KwaZulu-Natal self drive vacations

While Cape Town and the Garden Route shout loudest on the self drive circuit, don’t overlook lovely KwaZulu-Natal. Wild and rugged, this province the size of Portugal offers spectacular Indian Ocean beaches, conservation leading game reserves and historic battlefields – all underpinned by the colourful beads and dramatic dances of traditional Zulu culture.
It’s a perfect destination for more adventurous drivers, or if you’ve already been to South Africa and are looking for an alternative to Cape Town and the Garden Route for your second visit. The roads here are still well maintained, light on traffic and well signposted, but rural roads are often gravel and you’ll be traveling through remote – yet spectacularly beautiful – scenery.

KwaZulu-Natal self drive highlights

The Battlefields

KwaZul- Natal’s history is far from peaceful and the warriors of the Zulu Kingdom still retain their reputation as fearsome fighters. Rightly so, the Anglo-Zulu War and the later Boer Wars, driven by the discovery of diamonds and gold in the region were intense, bloody and unforgiving. Take a tour of the battlefields at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and let your local historian guide bring to life stories of the conflicts that shaped South Africa during the 19th Century.

Big Five safaris

KwaZulu-Natal is home to some of the Africa’s leading game reserves, including the oldest on the continent, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi which has been credited with saving the white rhino from extinction. Careful conservation working alongside local communities is the keyword here. Camps in Tembe Elephant Park for example, protecting some of Africa’s largest pachyderms on the ‘Ivory Route’ border with Mozambique, are run in part by the local Tembe tribe.

The Drakensberg Mountains

Perhaps the most spectacular sight in the Drakensberg Mountains – or the ‘Berg’, to quote the local nickname – is the Amphitheatre. In the heart of the Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensberg’s northern reaches, this 5km arc of rock soars up to 3,000m into the air in a dramatic escarpment that can be seen for miles. If you’re adventurous the hike to the top offers epic views, as well as a chance to spot mountain baboons and even the endangered bearded vulture, if you’re lucky.


South Africa’s busiest beach resort has been undergoing somewhat of a transformation over recent years. This cosmopolitan city, home to Zulus, Afrikaaners, Portuguese, Italians, Greeks, Germans and the largest population of Indians outside the Indian subcontinent, is likely to be your first stop on a KwaZulu-Natal self drive itinerary. You can expect golden Indian Ocean beaches safe for swimming, ubiquitous bunny chow (hollowed-out bread filled with curry – a Durban speciality), and boutique shops alongside bustling Indian markets.

Elephant Coast

Encompassing South Africa’s first UNESCO site – the iSimangaliso Wetland Park – the Elephant Coast offers a swathe of protected white sand beaches fringed by coral reefs, hippo-filled wetlands and some of South Africa’s best bird watching. Head north to Kosi Bay for boat trips through mangrove-lined estuary channels and excellent snorkelling, or track turtles further south on Thonga Beach. Luxury lodges, supporting local communities and conservation, abound here.

Midlands Meander

Stretching from Pietermaritzberg to the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains, this beautiful driving route through rolling countryside and quaint, rural villages was the brainchild of local artists and tourism entrepreneurs. Now a thriving cottage industry, a drive along the Midlands Meander connects you with basket weavers, potters, wood carvers, food producers and wineries, all linked by a network of locally run accommodations, hiking and biking trails.

Our top South Africa self drive Vacation

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Explore Cape Town, the Winelands and the Garden Route

From £2650 to £4500 15 days inc UK flights
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This trip can be tailormade throughout the year and can be adapted to suit your interests, budget and requirements as necessary
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Like the rest of South Africa, you’ll be driving on the left in KwaZulu-Natal, usually picking your car up in Durban either directly after your international flight lands, or after a short (70 minute) connecting flight from Johannesburg.

While the main roads are tarmac, well maintained and well signposted, you’ll find that most rural roads are gravel, and will require some careful driving if you’re not used to the surface. Make sure you keep your seatbelt on and don’t use your mobile phone when driving – both legal requirements in South Africa.

Your bespoke tour operator will be on hand throughout your journey should you have any problems, and should provide you with detailed route plans, maps, advice and ideas to help you make the most of your trip.

Best time to go on a KwaZulu-Natal self drive vacation

Warm year-round, sub-tropical KwaZulu-Natal enjoys hot and humid summers (from October to April) and mild, dry winters (from May to September). The further inland you travel, the cooler the climate becomes, particularly at night. Generally, the best time to go for game viewing is the dry winter months, as animals tend to congregate in small areas around the reserves’ shrinking waterholes, although you’ll need some warm layers if you’re trip also takes you into the Drakensberg Mountains at this time. This is also the best time to see humpback and southern right whales migrating up the coast from Antarctica towards their breeding grounds off the coast of Mozambique. They make the return journey from September to December. May, June and July also heralds the Sardine Run, where huge shoals of sardines migrate northwards along the KwaZulu-Natal coast, accompanied by vast numbers of dolphins, sharks and marine birds. April and May is particularly pleasant across the region, while November sees the mountains carpeted in wild flowers.
Simon Mills, from one of our leading South Africa self drive specialists, Native Escapes, shares his favourite time to visit KwaZulu-Natal: “I love driving in the Southern Hemisphere Autumn – so April and May, as the leaves turn and the days are bright and sunny. Places like the Drakensburg Mountain really come into their own then. The routes in this area and Battlefields and the Midlands are really lovely; fantastic driving and wonderful views.”
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Devon Janse van Rensburg] [Zulu dancer: Chris Bloom] [The Battlefields: Chris Bloom] [Durban: Captureson] [View from hide: Steve Slater]