Mary discovers some Hidden Gems of KwaZulu Natal – March, 2013

Maputoland-beach-202Such is the diversity of South Africa that it is often described as the ‘World in One Country’, but being so vast and varied can make it difficult to fit everything into one holiday. However my recent trip to this beautiful country highlighted the fact that it is possible to combine vastly different holiday experiences within just one province – KwaZulu Natal.

Flanked to the east by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and to the west by the soaring peaks of the mighty Drakensberg Mountains, KwaZulu Natal offers something for everyone.

I flew into Durban’s King Shaka Airport, the name of which is your first reminder that you are entering the Kingdom of the Zulu. King Shaka was the great Zulu leader of the early 1800’s who brought together over a hundred chiefdoms to create the all-conquering Zulu monarchy.

Durban itself is a vibrant seaport with a mixture of eastern, western and Zulu influences reflected in its culture, but most people will perhaps avoid staying in the city in favour of the north coast resorts of Umhlanga, Ballito or Salt Rock – ideal destinations to relax for a night or two, either at the beginning or end of your trip.

Umhlanga has developed from a sleepy village into a bustling seaside town and is home to the Oyster Box, a hotel with a long heritage and which, once again, offers five star accommodation and service (and which in parts, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Savoy in London). Further north along the coast lies Salt Rock, a much quieter option with a lovely beach and plenty of smaller, often owner run, guest houses.

Maputoland-signage-202Many of the highlights of KwaZulu Natal can be found in the vast iSimangaliso (Greater St Lucia) Wetland Park, which became South Africa’ s first World Heritage Site in 1999. The park covers 332,000 hectares and contains three major lake systems, eight interlinking eco-systems and much of South Africa’s remaining swamp forests.

I stayed in one of the many bed and breakfasts in the village of St. Lucia, the only settlement in the world wholly situated within a World Heritage Site. I was advised to drive the short distance to the numerous restaurants at night, not because of security concerns, but because of the wandering hippos who leave the waterways at night to graze the manicured lawns of the villagers.

Boat cruises along the estuary are a highlight and a tremendous way to see some of the 526 recorded bird species, crocodiles and hippos, whilst a stay at the exclusive Makakatana Bay Lodge offers a more traditional safari experience with the chance to see zebra, waterbuck, giraffe, buffalo, hyaena and leopard.

As I travelled further north towards the border with Mozambique, the landscape of this beautiful park changed and it was the endless and empty pristine beaches which become the star of the show. The northern part of the KwaZulu Natal coast is the only section of the South Africa coast which is home to a reef system, and consequently offers some great diving as well as in-shore snorkelling in crystal clear waters.

Maputoland-lion-cubs-202As Nelson Mandela is reported to have said ‘ iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhino) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an eco-system with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale)’.

At various big game reserves, including the excellent Phinda Resource Reserve, I experienced first class game-viewing with wonderful sightings of cheetah, lion, rhino, elephant and much more.

And yet there is still so much more to enjoy in KwaZulu Natal. The majestic Drakensberg mountains offer stunning scenery and hiking trails to match, the famous battlefields of both the Boer and Anglo Zulu wars can be visited, and you can explore the historical towns of the Midlands Meander, now known for their arts and crafts.

Worried that you don’t have enough time to sample the variety that South Africa has to offer? Well, think again and take the chance to explore KwaZulu Natal!