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By South Africa specialist Robyn

This province is worth a two-week trip in its own right, and Durban is a well-served flight hub so incorporating one or two of the province’s attractions into a country-wide itinerary is also possible and popular.

A typical circuit would include the stark and stunning Drakensberg Mountains, the Battlefields where some of the best guides in the country will wring emotions out of you as they describe the battles at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, public and private game reserves full of big game and beautiful scenery, and the coastline with its remote beach lodges in the north, the shores of the Lake St. Lucia UNESCO World Heritage Site and the many resort towns around Durban.

While tours do pass through the province, to get a full flavor we really recommend self-driving, or, if just visiting one or two destinations, private transfers.

Adventure & relaxation in the Drakensberg Mountains

Drakensberg Mountains
Drakensberg Mountains

After a day of exploring Durban’s palm-fringed city sights, head inland to the Drakensberg Mountains, where sheer peaks cascade into grassy valleys and still lakes. There are plenty of outdoor pursuits for adrenaline-seekers and more laid-back nature lovers alike, as well as ample opportunity to relax in the wilderness. But, exactly what you’ll see and do while you’re here will depend on where you stay.

For couples, I recommend Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, nestled on the banks of a trout dam with views across the mountains. The rooms all have a very cosy feel with log fires, electric blankets, and individually themed furnishings — I particularly like the suite decorated with postcards from around the world. The hotel is known for its culinary prowess, and each evening you’ll sit down to a five-course gourmet dinner garnished with ingredients plucked from the garden and paired with wines from the cellar.

During your stay, you can go horse riding across the grassy foothills, explore San rock art dating back 3,000 years, take a helicopter ride to soak in the mountain views from above, and, of course, hike. Beyond the hotel’s sweeping grounds, you could walk in Highmoor Nature Reserve. You’ll wander past lakes stocked with rainbow trout, rock-strewn grasslands, and streams that tumble down a series of rock slides, culminating in a waterfall that plunges into a deep gorge.

Alternatively, you might like to stay at Montusi Mountain Lodge in a thatched suite or your own self-catering cottage — ideal for families. There’s a natural-look pool with enviable views of the Amphitheatre escarpment ahead, plus tennis courts and a spa. The lodge is particularly popular with birdwatchers thanks to the many indigenous plants introduced in the grounds, which attract sunbirds, sugarbirds, widowbirds, and whydahs — look out for them while relaxing on your veranda.

Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse
Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse
Montusi Mountain Lodge, Royal Natal National Park
Montusi Mountain Lodge

History & storytelling at the Battlefields

Isandlwana in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa Battlefields
Isandlwana in the Battlefields region of South Africa

Within South Africa’s Midlands, sparse swathes of tall grass sway in the breeze, backdropped by knuckled mountains and deep-blue skies. Here, over 100 years ago, British colonial troops went to war against both the local Zulus and Boers in a series of battles that shaped South Africa’s entire course of history. You can visit the Battlefields during your time here, including the sites of Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, and Blood River.

It’s best to visit them with a guide, who’ll help to uncover their full story, from the events leading up to the clashes to the tactics used by each side and the lives of the soldiers and local communities that were affected. The guides here all grew up in the area and are incredible storytellers. It’s often easy to lean towards one side of history, but, when I visited, I found their retellings to be very balanced. Yet, while the guides stuck to the facts, they painted such a vivid picture that I felt quite overwhelmed with emotion at times.

It’s possible to visit the Battlefields in a day from the Drakensberg Mountains, but I recommend staying for a couple of nights at one of the nearby lodges for a more immersive (and slower paced) experience. Fugitives’ Drift Lodge is my personal favourite — it has its own museum and library where you can brush up on the history before your tours. I also love that the guides hang out at the lodge, so you can often catch them before and after your Battlefield visits to ask any burning questions that have been on your mind.

Fugitive's Drift Lodge, Harford House
Fugitives' Drift Lodge
Fugitive's Drift Lodge, lodge
Fugitives' Drift Lodge interior

Some of our favorite places in KwaZulu-Natal

White rhino, Eastern Cape
White rhino, one of the Big Five you can spot in Manyoni Private Game Reserve

Marked with undulating grasslands and steep rocky hills, Manyoni Private Game Reserve offers different vantage points than you might find on a safari elsewhere in South Africa. While driving up the winding slopes, you might be caught by surprise as an elephant stomps up ahead, or perhaps you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of a giraffe as you peer down from the crest of a hill — a view often only seen from the lofty heights of a hot-air balloon.

