About 32 kilometres (20 miles) inland from the beaches of Durban, at the doorway to the KwaZulu-Natal’s Midlands, lies the scenic Valley of a Thousand Hills. Located between Durban and the provincial capital of Pietermaritzburg, this picturesque place features meandering valleys of dense foliage, where traditional Zulu people still live today. It offers some of the most commanding views of the Drakensberg mountains and the Indian Ocean. The Thousand Hills route is best explored by car, as the road runs through the heart of the valley and offers some of the best views.
On the outskirts of the valley lie small suburbs with quaint bed-and-breakfast establishments, while the towns of Hillcrest and Botha’s Hill close by offer a mix of décor, home crafts and food. The arts and crafts community is big in the valley and home to many talented artists and crafters who work in a variety of media – from wood, metal and clay to glass beads, wax and fabrics – and many of them have their galleries and studios along the Thousand Hills route. The valley’s strong traditions and beautiful landscapes have inspired innovative and interesting styles of arts and crafts, and the intricate, handmade works are most certainly unlike anything you’ll ever see.
Just an hour out of Durban, past Pietermaritzburg, is the picturesque Midlands Meander. This scenic valley is home to a number of towns, including Howick, Hilton, Dargle and Nottingham Road, which are rich in unique arts, crafts and natural products like wine and cheese. The area is also filled with activities like hiking, skydiving, white-water rafting, fly fishing, horse riding and kite flying. For a barbecue with friends and family, head to Midmar Dam or visit the Dargle Valley Market for some fresh treats.
Don’t miss the incredible Mandela Capture Monument, which is a towering sculpture made of steel rods, commemorating the place where Nelson Mandela was arrested before he spent 27 years in prison. Designed by South African artist Marco Cianfanelli, the sculpture, when viewed from a certain angle, reveals the iconic face of Nelson Mandela through bars and light that represent both imprisonment and freedom. The Midlands Meander is packed with things to do, so we recommend leaving early because it’s going to be a long day.
Just a few kilometres out of Durban, past Hillcrest, you will find Inanda. This lush area is home to the famous Dusi Canoe Marathon and is popular for water skiing, yachting, hiking, fishing and power boating. If you pack a lunch you can also picnic along the banks of the dam. If you’re keen for a guided tour, Durban Green Corridor, a local, sustainable living initiative, offers tours of local nature sites. Their tour of the 595-metre (1952-foot) Inanda Dam is informative, as a guide takes you through the forest around the dam, pointing out birds, animals and sometimes even snakes. The water in the dam is so wide and so blue, at times it feels like the five-kilometre (three-mile) hike is happening along the ocean. If you’re up for the extra walk, you can visit the mysterious Rastafarian Caves; a hollow tucked away near the Mzinyathi Falls, where a group of Rastafarians sleep and worship.
Near the banks of the Umgeni River, about ten minutes from the city, you will find the Beechwood Mangroves Nature Reserve. The area is filled with black, red and white mangrove, with boardwalks to walk over the swamp. The reserve is full of birds, like fish eagles, pelicans, kingfishers and waterfowl, and sea life, like mudskippers and fiddler crabs. Durban Green Corridoor does tours through the mangroves with a guide, who takes you through a two-hour trail, pointing out and teaching you about the local birds, animals and plants. The Beechwood Mangroves Nature Reserve is only open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 8am until sunset, and is just off Riverside Road in Durban North.
Home to a number of wetland and coastal forest species, this small reserve is only 26 hectares (64.25 acres) but contains stunning trails that lead through dune forests across the lagoon and into the beach. The Umhlanga Lagoon Trail passes through a forest that is home to not only small wildlife, like duiker and bushbuck, but also rare trees, like the coastal red milkwood. There are daily guided walks through the Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve along the trail, at 9am, 11am and 3pm that take roughly one-and-a-half hours – ask at the nearby Breakers Resort reception.
If you still have time, a little further beyond the reserve are the Umhlanga Ponds, a wetland refuge for coastal birds, animals and plants. The ponds are actually linked to the reserve by reed beds and coastal forests. The main reason to visit the ponds is the rich bird life, as the vegetation around the water provides cover to a number of birds, including yellow weavers, black crakes, moorhens, kingfishers and sunbirds.
About 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) out of Port Shepstone, you can head to Margate, which is gaining reputation as the seaside town to visit when in need of a break from Durban. This little town is growing, not only as a local family-holiday spot but also as a party capital for school-leaving Durbanites. While quickly developing, it still carries a small-town charm and features blue-flag beaches that are perfect for strolling, surfing, snorkelling or swimming. There’s a quaint shopping street, restaurants, pubs and nightclubs. You can also visit Butterfly Valley, the Margate Art Museum, Croc World, nature trails and even a nudist beach for the more risque travellers.
If you’re up for a real adventure, rent a 4X4 and head to Sani Pass, one of South Africa’s most iconic mountain passes. Built in 1950, it’s a challenging rough-road drive with all the scenery, bad weather and treacherous conditions expected of a mountain pass at 2.8 kilometres (9400 feet). The number of car wrecks littering the ravines bear testament to the dangers of this pass that demands 100% of your attention. The road connects the KwaZulu-Natal town of Underberg to the completely different country of Lesotho. Be sure to have all your travel and car documents ready if you intend to cross the border. For you own safety, authorities will only cars pass that are deemed fit for the journey. After you’ve cleared customs, the drive becomes more steep and, in months closer to winter, you will see ice and snow. You can have a drink at the highest pub in Africa before returning home, or spend the evening at one of the many bed-and-breakfasts nearby.