KwaZulu-Natal: Mountains and battles
Paul Ash explores two fascinating KwaZulu-Natal attractions
The southern and western parts of the province are famous for two things — the Drakensberg and the battlefields of the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer wars.
Both offer absorbing travel, the ’Berg for relaxing in spectacular surroundings; the battlefields for a look into this country’s tempestuous history.
Two hills are the centre of battlefield tourism here. One, shaped like a crouching lion — or a sphinx — looms rockily above the Isandlwana plain; the other is Spionkop — two small hills rising to a flat rump with a steep face looking down upon a lazy river.
Isandlwana is the site of a great Zulu military victory, where the pride of King Cetshwayo’s regiments smashed through a ring of red-coated British soldiers on a hot day in January 1879.
At Spionkop — “Spy Hill” — hundreds of British soldiers fell during a bitter night during the Anglo-Boer War in January 1900.
South Africa has many battlefields worth visiting but Isandlwana and Spionkop are two of the most evocative and atmospheric. When the mist shrouds Isandlwana, you can see how the Welsh soldiers, whose sphinx cap badge looked eerily like that mountain, would have seen it as a bad omen.
When the wind sighs through the grass on Spionkop, and the jackals are calling in the dusk, you may feel a chill settle on your skin.
To get the most out of both battlefields, you need a guide who knows the history and can tell a good story.
There are many guides leading tourists around Isandlwana and nearby Rorke’s Drift where the battle continued that night, but who better to hear the story from than a relative of one of the great Zulu generals who fought that day? Lindizwe (Dalton) Ngobese is the great-grandson of Mehlokazulu of the iNgobamakhosi Regiment, which formed part of the left horn of the Zulu advance.
Dalton is based at Isandlwana Lodge, a community-run hotel — built in the shape of a Zulu shield — that overlooks the battlefield and its brooding mountain. His tours cover the battlefield and traditional Zulu culture.
At Spionkop, the guide to have is Raymond Heron, owner of nearby Spionkop Lodge, who leads daily tours up the mountain. His stories about the battle include the little ones that say so much, like the one about the grieving mother who brought a cedar tree sapling all the way from England by ship to plant on her son’s grave. More than a century later, despite having been struck by lightning numerous times, the tree still guards the soldier’s grave.
DETAILS: Lindizwe Ngobese, Isandlwana Lodge, tel: 034-271-8304, e-mail email@example.com or see www.isandlwana.co.za. Raymond Heron, phone 036-488-1404, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.spionkop.co.za
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THE ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS
KARKLOOF CANOPY TOURS
Nothing prepares one for the thrills in store in the Karkloof Reserve Forest just outside Howick. There is nothing to fear on a Karkloof Canopy Tour, just exhilarating fun to be had on a zip line.
The guides put trembling participants at ease as they hook their harnesses onto steel cables. We start our glide above the forest in full cry. The first leg is the shortest, just 40m, but long enough to get you in the groove. The longest slide is about 200m and nicknamed “the N3”.
Another is next to a waterfall. We flew alongside birds and marvelled at the views stretching beyond: vast farmlands with grazing cattle and charming KZN landscapes. Children and anyone feeling fearful can slide in tandem with a guide. The price includes a light meal — but eat it afterwards! — MO
DETAILS: Karkloof Road, near Howick. R595 per person. Phone 033-330-3415, e-mail email@example.com or see karkloofcanopytour.co.za.
STERKFONTEIN DAM AND THE R74 ROAD
Next time you drive to Durban, do yourself a favour and get off the N3 and onto the lovely, newly fixed, pothole- and traffic-free R74 from Harrismith down to the Drakensberg. Signs point out the Sterkfontein Dam just in time for you put on the brakes and make a sharp turn right. If you are travelling alone, the huge space feels empty and disquieting. But if you want solitude, Sterkfontein Dam is your own private beach.
Not a bad place to propose, if marriage is on your mind. The blue water, stark against the winter grass, goes on for miles. The sound of the water lapping up against the sand sounds like the sea — an ocean in the middle of the Drakensberg. You won’t see much evidence of habitation except droppings from zebra, gemsbok and wildebeest.
If you want to row boats, swim, kayak and most likely have an entire dam to yourself, then come here. There are a number of self-catering places in the area, so you could stay overnight and fish all day in solitary splendour. Or just drive around the dam and soak it all in. — KC
DETAILS: The R74 runs from Harrismith down Oliviershoek Pass to Bergville and eventually joins the N3 again near Estcourt.