Despite the different terrain, you’ll still have a chance of spotting the Big Five here, though leopards can be more elusive in the hilly environment. That said, if you have a particular love for rhinos, this is the place to be. Both black and white rhinos roam Manyoni’s landscapes and the reserve takes great care to ensure poachers don’t quell the population, including humane horn trimming, which you may be able to witness first hand.

As for where to stay, I recommend Leopard Mountain Game Lodge, perched atop a secluded hill overlooking unspoiled bushland and riverine forests. You’ll sleep in a stone chalet with your own wooden veranda that has an outdoor shower and hammock, as well as a private plunge pool perfect for post-safari relaxation as night drapes across the wilderness in front of you.

A typical day will start early, as you wake to birdsong outside your chalet and set off for a wildlife drive with your guide. They’ll take you to a nearby waterhole where you can watch lions cooling off beneath the morning sun. Then, after a picnic lunch, you’ll embark on another drive, looking out for buffalos, rhinos, giraffes, ostriches, cheetahs, and more before stopping for sundowners as the evening draws in. Finally, end the day with dinner under the stars at the lodge boma, enjoying a glass or two of the award-winning wines from the cellar.

Outdoor area at Leopard Mountain Game Lodge
View from Leopard Mountain Game Lodge
Leopard Mountain Game Lodge, communal area
Leopard Mountain Game Lodge interior

Water safaris in South Africa’s northern wetlands

Lake Saint Lucia, Elephant Coast
Lake St Lucia, Elephant Coast

Lake St Lucia offers a very different safari experience, one that makes KwaZulu-Natal stand out from the rest of South Africa. Here, it’s all about water-dwelling creatures, including crocodiles, hippos, and whales. You’ll also glimpse some of the hundreds of bird species that reside within the region’s wetlands, dune forests, and coast.

I recommend staying on the secluded shores of Lake St Lucia at Makakatana Bay Lodge. During my own visit here, I loved how the family-run aspect of the lodge shone through. The artworks on the walls were painted by owner Leigh-Ann and there’s a crab house that was built by her husband Hugh’s grandfather. Now though, it houses wine instead of crustaceans and the building has been almost entirely engulfed by the roots of a much-loved fig tree.

During your own stay, you can take a solar-powered boat onto Lake St Lucia to spot hippos and reed birds, visit nearby Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (the oldest wildlife reserve on the continent) for a Big Five safari, or head out to sea where you might catch a breeching whale or a pod of dolphins. Then, relax at dinner in front of the fire.

Boma, Makakatana Bay Lodge, Elephant Coast
Makakatana Bay Lodge
Honeymoon suite, Makakatana Bay Lodge, Elephant Coast
Makakatana Bay Lodge interior

A remote beach retreat on the Elephant Coast

Aerial view of Thonga Beach Lodge
Elephant Coast

I think the best way to conclude an action-packed week or two exploring KwaZulu-Natal’s history and wildlife is to stay at a secluded oceanside retreat. On the Elephant Coast, you can lounge on powder-soft sands, snorkel in coral-filled waters, and enjoy a spa treatment as you listen to waves lapping against the shore.

Thonga Beach Lodge is my go-to stay in the area. Sandwiched between a milkwood forest and the shore, it’s so tucked away that you can only reach it by 4x4 (I’ll arrange a private driver to take you). There are just 12 thatched rondavels, each positioned to maximise privacy, and the beach is exclusive to the resort. During my own stay, I had to keep reminding myself that I was still in South Africa, not on an island nation like Mauritius — though Thonga Beach Lodge is far more remote than anywhere I’ve stayed in the latter.

I wouldn’t blame you for simply stretching out on the crushed white sands during your stay, but there are a host of activities you can enjoy too, if you so wish. You could scuba dive alongside shoals of fish and bottlenose dolphins, kayak on Africa’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Sibaya, or take a forest walk to spot butterflies, birds, and — if you’re lucky — the rare samango monkey. For a more relaxed affair, enjoy sundowners at Lake Sibaya and indulge in a private candle-lit dinner overlooking the forest.

Thonga Beach Lodge, Elephant Coast
Thonga Beach Lodge
View from your room at Thonga Beach Lodge
Thonga Beach Lodge interior 

Best time to visit KwaZulu-Natal

KwaZulu-Natal is at its greenest from April to May, once the rains have replenished its grassy landscapes. Warm temperatures and clear skies make hiking in the mountains particularly pleasant.

If you want to visit other parts of South Africa during your trip, I recommend September to October instead. It won’t be quite as warm or green in KwaZulu-Natal, but spring brings better weather across the country and the chance to spot newborn animals on safari.

Start planning your vacation to KwaZulu-Natal

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They're just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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