Rising from its 800km of Indian Ocean coastline to the formidable 3000m-high escarpment of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is the most ecologically diverse of South Africa’s nine provinces. It also boasts a thrillingly varied array of tourist attractions in a relatively compact area: from the bustling port of Durban to the untrammelled Big Five country of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve; from the steamy subtropical wetlands of iSimangaliso to the snowy peaks that line the Lesotho border; and from Africa’s most extensive collection of prehistoric rock art to the world’s southernmost coral reefs. To set you on your way, Philip Briggs suggests 50 of the province’s top sights and activities.
FOR OUTDOOR AND ADVENTURE ACTIVITIES:
KZN is an endlessly rewarding outdoors destination. The vast web of trails through the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg embraces everything from easy two-hour rambles to week-long wilderness hikes. Elsewhere, a range of exciting adventures suited to adrenaline junkies is complemented by more sedate activities such as fishing, golfing and horseback safaris.
1. Hike up Cathedral Peak
Africa’s largest protected montane wilderness, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg extends for 200km along the Lesotho border, with several dozen peaks topping 3000m. Cathedral Peak is by no means the tallest amongst these, but it is perhaps the most striking, protruding from the main escarpment like a squat version of the cow horn alluded to in its traditional name, Mponjwane. For the reasonably fit, the summit is an attainable goal for a tough day hike – ideally with an early start and a local guide.
2. Soar above spectacular Oribi Gorge
Among the most underrated of KZN’s 50 or so provincial reserves, Oribi Gorge protects an immense river canyon hemmed in by sheer euphorbia-studded cliffs. It can be explored along trails where you might encounter bushbuck, samango monkey and a plethora of birds. Abseiling and whitewater rafting are also available. But for the ultimate eagle’s-eye view over the gorge, strap yourself into a body harness for a 4.5km long zip-line tour – comprising 14 separate lengths of cable – that includes a breathtaking aerial ride 165m above the forested canyon floor.
3. Ride the big waves at one of the south coast’s fine surfing beaches – St Michael’s, Green Point and The Spot are among the favourites of local aficionados
4. Tee up at the Wild Coast Country Club, whose spectacular coastal setting and rugged terrain – traversing hills, ravines, lakes and waterfalls – have earned it a place among the country’s top 10 golf courses
5. Take a deep-sea fishing charter into the Indian Ocean – home to a wealth of game species including king mackerel, blue marlin and sailfish.
6. Canter through the woodland of False Bay Nature Reserve alongside rhino with Hluhluwe Horseback Safaris
7. Take a kayak onto palm-fringed Lake Sibaya, the country’s largest natural freshwater body, and watch out for hippos and crocs in the clear shallows.
8. The Drakensberg foothills around Underberg and Kokstad host Africa’s largest concentration of venues for fly fishing, with wild-spawned trout weighing up to 4kg a speciality.
9. Climb the world’s highest forested dunes near Cape Vidal – they separate the St Lucia Estuary from the Indian Ocean and offer fantastic views over both.
10. Arguably the loveliest day hike in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg is Gorge Trail, a flattish 5- to 6-hour return walk through a pretty riverine gorge – studded with natural swimming pools – to the base of the imposing kilometre-high sandstone monolithic known as the Amphitheatre.
11. Join samango monkeys swinging between the treetops on the Karkloof Canopy Tour, which connects eight elevated platforms in the vast tract of mistbelt yellowwood forest protected within Karkloof Nature Reserve.
FOR WILDLIFE VIEWING:
The ‘Zululand reserves’ of northern KZN rival the better-known Kruger National Park. The area is an important refuge for both black and white rhino, with the likes of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and Phinda offering fine Big Five viewing, and the unique biodiversity of iSimangaliso Wetland Park has even led to its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
12. Seek the Big Five in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (pictured above)
Ideal for self-drive safaris, the rolling hills of the 960-square kilometre Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve support dense rhino populations, and elephant and buffalo are almost certain to be encountered over a couple of days here.
Safarigoers hoping to complete the Big Five stand a good chance of spotting both lion and leopard. Also prominent are giraffe, zebra, warthog, vervet monkey and several types of antelope, including the lovely nyala antelope.
13. Cruise scenic St Lucia Estuary
The centrepiece of the iSimangaliso Wetlands UNESCO World Heritage site, the 415-square kilometre St Lucia Estuary is Africa’s largest estuarine ecosystem. The affordable launch trips that run out of the jungle-bound village of St Lucia every afternoon are not be missed for myriad reasons: yawning hippos grumbling in the shallows; crocodiles resting up on the shores; and many water-associated birds parading are on show, from the spectacular African fish eagle and goliath heron to eagerly sought rarities such as half-collared and mangrove kingfisher.
