Although this article, KwaZulu-Natal Tourism for the Off-Road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in KwaZulu-Natal, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
Also known as the Garden Province South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal is approximately the size of Portugal, with a surface area of 94 361 sq/km. Although it takes up only 7.7% of South Africa’s total surface area, it accommodates the second largest population, with 10.3 million persons, or 19.8% of the country’s total population.
Although KwaZulu-Natal has several distinctly different climatic regions, it has only three distinct geographical areas:
Includes the forested coastal plains leading up to the Drakensberg, and has the shape a long wedge, with its widest part in the north, consisting mostly of typical African savannah in the interior, and indigenous forest and wetlands towards the coast.
Consisting mainly of a plateau crammed to the brim with hills, this area gradually rises towards the west, and transitions into the foothills of the Drakensberg range.
Consisting of two mountain ranges, the Drakensberg in the west along the Lesotho border, and the Lebombo range to the north along the Swaziland border, this region is effectively a 3000-metre high barrier of sandstone and granite between KwaZulu-Natal and the provinces to the west.
The largest river in KwaZulu-Natal, the Tugela, flows from west to east across the middle of the province, where in the Royal Natal National Park it boasts the second highest waterfall in the world with a height of 948 meters, which bears ample testimony to the violent geological past of the area.
KwaZulu-Natal is without any doubt the province with the most varied, and variable, climate in South Africa. Falling in the summer rainfall area, with an annual average rainfall of around 900mm.
The climate along the southern coastal areas is very similar to that of Durban, which is hot, and very uncomfortable in the summer due to the high humidity. Temperatures here vary between 24°-32°C in summer, and an average of 20°C during the winter months, when the ocean temperatures hover between 18°-25°C. However, temperatures along the coast rise steadily towards the far north, with regular highs of 370- 400C and humidity levels in excess of 90%. The best time to visit the coastal areas is during winter.
Midlands & Zululand
While both regions have mild and relatively predictable climates with high rainfall, it is possible to experience all four seasons in the space of a single day. As a rule, temperatures decrease towards the west, although the Tugela Valley can reach 300C during the summer, and drop to well below freezing during winter. Best times to visit this region are late summer to early winter, when temperatures do not generally exhibit extreme highs and lows.
Due to its high elevation, the Drakensberg region experience much lower average temperatures than the coastal, or even the Midlands region.
Almost daily, and violent, thunderstorms during the wet summer season are a feature of this region, and continuous, week-long rain occurs often, although these occurrences are alternated with long stretches of sunny, clear weather. Even during summer, the highest peaks are often blanketed in thick snow.
Heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures during winter is the norm, rather than the exception, but clear, warm conditions during the day happens often. The best time to visit is during April and May, although early spring, when the wild flowers start blooming is also not a bad time.
Although KwaZulu-Natal is also known as the Garden Province of South Africa, its scenery is not quite as diverse as those of the Cape provinces, but spectacular nevertheless, and if one single feature can be said to dominate the scenery, that feature is without any doubt the Drakensberg mountain range that forms the spine of the province. Consisting of a dramatic series of seasonally snow-bound peaks, massive buttresses, deep, steep-sided gorges that are reminiscent of the Scandinavian fjords and sheer cliffs often shrouded in mist and cloud, the region stretches across the Southern, Central and Northern Drakensberg geographical regions.
Towards the north is a 110 km long stretch of secluded bays and wide golden-yellow beaches interspersed with patches of verdant, sub-tropical indigenous coastal forest that gradually transition into rolling sugar cane-clad hills leading into the interior. Towards the far northern parts, the terrain turn into vast wetlands, of which the Greater St. Lucia area is an amalgam of several distinctly different ecosystems. The northern interior consists mostly of savannah-type grassland spread out over hilly terrain, offering horizon-wide panoramas.
Although the coastline south of Durban resembles the northern coast, the dense, bushveld-type forests give way to the more rugged mountainous terrain of Griqualand, which although not quite as rugged as the Drakensberg, strongly resemble the mountain areas of the Western Cape.
Sandwiched between the Drakensberg and the northern coast, is the area known as the Midlands, an exquisitely beautiful area consisting of green rolling hills and postcard-pretty farmland. Originally settled by English farmers, the millions of majestic oak, birch, elm, and plane trees planted by them accentuate the hundreds of dairy farms, horse studs, flower farms, and tilled fields that are all connected by narrow country lanes, giving the whole area a distinctly English west-country air, especially during winter when the rolling mists transform the land into an ethereal, slightly mysterious wonderland.
