A sneak peek into Africa's KwaZulu-Natal through a safari

Our safari experience takes place at the luxurious Thanda Private Game Reserve at the heart of the Elephant Coast in Zululand.

Early morning and late afternoon drives offer the best wildlife sightings in the African bush (Photo: Christian Sperka)

KwaZulu-Natal has a lot to offer in terms of city life, beachfront, nature, heritage and culture, making an extended stay the best way to do it justice. With its huge savannah, home to big game, a safari remains at the top of the list of things to do in KwaZulu-Natal. Its numerous resorts, nature reserves and parks will leave you spoilt for choice. But while a safari adventure is certainly a must-do, it only scratches the surface of this coastal province’s offerings.

The South African province was formed in 1994, with the merger of two provinces — KwaZulu, meaning “place of the Zulu” in isiZulu (the Zulu language), and Natal, which means Christmas in Portuguese. It was named by the explorer Vasco da Gama to commemorate his sighting of the coast on Christmas Day 1497.

Those who are keen to know the history of the places they visit would find it interesting that the capital, Pietermaritzburg, has strong historic ties with the country’s beloved Nelson Mandela. The leader and activist was arrested not too far north-west of the capital, marking the beginning of his decades of incarceration. Today, a breathtaking art installation marks the site, situated at the end of a long road that is symbolic of Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom.

The iconic acacia tree is inextricably linked to the African landscape

The capital also houses the Old Pietermaritzburg Prison that dates back over 150 years and survived the colonial era, the liberation struggle and ultimately the dawn of a democratic South Africa in 1994. Many freedom fighters, including Mandela, King Dinuzulu, Derick Marsh, Kasturba Gandhi, Moses Mabhida, Harry Gwala and Peter Brown, were imprisoned here.


Spotting the Big 5

Our safari experience takes place at the luxurious Thanda Private Game Reserve at the heart of the Elephant Coast in Zululand. A three-hour drive from Durban takes us past hectare after hectare of sugarcane plantations. Some 80% of South Africa’s sugar industry is headquartered in KwaZulu-Natal. Alternatively, one can save hours on the road and spend more time on safari by flying into Phinda Airstrip via Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo Airport, from where a Thanda representative will drive you to the property. Our villa also had a helipad for those who prefer arriving in more exclusive privacy.

From the entrance of the property, a 15-minute drive in a 4 x 4 vehicle brings us to the sprawling Villa iZulu that has all the makings of an extravagant getaway. Facilities include a heated swimming pool, outdoor gym, traditional boma and bonfire area. All meals are cooked in the villa by chef Varelia, while her team of wait staff take pride in being incredibly helpful yet unobtrusive. Wildlife sightings are even possible during this short drive and we are greeted by the sight of a tower of giraffes grazing by the main gate of the villa.

The sprawling Villa iZulu was awarded World's Leading Luxury Private Villa at last year's World Travel Awards

Designed and created for Swedish investors Christin and Dan Olofsson, the villa, once described as one of Africa’s best kept secrets, has now opened its doors to travellers seeking the royal treatment. Catering to groups, the Afro chic-inspired dining area and spacious living area provide ample space for lounging before retiring to the privacy of one of the five suites. A wide terrace near the living area overlooks a watering hole not too far away, and on a good day, guests may catch a glimpse of animals that stop by for a drink. Alternatively, wildlife sightings are also possible from the private viewing decks of each of the individual suites.

The amenities are well thought out and seamlessly combine comfort and luxury, making us almost reluctant to step out of the villa. But a game drive had been scheduled for right after lunch and our safari guide, Ephraim Mathe, and spotter, Ronie Nsukwini, arrive on the dot. Like most safaris, there is no guarantee that we will spot the Big 5. But we did spot a lioness and her cubs on our drive, besides zebra, gazelle, kudu, antelope and warthog. Our guide’s explanation fills the lull between wildlife spotting and when he is not sharing information, we simply sit back and appreciate our surroundings.

Lucky guests may catch a glimpse of wildlife by the watering hole nearby

About two hours into our game drive, we stop to enjoy a quintessential safari sundowner. Our trusty guide and spotter quickly set up a makeshift bar on the hood of the jeep, consisting of wine, Amarula and other tipples as well as hot tea and coffee. Small bites in the form of local treats like dried mango, nuts and delicious biltong also form part of the spread. It is a pleasant way to enjoy the evening, just as nature treats us to a colourful spectacle as the sun dips into the horizon, creating a pretty backdrop for the bush.


Venturing beyond Kwazulu-Natal

If you are up for an adventure, a trip to the famous Sani Pass is a more than worthy option. The mountain pass, located in the west of KwaZulu-Natal, traverses the road between Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal and Mokhotlong, Lesotho. Accessible only by 4 x 4 vehicles due to less than ideal road conditions, the adventure lies in manoeuvring along the long and winding but scenic road, which leads to the highest pub in Africa. Sitting at 2,873m above sea level on the border of South Africa and Lesotho, the pub is located within the cosy Sani Mountain Lodge in Lesotho. The Sani Pass can be explored on a day trip but if you have the luxury of time, it is worth spending more time in Lesotho.


This article first appeared on July 23, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.


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