Berg, Beach or Bush?

South Africa is home to such a vast and varied abundance of fascinating travel and holiday destinations, offering so many unforgettable experiences. Yet so much remains undiscovered for so many. So, in each edition we feature a different region or province of South Africa as part of our mission to promote local travel. In this edition we visit KwaZulu-Natal, the province that has it all.

By Jared Ruttenberg

From sun-soaked beaches, impressive mountains, midlands backroads, and well-loved game reserves, KwaZulu-Natal is surely South Africa’s province that has it all.  Sure, as a son of KwaZulu I may carry a rather slight (read generous) bias, but I assure you that after a couple of days in the province you won’t need much convincing.

Land Rover South Africa gave me the challenge to prove that their new Range Rover Evoque was as versatile as they claimed it was and I thought there’d be no better playground to put her to the test. Along with a fellow travel journalist I set out in style to take in a sample of what KwaZulu has on offer.

Berg: Drakensberg wonderland at The Cavern

‘Dearest, you cannot visualise it! This is not to be found on paper or in words – it just gets you and you can feel it’. These words were elegantly penned by Bill Carte to his beloved Ruth in 1941. The letter was a heartfelt proposal imploring Ruth to marry him and join him in South Africa, a land that he’d fallen hopelessly in love with. Fortunately for him, she said yes and moved to this new land, and so The Cavern was birthed.

Bill was absolutely right when he said that trying to describe the Drakensberg is no easy task. The magnificence of these mountains has a profound way of silencing you, reminding you of how small you are in this overwhelming environment.  South Africa’s most dramatic mountain range has its origin in the Eastern Cape and then hurtles northwards for almost 1,000 kilometres before finally reaching its end in Limpopo.

The resulting great ridge of peaks inspires both its names: Drakensberg meaning ‘dragon mountain’ in Afrikaans and Quathlamba in isiZulu meaning ‘barrier of pointed spears’. We decided to take the Evoque up one of SA’s highest roads to The Sentinel. From this vantage point the legendary ‘Chain Ladders Hike’ begins – a six-hour roundtrip to the top of the Amphitheatre. A high clearance vehicle is needed for the rollercoaster ride up, which the Evoque simply lapped up.

Having conquered the peak, we were exhausted and in need of a shower, so we drove to The Cavern.  In 1941 a meagre 12 guests were accommodated at the farm but as the property’s popularity grew more accommodation and facilities were added. The Cavern offers a homely environment with warm hospitality – to the extent that today’s visitors still speak of it with the same fondness of guests from 70 years ago, calling it the resort of ‘many happy returns.’

There’s a variety of accommodation options available from the family-favourite chalets, to the luxe rooms in the newer block slightly removed from the central resort buildings. All the usual recreational facilities feature, such as tennis, lawn bowls, a pool with water slide, and board games. Naturally, The Caverns’ biggest asset is its location in the mountain region and a variety of hikes are available from the property itself. For those who enjoy a guided hike, there are usually two on offer daily with one of the hotel’s guides – complimentary for hotel guests.

Accommodation prices are all-inclusive and although the hotel has a casual family ethos, there is nothing casual about the food. From buffet breakfasts, to set course meals for supper, you won’t go hungry. Be sure to check out the wine cellar – I was happy to sip away some time with their impressive collection.

Eighty years ago Bill Carte stated that the aim and outcome of his and Ruth’s work was to “create beauty, to make the land more fertile, to make our living, to leave the world better than when we came into it.” The third generation of owners proudly continue this stewardship of beauty and, along with the 100 staff they employ, they have a lot to be proud of.

Beach: uMhlanga seaside Luxury at The Oyster Box

Standing there rather gob-smacked I must have resembled Charlie – except I wasn’t in a Chocolate Factory but somewhere just as jaw-dropping. Overwhelmed in the foyer of The Oyster Box, my mouth was ajar in appreciation of a large floral arrangement. A staff member walked by and noticing me, smiled and said, “Yes, it’s real.”

The Oyster Box is no new face to the uMhlanga seaside. While she had her humble hotel beginnings in 1954, this grand dame got a facelift and wardrobe change with extensive renovations in the late 2000s when the Tollman family purchased her. She is quite an iconic South African hotel, much loved by local and foreign visitors alike.

A stay at The Oyster Box is an invitation to a sensorial experience par excellence. The décor is simply unrivalled – each space is a fantastic feast of colour and texture. Perhaps the hotel’s most recognisable setting is the lavish seaside pool area, marked by splashes of the ravishing Oyster Box trademark red. Also featured on the umbrellas and loungers, the red and white stripes reflect the adjacent lighthouse, which the hotel is a proud steward of.

