New flights, incredible sights and more diverse wildlife than even the Kruger can boast — all for less money. South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal is about to become your go-to wilderness…
The sun lowered and my urgency rose. I didn’t want to miss it. The road was a single-lane sinew now, climbing and twisting into the Drakensberg mountains, frustrating our progress. I kept on driving as the light slipped, the world flushed, the baboons looked on from the verge. Finally I arrived, grabbed a beer, flung open the chalet’s front door, ran straight through to its back and out onto the million-dollar terrace. Just in time.
The Amphitheatre filled the view, every inch of it. It was a gargantuan castle of basalt, and I was like a minion looking up at its master’s lair – part awed, part afraid. The sun was performing its last hurrah, softening the wrinkles of this immense rock wall before disappearing to leave a looming silhouette. I raised my bottle, lit the braai (barbecue) and remained on the patio, watching the stars prick the darkness one by one until they were legion; until the sky seemed more light than shade. Not bad for under £50 a night.
As one of the smallest provinces in South Africa, the south-easterly KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) punches well above its weight. As well as being home to the country’s highest mountains, it has a long Indian Ocean coastline, UNESCO-listed wetlands, swathes of bushveld, and is home to not just the Big Five but the Big Seven (including whales and turtles). I’d heard it was great value, too, with trips here cheaper than the better-known Kruger region and encompassing a wider variety of activities, so you get more for less. And with the launch of direct flights from London to Durban, KZN’s biggest city, in late 2018, it is now easier to access than ever. I was sold.
The sign – ‘Warning: hippos crossing for next 3km’ – was the first indication this wasn’t your average town. “It’s paradise,” said Alfredo as I ate fresh-caught fish at his restaurant in St Lucia. Paradise with a kick: hippos regularly wander the streets here after dark. I didn’t meet any as I walked by torchlight back to the guesthouse on our first night in South Africa, although the rounded lumps of black bin bags gave us a few frights.
St Lucia sits at the southern entrance to iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which, in 2019, celebrates the 20th anniversary since it was listed by UNESCO, making it South Africa’s first World Heritage site. iSimangaliso (‘miracle’ in Zulu) is vast, stretching 220km along the KZN coast, right to the Mozambique border, and protecting eight interlinked ecosystems and a greater biodiversity than Kruger. It costs £2 to get in, though I’d opted to join guide Sakhile for the day, to get more insight into the park, its ecology and local culture. Almost as soon as we passed through the gates, we found white rhino: two sisters and a big male with oxpeckers in his ears and a heartbroken expression on his face.
“Two weeks ago, his wife was killed by poachers,” said Sakhile. “Now he’s hanging around with these females – they’ve got each other’s back.”
We let them be and continued into the park, avoiding low-flying dung beetles, spotting zebra, buffalo and a long-distance elephant, as well as pausing to learn some Zulu basics. For instance, I discovered that, should my partner want to marry me, he’d need to pay my parents a lobola (bride price) of 11 cows; also that a goat would be slaughtered at our wedding, and I’d have to bathe in its blood, bile and excrement in order to be introduced to my new family’s dead ancestors.
Eventually we reached Cape Vidal, where blue waves crashed onto soft, blonde sand and dunes receded into the salty haze. It would have been a ‘top beach’ contender on looks alone but then I clocked what was happening offshore. From June to November thousands of humpback whales migrate along the KZN coast, following the continental shelf, which is particularly close to land here. Looking out, the water was alive with blowhole puffs and tail slaps – distant, yes, but everywhere – a conga line of cetaceans bound for their Mozambican breeding grounds.
The next morning I went out by boat for some impressive close-ups – including acrobatic breaches. There was something about seeing so many here, knowing we were going about our on-shore business while they did their ocean thing, oblivious.
This natural approach to wildlife watching continued in HluhluweImfolozi Park, a little south of iSimangaliso. As a former hunting ground of Zulu kings, the park was established in 1895 to protect white rhino, which had been almost wiped out by European guns. It’s the oldest proclaimed wildlife reserve in Africa, and home to the country’s original bush-immersion experience.
Imfolozi Wilderness Trails began in the 1950s as a way for humans to feel the power and tonic of nature; to walk in the park’s wildest areas, a big-sky bushveld free of development and other people. Access is on foot or horseback; the paths you follow have been created by the animals themselves. Phones, laptops, even watches are discouraged. This is about disconnecting from hubbub rather than ticking off wildlife. Though there is plenty to see.
“Elephant bulls generally aren’t a problem,” explained lead guide Zephian Alberts, “but breeding herds can get grumpy – we need to keep our distance. We might stumble on lions; they might charge but it’ll probably be a mock charge – don’t run. If we see a leopard, we’ll retreat slowly until it moves away. There’s a high chance of seeing rhino. Black rhino are the aggressive ones but their sight is bad, so you just need to get behind a tree and it’ll run past.”
