KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is a province in South Africa, also known as Zululand. If you are a lover of safaris and the African bush but also prefer some beach time, then put KwaZulu Natal on your bucket-list to experience the best of both worlds.
KZN has many high-end private game reserves offering exclusive safaris and amazing wildlife experiences, like the peaceful Manyoni Game Reserve and exclusive Thanda Safari. Near St. Lucia, in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, you can enjoy one of the most stunning beaches with Cape Vidal as one of the best beaches to visit in a protected area. Kwazulu-Natal is easily accessible for most tourists as it has its own King Shaka International Airport, located in Durban.
Looking for South Africa travel inspiration then explore my top 5 places to visit in KwaZulu Natal. All these incredible tourist destinations can be visited on a 10-day itinerary doing safaris and relax on the beach. Durban is a good starting point because of its international airport.
When planning your trip to South Africa I am sure you are also looking for the best way to stay connected. There is the possibility to buy a sim card for South Africa at Johannesburg Airport or check out more ways to stay connected like an e-sim card or an international sim card in my article about the best sim cards for South Africa in 2023.
1. St. Lucia
After arrival in Durban, head straight for the picturesque town of St. Lucia as your central base for at least 3 nights to experience the laid-back vibes of St. Lucia town, a safari in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve (45-minute drive) and UNESCO’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
St. Lucia is known for their hippos roaming the streets as soon as the sun sets. So don’t be surprised to see a hippo passing in the street while you’re having dinner in one of the restaurants. This also means to keep your eyes open for hippos when you walk back to your guesthouse in the dark. Because of St. Lucia’s central location, it is a tourist hub for lots of things to do.
Heritage Tours and Safaris
A great tour operator that offers all the best things to do in and around St. Lucia plus accommodation at an affordable package rate is the family owned Heritage Tours & Safaris with their own 4-star boutique guesthouse ‘At Heritage House’. The nice thing about these packages is that it’s all operated in-house with their own qualified guides and accommodation to ensure the best quality for their customers.
Hippo & Croc Boat Cruise
On your arrival-day in St. Lucia, I’d recommend a 2-hour sunset boat cruise on Lake St. Lucia Estuary in search of hippos, crocodiles, and stunning birdlife with kingfishers, flamingos and pelicans.
Lake St. Lucia is the heart that sustains the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and is 80 km long and 23 km at its widest point.
Heritage Tours & Safaris has their own 15-seater vessels (Shoreline 1 and 2) that includes an experienced skipper and ranger that shares its knowledge about the animals and birds of the St. Lucia Estuary. The vessels have the shallowest draft to ensure up-close sightings. Because there’s a maximum of 15 people on the boat, you’ll have enough space to move around when you’re at a hippo sighting.
You will end the tour with an amazing African sunset from your boat. A must-do activity to discover the beauty of St. Lucia.
After the St. Lucia boat tour, go to the village to have dinner in one of the restaurants and look out for hippos roaming the streets. A good first impression of St. Lucia and a perfect ending of your day.
Where to stay in St. Lucia?
St. Lucia offers both budget and exclusive options to stay. A few years ago I stayed in a bigger hotel, but what I liked about At Heritage House is that it’s a small house with only 5 boutique rooms with all the comforts of a hotel; a cozy bed & breakfast centrally located in the center of the picturesque village of St. Lucia within walking distance from all the restaurants, curio shops, boat tours, and bars. Close-by beaches are Estuary Beach, Ingwe Beach, and Ndlovu Beach.
We were given a garden-view room with a patio. The room is spacious with comfy beds, a desk, sitting area, ensuite bathroom, and equipped with a satellite flat-screen TV, Air conditioning and daily complimentary water and fruit bowls.
The boutique Heritage House also has a pool surrounded by a small garden to cool off after a game drive and offers free Wi-Fi. A good à la carte breakfast was included. The staff was super friendly and our guide had a lot of knowledge of the African Bush. Nothing was too much trouble, and I highly recommend staying At Heritage House as your base to explore the highlights of St. Lucia and Hluhluwe for at least 3 nights. With an extra night, you would have more time to also just relax at the beach for a day.
2. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve
Early wake-up to enjoy a full-day game drive in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve in a 4x4 open game drive vehicle that takes you through grasslands, open plains, and to watering holes.