14. Hone your wildlife photography skills at Mkhuze
Sandwiched between Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and iSimangaliso, Mkhuze Game Reserve lacks the former’s Big Five credentials or the latter’s spectacular coastal scenery. But in the dry season, it offers superb wildlife photography. Spend a day at Kumasinga Hide, which overlooks a small but permanently maintained waterhole, and you’ll be faced by so much animal activity it’s often difficult to know where to point the lens.
White rhino usually visit several times daily and a steady stream of impala, nyala, warthog, zebra and baboon offer non-stop opportunities for you to shoot tight portraits. More occasional passers-by include elephant, black rhino, giraffe and leopard.
15. Daily guided-walks in the scenic Ithala Game Reserve offer a good chance of encountering white and black rhino and other species on foot – a thrilling experience, but not for the faint of heart!
16. The 125m aerial boardwalk through Dhlinza Forest Reserve, KZN’s most accessible patch of mistbelt forest, offers a rare opportunity to glimpse the region’s most diminutive antelope, the blue duiker.
17. KZN’s premier private safari destination, andBeyond’s luxurious Phinda Game Reserve is known for offering close-up cheetah sightings – but it’s no slouch when it comes to the Big Five either.
18. Tembe Elephant Park is home to 250-plus elephants, including southern Africa’s three largest tuskers. Mahlasela Hide is the best spot to see and photograph these impressive pachyderms in action.
Annual music festivals, monthly steam train excursions, weekend wine tasting sessions, a superb aquarium open 365 days of the year… KZN offers an exciting array of outings suitable to most tastes, ages and budgets.
19. Enjoy the view at legend-shrouded Howick Falls (pictured above)
Showpiece of the sleepy midlands town of Howick is this 95m-high waterfall on the uMgeni River, also known by the Zulu name KwaNogqaza, which means ‘Home of the Tall One’. Legend has it that the deep pool below the falls is the lair of the inkanyamba: an aquatic horse-headed winged serpent whose voracious appetite for human flesh has accounted for 40 recorded deaths since the 1850s. According to local lore, only sangomas (Zulu diviners) can safely approach the pool, so it’s perhaps fortunate that the seasonally spectacular waterfall can be observed at a safe distance from elevated viewing platforms in the town.
20. Ascend the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg via Sani Pass
The sole vehicle track to breach the 200km-long escarpment dividing KZN from Lesotho, the 4WD-only Sani Pass switchbacks up the Mkhomazana River Valley to a 2865m summit near Sani Top Chalets (12km south of Southern Africa’s highest peak Thabana Ntlenyana). Here, a bleak and chilly Afro-alpine landscape of tussocked grass, mossy boulders and clumped heather supports high-altitude endemics such as the Drakensberg rockjumper and mountain pipit. In the mid-winter months of June and July, snow is a distinct possibility too.
21. Catch a seaside tan and swim in the warm Indian Ocean
Beach lovers are spoilt for choice as the KZN coast is lined with a string of idyllic beach resorts, with Ballito, Shelly Beach and Umhlanga Rocks ranking high among its most sumptuous conventional beach resorts. Further north, the isolated Thonga Beach Resort and Rocktail Beach Camp on the iSimangaliso coastline come close to fulfilling every desert island fantasy you’ve ever had.
22. Great for families and a must for marine wildlife enthusiasts, Durban’s uShaka Marine World houses the country’s largest aquarium – sharks, dolphins, seals and penguins are all present – as well as the altogether more hedonistic water slides and rides of the child-friendly Wet ’n’ Wild Waterworld.
23. Best explored over a leisurely day or two, the Midlands Meander is an informal and rather sprawling association of several dozen art and craft outlets, wildlife conservancies, homely eateries and country-style B&Bs set in the lovely hilly green countryside around Howick.
24. Take the scenic route through the backroads of the verdant Valley of a Thousand Hills, ascending through acacia-studded slopes to the 960m-high escarpment of eMkhambathin, KZN’s answer to Table Mountain.
25. Sample a lightly oaked chardonnay, a special reserve cabernet sauvignon and a crisp chilled rose on a weekend wine tasting session at Hilton’s Abingdon Estate, the pioneering founder of KZN’s nascent ‘wine route’.
26. Board the Umgeni Steam Train, one of the last locomotives of its type in South Africa, as it puffs its way between Kloof and Inchanga, usually on the last Sunday of the month.
