A Tour of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Following Indaba, I set out with Rung Button of ITT (International Travel and Tours) and her partner Julius Le Roux of Julnic Tours for an in-depth exploration of KwaZulu-Natal, the province where the legendary King Shaka Zulu once lived and reigned. The province is a microcosm of what South Africa has to offer, with bustling cities like Durban, national parks like Hluhluwe/Imfolozi, private game reserves and plenty of upscale hotels and resorts.

For example, about 40 minutes from Durban is Fairmont Zimbali, a luxury property with both a resort on the beach (and a few residential homes) as well as a lodge up in the rainforest. (The beach, it should be noted, is not safe for swimming at all, but is great for walking along. There are several pools at the resort and lodge for swimming.) Shuttles bring visitors into Durban for shopping and urban life, and the resort is ideal for families. Up the hill, the Lodge is an older property, but is much more suited to honeymooners and couples who want peace and quiet and nature right outside their door. The main dining room’s windows look out onto a solid wall of greenery, and it has a much more classic, intimate vibe.

We spent the night at a property called Coco-de-Mer Boutique Hotel, which has some wonderfully high-ceilinged rooms (and is right off the beach), but also has only a part-time reception desk. (This makes it very difficult to schedule wake-up calls before going to bed. Also, Wi-Fi is only available in the lobby, so this isn’t an ideal property for business clients.) I didn’t get a chance to try the sauna tub in my open-plan bathroom, but it looked lovely.

Up bright and early the next day (well, early, anyway), we set off for Eshowe, a small town with a school sponsored by ITT’s staff. We visited Zulufadder, the school, and got to see how the project is helping kids get the education and care they need. (And seriously, there is very little more adorable than a group of kids gathering around to see what a white person’s hair feels like, and proudly showing off their ABCs, and singing any songs they know…including Christmas carols.)

Continuing our Zulu-themed day, we went on to Shakaland, which was built as the set for the 1986 TV miniseries Shaka Zulu, and was later turned into a tourist attraction and a three-star Protea hotel with 55 traditional huts for guests to stay in. We walked through the recreated village and learned about traditional Zulu life, and attended a performance of traditional dances by the locals. (Even the little kids got up to dance, and apparently, the only thing cuter than five-year-olds gathering to feel your hair is several two-year-old stomping joyously to intense drumming.) Arts and crafts by local artisans are available for sale in the village, and we all stocked up on jewelry and household decorations.

Continuing north, we stopped off in the village of St. Lucia, a tiny town on the coast with only one real street that, we were told, occasionally gets hippos from the local river. The local park is also a good place to see crocodiles and go birding, and there are plenty of nature reserves nearby. The highest-rated hotel in the town is the Elephant Lake Hotel, a three-star property with a very nice bar overlooking the swimming pool. (There is a photo of a hippo drinking from the pool in the lobby. Sadly, we didn’t get to see the hippo ourselves, but we were told that he comes around regularly.)

The next morning, we were up before dawn to go on a drive through the Hluhluwe/Imfolozi National Park, the only state-run park in KwaZulu-Natal where visitors can see all of the Big Five (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo). Within the first 20 minutes, with our guide Trevor, we saw rhino, a buffalo and an elephant, as well as numerous giraffes and nyalas. A moment or two later, we had a close (very close) encounter with the elephant when it decided to assert its dominance over the car, and several other elephants got rather uncomfortably close as we drove on.

I’m going to pause here to note that visitors to Hluhluwe/Imfolozi can legally go on self-drive tours through the park. Your clients can, if they want to, rent a car and go exploring at their own pace. But they shouldn’t. They really, really shouldn’t because there are some huge animals in the park that can cause a lot of damage, and unless your clients know how far away to stay from a napping lion or what to do when an elephant decides to take a stand against a car, they could get seriously hurt. Tell them to hire a trained guide for the day. Whatever it costs will cost much less than hospitalization…and besides, a guide can take them to all the best spots in the park, or help them find whatever they want to see. 