Hluhluwe is the oldest proclaimed Game Reserve in Africa with 96000 hectares of wilderness waiting for you to be discovered. Expect tar roads, dusty roads, rolling hills with magnificent views and amazing sightings of the Big Five, like elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard.
Other animals that are often seen are the always-present warthogs, various antelopes, African Wild Dogs, zebra, giraffes and cheetah.
During the game drive, you will stop for a coffee/tea break and for a traditional African Braai on one of the picnic spots inside Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve, in the bush felt of Zululand.
3. iSimangaliso Wetland Park
iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site offering 5 unique ecosystems, with grasslands, mangroves, vegetated sand dunes and pristine beaches. The protected area offers both safari and beach experiences.
If you’re a beach lover or like to snorkel, definitely visit Cape Vidal while exploring the Eastern shores of iSimangaliso. Cape Vidal is a magical beach, situated in a marine reserve, but only a short drive from the game areas in iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The marine life includes turtles, whale sharks, dolphins and whales.
From st. Lucia to Cape Vidal you can choose several loops that lead to scenic lookout points, bird-watching areas and game viewing.
The Eastern Shores section of iSimanaliso Wetland Park hosts elephant, rhino, buffalo, crocodile, leopard, hyena and many other animals, including the endangered Samango Monkey. It’s also the place with the most free-roaming hippos in South Africa, and home to many species of birds.
During lunchtime, you will arrive at Cape Vidal where you’ll have time to snorkel in the protected bay while your guide prepares a so-called ‘Braai’ (barbecue).
It’s also possible to do a self-drive to Cape Vidal. However, I preferred doing the Cape Vidal tour with Heritage Tours & Safaris. Their guides (our guide was Zane) know the area very well, have a lot of knowledge to share, and know exactly how to approach animal sightings.
4. Thanda Safari, exclusive game viewing
Thanda Safari is a magical 14,000 hectares private game reserve in northern Zululand part of the Leading Hotels of the World and is known for meaningful safari experiences and exclusive close-up encounters with Africa’s Big Five and more.
In Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve you can find 400 bird species and an abundance of wildlife. Elephants regularly come to drink at the water pool in front of the main lodge; a special sighting offering great photo opportunities.
Other animals you can spot in Thanda Game Reserve are lions, hyenas, giraffes, zebras, cheetah, and lots of birds.
Thanda Safari offers a high-end all-inclusive experience for their guests, with two game drives per day: in the morning and late afternoon. You will go out with a knowledgeable guide and experienced tracker in search for amazing up-close animal sightings.
About half-way on your game drive, you will have a coffee/tea break on your morning drive and a sundowner including snacks on your afternoon game drive.
In between the two bush safaris you have time to relax in your huge villa with plunge pool from where you can watch animals passing as well.
Thanda (which means ‘love’ in Zulu) has a deep commitment to the Zulu Culture and Environmental Conservation. In the past, I was a photography and conservation volunteer in Thanda, and it was amazing to experience first-hand how everyone worked together to give back to the community and environment.
Conservation-minded guests of Thanda can also opt to spending time with the conservation team assisting them with their daily operations or participate in Zulu cultural and community experiences of Thanda’s neighboring villages.
Where to stay in Thanda Safari?
The award-winning Thanda Safari - named as the World’s Leading Luxury Game Reserve Lodge - offers three accommodation options, each with its own style and atmosphere: Thanda Safari Lodge, Villa iZulu and Thanda safari-style Tented Camp.
We stayed in one of the 9 magical boutique bush suites of Thanda Safari Lodge, shaped like a traditional Zulu homestead. It’s their flagship accommodation where we experienced the ultimate luxury, offering a huge private deck and plunge pool with views of the bush plus a circular daybed in a thatched outdoor sala and a private boma for a romantic dinner experience.
The bush suite itself is huge (220m2) with an indoor lounge area and sleeping area with a double-sided fire place in between. The beds were extremely comfortable and the bathroom - including bath, and both indoor and outdoor shower - was almost as big as the sleeping area.
Breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner are part of the full board safari experience at Thanda Safari Game Reserve. The food is amazing, with enough choices and served on special places, like a candle-lit boma.
