The Zulu Kingdom – South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal province, is known for its unique blend of natural beauty, proud cultural diversity and vibrant pulsating energy. But beyond the popular coastline is a somewhat overlooked land that beckons discovery. One with emerald green hills strewn with rural settlements, game reserves stocked with wildlife, indigenous forests, commanding mountains and impressive rivers.
These are some of the top things to do in the area.
Durban, the sultry city
Hot in climate, character and local curry, allow yourself plenty of time to unlock Durban’s main appeal. Populated by a diverse people, yet most influenced by Zulu and Indian culture, here you’ll find beautifully bearded hipsters retailing alongside street vendors, and colourful beadwork for sale beside delicious chilli samoosas. Designer wear and excellent homegrown music, all served up with a raw and friendly enthusiasm. Take in the history, visit the spice market and enjoy a tasting at one of the craft distilleries. Walk the Golden Mile beachfront which runs from North to South Beach. There are bicycles for rent and the water is warm, you could walk one-way feet in the sand, the other along the promenade, to get a different perspective. Maybe even leap from the swing at the Moses Mabhida Stadium, if you’re feeling brave.
The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, whether you go by the Zulu name uKhahlamba, meaning ‘barrier of spears’, or the Afrikaans name Drakensberg, meaning ‘dragon mountains’, is a mountain range that impresses in every way. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this is South Africa’s highest mountain range and has dramatic beauty in its soaring buttresses, impressive cutbacks and golden sandstone bastions. The most scenic sights in the park carry evocative names such as Cathedral Peak, Giant’s Castle and Monk’s Cowl. Particularly renowned are the Amphitheatre and Mont-aux-Sources summit, from which spills the impressive Tugela Falls. This is a place for hiking, rock climbing, bird watching and fly-fishing, as well as searching out ancient rock art.
Aliwal Shoal Diving
Off the sleepy southern KwaZulu-Natal town of Umkomaas is Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area, one of the top dive sites in South Africa and said to be among the world’s top 10. A place where ragged-tooth sharks gather for months on end and dozens of tropical and subtropical species thrive. The reef is an ocean anomaly and is not made out of coral. Instead, it is a piece of ancient fossilised coastline or sand dune. Adding to the diversity are the Nebo and the Produce shipwrecks, which lie in relatively shallow waters. This is an excellent diving destination where you’ll encounter various kinds of corals and sponges growing on the wrecks, a world of tropical fish, moray eels, the occasional sea turtle, and almost certainly a brindle bass. From the land, you’d never guess how special this undersea area is; yet thankfully divers brought it to the attention of conservationists, and it was declared a Marine Protected Area in 2004.
Nelson Mandela Capture Site
The Nelson Mandela Capture Site is where in 1962 police waved down a car on a lonely country road and at the wheel was Nelson Mandela ‘posing as a chauffeur’. The arrest and subsequent trials would ultimately see him spend those 27 years in prison. Today this site is marked by an impressive sculpture that through an optical illusion from a distance has the 50 steel poles of varying heights merge to form an image of Mandela’s face. Mandela’s arrest that day was not only the start of a long, dark period in the liberation struggle, but also set Mandela on the path to becoming the world’s most famous political prisoner, and ultimately the first president of a democratic South Africa. There’s a well-presented museum and always a guide on site. It’s an iconic and moving visit.
The Zulu War of 1879 is famous throughout the English-speaking world for the great battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Fugitives’ Drift overlooks both these historic sites and includes the place where Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill lost their lives attempting to save the Queen’s Colour of their regiment. It is here that the Rattray family created an award-winning lodge where guides and raconteurs bring to life the events of the battles in emotionally charged tours daily to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Walks and horse rides through the reserve to view abundant game and birdlife are offered, as well as fishing in the Buffalo River. The reserve offers a choice of accommodation in either the Lodge or the Guest House.
Ardmore Ceramics is renowned for their internationally sort after surreal and exuberant sculptures that celebrate the country’s endangered species and offer a blend of animals and art in their imaginatively moulded bowls, teapots, platters, fabrics and collections. Established by Fée Halsted and Bonnie Ntshalintsha, over the year’s artists have been trained and encouraged to express their spirit and imagination. Today, Ardmore Ceramics tells a story that goes far deeper than simple ceramics; rather, it has become a story about the Zulu people, whose sense of rhythm, colour, dance and song exerts its influence through art. You’ll have tea after your tour and the opportunity to take in the views across the soft rolling hills of the surrounds, as well as make a purchase or two in the shop.
Anglo Boer Battlefields, Spionkop
As significant as the Zulu Wars in shaping history, the Midlands area was to bear witness to the South African War between the British and Afrikaans (Boers). Stop here for a lesson in the events of the renowned Spionkop battle with one of the local raconteurs who’ll expertly talk you through the history of the country and area, with emphasis on the individual soldiers, and the influence the war had on the country’s future. The Spionkop battlefield is famous for another reason too. It was here that three extraordinary men who would one-day influence the world history crossed each other’s paths. Louis Botha (the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa), Winston Churchill and Red Cross ambulance volunteer, Mahatma Gandhi.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site stretching for 200km from the Mozambique border to Maphelane, at the southern end of Lake St Lucia. With the Indian Ocean on one side, and a series of lakes on the other, the 328 000-hectare park protects five distinct ecosystems, offering everything from offshore reefs and beaches, to lakes, wetlands, woodlands and coastal forests. Loggerhead and leatherback turtles’ nest along the park’s shores, whales and dolphins occur offshore and antelopes, hippos, zebras and more, occupy the game reserve. iSimangaliso means miracles and indeed, given its extraordinary beauty, it’s an appropriate title. There’s an excellent range of accommodation, from camping to private lodges, and the town of St Lucia offers a look at local living.
The Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park is the only park under formal conservation in KZN where the big five occur. Established in 1895, this is the oldest game park in the country and is set in the heart of Zululand, where Zulu kings such as Dingiswayo and Shaka hunted and put in place the first conservation laws. Game viewing is the main attraction with guided game drives, self-drives, and viewing hides overlooking pans and waterholes allowing one to observe the animals at close range. As the home of Operation Rhino in the 1950s and 60s, the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park became world-renowned for its white rhino conservation. Other areas of focus include wilderness trails which originated in Umfolozi in the 1950s and its Game Capture unit, a benchmark for animal capture throughout Africa.