One of the most interesting sections of South Africa’s stunning coastline (which stretches over 2,500km around the country!) is the relatively short section that runs up the north coast of KwaZulu Natal, between Durban and the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve.
The scenery is as diverse as the country itself, and includes amazing beaches, rocky promontories, rolling hills, rivers, lagoons, estuaries, wetlands, forests, plantations and several sleepy little country and coastal towns waiting to be discovered. The best way to see it all is on a self-drive holiday!
Where to Start?
Durban’s King Shaka International Airport is conveniently situated north of the city of Durban, making it the ideal springboard for your visit, as you can pick up your rental car on site and be on the road within minutes, without having to negotiate the city traffic. The journey between King Shaka Airport and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is relatively short (237km) and can easily be covered in less than 3 hours, but if you choose to take the straight and narrow road you will miss out on all the interesting little coastal nooks and crannies waiting to be explored! If you can spare the time, spend a night or two getting to your destination and enjoy the wonderful beaches, the warm sub-tropical waters and some excellent hospitality along the way.
The Dolphin Coast
The Dolphin Coast stretches from just north of Durban to Richard’s Bay. This stretch of coastline is South Africa’s premier fun-in-the-sun beach holiday destination for both locals and international visitors, and is named for the huge pods of Bottlenose Dolphins than can regularly be seen frolicking in the waters close to the shore. Dolphin watching aside, there are a wealth of beach activities to enjoy along the length of the Dolphin Coast, which include year-round swimming in the sub-tropical warm waters of the Indian Ocean, fantastic surfing, fishing and all manner of other energetic water sports. Golfers will also have a great time at several fabulous golf courses which include Zimbali, Umhlali and Prince’s Grant.
The great news is that as you leave King Shaka International Airport on the N2, in the direction of Eshowe/Richards Bay, you are already in the heart of the Dolphin Coast! The best way to see all the lovely beaches and little seaside towns is to leave the N2 (which by-passes most of these) and make your way along some of the smaller roads, such as the M4, which will take you to Ballito, Salt Rock, Umhlali, Tinley Manor and Zinkwazi.
What to See Along the Way
Birding enthusiasts should definitely detour to Mount Moreland, (close to the airport), where an observation site has been established to allow visitors to come and observe the remarkable spectacle of approximately 3 million Barn Swallows (around 13% of the total world population of these birds!), which come to this wetland area to roost each year between November and April.
As you move further north, your first stop should definitely be the little coastal town of Ballito Bay, where there are several temping restaurants where you can enjoy lunch or a coffee break. Try Beira Alta for great seafood with a Portuguese flair! If you are travelling with children (or even if you aren’t!), the Crocodile Creek crocodile farm is a must on your itinerary for up close and personal encounters with crocodiles and other reptiles.
Some of the foremost Dolphin Coast features to enjoy as you continue your journey north are the fabulous Olympic-sized tidal pool at Thompson’s Bay, the gorgeous beaches at Shaka’s Rock, Sheffield Beach and Blythedale Beach – (most KwaZulu Natal beaches have life guards on duty and are protected by shark nets, so you can take to the waters with confidence!) After some time enjoying the sea and the beaches, visit the charming arty town of Umhlali.
History buffs can make a slight detour inland to Shaka’s Kraal, the site of legendary King Shaka’s royal military homestead. Next up is Stanger (now re-named KwaDukuza), where you will find the burial places of King Shaka as well as Chief Albert Luthuli, who was the first South African to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. The Luthuli Museum in nearby Groutville offers a good insight into the life and times of this great leader.
In Zinkwazi Beach, nature lovers, hikers and bird watchers will really enjoy the beautiful trails featuring remarkable bird life against the backdrop of extensive indigenous forests.
When you leave Zinkwazi you will need to join up with the N2 again to cross the enormous John Ross Bridge to Tugela Mouth, where KwaZulu’s largest river, the impressive Tugela, spills into the Indian Ocean.
Dlinza Forest Nature Reserve, just outside Eshowe, and is an important bird watching area. You can hike or drive through the reserve and look forward to spotting some of the many species of birds and butterflies, including some rare forest birds, which live there.
