KwaZulu-Natal Travel Guide

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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.

Brief history of KwaZulu-Natal

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.

The South Coast

The South Coast, the 160km seaboard stretching from Durban to Port Edward on the Eastern Cape border, is a ribbon of seaside suburbs linked for most of its length by the N2 and R102 roads, running side by side. In the winter months it’s much warmer and sunnier along this stretch than on any of the beaches between here and Cape Town. Away from the sea, the land is very hilly and green, dotted with sugar-cane fields, banana plantations and palm and pecan nut trees. Note that many beaches shelve steeply into the powerful surf, so only swim where it’s indicated as safe.

Margate, 133km from Durban, is the transport and holiday hub of the area, with plenty of resorts lying to the east and west of it. The highlight of the South Coast, however, lies just inland, where Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve has lovely forest hikes, breathtaking views and good-value accommodation.

The sardine run

Around June or July, the South Coast is witness to the extraordinary annual migration of millions of sardines moving northwards along the coast in massive shoals. They leave their feeding ground off the Southern Cape coast and move up the coast towards Mozambique, followed by about 23,000 dolphins, 100,000 Cape gannets and thousands of sharks and game fish, attracting fishermen from all over the province to join in the jamboree. The shoals appear as dark patches of turbulence in the water, and when they are cornered and driven ashore by game fish, hundreds of people rush into the water either to scoop them out with their hands or to net them. For updates on shoal coordinates and other information of use for sardine-spotting, call the Sardine Hotline on 083 913 9495 or visit shark.co.za.

KwaZulu-Natal North Coast

KwaZulu-Natal’s North Coast, the 80km stretch along the coast north of Durban from Umhlanga Rocks to the mouth of the Tugela River, is also known as the Dolphin Coast. The combination of a narrow continental shelf and warm, shallow waters creates ideal conditions for attracting bottlenose dolphins, which come here to feed all year round. Though the chances of sighting a cetacean are fairly high, you’d be unwise to base a visit solely around this possibility.

Less tacky and developed than the South Coast, the North Coast attracts an upmarket breed of holidaymaker, especially to the main resort of Umhlanga Rocks, which is within easy striking distance of Durban. While the Dolphin Coast is still pretty much dominated by whites, the inland towns of Tongaat and KwaDukuza, linked by the old R102 road, have substantial Zulu and Indian populations, with Indian temples at Tongaat and the Shaka memorial at KwaDukuzu. Also on the R102 is the grave of one of the ANC’s best-loved leaders, Albert Luthuli, at Groutville.

Valley of a Thousand Hills

The evocatively named Valley of a Thousand Hills (1000hills.kzn.org.za) makes for a picturesque drive along the edge of densely folded hills where Zulu people still live in traditional homesteads, and which visitors rarely venture into. However, the area is only worth a special trip if you’re not exploring the KwaZulu-Natal interior, where scenes like this occur in abundance. While the valley, 45km from Durban, is best suited to touring in your own car (take the N3 from Durban, following the Pinetown signs), there are daily tours from Durban offered by Tekweni Eco Tours that take in the highlights. The trip to the valley and back can be done in half a day, but there are sufficient attractions laid on along the route to extend it to a full day’s outing.

KwaZulu-Natal Midlands

For most travellers, the verdant farmland that makes up the Midlands is picture-postcard terrain, to be whizzed through on the two-hour journey from Durban or Pietermaritzburg to the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg. There’s little reason to dally here, unless you fancy taking in the region’s quaint, English-style country inns, tea shops and craft shops, several of which are on the so-called Midlands Meander, a route that weaves its way around the N3 on back roads between Pietermaritzburg and the Mooi River 60km to the northwest.

As you head north out of Pietermaritzburg on the N3 through the Midlands, you’re roughly tracing the last journey of Nelson Mandela as a free man before his arrest in 1962. On the run from the police, Mandela had been continuing his political activities, often travelling in disguise – a practice that earned him the nickname of the “Black Pimpernel”. Howick, 18km northwest of Pietermaritzburg, is recorded as the place where his historic detention began; the actual spot is on the R103, 2km north of a side road heading to the Tweedie junction. On this occasion, he was masquerading as the chauffeur of a white friend, when their car was stopped on the old Howick road, apparently because of a tip-off. A memorial unveiled by Mandela himself in 1996 marks the unassuming spot, amid farmland between a railway line and the road.

The Ukhahlamba Drakensberg

Hugging the border with Lesotho, South Africa’s premier mountain wilderness is mostly a vast national park officially known as the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park. The tallest range in Southern Africa, the “Dragon Mountains” (or, in Zulu, the “barrier of spears”) reach their highest peaks along the border with Lesotho. The range is actually an escarpment separating a high interior plateau from the coastal lowlands of KwaZulu-Natal. Although this is a continuation of the same escarpment that divides the Mpumalanga highveld from the game-rich lowveld of the Kruger National Park and continues into the northern section of the Eastern Cape, when people talk of the Berg, they invariably mean the range in KwaZulu-Natal.

For elating scenery – massive spires, rock buttresses, wide grasslands, glorious waterfalls, rivers, pools and fern-carpeted forests – the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg is unrivalled. Wild and unpopulated, it’s a paradise for hiking. One of the richest San rock-art repositories in the world, the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg is also a World Heritage Site, with more than six hundred recorded sites hidden all over the mountains (three easily accessible ones are at Giant’s Castle, Injisuthi and Kamberg), featuring more than 22,000 individual paintings by the original inhabitants of the area.