ALL OUT ADVENTURES
All Out Adventures in Northern Drakensberg will keep kids and adrenaline junkies happy on quad bikes or zip-lining through the trees. The staff are calm and soft-spoken and know exactly how to ensure you won’t back out of what might suddenly seem like a bad idea. Do the zip line or the King Swing (a gentler form of bungee jumping) or you could play paintball. — Lucky Biyase
DETAILS: R490 gets you three hours of unlimited rides on the zip line, King Swing, Flying Trapeze or Bungee Bounce. See alloutadventures.co.za.
HIKING THE AMPHITHEATRE
Everywhere you go in this part of the world, the Drakensberg mountains fill the sky with beauty. There are many lovely trails here, from short ambles to serious multi-day trails to the high peaks.
Some of the best hikes are the day trails from Mahai campsite at the foot of the Amphitheatre. There are burbling streams to cool off in and magnificent views of the crags above. And never in your life will you hear so many Piet-my-vrous, their calls echoing among the rocks.
NELSON MANDELA CAPTURE SITE
No matter how many billion times he is called “South Africa’s most beloved leader”, Nelson Mandela’s story never loses its magic. Near Hilton is a commemorative site where he was captured before standing trial. This was once a small stretch of road where on August 5 1962 Madiba’s car was pulled over by police after he had visited Chief Albert Luthuli.
He was arrested after having evaded arrest for 17 months. It is a site worth visiting every time you are near these parts, and if you are pressed for time it takes just 10 minutes.
As one walks down the hill, the artistry of the incredible sculpture representing Mandela’s long walk to freedom becomes apparent. Close up, this is simply a cluster of steel columns of varying heights (some almost 10m tall) with assorted bumps and ridges, but from a particular angle, Mandela’s face comes clearly into view.
There is also a small museum containing information and graphic representations of Madiba, but the attraction for most people is a photo opportunity with this brilliant work of art in the background. — KC
DETAILS: The memorial is on the R103, five minutes from the N3.
What sounds like a hiking trail is in fact a plethora of wildly varied attractions in the gently rolling hills between Mooi River and ’Maritzburg. Five mapped routes (details available on brochures at most places in the area) encompass places to stay, eat, drink, shop, be active, relax or indulge.
The Meander is particularly popular for arts and crafts: three highlights are the world-famous Ardmore ceramics studio, Impumelelo Bead Artists — a co-operative of gifted women whose unique beaded artworks are commissioned by discerning patrons from all over the globe — and Tsonga, where the tradition of fine hand-stitched leather is kept alive in shoes and bags by local Zulu women.
Every year the emerging artist project, supported by the N3 Toll Concession, provides training and resources for five previously disadvantaged artists to establish sustainable businesses on the Meander. See midlandsmeander.co.za.
THE PATON’S EXPRESS
The train from Ixopo to Carisbrooke in the south of KwaZulu-Natal is a diamond in the rough, snaking through the trees which form a guard of honour alongside this historic narrow-gauge line which runs from Ixopo over the hills to Madonela.
The ride takes me back to my childhood playground, which was filled with whoops of happiness. In this case my park is carpeted with vast sugar-cane fields in the lush valleys about which author Alan Paton wrote. In his famous novel, Cry, the Beloved Country.
Paton describes this part of the province: “A lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”
I can’t help but smile. I’m on board the Paton’s Express, imagining who sat on this seat 80 years ago, around the time when it started running.
The man behind the project is Julian Pereira who, with the help of the local community and municipality, keeps the wheels turning and creates jobs. He is currently mentoring assistant Thabiso Jili, 27, to take over the operations when Pereira retires.
As we ride to Carisbrooke, the sound of the bellowing hooter calls packs of delighted children, who start running alongside the train. I stick my head out of the window and a gentle breeze blows on my face as I wave back at them. All of us will have something to talk about tonight.
DETAILS: The train runs on the second Sunday of each month (or on demand for groups) from Woodburn station in Ixopo, on the R56 from Richmond. Phone 082-374-1417, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.pcngr.co.za. — Mzi Oliphant
EATING ON THE RUN
One of the highlights was a late lunch at The Farmer’s Daughter (tel: 033-330-2958) in Howick. Owned by Jennifer Pretorius, whose dad really is a farmer, it’s not fancy, but it is fresh — all the milk, eggs and chicken are sourced locally and it offers breakfast, lunch and dinner “the way mom used to do”. Have a Lucky Fish Espresso made by resident barista Kwanda Khumalo (pictured below), recently voted one of South Africa’s top 100 coffee brewers.
