The coast of KwaZulu-Natal is lush, tropical and very rarely cold. Head inland, however, and the climate and scenery change markedly. The Midlands – a stretch of about 80km between Pietermaritzburg and the Drakensberg mountain range – boasts thick forests and verdant farmlands. In spring and summer, the gentle hills are covered in wild flowers; in autumn, the trees are set ablaze in a palette of burnt red, orange and yellow; and in the chilly winters, a light dusting of snow is not unheard of.
The Midlands might have remained nothing more than a beautiful stretch of countryside on the way to the Drakensberg were it not for a group artists who joined forces 30 years ago to create an arts-and-crafts route. These days the area, which has been divided up into five routes, offers more than 160 places to eat, sleep, shop, marvel and enjoy the great outdoors.
ROUTE 1: Hilton – Merrivale – Howick – Karkloof – Mpophomeni – Boston
If you happen to be on this route on a Sunday, the Zulu-Mpophomeni Cultural Township Experience on the R617 gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself in township life — meet the people, hear their stories, visit a shebeen — and enjoy a traditional meal of steamed bread, pot roast beef, and samp and beans all washed down with some sorghum beer.
At the other end of the route – some strategic planning might be necessary – you will find the Karkloof Conservation Centre. From the centre’s bird hide, you’ll catch a glimpse of some of over 190 bird varieties found in the area, including all three of South Africa’s crane species. You’ll have to pass through the town of Howick to get there, so stock up on some picnic goodies and make an afternoon of it. While you’re in town, take a quick detour to check out the 95-metre-high Howick Falls.
Where to stay: It’s tucked away at one end of the route, but Tillietudlem Game and Trout Farm is worth the extra petrol, especially if you happen to be a keen fly-fisherman. Accommodation comes in the form of a beautifully restored colonial house, and your stay is incomplete if you don’t take the opportunity to walk amongst the Nguni herd.
ROUTE 2: Curry’s Post – Balgowan – Mount West
This is arguably the least interesting of the five routes. If you do decide to make a day of it, head straight for the Kleinbosch Estate in the Mount West region where you can taste Kleinberg wines, raid the country pantry, and explore the 500 hectares of bush and farmland on horseback.
Where to stay: While Curry’s Post Road is by no means short on accommodation, I suggest you nip onto the R103 (and off Route 2) and head for the nearby Fordoun. This gorgeous five-star hotel has an extensive spa that offers a range of African products and treatments – including African potato healing wraps – under the guidance of the establishment’s traditional healer.
ROUTE 3: Dargle – Fort Nottingham – Nottingham Road
If you begin Route 3 on the R103, start your adventure by popping into Piggly Wiggly. While you’re there, stock up on some heavenly handmade lotions at the Lavender Company and check out the eclectic ceramic pieces on offer at Zulu Lulu.
Further along the route, you’ll find The Woodturner, where award-winning artist Andrew Early transforms salvaged wood into pieces of bespoke furniture and turns wet wood into exquisite bowls in a process that takes five years. The Shuttleworths – one of the founding families of the Midlands Meander – can also be found on this route. At their workshop, which is located in an indigenous forest, Helen and Andy Shuttleworth produce mohair rugs, throws and shawls.
Where to stay: Staying at The Bend Country House is not unlike staying at the country holiday home of a wealthy friend. Except friends are not likely to have erfs so large that they incorporate five distinct eco-systems. For those with a penchant for fishing, there are six well-stocked dams.
ROUTE 4: Lions River – Lidgetton – Balgowan – Nottingham Road
There’s an annual marathon that follows the route Nelson Mandela took before he was captured in 1962… but, you’re on vacation, so simply visiting the capture site museum will suffice. A sculpture created by Marco Cianfanelli and Jeremy Rose – made up of 50 steel columns measuring up to 9.5m high – marks the spot where Mandela was captured. While you’re at the museum, which provides information about Mandela’s journey and South Africa’s history, check out the stunning works of art created by the Impumelelo Bead Artists.
On your way through to Nottingham Road, pop into Tsonga, where Zulu women produce hand-stitched leather shoes and handbags. Then succumb to an afternoon of Bacchanalian delights: deliciously creamy goats’ milk cheese at Swissland Cheese, hand-crafted Belgian chocolates – think biltong, curry, or chai spices – at Chocolate Heaven, and some of the best craft beer South Africa has to offer at the Rawdons Pub and Brew.
Where to stay: Don’t let the quaintness of the name fool you into thinking that Granny Mouse’s Country House is unrefined. In addition to two restaurants, a spa and a well-stocked whiskey lounge, the establishment boasts an impressive cellar containing over 4000 bottles of South African and international wines.
ROUTE 5: Nottingham Road – Rosetta – Kamberg – Mooi River – Giant’s Castle
You can access a number of nature reserves on this route, but I’d recommend heading straight for the state-owned Kamberg Nature Reserve. In addition to a variety of buck and smaller mammals, you will also get the opportunity to see some fine examples of San rock art. Brush up on your knowledge about the original inhabitants of the area at the Interpretive Centre before taking a seven kilometre walk with one of the guides to the Game Pass Shelter where archaeologists first discovered the key to interpreting the spiritual symbolism of San rock art.
Where to stay: There are a few contenders on this route, but Hartford House comes out tops. Once the home of the last prime minister of the Natal colony, Hartford House shares a location with a world-class racehorse stud farm – Summerhill Stud. While you’re there, you simply must eat at the restaurant, which consistently vies for a top-ten spot on South Africa’s best restaurants lists.
Further reading on AFKTravel: Midlands Meander: A Foodie’s Guide To Central KwaZulu-Natal