The park is hemmed in by rural African areas – former “homeland” territory, unsignposted and unnamed on many maps, but interesting to drive through for a slice of traditional Zulu life complete with beehive-shaped huts. Visitors to the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg can stay either in the self-catering and camping options provided by KZN Wildlife, or in hotels or backpacker hostels outside the park (the most feasible option if you don’t have your own transport). As for the weather, summers are warm but wet; expect both dramatic thunderstorms and misty days that block out the views. Winters tend to be dry, sunny and chilly, with freezing nights and, on the high peaks, occasional snow. The best times for hiking are spring and autumn. As the weather can change rapidly at any time of year, always take sufficient clothing and food.

The Southern Drakensberg

While the southern section of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg lacks some of the drama and varied landscape found further north, it does have an outstanding highlight: the hair-raising Sani Pass into Lesotho, a precipitous series of hairpins that twist to the top of the escarpment, the highest point in Southern Africa reachable on wheels. It is easily one of the most beautiful drives in the country, offering breathtaking views from the top on clear days. The area offers lots of good hiking as well, and several local operators organize pony trekking in the mountains just across the border.

SANI PASS is the only place in the KwaZulu-Natal Ukhahlamba Drakensberg range where you can actually drive up the mountains using the only road from KwaZulu-Natal into Lesotho, connecting to the tiny highland outpost of Mokhotlong. It’s the pass itself, zigzagging into the clouds, that draws increasing numbers into the High Berg.

Hiking in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg

Whether you choose to take your time on easy walks or embark on a challenging three- or four-day trip into the mountains, hiking in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg remains one of South Africa’s top wilderness experiences. The marvel of setting out on foot in these mountains is that you’re unlikely to encounter vehicles, settlements, or even other people, and the scenery is sublime.

The Ukhahlamba Drakensberg is divided into the High Berg and Little Berg, according to altitude. In the High Berg, you’re in the land of spires and great rock buttresses, where the only places to sleep are in caves or, in some areas, huts. You’ll need to be totally self-sufficient and obey wilderness rules, taking a trowel and toilet paper with you and not fouling natural water with anything – which means carrying water away from the streams to wash in. Both mountaineers’ huts and caves must be booked with the KZN Wildlife office you start out from, and you’ll also need to write down your route details in the mountain register. Slogging up the passes to the top of the mountains requires a high degree of fitness, some hiking experience and a companion or guide who knows the terrain.

The Little Berg, with its gentler summits, rivers, rock paintings, valleys and forests, is equally remote and beautiful. It’s also easier (and safer) to explore if you’re of average fitness. If you don’t want to carry a backpack and sleep in caves or huts, it’s feasible to base yourself at one of the KZN Wildlife camps and set out on day hikes, of which there are endless choices. It’s also possible to do a two-day walk from one of the camps, spending one night in a cave. Two excellent bases for walking are Injisuthi in the Giant’s Castle Game Reserve, or Thendele in the Royal KwaZulu-Natal National Park. With extensive grasslands, the Southern Berg is the terrain of the highly recommended Giant’s Cup Hiking Trail, an exhilarating introduction to the mountains.

The San and their rock paintings

Southern Africa’s earliest inhabitants and the most direct descendants of the late Stone Age, the San, or Bushmen, lived in the caves and shelters of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg for thousands of years before the arrival of the Nguni people and later the white farmers. There is still some disagreement over what to call these early hunter-gatherers. Many liberal writers use the word "Bushmen" in a strictly non-pejorative sense – though the word was originally deeply insulting. Several historians and anthropologists have plumped for "San", but as the term refers to a language group and not a culture, this isn’t strictly accurate either. Since there is no agreed term, you’ll find both words used in this book.

The San hunted and gathered on the subcontinent for a considerable period – paintings in Namibia date back 25,000 years. In the last two thousand years, the southward migration of Bantu-speaking farmers forced change on the San, but there is evidence that the two groups were able to live side by side. However, serious tensions arose when the white settlers began to annex lands for hunting and farming. As the San started to take cattle from farmers, whites came to regard these people as vermin; they felt free to hunt the San in genocidal campaigns in the Cape, and later in other areas, including the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg, until they were wiped off the South African map.

San artists were also shamans, and their paintings of hunting, dancing and animals mostly depict their religious beliefs rather than realistic narratives of everyday life in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg. It’s difficult to date the paintings with accuracy, but the oldest are likely to be at least 800 years old (although Bushmen lived in the area for thousands of years before that) and the most recent are believed to have been painted after the arrival of the whites towards the end of the nineteenth century. However, it’s easy and rewarding to pick out some of the most significant elements in San paintings. The medicine or trance dance – journeying into the spiritual world in order to harness healing power – was the Bushmen’s most important religious ritual and is depicted in much of their art. Look out for the postures the shamans adopted during the dance, including arms outstretched behind them, bending forward, kneeling, or pointing fingers. Dots along the spine often relate to the sensation of energy boiling upwards, while lines on faces or coming out of the nose usually depict nosebleeds – a common side effect of the trance state. Other feelings experienced in trance, such as that of elongation, attenuation or the sensation of flight, are expressed by feathers or streamers. The depictions of horses, cattle and white settlers, particularly in the Southern Berg, mark the end of the traditional way of life for the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Bushmen, and it is possible that the settlers were painted by shamans as a supernatural technique to try to ward off their all-too-real bullets.

