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The perfect KwaZulu-Natal road trip [A first-timer’s guide]

Planning your first KwaZulu-Natal road trip? Then you’ve just landed on the perfect page to help you with that!

KwaZulu-Natal on the east coast of South Africa is highly undervalued as a tourist destination, and often overlooked in favor of destinations like the Kruger National Park and Cape Town. Having grown up in this amazing province we may be a little biased, but through exploring it ourselves have discovered that this sunny corner of South Africa offers it all – a vibrant and diverse culture, majestic mountains, untamed big five bush experiences and possibly the most unspoiled beaches in the country. Not to forget that KwaZulu-Natal’s winter weather (April-July) is the best in the country!

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KwaZulu-Natal highlights:

  • Unspoiled sandy beaches and warm water.
  • Malaria-free big five game reserves.
  • Two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park).
  • A vibrant and diverse blend of cultures.
  • World-class diving and surfing destinations.

We would love you to come and explore this magical province for yourself, and have put together a list of our top picks in the province to get those travel juices flowing! Our dream KwaZulu-Natal road trip is a circular self-drive route covers 1600 km and takes in all of the highlights of KwaZulu-Natal including the berg, big five bush and spectacular beaches.

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KwaZulu-Natal quick facts:

  • Summer (November-February) weather is generally hot and humid, with some rain. February is the hottest month with temperatures in the low 30’s (°C).
  • Winter (April-July) is the best time of year to visit where the weather usually consists of mild, clear days and cool nights, with temperatures in the upper teens to mid-20’s (°C).
  • International airport: King Shaka International Airport.
  • Main city: Durban (eThekwini).

KwaZulu-Natal road trip map

Suggested KwaZulu-Natal road trip route for flying in and out of King Shaka International Airport.

Stop 1: Explore the city sights of Durban and Umhlanga.

Durban beachfront on the KwaZulu-Natal road trip
The Durban beachfront is one of the city’s main attractions and a perfectplace to start your KwaZulu-Natal road trip.
Umhlanga lighthouse
The famous Umhlanga lighthouse is an iconic feature on the Umhlanga coastline.

City life in KwaZulu-Natal is all about the beach. Explore Umhlanga and Durban, spending time on Umhlanga’s beach promenade or hit Durban’s Golden Mile by bicycle. Stop for coffee or an ice cream along the way. Visit some of the area’s attractions including uShaka Marine World, the KZN Sharks BoardGateway Theatre of Shopping, the Victoria Street Market or if it is a weekend, some of the fantastic craft and foodie markets (e.g. I Heart Market) in and around town.

Recommended length of stay: two full days (three nights).

Route suggestion: King Shaka International Airport is a thirty minute drive out of Umhlanga, or forty minutes from the Durban CBD. Pick up a rental car at the airport and head straight to your accommodation to unpack and refresh. We’d recommend basing yourself in Umhlanga as it provides easy access to Durban’s attractions with more of a nightlife and range of restaurants to choose from. Click here to check out available accommodation in Umhlanga.

Stop 2: Go on a watery safari on Lake St Lucia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is home to the highest density of hippos in South Africa
Lake St Lucia is home to the highest concentration of Hippos in South Africa.
Jill checking out the coastline near Mission Rocks
Evening walks on the unspoiled beaches of the Eastern Shores.

iSimangaliso’s Lake St Lucia is a must-do on any KwaZulu-Natal road trip. If you are pressed for time, this is one stop not to miss! The expansive waterways of South Africa’s largest estuary are home to a wealth of fish, bird and plant life, not to mention the highest density of hippos and crocodiles in southern Africa. Take in a truly African sunset from the water, or spend time exploring the pristine coastline and big game wilderness areas that surround Lake St Lucia.

St Lucia town is the ideal base from which to explore this area, and is well-equipped for tourists with a range of accommodation, restaurants and travel and tour operators (read more in our detailed guide to St Lucia). For guided experiences, we would highly recommend a late afternoon estuary boat cruise, joining a night drive on the Eastern or Western Shores, a snorkel safari at Cape Vidal or beach and bush horse riding from Bhangazi Gate. From mid-May to the end of September, a boat-based whale watching trip to view migrating humpback whales is also a must. Then take some time to explore the Eastern and Western Shores game sections at leisure, leaving plenty of time to enjoy any of the number of picnic and elevated view sites in the park to really get a feel for the enormous size of Lake St Lucia.