If you’re interested in visiting South Africa, to explore KZN or elsewhere, speak to Mahlatini Luxury Travel
FOR CULTURE AND HISTORY:
KZN is steeped in history. The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg and Border Cave hold important relicts of early human habitation. Moreover the bloody 19th-century wars between the Zulus (who still comprise about 80 per cent of the population) and aspirant Boer and British settlers featured several battlefields here. More recently KZN witnessed formative events in the lives of two great modern political figures: Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
27. Pay respects to the British and Zulu dead at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift (pictured above)
These poignant war monuments east of Dundee commemorate contrasting outcomes in the January 1897 conflict between the British and the Zulu. At Isandlwana Hill, an army of 20,000 Zulus armed only with spears attacked an 1800-strong British army encampment, leaving behind fewer than 500 survivors – this was the most humiliating defeat ever inflicted on Britain by an African foe. The next day, the same Zulu army attacked the mission at Rorke’s Drift, only to be repelled by a mere 150 British soldiers, 11 of whom were awarded the Victoria Cross.
28. Explore Africa’s greatest alfresco art gallery
Some 500 ancient rock artworks are scattered through the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg UNESCO World Heritage site, comprising around half a million individual images, from monochrome human figures and polychrome antelope to surreal semi-human figures known as therianthropes.
The Kamberg Nature Reserve offers a great introduction to this mysterious painting tradition, thanks not only to the excellent interpretative centre at the reserve headquarters, but also to the relative ease of hiking to Game Pass Shelter, site of a superb panel known as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ due to its significance in helping scholars ‘crack the code’ of shamanistic symbolism that underlies the art.
Also recommended are Main Cave in Giant’s Castle Game Reserve and the Didima Rock Art Centre near Cathedral Park.
29. Experience rural Zulu traditions at Shakaland
Built on the site of the original kraal of King Shaka, the iconic founder of the Zulu Nation, Shakaland is a top-notch theme hotel offering overnight and day visitors genuine insight into traditional Zulu culture. These range from visits to an inyanga or sangoma (traditional healers who respectively deal with herbalism and divination) to demonstrations of spear-throwing and traditional cooking methods – all capped by an exuberant drum-and-dance performance set in a traditional dome-shaped auditorium.
30. Gaze up at the Mahatma Gandhi Statue in Pietermaritzburg, which commemorates the expulsion of the young Indian lawyer from a ‘whites only’ carriage at the city’s railway station in 1893. This humiliating incident initiated Gandhi’s career in politics and his development of a policy of non-violent resistance.
31. Travel to Kosi Bay on the Mozambican border and see how it is sustainably harvested by local Tsonga people using a mosaic system of organic fish traps that is said to be 700 years old.
32. Visit the Nelson Mandela Arrest Site just outside Howick, where a visitor centre and a shape-shifting sculpture mark the place where the future president was apprehended by the apartheid state in August 1962. Madiba’s life story is recorded in the museum. The sculpture is made from 50 steel columns which take the shape of Mandela’s face when viewed at the right angle.
33. Appropriately housed in a colonnaded building that formerly served as Durban’s notorious Department of Native Affairs, the KwaMuhle Museum will give you chills as you learn about the development and application of apartheid in the city.
34. Take a pensive moment at the hilltop Spioenkop Memorial, which commemorates the January 1900 Boer victory that left 383 British soldiers dead and another 1300 wounded. For the British, the impact of this loss was widespread, with three leading football grounds even renaming a stand in commemoration (most famously The Kop at Liverpool’s Anfield).
35. Learn how the fossil record of the Lebombo Mountains’ Border Cave suggests continuous human habitation for 200,000 years. Also unearthed here is the earliest evidence of systematic counting: a 35,000-year-old notched baboon fibula resembling the calendar sticks used by Namibian hunter-gatherers to this day.
FOR URBAN ACTIVITIES:
KZN isn’t all just beaches, safaris and mountains. It has a big city heart in Durban, the busiest port in Africa and centrepiece of one of the continent’s ten largest municipalities. The city is known for its splendid Indian Ocean frontage and balmy subtropical climate, as well as its lively and cosmopolitan character that reflects its rich mix of Zulu, Indian and British heritage.
36. Chill out on the ‘Golden Mile’ (pictured above)
The finest urban beach in South Africa, Durban’s Golden Mile – actually a 5km (3 mile) stretch of sumptuous golden sand adjoining the city centre, lined with numerous hotels and seafood eateries – offers safe swimming throughout, and good surfing in several locations.
Enjoy a slow day on the beach, soaking up the sun and surf, before rounding it off with a plate of fresh grilled prawns basted in Mozambican-style peri-peri sauce and a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc from the Cape Winelands.
37. Spend a rainy day sheltering in Gateway Mall
Billed as the largest mall in the southern hemisphere, Durban’s Gateway is both a shopper’s paradise and a great family-oriented destination, particularly on a stormy summer afternoon. In addition to 390 shops and 70 restaurants under one very large roof, it is home to 18 cinema screens, an IMAX theatre, and a tantalising selection of indoor sports and adventure facilities, including a skating rink, a bowling alley, an indoor climbing rock, and the aquatic thrills of the so-called Wavepark.
