Much of this area is now popularised by the Midlands Meander – a self-drive arts, crafts, eateries and farmstay route that is a retreat for holiday makers. It is best done with some advance research, and a Midlands Meander guide (available at most stores en route) in hand to uncover the real treats and first-rate spots.
The Midlands is quintessential country living – green hills, forests, waterfalls, the foothills of the Drakensberg, lakes and dams, farmlands, great birding, fishing, hiking, walking and biking opportunities. And the chance to slow down.
Here are 10 natural attractions in the Natal Midlands …
Tucked away in the Karkloof is a farm with a garden over 120 years of age – a feast of azaleas, rhododendrons and three giant mountain ash trees, surrounded by indigenous mistbelt forest. The garden is a tourist attraction in its own right and a favourite with birders.
The thirty hectare garden features a two-kilometre walkway alive with orange ground-thrush, olive thrush, chorister robin-chat, black sparrowhawk, forest canary and sunbirds. A wonderful place to picnic and photograph. Only open to the public for a few weeks in spring, so phone ahead.
The incredible basalt cliffs and sandstone buttresses of the eastern Drakensberg Mountains form the natural boundary between KwaZulu Natal and the Kingdom of Lesotho.
From the rolling green hills, indigenous forests and rivers of the Midlands one travels seamlessly into a world of towering peaks – some of them well over 3 000 metres – hidden valleys, waterfalls, rivers and lakes contained with a UNESCO World Heritage Site that provides a mountain playground for climbers, hikers, mountain bikers and San rock art devotees.
3. HOWICK FALLS
The view of the Howick Falls as they crash 95 metres into the valley below is one of the most scenic spots in the area. The falls of the Umgeni River are just outside the town of Howick and the same height, although not nearly as wide, as Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
The Zulu people call the falls Kwa Nogqaza, or ‘place of the tall one’, and many come to wash their clothes above the falls, whilst tourists stand on the other side behind the safety rail. The washerwomen are safe from the mythical river snake as their sangomas offer regular sacrifices to Inkanyamba, a creature said to have a head like a horse. Take a local guided tour to learn more.
One of the most beautiful ways to experience the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains from the Midlands of Natal is in the Kamberg Nature Reserve. It is one of the smallest of the Wildlife resorts its wide open spaces, fresh mountain air and pristine mountain streams what draw people here.
Highlights include: self-guided trails from the camp, riverside picnic areas, trout flyfishing and the Kamberg Rock Art Centre. These were the first San art images to reach the scientific community from the Drakensberg. Take a guided tour.
It conserves a large portion of the Karkloof forest in which one can catch a glimpse of the rare and endangered Cape parrot, orange ground thrush, lemon dove and crowned hornbill, whilst the hiking trails and rustic lodges are an attraction for those after time out in nature.
The samango monkey, blue duiker, tree hyrax, serval and aardvark make the reserve their home and several rare trees and the threatened Hilton daisy occur here too.
One of the lesser-known reserves despite its beauty, this natural haven is all the more remarkable for providing wildlife so close to a city centre. It lies in the hills of the northern suburbs of Pietermaritzburg and entrance is free. It is perfect for a Sunday drive or picnic stop in amongst the trees.
The self-guided iDube Trail is worth following and you may spot plains game, such as zebra, bushbuck, blue duiker and dassie en route. The reserve is small, but the large trees, open spaces and nooks and crannies make it a wonderful space to visit.
Just outside the village of Bulwer lies the Marutswa Nature Reserve, custodian of the Marutswa Forest – a small remnant of remaining mistbelt forest – a few Cape parrots, and the well-known Marutswa Forest Trail and boardwalk. A visit to the lush forest to walk its arterial trails – that include a number of lookout jetties, picnic deck and view points – is well worth it.
You might not see the Cape parrot, but you will hear its call, and you might catch a glimpse of bush pig, mongoose and any number of birds. Best to take a guided tour.
Officially known as the KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden, this beautiful space awash with Victorian trees (don’t miss a walk down Plane Tree Avenue) rests on the hill of an ancient floodplain on the edge of a mistbelt, overlooking Pietermaritzburg.
Established in the early 1870s primarily as an arboretum the garden today focuses on conservation and propagation of rare and endangered indigenous plants. Its wetland and forest provide shelter for a number of small mammals and the Turraea Trail is a birder’s treat. The lawns are excellent for picnics.
The Umvoti Vlei Nature Reserve, at the headwaters of the Umvoti River, is a small sanctuary mainly for wetland birds. The bulk of the reserve, which lies just south of Greytown, is a wetland and thus the bird life is deemed the best in the area, although only half the wetland falls into proclaimed reserve.
The magnetism for birds is aided by two hot mineral springs and naturally occurring mistbelt grassland that attract yet further birds. Globally threatened birds at the vlei include southern bald ibis, wattled crane, blue crane and grey crowned crane.
10. WYLIE PARK
In the heart of Pietermaritzburg is a gentle eight hectare park set high on a hill with wonderful views out over the city. There are lovely walking trails and plenty of wide, open spaces for picnics. The trees and flowering bushes, a little stream, and cool bamboo stands for when it gets particularly hot, make it a respite from city living.