KwaZulu-Natal’s sweeping hills, valleys, and grasslands soothe my soul. I choose not to dwell on all the blood shed in the battles of Spionkop and Colenso, even as gravestones and memorials commemorate the region’s violent history, because there really is so much more to see and do besides visit Anglo-Boer war battle sites.
Just 27km from the N3 highway, close to the base of Van Reenen’s Pass, Three Tree Hill Lodge in the Spioenkop Game Reserve specialises in Anglo Boer War Battlefield tours. While owner Simon Blackburn brings skirmishes to life over breakfast, I prefer the horse riding and bush walks on offer, or simply drinking in the Mfazimnyama Valley from a leather wingback chair.
Built in the wooden grooved paneling and corrugated iron materials of the 19th century, Three Tree Hill Lodge offers ceiling fans, crisp bed linen, homemade biscuits, and a bathroom with a floor-to-ceiling view of giraffe browsing in the valley.
Later, on a walk through the reserve, Simon ushers us past a crash of three rhino just 40 metres away, without even raising his hunting rifle. The absence of big predators – though we found the tracks of the black-backed jackal we heard giggling near the river – means the antelope are laidback.
Farm-style cooking washed down with local wines led to derring-do boasts involving the Drakensberg zip lines, Africa’s longest and highest.
Bad mistake. Terrified of heights, I awoke at 6am, hung-over and with sinking trepidation as dawn bathed the valley in a tangerine glow. A hearty breakfast helped settle my nerves and we took a scenic 45-minute drive via Winterton, past maize fields, and tiny villages, to meet our Drakensberg Canopy Tour leader at Catherine’s Peak. After a safety briefing, he strapped us into harness gear and drove us to a point at the top of the Blue Grotto forest.
From the Rabbit Hole, as the first platform was aptly named, we plunged Alice-like into a wonderland of treetops, vines, dappled sunlight, waterfalls and rainbows.
Bolted to cliffs, banks, and boughs, cables stretch like giant spider webs across the valley and you glide eagle-like through the forest canopy – home to more than 150 bird species. Dangling above it all like a pantomime fairy, I waited for the dreaded vertigo to strike, but it never did. At the Big Tree platform, where a gigantic knobthorn rears through the foliage, our guide showed us how the Zulus used the branches to protect cattle inside the kraal.
The next day we turned off the freeway at Tweedie to explore Howick, first settled by the British in the 1940s. The R103 – main drag through the popular Midlands Meander – winds through the little town and out the other side.
The Midmar Dam on the Umgeni River offers sailing, canoeing, and self-catering accommodation. You can also overnight on the Midmar banks by arrangement with Ezemvelo Parks.
Also part of the Umgeni, Howick Falls thrills visitors with spectacular views of the water plummeting 95m into the gorge below – hence its Zulu name of kwaNogqaza, which means “Place of the Tall One”.
A short walk from the falls along a “touristy” street offering curios and antiques is the Howick Falls Hotel.
About 5km northwest of Howick on the N3 is the site where Nelson Mandela was captured on August 5 1962. Northeast, the Karkloof area offers another waterfall, mountain bike trails, and an in-door farmers market for indigenous plants, home-baked goods, and fresh vegetables. Judging by the ubiquitous retirement estates along the Karkloof road, many opt to live out their twilight years here too.
From Durban we headed north for about 275km to explore the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Africa’s largest estuary with 526 bird species and huge ancient coastal dunes. Covering 332,000 hectares, it boasts three major lakes, eight interlinking ecosystems, 700-year-old fishing traditions, and swamp forests.
A magnet for water safari seekers, St. Lucia town offers a plethora of B&Bs, campsites, and restaurants. Several riverboat operators leave from the Siyabonga Jetty for a two-hour chug up and down the shallow 61km estuary, home to hippos and crocs. Sipping on G&Ts we enjoyed seeing elephant, rhino, and buffalo on the eastern and western shores.
Hippos broke the water surface with a massive hmmmfff. Kingfishers dived, fish eagles followed the boat, a cormorant balanced on shivering reeds … iSimangaliso, South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, means “place of wonder” and it’s a wondrous life here indeed!
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