Lushly green and bordered by the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, KwaZulu-Natal is sometimes referred to as the Garden Province. It was created after the end of apartheid in 1994 with the merging of Natal Province and KwaZulu, a previously separate Zulu homeland. Today, the province is famous for its rich Zulu culture, for vibrant cities like Pietermaritzburg and Durban, and for exceptional natural wonders that range from the mountains of the Drakensberg to the pristine beaches and estuaries of iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Sample Durban’s Authentic Curry Restaurants
Durban is home to the largest population of Indians in sub-Saharan Africa and is heavily influenced by Indian culture. Accordingly, the city is famous for its curry restaurants, which serve authentic Indian staples alongside uniquely South African reinventions like the bunny chow (a half-loaf of bread that’s hollowed out and filled with fragrant curry). Options range from no-frills restaurants like Goundens—beloved for its mouthwatering mutton bunnies—to more upmarket eateries like The Little India Restaurant on Musgrave. The latter specializes in traditional Indian cuisine and caters well for vegetarians.
Discover Sharks and Water Parks at uShaka Marine World
uShaka Marine World is Durban’s top attraction on TripAdvisor. Located on the Golden Mile beachfront, the aquarium features large tanks filled with aquatic creatures from all over the world. Unique experiences allow you to feed the stingrays or dive in the shark tank. In addition to the aquarium, the complex also boasts a reptile house, a slew of boutiques and restaurants on the open-air Village Walk, and a water park complete with splash pools and supertubes for the ultimate family day out. Tickets to the water park and aquarium cost 214 rand per adult ($15.25) and 174 rand per child ($12.40).
Catch a Rugby Game at Kings Park
Rugby is one of South Africa’s great passions, so attending a game is a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture. KZN’s premier team is the Cell C Sharks. They compete in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby tournaments and host home games at Kings Park Stadium in Durban. If you’re lucky, watching a game might also mean seeing current and future Springbok stars in action. Sharks alumni who have played for the national side include JP Pietersen, Patrick Lambie, and Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira. Tickets for Sharks fixtures can be bought directly on the team’s official website.
Surf World-Class Waves Along the Coast
Some of South Africa’s best surf spots are found along the province’s endless coastline. Top spots for experienced surfers include Green Point (a beautiful right-hand point-break located just north of Scottburgh) and New Pier (a pro-worthy location on Durban’s north coast with firing left and right-hand breaks). Beginners and intermediate surfers are also spoiled for choice. Best of all, surfing in KZN is defined by the warm water and abundant sunshine—no need for the thick wetsuit you’ll depend on elsewhere in the country. The best season for surfing is the South African winter (June to September).
Look for the Big Five on a Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Safari
Located a 90-minute drive from Richards Bay, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is probably the most famous safari destination in KwaZulu-Natal. It was established in 1895, covers some 960 square kilometers and—whether you opt to self-drive or join a guided safari—allows spotting the Big Five (including lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino). For the best chance of seeing a leopard, join a night safari. The park is also home to some of the continent’s rarer predators, with cheetahs and African wild dogs being particular highlights. The entrance costs 240 rand for adults and 120 ran for children.
Go Birding on a Lake St. Lucia Boat Cruise
Lake St. Lucia is the focal point of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, one of South Africa’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It stretches over 80 kilometers in length, is part of Africa’s most extensive estuarine system, and supports an astonishing variety of wildlife. This includes more than 50 percent of all the water birds in KwaZulu-Natal, making it a prime destination for birders. Boat safaris give you the chance to spot fish eagles, herons, egrets, kingfishers, and flamingos, with a total of 526 different recorded species. Great white pelicans breed on the lake in winter, while migrants from Europe and Asia arrive in summer.
Step Off the Beaten Track at uMkhuze Game Reserve
uMkhuze Game Reserve is the ideal safari destination for self-drive enthusiasts who want to step off the beaten track and discover a wilder side of KZN. The park offers simple accommodation, a handful of well-maintained waterhole hides, and miles of uncrowded roads that wind their way through open grassland and tangled riverine forest. Potential wildlife sightings range from the Big Five (including both black and white rhino) to cheetahs, wild dogs, hippos, and more than 420 bird species. Gate times are from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in winter.
Learn to Scuba Dive at Sodwana Bay
South Africa is one of the best dive destinations in Africa. If you’re not yet certified, there’s nowhere better to learn than Sodwana Bay. Located on the Mozambican border in northern KZN, this sleepy beach resort has a wide choice of dive operators to choose from, all offering professional courses with international agencies like PADI or SSI. The conditions are ideal for beginners, with warm water, minimal current, excellent visibility, and lots of shallow dive sites. Most importantly, the reefs are breathtakingly beautiful, with plenty of coral and abundant marine life. Recommended operators include Adventure Mania and Da Blu Juice.
Swim With Sharks at Aliwal Shoal
Once you have your scuba certification, head south to Aliwal Shoal. The Shoal boasts beautiful reefs, two excellent wrecks, and some of the best shark diving in the world. Operators like Aliwal Dive Centre use bait to attract sharks to the boat. Then, you can slip into the water and admire them as they swim around you, often within touching distance. Although some companies offer cage dives, most of the shark diving on Aliwal Shoal is cage-free. The main species is the oceanic blacktip, while occasional visitors include dusky, thresher, and bull sharks—and in summer, the mighty tiger shark.
