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After arriving in Johannesburg International Airport, you'll catch a connecting flight to Durban where your rental car awaits. A long ascent takes you away from the coast and into the fertile Natal Midlands, an area that almost resembles Italian Tuscany at first glance. Rich green hills are punctuated by vineyards and old farmhouses, while an unmistakably fresh smell filters through the car window. But you're in Africa. Zulu locals wave hello on winding country roads, dressed in inconceivably colorful clothes. Stunning rivers and lakes roll past as you keep driving uphill, glimpses of the dramatic scenery that will accompany your fourteen day trip. And then you ascend to the elegant boutique hotel, a living ode to old-world charm with sweeping views over the lush Natal Midlands.
Day 2 - 3
The Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Mountains rise almost vertically, stretching to over 10,000 feet and dramatically towering over the Zulu Kingdom. This is the start of the Great Rift Valley, a spectacular expanse of mountains that stretches all the way north to Syria. Some individual peaks rise like a child's painting, triangular summits that are often buried under a white blanket. Others resemble a giant's fingers, pointing skyward and much too steep for snow. Gaze up and it feels like you're in an amphitheater, surrounded by an arc of mountains, standing on an atmospheric stage. Drive and hike your way higher and you'll be soaking up the drama, staring down at the miniature world below, the views stretching for hundreds of miles. In Afrikaans, Drakensburg means “Dragon Mountains,” a reference to their distinctive shape. The Zulu word Ukhahlamba is perhaps more accurate. For them, this is the “Barrier of Spears.”
It's a short drive to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, although you'll probably have a few photo stops en route. Two days give you time to slowly explore the scenic beauty. Roads snake their way up to mountain passes and glorious views. Hiking trails lead off in every direction, some clinging to the escarpment, others rising skywards to indelible peaks. Strenuous and exhilarating day hikes take you to Cathedral Peak or the Amphitheater Peaks. You'll need good weather, good shoes, and to be comfortable with short scrambles and using chain ladders. It can be tough, but the views more than compensate. Other trails are shorter and almost as spectacular. Nestled just below Cathedral Peak, your camp offers an idyllic submersion in the mountain scenery. Breathtaking silence, non-stop vistas, and wonderfully spacious chalets come as standard. They will provide local information on hiking trails and a route that suits your ambition and fitness level.
People have been walking along the Drakensburg trails for over 100,000 years. Indigenous San Bushmen pick up the story, leaving redolent rock paintings on the mountain, each depicting an individual scene; a tribe celebrating a successful hunt, the bushmen being chased away by foreign settlers, warnings to other tribes that a leopard lurked nearby. This area has the largest collection of rock paintings in the world, with some 40,000 works dotted around the caves and overhangs. Bushmen are quiet and misunderstood across the world. Their art offers a thought provoking journey into an almost extinct lifestyle.
You'll drive northeast, descending into the heart of the Zulu Kingdom and discovering an undulating landscape that's dotted with rocky outcrops, old forts, and small graveyards. In the 1870s this was a blood soaked land. Even today there's an eerie feeling to the Battlefields, the ground holding secrets and sighs from one of the world's most ideologically different wars. The English had modern artillery and wanted to exploit the recently discovered diamond mines. The Zulus had the numbers and the fierce desire to protect their own land. But they went into battle with spears and shields made from cowhide. So how did it end? Your guided tour of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift continues the narrative, evocative tales accompanying the very real remnants of the Anglo-Zulu war. Spend the night at the luxury Isibindi Lodge and get your first glimpse of another part of Africa; zebra and wildebeest roam the montane grassland and walking trails provide a close-up perspective.
Like every day on this itinerary, the drive will bring a marvelous immersion into the Zulu Kingdom. Circular Zulu huts dot the landscape, each small village standing isolated on valley slopes or beside snaking rivers. Traditional costumes are still worn here, although they're usually reserved for special occasions. Still, over the two weeks, you'll definitely spot some people in decorative animal fur, cow hide skirts, and impressive headpieces. The rural land is never flat or dull and the roads are invariably quiet. South Africans drive on the left, but the near empty roads help make everyone overcome any fear they might have about driving on the other side of the road. Every so often you reach a westernized village, a broad main street offering homemade biltong (a cured meat snack) and cafes run by old mamas. Take your time and drive slowly, because the landscapes should be savored and the destinations are never too far apart.