To enter the spirit world, shamans often tapped into the spiritual power of certain animals. You’ll see the spiral-horned eland depicted in every cave – not because these antelope were prolific in the Berg, but because they were considered to have more power than any other animal. Sometimes the elands are painted in layers to increase their spiritual potency. In the caves open to the public, you can see depictions of human-like figures in the process of transforming into their power animal. Besides antelope, other animals associated with trance are honeybees, felines, snakes and sometimes elephants and rhinos.

Paintings weather and fade, and many have been vandalized. Well-meaning people dabbing water on them to make them clearer, or touching them, has also caused them to disappear – so never be tempted. One of the best and most up-to-date introductions to rock art is the slim booklet by David Lewis-Williams, Rock Paintings of the Natal Drakensberg, available from most decent bookshops in the area.

Giant’s Cup Hiking Trail

The 60km, five-day Giant’s Cup Hiking Trail (R75 per person per night, includes entrance fee to the reserve), part of which traverses a depression that explains the trail’s name, is the only laid-out trail in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg. It starts at the Sani Pass road, then leads through the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg and winds past eroded sandstone formations, overhangs with San paintings, grassy plains and beautiful valleys with river pools to swim in. No single day’s hike is longer than 14km and, although there are some steep sections, this is not a difficult trail – you need to be fit to enjoy it, but not an athlete.

The mountain huts at the five overnight stops have running water, toilets, tables and benches, and bunks with mattresses. It’s essential to bring a camping stove, food and a sleeping bag. The trail can be shortened by missing the first day and starting out at Pholela Hut, an old farmhouse where you spend the night, then terminating one day earlier at Swiman Hut close to the KZN Wildlife office at Garden Castle. You can also lengthen the trail by spending an extra night at Bushmen’s Nek Hut, in an area with numerous caves and rock-art sites.

The trail is restricted to thirty people per day and tends to get booked out during holiday periods; bookings should be made through KZN Wildlife (kznwildlife.com), where you can also get a map and a trail booklet.

The Elephant Coast and Zululand game reserves

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.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is KwaZulu-Natal’s most outstanding game reserve, considered by some even better than Kruger. While it certainly can’t match Kruger’s sheer scale (Hluhluwe is a twentieth of the size) or its teeming game populations, its relatively compact 960 square kilometres have a wilder feel. This has something to do with the fact that, apart from Hilltop, an elegant hotel-style restcamp in the northern half of the park, none of the other restcamps is fenced off, and wild animals are free to wander through. The vegetation, with subtropical forest in places, adds to the sense of adventure. The park also offers the best trails in the country.

The park used to be two distinct entities - hence its tongue-twisting double-barrelled name (pronounced something like "shla-shloo-wee-oom-fa-low-zee") - and the two sections retain their separate characters, reinforced by a public road slicing between them. The southern Imfolozi section takes its name from a corruption of mfulawozi, a Zulu word that refers to the fibrous bushes that grow along its rivers. The topography here is characterized by wide, deep valleys incised by the Black and White Imfolozi rivers, with altitudes varying between 60 and 650 metres. Luxuriant riverine vegetation gives way in drier areas to a variety of woodland, savannah, thickets and grassy plains. The notable feature of the northern Hluhluwe section is the river of the same name, a slender, slithering waterway, punctuated by elongated pools. The Hluhluwe rises in the mountains north of the park and passes along sandbanks, rock beds and steep cliffs in the game reserve before seeping away into Lake St Lucia to the east. The higher ground is covered by veld and dense thicket, while the well-watered ridges support the softer cover of ferns, lichens, mosses and orchids.

Game viewing and activities in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi

Despite its compact size, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is home to 84 mammal species and close to 350 varieties of birds. The Big Five are all here, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this is the best place in the world to see rhinos, both black and white. Extinct in Imfolozi until 1958, lions have been reintroduced, and today they number around seventy, although they’re not easy to see and their future hangs in the balance. Other predators present are cheetah, spotted hyena and wild dog. Herbivores include blue wildebeest, buffalo, giraffe, hippo, impala, kudu, nyala and zebra. When it comes to birds, there are over a dozen species of eagle, as well as other raptors including hawks, goshawks and honey buzzards. Other larger birds include ground hornbills, vultures, owls and herons. Reptile species number in the sixties, including crocodiles and several types of venomous snake, none of which you’re likely to see. Along the Hluhluwe River, keep an eye open for the harmless monitor lizards.

Where Hluhluwe-Imfolozi really scores over the Kruger is in the variety of activities on offer. Apart from self-driving around the park, there are also self-guided walks near several of the restcamps, guided trails in the company of an armed field ranger, guided night drives and a boat trip on the Hluhluwe Dam. South Africa’s first wilderness trail started in Imfolozi, and the reserve has remained the best place in South Africa for these (all are available from mid-March to mid-Dec). The three-night Base Camp trail involves day walks in the Wilderness Area, with nights spent at the Mndindini Trails camp not far from Mpila; the three-night Primitive trail departs from Mpila and requires you to carry your own gear and sleep under the stars, wherever the ranger chooses; and the Short Wilderness trail starts and ends at Mpila. On all of these trails, which must be booked through the KZN Wildlife, you’ll be accompanied by an armed ranger; and all gear – including linen and food – is included in the price.

