KwaZulu Natal, South Africa has always been on my wish list of places to visit; a place where I could experience everything; the main attractions in Kwazulu Natal include beaches, mountains and vast savannahs alongside spotting the ‘Big 5’. I was super excited to be heading back to my favourite continent and to visit this corner of Africa that I’d been anticipating for so long.

Kwazulu Natal is a year-round destination and I think it is ideal for second time visitors to South Africa. So if you love South Africa, but you’ve already visited Cape Town, the Garden Route or taken a safari before, this area offers a new experience of a familiar country.

Business Class London to Durban on Etihad

Grainne flew Business Class with Etihad Airways via Abu Dhabi

I flew with Etihad Airways via Abu Dhabi and Johannesburg to Durban. This time I was lucky enough to experience Business Class on the outbound journey. Etihad fly three times a day from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi on their new A380 aircraft. The A380 features their most up to date on board product; the Business Class studios, First Class apartments and of course The Residence. You can expect exemplary service on the plane in both economy and business class. One thing that struck me was how amazing their staff were with families travelling with small children; they simply couldn’t do enough for them.

Stopping over in Durban

When we arrived at Durban airport we were given a warm South African welcome by Frank who was to be our driver/guide for the next 8 days. We stayed at the Aha Gateway hotel in Umhlanga, Durban. This modern hotel is in a fantastic location; attached to The Gateway Theatre of Shopping – I’d say it’s a great place to start or finish your exploration of Kwazulu Natal.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park

An early start the following morning for our 3.5 hour drive north to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, the oldest game reserve in Africa. Our driver/guide Frank was extremely knowledgeable and was very passionate about the history of Kwazulu Natal. He told us all about the Zulu history and the Anglo Zulu wars.

Hilltop Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park

This park has the largest population of white rhino in the whole world

Our home for the next two nights was Hilltop Resort in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. It’s in the heart of “Old Zululand”, which is rich in history and home to the Big 5; lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino plus a lot of other plains game animals.

As soon as we arrived at Hilltop Resort I was struck by the breath-taking panoramic views over the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve. That first afternoon we ventured out in a jeep in search of the elusive Big 5. As a result of the positive conservation efforts, this park has the largest population of white rhino in the whole world, so if it’s rhinos you want to see - this is the place to see them. You’ll actually see more black and white rhino than giraffe!

We had an awesome encounter with a herd of elephants who happily played around our vehicle - my favourite moment was a baby elephant who seemed to be showing off. Watching these amazing animals for a good 10-15 minutes literally just up close by our jeep was an experience that I won’t forget quickly. We manged to see all of the Big 5, bar the elusive leopard, but I already knew that these nocturnal predators are hard to spot.

After a very successful game drive, we enjoyed the wonderful food that Hilltop Resort has to offer. I found the staff here to be very friendly, and the waiting and kitchen staff even treat you to a tribal dance show at the end of dinner!

My first walking safari

The next day we had an early rise, with a morning spend on my first ever walking safari. It’s a very different experience to travelling by jeep and one I would highly recommend. Just walking through the grassland down towards the forested areas, listening and watching carefully, wondering what you’ll see or if you’ll spot anything at all keeps you on your toes. At one point, we were happily admiring giraffes in the distance when our guide said “go, go, go!” We walked off quickly as a Black Rhino sauntered past only about 20m form us – so close! As we making our way back towards our jeep we came across a lone buffalo. Having thought earlier that walking safaris were probably quite tame, I soon came to realise I might be wrong! This turned out to be another highly memorable experience for me.

Crocodile Research Centre and the St Lucia estuary

In the afternoon we drove to St Lucia to visit the Crocodile Research Centre, where you can also take a scenic boat cruise on the St Lucia Estuary. This guided Estuary tour lasted 2 hours. During the cruise we saw hundreds of hippos, crocodiles and a variety of birdlife and of course beautiful scenery. If you like the sound of this cruise, it’s worth knowing that advance booking is essential. On our drive back to Hilltop Resort I remember looking out of the vehicle watching the world go, feeling like here I was in the ‘real Africa’; experiencing the history of South Africa before the Colonial days.

Itala Game Reserve and Ntshondwe Camp

Itala Game Reserve is an area of rugged, mountainous, semi-arid thorn veld with grassland and typical acacia tress, about 400km north of Durban and in the far northern part of Kwazulu Natal – about a 2.5 hour drive from Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve where we had been staying.

This is one of the younger game reserves in South Africa and offers a great variety of terrain, habitats, mammals, birds and trees. Itala’s big game species include white and black rhino, elephant, buffalo and lots of giraffe but it’s also a paradise for bird watchers. The reserve is also rich in history, having been continually occupied during major events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and whilst Shaka and other Zulu kings reigned here. I discovered Itala is one of those places where you can truly relax; absorb the atmosphere and listen to the sounds of the bush.

We spent two nights at Ntshondwe Camp where you can enjoy spectacular views of the reserve. We kept our eyes peeled for the leopards which had been spotted only a few days previously - sadly we weren’t lucky enough to see these nocturnal animals but you may have more luck than me!

Sodwana Bay

There was a lovely atmosphere around Sodwana Bay

After four wonderful days on safari I was looking forward to spending time on the beach. The drive to Sodwana Bay took about 3.5 hours as it’s fairly remote, but it’s definitely worth the long drive. Sodwana Bay National Park is a narrow strip of forested sand dunes, renowned for its excellent scuba diving, snorkelling and deep sea fishing. Classified as one of the top dive sites in the world this 50km reef attracts 35,000 scuba divers each year! Conditions range from idyllic to challenging depending on the wind and the current, and the dive sites vary in depth between 10m and depths only suited to technical deep divers.

I felt there was a lovely atmosphere around Sodwana Bay; I can certainly see how backpackers come here intending to spend a week or so, then end up staying on and doing their various PADI dive courses whilst they’re here.

I had an awesome time in Kwazulu Natal – for me, it really is a magical part of South Africa. If I’d had even more time, I would have spent longer and planned in some time to visit the battlefields at Islandwana and Rourke’s Drift. Here are a few itineraries which include aspects of my trip – but I can tailor-make your trip to include anything that I’ve mentioned here.

Interested in a second visit: Kwazulu Natal, South Africa?

If you’re interested in exploring South Africa and perhaps adding on the battle fields, I can tailor-make your trip for you and suggest more South Africa trip ideas. I did this itinerary as part of a tour however you can easily do this as a self-drive from Durban. I can arrange flights and transfers, car hire and great accommodation in the cities and a good standard as you travel further afield. To start planning your trip, contact me for more advice.

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