KwaZulu-Natal history and geography


KwaZulu-Natal is an amalgamation of the ‘homeland’ territory of KwaZulu (literally ‘home of the Zulus’) and the province of Natal. The latter was named after the Christmas Day 1497 sighting of the coast by the great Portuguese explorer and navigator, Vasco da Gama. At that time the territory was occupied by clans of the Nguni tribe who had migrated south from central Africa over the previous few centuries.

The port city of Durban dates from 1824 when the British built a trading post on the northern shore of the Bay of Natal. A strip of coastal land measuring 35 miles along the coast and 100 miles inland was later granted to the British by the Zulu King, Shaka, whose Zulu Nation by then dominated the interior. This was in gratitude for the medical skills of Henry Fynn, a British adventurer, who nursed Shaka back to life after he was stabbed by a would-be assassin during a festival.

Meanwhile in 1837, the Afrikaner Voortrekkers (Dutch for ‘those who trek ahead’), left the Cape Colony which was now under British rule to settle the interior and crossed the Drakensberg mountains bordering Zulu territory in the west. The Zulu King, Dingane, at first offered the Boers land but went back on his word killing their leader, Piet Retief. Revenge came on 16th December, 1838, when a vastly outnumbered contingent of Boers defeated the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River. A Republic of Natalia was declared the following year but was annexed by Britain in 1843.

The importance of the port of Durban as a trading post for the British on the route to India meant that from 1860 onwards increasing numbers of Indians were brought in to work in the sugar plantations on the coast. This historic connection to the sub-continent has continued to this day and KwaZulu-Natal now has the largest population of Indians in the world outside India itself.

After the Zulu War of 1879 (see Battlefields), the area north of the Tugela River was brought under British control followed by the territory north of the Buffalo River in 1902. Control of Natal was once again contested during the Boer War, but remained a British dominion until 1961 when it became a province of the Republic of South Africa.

When the homeland of KwaZulu was re-incorporated into the Natal province after the end of apartheid in 1994, Natal was renamed KwaZulu-Natal. Read more about KwaZulu-Natal history


Stretching for 800kms along the east coast of South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal is divided into eight distinct geographical destinations centerd on the capital, Pietermaritzburg, and its largest city, Durban. The three coastal regions and their beaches bordering the Indian Ocean comprise the thin lowland strip of the South Coast dotted with resort towns and stretching towards the Eastern Cape, the North Coast – also known as the Dolphin Coast – between the Umdloti and Tugela Rivers and the more remote Elephant Coast with its internationally important wetland parks.

Inland, the Drakensberg mountain range, rising to 3,482 metres (11,424 ft), form the border with neighbouring Lesotho while the Midlands region around Pietermaritzburg is made of rolling hills and lush grasslands. The Battlefields region in the north is the location of some of the most famous battles in South African history including Rorke’s Drift, Isandlwana and the Battle of Blood River. Finally, Zululand itself is the heart of the historic Zulu Nation founded by King Shaka and culturally and historically still the beating heart of the province.

KwaZulu-Natal map. Illustration by Lisa Joanes

Durban beach, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by Richard Madden Renowned for its golden beaches, warm winters and hot summer weather, Durban has a sub-tropical climate with sunshine for at least 320 days of the year.

Temperatures range between 16°C and 25°C during the winter months of June, July and August while summer temperatures can reach 32°C. Swimming in the warm Indian Ocean is ideal throughout the year. Read more about Durban

South Coast
The entire coastline of KwaZulu-Natal is renowned for its world-class beaches and the south coast is home to its most popular resorts. Its balmy climate and wide, golden beaches lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean make it a magnet for tourists. The South Coast is also famous for the annual Sardine Run (aka ‘The Greatest Shoal on Earth’) which attracts thousands of dolphins, sharks, game fish and sea birds. During the winter months Humpbacked and Southern Right Whales can be seen all along the coast heading north to their breeding grounds.

North Coast
Stretching 110 kms from Umhlanga Rocks just north of Durban to the Tugela River Mouth, the north coast is often known as the ‘Dolphin Coast’ after the bottlenose dolphins which can be seen year-round. It has some of the best beaches in the province and is known for its unspoilt environment. The secluded bays and golden beaches of this tropically lush coastline are broken up by patches of natural forest giving way to rolling hills of sugar cane stretching back into the interior.

Pietermaritzburg & Midlands
Located between the Drakensberg mountain range in the north-west and Durban on the coast, the Midlands region is a land of rolling hills and well-tended farmland. It was settled largely by English farmers who planted European trees and created horse studs and cattle farms so that today it looks much like England’s West Country. The main city, Pietermaritzburg, is a vibrant city combining the best of Zulu, Boer and British influences while the famous ‘Midlands Meander’ was created by a group of like-minded arts, crafts and local food businesses looking to showcase their work and produce.

These mountains of outstanding natural beauty form a barricade between the hills and valleys of KwaZulu-Natal and have been incorporated into a 243,000 hectare mountain park, declared a World Heritage Site in 2000.

Forming an inspiring chain of seasonally snow-capped peaks and buttresses, deep gorges, and sheer cliffs, the region stretches across three sections, the Southern, Central and Northern Drakensberg.

The battlefields region contains some 63 sites from the Voortrekker-Zulu conflict of 1838, the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and the 1st and 2nd Anglo-Boer Wars of 1880/81 and 1899/02 respectively. These include the sites of the Battle of Blood River; Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift; and those of Laing’s Neck, Majuba and Talana. Read more about Battlefields

Zulu Land, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by Richard MaddenCutting a broad swathe through the province from the far north to the coast, Zululand is at the heart of the original Zulu Kingdom created by the legendary King Shaka at the beginning of the 19th Century.

At its heart is the town of Ulundi and the Emakhosini Valley of the Kings, where King Shaka grew up and later returned to set up his royal palace. Seven Zulu kings lie buried here and many of the important battles in Zulu history were fought nearby.

Elephant Coast
The most untamed section of the coast, the Elephant Coast has a rich diversity of ecosystems and is home to many protected parks and reserves. These include the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Africa’s oldest game reserve, the Ndumo Game Reserve, the Tembe Elephant Park and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, made up of four wetlands of international importance. These parks and reserves are among the best in Africa and offer unique opportunities to see the Big Five as well as many rare and endangered species. Scuba Diving and birding are popular recreational activities.

Find out more about KwaZulu-Natal history
Responsible Travel would like to thank Tourism KZN for their sponsorship of this guide
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