Lake St Lucia

The most striking feature of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is the 360-square-kilometre Lake St Lucia, South Africa’s largest inland body of water, formed 25,000 years ago when the oceans receded. The lake is flanked by mountainous dunes covered by forest and grassland, whose peaks soar to an astonishing 200m above the beach to form a slender rampart against the Indian Ocean. Aside from the lake and dune ecosystems, the reserve protects a marine zone of warm tropical seas, coral reefs and endless sandy beaches; the papyrus and reed wetland of the Mkhuze swamps, on the north of the lake; and, on the western shore, dry savannah and thornveld. Any one of these would justify conservation, but their confluence around the lake makes this a world-class wilderness. The real prize of the area is Cape Vidal inside the wetland park, though the limited accommodation there may necessitate your making a day-trip from St Lucia town.

Maputaland

Also known as Maputaland, the extreme northeast section of the Elephant Coast is the remotest tract of South Africa, mostly accessible only along dirt roads that work their tortuous way to the coast. The quickest way of reaching this area is from Hluhluwe village, where a tarred road, the R22, strikes north for some 150km, passing Sodwana Bay and terminating near Kosi Bay and the Mozambique border. Another road, 11km north of Mkhuze village, snakes north and then east for 133km, eventually connecting with the R22 about 40km south of Kosi Bay. This road gives access to the border village of Ingwavuma, home to a Zulu festival and the base for some excellent hikes, as well as the Ndumo Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Park, both reserves reaching down from the Mozambique border.

Turtles

Sea turtles from as far afield as Malindi in Kenya (3500km to the north) and Cape Agulhas (2000km west along the South African coastline) come ashore on the beaches of the northern Elephant Coast every year between October and February to lay their eggs. The turtles have survived virtually unchanged for almost a hundred million years and it’s reckoned that loggerhead turtles have been using Maputaland’s beaches to lay their eggs for 60,000 years.

It is believed that the turtles are lured onto the shore by a hormone that oozes from the beach, a scent that they follow and which is thought to have been programmed into their subconscious while they were themselves in their eggs. The myopic turtle, whose eyes are adapted to underwater vision, pulls herself along the beach in the dark until she encounters an obstruction such as a bank or a log, where she begins digging a pit using her front flippers until she has scooped out a nest big enough to hold her own volume. She then digs a flask-shaped hole about 50cm deep and lays her eggs into this, a process which takes about ten minutes. The turtle fills the hole with sand using her front flippers, disguising the place where the eggs are stored, and returns to the sea. After about two months the eggs hatch, and the entire clutch of hatched turtles will simultaneously race down the beach. Once in the ocean, the hatchlings swim out to sea where they are carried away by the Agulhas current into the Atlantic or along the Indian Ocean coast. Only one in five hundred will survive to return.

The whole of the northern Elephant Coast is excellent for spotting loggerhead and leatherback turtles, with Rocktail Bay probably the best spot of all. As the turtles are easily disturbed, only a few licensed operators are allowed to escort visitors to watch the turtles at night.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is KwaZulu-Natal’s most outstanding game reserve, considered by some even better than Kruger. While it certainly can’t match Kruger’s sheer scale (Hluhluwe is a twentieth of the size) or its teeming game populations, its relatively compact 960 square kilometres have a wilder feel. This has something to do with the fact that, apart from Hilltop, an elegant hotel-style restcamp in the northern half of the park, none of the other restcamps is fenced off, and wild animals are free to wander through. The vegetation, with subtropical forest in places, adds to the sense of adventure. The park also offers the best trails in the country.

The park used to be two distinct entities - hence its tongue-twisting double-barrelled name (pronounced something like "shla-shloo-wee-oom-fa-low-zee") - and the two sections retain their separate characters, reinforced by a public road slicing between them. The southern Imfolozi section takes its name from a corruption of mfulawozi, a Zulu word that refers to the fibrous bushes that grow along its rivers. The topography here is characterized by wide, deep valleys incised by the Black and White Imfolozi rivers, with altitudes varying between 60 and 650 metres. Luxuriant riverine vegetation gives way in drier areas to a variety of woodland, savannah, thickets and grassy plains. The notable feature of the northern Hluhluwe section is the river of the same name, a slender, slithering waterway, punctuated by elongated pools. The Hluhluwe rises in the mountains north of the park and passes along sandbanks, rock beds and steep cliffs in the game reserve before seeping away into Lake St Lucia to the east. The higher ground is covered by veld and dense thicket, while the well-watered ridges support the softer cover of ferns, lichens, mosses and orchids.

Central Zululand and the Battlefields

Central Zululand – the Zulu heartland – radiates out from the unlovely modern town of Ulundi, some 30km west of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. At the height of its influence in the 1820s and 1830s, under King Shaka, the core of the Zulu state lay between the Black Imfolozi River in the north and the Tugela River in the south, which discharges into the Indian Ocean roughly 100km north of Durban.

