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Meandering through the Midlands: SA's Creative Countryside

One of the prettiest parts of the country, the Midlands is an area of gently rolling green hills interspersed with rivers and indigenous and commercial forests, just an hour or two beyond Durban on the N3 (less than 5 hr. from Johannesburg), stretching west to the majestic Drakensberg. With its cooler, drier climate, these hillsides are carpeted in flowers in spring, while crisp cold autumns turn the Midlands palette burnt orange and yellow. Its beauty has attracted creative types since the early 1800s, and it remains home to artisans and slow-food proponents, who live among small country inns between dairy farms. The Midlands Meander (tel. 033/330-5305 or 082/803-2327; www.midlandsmeander.co.za) is South Africa's first, largest, and most popular art-and-crafts route (and probably the easiest to follow, given the excellent signage). Weavers, potters, woodcrafters, leather workers, artists, metalworkers, box makers, herb growers, cheese makers, and beer brewers line the route. There are well over a hundred stops on four varying but converging routes, extending over some 80km (50 miles). It's a great way to shop (don't miss Ardmore Ceramics in Caversham tel. 033/234-4869). Prices stay low because there's no middleman. The spectrum of nearby dining and lodging options runs from luxurious to rustic and from full-service to self-catering; many establishments are converted from old farmhouses or outbuildings. Outdoor activities include trout fishing, hiking, mountain biking, hot-air ballooning, and "canopy hopping." This 3-hour "slide" through the Karkloof Nature Reserve with Karkloof Canopy Tours (tel. 033/300-3415; www.karkloofcanopytour.co.za) is the most exhilarating way to explore the province's largest mist-belt forest, with towering yellowwoods harboring endemic Butler butterflies and Marshall eagles.

Exploring the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park

The Northern Drakensberg is dominated by the Amphitheatre, a dramatic wall of rock that is some 8km (5 miles) long, flanked by the Sentinel (3,165m/10,381 ft.) and Eastern Buttress (3,047m/9,994 ft.). Falling within the 8,000-hectare (19,760-acre) Royal Natal National Park, it's the most awesome rock formation in the Drakensberg and the most photographed. This is where you'll find Mont-aux-Sources, so named by the French missionaries who visited the region in 1836. The highest point itself is an uninteresting peak that attains an altitude of 3,282m (10,765 ft.) 7km (4 1/4 miles) from the Drakensberg escarpment. The mountain acts as a watershed and is the source for three major rivers (hence the name Mont-aux-Sources), the Tugela, Vaal River, and Orange River. The Orange River flows into the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of Southern Africa, while the Tugela flows into the Indian Ocean on the east coast of the subcontinent. Seven kilometers (4 1/4 miles) from the source, the Tugela plunges 948m (3,109 ft.) in a series of falls, the second-highest series of falls in the world. The 6-hour Tugela Gorge Walk, in the Royal Natal Drakensberg Park, will take you past the base of these falls, which afford marvelous views of the Amphitheatre. Royal Natal National Park is ideal for hiking, with a superb network of graded walks catering to all levels of fitness and agility. One of the most memorable views is from the summit of Mont-aux-Sources, which can be reached by walking from the summit plateau and scaling a 100-rung chain ladder. Entrance to the Royal Natal (tel. 036/438-6303) costs R25; open 6am to 6pm in winter (Apr-Sept), 5am to 7pm in summer (Oct-Mar). Gates close at 10pm if you are staying at Thendele (tel. 036/438-6411).

The Central Drakensberg comprises three distinct areas: the beautiful (3,004m/9,853-ft.) Cathedral Peak in the north, which has the easiest mountain to climb (a 9-hr. round-trip) and the best hotel in the Drakensberg at its feet; the relatively populated Champagne Valley, where most of the Berg resorts are based, and the Giant's Castle area, a magnet for both hikers and those interested in San rock art. Situated in the northern section of Giant's Castle, Injisuthi camp is cradled between the Injasuti (or "Little Tugela") and Delmhlwazini rivers at the head of the Injasuti Valley. This is a truly isolated wilderness, ideal for hikers, with breathtaking walks dominated by Cathkin Peak, Monk's Cowl, Champagne Castle, and Battle Cave. The Giant's Castle camp, famous for its relatively easy access to San rock art, is a short walk away in the main caves museum, situated on a gassy plateau among the deep valleys running down from the face of the High Drakensberg. The Injisuthi and (relatively luxurious) Giant's Castle camps serve as the departure point for numerous trails, serviced by an extensive network of overnight huts and caves. Within the reserve, Ndedema Gorge contains almost 4,000 paintings at 17 sites, including Sebaayeni Cave, which has 1,146 paintings. The reserve is open daily April through September from 6am to 6pm, and October through March from 5am to 7pm; admission to Giant's Castle is R25 per adult and R13 per child, and to Injisuthi is R20 per person. Initially established to protect the eland, Africa's largest antelope, the Giant's Castle reserve is today one of the few places where you'll see the rare lammergeyer, or "bearded vulture," particularly in winter; when rangers feed the vultures in what is known as the "vulture restaurant."

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.