Demarcated in the west by the soaring Drakensberg Mountains, its eastern borders lapped by the warm Indian Ocean, the densely vegetated KwaZulu-Natal is often described as the country's most "African" province. Its subtropical latitude translates into long, hot summers -- at times oppressively humid -- and balmy moderate winters, while the warm Mozambique current ensures that the ocean is never more than 2° to 3° F cooler than the air. These sultry conditions have not gone unnoticed by the region's landlocked neighbors, making it the most popular local seaside destination in the country, resulting in a tide of condominiums, timeshares, and gated resort communities, ruining, at least for nature lovers, the coastal belt south of the Tugela River. In the center of this development is Durban, the busiest and largest natural port in Africa. Durban is enjoying a revival as a tourism hub for locals in search of affordable beach-based holidays and international travelers looking for good-value Big 5 safaris and the best wilderness trails in the country.
Durban itself has a unique energy that continues to spawn some of the continent's most creative trendsetters, but most international travelers come for the region north of the Tugela River, known as Zululand -- where the amaZulu rose to power during the early 19th century under the legendary ruler Shaka. Traditional ethnic ways and rituals still play a major role in contemporary life here, and visitors can witness authentic ceremonies such as sangoma initiation rites and the annual reed dance, attended by thousands of Zulu virgins and their king. Zululand is also home to the majority of the KwaZulu-Natal game reserves, some of Africa's oldest and most famous wildlife sanctuaries. Given the difference in landscape, flora, and fauna, they make a worthwhile addition to a safari in Kruger or Botswana. Less than 3 hours' drive north of Durban, you can see the Big 5 at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve or at one of the nearby private reserves. This is one of the few places in the world where you can track a pride of lions or walk with black rhino in the morning, then spend the afternoon cruising for hippos and crocs along the lush waterways of the Greater St Lucia Wetland (a World Heritage Site), or diving the rich coral reefs off Sodwana Bay. If you have time, and it's well worth making it, join the privileged few who have explored the rich marine life and pristine coastline that lies even farther north, diving or snorkeling off beautiful Mabibi or Rocktail Bay. More intrepid nature lovers should head to Kosi Bay in the far northern corner of the province, where the swamp and Rafia Palm forests afford great birding, as do the inland reserves of Mkhuze and Ndumo, considered the country's premier bird-watching reserves. To the west are the historically important battle sites of the many wars fought among the Zulu, British, and Boers in the 19th century.
The Natal Midlands, with its fine country establishments and arts and crafts route, leads up into what is surely the pride of place for those who enjoy walking: the soaring Drakensberg Mountains, or uKhahlamba, "Barrier of Spears," as the amaZulu called them. The site of more than 35,000 ancient San rock paintings -- thought to be the most densely concentrated on the African continent (including the famous Game Pass Shelter, the "Rosetta Stone" of Bushmen Paintings) -- the Drakensberg was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000, garnering attention for southern Africa's most majestic mountainscape.
KwaZulu-Natal's growing popularity is assured, given its warm subtropical climate and its vast geographic and historic diversity, with most of the region's top sights within a 3-hour drive from Durban on excellent roads.