The day we left Swaziland, we thought we were in for our longest road trip at about 5 hours. I should have guessed that it was only the beginning, as the coming month would see us sashaying across a vast land, ticking off many miles on the road. We reentered South Africa through the Kwazulu-Natal state, which also borders Mozambique. Heading due South, we were excited to be reaching the Indian Ocean, and the famed Elephant coast off of St. Lucia. In order to break up the monotony of our long drive, we took a short diversion to the Hluhluwe-Imfozi Game Reserve for lunch and a safari quickie. Here was yet another benefit to our South African “wild card” – we did not hesitate to check out this park, since it did not cost us an entrance fee to satisfy our curiosity.
How to describe St. Lucia? It is a pretty holiday town located on the Indian Ocean coast, by the mouth of a river, which is famously home to over 1200 Nile crocodiles and over 800 hippopotami. It is the main hub for the greater St Lucia/Isimangaliso Wetland Park, where zebras, greater kudu, black rhinos, and buffalo coexist with many more animals. Both the humid subtropical climate and the flora reminded us of the manicured neighborhoods of Florida’s gulf coast. The neighborhood was lush and green with grassy sidewalks. We were warned that these strips were a favorite grazing ground for hippopotami at night, and thus were not “too” shocked when we encountered two hippopotamuses on the road after dinner. I was not comfortable with our proximity and urged the family to cross the street and stay as far away as possible. *Hippos are notorious for being unpredictable and aggressive, one of the most dangerous African animals to man.
We set ourselves up at the comfortable Hornbill Guesthouse, visiting the wide and unswimmable beach, the Crocodile Centre, arranging tours through the Wetlands Park, and a boat trip to get up close to water birds, hippos and the hard-to-spot crocs. Our one safari was also partially in the night, allowing us to see nocturnal chameleons, bush babies, a marsh owl and a genet.
Beaches, boat trips, hippos and crocs:
Our next stop was Durban, the largest city in Kwazulu-Natal province and South Africa’s busiest port city. On our drive toward this coastal metropolis, we passed shapely hills, open farmland and smaller beach cottage communities, finally revealing a skyline of high-rises situated on a stunning piece of golden coastline. Although Durban has a slightly grubby downtown that shutters up as the sun goes down (typical of most South African cities), it was super apparent that the heart of the city can be found at any of its’ crowded beaches. We placated Stella and Gabriel with a half day spent at uShaka Marine World to visit its aquariums and beat the heat in the waterpark. Notably, this theme park and the nearby pier and beach, were the first place in South Africa that we witnessed the happy mixing of races and ages.
Although we only spent two days in Durban, we tried to round out our trip by taking a guided tour of the Moses Mabhida Soccer Stadium, built to accommodate the 2010 FIFA World Cup games, visiting Umhlanga beach and the Suncoast casino, and eating bunny chow(!).
We were actually quite anxious to hit the road again and head toward the Drakensberg (the Eastern part of the Great Escarpment which borders Lesotho), as we were ready to be back in nature and itching to move our legs again and start hiking. This is a vast area to explore, so it felt a little like pinning the tail on the donkey, when we shut our eyes and decided on a section to visit, but we could not have been happier with the outcome. We stayed at the very comfortable and well-situated Inkosana Lodge in the Central Drakensberg, where we were able to simultaneously relax and get our exercise on. The children had dogs to wrestle with, pond frogs to catch, and a swimming hole to dive in. I shopped for original Shweshwe, Three Cats fabric for future quilting projects, and we partook in an amazing vegetarian feast, family style with the rest of the guests. However, the stand-out experience was going on a 6 hour hike, which tested our fitness (and my knee in particular), but recharged our spirits. I will always remember the pointy and plateaued, mountainous backdrop (“Mountains of Dragons”), the vivid greens of grass, fern, bush and tree, orb mushrooms that shoot spore puffs out of a hole on top when squeezed, wild purple, orange and red flowers, cool waterfalls, medieval forests and San rock paintings.
Before exiting South Africa to enter our next new country, Lesotho, we spent a night in Clarens. This is not technically a part of Kwazulu-Natal, but rather the Free State. After leaving the Drakensberg, we drove through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, making pitstops to photograph its scenic cliffs and sandstone formations. Once we arrived in the quaint artist haven of Clarens, we were quick to sample the local brewery and watch the set-up for a scheduled motorcycle rally with arriving participants. We couldn’t stay for the actual festival, as our Lesotho plans were locked in, so we soon made our getaway.