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South Africa with Kids: Kwazulu-Natal – the best things come in small packages!

Most visitors to South Africa bypass Kwazulu-Natal. I’m not sure why? It probably offers the most to see in the smallest geographical area.

Kwazulu – Natal lies in the sub tropics and almost never gets cold. Sugar cane is a major crop and fruits such as litchis and pineapples abound.

Kwazulu-Natal is most easily accessed either by road from Johannesburg or by plane to Durban.  Durban is an interesting city with one of the largest Indian populations outside of India, but like other South African major cities, it has seen an increase in violent crime, and my suggestion is to skip it. Picking up a car at the airport is simple, and the coast both South and North of Durban is packed with small towns and resorts, most of which are extremely family friendly. I’d suggest that one heads north, making for the popular resort of Umhlanga (pronounced Umshlanga). Many of the town names in the province are  in Zulu, and knowing how to pronounce the names can be helpful. The beaches are all good, and the best thing about them is the warm Indian Ocean, vastly warmer than the cold Atlantic in Cape Town. From Umhlanga one has various options – sticking to the coast one can venture northwards as far as the border with Mozambique – on the way one passes spectacular areas such as the UNESCO World Heritage listed St Lucia (with its hippos) and Sodwana Bay (the country’s best diving). There is fantastic bird life, easy access to some of Southern Africa’s best wildlife Parks and the added attraction of being able to visit authentic Zulu villages. The Zulu’s have a proud heritage, and it was only the invasion by British forces armed with modern weapons in the late 1800’s that caused them to lose their independence as a nation. They have great handicrafts including ornate beadwork, basketry and ceramics.

As mentioned, nearby one  has the great wildlife park of Hluhluwe-Umfolozi (Shlushloowi) where the “Big 5” are prevalent. Further north one find the little known parks of Mkuze (famous for Rhino and walking safaris) and Ndumu (famous for birdlife). In fact, I would venture that the parks in Kwazulu -Natal are equal to and perhaps better than the better known Kruger. I think the reason that they are less well known is that they are run by the Province and not by the National Parks administration. Maybe that is for the ultinate benefit of the visitor, who exeriences less crowds etc as a result.  I have been on a guided walk at Mkuze and we saw wild rhinos maybe 500 meters away. In fact, our guide was very careful about where we stood in which direction we approached from – Rhinos have terrible eyesight but they have a great sense of smell. We made sure to approach in such a way that we could not be smelt – actually, once we were approaching from the right direction, we could have waked much closer, their eyesight being so bad.

On an altogether different route, one can travel inland from Durban, towards the mighty Drakensberg. Also listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, the Drakensberg is South Africa’s greatest mountain range. The Drakensberg is one of South Africa’s best playgrounds – incredible scenery, wonderful hiking, picturesque villages dotted on the landscape. In my opinion, their greatest attraction are the many hunter-gatherer rock art sites -easily accessed, the attest to a time in history where people lived in caves, used stone tools and painted the landscape as they saw it. There has been much interpretation of the art and today much of it is considered to be directly related to shamanistic rituals and experiences.   The amazing thing is that while in Europe, such art dates back tens of thousands of years, in South Africa we are talking about a few hundred years only. In fact, as recently as about one hundred years ago, San people (only living in the Kalahari desert by then) were still living a stone age lifestyle.

My favourite hike is to Battle Cave in the Injasuti region but there are many others. Battle Cave depicts just that, a seemingly ancient battle, and the relatively easy hike is fabulous.

Finally, if you are travelling with older children or if you have agreat interest in history, don’t forget that Kwazulu-Natal was the scene of the the famous battles of the Zulu Wars including Rorkes Drift, where a tiny force of British soldiers held out against thousands of Zulu warriors, earning 11 Victoria Crosses in the process. The battlefields can be explored with qualified guides who do a great job of bringing the past to life.

Accommodation is plentiful and excellent, like in much of South Africa. From the Drakensberg, one can easily reach the highway to travel either back to Durban , or further inland in the direction of Johannesburg.

And what about Kids? Well, it’s all great for kids, from the outstanding beaches (swimmable in both summer and winter), to the wildlife parks to the villages to the mountains. If you are looking for a slightly off the beaten track trip (only slightly – South Africans have always known about these areas), there is nothing that can beat Kwazulu- Natal for beauty, fun, authenticity and a real African experience!

PS These days I am planning fabulous family trips to South Africa. If you’d like to see how I can help you, click here.