The Elephant Coast
Once you pass Richard’s Bay, you will find yourself on the Elephant Coast route, which continues all the way north to the border with Swaziland and Mozambique. This little corner of the country is pure magic and is home to two of South Africa’s national treasures, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (formerly known as St. Lucia Wetland Park) and the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, both of which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
No visit to the Elephant Coast would be complete without spending some time in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which features no less than 6 separate nature reserves and national parks. The Park encompasses Lake St. Lucia and its estuary, and is made up of a network of swamps, sand dunes, coastal lakes and sub-tropical forests that stretch along the coast for 220km. iSimangaliso provides an essential sanctuary for countless species of threatened endemic flora and fauna, including rare and endangered sea turtles. It is also a birders’ paradise!
Off shore at Sodwana Bay, the park includes Africa’s southern-most coral reef, teeming with marine life. So You can explore the area on foot along the dune trails, by boat excursion, in a canoe or by scuba diving and snorkelling the reef. Sodwana is considere one of the top ten scuba destinations in the world. You can also go Turtle tracking here between November and January, or Whale watching between June and November. Before you leave make sure you book a sunset cruise on the estuary – another wonderful birding and photography opportunity.
Beautiful Cape Vidal, situated between Lake St Lucia and the Indian Ocean is a little slice of paradise nestled between the wetlands and the coastal forest. If you crave unspoilt deserted beaches and great snorkelling, this is where you should head.
Hluluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve
…lies just inland from St Lucia and is the cherry on the top of this road trip. This is Africa’s oldest game reserve, and one of the best places in the world to see the highly endangered Black Rhino. This park is exceptional in that the dedication of the highly-trained rangers has managed to turn around the tide of Rhino poaching, and has also been responsible for an increase in the numbers of critically endangered Wild Dog. (There are also over 1000 White Rhino thriving in this sanctuary, against all odds). The reserve is also home to all the other members of the Big Five and numerous other species of animals and birds. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is ideal for a self-drive safari, in that there are good roads, far fewer visitors than some of the country’s other game reserves, and you will not require a 4X4 to get around.
There are several routes for you to follow through the reserve, and you can enjoy exploring every meter of the 96km network of tourist roads in the reserve. Pick up an information booklet and a map at your camps reception. If you make your way to upper Magangeni you will get a fantastic 360⁰ view of the whole of the Hluhluwe Game Reserve – often large herds of Elephant can be spotted from this viewpoint, especially during the winter months (June to September). Another great route to follow is from Memorial gate to Isisvivaneni, via Hilltop Camp. This is a hilly route with great game-spotting potential – Buffalo and Rhino love to graze in this area. The Seme and Maquanda Loops are well known for frequent sightings of Lion and Cheetah.
It is also possible to book guided walks through the reserve, which is especially great for birding.
Hilltop Camp is the main camp in the Hluhluwe part of the reserve, and offers marvellous views out over the entire Hluhluwe reserve – on a clear day you can see all the way to the dunes on the eastern shores of Lake St. Lucia. Hilltop Camp has self-catering chalets, but also has a restaurant and pool, a great boon during the hot summer months when temperatures can soar into up to 40⁰C.
Mpila Camp is the main camp for visitors to the iMfolozi section, and also has self-catering chalets, but no restaurant, so you need to bring all your own supplies. There are also 5 private bush camps dotted around the reserve which are perfect for groups of up to 8 people. Each of these has 4 double bedrooms and a central living area (boma) and kitchen. They are also fully self-catering, but come with a cook and guide, who will take care of you.
Where to go next?
If the amazing wildlife viewing in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi has whet your appetite for more, you can easily continue your journey all the way through Swaziland to the Kruger National Park. The journey through Swaziland covers a distance of 441km, and should take you around 6 -7 hours. Just remember that you need a passport to cross the border into Swaziland.
Tips for your Self-Drive holiday to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi
- Part of the route will take you on a Toll Road – make sure you have some cash or a credit card – debit cards are not accepted to pay tolls.
- Observe the speed restrictions! Many roads now make use of “speed averaging” which means that you must maintain the correct speed between two sets of cameras. If you speed up you will be fined!
- Fill up with fuel in good time – filling stations are few and far between as you get further from the main centres.
- Depending on the time of year you plan to travel, you may need to use Malaria prophylaxis – the wet season (September to April) is most dangerous. Get advice from you local pharmacy or travel centre before you leave home. Always cover up after dusk and use insect repellent to avoid being bitten.