As we turn off the highway, all I can see as our multi-coloured Ford EcoSport convoy plays “follow the leader” is quite the opposite. That is if brown and green are opposites. But just because winter here is brown and bare doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful.“
The Natal Midlands, in my mind, goes hand-in-hand with the (perhaps clichéd) term, “green rolling hills”. Almost like Tuscany, you know?
But as we turn off the highway onto the R103, all I can see as our multi-coloured Ford EcoSport convoy plays “follow the leader” is quite the opposite. That is if brown and green are opposites. Even so, it still grabs my attention. Just because winter here is brown and bare doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful.
I have always loved that the Midlands tourism route between Pietermaritzburg and the majestic uKhahlamba Drakensberg mountain range (a World Heritage Site) is called the “Midlands Meander”. How fun. Much more descriptive and fun than, say, something like “Route 103”.
The Midlands Meader is known for its scenery, handcrafted goods and fine arts, accommodation, wedding and conference venues and pit stops for food and drink. We stretch our legs at the Piggly Wiggly which is heaven for kids (with lots of play areas outside), but also for pizza-, coffee-, art-, and book-lovers alike.
The Ford EcoSport isn’t a 4×4 car but with its 1.0 EcoBoost engine and active driving safety features, it climbs with such confidence I almost want to relook the specs in the manual in the cubby hole. It’s like a Jack Russell who believes it can do anything; always wants the biggest stick; does the most impressive tricks; and truly believes it can overpower a Ridgeback or a Great Dane. So it usually attempts to take on the Ridgeback or the Great Dane.
The EcoSport (though by no means as small as a Jack Russell) conquered rural areas and arduous mountain passes when many (including me) underestimated its capabilities.
Speaking of Great Danes, there are two at Zingela Lodge where we overnight – a stone’s throw from Weenen. Yes, that is a place. And yes, it is a somewhat sad name for a town. After all, “weenen” means “to weep” in Dutch and it was named as such in the 1800s because of a massacre in the area. These mountains aren’t sad though. On the contrary, they seem fearless.
The family who owns Zingela Lodge has called this plot of paradise home for nearly 30 years – mainly their Great Danes, some giraffes, buck, snakes, warthogs, baboons, birds and the gushing Tugela River keeping them company when there are no visitors.
How swell. How swell to live so off the grid that dinner time means sipping on a glass of red wine around a bonfire and the smell of roasted chicken on the spit filling your nostrils. Forget not the roasted potatoes and pumpkin fritters dusted with cinnamon.
Breakfast is served after a walk that wakes up the limbs after the previous day’s meandering in the new EcoSport. And even though the Titanium version we drove comes with an upmarket feel which includes leather seats and cruise control with adjustable speed limiter, I still needed some movement and stretching before we hit the road again.
We walk in silence, for the most part, appreciating the sound of monkeys atop the mountain and birds happily basking in the first rays as the sun shows its face over the mountain peaks.
If a walk is not for you, you could push out one of the canoes lying on the river bank and go for a paddle on the Tugela River – which originates in Mont-aux-Sources of the Drakensberg Mountains and plunges 947 metres down the Tugela Falls – instead.
I heard there’s a rapid called “washing machine” and after hearing that name, I decided I’d rather not go for a row. I still have horrifying memories of a survival camp I went on as a youngster so let’s just say, while I’m still recovering psychologically, I like to look at a canoe on a river bank and sometimes enjoy a lazy row in a small dam. For now, I’d rather not put myself in a situation to be washed by a rapid called “washing machine” lined with rocks and potentially crocodiles. But that’s just me.
A road trip is not a road trip without good music, biltong, nuts, and dried mangoes. We had plenty as our bags were packed and loaded into our EcoSport’s 334-litre boot and our convoy took off, leaving Zingela, its gorges, and Great Danes behind.
Not long before our portable radio awakens with a distressed voice on the other side. “We think we might have a flat tyre,” says the driver of the car behind us. “You definitely have a flat tyre,” affirms the driver of the sweeper car behind them. Just before we can sigh with frustration, the spare tyre is on and we are off again. Impressive.
With many interesting topics of discussion between my driving partner and me, music, and a Malcolm Gladwell podcast about the life of Elvis in between, we pass over the narrow single bridge at Tugela Ferry, stop at a pub and grill for lunch in Dundee, pay silent respects as we pass the battlefields of Isandlawana, Rorkes Drift and Bloed Rivier, and, after dark, pull up outside Wakkerstroom Hotel for a good night’s rest before the next day’s final stretch to Johannesburg.
This is one way to discover the Midlands, and one I’m very glad to have experienced, but it’s certainly not the only way.
To meander through the Midlands means you take that dodgy-looking gravel road when you find you’re wondering what might be at the end of it.
It means you keep your eyes open for rusty signboards directing you somewhere you might not have considered. It means you stop for a picture of a beautiful cow or a woman carrying drinking water on her shoulder for her family.
And it means you drink a cup of coffee and chat with a local because that will be one of your most memorable conversations in months.
But “meandering” is surely not limited to the Midlands. Isn’t that the DNA of any worthy road trip?
This trip was planned and sponsored by Ford South Africa. All opinions are my own.