As he briefed our small group at base camp, I began to question the wisdom of spending three days walking in this Big Five-patrolled wilderness. I’d heard we had around a 70% chance of meeting elephants and a 90% chance of seeing rhino. But I also knew that the Wilderness Trails have a 100% safety record. As we set off across the low, wide Imfolozi River, all my senses were a-tingle.
And quite right, too. The bush was attacking all my faculties with its hot sun and rough-cracked tamboti bark, giggling hoopoe and ghostly grey-headed shrikes, citrus-scented torchwood and the ripeness of a recently visited rhino midden. The colours were earthy, but spritzed with zebra stripes, butterfly flashes and the crimson ooze of weeping boer-bean.
“Elephants love these,” said Zephian, pointing to the boer-bean tree’s bent-double limbs. On foot, we could stop to see, scratch and sniff. It was less a safari than a hug.
We walked, slowly, all afternoon, watching buffalo wallow, seeing nyala and impala graze the woodland and baboons commuting along the riverbank to reach the cliffs – “They spend the night on the rocks, where the leopards can’t get them,” Zephian explained. Just before dusk, we reached camp, which was basic but comfortable: two-man tents, a bucket shower, a spade for the toilet. We dropped our bags and ventured out to collect firewood; we were just scouring the bushes when one of them started to crackle...
Zephian motioned us to halt, then corralled us behind a flimsy tree. White rhino, maybe five or six, were grazing just beyond. As we waited, pin-drop quiet, I was suddenly very aware of my skin; every pore strained to feel, smell, listen. Then, finally, one of the rhino stamped out from the trees, showing us his full, handsome heft mere metres away, before they all bolted off into the scrub.
I spent three days in Imfolozi, thrilled by creatures great and small, from the aposematic exuberance of an elegant grasshopper to the bone-chilling roar of lions in the night. It was no-frills but priceless, being truly humbled by nature. However, after I emerged from our splendid isolation, I opted to safari in a different style.
KZN has several private reserves that offer intimate game-viewing in bush-luxe lodges, but at generally lower prices than in South Africa’s better-known areas. One such is Manyoni Reserve, where Mavela Game Lodge offers a bit of bush chic with a reasonable price tag.
Manyoni was established in 2004 when adjacent landowners removed their fences to create a 23,000 hectare protected area for the World Wildlife Fund’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project. Since then, other species, such as elephant, cheetah and wild dog, have been reintroduced, and huge efforts have been made to return the landscape – a glorious undulation of green hills and valleys, backed by the Ubombo mountains – to its natural state.
Our tent looked across the rippling countryside and, at closer quarters, onto our own little watering hole, a-splash with blue waxbills and village weavers. Days here soon fell into a happy rhythm, defined by morning and late-afternoon drives with guide Nico. We were always on the lookout for the reserve’s Big Five but were constantly distracted by the charismatic birdlife – Manyoni means ‘place of birds’. We saw a whole field guide, from lilac-breasted rollers and red-billed hornbills to a young Verreaux’s eagle-owl on its nest and an ostrich couple herding a rabble of tiny chicks.
We rarely saw vehicles from any of Manyoni’s other lodges but, if jeeps did converge, only two were allowed in the same place at the same time, ensuring encounters felt personal. And while game drives had a rough schedule, should something crop up – a lesser-spotted genet in the torchlight, an elephant sighting too good to leave – we lingered, working instead to Mother Nature’s time.
This was the case on our last morning. The buzz on the Manyoni radio was all about the reserve’s far south; we headed that way and were busy scanning the scrub when two brown-beige-black streaks flashed across the track ahead: a stricken impala and a cheetah on the chase. It was over so fast we began to question it had happened at all. But then we saw, through the thicket, two cats breakfasting on their success, the fur reddening around their chops.
It wasn’t the clearest of sightings. That came ten minutes later, when we found a mother cheetah and three cubs lazing, licking and nuzzling right by the track. Driving back, it was getting late for breakfast and we were on a cat high, almost ignoring the sizeable supporting cast of wildebeest, warthogs, zebra and giraffe. Then another call came in: lion spotted, near our lodge.
I don’t know how Nico found him – the radio information was unclear, the tracks so same-y. But eventually, there he was: a huge maned lion, gazing imperiously from the long grass. He allowed us to come close. Then, as if to show he was, indeed, the boss, he raised his solid, scarred body and padded slowly towards us and right alongside the truck, before flopping into the grass again, rolling onto his side like an old dog wanting a belly rub. As if anyone would dare.
