Our friends visited the Natal Midlands in December 2010 and this is a fantastic insight into all the things to do and see along the way.
A Midlands Meander
KwaZulu-Natal ItinerariesPietermaritzburg in December, so this gave us a wonderful excuse to travel to the Natal Midlands. Travelling through the Transkei from East London is a unique experience and it is a route that is not recommended after dark.
We travelled up to Durban on a Wednesday just before a public holiday and the roads were very busy. The towns in the Transkei are not big, but travelling through them can take up to an hour as the roads are so conjested you just have to have lots of patience. If you are travelling through the Transkei remember that the best stops for ‘comfort stops’ are Mthata and Kokstad – the towns in between are really not good stopping places.
This might sound like it is a place to be avoided at all costs, but if you avoid the Transkei you also miss out on beautiful scenery and a section of South Africa which is still very rural. This year the countryside is looking particularly beautiful as the Transkei has had good rain and the rivers are running strongly. The people are mainly small farmers and the countryside has lots of domestic animals, sheep, goats, cows, pigs and dogs, which can be quite a menace when you are driving, so you have to keep a sharp lookout for wandering animals. The roads are pretty good, but the drivers can be the main problem, commonly referred to as “Transkei Robots”.
We spent 3 nights in Umhlanga as we wanted to be near the Gateway Shopping Centre and also to meet a friend who stays near Umhlanga. This is a good area to stay in as there is so much to do, plus the beach is very good. I found Gateway a great shopping experience with lots of things to see and do, also a large entertainment area for children and teenagers. There is one thing to remember if you go to Gateway – it might be an idea to go when you have not eaten too much because the number of restaurants offering good value food is overwhelming. Gateway also has cinemas and a theatre so entertainment is never a problem.
On the Friday night we went to the Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga. This is an old Colonial Hotel which has been revamped recently, but retains the feeling of the Colonial Area. We had drinks and supper on the terrace overlooking the pool and the beach just below it. The food was wonderful and this was a really memorable part of our trip.
Pietermaritzburg is a very pretty city, not too big and the main buildings to see are all in the centre of town. One of the most popular events that Pietermaritzburg is know for is the annual Comrades Marathon which takes place every year between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. On Sunday we drove from Pietermaritzburg to Howick on the R103. This is the scenic road to the Midlands and as you leave Pietermaritzburg you immediately realize that this area is really beautiful, very lush green grass with lots of beautiful flowers and lots of trees. We stopped at a farm stall near Hilton and enjoyed looking at all the home made jams and preserves on offer plus beautiful looking fruit and vegetables. There was also a showroom for beautifully crafted furniture, so if you are on the look out for a table or chairs this is definitely the place to visit.
We drove on to Howick which has a street full of different arts and crafts shops plus lots of antique shops. The Falls are a pleasure to view – there are steps down to a viewing platform and the view from this not only over the falls but to the surrounding countryside is awesome. The Midmar Dam is well known for “The Midmar Mile” which is a very well known swimming event where swimmers from all over South Africa travel to the Midmar Dam to take part in this event. It is also a very popular picnic and boating spot, plus if you enjoy hiking or cycling this is one of the places to visit. Driving along the road we came across “The Belgium Chocolate Shop”. Who can resist a Chocolate shop? This little shop is really something special with all sorts of chocolates – you can choose how few or how many you want and they will package them up and all you have to do is enjoy them – they are really worth the calories!
I have come to the conclusion that a couple of Arts and Craft shops a day are all that I can handle, but driving through the Midlands is an experience that is well worth doing, even if you are not a great shopper. We stopped for lunch at the Piggly Wiggly Centre which is a great place to stop as there are about 4 or 5 craft shops, a wine shop, a great supermarket/local produce shop and a very good restaurant. It sounds like just a normal type of complex but it is laid out that each area is separate and there are lots of things for children to do.
We decided we would then head for our hotel – after reading up about various places we decided that as it was very close to Christmas we would spoil ourselves and stay at Fordoun Hotel and Spa. I am always a little bit apprehensive when I have booked accommodation that it will be as good as it sounds. Well Fordoun definitely lives up to its advertisements and this is really a wonderful experience.The experience starts from the time you arrive, you are greeted like a friend with a glass of Champagne and taken to your room where everything is shown to you – helpful for someone like me, who is not too good at the latest technology.
The rooms are very comfortable with a separate dressing room area which leads on to an enormous bathroom with a big shower and a bit bath. We had taken a package which included a neck and back massage and a facial. (A word of advise, if you do book at Fordoun reserve any spa packages when you book as the Spa is very popular). Fordoun was a dairy farm and is surrounded by lush lawns and beautiful old trees, lots of flowers and everything is well kept – no overgrown grass here. The meals are what you would expect from a hotel of this class and the service impeccable.
We drove around the Nottingham Road area and tried to go to Michael House, the very exclusive boys school that has been made famous in the movie Spud. Unfortunately it was closed the day we were there. The Midlands offers lots to do, hiking, horse riding, cycling, golf courses and the scenery just makes the whole experience something well worth doing.
We drove home via the southern section of the Drakensberg – Underberg which is very close the famous Sani Pass. If you wish to do Sani Pass remember that the best way to do this is on an organized day tour and to take your passport as you cross the border into Lesotho and have lunch at the “Highest Pub in Southern Africa”. This day trip is really worth doing as the mountain scenery is breathtaking. The Drakensberg Gardens Resort is very close to Underberg and is a wonderful holiday destination. The Resort offers both accommodation in the hotel or two different types of self catering. This area also has different craft shops plus due to the lush vegetation a wonderful cheese factory. The Drakensberg mountain range is our largest mountain range and to explore this region is an awe inspiring journey.