Friday, 3 January 2014

Joburg to Durban and the Midlands Meander

For our first proper summer holiday in South Africa we decided we would follow the rest of the country down to the beach. Not the Cape beaches though but the more temperate KwaZulu Natal ones which you can actually swim in very comfortably. Our journey down to what they call 'the Hibiscus Coast' was our longest road trip yet and more wary of the South African estimates of distances than we used to be (as we discovered when we drove to Lesotho for Easter, it's always an hour longer when you are trying your best to stick to the speed limits) we decided to break the journey up and do some stop-offs along the way. Altogether from Joburg to the Hibiscus Coast comes to around 770km, which is why we decided the Midlands Meander would be a perfect place to stop off on the way.

The Midlands is a green and hilly region in the foothills of the Drakensberg about 100kms from Pietermaritzburg. In all honesty a lot of the landscape here reminded me of home - resoundingly green, hilly and filled with hill farmers. It is the kind of territory which brings a lot of rain, which is also something I always associate with North England!

The Road through the Free State

The first two hours or so of the journey to Durban are long straight and fairly flat stretches of nothingness.To either side you will just see huge open expanses of grass and farmland punctuated by the occasional tree or rocky outcrop.

 As we exited this never-ending typically straight Free State road we eventually started to climb through the hills crossing over into the Zulu Battlefields. There is a spectacular  mountain pass here called van Reenand's Pass which has incredible views over impressive empty mountainside. On the road down to Durban there are precious few convenient places to stop and get out to admire the view, although on the way back up to Joburg there are a number of stop-off places touting for tourism, such as 'the World's Smallest Church'.

It's worth adding that the weather on this section of the road does whatever the hell it wants. It can be be foggy, raining heavily, and throwing huge gusts of wind all at the same time. There are usually a lot of trucks trying to chug their way up and down the hills and the road meanders a fair deal, so it pays to drive carefully and obey the speed limit signs (the limit can drop to 80km p.h for cars on particularly steep stretches).  That said, the N3 is much like all of South Africa's main highways - in darn good nick. If you want to drive a really treacherous and hellish main highway try (as we once did - from the old blog, parts 1, 2 and 3 here, here and here) the Rossiya highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg...After doing that, everything else is a piece of cake.

It's only a another hour or two after the pass where you hit the turn offs for the 'Meander'. The Meander is a series of back-road routes through various farms, craft outlets and small villages between the small towns of Mooi River and Howick. The area is a popular place with tourists looking to shop for top quality handcrafted stuff and real farm-to-plate foodie goods and also runs a huge trade in weddings.

Shopping in the Midlands Meander

Our home for two nights in the Midlands was the aptly named Pleasant Places. This is a gorgeous old farm turned guesthouse nestled in a quiet valley. In the morning we gazed out over the bright green hilly fields of the large working farm across the river and enjoyed what my husband believes to have been his best breakfast ever, before returning to our lovely antique filled room for a brief nap. We then, almost reluctantly left the Pleasant Place to see what the Meander had to offer.

First along the way, with nothing in mind other than to visit any place that took our fancy, we stopped at a leather factory called Born In Africa. Here local people hand make handbags and shoes with genuine leather uppers. I bought probably the most comfortable pair of leather wedge sandals I have ever owned in my life. And they cost just R300. I should have bought 3 pairs!

We then made a detour off the tarred road and up a rocky dirt track to reach a place atop a hill with a name that I just couldn't resist - the Swissland Cheese Farm. This was an idyllic spot for a lovely relaxed lunch. We bought a few slabs of incredibly moreish goats cheese from the farm shop and a little bottle of wine and set ourselves up on the grassy lawn overlooking yet another lonely farm in a picturesque valley.

