How to make a holiday out of your car trip to Durban

There's so much to see between Joburg and Durban, so get off the highways and explore. Paul Ash shows you how with a glorious four-day itinerary

19 November 2017 - 00:00
It's worth taking some time to explore the amazing vistas of the Drakensberg.
It's worth taking some time to explore the amazing vistas of the Drakensberg.
Image: SEAN KONIG/drakensbergphotography.com

DAY 1: JOBURG TO VAL

(128km, 1.5 hours)

We start easily with a quick doddle down the N3 to Heidelberg then southeast on the R23 to Val, one of the nicest hamlets in the land. There is not much to Val, which hides among sweeping mielie fields near Balfour.

There's a main street with a flock of wandering geese, a railway station, a grain silo - and the wonderful country hotel. Just 30 or so people call Val home and the peace is impressive. After shedding Joburg's smoke, it's a fine place to spend a quiet night before a road trip.

MUST DO: Ask hotel owner Rita Britz to tell you the story of how Boer fighters ambushed a train loaded with champagne, whisky and beer during the Anglo-Boer War and - along with their new British prisoners - had a good time indulging in the spoils of war.

STAY: Val Hotel, Smith Street (don't worry, you can't miss it). It has 12 rooms plus self-catering cottages and a backpackers' lodge in the converted station building.

There is also a restaurant serving decent pub food and breakfast. Contact the hotel for rates. 

DAY 2: VAL TO WINTERTON

(304km, 3.5 hours)

It's a quick ride down the N3 to Harrismith. While the drive over Van Reenen's Pass to Ladysmith is pretty, the back route on the recently repaired R74 from Harrismith and down the Oliviershoek Pass is spectacular.

In front of you as you approach the pass are the towering crags of the Drakensberg, and there, on your right-hand side as you approach the pass, are the welcoming ice-blue waters of Sterkfontein, one of the largest reservoirs in the country. The lake stretches for miles - it really is an ocean among the mountains.

Then it's down the pass towards Bergville.

Now comes a tricky choice: turn right for the Royal Natal National Park and spend an afternoon hiking on the superb network of trails below the Amphitheatre. Or continue down the R74 to Winterton and the moving Spionkop battlefield.

On my most recent trip, I chose the latter because I had heard great things about Raymond Herron, battlefield guide and owner of Spionkop Lodge. Spionkop is one of the most evocative and atmospheric battlefields in the country and when the wind sighs through the grass and the jackals call in the dusk, you may feel a chill settle on your skin.

MUST DO: Herron leads daily tours up the mountain and tells moving stories of that bloody day, like the one about the grieving mother who brought a cedar 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 his grave) and about Mahatma Gandhi, who was a stretcher bearer dodging Boer bullets as he carried wounded men off the hill.

STAY: Spionkop Lodge is on a 700ha aloe and cattle farm close to the Tugela River. Accommodation is in either cottages or en-suite rooms in the lodge. From R1,980 for the four-bed Aloe Cottage to R4,774 for a room in the lodge. 

DAY 3: WINTERTON TO LIDGETTON

(100km, 1.5 hours)

Now you are on the Midlands Meander, a collection of attractions that line the R103 road between Mooi River and Howick. The attractions include places to stay, eat, drink, shop, get an adrenaline spike or simply chill.

The route is particularly famous for its arts and crafts such as the Impumelelo Bead Artists - a co-operative of women living around Lions River, whose beaded artworks have found admirers around the world - and Tsonga where women in the Lidgetton district keep alive a tradition of hand-stitching leather into bags and shoes.

Just down the road in the village of Currys Post is Groundcover, where local artisans were trained by an Italian shoemaker to make boots and shoes, with the leather coming from a much-loved herd of Nguni cattle. (The Chelsea boots my girl bought me are my best shoes ever.)

The Nelson Mandela Capture Site, near Howick.
The Nelson Mandela Capture Site, near Howick.
Image: Supplied

MUST DO: The Nelson Mandela Capture Site, just off the road near Howick, is the spot where on August 5 1962 Madiba's car was pulled over by police after he had visited Chief Albert Luthuli. He had been on the run for 17 months.

The moment is preserved in an incredible sculpture of steel pipes of varying heights. Up close it looks like, well, just pipes. But step back and there is the face of democratic South Africa's first president.

STAY: Lythwood Lodge is an eight-room luxury hotel in an old manor house in Lidgetton. From R1,600 per night, including breakfast.

DAY 4: LIDGETTON TO DURBAN VIA IXOPO

(290km, 5 hours)

Make an early start today, for you have miles to go before you sleep.

It's a bit of a detour to Ixopo but the scenery alone is worth it. If you want to make time, head to Pietermaritzburg on the N3 then turn south to Richmond. When you arrive, follow the signs to Allwoodburn Station, where - on the right day - a little train will be waiting to take you up the hill to Carisbrooke.

This is the very railway that Alan Paton describes at the start of Cry, The Beloved Country. Saved from scrapping by local entrepreneur Julian Pereira, the railway is now a tourist attraction with a couple of restored steam engines, including one that would have been working on the railway when Paton wrote his novel.

These days the train to Carisbrooke will likely be hauled by a diesel engine but the ride is as it was in Paton's day.

The narrow rails clamber up from Ixopo and wander through stands of eucalyptus. Natural forest embraces the railway as it loops down the hill from Stainton to Carisbrooke.

Red hot pokers grow by the track and there are arum lilies in the dells. In winter, the mist descends on the hills and the train clanks through forests like a ghost among ghosts.

And for once on your trip, someone else is doing the driving. It's R175 for adults, R128 for kids aged 2-12.  Check in advance that trains are running here

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