The Natal Midlands has a magical draw to it and although there are many other fantastic destinations in South Africa, also offering a wide range of experiences to diverse audiences, there are some unmatchable aspects to it.
The Natal Midlands has been a favourite of ours since we were first introduced to the area a little over five years ago. So when we got yet another opportunity to visit the area, it was a no-brainer. Unlike many South African “been-there-done-that” destinations, ’, the Midlands seems to continuously present us with new experiences, places we haven’t visited, local dishes we haven’t tried, and trails we haven’t run or explored by mountain bike.
Where is the Natal Midlands?
The area defined as the Natal Midlands is located approximately four-and-a-half hours’ drive from Johannesburg and roughly an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Durban, both on the N3. It entails the entire region north and south of the N3 between Mooi River and Pietermaritzburg and includes areas such as Curry’s Post, Nottingham Road, Lions River, Howick, Balgowan and Hilton, to name a few.
Geographically, the area is rich in water resources, rolling hills, pastures and farmland, waterfalls and incredible forests and one is easily swept away by the majestic landscape scenes that change continuously.
What is the Midlands Meander?
The Natal Midlands is also famously known as, and for, the Midlands Meander which essentially comprises inter-connected, circular, self-drive routes. These routes span from Mooi Rivier to Pietermarizburg and back again to Nottingham Road via a range of beautiful country roads passing many of the farms, forests and pastures which the area is known for.
The Midlands Meander was originally created by the local artisans, farms, and arts-and-culture industries as a way to invite their clients into their places and spaces of creation. But soon the entrepreneurial spirit of the Midlands resulted in the establishment of many restaurants, coffee roasteries, cafes, spas, wedding venues and accommodation.
A range of outdoor activities further compliment the Meander’s offering and hence, it is not entirely unimaginable that one could be kept busy for days on end.
What’s there to do in the Midlands?
One particular reason why we tend to continuously gravitate back towards the Natal Midlands is the fact that the area undisputedly has some of the most amazing nature trails for mountain biking, trail running and hiking that are suited for all fitness and bravery levels.
The Karkloof trails (accessed via the Karkloof Country Club) remain our personal favourite as it provides a number of routes over varying distances, crisscrossing open fields single track through dense forests, challenging rocky outcrops, and downhill sections with berms-a-plenty whilst passing some of the most spectacular views of the kloof and the magnificent Karkloof Falls. Helpful tip: remember to look out for and follow the route signs or you’ll end up turning your Friday afternoon 10k ‘leisurely’ run into an epic battle with your burning lungs.
After a tough morning of mountain biking and trail running, we opted for a traditional baked pie and chips, accompanied by a locally brewed beer at the Rawdons Hotel and Brewery. After all, we had unintentionally earned it!
The Midlands is also host to larger sporting events such as the Nelson Mandela Triathlon and Marathon in August, the Midmar Mile in February, and the Karkloof 100 miler, among others. Other outdoor activities include the Karkloof Canopy Tours, fly fishing, and animal encounters at places like the African Bird Sanctuary and Butterflies for Africa.
Once you’ve satisfied your inner-most nature child, many other relaxing excursions await along the Meander including wineries, restaurants, art galleries, cheese tasting, shoe making, pottery, beer tasting, leather works and even a hammock showroom.
Travelling with young ones? Not to worry! With Epic Go Carts Midlands and the Piggly Wiggly’s ample running and play space, they are sure to be entertained for hours. Last but not least, the Midlands Meander is an excellent choice for weddings – not only because of the area’s sheer beauty, but also due to its generous offerings of different styles of wedding venues and on-site accommodation.
Where to stay in the Natal Midlands?
Accommodation in the Midlands is plentiful and I don’t think there are any ‘preferred’ areas. No matter where you stay, you will likely be within a short drive of some form of activity or entertainment.
We were lucky enough to be hosted at the lovely Brahman Hills. This luxury venue has put a modern twist on countryside venues and offers a variety of accommodation options.
Our abode was on the neighbouring Springholm farm – a mere 15-minute drive away. Springholm is essentially an extension of Brahman Hills, thereby successfully dealing with overflow guests during larger weddings. You can, however, stay on Springholm for a weekend breakaway and not actually be part of the wedding, as in our experience.