Contained in a relatively small area to the west of the heartland is a series of nineteenth-century battlefield sites, where Zulus and Boers, then Zulus and the British, and finally Boers and Brits came to blows. Don’t attempt to visit this area on your own: all you’ll see is empty veld with a few memorials. Far better is to join a tour with one of the several excellent guides who make it their business to bring the region’s dramatic history alive (see Battlefield guides).

Don’t expect to see “tribal” people who conform to the Zulu myth outside theme parks like Shakaland, near Eshowe. Traditional dress and the traditional lifestyle are largely a nineteenth-century phenomenon, deliberately smashed by the British a century ago when they imposed a poll tax that had to be paid in cash – thus ending Zulu self-sufficiency, generating urbanization and forcing the Africans into the modern industrial economy, where they were needed as workers.

You will find beautiful Zulu crafts in this part of the country, the best examples being in museums such as the little-known but outstanding Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum in Eshowe. Also worth checking out is the reconstructed royal enclosure of Cetshwayo, the last king of the independent Zulu, at Ondini, near Ulundi.

Brief history

The truth behind the Zulus is difficult to separate from the mythology, which was fed by the Zulus themselves as well as white settlers. Accounts of the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s rely heavily on the diaries of the two adventurers, Henry Fynn and Nathaniel Isaacs, who portrayed King Shaka as a mercurial and bloodthirsty tyrant who killed his subjects willy-nilly for a bit of fun. In a letter from Isaacs to Fynn, uncovered in the 1940s, Isaacs encourages his friend to depict the Zulu kings as “bloodthirsty as you can, and describe frivolous crimes people lose their lives for. It all tends to swell up the work and make it interesting.”

A current debate divides historians about the real extent of the Zulu empire during the nineteenth century. What we do know is that in the 1820s Shaka consolidated a state that was one of the most powerful political forces on the subcontinent, and that internal dissent to his rule culminated in his assassination by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana in 1828.

In the 1830s, pressure from whites exacerbated internal tensions in the Zulu state, and reached a climax when a relatively small party of Boers defeated Dingane’s army at Blood River. This led to a split in the Zulu state, with one half following King Mpande, and collapse threatened when Mpande’s sons Mbuyazi and Cetshwayo led opposing forces in a pitched battle for the succession. Cetshwayo emerged victorious and successfully set about rebuilding the state, but too late. Seeing a powerful Zulu state as a threat to a confederated South Africa under British control, the British high commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, delivered a Hobson’s choice of an ultimatum on the banks of the Tugela River, demanding that Cetshwayo should dismantle his polity or face invasion.

In January 1879, the British army crossed the Tugela and suffered a humiliating disaster at Isandlwana – the British army’s worst defeat ever at the hands of native armies – only for the tide to turn that same evening when just over a hundred British soldiers repulsed a force of between three- and four thousand Zulus at Rorke’s Drift. By the end of July, Zulu independence had been snuffed, when the British lured the reluctant (and effectively already broken) Zulus, who were now eager for peace, into battle at Ulundi. The British set alight Cetshwayo’s capital at Ondini – a fire that blazed for four days – and the king was taken prisoner and held in the Castle in Cape Town.

Ulundi

ULUNDI is the former capital of the KwaZulu Bantustan and lies at the centre of the eMakhosini Valley (Valley of the Kings). The latter holds a semi-mythical status among Zulu nationalists as the birthplace of the Zulu state and the area where several of its founding fathers lived and are now buried. A memorial to them was erected in 2003, the Spirit of eMakhosini, on a hill 3km up the R34, beyond the junction with the R66 for Ulundi. The circular memorial is surrounded by seven large aluminium horns representing the kings that came before Shaka, while in the centre is an impressive 600-litre bronze traditional beer pot.

The Battle of Ulundi Memorial, just outside town on the tarred road to the Cengeni Gate of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, is the poignant spot marking the final defeat of the Zulus. An understated small stone structure with a silver dome houses a series of plaques listing all the regiments on both sides involved in the last stand of the Zulus on July 4, 1879. The rectangular park around the memorial marks the site of the hollow square formation adopted by the British infantry and supported to devastating effect by seven- and nine-pounder guns.

Ondini Historical Reserve

By far the most interesting sight around here is the Ondini Historical Reserve, which houses the reconstruction of the royal residence of King Cetshwayo, a site museum and a cultural museum. After the decisive Battle of Ulundi, the royal residence at Ondini was razed to the ground and Cetshwayo was captured. Still puzzled by Britain’s actions, Cetshwayo wrote to the British governor in 1881 from his exile at the Castle in Cape Town: "I have done you no wrong, therefore you must have some other object in view in invading my land." The isigodlo, or royal enclosure, has been partially reconstructed with traditional Zulu beehive huts that you can wander round, while the site museum has a model showing the full original arrangement. Among the items in the Cultural Museum is a major bead collection.

Zulu theme parks

North of Eshowe, the winding R66 leaves behind the softer vistas of the Dlinza Forest, the citrus groves and green seas of cane plantations and looks across huge views of the valleys that figure in the creation mythology of the Zulu nation. In no time you’re into thornveld (acacias, rocky koppies and aloes) and theme park country.

