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KwaZulu-Natal

Caressed by the warm currents of the Indian Ocean, this picturesque region is one of the country’s leading tourist destinations. Abundant rainfall and year-round sunshine sustain a prosperous sugar industry and a profusion of coastal holiday resorts. North of the Tugela River, an untamed tapestry of wildlife, wilderness, beaches, and wetland evokes the essence of the tropical African coastline.

POINTS OF INTEREST

DURBAN

Vasco Da Gama’s Port Natal was renamed Durban in honor of Cape Governor Benjamin D’Urban, after Zulu chief Shaka gave the land to the British in 1824. Today, the former trading post is South Africa’s principal harbor and the holiday capital of KwaZulu-Natal. Sunny days and warm waters attract visitors to a beachfront flanked by high-rise hotels. Most attractions are on the Golden Mile, but Durban also offers historic buildings, museums, theatres, and exciting markets.

Most of the attractions located along the beachfront are within walking distance of the hotels. By far the most useful of Durban’s bus services is the People Mover, which passes by every 15 minutes. The three routes are the Beach Line between Suncoast Casino and Entertainment World in the north and uShaka Marine World in the south; The City Line that serves the city center; and the Circle Line, a wider loop that takes in Victoria Embankment and the railway station.

Central Durban has beautifully restored buildings and interesting museums all within walking distance. The cafés and restaurants that line the streets offer respite from the heat and humidity. Completed in 1910, Durban’s City Hall was modeled after that of Belfast, in Northern Ireland. The central dome is 156 ft high while statues symbolizing art, literature, music, and commerce flank the four smaller domes. The Natural Science Museum is situated on the ground floor of the City Hall. Exhibits vary from a display of South African wildlife to a mammal gallery, a bird hall, a dinosaur exhibit, and an Egyptian mummy. Fascinating, if disturbing, are the oversized insects featured in the Kwa Nunu section. Upstairs, the Durban Art Gallery began collecting black South African art in the 1970s, the first in the country to do so. What was once Durban’s Court now houses the Old Court House Museum. It contains relics of early colonial life in what was then Natal. The Playhouse Company offers top-class entertainment, from opera to experimental theatre.

Away from the beachfront and central business district, beautiful mosques, richly-decorated temples, and vibrant street markets await the visitor. Nature reserves and sanctuaries are situated on the outskirts of Durban, among them the Umgeni River Bird Park, north of the city, which houses exotic birds in walk-through aviaries, while the Hare Krishna Temple of Understanding, in the suburb of Chatsworth, never fails to impress with its grandiose opulence. Tour operators offer city tours to most of these sights.

SOUTH COAST

This 100 mile-long string of coast south of Durban is a surfers’ and divers’ delight (the latter because of Aliwal Shoal). Lined with similar-looking seaside resorts and suburbs running from Amanzimtoti to Port Edward, near the Eastern Cape border, it has a bit of a Groundhog Day feel about it. Most of the developments are spread out along two routes – the N2 and the R102. However, the coastal region’s sandy beaches are interspersed with some pretty gardens and grassy areas, especially in the southern section. Inland, the sugar cane, bananas, and palms provide a pleasant, lush, green contrast to the beach culture. The attractive Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve, near Port Shepstone, provides beautiful forest walks.

ORIBI GORGE

The spectacular Oribi Gorge on the Umzimkulwana River is one of the highlights of the South Coast, with its nature reserve full of beautiful scenery, animals, and birds, plus walking trails and pretty picnic spots. The gorge also cuts into the Lake Eland Game Reserve, which has some lovely scenery and plenty of wildlife to view, as well as fishing, canoeing, and zip-line tours.

MARGATE, RAMSGATE & SOUTHBROOM

This string of beach towns (with plenty of smaller villages in between) is a good gateway for those looking to explore the South Coast. Margate is the busiest of the three, where you’ll find plenty of loud and lively bars. Ramsgate, and especially Southbroom, offer a more sedate oceanfront experience. Southbroom is nestled in the trees and is a bushbuck conservancy.

NORTH COAST

To the north of Durban, you’ll find miles of picturesque coastline that calls to those looking to unwind in the sun. Just north of the city are the upmarket beach communities of Umhlanga (high-rise condos, expensive restaurants by the water) and uMdloti (stately beach houses, quiet streets), while further up you’ll enter the Dolphin Coast, which gets its name from the bottlenose dolphins that favor the area. The area is home to a fascinating mix of peoples: descendants of former colonialists, Indians, French-Mauritian sugar-cane growers, and indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent, plus, of course, the Zulu people. King Shaka is said to have established a military camp on the coast; royal handmaidens gathered salt from tidal pools, a practice since immortalized in the name Salt Rock. A memorial to King Shaka can be found at KwaDukuza (Stanger), slightly inland. Metropolitan buses run between Durban and Umhlanga Rocks, and buses and minibus shared taxis also run between Durban and KwaDukuza (Stanger) and other inland towns.

