KwaZulu-Natal — known as "the garden province" of South Africa — was established in 1994, when the Zulu Bantustan territory of KwaZulu and Natal Province were merged. There are few places better for your feet to touch the soil of the Motherland for the first time than the southernmost tip of the continent. Home to the Zulu monarchy and one of the country's most popular tourist destinations, KwaZulu-Natal stretches from Port Edward in the south to the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique to the north. Its western part is marked by the beautiful and dramatic Drakensberg mountain range, and its coastline is dotted with small towns, many of which serve as seasonal leisure hubs.
It was July, winter in the region, when South African Airways delivered me into Johannesburg and from there to Durban — the largest city of the province and major center of tourism because of its warm subtropical climate and what is widely considered some of the best beaches in the world.
My first destination — the Oyster Box, an upscale colonial-style hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean just minutes from Bronze Beach. Old world charm with modern sensibilities, the 86-room hotel feels proper. An intermingling of genteel clientele and hipsters populated the go-to beach resort noted for its cull of meat and vegetarian curry dishes. And yet, one feature after another shuffles into prime focus as a magnet, from Dolphin-watching on the Ocean Terrace and Oyster Bar to its award-winning spa featuring Turkish Hammam and sensation shower, and fine dining in The Grill Room.
The pink sky atop of crisp, white wave crests crashing below hotel balconies make this the obvious retreat while away to Durban. But, my overnight at The Oyster Box was a mere introduction to the beauty and wonder of South Africa. Bright and early on day two, I was off to the village of St. Lucia and a river cruise down the estuary for views of hippos, water birds, and the Nile crocodiles. Seeing animals, unrestrained in their natural habitat is an encounter best experienced first-hand. The guide bid us farewell with a warning to beware of wandering hippos at night. It was duly noted.
On my way out of St. Lucia, I was invited to visit one of the area’s Zulu villages, Khula, and was welcomed into the modest one-room hut of a grandmother who was the sole guardian of her eight grandchildren. She was fast at work making placemats by hand from discarded potato chip bags and reeds she’d collected. The income from her sales had been sustaining her family since she lost her husband a few years ago. Though she spoke only Zulu, the impact of our brief encounter sufficed.
My few hours in Khula felt like what I came to Africa to experience, though what had drawn me to the continent, was the lure of Safari. It was the perfect primer for two solid days of planned game drives in open wildlife vehicles at Hluhluwe and Mkhuze Game reserves. Hoping to glimpse the Big Five -- African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros and possibly a cheetah is an energy I’d always imagined to be nothing short of magnificent; I wasn’t wrong. And it wasn’t long into the first excursion before our guide spotted rhinoceros, giraffes and elephants.
Hluhluwe, with its rolling hills and open Savannah grasslands remains an incredibly scenic reserve as it is the oldest proclaimed game reserve in Africa and world renowned for its conservation of black and white rhino; in fact, the largest population of white rhinos in the world. Wide open terrain, Mkhuze is situated in Northern Zululand, a nearly 100,000-acre game reserve distinguished for its birding possibilities. This utopia with loop roads, hides and panoramic views, and thick dense bush, grasslands and pans gives you the feeling of being in the true Africa of yesterday. A collection of accommodation styled huts within the reserve where you can quietly observe unsuspecting white and black rhino, leopard, elephant, giraffe, nyala, wildebeest, hyenas and cheetah make for an extraordinarily up-close safari experience.
Days four and five were spent at the foot of Zululand’s Ghost Mountain in the namesake Ghost Mountain Inn. The intimate and chicly rustic 50-room hotel is ideal for being situated to explore the array of coastal and wildlife reserves. Nature enthusiasts will appreciate its scenic splendor for guided walks and boat cruises accompanied by rangers. A connection with the land in Africa was something I’d always imagined would leave a lasting impression on me. Each stop through KwaZulu-Natal was a complete elevation of that expectation.
Around me, the mountains rose up like a great coliseum of vibrant hues as I was headed next to Drakensberg to explore authentic bushman rock art. uKhahlamba Park in the Drakensberg Mountains boasts the greatest concentration of San Bushman rock art in South Africa, much of it in remote, supremely beautiful surroundings with paintings of animals like the revered eland antelope, human figures and therianthropes (a metamorphosis from human to animal) representing an otherwise lost culture. All of the Drakensberg paintings are on cave sandstone, a rock custom built for the purpose. It erodes in a way that produces weatherproof overhangs so the artist can work on the sandstone which is porous causing the paint applied to sink in and “grip.” The scenes depicted with pigmenting from blood, rock or soil rich in ferric oxide (rust), charcoal, melted fat, beeswax and heat from fire for color variation are dynamic and the features distinct.
Fordoun Hotel & Spa - Set on a former dairy farm, this quaint, refined hotel is just miles from the town of Nottingham Road and 33.6 km from Karkloof Nature Reserve. Skye Bistro is its fine dining restaurant set in the heart of the exquisite KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. From beautiful log burning fires in the winter evenings to watching the sunset from the veranda over the rolling lawns of Fordoun, Skye Bistro is the perfect place to have a relaxing sumptuous meal. Its light café style lunches capture the leisure of a bygone era.
Fairmont Zimbali Resort, situated inside the exclusive Zimbali Coastal Estate, is a tranquil retreat offering the utmost in stylish comfort and unrivalled service. Located 30 minutes from Durban, this beachfront North Coast hotel provides easy access to the province’s attractions. From King Shaka International Airport, the Fairmont Zimbali Resort is easily accessible.
Drakensberg Helicopter Flip - see parts of this spectacular world heritage site few others have seen amongst the soaring peaks of the Drakensberg mountains or the magnificent countryside of the Northern KwaZulu-Natal.
"I'm not closing out 2016 rushing to 2017 searching for reprieve. I'm searching everyday for the lesson it has for me."