The gentle rolling countryside of the KZN midlands just north of Pietermaritzburg
is home to South Africa’s premier country route. The Midlands Meander provides a different perspective for the visitor to the “Zulu Kingdom”, with a diverse range of experiences from luxurious pampering to antique collecting or milking the cows.
During the 1970’s a group of crafters already living in this beautiful area came up with the idea of forming a collective to encourage visitors to their studios and hopefully, shop. It was the simple, authentic lifestyle of hand made, home grown and lovingly created that they sought to achieve. This seemed the ideal way to maintain that.
This lifestyle and these values still echo in the hills today. Each year more creative souls are drawn by the gentler pace, bringing fresh ideas and new energy. There is always something new to explore among the comfort of old favourites. Discover unexpected gems, be utterly charmed by gracious hosts, learn a new skill or simply watch a spider spin her web.
In 1887 the railway line from the coast to the reef arrived in the Midlands. Often the stations were not situated at an original settlement, thus forever changing the landscape. There are some fascinating tales about why the railway lines are situated where they are, featuring surveyors on horseback getting lost in the mist or missing villages completely. Railway stations were often the centres of activity for the district, in the early 1900s a tea shop was opened at Balgowan station, perhaps starting the spirit of hospitality still prevalent in the area today.
Balgowan is the oldest official Conservancy in South Africa and the hills are a haven for the dainty Oribi hiding in the tall grass hoping not to be noticed. These grasslands boast many wildflowers including ground orchids and grass aloes and are home to the African grass owl.
Boston is a farming community with huge heart. Also a hub of hiking, walking, fishing, riding, rafting and birding where you might spot the Cape Parrot in the indigenous forests, the Wattled Cranes breeding in wetlands on high ridges, the Blue Swallow that flits above grasslands to find food or an Oribi that lies quietly in long grass to shelter from danger.
Boston was also one of the original haunts of Bushmen hunter-gathers who moved between these foothills and the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg. In the early 1800s, the Bushmen found themselves trapped in the area, between Shaka’s impis and Boer settlers who laid claim to the tall forests and generous pastures. Those who could, took refuge in the mountains of the Berg.
The original mill on the Lion’s River at Caversham bridge was built in 1871 but was destroyed in 1878, by a terrifying runaway fire which jumped the river. The Methodist Chapel, now Caversham Press, narrowly escaped damage. The mill was rebuilt and a century later used as a studio by potter David Walters, around whose dining table (with plenty of red wine) the original concept of the Midlands Meander was born. Unfortunately the floods of 1987 destroyed the old mill again, and the Walters’ family moved on.
Nowadays, there is a restaurant beside the river and you will find nothing nicer than enjoying a lazy midlands lunch watching the water cascade over the falls below the bridge on a perfect summer day. Watch contented cows graze in green pastures and remember to slow down and pass carefully when you come upon some horse riders sharing the country road.
In 1879 the body of Prince Louis Napoleon – killed during the Anglo Zulu war -traveled through Curry’s Post on its way to Howick.
The Curry’s Post hotel was established by ex-army man George Curry from the original “post point” from where African runners would collect and deliver post to isolated farms. In the 1880’s his hostelry was well known for its excellent facilities and good hospitality, qualities still found at the guesthouses and hotels on the Midlands Meander today.
Across the Midlands there are many examples of quaint tin and wood houses which were shipped to SA in kit form, by settler families, during the early 1900s. Many are in a picturesque state of neglect, but the Groundcover shop is housed in a beautifully restored example. When visiting, don’t miss the wonderful bronze sculpture of “the Elves and the Shoemaker”.
One of the most obvious natural landmarks of the midlands is hlInosane hill situated at the head of the Dargle Valley. During the Bambatha Rebellion in 1906, war cries chanted on the peak echoed for miles across the valleys.
The green and gentle Dargle valley was named by Irish settlers after the river in County Wicklow when they took over the original Boer farms. The many dry stone walls which crisscross the rolling hills were built by Italian prisoners of war held here during WW2.
The Dargle forests are dominated by giant Yellowwood trees which provide a habitat to the endangered Cape Parrot, which calls raucously at dawn and dusk. The bird-life in the forests no doubt inspired ornithologist Austin Roberts, who explored them as a youngster. Sit quietly on the forest floor among the Streptocarpus fanninae and you are likely to spot the red flash of a Knysna Lourie.
The quiet little village of Fort Nottingham began as a tented garrison set up in 1888 to protect farmers from cattle raids by the Bushmen. Today there is an interesting museum in the old stone barracks depicting life at that time.
The Fort Nottingham Reserve on the edge of the village comprises diverse habitats including wetland, mist belt forest and grassland. The reserve is home, at one time or another, to over 300 bird species, 70 tree species, troops of Samango monkeys as well as porcupines, ant bears and otters. Ancient elephant bones have been found in the bush and locals report seeing leopard in the area recently.
Perched on top of a hill nearby is Shuttleworth Weaving – one of the original members of the Midlands Meander – who epitomise the spirit of voluntary simplicity and harmonious living with both the local community and the environment.
Often blanketed in gentle mists, Hilton is home to a number of the exceptional schools the Kzn midlands is well known for. Order a flowerfilled salad for lunch and ponder the fate of the Hilton Daisy (babbfjk), which once bloomed in abundance on these slopes. Along with the long toed tree frog and dwarf chameleon, they are now on the critically endangered list due to the destruction of the mist belt grassland habitat.
Situated on the banks of the uMngeni River, the town of Howick owes its origins to the original river crossing at Allermans Drift just above the falls.