I’d ventured deep into KZN’s bush. I’d enjoyed its beaches – from whale-watching at the Cape to snorkelling up the coast at Kosi Bay. But I was still to hit greater heights. The Drakensberg stretches for over 1,000km across eastern South Africa, but it’s in KwaZulu-Natal that the range rumples into its highest and most impressive formations. My chalet at Thendele, in Royal Natal National Park, faced the most impressive of them all. And the day after dashing to arrive for sundown, I walked into the mighty Amphitheatre’s intimidating embrace, right from my door.
It was already hotting up as I set off early into Tugela Gorge. Contouring the exposed hillside, we were soon as flushed as the bottlebrush trees, though patches of forest provided intermittent shade. As we probed deeper into the mountains, the gorge began to narrow. Baboons screeched above, their din amplified by the rearing walls, their antics raining pebbles onto the trail. Was this an ambush? We picked up the pace, boulder-hopping through the gully and into the narrows to get out of harm’s way.
Tugela Falls is the world’s second-highest waterfall, a seasonal cascade that drops 948m from the top of the Amphitheatre. Its waters eventually feed into the sun-dappled pool that we were now gazing into. I’d squeezed and waded through the Tunnel, the gorge’s sinuous, smooth-polished finale, but were thwarted by this deep plunge of aquamarine. No choice but to turn back. Unless...
KZN had provided many cheap thrills. Why not a budget spa treatment? There was no one else around, not even a baboon. So I stripped to my smalls and dared myself. Finally, I jumped. Oh my. The deep-freeze, the rush, the idiocy, the joy! The cold stole my words. But then, that seemed about right for this whole place. I was speechless.
KwaZulu-Natal province was only created in 1994, following the merging of Natal and KwaZulu (‘Place of the Zulu’).
The Zulu trace their roots to the Nguni peoples who migrated from northern Africa to the Great Lakes, heading south as early as the 11th century. According to oral history, the Zulu (meaning ‘heaven’) emerged around 1700, when chief Zulu kaMalandela founded the royal line. But it was King Shaka Zulu who shook things up.
When Shaka became leader in 1816, the Zulus numbered 1,500; by the time he was assassinated – by his half-brother – in 1828, he’d amassed an army of 50,000. This coincided with the Mfecane, a period of conflict and chaos among indigenous communities. Then came the fights with outsiders: first with the Boers; then, following the British invasion of Zululand in 1879, the Anglo-Zulu Wars. The Zulu never regained their independence.
However, the Zulu remain South Africa’s largest ethnic group, with an estimated 10 million living in KwaZulu-Natal. Its Battlefields Route is a fascinating insight into the colonial conflicts; Isandlwana is particularly sobering. Or follow the Zululand Heritage Route, which visits sites such as eMakhosini Ophate, where many Zulu kings are buried.
The author travelled with TravelLocal (0117 325 7898), which connects travellers with local tour operators for authentic experiences that benefit local communities. A two-week trip to KwaZulu-Natal’s Elephant Coast and Drakensberg regions costs from £2,120pp, including car hire, accommodation, some meals and all excursions; excludes international flights.
In St Lucia, Avalone Guesthouse is both friendly and spacious.
For Drakensberg views, choose Thendele Camp which stares right at the awesome Amphitheatre.
Mavela is a stylish tented camp in Manyoni Private Reserve.
For a relaxing spot tucked into the forest beside one of Kosi Bay’s lakes, Kosi Bay Lodge is a good choice.
For something rustic but truly special, head out on Imfolozi Wilderness Trail to walk into the wilderness and camp in the bush. Highly recommended.
1: Drakensberg Mountains
This range runs for 1,125km across eastern South Africa. But it’s in KwaZulu-Natal that it’s at its most dramatic, topping 3,450m and folding into impressive formations – not least the curving rock wall of the Amphitheatre.
2: iSimangaliso Wetland Park
iSimangaliso has a higher biodiversity than Kruger. Base yourself in the town of St Lucia to take self-drive or guided safaris. There’s good land-based whale-watching at Cape Vidal and fatbiking and horse-riding on the park’s outskirts.
3: Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is a top Big Five reserve. Take a self-drive safari or try its Wilderness Trails (the concept originated here) for the chance to see rhino, elephant and more on foot.
4: Kosi Bay Nature Reserve
At the far north of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, this area of estuarine lakes, coastal forest and pristine beaches is a good place to relax, snorkel, take a boat cruise, look for hippos and learn about Thonga culture.
5: Private game reserves
For intimate game viewing, stay at one of KZN’s private reserves. Manyoni Reserve, part of the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, has just seven lodges but plenty of game – including the Big Five.
6: Marine life
From June to November humpback whales migrate along the KZN coast. See them from land or take a boat trip from St Lucia. From November to March, loggerhead and leatherback turtles come ashore here; join a guided night tour to see them nesting.