There are plenty of attractions around St Lucia town too including excellent birding from the Estuary Boardwalk and bush trails through the iPhiva small game section. As if this wasn’t enough, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is an easy day trip from town and there are plenty of operators who offer tours through the park from St Lucia town.

Recommended length of stay: a minimum of two full days (three nights) will barely scratch the surface of everything this area has to offer, so we’d suggest spending closer to four or five. Click here to check out available accommodation in St Lucia.

Route suggestion: From Umhlanga, St Lucia is a 2 hour 30 minutes drive via the N2 national freeway and R618 regional road (via Mtubatuba). A bit of a detour, the indigenous forests around Eshowe are well worth a stop if you have the time.

Stop 3: Encounter Africa’s big five in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

A herd of buffalo make their way to the river in Hluhluwe
The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve is the oldest game reserve in Africa.
elephants in the evening light
Elephants enjoy the soft grass near the banks of the river

KwaZulu-Natal has a number of world-class big five game reserves that offer unparalleled game viewing opportunities without the crowds of the Kruger National Park. South Africa’s oldest established game reserve, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is particularly special for the role it has played in rhino conservation in the country. There is also the opportunity to join a multi day wilderness walk through the park – on foot, sleeping under the stars in a pristine wilderness area is a life-changing experience that we’d highly recommend.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is an Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife managed-park. There is both self-catering or catered accommodation available for guests and the option to visit the park as a self drive or fully guided experience.

Recommended length of stay: If it were up to us we’d be happy to be left in the bush forever, but at an absolute minimum you should spend one night in the reserve to take advantage of evening and morning game drives – periods of peak animal activity in the park. If pressed for time, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi can be visited as a day’s outing from St Lucia, or en route from Durban to destinations further north, entering at Nyalazi Gate in the south and exiting via Memorial Gate in the north of the park. Click here to check out available accommodation in Hluhluwe.

Route suggestion: Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve is a 1 hour drive from St Lucia via the R618, or a 2 hour 40 minute drive from Durban.

Stop 4: Dive South Africa’s coral reefs at Sodwana Bay.

Bevan at the pool in Sodwana Bay
A refresher in the pool before hitting the open water in Sodwana Bay.

South Africa’s oceans are full of life, and the range of topography and water temperatures along the coastline offer fantastic and varied diving opportunities. There is only one place to dive on subtropical coral reefs though and of course, that is in KwaZulu-Natal!

Sodwana Bay is a diver’s mecca with dives to suit all levels of experience, as well as the opportunity to blow bubbles with some bigger animals including whale sharks, dolphins, manta rays, turtles and any number of shark species.

For non-divers, Sodwana Bay’s unspoiled coastline is the perfect place to relax, swim and explore and it is a good base from which to day trip and explore coastal attractions in iSimangaliso’s Coastal Forest section including Lake Sibaya and Mabibi. In fact, it is possible to drive via the Coastal Forest section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park en route to destinations further north and we’d highly recommend this route if you have a 4×4 vehicle.

Recommended length of stay: Depending on your interests, anything from two full days (three nights) is great for Sodwana Bay. Click here to check out available accommodation in Sodwana Bay.

Why not extend your stay and complete diving certifications during your time in town?

Route suggestion: Sodwana Bay is a 1 hour 46 minute drive from Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve. Remember to turn off the N2 at Hluhluwe town and onto the R22 that will take you to Mbazwana. From here, follow the signs for Sodwana Bay.

Stop 5: Take a step back in time at Kosi Bay.

The famous Kosi Mouth
The famous Kosi Mouth – this is what a KwaZulu-Natal road trip is all about!

Kosi Bay is one of those uniquely African destinations. Visiting the lakes feels like a step back in time; take in the scene of Thonga people at work in their fish kraals while pink flamingos feed in the shallows, hippos laze in the water, and a fish eagle calls from a tree nearby. A truly special place.

While at Kosi Bay, we’d strongly recommend a cruise on the lakes, as well as a visit to Kosi Mouth to check out the fish traps from up close and to snorkel Aquarium Reef. During the months of November to February there is also the opportunity to join a turtle tour to view loggerhead and leatherback turtles nesting on the sandy beaches. Although the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife rest camp on Lake KuNhlange is accessible with a sedan, visiting the mouth requires a 4×4 vehicle. There are local operators who offer these trips to visitors.

Recommended length of stay: One full day (two nights) at a minimum. Click here to check out available accommodation in Kosi Bay.