Most accessible of these "Zulu-village hotels" is Shakaland, 14km north of Eshowe off the R68 at Norman Hurst Farm, Nkwalini (035 460 0912, www.shakaland.com). Built in 1984 as the set for the wildly romanticized TV series Shaka Zulu, Shakaland is a reconstruction of a nineteenth-century Zulu kraal and quite unrepresentative of how people live today. However, the theme park just about manages to remain on the acceptable side of exploiting ethnic culture, and offers the chance to sample Zulu food. Tours for day visitors include an audiovisual presentation about the origin of the Zulus, a guided walk around the huts, an explanation of traditional social organization, spear-making, a beer-drinking ceremony and a buffet lunch with traditional food. The highlight, however, is probably one of the best choreographed Zulu dancing shows in the country, with the dramatic landscape as the backdrop; it’s worthwhile putting up with all the other stuff just to see it.

In a different league, Simunye Zulu Lodge (035 450 0101, www.simunyelodge.co.za),along the D256, off the R34 and 6km north of Melmoth, offers a far more authentic experience of Zulu culture, introducing guests to contemporary ways of life as well as traditional customs. Visitors are conveyed to the camp by horse, ox wagon or 4WD, and get to see dancing, visit a working kraal and meet local people.

There is traditional-style accommodation at both places. Shakaland offers comfortable beehive huts, with untraditional luxuries such as electricity and en-suite bathrooms. At Simunye you can also choose to sleep in beehive huts, or opt for rondavels at a kraal or stone-and-thatch cottages carved into the cliffside.

Eshowe

The name ESHOWE has an onomatopoeic Zulu derivation, evoking the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. Though visitors generally give the town a miss on the way to the more obvious drama of Ondini and the Battlefields, the place offers a gentle introduction to the Zulu heartland and deserves more than just a passing glance. Apart from its attractive setting, interlacing with the Dlinza Forest, the town is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Zulu crafts and has a tour operator offering excellent excursions that take you out to experience some authentic Zulu culture and other aspects of life in Zululand that you would otherwise most likely miss.

Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum

Containing more than three thousand examples of traditional Zulu arts and crafts, the brilliant Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum is housed in a purpose-built structure on the grounds of Fort Nongqayi. Guided tours take you through the huge range of baskets (a craft at which Zulu culture excels), each made for a specific purpose, the finest of which are the ones by Reuben Ndwandwe, arguably the greatest Zulu basket weaver. There are also carvings, beadwork, tapestries and some outstanding ceramics, including works by Nesta Nala, one of the leading proponents of the form. Both Ndwandwe and Nala died a few years ago of AIDS. The benchmark examples here allow you to form an idea of the quality of basketry and crafts you’ll see for sale as you work your way around Zululand. The museum itself sells baskets and pottery by local artists, which far surpass what’s on offer at the on-site crafts shop.

Durban

Until the 1970s, DURBAN – South Africa’s third-largest city and the continent’s largest port – was white South Africa’s quintessential seaside playground, thanks to its tropical colours and itinerant population of surfers, hedonists and holidaying Jo’burg families. Then, in the 1980s, the collapse of apartheid saw a growing stream of Africans flood in from rural KwaZulu-Natal, and shantytowns and cardboard hovels revealed the reality of one of the most unmistakably African conurbations in the country. The city’s second-largest group is its Indian population, whose mosques, bazaars and temples are juxtaposed with the Victorian buildings of the colonial centre.

Although the beachfront pulls thousands of Jo’burgers down to “Durbs” every year, the city’s main interest lies in its gritty urbanity, a seemingly endless struggle to reconcile competing cultures. However, most people come to Durban because it provides a logical springboard for visiting the region. The city is well connected to the rest of South Africa, and with the opening of the King Shaka International Airport, the city is starting to attract international flights as well.

There’s enough here to keep you busy for a few days. The pulsing warren of bazaars, alleyways and mosques that makes up the Indian area around Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street is ripe for exploration, and there are some excellent restaurants and nightlife around Durban’s photogenic harbour area. Swanky northern suburbs such as the Berea, a desirable residential district perched on a cooler ridge, are replete with luxuriant gardens and packed with fashionable cafés, restaurants and bars.

Durban’s city centre grew around the arrival point of the first white settlers, and the remains of the historical heart are concentrated around Francis Farewell Square. Durban’s expansive beachfront on the eastern edge of the centre has one of the city’s busiest concentrations of restaurants, a surfeit of tacky family entertainment, and a reputation for crime (which admittedly is improving).

Much further afield lie dormitory towns for blacks who commute to work, including the apartheid ghettos of KwaMashu and Inanda to the northwest. Cato Manor, the closest township to the city, provides an easily accessible vignette of South Africa’s growing urban contradictions.

Brief history of Durban

Less than two hundred years ago Durban was known to Europeans as Port Natal, a lagoon thick with mangroves, eyed by white adventurers who saw business opportunities in its ivory and hides. In 1824, a British party led by Francis Farewell persuaded the Zulu king, Shaka, to give them some land. Not long after, the British went on to rename the settlement Durban after Sir Benjamin D’Urban, governor of the Cape Colony, whose support, they believed, might not go amiss later.

Britain’s tenuous toehold looked threatened in 1839, when Boers trundled over the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg in their ox wagons and declared their Republic of Natalia nearby. Then, the following year, a large force of now-hostile Zulus razed the settlement, forcing the British residents to take refuge at sea in the brig Comet. Capitalizing on the British absence, a group of Boers annexed Durban, later laying siege to a British detachment. This provided the cue for a much-celebrated piece of Victorian melodrama when teenager Dick King heroically rode the 1000km from Durban to Grahamstown in ten days to alert the garrison there, which promptly dispatched a rescue detachment to relieve Durban.