UMHLANGA ROCKS & UMDLOTI BEACH

Gleaming towers and well-maintained beaches draw wealthy Durbanites just north of the city to Umhlanga, ‘Place of Reeds’. In this chi-chi suburb, you’ll find incredible shopping and restaurants, as well as some of the nicest hotels the Durban area has to offer. Further north, uMdloti is a bit quieter and more beachy, although no less moneyed. Both locations are convenient to the airport. Metro buses 716 and 706 run between Umhlanga and Durban. You can also take cabs and Ubers to and from Durban for about R400 one way.

KWADUKUZA

KwaDukuza, also known as Stanger, is an important stop for those undertaking a Shaka pilgrimage or those interested in Zulu culture. In July 1825, Shaka established it as his capital and royal residence. It was here that he was killed in 1828 by his half-brothers Mhlangane and Dingaan; Dingaan then took power. Each year Zulus don their traditional gear and gather in the Recreational Grounds for the King Shaka Day Celebration. The city serves as the central business district for the surrounding rural communities. Other than the museums in town, tourists won’t find much to see here. It can be done as a day trip. KwaDukuza is easily accessible from the N2. Most of the major bus lines stop here, and if you’re trying to save money you can catch a minibus taxi into town.

ZULULAND

Evoking images of wild landscapes and tribal rhythms, this beautiful swath of KwaZulu-Natal offers a different face of South Africa, where fine coastline, mist-clad hills, and traditional settlements are in contrast to the ordered suburban developments around Durban. Dominated by the Zulu tribal group, the region offers fascinating historical and contemporary insights into one of the country’s most enigmatic cultures. However, while the name Zulu (which means Heaven) aptly describes the rolling expanses that dominate the landscape here, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Intense poverty and all the social problems that come with that are still commonplace, and much of the population struggles in a hand-to-mouth existence. If you head off the main roads this becomes glaringly obvious. The region is most visited for the spectacular Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and its many traditional Zulu villages. Here you can learn about Zulu history and the legendary King Shaka. Zululand extends roughly from the mouth of the Tugela River up to St Lucia and inland west of the N2 to Vryheid.

MTUNZINI

A little thatch of neatly tended lawns surrounded by the wild, rolling hills of Zululand, Mtunzini is an outpost of Europe in the heart of Africa. But there’s more to this pretty village than herbaceous borders. Sitting above a lush sweep of rare raffia palms, and bordering the Umlalazi Nature Reserve, Mtunzini makes an excellent base for exploring this beautiful slice of Zululand.

ESHOWE

Situated in the hills amid a beautiful indigenous forest and surrounded by green rolling hills, Eshowe has its own particular character. The center has a rural, rough-and-tumble atmosphere, but the suburbs are leafy and quiet except for the birds. It is well placed for exploring the wider region and there are decent attractions and accommodation options. Eshowe has been home to four Zulu Kings (Shaka, Mpande, Cetshwayo, and Dinuzulu).

ULUNDI

Once the hub of the Zulu empire and until 2004 a joint capital of KZN (with Pietermaritzburg, which gained pre-eminence), today Ulundi is best known to tourists for its historic Zulu sites, including the interesting Ondini, and its alternative access to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. The town itself is not very attractive, with broad thoroughfares and buildings that are merely serviceable, but once you get outside of the center there are things to see.

EMAKHOSINI OPHATHE HERITAGE PARK

Ulundi lies within the Valley of the Kings, the name of which is officially promoted as Emakhosini Ophathe Heritage Park. The area is of great significance to the Zulu. The great makhosi (chiefs) Nkhosinkulu, Senzangakhona (father of Shaka, Dingaan, and Mpande), and Dinizulu are buried here. The park itself can be confusing (some sites are advertised but aren’t fully functioning). A local guide can help you make sense of all of the sites.

