In startling contrast to the intensively developed 250km ribbon of coastline which runs north and south of Durban, the seaboard to the north of the Dolphin Coast drifts off into some of the wildest and most breathtaking sea frontage in South Africa – an area known as the Elephant Coast.
If you’ve travelled along the Garden Route and wondered where stereotypical Africa was, the answer is right here, in the northern reaches of the Elephant Coast – traditionally known as Maputaland – with its tight patchwork of wilderness and ancestral African lands. In this area hemmed in by Swaziland and Mozambique, traditional life continues: for example, there is one nyanga (traditional healer) for every 550 people, compared with one Western-style doctor to 18,000 people. Access can be difficult; St Lucia, Sodwana Bay and Kwa-Ngwanase are both reachable via tarred roads from the N2, but you’ll still need a 4WD vehicle to visit any of the other idyllic spots along the Elephant Coast’s 200km of virtually uninterrupted beachfront.
Further south, less than three hours’ drive north on the N2 from Durban, is the big game country of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, which rivals even the Kruger National Park for beautiful wilderness. Drive the same distance, but turn right instead of left at the Mtubatuba junction, and you’ll hit the southernmost extent of South Africa’s most satisfyingly “tropical” coast. It’s protected all the way up to Mozambique by the country’s third-largest protected area, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (which includes Lake St Lucia, Cape Vidal, Charter’s Creek, False Bay Park, Mkhuze Game Reserve, Sodwana Bay, Lake Sibaya and Kosi Bay). This 2750-square-kilometre patchwork encompasses wetland reserve, marine sanctuaries, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and some outstanding scuba diving and fishing opportunities around Sodwana Bay. The coast gets remoter and more exhilarating the further north you head, with one of South Africa’s best upmarket beachside stays near Mozambique at Kosi Bay. Note that the northern KwaZulu-Natal coastal region is malarial.