From the garden villas to sea-facing rooms to spacious suites, no detail is too small, and you may, like me, struggle to leave the calming views of the ocean from your private balcony. When I did, however, it was simply for a stroll through the tropical gardens to the spa, a lazy lounge at the pool, a walk along the famous uMhlanga promenade adjacent to the hotel, or a visit to one of the six exquisite dining spaces that are on offer.

Dining at The Oyster Box is an extraordinary and quintessential experience. Unmissable is the hotel’s well-loved High Tea experience. The setting for this sweet spectacle is the lavish surroundings of the Palm Court. With live music, an overly generous cake table, bubbly, teas and coffees one could hardly ask for more. The Curry Buffet is understandably also a firm favourite with locals and travellers from afar. In the heart of curry country, a variety of 10 curries are on offer every lunch and evening – I managed to get through seven before I had to call it quits.

This is a hotel that effortlessly redefines seaside opulence and has a dedicated staff waiting to care for and curate your every need. It’s no wonder The Oyster Box has been awarded the Top Hotel in South Africa by the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Award for the last three years running, and the country’s leading hotel last year by Condé Nast Traveler readers.

Bush: Big 5 territory at Nambiti Hills

Having driven all the way to the coast it was time to point the Evoque back in the direction of Joburg, but with a very important stop along the way. Two hours of driving took us first through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, then the picturesque Midlands, and finally through the dirt back roads to Nambiti Hills Private Game Reserve.

Despite growing up in this majestic corner of South Africa, I’d never visited the reserve and my anticipation was intensifying as we drove through the gates.  Greeting us with a massive smile, was our guide Biggie, eager to drive us through to the lodge that would be home for the next three days. Even on the short drive in we were already ticking off game sightings.

Nambiti Hills is a spacious lodge that crests the top of one of the higher ridges in the 26,000-acre reserve. The central lodge area branches into a restaurant on the left and lounge and bar to the right. Walking through the doors, however, is where the magic starts to happen! Besides a pool, fire pit and several lounge areas, the deck offers spectacular views of the landscape that rolls out below.

The accommodation suites are luxurious offerings that stand not far from the main lodge and give comfort and sanctuary in-between game drives.  Of course, I made sure of spending enough time enjoying the free-standing bath – when swung open the adjacent doors removed all obstruction to the outside, and the dulcet bush sounds and a glass of red wine were more than enough to wash away any remnant of city stress.

Make no mistake, Nambiti Hills lives up to its name: the landscape is made up of ripples of hills and exploring them on safari is an exhilarating adventure. Taking the twists and turns you never know what lies around the next corner, which for us included in one instance, three lions who didn’t seem as excited to see us as we were them!

As great as game sightings can be, at the end of the day your Safari experience depends on your guide. Biggie had expertly guided us for the past three days, and we couldn’t have hoped for a better ranger. Nineteen years of guiding, SA’s highest guide qualification, and a degree in wildlife management means he knows his stuff. He also had us in absolute stitches with some of his stories.

Of course, if you’re interested in South African history, it’s worth bearing in mind that many of South Africa’s wars played out within a stone’s throw of the reserve. The sites of the Battles of Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, the Siege of Ladysmith and the Battle of Blood River are all close by.

Only four hours’ drive from Johannesburg and three from Durban, makes this 5-star lodge a popular choice for locals looking to lap up some bush luxury. Be sure to look out for the annual winter specials, which could make a luxe bush getaway a bit more affordable than you thought.

Range Rover Evoque

Now that you have a better idea of the journey we undertook, the only question left is how did the Evoque perform? Perhaps the best way to describe this is my response when asked mid-journey what it was like to drive her. It was simply this: “I’m not driving, I’m flying.” The ride simply couldn’t have been more comfortable as we flew along the roads from one destination to another.

In order to discover how best to drive the Evoque, before the trip I signed myself up for the Jaguar Land Rover Experience. Branches in both the Western Cape and Gauteng offer owners – or as in my case – not yet owners – the chance to learn how to get the best out of the vehicle. We were also given challenging obstacles to navigate and learned how to get out of tricky situations. Let me tell you, the Evoque was no kid on the course. There was only one obstacle we couldn’t attempt and that was purely based on the ground clearance being slightly less than that of her bigger brothers.

Very quickly I was used to the slick features including Lane Keep Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control, Blind Spot Assist, and very impressively a rear-view window which was actually a colour screen fed by a rear camera. Of course with the terrain selection option, the vehicle was able to calibrate itself to provide the best response to the specific terrain we were in.

She may be the first in the line-up of Range Rovers, but there is nothing least about her, and she was quick to prove that she was equally at home in berg, beach and bush. Her only limitation was having to remain behind when we ascended the chain ladders on our dramatic Drakensberg hike, but when we got back to the vehicle, I could have sworn she winked at me when I unlocked her. The perfect combination of personality, pleasure and power.

  • Jared Ruttenberg travel-blogs under the name @JAREDINCPT – you can read more of his articles at www.jaredincpt.com.