Route suggestion: From Sodwana Bay, Kosi Bay is a 1 hour 45 minute drive on the R22. For the more adventurous, follow the 4×4 route through iSimangaliso’s Coastal Forest section and enjoy some beautiful remote beaches along the way, or add in an overnight stay at Mabibi or Rocktail Bay (4×4 required).

Stop 6: More time in the bush at Tembe Elephant Park or EKZNW’s Ndumo, uMkhuze and Ithala Game Reserves.

We just can’t get enough of the bush! Following our KwaZulu-Natal road trip route puts you in close proximity to a number of our favourite game reserves, each with something unique to offer.

Tembe Elephant Reserve is a community-run and highly affordable big five destination. The sand forests are a unique feature to this reserve, however it will require that you have a 4×4 to enter the park. There is a great lodge to stay at within the reserve offering full board and two game drives a day while contributing directly to job creation, community upliftment and conservation, this will be one of your favourite stops.

tembe elephant reserve on the KwaZulu-Natal road trip
Tembe is home to some of the biggest tuskers left in South Africa.

In contrast Ndumo Game Reserve is a very small reserve just west of Tembe. Alive with smaller game, it is a quieter reserve with a number of special habitats including fig forests and pans that attract incredible bird life.

Nyamiti Pan in Ndumo Game Reserve
Nyamiti Pan in Ndumo Game Reserve.

uMkhuze Game Reserve is one of EKZNW’s flagship reserves and was recently incorporated into the greater iSimangaliso Wetland Park conservation corridor. Guided walks through the reserve’s ancient Sycamore Fig forest are truly magical.

Hiking through the Fig Forest in uMkhuze
It’s OK to walk on a road trip, especially if you’re hiking through a 900 year old Fig Forest in the uMkhuze Game Reserve.

Lastly, Ithala Game Reserve is all about the scenery, with a rugged topography of mountains and rivers. The roads in this reserve are quite bad so it would be best to stay at the Nshondwe camp and arrange game drives with the camp.

Ithala Game Reserve KwaZulu-Natal road trip
The breathtaking natural scenery of Ithala Game Reserve.

Break up your trip by stopping at as many of these destinations as you’d like – Tembe Elephant Park is a fully catered stay while the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife reserves offer a range of catered or self-catering options.

Recommended length of stay: Once again if it were up to us, we’d stay forever, but at an absolute minimum one night with some late afternoon and early morning game viewing will afford you the best chance to spot elusive game.

Route suggestion: From Kosi Bay, travel time to Tembe Elephant Reserve is 50 minutes via the P522, to Ndumo Game Reserve is 1 hour 30 minutes via the P522, to uMkhuze Game Reserve is 2 hours 30 minutes via the R22 and to Ithala Game Reserve is 3 hours 30 minutes via the P522 and R69. For something a little different that is also in the area, jump on a house boat and fish and laze your days away on Lake Jozini (2 hours 30 minutes from Kosi Bay via the P522).

Stop 7: Be moved by the KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields.

isandlwana in the rain

“KwaZulu” means “the place of the Zulus”, and KwaZulu-Natal is named for the mighty Zulu nation who under King Shaka’s rule once controlled all of the north-eastern regions of South Africa. No other province has been so pivotal in the struggle for power between the British, Boer and Zulu in the early days of the country, and no region more so than the battlefields around Dundee in central KZN.

All three powers of the early South Africa met here – the Boer and Zulu in the 1830sBritish and Zulu during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, and British and Boer during the late 1800s/early 1900s. This region is the site of military legend like the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, and walking the well-preserved battlefields while imagining the war cries of Zulu and British alike is both an incredibly eerie and moving experience.

Some interest in the history of South Africa is vital to really appreciate this stop, but if this is at all your cup of tea then we’d strongly recommend joining a battlefield tour run by the Rattray family out of Fugitives’ Drift Lodge.

Recommended length of stay: The battlefield tours will take a full day, so it is best to allow a full day (two nights) here at least.

Route suggestion: Dundee is a 5 hour drive from Kosi Bay, 4 hours 25 minutes from Ndumo Game Reserve, 4 hours from Tembe Elephant Park, 4 hours from uMkhuze Game Reserve or 2 hours from Ithala Game Reserve.

Stop 8: Hike, refresh and reconnect in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg.

The Sentinel Peak
The famous Sentinel Peak.
Hikers at the top of the Sentinel Peak
Hiking in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains.

The highest mountain range in southern Africa, the majestic uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains form the border between South Africa and Lesotho, the aptly named “kingdom in the sky”. This imposing range has been a place of refuge for centuries, and plenty of caves in the area are decorated with bushman paintings and relics.

