South Africa, her mother’s homeland, has held a special place in Laurel Waldron’s heart since the very first time she visited, aged three. Thirty-five years later, she explores some lesser-visited areas of the country via a road trip from Durban to Northern KwaZulu-Natal.
LW: Like the majority of British visitors, my trips to South Africa have often been focussed on the sunshine of the Cape. With its sweeping drives, mountain-framed beaches and lush winelands, it’s an obvious draw. But there’s so much more to explore.
The eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, stretching from the southern border – with the Eastern Cape to Mozambique and Eswatini in the north – is a must do, despite losing the short-lived direct London-Durban flight (now a hazy pre-pandemic memory). The province serves up battlefields, bergs and beaches, while its temperate Indian Ocean waters are a far more appealing prospect than Cape Town’s Atlantic counterpart.
Landing in Durban via Johannesburg is the start of a wonderful road trip. Its an opportunity to take in some of the region as you head towards the bush, culminating in one of the country’s most spectacular safari experiences. Here’s how to do it.
DAY ONE AND TWO: DURBAN
Twenty minutes drive north of King Shaka airport lies the bustling Durban suburb of Umhlanga, a cosmopolitan slice of South Africa’s third most populous city. It’s home to The Oyster Box, an elegant, grand dame of the country’s hotel scene that sits resplendent above Umhlanga Rocks with stretching views from its lighthouse, out across over the Indian Ocean. Set in lush tropical gardens and with 86 opulent rooms, suites and villas, plus an impressive array of dining experiences, the hotel has been a mainstay of Umhlanga since the 1950s and offers an old-Hollywood vibe. Amplify that vibe by checking into a Garden Villa; these duplex suites come with a balcony, a private plunge pool, and direct access to the hotel’s garden pool and spa.
An indulgent breakfast buffet is best enjoyed overlooking the pool from the hotel’s terrace with candy-striped sun umbrellas, though keep an eye out for uninvited guests helping themselves to your waffles: the local vervet monkeys have a habit of swooping in the minute your eye is turned. Afternoon tea is served daily in the decadent Palm Court. The hotel’s evening Curry Buffet comes with dozens of dishes from across the Indian subcontinent, making for a feast you’ll be forgiven for staying put for. But, with some of the region’s most exciting restaurants on the doorstep, the area is worth a culinary exploration, too. Bistro-style 9th Avenue Waterside overlooks the harbour and serves an innovative menu, beautifully presented by Head Chef Theo Karabo Chiloane, while Umhlanga’s The Chefs’ Table has earned its place as one of the region’s most exciting dining experiences, with a seasonal menu sculpted around exceptional flavours.
See off supper with a run along the city’s famous Golden Mile, a haven for surfers, or visit the 15 hectares of Africa’s oldest surviving botanical gardens. Victoria Street Market is an essential for picking up Zulu handicrafts, from traditional vibrant beaded jewellery to hand carved wooden cutlery, brassware and clothing. Muthi Market, home to traditional African medicines is worth a wander through and, before you leave town, take a detour to The Valley of a Thousand Hills to discover the rich heritage of the Zulu people at one of its cultural villages.
DAY THREE AND FOUR: ST. LUCIA
A two and a half hour drive north from Durban, taking in stunning coastline views as you travel, lies St. Lucia. Awarded as South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, this small but quaint village has become one of the best spots in Africa to witness wild hippos, thanks to the 1.3 million hectares of Isimangaliso Wetland Park stretching along 9% of the country’s entire coastline.
Settle down for an afternoon’s boat safari; the park is dense with mangrove forests and home not only to several breeding hippo families but Nile crocodiles, Zambezi shark, loggerhead and leatherback turtles, 86 species of dragonfly and 526 of birds, including colonies of nesting weaver birds and kingfishers. Be sure to pack your long lens – this is a nature lover’s dream. Make the most of the quiet village with a night at the Lidiko Lodge: located above the Great St. Lucia Lake on a coastal dune, its garden lodges are set amid monkey and mongoose-filled gardens and just a short walk from local restaurants. Though be warned; hippos are known to pay a visit to the village when the sun goes down.
DAY FIVE and BEYOND (in more ways than one): PHINDA PRIVATE GAME RESERVE
Culminate your KwaZulu-Natal road trip with a drive north, edging ever closer to the Mozambique border. Here lies one of South Africa’s most magical safari experiences: andBeyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve. A world away from the enormity of Kruger National Park, the property is set in an area with the largest concentration of game reserves in the country, this is prime Big Five territory.
Ambling through the gates and up the long drive towards Phinda Mountain Lodge, the coast is a distant memory as it’s replaced with dusty roads, dense bush and faraway mountains. The reserve, peppered with the Lebombo Mountains, is home to seven distinct habitat types, from Thornveld savannah and woodlands in the south to sand forest and floodplain grassland in the north.
Phinda Mountain Lodge lies perched on a hilltop with spellbinding 360° views of the Lebombo foothills. Watch dawn break in the distance from its wraparound terrace, perched amid the treetops. The main building is bedecked in home comforts, sumptuous soft furnishings, board games, local crafts and stacks of books on the Anglo-Zulu war, with a well-stocked bar at hand for a perfect post-prandial cocktail. Phinda Mountain Lodge comprises 17 suites and six cottages, resplendent with private decks, plunge pools and outdoor showers to make the most of all your safari fantasies, while the infinity pool with stunning mountain views is just footsteps away. From buffet breakfasts to the intimate traditional African Boma dinner (a feast by firelight under the stars), each day serves up new delicious dining options, not to mention the pre-breakfast nibbles on your game drives.
In the local isiZulu language, Phinda means return, and this is a reserve which prides itself on its conservation efforts reintroducing native species, working tirelessly to leave the land in a better state. The Phinda team has rehomed pangolin rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, sent cheetahs to India to aid their population growth, and, the reserve’s healthy white rhino population has meant it could transfer some to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park (in 2021, with five births since the relocation). Hearing the rangers speak with such unerring passion about their work is infectious; before you leave you’ll be Googling Phinda’s volunteer programme and booking your slot to get your hands dirty and help with the next chapter in their success. andBeyond is serious about its legacy and their motto of caring for the land, the wildlife and the people, rings true in its work throughout all its destinations.
The magic in the air during Phinda game drives is palpable; edging over the brow of a hill and watching the landscape change in the blink of an eye from scrubland to luscious mountains is nothing short of Lion King worthy. The Big Five are here – elephant, hippo, buffalo, rhino and leopard. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot all five. We did and our guide, Holly, excitedly exclaimed over sundowners that we must be a good luck charm, given she’d not spotted one for nearly a fortnight.
If they could bottle Holly’s enthusiasm and make it available for purchase in the on-site gift shop it would be a sellout, but even without this, discovering South Africa’s eastern promise will most definitely ignite your own enthusiasm for the country, too.