Meera Dattani falls for the charms of balmy KwaZulu-Natal
With big five game reserves, 375 miles of Indian Ocean coastline, World Heritage mountains and wetlands, Zulu history and the cultural melting pot of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is perhaps South Africa’s most ‘African’ of regions and the Rainbow Nation’s warmest during the UK’s summer holiday period.
Diversity is the Zulu Kingdom’s forte with bush-and-beach or berg-and-battlefield combinations easily arranged without long drives or expensive flights.
“KwaZulu-Natal has always been a great seller for us, even from April to November, their winter, with mild days and traditionally no rain,” says Lisa Fisher, product manager at Rainbow Tours.
“It’s a firm favourite with adventurous families and couples seeking something different and affordable. It’s genuinely one of our favourite parts of South Africa.”
“The Zulu Kingdom offers South Africa’s best cultural experiences,” adds Claire Farley, sales and marketing director for 2by2 Holidays. “The game reserves are outstanding; Hluhluwe-Imfolozi has the world’s highest concentration of endangered rhino and some of South Africa’s best birding is in the iSimangaliso Wetlands and Drakensberg. History is vast – Anglo-Boer-Zulu Wars, Mahatma Ghandi lived here and Churchill and Nelson Mandela were arrested in the region.”
Emirates’ daily Dubai-Durban route, plus direct Dubai flights from London, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow makes KZN very accessible. South African Airways, Virgin and British Airways offer numerous flights to Johannesburg with frequent onward flights to Durban, just over an hour away, via SAA, 1time, Kulula and Mango. SAA also flies daily to Richards Bay near the wetland park.
SEE: SAFARI, COAST AND MOUNTAINS
Durban and the coast
Indian, African and Western influences have shaped this lively port city, its Golden Mile lined with hotels, beach bars and restaurants. Attractions include uShaka Marine World, Botanical Gardens and Wilson’s Wharf on the Victoria Embankment.
Modern malls and traditional markets offer retail therapy and its Indian cuisine is legendary. Clients can book guided township tours and more than 30 nature reserves are within a 10-mile radius.
For diving, dolphins, surfing, and golf, head to North Coast resorts such as Ballito, Umdloti and Umhlanga Rocks, home to the famous Gateway shopping mall. Durban’s South Coast or Golf Coast is equally appealing with nine golf courses, excellent birding, resorts of Margate and Port Shepstone, Oribi Gorge and Aliwal Shoal for diving.
In June and July, the coast witnesses the start of the sardine run when millions of sardines migrate north followed by gannets, dolphins and sharks.
The north: iSimangaliso and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi
KwaZulu-Natal’s northern region, bordering Mozambique and Swaziland, is the area’s Eden. More than 20 different eco-systems make up the Elephant Coast in the Unesco iSimangaliso Wetland Park, excellent for fishing, diving and whale-watching.
With 600 bird species, the area is South Africa’s top birdwatching destination while November to February marks the turtle-hatching season.
St Lucia town, the gateway to the wetland park, is a good base for Eastern and Western Shores game drives, False Bay and Cape Vidal’s spectacular beach. On Lake St Lucia, sunset cruises and kayaking safaris offer different ways of observing the hippos and crocodiles.
Further along the coast is Sodwana Bay, one of the world’s top diving destinations, and the pristine beaches of Mabibi and the coastal forest.
Just before the Mozambique border are the unique lakes and estuary of Kosi Bay, where activities include snorkelling, fishing with the local Thonga tribe, kayaking or beachcombing the Indian Ocean shores.
KZN Wildlife operates many of the region’s national parks such as Ndumo, Mkuze and Tembe Elephant Park. The famous Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Africa’s oldest proclaimed reserve, offers wilderness trails, excellent birdlife, big five and the unique opportunity to see black and white rhino. Private game reserves also flourish in northern KZN, such as Pakamisa and &Beyond’s Phinda.
Battlefields and the Zulu Route
Cemeteries, forts and museums recall the Anglo-Boer and Zulu wars of more than a century ago in central Zululand. Expert guides bring the region alive with tales of King Shaka, Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana.
Abercrombie & Kent offers specialist itineraries or try Aardvark Safaris’ battlefield cycling tours. Zulu village visits, white-water rafting on the Tugela River, game drives and sailing on the Chelmsford Dam can be arranged.
Bordering the mountain kingdom of Lesotho is the 125-mile-long Unesco uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountain range where thousands of paintings by the San people or Bushmen are carved into the rock faces.
Yellowwood forest and 850-metre-high Tugela Falls make it perfect hiking terrain while the Sani Pass, the only road access to the Drakensberg, is a thrilling drive, which will be rewarded by a drink at Africa’s highest pub, 3,000 metres above sea level.
Almost 300 species of birds and 48 mammals make it a wildlife haven, with abseiling, white-water rafting and helicopter rides for thrillseekers.
Rolling English countryside may not be synonymous with the Zulu Kingdom, but the KZN Midlands are just that. Its Midlands Meander route passes art galleries, craft studios and ‘slow food’ dining at hotels such as Oaklands Country Manor.
The Valley of a Thousands Hills drive via colonial Pietermaritzburg takes in monuments to icons such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi on the Freedom Route. Adventure options include Howick Falls, paragliding off Bulwer Mountain and the treetop eco-experience at Karkloof.
STAY: SAFARI LODGES AND CITY HOTELS
Beach view campsites, B&Bs, eco-lodges and five-star hotels – the whole spectrum is covered. Upscale hotels line Durban’s Golden Mile such as the art deco Protea Hotel Edward, while guest houses thrive in the leafy Berea neighbourhood.
North and South Coasts offer everything from campsites to resorts such as the beachfront Prince’s Grant Coastal Golf Estate and Lodge and Umhlanga’s grand dame, The Oyster Box, renowned for its restaurants and upscale spa.
KZN Wildlife’s national park self-catering camps include Giants Castle and Didima Camp in the Drakensberg, Ithala camp and Hilltop Camp at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, the area’s oldest camp.
For upscale options, &Beyond has six luxury safari lodges within Phinda Private Game Reserve. Pakamisa Lodge, near the Swaziland border, is offering Ranch Rider horseback safaris for 2012.
St Lucia offers a full range too, such as Kwalucia Private Safari Retreat, Umlilo Lodge and St Lucia Wetlands Guest House. Umkhumbi Lodge near Hluhluwe is a convenient base for game drives, and visits to St Lucia and False Bay, while Isibindi’s Thonga Beach Lodge is a five-star community-owned beach retreat at Mabibi. Kosi Bay accommodation ranges from rustic reed chalets at Amangwane Camp to luxury Kosi Forest Lodge.
Around the Midlands and Battlefields, hotels such as Cathedral Peak, Ghost Mountain Inn, Fordoun Hotel Spa and Isandlwana Lodge are offering ‘kids stay free in the UK school holidays’ deals. Isibindi Zulu Lodge, set in a 4,000-acre private reserve, combines luxury accommodation with game drives, battlefield tours and Zulu homestead visits.
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