KwaZulu-Natal rejoices in more than 120 national parks, game reserves, and conservation areas, including all types of terrain and ecosystems, from almost the entire Drakensberg mountain range, to the vast wetlands around St. Lucia; to the rolling grasslands of Zululand, and the thickly forested areas in the south, most notably the Oribi Gorge, close to Port Shepstone.
Boasting 280km of almost pristine coastline and comprising 328 000 hectares of spectacular scenery, the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park consists of a vast array of habitats and ecosystems ranging from coral reefs and beaches, coastal forests, salt and fresh water marshes, the open lake of Lake St Lucia itself, to coastal plains, and relatively dry woodland areas. This is altogether a remarkable and beautiful area.
This park gives the word, “spectacular”, its true meaning: the combination of imposing basalt buttresses, sandstone ramparts and cliff faces, knife-edged, often mist and snow covered peaks, of which several are higher than 3000 metres and incisive cutbacks, all interspersed with rolling near-Alpine meadows imbues this mountain with an exceptional scenic beauty that is unsurpassed by any other mountain in all of Sothern Africa, if not the African continent.
The Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park also contains dozens of caves and rock-shelters, which collectively host the biggest and most concentrated gallery of San rock paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. Painted by the San people over a period of around 4,000 years, these rock paintings in this park are better preserved than in any other region south of the Sahara, as well as unsurpassed in the diversity of subjects, and depictions of animals and humans.
Located in the southern section of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, and not attached to the main escarpment, this section consists of several high, elevated ridges protruding towards the Natal Midlands. It is also a remote and little explored mountainous area in KwaZulu Natal, and one of the few remaining areas in the Drakensberg where one can hike for several days without ever coming across another soul, making this the perfect destination for a solitary, but demanding, hike.
Apart from being the oldest game park in South Africa, and the oldest game reserve in all of Africa, having been established in 1895, this area in central Zululand was the private hunting reserve of the Zulu kings Shaka and Dingiswayo, who were the first to introduce conservation practices and laws into the area.
Today however, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is the only park under formal conservation management in KwaZulu-Natal where the Big Five can be seen. Game viewing is the principal attraction here, and several hides located at pans and waterholes allow close-up observation of the abundant wildlife.
One of KwaZulu-Natal’s best-kept secrets, The Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve is an exceptionally scenic area consisting of a 24km long gorge gouged out of sandstone by the Umzimkulwana River. Offering excellent hiking through dense coastal forest, white water rafting, birding, and ample opportunities for photography, the Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve lies 21 kilometres inland of Port Shepstone.
Due to the high level of commercial development on the KwaZulu-Natal coast, there are no spectacular scenic drives along the coast; however, the interior offers a few scenic routes that are definitely worth the effort it takes to drive them.
This route takes you from Mtunzini, where Raphia Palm trees abound and the home range of the Palmnut Vulture, to Ulundi in the heart of the Zulu Kingdom, which is the burial place of Piet Retief and his company of Voortrekkers who were killed by Dingane, in 1838, as well as the site of the Zulu king, Cetshwayo’s kraal. On the way to Ulundi, this scenic drive through sweeping countryside and picturesque villages, also takes in Babanango, which is the gateway to the large number of battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal, and Melmoth, the “capital” of the mist belt.
The Valley of a 1000 Hills
Once the training ground for King Shaka’s army, this densely wooded and forested valley is crammed with hundreds upon hundreds of closely packed green-clad hills, slashed by deep gorges and clear streams, and dotted with traditional villages, making it a stunningly beautiful scenic drive.
Guaranteed to astound you with its beauty, The Midlands Meander stretches over 80km between Pietermaritzburg and Mooi River, with new scenic sights and stunning scenery around each bend in the road. The picture-postcard countryside and fresh air enrich body and soul, while the mind is entertained by the rich and convoluted history of the area, which dates back to the 17th century.