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Day 5 - 6
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park is green, but as you descend into the park you're transfixed by the grey. Slowly you get closer and a white rhino is fully revealed, horn pointing majestically, belly expanded remarkably. Less than 20,000 remain in the world, so the camera snaps away at this unique sight. But wait! Another rhino emerges from behind the trees. And another. Drive a few meters forward and there is a dozen of them. Over 1600 White rhinos roam though the hills and valleys of this ancient park, joined by the rest of Africa's famed Big Five. You'll spend two days here, staying at the wonderfully scenic Hilltop Camp, perched above the game filled landscape and overlooking a softly lit waterhole.
The rhinos are the main drawcard. To put the numbers into perspective, this compact and easily explored park contains almost 10% of the world's remaining wild White rhino population. It's not a question of hoping to spot them. Most people lose count within their first game drive. But another grey mass brings smiles to the eyes, elephants wandering through the acacia forest. Lion prides lounge beneath tree branches, leopards can be spotted in the dusk light, while buffalo complete your Big Five tick list. Yet out on the rugged grasslands you'll find a whole cast of endearing wildlife; sunbathing crocodiles, comical warthogs, elegant eland, silent giraffe, and a myriad of antelope species that keep you entertained.
On the morning of day five you'll have a guided game drive with a park ranger. But throughout your two day stay you can self drive through the park and discover untamed Africa for yourself. Turn a corner and a rhino covers the trail. Stop. Stay calm. The rhinos stares and then wanders away, not fussed by your presence. Now, is that a hyena or wild dog that's taking an interest in your front headlights? The tracks are carefully signposted and lead to hippo-filled swamps and popular big cat hangouts. For a first safari experience, there is little that can get the heart racing like Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park.
Day 7 - 8
As you head north the wilderness becomes more absolute and soon you've left almost every trace of modern civilization behind. From the town of Kangwanase you'll be picked up by 4x4 and driven along a rutted, sometimes flooded, trail. Rivers and swamps meander through lush trees and fresh forest, the unique ecosystem completed by endless beaches and three major lake systems. It's blue, green, wet, and wonderfully isolated. Canoe trips take you deep into Africa's largest estuarine system, serenely paddling past hippos and crocodiles. Take a trip to completely marooned beaches, the strips of sand surrounded by green lagoons, and warm Indian Ocean rollers. Snorkel into the pristine clear waters of Kosi Bay, go out fishing and learn the indigenous methods of the Tonga tribe, or just sit at the camp and savor the indelible sounds.
Your lodge elevates the intimacy of the iSimangaliso experience. Soft lanterns surround private dinner spots in the forest, thatched-roof suites blend into nature, and all the activities are included in the trip. Open-air en-suite bathrooms are situated in the sand forest clearing, allowing you to take a bath in the midst of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. So forget about roads, traffic, cellphones, and just about anything else that's been invented in the last 100 years. Instead, gently lose yourself in one of the world's most untouched environments. And in case you were wondering, iSimangaliso translates to “miracle and wonder.”
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Day 9 - 10
After leaving nature's great water park behind you'll head to the very north of the Zulu Kingdom and Tembe Elephant Park which borders Mozambique. There are no prizes for guessing the chief attraction. Tembe's elephants are giants, ploughing through the forest with their ears waving and their tusks curving skyward. Herds congregate around waterholes, frolicking in the mud and spraying around water like a wayward fire hydrant. Size and power are respected here, and the elephant bulls are some of the largest found on the planet. This is the land of the world's few remaining tuskers, elephants whose ivory tusks are almost a long as their immense trunks. They come and go and find a way to please at all times, but the iconic Tembe experience is sitting back and watching the action from a hidden place beside the waterhole.
On two days of game drives you're going to fill the camera memory card with elephants. But save some space for the rest. On the barren dusty land a lion pride roams, the females seeking out the impalas that carefully approach the river. The majestic alpha male isn't taking part in the hunt; he's watching it all unfold from a tree-branch. Buffalos cover the grasslands, while giraffes roam gracefully, their heads visible above the trees. Hippos wade into the shallow rivers, slowly bobbing up and down as they rest from the sun, occasionally yawning and revealing the most immense set of teeth. Rhinos will need no introduction but they still take the breath away. Hartebeest and eland compete to have the most enigmatic horns, and then just when you're returning from a game drive, an elephant stands within touching distance of the safari truck. It towers above you and then gracefully plods past.
Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Day 11 - 12
There's a sense of returning to civilization as you drive south to St Lucia, a delightful village on the southern end of the iSimangaliso wetlands. Wander along the broad deserted Indian Ocean beaches, savoring the white sand underfoot and crossing the estuaries at low tide. At Kosi Bay you were submerged in the waterways. St Lucia is more of an idyllic beach destination, the village full of quaint restaurants and quiet streets, and the lagoons easily explored on walking trails. But rich green forest clings to the rocks and surrounds the village, ensuring you're still very close to the hippos. Some of these great mammals are found wandering along the outskirts of the village.