THE ELEPHANT COAST

Up there on the podium with the world’s great ecotourism destinations, and near the top of the scribbled list marked ‘Places I Must See in South Africa’, the Elephant Coast (formerly ‘Maputaland’) is a phenomenal stretch of natural beauty, with a fabulously diverse mix of environments and wildlife. This large stretch of coastline includes some of the country’s true highlights, including the perennially photogenic iSimangaliso Wetland Park that runs from Lake St Lucia in the south to Kosi Bay in the north. Uncompromisingly untamed, this region, away from the scattered resort towns, offers a glimpse of pre-colonial Africa. Slightly further inland, the incredible Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is KZN’s answer to Kruger National Park. The climate becomes steadily hotter as you go north and, thanks to the warm Indian Ocean, summers are steamy and tropical. The humid coastal air causes dense mists on the inland hills, reducing visibility to a few feet. There is a good network of roads connecting the regions. Minibus shared taxis cover the coast. Self-drivers have a world open to them; while a 2WD will get you many places, a 4WD is required for the spectacular sandy road along the coast from Kosi Bay to Sodwana Bay. If driving, be careful of pedestrians and animals that may suddenly appear around a corner.

HLUHLUWE-IMFOLOZI PARK

Rivaling Kruger National Park in its beauty and variety of landscapes, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is one of South Africa’s best-known, most evocative parks. Indeed, some say it’s better than Kruger for its accessibility – it covers 960 sq km (around a 20th of the size of Kruger) and there’s plenty of wildlife including lions, elephants, rhinos (black and white), leopards, giraffes, buffaloes and African wild dogs. Stunning Hluhluwe-iMfolozi has a mountainous landscape providing jawdropping views in all directions. The lack of thick vegetation in parts of the park, such as the drive from Memorial gate to Hilltop Camp, makes for excellent wildlife spotting. You are almost certain to see white rhinos here.

ISIMANGALISO WETLAND PARK

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, stretches for 136 glorious miles 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 (including Lake St Lucia) on the other, the 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 appear offshore and the park is occupied by numerous animals, including antelopes, hippos, and zebras. The ocean beaches pull big crowds during the holiday season for everything from diving to fishing. iSimangaliso means ‘Miracle’ or ‘Wonder’ and, given its extraordinary beauty, it’s an appropriate title.

UMKHUZE GAME RESERVE

The uMkhuze Game Reserve is, in a phrase, a trip highlight. Established in 1912 to protect the nyala antelope, this reserve of dense scrub and open acacia plains covers some spectacular 140 sq miles. It successfully re-introduced lions in 2014, and just about every other sought-after animal is represented, as well as more than 400 bird species, including the rare Pel’s fishing owl. The reserve has fabulous hides, some at waterholes; the pans, surrounded by fever trees, offer some of the best wildlife viewings in the country.

TEMBE ELEPHANT PARK SOUTH

Africa’s last free-ranging big tusker elephants are protected in the sandveld (dry, sandy coastal belt) forests of Tembe Elephant Park. This transfrontier park on the Mozambique border is owned by the Tembe tribe and managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Around 230 elephants live in its 115 sq mile park; these are the only indigenous elephants in KZN, and the largest elephants in the world, weighing up to 15,000 pounds. The park boasts the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino), plus more than 300 bird species.

THE MIDLANDS

The Midlands run northwest from Pietermaritzburg (KwaZulu-Natal’s capital) to Estcourt, skirting the Battlefields to the northeast. West of Pietermaritzburg is picturesque, hilly country, with horse studs and plenty of European trees. It was originally settled by English farmers. Today, the region appeals more to art and craft lovers; it promotes itself heavily as the Midlands Meander, a slightly contrived concoction of craft shops, artistic endeavors, tea shops, and B&Bs, winding along and around the R103 west of the N3, northwest of Pietermaritzburg.

PIETERMARITZBURG

Pietermaritzburg comprises a very contemporary mix: the city is home to students attending the numerous private schools in the area, a large Zulu community, and a sizeable Indian population. Pietermaritzburg is a reasonable base from which to tackle the Midlands Meander and is also within spitting distance of the Drakensberg. Billed as a heritage city, and KZN’s administrative and legislative capital, Pietermaritzburg and its grand historic buildings around City Hall hark back to an age of pith helmets and midday martinis. While many buildings have been converted into museums, much of the CBD has, sadly, lost its gloss. This is partly due to the dire state of the local-government coffers. Elsewhere, the inner suburbs – plus Hilton, a suburb 9km northwest of the city center – are green, leafy, and pretty.

DRAKENSBERG & UKHAHLAMBADRAKENSBERG PARK

If any landscape lives up to its airbrushed, publicity-shot alter ego, it is the jagged, green sweep of the Drakensberg’s tabletop peaks. This forms the boundary between South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho and offers some of the country’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. Within the area is a vast 2430-sq-km sweep of basalt summits and buttresses; this section was formally granted World Heritage status in 2000 and was renamed uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. Today, some of the vistas are recognizably South African, particularly the unforgettable curve of the Amphitheatre in Royal Natal National Park.