All of 95 metres high, the Howick Falls is located on the Umgeni River and a popular tourist attraction almost in the centre of the village of Howick. The falls is also the centre of a series of scenic walks and trails, some of which lead to the bottom of the falls. An official Howick Falls Gorge Walk starts at the bottom of Harvard Street in the village and ends at the seat of the falls. It is said, but not proven that the famous author Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens) pioneered this walk when he visited the Howick Falls Hotel in 1896.
An amalgam of eight discrete ecosystems, this World Heritage Site reaches from Kosi Bay in the north, close to the Mozambican border, to Cape St Lucia in the south. This wetland wilderness is unsurpassed in Southern Africa in terms of bio-diversity and is like nothing else on earth. It hosts three large lakes, the vast majority of South Africa’s swamp forests as well as its biggest estuary, many coastal sand dunes that are in excess of 25 000 years old, and hundreds, if not thousands of bird, plant, and animal species. This area is also unique in that nowhere in the world, but here do elephants, rhino, and of all things, whales, and coelacanths share the same ecosystem.
There are many reasons to visit this charming quaint little town, which is so tiny that you could miss it if you blinked, but chief among them is a visit to the Nottingham Road Brewery. This microbrewery concocts brews like Pickled Pig Porter, Whistling Weasel Pale Ale, Pye-Eyed Possum Pilsner, and even a lager named Tiddly Toad, the over-imbibing of which might have something to do with the numerous sightings of the ghost of a “lady of loose morals”, in Room 10 of the Nottingham Road Hotel.
Known locally as the “Great Madness”, the annual sardine run, which takes place along KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast during winter, is a remarkable sight, if only for the silly and sometimes absurd behaviour of human sardine collectors, if for no other reason. Millions upon millions of sardines in shoals that stretch for several kilometres make their way along the coast, closely followed by thousands of predatory fish including sharks, dolphins, whales, and hundreds of thousands of seabirds that continually dive into the huge shoals.
Experience this scenic reserve by zipping along zip lines at heights of 35 meters at up to 70km/h! This exhilarating canopy tour consists of high-speed slides over the forest canopy, a stop below a 15-metre-high waterfall and breathtaking views over the extremely scenic Karkloof valley.
This only for the brave- or lovers of sharks. Several tour operators in Durban offer shark cage diving, but for the purist, there are opportunities to share the Aliwal Shoal with several species of shark, man-eaters among them, while free diving.
KwaZulu-Natal offers snorkellers and scuba-divers unparalleled diving and snorkelling opportunities with some of the best diving spots anywhere in the world, such as at Aliwal Shoal off the South Coast, as well as at Sodwana Bay and Kosi Bay on the North Coast.
Enjoy a bird’s eye view of the North Coast with flights offered by Ballito Micro-light School. Piloted flights over the Indian Ocean give one a perspective of the rugged, but beautiful Dolphin Coast that is impossible to achieve in any other way.
With only 28 mountain passes, the rugged, mountainous terrain of KwaZulu-Natal has surprisingly few mountain passes, with many tarred, and on main roads. Of course, this does not necessarily detract from their scenic beauty, but from the perspective of an off-road traveler in KwaZulu-Natal, these passes have lost much of their appeal. KwaZulu-Natal off-road tourism deals with routes and roads that off-road, so to speak, and happily, KwaZulu-Natal has some challenging dirt and gravel passes that fulfil all the requirements of Tourism for the Off-Road Traveler in KwaZulu-Natal
The Devil’s Pass
A rough track only suitable for proper 4×4 vehicles and running from East to West up the Southern slopes of the historical Mhlobane Mountain, this pass offers stunning 3600 panoramic views from atop its summit at 1562m. However, do not attempt this track lightly because it terminates in a dead end at the top, meaning you are forced to reverse all the way back down, which can be challenging, to say the least.
Located on the border with Lesotho, this is the most iconic, and potentially most dangerous of all gravel passes in South Africa. It is the highest pass at 2876m, and as the most difficult pass, it produces more adrenalin than almost any other driving experience, and it is thus not recommended for inexperienced drivers. Even experienced off-road drivers with proper 4×4 vehicles find this pass extremely challenging, especially during heavy snow falls that can occur even as late in the year as October.
Regardless of the magnificent scenic views, bad weather with its attendant slippery conditions can happen at any time because of the altitude, and extreme caution must be exercised the entire time. Be prepared for anything on this monster!