Onwards our foodie meander went into the little town of Nottingham Road. If you know your South African craft beers then you may have heard of Notties. It's a fine craft brewery based in Nottingham Road and they have a nice Austrian chalet themed pub down there too. Unfortunately there was a rowdy bunch of youngsters on a post-wedding binge who'd rocked up to obliterate themselves on the fine booze at the same time that we had come to sample the brews. I may have just taken it in my stride had it not been that we'd chosen to stick around to watch another humiliating Spurs defeat in the bar at the same time. Ah, Spurs, there's so much more to say about my team, but alas, back to the holiday! The gang eventually left in a blur of swaying bodies and embarrassed girlfriends and we set in to some outlandishly sized Germanic specialties including the famous Eisbein. Nyom.

Next morning we were up and at 'em relatively early and prepared to drive our second leg of the journey down to Margate on the Hibiscus Coast. Before leaving the Meander we made a stop off at a large collection of lovely farm and craft shops and rustic restaurants called Piggly Wiggly. We had been tipped off about the place at the guesthouse and my husband was desperate to buy some ridiculously hot chili relish which he'd had with his breakfast. He bought two bottles, one labelled Rattlesnake Bite and another, the ultimate in blow-your-head of ludicrous heat, called Lord of the Ring. This is serious teaspoon at a time stuff in case you hadn't already guessed from the names.

We also considered making a detour to one of the country's best coffee roasters Terbodore Coffee, but decided instead to hit it up on the way back. It was definitely worth getting to and we only sorely regret that we hadn't made an advance booking for the attached restaurant as the food looked (and smelled) divine.

The other place which I insisted on stopping by before getting back on the highway was the Howick Mandela Memorial which is only about 6km from the N3 Howick turn-off. It was here that back in the 1960s Nelson Mandela, then the country's most wanted man, was captured by the Apartheid police. The moments before his capture were to be his last as a free man for 27 years. There's an impressive monument here as well as a visitor centre containing an extensive exhibition on the life of Mr Mandela. As we were there on the day that Mandela was buried in his home town of Qunu, there were a particularly large number of people around who had come to leave flowers and teach their children about Madiba and his message of reconciliation, social justice and human dignity.

Piggly Wiggly farm shop

Flowers and candles for Mandela in Howick
Unfortunately it was raining buckets so I didn't photograph the actual Memorial itself. However, I just had to snap this poster in the visitor centre.

Back on the road: Howick to Margate

Back on the highway we passed out of the very English looking landscape of the Midlands and into the romantically named Valley of a Thousand Hills. This is true Zulu country and the hillsides are dotted all over with little one room homesteads painted in bright colours clinging to steep red soiled slopes. With the ocean now in sight we skirted around the fringes of Durban and out onto the N2 which hugs the coast for around 150kms, before swerving inland through the interior of the Eastern Cape.

Much of the coastal road around Durban is surrounded by poor townships which spread across both sides of the highway. This means that for much of the way there are people walking along the side of the busy road or dashing across the lanes to reach shops or homes on the other side. It's a pretty hectic driving environment and also one that dramatically highlights the shockingly vast differences in wealth in this country. Here the BMWs and Mercs race past at 150kph hurrying to get to their lush luxury holiday resorts whilst young black men and women walk for kilometres beside the road lugging shopping bags to their homes in atrociously serviced villages and towns. I want to say that this experience was 'eye-opening', but sadly I have now been here long enough to see it as yet another reminder of the harsh reality of life here.

Around about an hour after passing Durban we finally reached the Hibiscus Coast, a lush tropical section of the KZN coastline lined by long stretches of surf-basked white beaches. This area would be our home for the week. You can read more about this haven of golf and surf in my next post.


Drive time (with stops for coffee and snacks): 
- Johannesburg (Illovo) - Lidgetton Valley, Midlands, KZN = approx 5hrs, 465km
- Lidgetton Valley, Midlands, KZN to Margate, Hibiscus Coast, KZN = approx 3hours, 255km

5 Great shops in the Midlands Meander:

SwisslandCheese Farm, Balgowan, 4Kms off R103
Born in Africa (shoes), Old Balgowan Farm, R103
NottinghamRoad Brewery, Nottingham Road
PigglyWiggly Country Village, R103, 10km from Howick off ramp

And one really great Midlands Guesthouse:

PleasantPlaces, Lidgeton Valley

For more on the Midlands Meander visit

1 comment:

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