Cross the Tugela River (88km/55 miles north of Durban), traditionally the southern frontier of Zululand, and it soon feels as if you've entered a new country. Passing a largely rural population through KwaZulu-Natal's Big 5 reserves and coastal wetlands, you are now traveling the ancestral lands of the Zulu, and the designated Zulu "homeland" prior to 1994.
Most visitors to Zululand spend at least 2 days in or near Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, the province's largest game reserve. Run by eZemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, it is home to the Big 5 and has the most sought-after wilderness trails in the country. In addition, its proximity to Durban (less than a 3-hr. drive on good roads) makes it one of South Africa's most accessible Big 5 game reserves, and its prolific game, varied vegetation, and top-value accommodations make for an experience to rival Kruger National Park.
If, however, your idea of the "wild life" is pausing in your pursuit of lions with a drink poured by your personal ranger, there are also a number of private reserves to cater to your every need. Lying north of Hluhluwe and close to (in the case of Phinda, part of) iSimangaliso Wetland Park, these luxurious private game reserves are close enough to the coast to add diving with dolphins, sharks, and a magical array of tropical fish to your Big 5 experience -- the combination of big game, lagoon, and beach is, in fact, one of the major benefits of choosing a safari in KwaZulu-Natal.
The first area in South Africa to be declared a World Heritage Site, iSimangaliso Wetland Park (previously, Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, for which you may still see signage) is a top destination for South Africa's divers, fishermen, and birders, as well as the rare loggerhead and leatherback turtles that have been returning to these beaches to breed every summer for thousands of years. Encompassing the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains, wetlands, forests, lakes, and the coastal coral reefs, the park is quite literally a paradise, but its proximity to Durban -- and, indeed, Johannesburg -- means you may have to share it with many others who similarly appreciate its natural bounty. If you're looking for a more exclusive experience, you're best off traveling farther north to Mabibi, Rocktail, and Kosi Bay -- the real highlight of the KwaZulu-Natal coast, where a handful of guests find themselves alone on a stretch of pristine beach and coastal forest that stretches for hundreds of miles.