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Meandering the Midlands

Meandering the Midlands

 
     
Dec 2014

Words Gerhard Horn, pics GG van Rooyen

It’s nice to be reminded how lucky we are to be South African. We often forget how beautiful our country is and just how much it has to offer in terms of tourist destinations.

Obviously we’re all aware of the firm favourites such as the KwaZulu-Natal coast, the Western Cape, Mpumalanga and the nature reserves in the North West, but we tend to overlook the KZN Midlands. We have just returned from a short visit to this region, and we’re tempted to call it SA’s best kept secret. 

For years we thought of the Midlands as a place you had to drive through to get to Durban. It seemed like nothing more than a few turn-offs from the N3 into the pretty countryside, leading to nowhere in particular, and certainly not places that anyone in search of adventure would go. We decided to go check this out, and obviously we needed a chariot to take us there. 

The Kia Sportage was an obvious choice, as we have felt for some time that it belongs near the top of a large pile of similar sized SUVs. We rate it very highly, because it ticks all the boxes. It’s spacious, well equipped, comfortable, nice to look at, frugal, powerful and nice to look at. We know we said “nice to look at” twice, but take a moment to check it out... Isn’t it the handsomest SUV you’ve ever seen? It’s not just good looking for an SUV -- it’s a great piece of automotive design within the industry as a whole. 

We also wanted to drive the Sportage again as it received a minor facelift a few months ago. A few subtle changes were made to both the exterior and interior, but nothing too drastic. It was probably a case of not much change being needed in the first place, as it was already a class-leading product.

There's only one problem about the Sportage. Thanks to it's award-winning design and a raft of Car of the Year awards, demand far exceeds supply, and in SA the waiting list was measured in months. The arrival of a boatload of Kias has sorted out the issue, but if you’ve always fancied a Sportage, it’s probably a good idea to get to your nearest dealership sooner rather than later.

We decided to take the top-of-the-line 2,0-litre turbodiesel automatic with all-wheel drive on our 1000km soft-roader adventure. We reckoned that its punchy engine and smooth self-shifter would serve us well on the open road.

Turn off at Tweedie

From Johannesburg we drove around 420km to an unimpressive turn-off to a place called Tweedie. It looks like the kind of road you’d find in a horror movie, and the view doesn’t improve much when you get to the top of the bridge that crosses the highway. We decide to hang right and see where it leads us.

A kilometre or so later we stumble across the famous Nottingham Road. Once again we have to choose between right and left, and we go with right again. The road leads us to the spot where the young Nelson Mandela was captured in 1962, in the days before the Treason Trial.

You start the tour, which is called the Long Walk to Freedom, by wandering through a makeshift museum dedicated to Mandela. It’s a stark reminder of apartheid’s effects on SA.

The focal point of the visit is a remarkable sculpture of the man himself. Arrive at the right time of day and you might have the place to yourself, as we did. This allows you to sit there in silence for a while, absorbing the significance of Mandela's pivotal role in his country's road to democracy.

The unusual sculpture was made by Marco Cianfanelli and Jeremy Rose. It is basically 50 steel spears planted upright in the ground. From most angles it looks like a huge mechanical bush, but at one specific angle, 35m from the sculpture, you are suddenly aware of Mandela’s face, looking west.

Mandela was arrested here on 5 August 1962. He was on his way back to Johannesburg after attending a meeting at ANC leader Albert Luthuli’s home and was driving on the R103 disguised as a chauffeur. The police pulled the car over and arrested him. His detention eventually led to the Rivonia Treason Trial, in which Mandela and his colleagues were convicted of treason, marking the beginning of his 27 years in prison.

We drive back on the R103 towards the Midmar Dam, venue for the annual Midmar Mile swimming race. Between the beautifully kept lawns on the shore and the boats in the dam, the Sportage looks right at home. 

The Midmar Mile doesn’t sound that tough, but standing on the shores of this impressive dam, you realise why completing the race is such an impressive achievement. Just walking a mile is tough enough when you’ve become accustomed to the comfort of a Kia Sportage!

