Midlands Meander… beautiful people, places and things

South Africa is home to such a vast and varied abundance of fascinating travel and holiday destinations, offering so many unforgettable experiences. Yet for many people, many of them remain undiscovered. So, in every edition we feature a region or province of South Africa as part of our mission to promote local travel. In this edition we visit the Midlands region in KwaZulu-Natal, where a tourist route known as the Midlands Meander offers an array of fascinating experiences.

Staff Writer

 

Imagine a place with green rolling hills, forests and grasslands, rivers and waterfalls, a high rugged mountain overlooking it all, and pretty little villages in the valleys, where life is lived at a gentle pace. A place also of farm stalls and artists’ studios, craft markets and fine dining, welcoming lodges and quaint little shops… and warm, friendly people who invite you to come and share it all with them.

And all of it within easy reach. A place where you can totally leave behind the stresses and turmoil of the outside world. Such a place is the Midlands Meander, a place of beautiful people, places and things.

The Midlands Meander covers the Midlands region of KwaZulu-Natal and stretches from just beyond Mooi River in the north, Hilton in the south, Pietermaritzburg and Karkloof in the east and the majestic World Heritage Site uKhahlamba Drakensberg mountain range in the west. It’s one of eight tourist regions of the ‘Zulu Kingdom’, or KwaZulu-Natal.

4 potters, a weaver and some artists

The Meander was the brainchild of four potters, a weaver and a couple of artists who got together in 1985 to find a way of displaying their creative endeavours to a wider audience. Today many of them or their descendants are still there and involved, but it’s also grown into a collection of fascinating routes, with more than 150 members who offer visitors a splendid variety, yet still retain the rural tranquillity and individual quality of all their offerings.

The Midlands Meander collectively offers visitors hospitality in truly beautiful surroundings, outstanding accommodation, conference and wedding facilities, fascinating local events, fabulous cuisine and restaurants, revitalising outdoor activities and over-the-top adventure sports, historic landmarks, wildlife conservation, and best of all “shop-till-you-drop” unique arts and crafts.

When you kick off your city shoes in the comfort of warm hospitality, good food and pleasant conversations in these parts, you can both relax in complete peace and quiet, or you can enjoy a wide range of adventures and activities.

“In line with international tourism trends, the Midlands Meander has seen the increase in demand for experiential tourism. The Meander has always excelled in ‘slow tourism, where the emphasis is on the experience of the Meander community: the beautiful countryside and the welcoming Midlands folk,” say the people who make it all happen over at the Midlands Meander Association. “We are finding that people come to the Meander to escape the malls and the rushed city life: to immerse themselves in the country experience – seeking the authentic, the genuine.”

The Midlands Meander Association has created self-drive activity itineraries based on its five routes. The opportunities and options to choose form are plenty. You can go down the Dargle, Fort Nottingham, Rosetta or Curry’s Post roads, visit a studio or workshop of some of the finest craftspeople in the world, meet with them, and talk to the artist or the leatherworker who has made a unique and original item that is priceless and can never be duplicated.

So much to do

It’s also an ideal location for weddings, set in the rolling hills of the Midlands, and it’s a great place to break away from the office to hold a refreshing and productive conference. You can join the local folk out for an early-morning horse ride, test your skills and stamina on a mountain bike, go for some of the most beautiful hikes in the country, meet some very interesting local characters at the coffee shop, or send your adrenalin rushing zipline canopy tours. There’s also water sports, trout or bass fishing, golfing, crafting, visiting an animal farm or birding to be enjoyed.

Checkpoint 103 is home to epic karting, bubble soccer, zorb ball, paintball, pedal karts, an obstacle course, target shooting, an outdoor bike track, climbing wall, indoor play area and fuel cafe that serves snacks, lunches, milkshakes and cappuccinos. To give you a better idea of all that’s on offer and how to structure your itinerary, go to their website at www.midlandsmeander.co.za, where you can also get hold of the Midlands Meander Guide.

The Midlands is true horse country, from renowned racing studs producing horses that dominate the racetracks, to polo, polo crosse and Western- and English-style riders who meet up at weekends to play sport at the local club. Or you venture further to explore the rolling expanses of grasslands and forests. From sturdy and colourful Appaloosas to refined, streamlined thoroughbreds and noble Friesians, there is a horse for everyone in the family.

Arts and crafts

The area and its villages are known far and wide for the superb handcrafted goods and fine arts produce here. And you can go see it all, right in the artist or craftsperson’s own domain. Meet with them, talk to the artist or the leatherworker and let them show you how they do it all. But remember, the artists are frequently in their studios, so it’s necessary to phone ahead and book an appointment. You can get their phone number on the Meander website. Here’s a taste of what you’ll get to experience:

Routes 1 & 2

Tasha’s Fantastic Fudge; Dargle Valley Pottery; Johnson Bros Furniture; Romesco Olives; Dirt Road Traders; Groundcover Leather Company; Terbodore Coffee Roasters; Indezi River Creamery; and Heavenly Hammocks.