Trevor, being a brilliant guide, knew exactly what to do when the elephant got too close, and backed away perfectly calmly. The elephant decided that we had been suitably submissive, and wandered off to continue its grazing. After we took our pictures, Trevor casually mentioned that the previous week, a self-drive visitor hadn’t backed off when an elephant got too close, and got his car flipped over for his trouble. (You see what I mean?)

Also, the park has rest areas where guests can relax and even set up a cookout (in Afrikaans, a braai), and Trevor made a traditional lunch for us by a riverside. (It’s fun, but just a little disturbing, to eat chicken skewers while listening to a hippo snort somewhere in the reeds nearby.)

We spent the night at the Ghost Mountain Inn, a four-star property with a lot of five-star elements (huge rooms, private verandas, floral gardens, deep soaking tubs and copious amounts of very tasty food). In the evening, local nightlife (cute little lizards and frogs) roam around the gardens and terraces (and, occasionally, the rooms), so warn your guests to watch where they step.

In the morning, we set off with Jean, a safari specialist at the inn, for a boatride on the nearby lake. Elephants, impala and buffalo were by the shore, and we got some terrific photos as we scooted around. Jean knows the animals of the area intimately (she called out to various elephants by name), and shared fun stories about various safaris she’s guided. (Jean is a really fun guide--ask for her when booking.)

After the boat ride, we set off to Amakhosi Safari Lodge, a five-star property on the Mkuze river. The cabins at the lodge are massive, with three rooms alone dedicated to bathroom facilities. (One room has a soaking tub, toilet and two sinks; another has a shower stall; and the third serves as a guest powder room.) The windows look out over the river, and wildlife (mostly warthogs--they’re cuter than you’d think!) wander around the site. We checked in and had high tea (no lunch at the lodge--more on that later) and set out on our evening drive.

While Amakhosi is a Big Five game reserve, we mostly saw zebras, impala, giraffes, nyalas and warthogs (they grow on you after a while) until we drove up a mountain to a lake, where two lion brothers were napping after finishing a meal. We were able to get right up close to the cats for pictures, and watched as their third brother strolled right past the car to get a drink at the lake. (Since the cats barely paid any attention to us, it was a much less nerve-wracking experience than the episode with the elephants the previous day.) We stopped for sundowners (cocktails) and listened to our guide converse with the birds--there are over 420 species on the reserve, and the game drives can really be excellent for birdwatching.

Before dinner, we were treated to a performance of traditional dances by some local Zulu students around a campfire. (Because what’s dinner without a show?) The meal was served in the lodge’s main cabin, and was just lovely.

A word about meals at Amakhosi: Because of the timing of game drives, meals are arranged a bit strangely. Tea and biscuits are served at 6am before the first drive, and a full breakfast (more like a brunch) is served at around 9:30 or so upon return from the drive. Since a noon lunch would be silly so soon after a large meal, a high tea is served at around 2:30 or 3. The evening drive runs from around 5 to 8, and dinner is served upon return.

Another note: Internet access is only available in the reception area, and there is no cell phone signal at the reserve. This is a place for your clients to get away from it all, so if they’re planning on doing work while on vacation, gently dissuade them. They’ll be disconnected from the outside world here.

We were up before dawn for the morning drive, and watched a rhino jogging along the reserve’s airstrip (yes, they have their own landing strip--great for VIP clients with chartered planes). We didn’t see any other of the Big Five, but we got to watch jackals running and see numerous exotic birds before heading off back to Durban.

On the ride, we stopped off for some quick shopping at Zaminphilo, an outdoor market organized by local artists in Hluhlue. Unlike many other markets in South Africa, the vendors here don’t hassle shoppers to their stalls, and the prices are non-negotiable. (Very comforting for tourists unaccustomed to haggling...like yours truly.) The prices are very reasonable, and the artwork is really lovely. Encourage your clients to leave time for browsing.

Back at King Shaka International Airport in Durban, I got to spend a few minutes in South Africa Airway’s business class lounge before my flight to Johannesburg. There’s a nice bar with name-brand cocktails as well as a convenient business area (with international plugs!) in the middle of the space. Even for a quick visit, it was a nice way to wrap up the tour of KwaZulu-Natal.

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