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Frances explores KwaZulu Natal

In November, Michele and I took to the roads of the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa. We covered over 2,500kms over 11 nights and discovered the dramatic scenery, the diverse array of experiences within easy driving distance of each other and had a few adventures along the way. Our trip was split into the four different core experiences of KwaZulu Natal; the battlefields covering both the Anglo-Boer and Anglo Zulu wars, the Drakensberg Mountains, the wild coastline and the private game reserves.

For the Anglo Boer war, we stayed at the lovely Three Tree Hill Lodge. The dramatic battle of Spioenkop is brought to life, told by your guide as you sit on the very hilltop where the events took place and the landmarks and key areas of importance are pointed out to you. Standing in the actual location of the battle really brings everything to life so vividly and clearly in your mind. As well as the battlefield tours, Three Tree Hill is also lovely place to relax, enjoy the outdoors with self-guided walking trails, mountain biking, horse riding and nature drives all part of the experience.

We learnt about the Anglo Zulu war at Fugitives Drift. The passion and knowledge of the guides, which include the two sons of the late David Rattray, is a huge part of your stay at Fugitives Drift and the experience is a bit more ‘battlefield intensive’ than at Three Tree Hill. Michele stayed at the intimate and homely Guesthouse whilst I stayed at the recently renovated and rather more glamorous Lodge. We did both the Rourke’s Drift and Isandlwana tours and although admittedly my knowledge prior to our visit was neither particularly deep, nor of huge interest, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and learnt a great deal.

The Drakensberg Mountains are an amazing area for good hiking, dramatic scenery and a mountain get away. We visited the Cathedral Peak area first, staying at the original Cathedral Peak Hotel which felt like you were right in the heart of the mountains. Numerous walking trails departing from the hotel itself but unfortunately, we didn’t get the opportunity to do a full walk – we only had time for an afternoon amble down to a dam with a glass of sparkling wine after we had reconnected to Wi-Fi and heard the news of Mugabe’s fall from grace.

We continued further south to the Giant’s Castle area of the mountains where the scenery changed from dramatic peaks to impressive mountains. The rest camp at Giants Castle is ideal for those who don’t need or want luxury but just want to be independent and get out into the mountains to walk. As a contrast, we then continued on to the Kamberg region arriving at the delightfully inviting gourmet retreat of Cleopatra’s Mountain Farmhouse. As the cold mist and rain set in, the comforting crackle of the fireplace and the attentive staff made sure we had a very warm welcome. The converted farmhouse rooms were wonderfully cosy but the real highlight was the seven-course evening meal. The menu was passionately presented and carefully explained as we sipped our pre-dinner gin and tonics, which were chosen from the selection of South African craft gin on careful advice from the staff depending on our tastes, before we settled in for the culinary journey. It really was delicious and ended with coffee and a glass of port by the fireplace. The next day, they tried to suggest a five course breakfast, but our stomachs couldn’t quite handle it so soon after the night before and we opted for eggs and a scone fresh from the oven. Cleopatra really is a foodie heaven but it is decadent affair so you need to be prepared for an indulgent few days!

The coastline of Kwa-Zulu Natal was beautiful, and in parts, wild and remote. We spent two nights on the rugged northern Maputaland section where the waves were big and the beaches long and empty. The first day we arrived the weather was not on our side, but I still managed a windy walk along the beach which brought back memories of childhood holidays on the west coast of Ireland! The next day however the sun was shining, the beach beautiful and the sea sparkling. The ocean is not one of calm turquoise water inviting you in for a relaxing swim, but the scuba diving is excellent (if you’re up for braving the surf launch!), the snorkelling good from the beach at low tide, and there are exciting ‘ocean experience’ boat excursions which venture out into deeper waters for other snorkelling options or even the chance of swimming with dolphins or whale sharks. From November through to February, loggerhead and leatherback turtles can be seen laying their eggs on the beach at night, and a nature drive to nearby Lake Sibaya showcases some lovely birdlife, hippos and crocodiles, so there’s plenty of things to keep you busy here.

We also spent a night at a wholly different style of hotel, the glamourous Oyster Box in Umhlanga Rocks – the service is slick, the staff very attentive, the atmosphere vibrant and it’s certainly got a special feel to it. Umhlanga Rocks has plenty of trendy restaurants and bars to enjoy, a gorgeous stretch of beach with ‘protected’ areas suitable for swimming, and a great seafront promenade that stretches a long way, ideal for a morning or evening stroll if you can dodge all the locals out for a jog. If you don’t fancy the glitz of the Oyster Box, there are plenty of smaller guesthouses and boutique hotels to choose from in the area where the atmosphere is a little more relaxed and less formal.

Between Michele and I we visited four private game reserves and also stayed in the St Lucia wetlands of iSimangaliso National Park. The game reserves are a great option if you want to include a bit of safari in your trip and Phinda stood out with exceptional game viewing within a diverse ecosystem – from beautiful sand forests in the north to open plains in the south. On our evening drive, we spent a good amount of time with a pride of lion waking up in the evening sun – playful month old cubs and a dominant male who felt he had to show the two sub-adult males some manners and who was boss with a dramatic seeing off. We spent some time with a female leopard, following her movements through the bush while she seemed intent on preparing to hunt.

While I stayed at Phinda, Michele stayed at Zimanga Private Game Reserve which specialises in catering for photographers. We thoroughly enjoyed Thanda Safari Lodge, which offered exceptional service from friendly staff, and Amakhosi Safari Lodge which is great value for money with beautiful accommodation and a very inviting spa.

Makakatana Bay in the St Lucia wetlands offered a gentler but very productive safari with large herds of giraffe, kudu, zebra and buffalo all spotted on our evening drive. The next morning, we enjoyed a lovely boat cruise along a channel of the lake of St Lucia with big pods of hippo entertaining us. They also do full day excursions to the beach at Cape Vidal and game drives into the nearby Hluhluwe Game Reserve and Makakatana Bay offers a nice addition to a well-rounded trip.

Driving yourself around Kwa-Zulu Natal is all part of the experience. You definitely get to see a bit of rural countryside, and need to get use to dodging the occasional cow, goat, sheep or pothole in the otherwise reasonably good roads. Following the directions and the map adds to the whole adventure and satisfaction of a self-drive trip and it’s great to have your own independence and take the trip at your own pace. And you’ll meet characters along the way: the excitable dogs at Three Tree Hill, the passionate guide at Fugitives Drift whose great grandfather fought in the battle, or the impressively organised waiter at the Oyster Box all add to that famous South African hospitality which follows you wherever you go.

Kwa-Zulu Natal is a wonderful region for a varied, exciting and relatively comfortable adventure, offering the bush, beach, battlefield history and some good stomping (or eating at Cleopatra) in the mountains!

During Michele and Fran’s trip they stayed at Three Tree Hill, Cathedral Peak Hotel, Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, Fugitives Drift Lodge and Guesthouse, Rocktail Bay, Thonga Beach, Amakhosi Lodge, Phinda Mountain, Zimanga, Thanda, Makakatana Bay Lodge and The Oyster Box.

They also visited Wild Horses, Spioenkop Lodge, Isandlwana Lodge, Didima Camp, Giants Castle, Champagne Castle, Phinda Forest, Phinda Vlei, Phinda Rock, Sandals Guesthouse, The Boathouse, Lalaria Lodge and Canelands.