The Sportage had been a splendid companion on the tar, but we had yet to find a decent gravel road to drive on. Just outside the gates of Midmar Dam we are once again faced with a choice of routes. Straight on would take us on the recently tarred R103 to a few interesting destinations, but we decide on a gravel road with no specific objective in mind. It was time to test the Sportage’s off-road ability. 

This part of the Midlands is littered with gravel roads that don’t really go anywhere, but it’s worth taking a few hours just to explore the countryside. It tends to be beautiful all year round and it’s a great way to escape “civilisation”, albeit only for a few hours. 

On these corrugated roads the Sportage feels surprisingly agile, which indicates why the word “Sport” makes up part of its name. The suspension copes very well with the washboard surface and we only feel the all-wheel drive system kick in a few times when we drive into an unexpected corner a bit too enthusiastically. 

For a trip like this one doesn’t really need AWD, but it's nice to know it is there. Think of it as a safety net for those odd occasions when extra grip comes in handy. Even if you’re not the kind of person who likes driving on gravel, the AWD could come in handy when the rainy season arrives in a few short weeks.

We eventually find our way back to the R103 and decide to head for the Howick Falls. The sun is setting and the falls will be the perfect way to end the day.

As we stand there looking down at the falls, we hear a man singing, along with an acoustic guitar. It turns out that this budding muso’s name is Mr Love and his occupation is singing for donations. 

His son is seated next to him and it is obvious that whatever he's singing holds a special significance to the young child. We make a donation and in return get a huge smile and another enthusiastic chorus. The only word we can make out is “awe”, but it sounds like a happy song. 

As we walk away, we notice that the boy is wearing a shirt with the slogan, “Always look on the bright side of life”. It really is good being South African. Even when times are hard, most of us find time to sing a happy song. 

On the way to our accommodation for the night, we make a quick stop at the Nottingham Road Breweries to pick up a few well-deserved beers for the evening. The brew master, a friendly man named Thokozani, talks us through the process of making craft beer and it's clear that he takes it very seriously. He shows us computer graphs of the beer’s sugar levels and explains why he needs to monitor these levels each and every day. 

Most of what he says goes over our heads, but we can confirm that whatever Thokozani does, works. 

All four beers made on site are delicious in their own right, but it’s the Whistling Weasel Pale Ale that deserves special mention. After all that driving, it went down exceptionally well on the stoep of our suite at Granny Mouse’s Country House.

The mouse house

While planning this trip we soon realised that the accommodation would be as much of an attraction as any of the sight-seeing. There are loads of places available and most of them tend to be the kind of place where you’d like to spend some time rather than just stay overnight.

Granny Mouse’s Country House immediately grabbed our attention, mostly because of the catchy name. It sounded extremely cosy, so imagine our surprise when we arrived and found that they had been kind enough to book us one of their suites. It was a nice change from the four- and five-star hotels you normally get to sleep in on motor car launches. Hotel rooms tend to be cold and clinical, but the Mouse House was decorated to feel like home. 

The food is exceptional, as is the long list of activities one can take part in, but we decide to spend our evening in the cigar bar, which has an impressive selection of single malt whiskies on the shelves. 

In an attempt to blend in with the local patrons, we order a Glenmorangie and do our credit cards some serious damage.  One only lives once, after all!

Put your brave face on

Our first stop next morning is at Piggly Wiggly. Those who have been to the US will know that there's a chain of cheap and cheerful Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, but the venue we visit could not be more different. It is a fancy coffee shop surrounded by a few other bohemian shops selling everything from imported French frocks to homemade wax candles. It’s a romantic and rustic shopping centre in the middle of nowhere, and a must if you’re on an adventure with your beloved.

Another nice spot for those in search of romance is the Karkloof  Falls. The view from the top is beautiful, and so is the road that takes you there. 

This detour on our way to our final destination gives us time to relax and admire the amount of space in the Kia. On this trip it had swallowed enough luggage for two people for two days, a family-sized cooler box, loads of photographic equipment and a ladder for those tricky landscape shots. Suffice to say that the Sportage has more than enough space for a family of four, and certainly for two people on a romantic getaway. 