The staff goes above and beyond to make your stay memorable. The tented camp is the most affordable option to stay in Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve.
5. Leopard Mountain Lodge in Manyoni Game Reserve
Located in the heart of the Zululand, the 58,000 acre Manyoni Private Game Reserve is one of the premier big five safari destinations in KwaZulu-Natal with a focus on endangered species conservation, including reintroduction of cheetah and wild dogs. In fact, Manyoni was initially formed as part of the WWF black rhino range expansion project.
Manyoni Private Game Reserve is only a 45-minute drive from Thanda; an ideal distance to experience a different reserve in the northern part of Kwazulu-Natal with its own unique feel and atmosphere. No two reserves in this itinerary are the same, and I personally really liked this variety.
Manyoni is renowned for its spectacular game viewing, rich cultural traditions, and conservation history and is a reserve I highly recommend visiting for its harmonious serene atmosphere. What I like about Manyoni is that it’s formed by 17 landowners that decided to drop their fences for the greater good: the protection of our wildlife.
Where to stay in Manyoni Private Game Reserve?
Manyoni Game Reserve has several safari lodges, but I would highly recommend staying at the intimate 5-star multiple award-winning Leopard Mountain Lodge, that was one of the founders of Manyoni Private Game Reserve (previously Zululand Rhino Reserve).
Because it’s a small exclusive family-run lodge with a casual atmosphere, warm hospitality and great service, I really felt at home in this lodge. Having stayed in several hotels and lodges, I prefer a smaller, intimate, more familial lodge like Leopard Mountain Lodge with only 9 luxury suites.
Apart from that, Leopard Mountain Lodge has probably the most spectacular views in Zululand, with views over the magical African plains and riverine forests. You can never get bored sitting on the wooden deck while enjoying these amazing views with the Lebombo mountain range in the distance.
The spacious, serene luxury suite with private plunge pool is yet another highlight of this lodge. In between the two included game drives per day, you will have time to relax on your private balcony. For example, reading a book or watching the birds from your hammock or cooling off in your plunge pool. The suite also has a large outdoor shower with amazing views over the valley.
The staff is extremely friendly and the food they serve is just amazing. The extensive breakfast (cold and hot), as well as the lunch and dinner, was amazing. All of their breads and pastries are home-baked.
Dinner was served in a cozy boma with a fire and candlelights under a sky full of stars. If you’re a lover of wines, you can accompany the African-inspired meals with one of their award-winning wines from their wine cellar.
The lodge has unlimited Wi-Fi to stay connected with friends and family. During your included two-daily game drives, the drinks and some light snacks are included.
Before you head out on your afternoon game drive, you can also enjoy an afternoon high tea with some lovely home-made savories and sweets.
I totally felt at peace in this lodge, and I highly recommend staying at Leopard Mountain Lodge for the ultimate ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ safari experience. Leopard Mountain is definitely among the top 5 lodges where I’ve stayed in South Africa.
KwaZulu-Natal itinerary for 10 days
After checking out in Manyoni Private Game Reserve, you can either travel back to Durban (3 hours) to catch a flight or extend your overland South Africa trip with Eswatini (linken naar Eswatini Blog)
If you want to visit Kruger National Park after you’ve explored Zululand, consider doing a self-drive from Kwazulu-Natal to Kruger National Park via Eswatini, as driving through Eswatini is a short-cut to get there. From Manyoni to Johannesburg is about 6 hours.
I hope these top 5 places to visit in KwaZulu-Natal helped you to plan your trip in the wonderful Zululand (South Africa) where you can experience the best of both worlds: bush and beach in 10 days:
- Day 1: Arrival Durban - St. Lucia
- Day 2: St. Lucia - Hluhluwe-Imfolozi - St. Lucia
- Day 3: St. Lucia - iSimangaliso Wetland Park - St. Lucia
- Day 4-7: Thanda Safari
- Day 7-10: Leopard Mountain Lodge in Manyoni Game Reserve
In case you have any questions about traveling in South Africa, feel free to contact me through my Instagram @ourplanetinmylens.
This article was written by travel and wildlife photographer Kim Paffen, part of the Traveltomtom team. She also wrote amazing Africa safari articles about South Africa, Uganda, Eswatini, and Madagascar.