38. Shop for oriental spices or beaded Zulu jewellery at the central Victoria Street Market, Durban’s oldest market, where almost 200 Indian and African stalls display their colourful and aromatic wares.
39. Stroll peacefully through palm-shaded avenues or picnic alongside prehistoric cycads in the 150-year-old Durban Botanical Gardens, a short walk north of the city centre.
40. Learn about the most feared denizens of the deep and browse for associated souvenirs at the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board complex in Umhlanga Rocks north of Durban.
41. Cruise along Durban’s beachfront on the back of a rickshaw. These people pullers were introduced to the city in 1893 by the sugar magnate Sir Marshall Campbell, with such success that 20,000 were operating by the early 20th century.
FOR MARINE WILDLIFE:
Africa is best known for its terrestrial wildlife, but the Indian Ocean’s waters off KZN also host spectacular marine fauna.
42. Watch breaching whales and playful dolphins (pictured above)
Between June and October, the waters off of iSimangaliso offer some of the most reliable whale viewing in southern Africa. This is when humpback whales migrate along the continental shelf between Antarctica and their calving grounds off Mozambique, and close-up sightings are all but guaranteed on boat trips run by registered permit holders out of St Lucia village.
Southern right, sperm and dwarf minke whales are also often encountered at this time of year, while bottlenose and spinner dolphins might be observed playing in the surf at any time.
43. Succumb to sardine fever with the region’s greatest wildlife migration
May to July is traditionally the season for the little understood Sardine Run, in which billions of sardines form migratory shoals of up to 5km long, 1km wide and 30m deep, a biomass comparable to the wildebeest migration of the Serengeti. The sardines follow the KZN coast northwards into Mozambican waters, a moveable feast that attracts large feeding schools of frenzied dolphins, sharks and smaller predatorial fish – and precipitates ‘sardine fever’ among the local human population.
In recent years the extent of this phenomenon has waned and it has become less predictable and therefore more challenging to catch.
44. Dive with sharks, rays and dolphins along the Aliwal Shoal, the rocky reef that lies 5km off the south coast resort town of Umkomaas. Alternatively, snorkel or dive the world’s southernmost coral reefs in the vicinity of Sodwana Bay – they are home to at least 400 species of reef fish, ranging from firefish (which look like psychedelic marine porcupines) to the brilliantly colourful sweetlips, angelfishes and wrasses.
45. Take a nocturnal turtle tour with a licensed operator to look for endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles as they come ashore to the protected nesting beaches in the remote north of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
It’s a measure of KZN’s biodiversity that it boasts the most varied avifauna of any of South Africa’s nine provinces, with 698 of the 850 species on the national checklist having been recorded here. Ornithological hotspots include the mistbelt and coastal forests of the east, the wetlands and coastal scrub of iSimangaliso, and the undulating slopes of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg. But birdlife is prolific wherever you travel, even in the city suburbs.
46. Tick off lifers in Ndumo Game Reserve (pictured above)
Exuding an aura of untrammelled Africa, Ndumo protects the lush floodplains of the Phongolo and Usuthu Rivers and the associated network of partly seasonal wetlands. With a remarkable 430 species recorded in its 100 square kilometres, it is also often cited as the top birding destination in South Africa.
Pel’s fishing owl, lesser jacana, black egret and pygmy goose are possible highlights of boat trips through the waterways, while terrestrial ‘specials’ include the African broadbill, Neergard’s sunbird, pink-throated twinspot and grey waxbill.
47. Search for the unique Woodward’s barbet in Ongoye
Protected within a 40-square-kilometre reserve, the coastal forest that swathes the Ongoye Hills is renowned as the sole habitat for Woodward’s barbet, KZN’s only endemic bird species.
The shady forest trails offer an opportunity to see a host of other rarities, ranging from the psychedelic Narina trogon to the globally-threatened spotted ground thrush. Raptors are well represented, notably the African crowned eagle and the jackal buzzard.
Birding aside, the ecological uniqueness of this forest is underscored by the presence of red squirrel and two chameleon species unrecorded elsewhere.
48. Giant’s Castle’s so-called Vulture Restaurant offers a unique opportunity to photograph large raptors such as lammergeyer and Cape vulture from a hide.
49. Stroll along the mangrove walkway through Umlalazi Nature Reserve, an excellent place to look for the localised mangrove kingfisher and South Africa’s only breeding population of the striking palmnut vulture
50. The swampy grassland of Himeville Nature Reserve is frequented by southern Africa’s three endangered crane species: the wattled crane, which breeds in the vicinity; the majestic grey crowned crane; and blue crane, the national bird.
If you’re interested in visiting South Africa, to explore KZN or elsewhere, speak to Mahlatini Luxury Travel
This article was first published in issue 60, and has been updated.