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KwaZulu-Natal: South Africa's hidden gem

by Martha Hales

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Encompassing some of South Africa's most impressive scenery, its third city, fantastic wildlife watching and an enticing coastline, KwaZulu-Natal is emerging as a South African holiday hotspot. Within domestic tourism circles, KwaZulu-Natal is already well established as a jewel of a region to explore and enjoy, but for overseas visitors it is still a bit of a hidden gem. All the more reason to experience its delights before the rest of the world catches on!

cheetah in KwaZulu-Natal - South Africa holidays

Whether you come in search of an insight into iconic Zulu culture, the Big Five, subtropical beaches or wilderness hiking, this wonderful region can oblige. What is more, there is plenty to keep the roaming foodie busy in multicultural Durban, and for historians the many battlefields of various past conflicts put South Africa's turbulent history in context. There really is enough to do in KwaZulu-Natal to keep you entertained for weeks, but to help you narrow down the myriad options, we've summed up some of the highlights of this compelling region.

iSimangaliso beach dining - South Africa holidays

Dining out in Durban

The largest port in the whole of South Africa is enjoying renewed popularity for its fun seaside ambience, great Golden Mile beaches and delicious dining scene. Chi-chi beach resort this isn't, but the lively urban sprawl, brash port-town appeal and multicultural melange of influences are attracting ever more curious travellers in search of the 'real' South Africa.

South Africa holidays: Durban's golden mile

A significant Indian population - the largest outside India - gives this city an exotic edge, and as you wander the souk-like markets under the minaret of a mosque and dine on curry or local speciality 'bunny chow' you may feel a long way from Africa. The harbour area and northern suburbs offer an upmarket angle on Durban, with some of the best dining in the country.

Bunny chow in Durban

Special safari experiences 

Wildlife watchers will delight in the region's fantastic roster of national parks and reserves where an impressive cast of creatures take centre stage. The famous Big Five group of animals - lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino - are all present and correct in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and Mkhuze Game Reserve, and it is possible to mix up your wildlife experiences with a variety of safari options including traditional game drives and walking safaris.

children on birdwatching trip

Birding is another fine wildlife experience, and if this is your prime interest you should prioritise Mkhuze Game Reserve and iSimangaliso Wetland Park, both of which offer huge diversity of species and enchanting surroundings.

hippo in iSimangaliso wetlands - south africa holidays

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is recognised internationally by the Ramsar Convention and UNESCO for its biodiversity and environmental importance - within its 330,000 hectares are five separate ecosystems and one of the last untouched subtropical wildernesses in Africa.

Rhino in iSimangaliso Wetland Park - South Africa holidays

History and culture 

As the name implies, KwaZulu-Natal is the ancestral home of the Zulu tribe. Consider spending some time in traditional Zulu villages, which allow you to see first hand how ancient tribal traditions endure even today, and how the Zulu people are adapting their ancient lifestyle in the modern era.

Zulu woman on mobile - South Africa

The province of KwaZulu-Natal has witnessed many fierce battles in the past, and Zululand counts no fewer than 63 locations where battles were fought in various conflicts including battles between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus which took place in 1838, the 1879 conflict between the British and the Zulus, then subsequently the Anglo-Boer Wars of 1880 and 1899. Important battlefields and memorials which may interest history fans include Isandlwana, Blood River, Majuba, Rorke’s Drift and Laing’s Neck.

Isandlwana hill - South Africa holidays

Hiking with a head for heights

The Drakensberg mountain range, named uKhahlamba in Zulu, is an immense escarpment reaching almost 3,500 metres at its highest point. These mountains offer some mind blowing hiking possibilities, taking in the pristine wilderness terrain and awesome beauty of the area.

Drakensberg stream and terrain

Entry level half-day meanders take in valley streams and lowland rock art sites - an ancient legacy of the nomadic San people - while more challenging trails include multi day treks necessitating camping out at altitude. Some of the finest trekking can be found in the Royal Natal National Park where the scenic high point has to be the Amphitheatre - a vast, curving escarpment of sheer rock overlooked by the towering Sentinel peak.

Drakensberg mountains amphitheatre - South Africa holidays

Views from the top are hard won - to reach the flat topped escarpment there are some sections so steep that ladders have been installed - but on a clear day take in a huge area as well as a bird’s-eye view of some spectacular waterfalls and the valley dropping away in the foreground. 

Ladders in Drakensberg

Plenty of coastal attractions

As well as the serviced beaches around Durban's Golden Mile where facilities are great for surfers, families, jet skiers and everyone in between, there are plenty of hidden coves and deserted beaches to discover. For safe fun in the water use a designated swimming beach where the sands are protected by shark nets out in the bay. The KwaZulu-Natal province boasts a fantastic shoreline where attractive sandy crescents meet the balmy waters of the Indian Ocean and the subtropical climate means that the weather is often perfect for the beach.

Thonga beach Kwa-Zulu Natal

North of Durban the coast is wilder and more remote from human influence, while to the south the beaches are generally good for surfers. The northern coast hosts pods of whales migrating from the south in June and July, then returning from the north in September and October, so whale watching is an option during these periods.

Humpback whale breaching South Africa

Dolphins are present all year round, and can often be spotted frolicking out to sea. The beaches around St Lucia are great for sunbathing and horse riding and the estuary boardwalk is a fantastic place to look for crocs, hippos and birdlife. Diving is gaining in popularity all along the coast, with dive sites at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Protea Banks among the most celebrated.

Horseriding on KwaZulu-Natal beach - South Africa holidays

Make it happen 

KwaZulu-Natal boasts a rich tapestry of natural and cultural attractions which are tempting more and more intrepid travellers away from South Africa's best known sights. If you are looking for something a bit different - but no less rewarding - for your next South Africa trip, look no further. Our local experts are perfectly placed to help you get the best from your trip, so why not get in touch with them and start planning your trip today? To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898. 

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