The pizzas at the Tower of Pizza just outside Bergville were unforgettable. Run by husband and wife Pierre and Ilonka Labuschagne, the pizzeria supports the local community by buying their produce. It employs 20 people, one of whom rose through the ranks to get a place at chef school.
On the Midlands Meander, stop at Chocolate Heaven in Nottingham Road and get a fondue pot filled with molten dark or milk chocolate into which you dip everything you want.
At the Marrekesh cheese farm in Rosetta you can buy a glass of wine and taste about eight cheeses free of preservatives or colourants. Head to Terbodore coffee roasters near Howick, redolent with the smell of coffee beans (there are also interesting flavoured coffees), a friendly Great Dane called Sultan and phenomenal food. As for the beer, taste five types of craft beer from Nottingham Road Brewery at the buzzing Bierfassl Austrian restaurant where you will be made to feel like you belong.
WHERE WE STAYED
DIDIMA CAMP CATHEDRAL PEAK
“I don't know what to say,” said Mzi Oliphant, the chattiest member of our group, as he drove the team bus — sponsored by Europcar — into Didima Camp below Cathedral Peak. The Drakensberg is so magnificent it left us speechless. At Didima, you hear the silence. Every little sound seems loud: footsteps on the path, leaves rustling or a lone lesser-collard sunbird singing. Standing outside the chalet in the evening, my colleagues heard the flapping of an eagle’s wings and looked up to see it swooping right above them.
I fell asleep listening to the sound of a fire in my thatched chalet. The comfortable beds face the fireplaces and the lighting is soft in the warm, cosy rooms — this would be the ideal place for a spot of romance. Outside, the stars are magnificent: you’ll be staring upwards instead of checking your phone.
At sunrise, an eland carried on eating damp grass as I walked out, and a grey duiker browsed near reception. The birdlife is prolific, and the fish in the restaurant is so good you’d think Didima was right on the coast. Service is fantastic, too. – Katharine Child
DETAILS: Cathedral Peak Nature Reserve, Didima, Winterton. Call 036-488-1332 or see www.didima.info.
RATES: From R1,120 per night for a two-bed chalet.
ALPINE HEATH RESORT
Alpine Heath is like the Disneyland of the Northern Drakensberg, with planned activities for children, guided walks, horse riding, volleyball, trampolines, a play room and constant music at the pool. With something happening all the time, it’s really fun for kids and parents who can take advantage of brilliant babysitters.
At the entrance to the lodge is a security official who goes by the name of PraiseGod and gives the friendliest welcome you can imagine. In the grounds there is a peacock who goes by the name of Kevin — if you want him to wander over so that you can take a selfie with him, just eat outside the restaurant. The chalets are comfortable for families and equipped for self-catering.
The views are magnificent and the staff offer guided slow walks for anyone not fit enough to hike. Activities for adults include movies, music and pub events, or you could simply watch TV in bed on a winter’s night with an electric blanket. Don’t forget to check out the stars first though.
— Katharine Child
DETAILS: Old Cavernberg Road, Jagersrust, Northern Drakensberg. Call 087-075-0864 or 087-740-9292 or e-mail email@example.com.
RATES: From R3,675 per night for a six-sleeper chalet in high season.
Lythwood Lodge, near the posh Michaelhouse School, is close to perfect. It is a popular venue for nuptials — couples wanting a particularly memorable ceremony opt for the “forest wedding” on the lodge’s private land. The large rooms are tastefully decorated and each has a separate lounge with a large couch facing the gas fire.
Thoughtful touches include home-made daily dessert treats delivered to your room as well as fresh milk for your tea or coffee, electric blankets being turned on in the afternoon so your bed is toasty when you climb into it, and a sherry nightcap in crystal glass. If you leave your room, you can lounge instead in one of the comfortable nooks filled with books and warmed by fires.
You will want to leave your room for dining: the food is exquisite, a mix of home comfort and classy sophistication, beautifully cooked and presented. I want to be invited to a wedding here. – Katharine Child
DETAILS: R103, Lidgetton West. Call 033-234-4666 or see lythwood.com.
RATES: From R1,600 per night for a two-sleeper room.
This article was prepared in partnership with the Tourism Business Council of South Africa for the Sunday Times’s Finders Keepers competition.
This article was prepared in partnership with the Tourism Business Council of South Africa for the Sunday Times’s Finders Keepers competition.
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