Many people believe that in South Africa, the only beautiful and safe places to visit are the wine lands, in the shadow of a mountain with a flat top and the Kruger Park for wildlife. But alas no, the country’s strap line is not “a world in one country” for nothing!

I wanted to talk a bit about the area that I love most and one that is often overlooked but is so wonderful for both genuine South African Culture and wildlife, for beauty and wilderness, good roads and fine food. Not to mention some of the best accommodation in the land.

Having grown up in South Africa I was bitten by the travel bug early in life as my parents not only travelled within South Africa but also across the continent. My fondest memories are when, deep in the night, my father would bundle us into the gold Chevrolet station wagon and we would sleep flat in the boot, on beds of foam until the dawn broke. We would be passing van Reenen’s pass, the highest point in the Drakensburg. I remember lying there studying the clouds and the mountains as I couldn’t tell them apart. My father would tell us ghost stories along the way about the old woman who hitches a ride and then disappears from the seat beside you.

We would travel further into the rising sun past Zulu huts and endless fields of thorn trees. Eventually the Pongola River Bridge would mark the start of our holiday and the air would become soft and fragrant with a hint of humidity, just enough to make your hair curl. (As a student, on route to my place of holiday employment, I would cross the bridge and feel the pang of joy as if returning home). You would never say I was a Transvaal girl, I am at heart a trans Pongola girl with Natal firmly etched in my heart.

As the Chevrolet bumped up to our chalet on the St Lucia coast we just had about enough time to pile out of the back window and head straight for the dunes whilst my mother unpacked the car and my father got the boogie boards out. At night we sometimes combed the beach for signs of the leatherback turtles who came to lay their eggs. In the day we visited the nearby Hluhluwe and Unfolozi Game reserves or learned about crocodiles at the education centre near St Lucia. However, most of the time we enjoyed the endless wild expanses of beach, jumping from the dunes into the soft warm golden sand, the crash of waves in our ears.

It was like that for many years, I studied and worked in the area 12 years later and was the one who fed the crocodiles at the education centre and tagged the turtles on the beach, I walked patrol with the Zulu game guards in Hluhluwe and guided visitors through Umfolozi. Later on I worked at Phinda Game reserve which was still in its infancy, where I was later head guide at Forest Lodge. The days were packed with wildlife and adventure either on the boat, in the canoes or on walks.

My favourite past time with my guests was to encounter White Rhino on a grassland plain called the pineapple fields (this is because the reserve was reclaimed from farmland), check the wind direction and walk toward the rhino. Then at a safe distance we would judge the direction the rhino were grazing towards and then find a termite mound, get comfortable, down wind and we would wait. In a matter of minutes the rhino would have grazed up to the foot of the termite mound. We were safe as we were reasonably high up and down wind and the rhythmic crunch from the rhino’s mouths and the thrill of being so close was mesmerizing. It made for great dinner conversation and often afforded a slap on the back for my tracker and me by even the most hardened of safari addicts.

Natal also features the wonderful culture of the Zulu and the drama of the Anglo, Zulu and Boer wars echo across the plains and from the vantage points afforded by the brilliant hillside landscapes. The battlefields of Rourkes Drift, Fugitives Drift and Spionkop all offer testament to the men who fought and lost their lives there. The mountains of the Drakensberg are so high and majestic that I sometimes wonder why the flat top of Table Mountain gets all the attention and to hike or ride in the Drakensbergalong well marked paths is a challenge and a delight. A hot drink and a warm fire awaits you on your return and the views are spectacular. The port town of Durban was always a fun town and still is considered the party capital of Natal.

If you have experienced the Cape and the wonderful South African hospitality and you are looking for more, then please talk to me, Illona. I can get to the heart of Natal and we can have a long chat about the beauty, the wonder, the whales and the Wildlife.

Have a look for some inspiration for your holiday to South Africa.

Thanks for reading

Illona Cross, Tanzania

Author: Illona Cross