No trip to the Midlands is complete without a visit to the Karkloof Canopy Tours. For anyone unfamiliar with canopy tours, allow us to explain: Basically, you strap yourself into a body harness, which is then attached to a sort of foefie slide, and off you go.

There are a few canopy tours scattered all over SA, but the one at Karkloof should be attempted only by the truly brave at heart. 

The tour takes you from one platform to the next using a steel cable. It takes about two hours in all, and at the highest point you find yourself 30m from the ground. Now, 30m doesn't sound much when you look at it horizontally, but it’s another matter vertically. Couple that with the kind of speed that makes your eyes water and you have the makings of a really exciting excursion. We completed the entire course without yelping once, but our fellow sliders let out a few good ones!

The canopy tour was enough excitement for one day and so we decide to make our way to the Gowrie Farm Lodge, to spend the night. 

This grand establishment is at the very end of Nottingham Road, which is an adventure in itself. The twisty road takes you past most of the tourist spots in the area, so you could check in at any one of them and enjoy a week touring the Midlands without driving more than 50km a day. 

The Sportage was a joy to drive on these winding roads. It’s not a sportscar, but it doesn’t mind tackling the occasional mountain pass. It also looked at home parked outside the stunning Gowrie Farm Lodge, and that’s when we finally realised the attraction of cars like the Kia.  

Soft-roaders offer their owners the opportunity to be part of an adventurous lifestyle without having to venture too far into the unknown. You can appreciate nature from within the leather clad luxury and safety of your car, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, catering for this market is big business these days. Almost every manufacturer has a soft-roader in its range, and Kia’s offering is one of the best.

And the Midlands? This region ranks with the country's best for a leisure visit. Like the Kia, it’s stunning to look at and offers the modern adventurer an easily accessible break from big city life without you having to give up any of your usual comforts.

Want to do the same?

If you are interested in a quick KZN Midlands getaway, here’s everything you need to know.

How do I get there and when should I go?

The Midlands are easily accessible from the N3 highway. It’s about an hour’s drive from Durban and four hours from Johannesburg. To get there from Cape Town, it’s best to book a flight from Durban and rent a car at the airport. 

An all-wheel drive SUV isn’t a must, but some of the gravel roads may be tricky during the rainy season, from December to February. At this time you can expect almost daily showers, or downpours that can last for a few days.

In winter, day temperatures often rise into the twenties, but at night they frequently dip below freezing. 

In our experience, it’s best to visit the Midlands during autumn or summer. The trout fishing is great in the autumn.

Where can I stay?

There are loads of luxury venues but also a few cheaper places to stay. The best way to find a place that suits your needs is to hop onto the internet and Google “Midlands accommodation”. The two hotels we stayed at are highly recommended. They were:

Granny Mouse Country House

This is a great place for the whole family. It has both a Bistro and a fine dining restaurant. The rooms are immaculate and the lobby and dining areas have a warm, homely feel. The website is www.grannymouse.co.za.

The rates change with the seasons, and reservations can be made by phoning 033 234 4071 or e-mailing [email protected].

Gowrie Farm Golf Lodge

This establishment is situated in the upmarket town of Gowrie. The views from the main lounge are magnificent, and you can no doubt fit in a round of golf while you’re there. 

The rooms are extremely comfortable and the surrounding area is as quiet as they come. This is definitely the place to go if you’re in search of some much-needed R&R.

Rates depend on the room you choose. Information is easily accessible on the website, www.gowrie.co.za. The website also has a booking function. (Tel 033 266 6294.)

What can I do while I’m there?

Most of the places to visit are close to Nottingham Road (the R103). The Howick Falls, Karkloof Falls and Karkloof Canopy Tours are within 20km of Howick.

To get to these sites, take the Tweedie off-ramp, turn left and drive straight through Howick's main street. At the end of street there are big signposts to guide you the rest of the way.

If you want to explore the many minor roads in the district, remember to take an updated GPS or map along with you.

Source: Leisure Wheels

Midmar Dam
Howick Falls
Nottingham Road Brewery
Piggly Wiggly
Karkloof Falls
Karkloof Canopy Tours

Leisure wheels