Situated some 80 kilometres from the coast, Pietermaritzburg is the capital of KwaZulu-Natal with many landmark colonial buildings, such as the famous red-brick City Hall and the old Supreme Court building, now the outstanding Tatham Art Gallery, gracing its busy streets. Another colonial building that became famous for something other than its beautiful architecture is the old Pietermaritzburg railway station. It is from here that, in 1893, Mahatma Gandhi was told to leave the train as he was travelling in a ‘whites only’ compartment.
These days, Pietermaritzburg is, happily, better known for the fact that it is between here and Durban that the famous and gruelling Comrades Marathon and the Dusi Canoe Marathon take place every year, drawing participants and spectators from around the world. The big Midmar Dam, near Howick on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, hosts the enormously popular annual Midmar Mile swim, as well as other activities such as sailing, windsurfing, water skiing, canoeing and boating.
One of the prettiest parts of the country is the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, which starts just north of Pietermaritzburg. The climate in this area is markedly different from that of the coastal region. During the crispy autumns and winters, the leaves and grasslands turn burnt orange and yellow, and in the spring and summer the gently rolling hillsides are covered in carpets of wild flowers. There are green, well-watered farmlands, lovely streams, rivers and waterfalls, such as the Howick, Woodhouse and Karkloof falls, and thick indigenous and commercial forests. This natural beauty is ideal for horse riding, hiking, swimming, biking, quad biking, fishing, and of course, the exciting Karkloof Canopy Tour.
This region has been a rural haven for creative people since the early 1800s, and one of the best ways to enjoy it is to take a drive along the Midlands Meander. The Meander winds past Midmar Dam and visitors can visit some 200 arts and crafts studios, country hotels, flower farms, herb gardens, potters, weavers, leatherworkers, shoemakers and home-industry outlets.
The Midlands Meander is also home to some of the best artisan food producers in the country and visitors love pottering through the farmlands stopping to sample homemade cheeses, craft beers, wine, artisan breads, smoked meats and preserves.
Also in KZN’s midlands is the famous Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC), enormously popular with people of all faiths and lifestyles. In 2014, CNN voted the BRC in Ixopo one of the world’s 10 best meditation retreats. Situated in a most beautiful natural environment, a variety of weekend courses, as well as longer retreats are offered, often with visiting teachers and monks of international stature in attendance. Known for its fantastic vegetarian food, the BRC also produced two enormously popular cookbooks.