I visited KwaZulu Natal a few years ago with Rob on a whirlwind and I mean a whirlwind trip! A couple of areas that really stuck with me are the Zululand Battlefields and remote beaches of the northern Maputaland coast. I will never forget my hesitance of a two and a half hour tour of the battle of Rorkes Drift, I won’t lie, my knowledge on this history was minimal and I was a little nervous on how I would show an interest for two and a half hours? How wrong I was, I was completely captivated by the whole experience, the story was incredible and delivered with such passion and charisma, it brought me to tears – an experience I would never forget.
This year I decided it was time to return to KwaZulu Natal and together with Fran spent 12 days self-driving ourselves around this diverse province of South Africa. We travelled over 2500kms through some stunning scenery, met some interesting and passionate people, and enjoyed some delicious food. Driving in this area is a bit more adventurous than the Western Cape, we had to keep our wits about us as we dodged many a cow, goat and pothole! As one would expect, the weather was changeable whilst in the mountains and we had torrential rain and thick fog, throw in the odd chaotic rural town in-between and it is certainly a wonderful African self-drive adventure.
On arriving into OR Tambo Airport, Johannesburg, we collected our VW Polo hire car and travelled 4 hours south-east towards the northern Drakensberg mountains. We spent a night at Three Tree Hill Lodge, an owner run property with a lovely setting overlooking the infamous battlefield of Spioenkop. We enjoyed a fascinating tour of Spioenkop, the scene of one of the bloodiest and perhaps, most futile battles fought during the South African War of 1899-1902. The theatre of war, was to bring together three significant and influential characters from the chapters of modern history, namely, Winston Churchill, a 23 year old war correspondent, Louis Botha who was to become the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa in 1910, and a London qualified lawyer Mahatma Gandhi, who was a stretcher bearer with the volunteer Ambulance core. One end of the Anfield Football Stadium in Liverpool, is known as the ‘KOP’, in honour of the Liverpool soldiers who fought and lost their lives during the battle of Spioenkop.
We then travelled south and explored the Drakensberg Mountains, the scenery is beautiful and reminded us both of the Scottish Highlands! We enjoyed the highlights of the area including ‘the end of the road’ Cathedral Peak Mountains, Champagne Castle and Giants Castle and spent the night at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse at the foothills of the mountains, renowned for its incredible food. Rob and I stayed here over 10 years ago and I was intrigued to see the changes, I remember the food being very indulgent and there was port, perhaps a bit too much port…. This gourmet retreat once again lived up to expectations and we enjoyed a seven course mouth-watering experience of incredible flavours – a real foody heaven.
Leaving the mountains behind we travelled north-east to the Zululand battlefields where we spent a night at Fugitives Drift. I did not miss the opportunity to take part in the Rorkes Drift tour and it once again had the hairs on my neck raise especially as you are taken room by room through the hospital and hear the harrowing tale of what these brave men endured. Eleven Victorian Crosses were awarded at this battle – the highest number of any single battle. The following morning we thoroughly enjoyed a tour of the battle of Isandlwana, a catastrophe for the British, and the story of which was portrayed to us by the grandchild of one of the brave Zulu’s that fought in this battle. Standing on what was the British camp site looking out across the open plain and picturing the tens of thousands of Zulu’s covering the hills is quite a surreal experience.
Leaving the battlefields and mountains behind us, we travelled further north-east towards the pristine shores of the far north Maputaland Coast which forms part of the 332 000 hectare iSimangaliso Wetland Park. A truly remote and wilderness area of rugged, but natural beauty and unspoilt beaches. This is not your typical ‘beach’ experience of idyllic turquoise water, the ocean is wild and pretty impressive as the waves crash against the endless golden sand. Aside from enjoying long walks on empty beaches, there are many activities to be enjoyed including snorkelling in natural rock pools at low tide, incredible diving at some of the best dive sites in South Africa, excellent birdlife in both the forest at Lake Sibaya, Southern Africa’s largest freshwater lake. From November through to February, loggerhead and leatherback turtles can be seen laying their eggs on the beach at night. If you are looking for an off the beaten track beach experience with few people, stunning ocean views, gorgeous golden beaches to explore and for the avid diver, numerous dive sites to explore – it is definitely worth including this area for a few nights.
At this point of the trip, Fran and I were certainly enjoying the variety of what we had seen and done, but we were both desperately craving animals and being in the bush! KwaZulu Natal is also home to several private game reserves which offers a great safari experience for couples and families alike. Although these reserves will not offer as an authentic bush experience as perhaps the private game reserves bordering the Kruger, they will deliver great wildlife opportunities for your safari ‘fix’ whilst exploring this region of South Africa. We enjoyed a few game-drives whilst visiting the various reserves and were treated to lion, cheetah, wild dog, elephants, buffalo, giraffe, zebra and kudu to name a few. For the keen photographer, I spent at night at Zimanga Private Game Reserve which offers an excellent selection of photographic hides offering the opportunity to get that perfect shot! The two stand out hides to me were the Lagoon hide, which takes you eye level with the shallow waters of the lagoon, a paradise for water birds and excellent for birdlife photography. The Umgodi overnight hide is built into a waterhole with excellent eye level view, you spend the night and have the opportunity to take excellent dusk and evening ‘shots’ of animals coming to the waterhole to drink, a must for the avid photographer to get some close up snaps!
Before we headed back to the coast for our final night, we visited the St Lucia wetlands at the southern end of iSimangaliso National Park. This is not a big game area, but offers some incredible diversity of habitat from coastal beaches and sand dunes, wetlands, bushveld, coastal forests and mangrove swamps. Unfortunately, this area has been plagued with drought and thus water levels are very low, but we enjoyed some fantastic birdlife and lovely sightings of kudu, zebra and giraffe. As well as nature drives, you can enjoy a boat cruise on the Lake St Lucia channel which is excellent for hippo. To show case the diversity of this area, you can enjoy a full day trip which includes a morning nature drive followed by lunch on a remote beach!
Our final night was spent in Umhlanga Rocks, north of Durban, at the excellent Oyster Box Hotel. We were both looking forward to our stay here and it did not disappoint, a superb hotel with slick service, good food and wonderful vibe. Umhlanga Rocks has a lovely feel, relaxed with lovely walking opportunities along the promenade or beach, nice selection of restaurant and bars.
KwaZulu Natal is an excellent self-drive destination with lovely scenery and wonderful ‘rural’ Africa feel. If you are looking for great variety in terms of landscapes and activities it will certainly not disappoint.
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.