Routes 3 & 4

Michael Mawdsley; Dargle Valley Pottery; Aladdin’s-de-Light; Dragonfire Beads; The Gourmet Greek; Sterling’s Wrought Iron; Culamoya Chimes; Hillford Pottery; Peter’s Gate Herbal Centre; Swissland Cheese; Nottingham Road Brewing Company; Chocolate Heaven; Impumelelo Bead Artists; Dargle Valley Pottery; Redline Footwear; and Sarah Richards.

Routes 5

Astrid Dahl; Marrakesh Cheese; and The Wine Cellar.

The Midlands Meander is also one of the most popular fishing destinations in the country, with some of the best fishing waters set in the most beautiful surrounding in South Africa. Here you can catch a trophy trout, outsmart a wily bass or engage the challenging indigenous yellowfish. They’re just waiting! But beware you don’t lose your fish-catching concentration to nature around you: tranquil dams, swiftly flowing streams and tree-lined rivers accompanied by birdsong and the sound of cattle lowing in the meadows in the distance. There are plenty of places to choose from (on the website).

Birdwatching

Birdwatching enthusiasts will find a rich variety of contexts within which to locate birds – rolling grassland hills, richly species-diverse wetland and the pristine Karkloof mistbelt forest.At the Karkloof Conservation Centre there are two world-class waterside bird hides – not to mention the opportunity to see all three Crane species in one outing. The Midlands offers the opportunity to tick some of the rare birds off your list and offers some of the most reliable sites for the White-Starred Robin, Cape Parrot and Blue Swallow. There are a number of accommodation establishments that are located in areas where there is an abundance of birdlife.

Golfers also get to enjoy the tranquillity traversing the pristine greens in the peace of the countryside at Bosch Hoek Golf Club or Gowrie Farm Golf Estate. And of course, the Meander region is prime hiking country in settings of great diversity, with breath-taking views, in the company of wildlife, in the hills or valleys or up in the mountain, along rivers and passed dams and waterfalls, or even just down a country lane.

Mountain biking

Furthermore, there are a number of top-class recreational mountain bike and trail running opportunities in the Midlands. The Howick and Karkloof trails are some of the most highly rated in South Africa, with over 200km of purpose-built MTB single-track be across the networks. These trail networks primarily traverse Sappi’s properties and to a lesser degree one or two other private farms.

The Howick Mountain Bike Club trails are easily accessible from approximately 1.5km up the Currys Post Road. The trails are known for being more natural, raw and rugged than the Karkloof trails, and are a haven for both runners and riders alike. Day rider and runner permits can be purchased from Mediclinic Howick with cash or using SnapScan. An alternative ‘park, pay and ride’ point is found at 11 Karkloof, a bike-friendly accommodation spot on the Karkloof Road. Two of the oldest and most iconic mountain-biking events held in the area are the Sappi Karkloof MTB Festival which is held annually in May and the Sappi Howick Classic which is held at the beginning of March.

Many events are also regularly hosted across the Midlands each year. These include the Midlands Literary Festival, Christmas in July, the Brahman Hills Yoga and Meditation Detox Retreat, Whisky Tasting 7 Story Telling by Ron Gold, and more.

Socially responsible

The people of the area are also very socially responsible. The Midlands Meander was involved in research in an attempt to ensure the survival of the rare and endangered Karkloof Butterfly (Orachrysops ariadne) which is found only three locations in KwaZulu Natal. Dependent on moist mist-belt grassland, this butterfly has a unique relationship with the sugar ant which carries the larva from the nest to the food source. Suitable sites for Karkloof colonies occur on gentle southern slopes where the host plant thrives.

The Midlands Meander Association also says it is their aim to increase awareness of the importance of caring for the natural environment and each other among all sectors of their community. Focusing primarily on local schools, teachers are assisted to integrate environmental education into the teaching curriculum, with emphasis on wise resource use, creativity, sustainable living and community building. Each of the schools on the programme is registered as a WESSA Eco-School and presents a portfolio of work at the end of each year receiving recognition for meaningful whole school development.

There is so much on offer here in this wonderful part of the country, that we cannot possibly do justice to it all in a single article. We therefore advise our readers to go online and visit the website of the Midlands Meander. You will most certainly find plenty of things that will draw you there, and once you’ve been, you’ll keep on going back.

* All information supplied by the Midlands Meander Association. Unless otherwise stated pictures were also supplied by the association.