A visit to the Drakensberg is the perfect place to reconnect with nature and oneself. There are a range of day, overnight and multi day hiking trails for outdoors enthusiasts, or simply beautiful and easily accessible picnic sights and viewpoints from which to enjoy the splendor of the mountain scenery. For the adventurous, Sani Pass in the southern Drakensberg region is one of the world’s most iconic mountain passes and a gateway to explore Lesotho, and the Sentinel Peak hike in the northern berg provides access to the top of the Tugela Falls, the world’s second-highest waterfall.

Highest point on the KwaZulu-Natal road trip
The top of the famous Sani Pass in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg.

There are a number of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife managed resorts in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park offering catered or self-catering accommodation.

Recommended length of stay: Depending on your interests, anything from two full days (three nights) is good for the Drakensberg. (PS – if you want to do the Sentinel Peak Hike, we’re highly recommend staying at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge)

Route suggestion: Because of the mountainous terrain, access to the northern, central or southern Drakensberg destinations is easiest as an out-and-back drive from the N3 national freeway. The northern berg destinations (e.g. Didima) are approximately 2 hours from Dundee, central berg destinations (e.g. Giant’s Castle) are approximately 2 hours from Dundee and the southern berg (e.g. Garden Castle and Sani Pass) are approximately 4 hours 30 minutes from Dundee.

If you’re going to be doing any hiking make sure you go prepared with a good pair of hiking shoes! (These are the ones Bevan uses and these are the ones Jill uses).

Stop 9: Drive via the Midlands Meander to King Shaka International Airport.

Rawdons Hotel Midlands Meander
The Rawdons Hotel is just one of the dozens of beautiful estates along the Midlands Meander.

The Natal Midlands is a picturesque farming region just beyond the Drakensberg foothills. This region has become well-known as an idyllic countryside escape and the Midlands Meander is a curated route that connects visitors with artists, craftsmen and foodie stops, with romantic hideaways and country retreats tucked along the way. Overnight in this area to enjoy all that it has to offer, or make a day’s outing of your drive back towards Kind Shaka International Airport and stop as much as you can along the way.

Recommended length of stay: Although the Midlands Meander can be driven in a day, we’d recommend anything from a 1-3 night stay to enjoy the peace and beauty (and fine restaurants!) of the area. Click here to check out available accommodation in the Midlands.

Route suggestion: The Midlands Meander extends from Mooi River towards Hilton on the N3 and surrounding regional roads. Mooi River is 2 hours away from King Shaka International Airport.

Still interested in seeing more? Add in a loop down the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.

Kelso beach
Crisp winter mornings are the best times to be on the beach on the South Coast.
Umzumbe Beach
Umzumbe Beach is one of the gems of the South Coast.

KwaZulu-Natal is a province blessed with beautiful beaches. Unlike the Elephant Coast where the coastline stretches for kilometers with barely a footprint, the province’s South Coast is dotted with small holiday towns that offer endless days of sun, sea and surf.

World class wreck and reef diving is available at Aliwal Shoal, and for surfers, destinations like Scottburgh and Umzumbe are a treat.

Escape to the far South Coast and explore the strelitzia lined coastline around Trafalgar, or beautiful rocky points and sandy bays of Leisure Bay and St Micheal’s on Sea. Just inland from Port Shepstone, the terrain collapses into the spectacular Oribi Gorge with a high-adrenaline gorge swing and plenty of hiking and picnicking on offer, and to the far south, Port Edward and its bridge over the Mtamvuna River is the gateway to even wilder territory beyond…

Route suggestion: From King Shaka International Airport, the South Coast is a glorious 200 km (2 hour) stretch of warm water and golden beaches to explore.

A few things to remember on your KwaZulu-Natal road trip

  • South Africans drive on the left hand side of the road – you’ll want to come to grips with that as soon as possible.
  • This route involves toll roads which are a nominal fee (less than R100 per toll booth). You can pay with a credit card, but to be safe take cash to avoid any nasty surprises.
  • Visitors can self-drive through the public game reserves, however, you will still need to be very cautious of wild animals and avoid antagonising them by getting too close with your car.
  • If a route is marked 4×4, believe it.
  • Avoid driving after dark in the more rural areas of KZN. There are a lot of people and animals in the road in some sections so do all your essential driving during the day.

Mix and match the destinations we’ve suggested to plan your perfect KwaZulu-Natal road trip and let us know what you chose in the comments below. And be sure to drive safely. 🙂

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