The KwaZulu-Natal Midlands is undeniably one of the most beautiful parts of our spectacular country. It’s blessed with a little bit of everything. Rolling hills, burbling brooks and surging rivers… history, game reserves and haunting battlefields. Not bad for only a section of one of our nine provinces. It’s pressed up against the Drakensberg-Ukahlamba mountains in the west, stretched along the coastal belt in the east and hemmed in by the mighty Tugela River in the north. The Midlands is a fertile area that is dominated by agriculture and wide open spaces.
For many, the Midlands has become synonymous with a small area around Nottingham Road. While this is indeed a cornerstone of the region, the Midlands encompasses a far greater and more diverse area than it is often credited with.
It begins in the south-east where the Umgeni River runs through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, with its crags and cliffs, aloes and thorn trees. Further west is the province’s capital city, Pietermaritzburg. This is a small part of Victorian England painstakingly recreated in Africa - complete with an ornate cricket pavilion and the largest red-brick building in the southern hemisphere as its city hall. It was after being thrown from a train here that Mahatma Ghandi was inspired to take the first steps of his peaceful protests against discrimination. A statue of the great man still stands in the city centre.
Another great man, South Africa’s iconic Nelson Mandela, also has a firm link to the region and its railways. Just outside Howick one can visit the spot where Madiba was finally arrested, while travelling by train. A plaque marks the otherwise nondescript spot.
The history continues to the north, where the English, Zulu and Afrikaner fought each other at various times in history. While the more famous battlefields are to be found further north and east in Zululand, there are fascinating places to visit in the Midlands, too. These are most notably around the towns of Colenso and Weenen.
In the more westerly parts of the Midlands, where it comes up against the buttresses of the Drakensberg, the Midlands offers some exceptional fly-fishing for trout in rivers and dams. Midmar Dam outside Howick is a popular venue for carp and bass fishing, as is Albert Falls Dam further east. There also are a number of excellent courses vying for golfers’ attentions.
Of course, no visit to the Midlands is complete without exploring the Midlands Meander for at least a day or two. The best way to do this is to head north from Howick on the R103, a good tar road that ambles and winds through forests and farmlands. This road is regularly dotted with interesting attractions. But don’t stick resolutely to this one road. Pick up a Meander map and explore. Head out to the Dargle, the Karkloof or Curry’s Post. It’ll be quieter, but is just as interesting and picturesque.
When to go
Locals might say that there is no really bad time to visit the Midlands. More neutral observers would say that parts of it get very hot and uncomfortable in summer, which is also the rainy season throughout the region. April to May is perhaps the best time, when it has begun to cool off but the countryside is still green from the summer rains. Winter can be bitterly cold, especially in the higher areas around Nottingham Road and Mooi River, and it snows regularly. But this somehow adds to the attraction. Add a roaring fire, hearty food and a bottle of locally-produced beer, port or wine. And of course the Meander is always there to keep one entertained.
The Midlands Meander – is what the majority of visitors think of when they hear ‘Midlands’. It deserves its reputation, too. It has become a successful, sustainable tourist attraction that focuses on quality, handmade products and local produce. A few of the highlights are Ardmore Ceramics, the Woodturner, Shuttleworth Weaving and the Zulu Quilt Centre.
Sports – are a major attraction in the Midlands. Every year the Duzi Canoe Marathon starts in Pietermaritzburg and, three days later, ends in Durban. The Midmar Mile is an open-water swim that takes place annually in Midmar Dam. The Comrades Marathon is the largest ultramarathon in the world, running from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, or vice versa in alternate years.
Howick Falls - are a big drawcard in the region, but don’t think that all one can do is gaze at them. Take a walk into the gorge, through thick indigenous bush filled with bird calls. You’ll be rewarded with the best possible view of the falls, and with a refreshing swim. Adventurers can also abseil over the 107-metre drop, past precariously perching aloes, caressed by the waterfall’s drifting spray.
Hartford House - is a destination worth visiting just for the food. It is also worth spending a night in this historic, luxurious boutique hotel. Situated just outside Mooi River, this romantic getaway on a working horse stud farm is home to an award-winning restaurant. It offers splendid set-course dinners coupled with excellent wines.
Fly-fishing - the first trout to be imported into South Africa were brought to Balgowan in the Midlands. It’s hard to find better fly-fishing than in this region. The dams around Nottingham Road, in the Rosetta/Kamberg District and in the Dargle, are renowned for the trophy rainbow trout. The rivers that flow from the Drakensberg are similarly famed. Indigenous yellowfish are becoming increasingly targeted on fly. They can be fished for in the Tugela, Msunduzi and Umgeni Rivers, amongst others.
Mountain biking - A number of high-profile mountain biking events are held in the Midlands every year. Pietermaritzburg has even hosted the Mountain Bike World Cup. This should give some indication of the quality of the cycling available in the region.
Towns of the Midlands - Howick, Pietermaritzburg and Nottingham Road.