I’d recommend you first find out exactly where you will be staying, as the unit configurations may be somewhat confusing and give way to a confused late-night knock on the door asking whether you aren’t accidentally staying in someone else’s room. This wasn’t the case with us though, but this poor gentlemen clearly thought he had booked the ground-floor self-catering unit with kitchenette, fireplace, and veranda, but instead had booked the upstairs apartment that was separated from our unit with only a locked door.
This is, however, a fantastic option for more than two people (who are familiar with one another) as the locked door once opened, transforms the space into a large family unit or small vacation home. Familiarity being key, to allow one to gently notify the upstairs occupier at one o’clock in the morning to kindly stop running laps on the paper-thin wooden floor that separates him from the bottom unit, making it sound like a light earthquake off the coast of Japan.
These small details aside, the accommodation is fantastic with modern luxury being the central theme.
Brahman Hills has an on-site day spa that is open to the general public and we used the remainder of our Saturday afternoon after a hard day’s locally brewed coffee drinking to have all our sins rubbed and scrubbed from our bodies.
The spa is an exceptional experience. Meticulous detail is given to even the stream of water that flows in the background whilst you stare into nothingness, laying side-by-side in the bath.
Brahman Hills also offers fine cuisine at the 89 Copper Restaurant, set in an almost steampunk-like wine cellar. We opted for the three-course meal choosing from the set menu that the resident chef had creatively put together. But not before we first treated ourselves to a fine whiskey on the rocks at the softly lit bar next to the enticing fireplace, making it seem more like a scene from the series Suits than your typical hotel bar. The meal itself was a little underwhelming, but the large portions makes any proudly round-cheeked South African ‘boytjie’ such as myself, very happy. Together with the overall experience, I would highly recommend this as a viable contender.
Aside from Brahman Hills, there are a number of other guest farms, self-catering units, bed and breakfasts, and hotels to choose from in the area. Hence, we often come back to be able to give an objective opinion to friends and family.
When to visit?
Because the Midlands is known for its ‘four seasons in one day’ weather, it honestly does not matter when you go – any time is great. During warmer days one could enjoy the outdoors, but when the weather suddenly turns, as it eventually does, a quick dash to the nearest restaurant or coffee shop will see you snuggling up next to a fireplace whilst enjoying a hearty meal as the rain or fog sets in.
Don’t be too surprised when it turns again and you ponder whether you should head back to the forest to complete that trail.
Is it worth the drive?
So should you re/visit the Midlands? If I hadn’t made it clear enough in the preceding text, the answer is yes, yes, and again, yes.
The Midlands has a magical draw to it and although there are many other fantastic destinations in South Africa, also offering a wide range of experiences to diverse audiences, there are some unmatchable aspects to it. The fact that the Midlands never really feels congested (even when the whole of Gauteng colonises smaller towns like bulls on parade over prominent holidays) further aids this experience. This is largely attributed to the fact that the Midlands essentially comprises many different smaller areas so that as soon as that loud tjop who tasted one too many craft beers, or the kid with the damn erratically flying ball start to annoy you, you can simply say ‘ciao’ and skip onto the next destination.
Furthermore, in our own experience, there will always be something that you haven’t done before – some trail you haven’t explored with a waterfall you haven’t seen and some dish you haven’t tried before. What are you waiting for?
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Note that the meander entails a number of gravel and rocky roads where you will benefit from a higher clearance vehicle with slightly thicker ‘tekkies’. Especially where time is limited and higher driving speeds are required to tick your bucket list items (a tip we learnt during our latest adventure where tested the off-road capabilities of an excessively low Toyota Auris with ashamedly low profile tyres).
- Similarly, many places of accommodation are on farms where gravel roads are best left to the City-Softies such as ourselves.
- Aside from the above-mentioned gravel roads where a slightly higher clearance vehicle would be beneficial, another tip for fellow travellers is to get a map of the area with the key attractions, before setting off on your exploration crusade. The reason being that many of the gems are not clearly visible from the road, or in some instances may appear not to be open to the general public (they are, in our experience, usually the ones not to miss).
- Also, make sure you have a plan as to which sites you want to visit in the Natal Midlands and to compare it with a gps route so that you can accurately determine how much time you need. There is no shame in breaking it up into more than a single day, in fact, I recommend it.