Industrialization and apartheid

While Cape Town was becoming a cosmopolitan centre by the 1840s, Durban’s population of barely one thousand lived a basic existence in a near wilderness roamed by lions, leopards and hyenas. Things changed after Britain formally annexed the Colony of Natal in 1843; within ten years, a large-scale immigration of settlers from the mother country had begun. The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by the city’s considerable industrial development and major influxes of other groups. Indentured Indian labourers arrived to work in the KwaZulu-Natal cane fields, planting the seeds for South Africa’s lucrative sugar industry and the city’s now substantial Indian community; and Zulus headed south after their conquest by the British, in 1879, to enter Durban’s expanding economy. In 1895, the completion of the railway connecting Johannesburg and Durban accelerated the process of migrant labour. This link to South Africa’s industrial heartland, and the opening of Durban’s harbour mouth to large ships in 1904, ensured the city’s eventual pre-eminence as South Africa’s principal harbour. In 1922, in the face of growing Indian and African populations, Durban’s strongly English city council introduced legislation controlling the sale of land in the city to non-whites, predating Afrikaner-led apartheid by 26 years.

With the strict enforcement of apartheid in the 1950s, Durban saw a decade of ANC-led protests. And when it was banned in 1960, subsequently forming its armed wing, the ANC made plans for a nationwide bombing campaign that was initiated with an explosion in Durban on December 15, 1961. Durban scored another first in 1973 when workers in the city precipitated a wildcat strike, despite a total ban on black industrial action. This heralded the rebirth of South Africa’s trade unions and reawakened anti-apartheid activity, sparking the final phase of the country’s road to democracy.

Eating Indian in Durban

Inexpensive Indian takeaways – all open very early and usually shut by 5pm – abound in the city centre. Little Gujarat, 107 Dr Goonam St, and Victory Lounge on the corner of Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Bertha Mkhize streets are noted for their vegetarian food and traditional sweetmeats respectively. Otherwise, the Oriental takeaway at the Workshop Mall does a hotchpotch of fare – delicious Indian-style shawarmas, bunny chows and curries. If you’re hankering for something much slicker in the heart of town, head to Ulundi Tapas at The Royal Hotel, where you’ll be served light thali curry dishes (R22–35 each; order a minimum of three) for lunch and dinner in a stylish and contemporary black-and-white dining room.

Zulu crafts and curios

Durban’s huge range of galleries, craft shops and markets makes it one of the best places in the country to pick up Zulu crafts. Traditional works include functional items such as woven beer strainers and grass brooms, and basketry that can be extremely beautiful. Other traditional items are beadwork, pottery and Zulu regalia, of which assegais (spears), shields, leather kilts and drums are a few examples.

The availability of cheap plastic crockery and enamelware has significantly eroded the production of traditional ceramics and woven containers for domestic use. Even so, the effects of urbanization have led to the use of new materials, or new ways of using old materials. Nowadays you’ll find beautifully decorated black-and-white sandals made from recycled rubber tyres, wildly colourful baskets woven from telephone wire, and sjamboks (whips) decorated with bright insulation tape. On the more frivolous side, industrial materials have been married with rural life or rural materials with industrial life. Attractive tin boxes made from flattened oil cans, chickens constructed from sheet plastic, and aircraft and little 4WD vehicles carved from wood are just some of the results.

Pietermaritzburg

Although PIETERMARITZBURG (often called Maritzburg), the provincial capital of KwaZulu-Natal, sells itself as the best-preserved Victorian city in South Africa, with strong British connections, little of its colonial heritage remains. It’s actually a very South African city, with Zulus forming the largest community, followed by Indians, with those of British extraction a minority – albeit a high-profile one. This multiculturalism, together with a substantial student population, adds up to a fairly lively city that’s also relatively safe and small enough to explore on foot, with most places of interest within easy walking distance of the centre’s heart. Only 80km inland from Durban along the fast N3 freeway, Pietermaritzburg is an easy day’s outing from the coastal city; it can be combined with visits to the Valley of a Thousand Hills along the Old Main Road (R103), or used as an overnight stop en route to the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg or the Battlefields in the vicinity of Ladysmith.

Brief history of Pietermaritzburg

Pietermaritzburg’s Afrikaner origins are reflected in its name; after slaughtering three thousand Zulus at the Battle of Blood River, the Voortrekkers established the fledgling Republic of Natalia in 1839, naming their capital in honour of the Boer leaders Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz. The republic’s independence was short-lived – Britain annexed it only four years later, and by the closing decade of the nineteenth century Maritzburg was the most important centre in the colony of Natal, with a population of nearly 10,000 (more than Durban at that time). Indians arrived at the turn of the last century, mostly as indentured labourers, but also as traders. Among their number was a young, little-known lawyer called Mohandas Gandhi, who went on to change the history of India. He later traced the embryo of his devastatingly successful tactic of passive resistance to an incident in 1893, when as a non-white he was thrown out of a first-class train compartment at Pietermaritzburg station.

