhead and leatherback turtles are present and sometimes even lay directly in front of the lodge.

From Thonga, we worked our way to Richard’s Bay Airport where we connected through Johannesburg and back to London.

I really enjoyed KwaZulu-Natal and as a destination it has a lot of highlights. It feels more adventurous than the Cape and less ‘touristy’ as a result, so would naturally lend itself to a wonderful second or third self-drive holiday in South Africa. While self-driving isn’t the only way to explore the region, it’s generally the best way – but look out for the potholes!

Joe stayed at Fugitives’ Drift Lodge, Three Tree Hill, Champagne Castle, Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, Sandals Guesthouse, Amakhosi Safari Lodge, Rhino Sands, &Beyond Phinda Rock Lodge, Thonga Beach Lodge and Makakatana Bay Lodge.

Joe visited Isandlwana Lodge, Fugitives’ Drift Guesthouse, Nambiti Hills, Nambiti Plains, Spionkop Lodge, Cathedral Peak Hotel, Hartford House, Qambathi Mountain Lodge, Zimanga, Thanda Safari Lodge, Thanda Tented Camp, &Beyond Phinda Mountain Lodge, &Beyond Phinda Zuka Lodge, &Beyond Phinda Forest Lodge, Kingfisher Lodge St Lucia and Lidiko Lodge.

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