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.
Billed as the heritage city, and KZN’s administrative and legislative capital, Pietermaritzburg and its grand historic buildings 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, especially in the past few years.
Drakensberg & Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park
If any landscape lives up to its airbrushed, publicity-shot alter ego, it is the jagged, green sweep of the Drakensberg range’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.
The Elephant Coast
Up there on the podium with the world’s great ecotourist destinations, and not far from 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.
Best accessed from the pleasant towns of Himeville and Underberg, the Southern Berg boasts one of the region’s highlights: the journey up to Lesotho over Sani Pass. It is also renowned as a serious hiking area. As well as some great walks (including the fabulous Giant’s Cup Trail), the region also offers a smorgasbord of wilderness areas.
Underberg & Himeville
Clustered in the foothills of the southern Drakensberg, the small farming town of Underberg fills up in summer, when Durbanites head to the peaks for a breath of the fresh stuff. It has good infrastructure, and is the place to go for money and shopping and to organise activities in the region.
Crowned with some of the Drakensberg’s most formidable peaks, including Giant’s Castle peak (3312m), Monk’s Cowl (3234m) and Champagne Castle (3377m), the Central Berg is a big hit with hikers and climbers. But with dramatic scenery aplenty, this beautiful region is just as popular with those who prefer to admire their mountains from a safe distance.
South of Durban is a 160km-long string of seaside resorts and suburbs running from Amanzimtoti to Port Edward, near the Eastern Cape border. There’s a bit of a Groundhog Day feel about this mass of shoulder-to-shoulder getaways that are spread out along two routes – the N2 and the R102.
Monk’s Cowl & Champagne Valley
Within uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, Monk’s Cowl, another stunning slice of the Drakensberg range, offers superb hiking and rock climbing. Within the reserve are the three peaks Monk’s Cowl, Champagne Castle and Cathkin Peak. The area en route to the park is known as Champagne Valley.
Ladysmith is a large, bustling town. Apart from its historical aspect – several very good museums and buildings were here during the Anglo-Boer War siege – it’s a reasonable base for the area’s battlefield tours. Ladysmith was named after the wife of Cape governor Sir Harry Smith.