* This article first appeared here on MzanziTravel Magazine
From sun-soaked beaches, impressive mountains, midlands backroads, and well-loved game reserves, KwaZulu-Natal is surely South Africa’s province that has it all. Sure, as a son of KwaZulu I may carry a rather slight (read generous) bias, but I assure you that a couple of days in the province and you won’t need much convincing.
Land Rover South Africa gave me the challenge to prove that their new Range Rover Evoque was as versatile as they claimed it was and I thought there’d be no better playground to put her to the test. Along with a fellow travel journalist I set out in style to take in a sample of what KwaZulu had on offer.
The Drakensberg: Mountain wonderland at The Cavern
‘Dearest, you cannot visualise it! This is not to be found on paper or in words – it just gets you and you can feel it’. These words were elegantly penned from the Bill Carte to his beloved Ruth in 1941. The letter was a heartfelt proposal imploring Ruth to marry Bill and join him in South Africa, a land that that he’d fallen hopelessly in love with. Thankfully for him, she said yes, and moved to a new land, and so The Cavern was birthed.
Bill was correct in that trying to describe the Drakensberg is no easy task. The magnanimity of the mountains has a profound way of silencing you, reminding you of how small you are in the austere environment. South Africa’s most dramatic mountain range has its origin in the Eastern Cape and then hurtles northwards for almost 1000 kilometers before finally coming to rest in Limpopo.
The resulting great ridge of peaks inspires both its names: Drakensbergmeaning ‘dragon mountain’ in Afrikaans and Quathlambain isiZulu meaning ‘barrier of pointed spears’. We decided to take the Evoque up one of SA’s highest roads to The Sentinel. From this vantage point the legendary ‘Chain Ladders Hike’ begins – a six-hour roundtrip to the top of the Amphitheatre. A high clearance vehicle is needed for the rollercoaster ride up and the of course the Evoque simply lapped it up.
Having conquered the peak, we were exhausted and in need of a shower so we drove to The Cavern. In 1941 a meagre 12 guests were accommodated at the farm but as the property’s popularity grew more accommodation and facilities were added. The Cavern offers a homely environment with warm hospitality – to the extent that today’s visitors still speak of it with the same fondness of guests from 70 years ago, calling it the resort of ‘many happy returns.’
There’s a variety of accommodation options available from the family-favourite chalets, to the luxe rooms in the newer block slightly removed from the central resort buildings. All the usual recreational facilities feature including tennis, lawn bowls, a pool with water slide, and board games. Naturally, The Caverns’ biggest asset is its mountainous location and there is a range of hikes available from the property itself. For those who enjoy a lead hike, there are usually two on offer daily with one of the hotel’s guides – complimentary for hotel guests.
Accommodation prices are all-inclusive and although the hotel has a casual family ethos, there is nothing casual about the food. From buffet breakfasts, to set course meals for supper, you won’t go hungry. Be sure to check out the wine cellar – I was happy to sip away some time with their impressive collection.
80 years ago Bill Carte stated that the aim and outcome of their work was to “create beauty, to make the land more fertile, to make our living, to leave the world better than when we came into it.” The third generation of owners proudly continue this stewardship of beauty, and along with the 100 staff they employ, have a lot to be proud of.
uMhlanga: Seaside Luxury at The Oyster Box
I must have stood rather gob-smacked resembling Charlie – except I wasn’t in a Chocolate Factory but somewhere just as jaw-dropping. Captured in the foyer of The Oyster Box my mouth was ajar in appreciation of the large floral arrangement. A staff member walked by, and noticing me, smiled adding “Yes, it’s real.”
The Oyster Box is no new face to the uMhlanga seaside. While she had her humble hotelier beginnings in 1954, this grande dame got a facelift and wardrobe change with extensive renovations in the late 2000’s when the Tollman family purchased her. She is in sense, an iconic South African hotel that is much loved by both local and foreign visitors alike.
A stay at The Oyster Box is an invitation into a sensorial experience par excellence. The décor is simply unrivalled – each space is a fantastic feast of colour and texture. Perhaps the hotel’s most recognisable setting is the lavish seaside pool area, marked by splashes of the ravishing Oyster Box-red. Also featured on the umbrellas and loungers, the red and white stripes reflect the adjacent lighthouse, which the hotel is a proud steward of.
From the garden villas to sea-facing rooms to spacious suites, no detail is too small and you may, like me, struggle to leave the calming views of the ocean from your private balcony. When I did, however, it was simply for a stroll through the tropical gardens to the spa, a lazy lounge at the pool, a walk along the famous uMhlanga promenade adjacent to the hotel, or a visit to one of the six exquisite dining spaces that are on offer.