Spend a long relaxing day relishing nature, lounging on the beach and then ambling into the wetlands. Or drive north for a day of stupendous views as you turn your head from ocean to lagoon. Easy hiking trails take you past swinging monkeys and colorful lizards, and it only takes 10 minutes before you're surrounded by cacophonous birdsong. On day 12 you'll sail through the estuary on a sunset cruise, the fading light providing a call for hippos to leave the river and play along the banks. Set in its own tropical gardens, the Avalone Guesthouse has its own direct access into the nature reserve. It has five luxurious rooms, helping to continue your intimate experience with iSimangaliso.
Heading south, your final day is in the quaint seaside town of Ballito. Surfers ride the ocean breakers, dolphins dance through the shallows, while couples walk hand in hand down slumberous beaches. Tourism in Ballito has grown rapidly in recent years, but there will always be a huge stretch of open sand for every visitor to Ballito and the Dolphin Coast. It makes for a relaxed final day, the sun almost always shining and the 4-star Boathouse overlooking the waves. Savor your final night in Kwazulu Natal and sleep with the sounds of the Indian Ocean filtering through the windows.
It's less than an hour's drive to Durban and King Shaka Internatinoal Airport. After returning the rental car you'll take an internal flight to Johannesburg, landing in time for your international connection home.
Consider extending your stay in South Africa. Read the South African safari reviews on Zicasso for additional ideas and to hear what real travelers experienced on their trips.
The Zulu Kingdom is full of stories, redolent tales that whisper in the breeze or confront you from a safari truck. Mountains rise like giant's fingers, dramatically towering over undulating meadows and lush valleys. Hundreds of white rhinos interact before your eyes, pushing and plodding across Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park. Dolphins dance between Indian Ocean rollers, the waves crashing down on pristine beaches and floating into iSimangalio, Africa's largest estuarine system. Once bloodstained battlefields are now reconciled monuments to the past, while lion prides and leopards continue the life and death nature of the natural land. The Zulu Kingdom epitomises the breathtaking diversity and beauty of South Africa. Sometimes you'll be lost in the landscapes, submerged in dramatic vistas and enigmatic sounds. At other times you'll be confronted by drama, safari and history at the forefront of this evocative land.
This self drive itinerary has been carefully planned to ensure you can always take it slow. Destinations are close together, and driving between them offers a lifetime of photo opportunities and a surreal journey across ecosystems. A Cat B rental car is included, although it’s easy to customize this for a vehicle of your choice. Start in coastal Durban and ascend to the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Mountains, stopping off for a night in the rolling green Natal Midlands, an area that looks suspiciously like Italian Tuscany. The 10,000 foot Northern Drakensberg peaks rise almost vertically, a ring of alpine brilliance that towers over innumerable hiking trails and the world's largest collection of rock painting.
A scattered patchwork of battlefields are discovered on day four, the poignant stories brought to life by local guides. By day five you've reached the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park, home to almost 10% of the world's white rhino population. They cover the savannah and grassland, and dozens of them can be spotted through your own car window. Lions, leopards, and buffalos, are among the 80 odd animal species that can be discovered as you self drive and take a safari through the park. Heading further north you leave modern civilization behind, the sandy forests of iSimangaliso Wetland Park immersing you in a lost water world, one where wading hippos are more numerable than people. Take a canoe to hidden beaches, enjoy your own private bath in the forest, and snorkel in idyllic lakes. Even the locals are amazed by these places. iSimangaliso literally translates to the “place of miracle and wonder” while uKhahlamba means “in the barrier of spears.”
Tembe Elephant Park offers a further two days of sublime safari experiences, the chief attractions coming with humongous tusks and playing in giant herds. Lion prides roam across the dusty plains, while giraffe and buffalo are among the game that always leaves an indelible imprint. Now you'll hit the coastline, traveling alongside the turquoise ocean and stopping for two days at the lush paradise of St Lucia. From here, the southern waterways of UNESCO World Heritage Site iSimangaliso are easily explored, as are long expanses of untouched sand. Watch the dolphins from Ballito and then continue to Durban to complete the itinerary, the tales of the Zulu Kingdom leaving a lifelong impression. And remember, this region has a hankering for surprise and unexpected moments accompany every journey; elephants crossing the highway, picnics besides waterfalls, children shouting “Sanibonani” (how are you?) in traditional villages. So get ready for the Zulu Kingdom to open its heart, and revel in the drama and charm.
$5595 per person (excluding international flights)