Alan Paton

Writer, teacher and politician Alan Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1903. His visionary first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, focused international attention on the plight of black South Africans and sold millions of copies worldwide. The book was published in 1948 – the same year the National Party assumed power and began to establish apartheid – and Paton subsequently entered politics to become a founder-member of the non-racial and fiercely anti-apartheid Liberal Party. He was president of the party from 1960 until 1968, when it was forced to disband by repressive legislation forbidding multiracial political organizations.

Paton died in Durban in 1988, having published a number of works, including two biographies and his own autobiography. The following year, the Alan Paton Centre was established at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s archives building on Milner Rd, Scottsville (visits by appointment; 033 260 5926). The Centre includes a re-creation of Paton’s study, as well as personal memorabilia and documents.

Sodwana Bay

A tiny scoop in the Zululand Coast, SODWANA BAY is the only breach in an almost flawless strand extending 170km from St Lucia to Kosi Bay. It’s the fortuitous convergence of the bay (which makes it easy to launch boats), with the world’s southernmost coral reefs that makes Sodwana the most popular base in the country for scuba diving and the most popular KZN Wildlife resort. Because the continental shelf comes extremely close to shore (near-vertical drops are less than 1km away), it offers very deep waters, much loved by anglers who gather here for some of South Africa’s best deep-sea game fishing, mostly tag and release. The abundance of game fish also makes for some of the best surf fly-fishing in the country.

When there’s no one around, Sodwana Bay is paradise, with tepid waters, terrific sandy beaches, relaxed diving and snorkelling, and plenty of accommodation. Over weekends and during school holidays, however, fashion-conscious Jo’burgers tear down in their 4WDs, while thick-set anglers from Gauteng, Free State and Mpumalanga come here and drink themselves into a stupor. Thankfully, government regulations now limit the number of 4WDs using the beach as a car park. A gentler presence from mid-November to February are the leatherback and loggerhead turtles, who make their way onto Sodwana’s beaches to reproduce, as they’ve been doing for the last 60,000 years.

The national park takes in the bay itself, while the desultory collection of shops and an upmarket lodge that pass for the town are 8km to the west, back along the Mbazwana road.

Diving and snorkelling in Sodwana Bay

Unless you’re a keen angler, the principal reason to come to Sodwana Bay is for the diving off the coral reefs that thrive here in the warm waters carried down the coast by the Agulhas current. The sea is clear, silt-free and perfect for spotting some of the 1200 varieties of fish that inhabit the waters off northern KwaZulu-Natal, making it second only to the Great Barrier Reef in its richness.

The closest reef to the bay, and consequently the most visited, is Two Mile Reef, 2km long and 900m wide, offering excellent dives. Among the others is Five Mile Reef, which is further north and is known for its miniature staghorn corals, while beyond that, Seven Mile Reef is inhabited by large anemone communities and offers protection to turtles and rays, which may be found resting here.

There’s excellent snorkelling at Jesser Point, a tiny promontory at the southern end of the bay. Just off here is Quarter Mile Reef, which attracts a wide variety of fish, including moray eels and rays. Low tide is the best time to venture out – a sign on the beach indicates daily tide times. You can buy competitively priced snorkels and masks (or rent them for R30 per day) from the dive shop at Sodwana Bay Lodge. Here you’ll also find a dive operation offering various diving courses, diving packages and scuba equipment rental. There is also a dive operator providing similar services at Coral Divers.

Zulu festivals

In September and October KwaZulu-Natal is host to three significant Zulu festivals that until recently were only attended by the actual participants, though it’s now possible to witness these with the Eshowe-based Zululand Eco-Adventures. If you’re not around in September or October, Zululand Eco-Adventures can arrange for you to attend several lower-key Zulu ceremonies that give an authentic, non-touristy insight into various aspects of Zulu life. These range from sangoma healing ceremonies (Wed & Sun), Zulu weddings (Sat & Sun), coming-of-age ceremonies (Sat & Sun) and a visit to a Zulu gospel church (Sun).

The Royal Reed Dance

In the second week of September, the Zulu King hosts a four-day celebration at his royal residence at Nongoma. The event is both a rite of passage to womanhood for the young maidens of the Zulu nation, and a chance for them to show off their singing and dancing talents. The festival, known as Umkhosi woMhlanga in Zulu, takes its name from the riverbed reeds that play a significant role in Zulu life. Young women carry the reed sticks, which symbolize the power of nature, to the king. According to Zulu mythology, only virgins should take part, and if a woman participant is not a virgin, this will be revealed by her reed stick breaking. A second Reed Dance takes place in the last week of September at the king’s other residence in Ingwavuma.

King Shaka Day

In honour of King Shaka, a celebration is held yearly on September 24 in KwaDukuza, Shaka’s original homestead and the place where he was murdered in 1828 by his brothers Dingane and Mhlangana. It was Shaka who brought together smaller tribes and formed them into the greatest warrior nation in Southern Africa. Today, the celebration is attended by a who’s who of South African Zulu society; there are speeches by the likes of Inkatha Freedom Party leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, along with music and fantastic displays of warrior dancing, the men decked out in full ceremonial gear and armed with traditional weapons.

Shembe Festival

Held in mid- to late October in Judea, near Eshowe, the Shembe Festival is the culmination of weeks of endless rituals, dancing and prayers held throughout KwaZulu-Natal. Some thirty thousand members of the Shembe Church return here every year to meet their leader and celebrate their religion with prayer dances and displays of drumming.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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