Between the foothills of the Drakensberg and Pietermaritzburg lies the emerald-green gem of KwaZulu Natal, the Midlands. Tourism KwaZulu-Natal recently hosted Tourism Update journalist, Erin Cusack, who reports back on her visit to the region.
The temperate climate and evergreen grasslands make the Midlands an appealing destination. The area offers a diverse range of products and is increasing in popularity among leisure travellers, say operators.
According to Marian Evans, GM of the Midlands Meander Association, visitor numbers have increased since travel restrictions were lifted.
“We do have quiet periods but visitor numbers have increased, particularly over the weekends, and midweek bookings are picking up.”
Deputy GM of the ANEW Hotel Hilton, Brenton Pillay, said in his six years in the area, leisure travel had grown considerably.
An hour-and-a-half’s drive from King Shaka International Airport, the hotel is positioned at ‘the gateway to the Midlands’, according to Pillay.
The only direct international flight currently servicing the airport is Qatar Airways from Doha. Travellers can connect to Durban from Cape Town International Airport or OR Tambo International Airport via kulula.com, Airlink, British Airways (operated by Comair), Mango and FlySafair.
FlySafair, Mango and kulula.com also offer flights from Lanseria International Airport in Gauteng.
Tavellers can then either hire a car at the airport or travel with a tour operator such as Syavaya Tours, which offers package tours and shuttle services.
From my experience of the Midlands, travel time between attractions averages 30 minutes. While the roads are well maintained, travellers may want to take these distances into consideration when opting to self-drive.
The many attractions include the following:
The ANEW Hotel Hilton was established in 1936 and retains its imposing Tudor-style façade. “Although the building is older, it is very well maintained,” said Pillay.
The interior seamlessly blends old-world charm with modern amenities. Black and white photographs of the hotel during the 20th century adorn the walls.
Travellers can share the history and comfort in one of the hotel’s 97 air-conditioned rooms, and the property is centrally located between the Midlands’ attractions, according to Pillay.
An attraction not to be missed is the Nelson Mandela Capture Site. A monument and museum have been erected at the spot where former South African President, Nelson Mandela, was captured by apartheid police.
Mandela was posing as a chauffeur for South African theatre director and anti-apartheid activist, Cecil Williams, when he was apprehended.
The museum has a replica of the car he was driving and a number of artefacts dating from the apartheid era.
A ‘long walk to freedom’ pathway leads guests to a piece of perspective art by Marco Cianfanelli that depicts Mandela’s face when viewed from the right angle.
The museum and sculpture are open every day from 10h00 to 16h00 and a café at the site is open on weekends.
For thrill-seekers, the Midlands is a treasure trove. From hot-air ballooning to paintballing, there are activities suitable for all ages.
Hot Air Ballooning SA took us on an unforgettable flight over the region, departing from Granny Mouse Country House and landing in a field over 16km away.
Our pilot, Warrick Cook, told us that the flights operated early in the morning to avoid the strong winds that picked up later in the day. As we floated over the lush green hills at 06h00, groups of wildlife ran from the shadow of the balloon, making it a truly unique experience.
When we landed, we were joined by a group of children from a nearby settlement who were eager to help pack the giant balloon away. Cook said the children were often there to see the balloon land and took particular joy in meeting foreign travellers.
We then enjoyed the traditional glass of sparkling wine, served at the end of the flight.
If travellers would like something a little faster, Karkloof Canopy Tours’ 10 ziplines let you soar through the trees as you descend through a forested mountainside.
The longest zipline is 200m and our guide told us that on some of them you can reach speeds of up to 60kph. Guests are safely harnessed in with equipment designed to hold over a tonne, according to MD, Kai Schulz.
The canopy tours are open to guests between the ages of six and 80 and for those feeling a little scared, tandem ziplining with an experienced guide is available.
The venue also has hiking and walking trails along the forest floor, with varying degrees of difficulty.
Yellowwood Action Combat Paintball Centre offers the thrill of combat in a controlled and supervised environment. Guests are given padded chest-plates and a helmet to protect them, and all the equipment is sanitised between use.
This journalist would like to note that, despite having very little paintball experience, I managed to make it to the end of a ‘match’ and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Arts and crafts are drawcards for visitors to the Midlands and, although artists struggled as a result of the COVID restrictions, their industry is bouncing back following the easing of restrictions. Ceramic artist, Astrid Dahl, said: “Business was a little slow at the beginning of the year but it has now picked up.” Dahl’s pieces are ordered and shipped internationally to places like New York and London.
She can be visited in Nottingham Road, where we also visited wood carver, Alson Zuma. Zuma’s carvings and Bushman art feature on the walls of hotels in KwaZulu-Natal as well as the KwaZulu-Natal Cultural Museum. “I am hopeful for the future as the Midlands is now slowly recovering and getting more tourists every day. While some craftsmen’s businesses closed completely, I am fortunate, as I still have customers coming in,” said Zuma, who has also picked up part-time work as a gardener.
Lovers of art and antiques should also make a stop at The Junction shopping centre. Craft and antique shops such as The Ugly Duckling are filled to the rafters with trinkets waiting to be discovered.
There are also restaurants at the centre, but my attention was caught by Chocolate Heaven, a chocolate artisan whose speciality is dipping foods into chocolates. It advertises ‘chocolate anything’, and delivers on that promise. We dipped strawberries, marshmallows, cheese, biltong and even gherkins in the chocolate and left feeling rightfully satisfied.