In our experience of travelling across Africa and selling holidays to intrepid adventurers, we have come to see that KwaZulu Natal province in South Africa is underappreciated and underbooked. It is often overlooked in favour of the big name destinations, such as Cape Town, the Kruger Park, and the Garden Route.
Yet in the province of KwaZulu Natal you will find the makings of everything you could want in an African holiday - Big 5 safaris, warm beaches, mountain hikes, and a little bit of history and culture.
What's in a name? KwaZulu Natal is a strange name, consisting of two different languages mashed together. If you translated it directly into English, just for fun, it literally means "Place of the Zulu Christmas." The area was first named Natal by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who sighted the excellent natural harbour at Durban on Christmas Day in 1497. Natal means Christmas in Portuguese. In 1994, after the end of apartheid, the prefix "KwaZulu" was added, which means Place of the Zulus. The Zulus are the biggest indigenous tribe in South Africa and KwaZulu Natal is their traditional homeland.
The biggest reason most people come to Africa is to see the wildlife and KwaZulu Natal is home to some excellent game reserves, which have the Big 5 as well as many other species. They offer superb safari opportunities, as lower costs and with less visitors than comparable lodges in the Greater Kruger Park. The most famous game reserve is probably Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, which is also the oldest game reserve in South Africa. The reserve is famous for its operation to save the white rhino from extinction. In the 1950's and 1960's, the white rhino was virtually extinct in the wild, save for a handful in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi. A highly successful breeding and preservation project was launched by the park warden Ian Player which led to the recovery of the species. All the white rhinos you see in Southern Africa today can trace their lineage back to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi. And for those interested in trivia, Ian Player is the brother of South Africa's most successful golfer, Gary Player.
Phinda Game Reserve is well known in South Africa for being one of the best curators of luxury safaris. It has its own private airstrip catering to flights from Johannesburg, which also makes it easy to get to. Within the reserve there are four distinct habitats, which makes it an excellent safari destination. One is able to experience woodland, grassland, wetland and forest. There are six 5-star luxury lodges interspersed through these habitats and the lodge is also in close proximity to the unspoilt beaches along the Indian Ocean. During your stay here, your every need will be looked after.
For family friendly safaris, we recommend Nambiti Game Reserve, located almost halfway between Durban and Johannesburg. Namibiti is home to over 40 species of animals, including cheetah, leopard, giraffe, hippo, hyena, impala, eland and zabra plus an array of other creatures and plants. It offers a more affordable safari experience than Phinda and is much more child friendly. Nambiti is also the only malaria-free game reserve in KwaZulu Natal.
After enjoying three or four nights on safari looking for animals, the next thing you might want to do is head to the beach for a few days of relaxation in the sun, and to do some water sports. KwaZulu Natal is roughly the size of Portugal, which means there is kilometres of coastline to choose from. Fed by the warm Agulhas current which flows from the equator, the sea in KwaZulu Natal is warm all year round and the further north you go, the warmer it gets. Durban is the most popular city South Africa for beach holidays, but we recommend heading further north into less populated areas, such as St Lucia, isiMangaliso Wetland Park and Kosi Bay. You can find fully inclusive lodges here which offer a number of activities to keep you entertained, such as snorkelling, kayaking and boat trips. The town of St Lucia is popular because its estuary is home to crocodiles, hippos and fish eagles, which makes it a fun spot to do sunset cruises. Sometimes the hippos can be seen wondering the streets of the town at night, so do be careful. And further up the coast, Kosi Bay is where you can see turtles nesting from November to January.
For the serious divers, Sodwana Bay, Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks offer some world class diving. From June - July, the sardine run occurs off the coast of KwaZulu Natal when millions of sardines migrate north to warmer waters near Mozambique. The size of the sardine run has been compared to the great wildebeest migration and the sheer amount of sardines creates a feeding frenzy amongst dolphins, sharks, sea birds and humpback whales.
KwaZulu Natal still has more to offer the curious traveller. The Drakensberg Mountains is a mountain range which runs down the spine of South Africa and reaches its highest points in KwaZulu Natal, with many peaks exceeding 3000m and the highest one reaching 3482m above sea level. The Drakensberg is also home to the second highest waterfall in the world, the Tugela Falls, which is 948m high. It is possible to hike to the top of this waterfall.
Close to the Drakensberg, and for this history buffs, you will find the Battlefields. KwaZulu Natal has been the battleground for a number of important battles and wars throughout South Africa's formative history, involving the British, the Boers and the Zulus. All these historically important battlefields have been well preserved and centre around the town of Dundee. Guided tours of the Battlefields are available from a number of lodges who specialise in the events. With a two or three night stay, you can relive the Battles of Isandlwana, Rorke's Drift, Blood River, Talana Hill, Spionkop and Ladysmith.
The Battle of Isandlwana is famous for being the only time the British army was defeated in battle by an indigenous army and contributed to the Zulu tribe's fearsome reputation. Although the later he same day, the Zulus were trounced at the Battle of Rorke's Drift. The British are so proud of the latter battle that they turned into a movie starring Michael Caine.
The Battle of Talana Hill was the opening battle of the Second Anglo-Boer war, while Spionkop was its deadliest battle. Peculiarly, there is a grandstand at Liverpool's Anfield Stadium named after Spionkop. Walking through the Battlefields with an experienced guide, it is easy to be transported back to the day of the battle and to pretend that you were there.
We offer a number of safaris and itineraries to all the areas mentioned in this blog, as well as some others that we couldn't find space to write about. You can find all our itineraries as well as our favourite lodges and hotels by clicking here: https://www.indigosafaris.com/kwazulu-natal-safaris-and-holidays.htlm
Photographer, conservationist, dive and field guide, teller of bad jokes.