Admire kwa-Nogqaza falls from the bottom of the gorge by climbing down through damp forest dominated by the magical Crypocarya woodii (Cape Quince) which is host to the gorgeous Forest King Emperor Butterfly.
Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve has walks to suit all tastes and a spectacular view across the uMngeni river gorge to Howick falls. This area was once home to chief Ngwenya and ruins of stone walls used as cattle enclosures hundreds of years ago are still evident in the valley. In Spring the grassy slopes are brightened by the beautiful pink candelabra of Brunsvigia radlulosa and the elegant Blue Scilla (Merwilla natalensis), in flower.
According to Zulu folklore one should never point a finger at uNgeleni (Kamberg) as this might draw the wrath of the gods and bring violent storms – so point it out using a closed hand if you have to.
Up until a few hundred years ago, San communities lived all over the province. Eventually displaced by Nguni tribes and European settlers, the San sought refuge in the Drakensberg mountains. Superb examples of rock art can be seen if you hike up to Game Pass Shelter through the grassland past Thalelinge, the mushroom shaped rock, in the Kamberg Nature reserve. You may come across a group of ground woodpeckers foraging amongst the bright pink Watsonias in spring.
Kamberg Valley is a fisherman’s paradise. Spend a relaxing afternoon next to one of the many dams with only the iridescent flash of a kingfisher for company. Or simply lie back in a hammock and watch the clouds roll by.
Mt Gilboa or imPumolonja, towers over the beautiful Karkloof valley of waterfalls – most famous the Grey Mare’s Tail Falls. The peak rises above the mistbelt and the dense forest gives way to grasslands and a large wetland where the endangered Wattle Cranes breed.
The Karkloof ridge witnessed the attempts of local eccentric John Houshold at flying (some successful) during the 1870’s. He built a glider from oiled fabric and bamboo, copying the natural flight form of a vulture. With not a care in the world, he launched himself from the top of a kloof, glided well over a kilometer over the valley – before crashing into a tree and breaking his leg!
The ridges are spectacular when the orange Greyia sutherlandia (Natal bottle brush) bloom in late winter, and in spring the pink of Cape chestnut blossoms punctuate the dark forest. Choose to explore these beautiful forests at ground level or whirl though the tree tops with the Scarce Scarlet Butterflies. In the floodplain below you are likely to spot groups of Blue, Wattled and Crowned Crane at the Karkloof Conservation Centre. The Karkloof falls are the perfect spot to enjoy a summertime picnic.
The Lidgett family, in the 1850’s, settled in the area now known as Lidgetton growing wattle there for decades. Their family home, Lastingham, is one of many gracious old homesteads on the Midlands Meander which have been restored and become inviting guesthouses.
Today, Lidgetton is also home to an interesting mix of Zulu and BaSothu people in both formal and informal settlements. Wind along the country roads keeping a look out for crafters tucked away down narrow lanes.
The little village of Lions River has certainly seen its share of celebrities. In 1947, the royal train bearing King George VI and his entourage stopped at the station on their tour of South Africa and met the Thokan family who arrived in the area in 1915 and are still trading in Lions River.
The Mandela Capture Site, where Nelson Mandela was arrested in August 1962 is situated nearby. Some controversy surrounds its exact location but the arresting officer is adamant that they chose that dangerous corner knowing the car would have to slow down there. On his trip to the site, Mandela asked to visit the old Thokans store as he remembered stopping there for refreshments on his journeys in the 1950’s.
Beyond the ruins of the old railway bridge, the large flood plain is a picture in Spring when masses of pink and white striped Crinum bulbispermum are in flower.
The original settlement of Mooi River grew where Weston is today but all that remains is the Helen bridge, St John’s Church and cemetery. During the Boer war, shells were dropped in and around Mooi River where there was a hospital for the British wounded. Over one hundred soldiers are buried in the old cemetery.
This is dairy farming country, where the Suurveld and Soetveld pastures meet. In the past cattle grazed on the sour grasses in summer were moved northwest to the sweet grass in winter. The local Museum has displays depicting the history of dairy farming in the area.
Winter is wonderful in Nottingham Road, with some snow falling most years. Get up early and disrupt the still chill of a winter morning with your footprints across the frosty lawn, then breakfast in the sunshine while fat orange carpenter bees collect nectar from purple blooms. Shop for treasures in the local stores or grab your binoculars and watch the bright yellow beak of an eagle eyed Kite glide by or a perky Prinia snacking on insects. Spend the crisp evenings at the pub enjoying a glass of Whistling Weasel with local farmers, who knows, you may be fortunate enough to meet Charlotte the resident ghost.
Developed around the railway station, in 18 Nottingham Road is still the meeting place for inhabitants of the surrounding areas and has developed into a popular country village for townsfolk too.
The vibrant orange and red leaves of exotic oaks and plane trees are particularly spectacular in Rosetta during autumn. Originally, the area would have boasted only the occasional indigenous Leucosidea serrica (ouhout or ntshitshi) tree much favoured by local carver John Sithole for his quirky sculptures.
The Mooi River winds its way through Rosetta and alongside the R103. Watch a spoonbill wading in wet edges or water birds skimming the stillness, startled only by the plop of a green striped frog.
Rosetta was already a popular country destination in the late 1800’s, famed for clear air and a perfect climate. Stay at a friendly B&B in this area and you may find that Patience has provided your morning milk, or that Henrietta laid those breakfast eggs just last night. As you drive out, you might get stuck behind a slow moving tractor, relax and enjoy the leisurely pace that is the essence of country life.
Where ever you pause to savour the Midlands magic, you are certain to come back for more.