Get Your Adrenalin Pumping at Oribi Gorge
An hour’s drive inland from Port Shepstone takes you to Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve. The reserve is known for its spectacular scenery—and as a haven for adrenalin junkies. The adventure starts with the world’s highest gorge swing, which sees you take a 55-story plunge from the top of Lehr’s Falls into the gorge at a rate of 75 miles an hour. Afterward, you can test your mettle with a 360-foot abseil down the canyon’s sheer cliffs; or with a whitewater rafting expedition along the Umzimkhulu River. Paintball, zip-lining, and hiking are also offered by Wild 5 Adventures.
Soak Up the Sun on Idyllic South Coast Beaches
KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast stretches from Amanzimtoti (just south of Durban) to Port Edward and includes some of the province’s best beaches and resort towns. Seven of these beaches have been awarded Blue Flag status in recognition of their cleanliness, water quality, and superior amenities. These are Trafalgar and Marina Beaches near Southbroom, Ramsgate Beach, Hibberdene, and Lucien Beaches near Margate, Southport Beach, and Umzumbe Beach. Wherever your South Coast adventure takes you, top beach activities range from sunbathing and sandcastle building to surfing, snorkeling, and fishing. Permits for fishing and spearfishing can be bought at any Post Office.
Go Tiger-Fishing on Pongola’s Jozini Dam
The tigerfish has to be near the top of any recreational fisherman’s Africa bucket list. Prized for their ferocity and strength, these striped beauties are only found in a few places in South Africa, of which the most famous is Pongola’s Jozini Dam (the third-largest in the country). You can hire a boat and venture out onto the lake by yourself, but the easiest way to fish for tigers is with an experienced guide from outfits like Pongola Game Reserve or Shayamoya Lodge. August to November and March to May are considered the best seasons for tiger fishing.
Learn About South African History on a Battlefields Tour
KwaZulu-Natal was the location of several of South Africa’s most important conflicts, and you can learn all about them with a tour of its various battlefields. The most famous are probably Rorke’s Drift, Isandlwana, and Blood River. Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana are located just 10 miles from each other and saw simultaneous conflicts during the Anglo-Zulu War in January 1879. Blood River marks the place where 470 Voortrekkers prevailed against an army of more than 10,000 Zulus in 1838. At all three sites, museums and guided tours tell the story of the men who fought and died there.
Test Your 4x4 Skills With a Trip Up Sani Pass
Sani Pass is a legendary 4x4 route that crosses over the Drakensberg Mountains from Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal to Mokhotlong in Lesotho. The gravel road is grueling, with sheer edges, steep gradients, and patches of snow and ice in winter. You’ll need nerves of steel and plenty of off-road driving experience to make it to the top—but the scenery is some of the most beautiful in the world. Expect panoramic valleys and towering peaks, and keep an eye out for rare bearded vultures soaring overhead. At the top lies Sani Mountain Lodge and the Highest Pub in Africa.
Hike Amidst Breathtaking Mountains in the Drakensberg
The Drakensberg Mountains wind their way through several South African provinces, but one of the most popular areas (the Royal Natal National Park) is in KZN. The park is filled with peaks and valleys, waterfalls, mountain lakes and gorges. Its most notable feature is undoubtedly the Amphitheatre, an astonishing cliff face that stretches for five kilometers and rises to heights of more than 4,000 feet. The Tugela Falls (the second-tallest in the world) plunge from the top. The best way to explore the park is on foot, with short, medium, and multi-day hikes to suit all interests and abilities.
Pay Your Respects at the Nelson Mandela Capture Site
On Aug. 5, 1962, apartheid police finally succeeded in arresting a young Nelson Mandela on the road outside Howick in KwaZulu-Natal. The arrest would ultimately lead to the future president’s 27-year imprisonment and, as such, was a landmark moment in his life story. Today the capture site is marked by a monumental sculpture made up of 50 tall steel columns. When viewed from the right angle, they come together to create an image of Mandela’s face. To reach the sculpture, you must walk along a winding pathway, meant to represent Madiba’s long walk to freedom.
Get Your Cultural Fix in Pietermaritzburg
Although Durban is the province’s largest city, Pietermaritzburg is the capital. It is home to several places of cultural interest, including the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, the uMsunduzi Museum, and Tatham Art Gallery. At the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, you can explore the region’s history from the origins of humankind to the European settlers. It also has one of the world’s most important collections of Zulu craft objects. The uMsunduzi Museum is particularly worthwhile for those with an interest in Voortrekker history and the Anglo-Boer War, while Tatham Art Gallery displays a valuable collection of local, South African, and European artworks.
Experience Zulu Culture at Shakaland Traditional Village
For the most immersive insight into traditional Zulu culture, pay a visit to Shakaland. This recreated Zulu kraal is located 45 miles from Richards Bay and offers day tours and overnight experiences. You can take part in traditional activities, including beer-drinking ceremonies, spear-throwing tournaments, pottery-making, and sangoma (or medicine man) rituals. If you choose to stay overnight, you’ll be treated to authentic ethnic dishes at the village’s Shisa Nyama restaurant, followed by a display of Zulu dancing. Choose a double or family room with full board and all activities included for around $225 per person.