Dining at The Oyster Box is an extraordinary and quintessential experience. Unmissable is the hotel’s well-loved High Tea experience. The setting for this sweet spectacle is the lavish surroundings of the Palm Court. With live music, an overly generous cake table, bubbly, teas and coffees you could hardly ask for more. The Curry Buffet is understandably also a firm favourite with locals and travellers from afar. In the heart of curry country, a variety of 10 curries are on offer every lunch and evening – I managed to get through seven before I had to call it quits.
This is a hotel that effortlessly redefines seaside opulence and has a dedicated staff waiting to care and curate your every need. It’s no wonder The Oyster Box has been awarded the Top Hotel in South Africa by the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Award for the last three years running, and the country’s leading hotel last year by Condé Nast Traveler readers.
Bush: Big 5 Territory at Nambiti Hills
Having driven all the way to the coast it was time to point the Evoque back in the direction of Joburg, but with a very important halfway stop. Two hours of driving took us first through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, then the picturesque midlands, and finally through the dirt back roads to Nambiti Hills Private Game Reserve.
Despite growing up in this majestic corner of South Africa, I’d never visited the reserve and my anticipation was intensifying as we drove through the gates. Greeting us with a massive smile, was our guide Biggie, eager to drive us through to the lodge that would be home for the next three days. Even on the short drive in we were already ticking off game sightings.
Nambiti Hills is a spacious lodge that crests the top of one of the higher ridges in the 26 000-acre reserve. The central lodge area branches into a restaurant on the left and lounge and bar to the right. Walking through the doors however, is where the magic happens! Besides a pool, fire pit and several lounge areas, the deck offers spectacular views of the landscape that rolls out below.
The accommodation suites are luxurious offerings that stand not far from the main lodge and give comfort and sanctuary in-between game drives. Of course, I made sure to spend enough time enjoying the free-standing bath – when swung open the adjacent doors removed all barrier to the outside, and the dulcet bush sounds and a glass of red wine were more than enough to wash away any remnant of city stress.
Make no mistake, Nambiti Hills lives up to its namesake: the landscape is made up of ripples of hills and exploring them on safari is a sure adventure. Taking the twists and turns you never know what lies around every corner, which for us included on one instance, three lions, who didn’t seem as excited to see as we were them!
As great as game sightings can be, at the end of the day your Safari experience depends on your guide. Biggie has expertly guided us for the past three days, and we couldn’t have hoped for a better ranger. 19 years of guiding, SA’s highest guide qualification, and a degree in wildlife management means he knows his stuff. He also had us in absolute stitches with some of his stories.
Of course, if you’re interested in South African history, it’s worth bearing in mind that many of South Africa’s wars played out within a stone’s throw of the reserve. The sites of the Battles of Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, the Siege of Ladysmith and the Battle of Blood River are all close by.
For Joburgers this 5-star lodge is a four hour drive and only three hours from Durban, making it a popular choice for locals looking to lap up some bush luxury. Be sure to look out for the annual winter specials, which could make a luxe bush getaway a bit more affordable than you thought.
Range Rover Evoque
Now that you have a better idea of the journey we took, the only question left is how did the Evoque perform? Perhaps the best way to describe this is my response when asked mid-journey what it was like to drive her. My response was simply, “I’m not driving, I’m flying.” The ride simply couldn’t have been more comfortable as we flew through from one destination to another.
In discovering how to best drive the Evoque, before the trip I signed myself up for the Jaguar Land Rover Experience. Branches in both the Western Cape and Gauteng offer owners – or as in my case – not yet owners – the chance to learn how to put the vehicle to its best. We were also given challenging obstacles to navigate and learned how to get out of tricky situations. Let me tell you, the Evoque was no kid on the course. There was only one obstacle we couldn’t attempt and that was purely based on the ground clearance being slightly less than that of her bigger brothers.
Very quickly I was used to the slick features including Lane Keep Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control, Blind Spot Assist, and very impressively a rear-view window which was actually a colour screen fed by a rear camera. Of course with the terrain selection option, the vehicle was able to calibrate itself to provide the best response to the specific terrain we were in.
She may be the first in the line-up of Range Rovers, but there is nothing least about her, and she was quick to prove that she was equally at home in berg, beach, and bush. Her only limitation was the chain ladders on our dramatic Drakensberg hike, but when we got back to the vehicle, I could have sworn she winked at me when I unlocked her. The perfect combination of personality, pleasure and power.