The village of Hilton perches on the edge of the escarpment above Kwazulu-Natal’s second largest city, Pietermaritzburg. When the hot air rises from the valleys below, it fuses with Hilton’s cool climate blanketing the town and surrounds in mist. This marks the beginning of the province’s renowned Midlands which stretches all the way to the Drakensberg mountain range in the interior. It was through this foggy shroud that I left the city’s bright lights behind me in search of a breath of fresh country air.
Coming off the N3 highway onto the R103, the pace changes as I instinctively take my foot off the accelerator. Rolling farmlands, green pastures dotted with cows, thick indigenous forests and tranquil dams mark the countryside with pastoral serenity. I drive passed Midmar Dam, a popular resort destination that offers watersports, camping and rustic chalets. Yachts glimmer on the water’s smooth surface as I press on to my first stop, the Nelson Mandela Capture Site. On 5 August 1962 on this unassuming road 5km outside the small town of Howick, armed police flagged down a vehicle in which Nelson Mandela was pretending to be the chauffeur. He had just paid a secret visit to then ANC President, Chief Albert Luthuli, to request support for the calling to an armed struggle against Apartheid. After 17 months on the run, Mandela was arrested that day.
Established nine years ago, the Capture Site pays tribute to Madiba’s legacy and is an enduring symbol of the freedom he worked so tirelessly for. The iconic sculpture, a collaboration between artist Marco Cianfanelli and Jeremy Rose, was erected in his honour and consists of 50 steel columns of differing heights. The sculpture’s full effect is seen walking along a path called the ‘long walk to freedom’. As you approach the poles align and as if by magic, Madiba’s portrait appears looking knowingly over the peaceful countryside and beyond. The sculpture is the largest artwork of its kind in South Africa and has become an international symbol of Mandela’s iconic status as declared by the United Nations. The Capture Site receives 500 to 600 local and international visitors daily as people continue to remember the great man and what he stood for.
Pondering the Father of the Nation, I popped into Steam Punk just up the road for a delicious coffee before continuing my journey inland. The Midlands Meander consists of a series of tourist routes that enables visitors to fully appreciate and experience the country lifestyle the region offers. Starting off with just a handful of stops in the 1990s, there are now more than 150 members who offer the very best in arts and crafts, basic to luxury accommodation, superb wedding and conference venues, shopping, places to eat and an abundance of country things to do. The people who own or run these establishments all subscribe to the idea of ‘slow tourism’. Here life’s pace is gentle, the climate is cool but the hospitality is warm and the service wherever you go is top notch. While the area offers things to do in abundance, it’s also the simple act of meandering slowly through the country byways and drinking in the serenity that is extremely relaxing. Coffee in hand, I continued up the hill to Nottingham Road and beyond to Brahman Hills.
Nestled amongst the rolling hills of the 1000-hectare Blue Crane Nature Reserve, where magnificent Brahman cattle and wildlife roam free, the great outdoors beckons at Brahman Hills. Situated on the other side of the N3 highway, the hotel offers the perfect country retreat for guests who want to get away from it all. On my arrival, a roaring fire reinforced by even warmer hospitality from the reception staff awaited me. Key in hand I went in search of the Eland Cottage which would be my home for the next two days. Mixing modern comfort with rustic charm and affording forever views over the countryside, I settled in for the afternoon with a steaming coffee and my Isabel Allende novel in hand. This was Midlands relaxation at its best. Dinner was a delicious Cape Malay curry in the Brahman Hills Café before an early night in anticipation of trying out the hotel’s newly launched Park Run in the morning.
At 6am the sun streamed through my window. I donned my running shoes, stepped into the dewy morning and began my trot on Brahman Hills’ 5km Park Run. This is the latest route to join South Africa’s popular collection of Park Runs and boasts the unusual attraction of zebra, red hartebeest, black wildebeest, blesbok, eland, waterbuck, duiker, oribi and impala roaming on the pathways. Not to mention the Brahman themselves. As I jogged along slowly I thought I was under attack as I flushed out two slumbering buck from their resting place. Heart racing, I ran on along the contours, into the valleys, passed dams and up the hills before arriving back at the cottage, muddy and more than ready for food. After grabbing a superb breakfast from the buffet, we set off to see what treasures could be found on the Meander.
From craft breweries to delis to restaurants and shops selling beautifully handcrafted wares, you could spend an entire week exploring the Midlands’s nooks and crannies. Ambling slowly along we passed well-known brands such as Tsonga Shoes and Ardmore Ceramics which, away from the hubbub of the rat race, have found immense success locally and internationally. Set amongst a perfectly cultivated vineyard, the Piggly Wiggly is a veritable hub of activity offering shopping, food, a putt-putt course encircled by a miniature train which the kids love and of course the much-needed playground for little people to stretch their legs. After the morning meander, we headed back to the Brahman Hills Afro Zen Spa where lunch, champagne and heavenly treatments awaited. The KwaZulu-Natal Midlands is renowned for their spa getaways and Brahman Hills, ensconced in a garden of lavender, rosemary and gaura, is no exception. Overlooking rolling hills, my session was a true sensory experience with a full body exfoliation, massage and a delicious hot bath. It was just what the doctor ordered after my morning run. Relaxed to the very core of my being, I wallowed in that tub as I watched the mist roll in from the hills, blocking the view.
Dinner that night was “below stairs” at 89 on Copper, the hotel’s sumptuously decorated dining room. The exquisite three-course menu was fabulously paired with some of South Africa’s vintage wines and all I could think to do was raise my glass to say cheers to some much needed ‘R and R’ in the fabulous KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.