Strictly a 4×4 route, this demanding gravel pass requires low range, technical driving, and above average ground clearance. Even in a proper 4×4, a recovery could be possible in wet conditions because of the deep ruts in some sections along the summit. This pass has some historical significance because it falls on a route once used by Piet Retief, a famous leader among the Voortrekkers.
With an altitude gain of 651 vertical meters over 7.19 km that yields an average gradient of 1:11, and with some sections having 1:6 gradients, this pass is recommended for connoisseurs of difficult gravel passes! Be prepared to deal with very slippery sections in wet conditions if you attempt this pass in anything else but a proper 4×4.
With the exception of the Sani Pass, Normandien Pass is arguably the finest of KwaZulu-Natal’s gravel passes. Possessing all the classical elements of a good mountain pass, its high elevation gain (515 vertical meters), loose gravel surface, tight bends, switchbacks, and a length of 35 km over an average gradient of 1:24, with a few sections at 1:6 gradients, this difficult pass is sure to put a nervous grin on your face.
Although some of the steeper sections have concrete stripping that help with traction, the surface is generally in very poor condition and should not be attempted in anything else but at least a “bakkie” with good ground clearance and a diff lock.
After the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal has arguably the largest number of country towns and cities with valid claims to fame, with most of them having played roles of varying degrees of importance in the many wars that have plagued this scenic province. There are far too many to list here, but from the perspective of any KwaZulu-Natal off-road tourist, he is in the happy position to be able to experience almost the entire province merely by visiting the few country towns that are listed here.
Although Nottingham Road started out as a military fortification in 1856, today it epitomizes quiet and peaceful rural living. During winter, when the area is shrouded in mist and snow, the little village takes on a distinctly magical air, a condition that can be strongly reinforced by the products of the Nottingham Road Brewing Co with Pye-eyed Possum Pilsner, Pickled Pig Porter, Whistling Weasel Pale Ale, and Tiddly Toad Lager being very effective. During early spring the village and surrounding area is carpeted by millions of pink wild roses and cosmos flowers- the stuff of which postcards and jigsaw puzzle box covers are made.
Part of the Midlands Meander scenic route, this hamlet is one of the best places in KwaZulu-Natal to find antiques of all kinds, from books, to furniture, to jewellery and art. It is perhaps better known as the site of Nelson Mandela’s arrest in 1962, but it is also likely the only town in South Africa with a 100m high waterfall almost in its centre.
With only 6000 residents, and part of the Battle Fields Route, this quiet little country town in the Drakensberg foothills is the site of likely the biggest battle the British Army had ever fought up to WW2, suffering 1100 casualties against the 8 casualties of the Boer forces in the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899. The main attraction here is the Ambleside Military Cemetery, where all the casualties from the battles of Tugela Heights, a cluster of battles that attempted the relief of the Siege of Ladysmith, lie buried.
Virtually surrounded by three nature reserves, the Royal Natal National Park, the Rugged Glen Nature Reserve, and Cathkin’s Peak State Forest, this picturesque little town is the perfect base from which to explore the greater Drakensberg area. It also houses the only surviving British blockhouse in KwaZulu-Natal, in the grounds of the local courthouse.
Set in a magnificently scenic area of the old Zulu Kingdom, and part of the Battle Fields Route, Ulundi is also the site of the Battle of Ulundi, the decisive battle in July 1897 that finally broke the might of the Zulu Nation. The Ulundi area now houses The KwaZulu Cultural Museum, one of the richest depositories of artefacts depicting the cultural heritage of the Nguni speaking nations of South-Eastern Africa, of which the Zulu nation formed part.
Once the capital of the Nieuwe Republiek (New Republic), a political entity established after a mercenary war between Boers, Brits, and some Zulu factions against other Zulu factions, and that existed for all of four years, Vryheid is today better known for its extremely scenic setting at the foot of the Zungwini Mountain range. Although the area is primarily forested, its verdant grasslands include South Africa’s tiniest wilderness area, the Ntendeka Wilderness area that contains lush indigenous forests, waving grasslands, and spectacularly beautiful cliffs over which numerous waterfalls tumble. This little wilderness with 45 kms of hiking trails spread out over its 5 250 surface area, is widely regarded as the most beautiful of all the wilderness areas in South Africa, with most of its hiking trails on plush carpets of fallen leaves through dense indigenous forests.