From sea to sky, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) shines like no other South African province – its 600km-long, beach-lined coast is an unparalleled playground for visitors and locals alike, as are the towering peaks and passes of the mighty Drakensberg mountain range. Between the two is an enthralling landscape that tells of cultures present and past, one that is also home to some of Africa’s greatest safari experiences.
KZN’s ‘Big Seven’
Spotting the Big Five (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo) has been a long-time rite of passage for many safari-goers, and KZN will not disappoint in that regard, with Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Tembe Elephant Park and uMkhuze Game Reserve all hosting these sought after species. Uniquely, the province also offers the opportunity to observe two more mammoth-sized species, the southern right whale and great white shark.
That said, safari cognoscenti know that rewarding wildlife viewing isn’t always about the big name animals, and uMkhuze proves the point, with some 400 species of birds often taking centre stage in visitors’ hearts. Another great example where different species steal the show is iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a Unesco World Heritage site whose name rightly translates to ‘Miracle’ or ‘Wonder’. Within its 3280-sq-km boundaries are five ecosystems that contain everything from loggerhead and leatherback turtles, to dolphins, hippos and zebras.
Epic mountainous landscape
The Drakensberg, or ‘Mountain of the Dragons’, is the tallest range in Southern Africa, and one of the continent’s most superlative places to hike. Let your eyes wander to tumbling waterfalls, bubbling rivers, flat-topped ridges, dramatic peaks, wide valleys and steep escarpments while your legs negotiate the ever-tempting terrain. Trails range from simple walks and half-day hikes to testing treks of up to 12 hours. For those who can’t get enough, there are also multi-day trekking routes.
Much of the range is protected within the Unesco World Heritage-listed uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, which is made up of various South African national parks and reserves. Providing access to some of the most spellbinding scenery, and best day walks, is Royal Natal National Park. There you’ll need some time to catch your breath after your first sight of the Amphitheatre, an 8km-long sheer escarpment that is the Drakensberg’s ultimate crown. Giant’s Castle is another park with epic landscapes – it offers hiking, ancient rock-art sites and a hide to view the lammergeyer, a species of endangered bearded vulture. Between those two parks is Cathedral Peak Nature Reserve, a place for challenging treks beneath the towering summits of the Bell (2930m), the Horns (3005m) and Cleft Peak (3281m).
The city of Durban is more than a base to explore the wilds of KZN, it is a rewarding destination in its own right. The numerous beaches on the Golden Mile, along with the promenade, revamped waterfront and adrenaline activities in the new stadium are all worth your time. And with the largest Indian concentration of people of Indian descent outside of India, the city has a uniquely Asian atmosphere. As you’d expect in a cosmopolitan city, the dining scene is as diverse as it is mouth-watering.
Beaches for every beach-goer
The most famous stretch of sand in the province of KZN must be the humbly misnamed Golden Mile, a 5km-long group of beaches that flank Durban, the country’s third largest city. Each of them offers you something different: reliable breaks make Dairy Beach the perfect port of call for surfing; uShaka Beach’s sheltered, safe shore is peaceful place for families; Bay of Plenty Beach’s sand is the venue of choice for beach-sport buffs to play ball; the waters of Laguna Beach are a speedway for jet-skiing and other water-sports, while those off South Beach are great for swimming; and the loungers and shady umbrellas on Suncoast Beach are ideal for a little sun worshipping.
The 160km section of beaches south of Durbs (the moniker by which the city is affectionately called by locals), is also a haven for surfers, while the more remote beaches to the city’s north are quiet places to seek sandy solitude. For something truly extraordinary, a visit to the beach at Cape Vidal in iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a must. Behind its mountainous dunes are beaches perfect for a dip, and en route you may actually catch glimpses of buffaloes, crocodiles and hippos.
As the name suggests, KwaZulu-Natal includes the homeland of the Zulu, and the region of Zululand is a place where you can gain some insight into this proud tribal group. While visiting traditional Zulu villages, you’ll not only learn of their history, including that of the legendary King Shaka, but you’ll also observe the challenges facing them today in contemporary South Africa.
If you get the chance, time your visit to coincide with one of the main Zulu festivals. One such event takes place on King Shaka Day (24 September), when countless Zulus make the pilgrimage to KwaDukuza to honour the ultimate Zulu hero. Also taking place in September is the Reed Dance, where thousands of Zulu ‘maidens’ gather before their king at King Enyokeni’s Palace (between Nongoma and Ulundi).
The Boers and the British, the Voortrekkers and the Zulu, they all went to war in KZN at one time or another, and the battles they fought shaped the history of South Africa. At Blood River there are two fascinating museums that tell opposing sides of a 16 December 1838 battle, where a limited force of Voortrekkers avenged a previous massacre by devastating an army of 12,000 Zulu. At the thought-provoking Isandlwana Battlefield, monuments stand in testament to the lives lost when the Zulu emphatically dealt the British Empire one of the greatest battlefield defeats in its history. Nearby is Rorke’s Drift, a place where 139 British Soldiers famously fought off a force of 4000 Zulu warriors. Needless to say, a visit to the Battlefields region in the province’s northwest is a must for history buffs.
The Drakensberg region of KZN was a home to the San people for thousands of years, and elements of their life here are still visible in the form of fascinating rock-art sites. At Kamberg Nature Reserve, a three-hour guided walk will take you to one of the most important galleries, Game Pass Shelter. It was here that archaeologists were able to initially interpret the symbolism used in San art, and thus give understanding to hundreds of other sites across Southern Africa. Battle Cave in Injisuthi is another incredible work of ancient art – it depicts elements of humans and animals captured in what is believed to have been in a state of spiritual trance.
Lonely Planet has produced this article for British Airways Holidays. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.