KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s most African province, has everything the continent is known for – beaches, wildlife, mountains and accessible ethnic culture. South Africans are well acquainted with KwaZulu-Natal’s attractions; it’s the leading province for domestic tourism, although foreign visitors haven’t quite cottoned on to the incredible amount packed into this compact and beautiful region. The city of Durban is the industrial hub of the province and the country’s principal harbour. British in origin, it has a heady mixture of cultural flavours deriving from its Zulu, Indian and white communities. You’ll find palm trees fanning Victorian buildings, African squatters living precariously under truncated flyovers, high-rise offices towering over temples and curry houses, overdeveloped beachfronts, and everywhere an irrepressible fecundity.
To the north and south of Durban lie Africa’s most developed beaches, known as the North and South coasts: stretching along the shore from the Eastern Cape border in the south to the Tugela River in the north, this 250km ribbon of holiday homes is South Africa’s busiest and least enticing coastal strip. However, north of the Tugela River you’ll find some of the most pristine shores in the country. Here, along the Elephant Coast, a patchwork of wetlands, freshwater lakes, wilderness and Zulu villages meets the sea at a virtually seamless stretch of sand that begins at the St Lucia Estuary and slips across the Mozambique border at Kosi Bay. Apart from southern Lake St Lucia, which is fairly developed in a low-key fashion, the Elephant Coast is one of the most isolated regions in the country, rewarding visitors with South Africa’s best snorkelling and scuba diving along the coral reefs off Sodwana Bay.
KwaZulu-Natal’s marine life is matched on land by its game reserves, some of which are beaten only by the Kruger National Park, and easily surpass the latter as the best place in the continent to see both black and white rhinos. Concentrated in the north, the reserves tend to be compact and feature some of the most stylish game-lodge accommodation in the country. Most famous and largest of the reserves is the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, trampled by a respectable cross section of wildlife that includes all of the Big Five.
Since the nineteenth century, when missionaries were homing in on the region, the Zulus have captured the popular imagination of the West and remain one of the province’s major draws for tourists. You’ll find constant reminders of the old Zulu kingdom and its founder Shaka, including an excellent reconstruction of the beehive-hutted capital at Ondini and the more touristy Shakaland near Eshowe. The interior north of the Tugela River was the heartland of the Zulu kingdom and witnessed gruesome battles between Boers and Zulus, British and Zulus, and finally Boers and British. Today, the area can be explored through Battlefield tours, a memorable way of taking in some of South Africa’s most turbulent history.
From the Midlands, South Africa’s highest peaks sweep west into the soaring Ukhahlamba Drakensberg range, protected by a chain of KZN Wildlife reserves. The area’s restcamps are ideal bases for walking in the mountains or heading out for ambitious hikes; with relatively little effort, you can experience crystal rivers tumbling into marbled rock pools, awe-inspiring peaks and rock faces enriched by ancient San paintings.
KwaZulu-Natal experiences considerable variations in climate, from the occasional heavy winter snowstorms of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg to the mellow, sunny days and pleasant sea temperatures a couple of hundred kilometres away along the subtropical coastline, which offers a temperate climate year-round. This makes the region a popular winter getaway, but in midsummer the low-lying areas, including Durban, the coastal belt and the game reserves, can be uncomfortably humid.
Despite their defeats in battles with the Boers and the British during the nineteenth century, the Zulus have remained an active force in South African politics and are particularly strong in KwaZulu-Natal. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), formed in 1975 by former ANC Youth League member Mangosuthu Buthelezi and currently the country’s fourth-largest political party, has long been associated with Zulu nationalism and draws most of its support from Zulu-speaking people. The IFP and ANC were originally allies in the fight against apartheid, but the IFP’s ardent nationalism soon proved to be a major hassle for the ANC, who responded with attacks on opposing IFP members. A bitter and violent conflict between the two parties ensued during the 1980s and 1990s, which, according to some, claimed around twenty thousand lives. Although the fighting is now restricted to isolated – and increasingly rare – incidents, the political rivalry continues. It is the ANC, however, which has gained the upper hand in KwaZulu-Natal and is currently in control of the provincial legislature. The South African president, Jacob Zuma, a Zulu from KwaZulu-Natal, has played an important role in trying to end the violence between the ANC and IFP. He often makes speeches in Zulu, and has retained strong support among his people despite his controversial political career.