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From Safari to Spa: Sally Meeson discovers the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands in South Africa

Travel writer Sally Meeson discovers the natural wonders and relaxing pleasures of the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands in South Africa.

It’s another bright morning in South Africa as I’m woken by the sounds of crickets, birds and the cry of the occasional wild animal. However wandering out of my villa it appears the safari has come straight to my door to greet me.

Delicate brown and white antelopes, called impalas, tiptoe across mossy mounds beneath the trees. Some chew grass or feed their young ones, while others simply stare and bat their long eyelashes at me.

Animals roam freely at Karkloof Safari Villas and Spa

The peace is momentarily broken by the sound of a scuffle in the trees. I look up and see a group of monkeys trying to control a gang of their mischievous babies. There’s a clattering of trotters on the wooden walkway at my feet and a warthog scampers by – looking as annoyed with me for being in his way as I am delighted to see him.

It’s still early, so it would be easy to wonder if I’m still dreaming… or have perhaps even slipped into a Disney movie. But this is life at Karkloof Safari Villas and Spa, where animals roam freely and magical scenes seem to appear around every corner.

Zebras are amongst the local wildlife that guests can meet at this luxury retreat

Set in a stunning 3000 hectare nature reserve and wildlife sanctuary, Karkloof Safari Villas and Spa offers a truly luxury safari experience. On first entering through the main gates, and basically feeling like I’m in Jurassic Park, I’m stunned to spot giraffes, rhinos and zebras within minutes of my arrival.

I’m informed that this is a rare treat on safari, but that the animals here are less “skittish” since there are no major predators such as lions in their park. And the more I see the more I understand why man or beast could find it very easy to feel relaxed here.

The lodge interior has a luxury laid back colonial atmosphere

After winding up through the hills and entering the main lodge I step over a little walkway, bridging an indoor coy carp pond, and take in the grandeur of the interior. Large chandeliers hang from vaulted wood ceilings, a grand piano makes a striking focal point and leather armchairs are huddled around numerous open fireplaces.

The overall design has a luxury laid back colonial feel and seems the perfect cosy environment to enjoy a G&T after a day in the bush. I’m then taken through a short network of wooden walkways to my own private villa.

Extremely spacious, and similar in style to the main lodge, I’m instantly drawn to a private outdoor deck with sweeping views of the nature reserve. And spotting retractable doors, which expose a grand bathtub to the open air, I wonder how I’ll ever be able to leave my own private slice of Karkloof.

Villas have private outdoor decks with sweeping views of the nature reserve

But before I know it it’s 6pm and time for my first proper game drive. Just outside the main lodge I’m met by Bloomer, who will be my personal safari guide during my stay. Hopping onto an open safari jeep, kitted out with cosy blankets and picnic baskets, we trundle back down the hillside and into the park. And soon the magnificent creatures of the wild begin to emerge.

Giraffes stride around one another in elegant courtship rituals. We pass a lake and a family of hippos flair their giant nostrils at us from the surface. Wildebeests dart out of bushes, African buffalos stretch out in grassland and eagles circle gracefully overhead.

Game drives offer the ultimate in up close wildlife experiences

And we also become acquainted with a rhino who walks protectively next to her baby, who has been affectionately nicknamed ‘Spike’ by the rangers. Then as the animals start to settle down for the evening we find a picturesque spot and enjoy a picnic and a glass of wine as the sun sets.

After an evening of adventure, the following morning it’s time to experience the other thing Karkloof does best: relaxation. Nestled under a network of covered walkways, and with breathtaking views of the lush green nature reserve, an on site luxury spa offers the perfect place to unwind after a day in the bush. I arrive and choose from a list of Eastern inspired treatments, opting for a Thai de stress massage and an uplifting grapefruit facial.

The luxury spa provides a wide range of relaxing treatments for guests

My therapist collects me and walks me through a garden, tinkling with the peaceful sounds of water features, to the treatment rooms. Still surrounded by wildlife, a Nyala (a type of antelope with long curly horns) solemnly places a hoof on the walkway as I pass, as if to suggest he wouldn’t say no to a pedicure himself! And then two hours of pampering commences, in which my therapist genuinely amazes me with a seemingly endless supply of massage, exfoliation and aromas to help me unwind and relax.

The surrounding area of Karkloof also has plenty to offer – from epic scenery and an array of ways to experience it, to significant South African cultural and historical landmarks. To truly feel on top of the world, and to fully take in the region’s vast expanses of greenery, a trip to the nearby Karkloof Canopy Tour is recommended. What I initially assume will be walkways in the treetops actually turns out to be an exhilarating network of ziplines.

The surounding scenery is breathtaking and there are many ways to experience it

Starting at one end of the forest, I’m harnessed up before pushing away from a treetop platform – then I literally fly, tens of metres above the forest canopy, with miles of scenery all around. It takes two hours, and another nine ziplines, to transport myself across the entire forest this way and complete an unforgettable journey. Or to understand more about this beautiful country’s complex history head to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site.

A museum dedicated to South Africa’s beloved former president now stands by the road where we was arrested in 1952. And as you exit you walk down a flower lined outdoor walkway, signposted “The Long Walk To Freedom”, towards a sculpture made up of 50 simple long poles. But as you get closer, and catch them from a different angle, they slowly turn into the face of the man a nation still lovingly refers to as Madiba or “Father”.

The stunning tropical gardens of Makaranga Garden Lodge are filled with Zimbabwean stone art

And for history, culture and natural beauty combined, the stunning tropical gardens at the Makaranga Garden Lodge are a must see. Just fifteen minutes from the city of Durban, this family run hotel is surrounded by thirty acres of indigenous and exotic botanical gardens, plus the country’s largest private collection of Zimbabwean stone art.

As you arrive you’re greeted by a huge outside decked area – which falls away to reveal a sweeping valley of tranquil private gardens and lakes. Enjoy food from the hotel’s contemporary restaurant and deli here, overlooking this epic view, and you’ll soon be itching to explore. And once inside the grounds, which seem part jungle, part stately home estate, you actually feel like you’ve stepped into a beautiful work of art.

Streams wind around miniature maples and tiny bridges in a Japanese garden, a lily pond surrounded by Italian statues gives Monet a run for his money and smooth stone figures – from the likes of acclaimed Zimbabwean sculptor Joseph Ndandarika – sit nestled around the grounds.

The art filled rooms and suites have a spacious yet cosy feel

Enormous Rainbow Eucalyptus trees, with bark which looks like it was coloured in with pastel coloured crayons, tower over blooming magnolias and colourful hydrangeas, while in a secluded corner a waterfall cascades down an incline of moss covered rocks. Take picnic baskets, prepared by the hotel, out to any of these beauty spots or even book a spa therapist who will treat you to an al fresco pedicure.

And this outdoor art gallery continues through to the inside of the hotel. From a cosy library bar through to the hallways and even the bedroom suites, original paintings by acclaimed artists line almost every wall. Every piece of art – indoor and out – has been personally chosen by the hotel’s owner Danna Flack. Known as ‘Nonna’ by the locals, this wonderful matriarch walks her gardens most mornings and, if you’re lucky, she’ll even give you a personal tour of her grounds in a golf buggy.

Makaranga Garden Lodge is located just 15 minutes from the city of Durban

And now the hotel, which already offers massages, pedicures and facials, is developing a wellness centre overlooking its gardens. However once you’ve wandered through the manicured lawns, filled with dragonflies, exotic birds and even playing monkeys to get there, you might wonder if it’s actually possible to feel any better!


Karkloof Safari Villas & Spa offers the Starling package from £230 per night per person on a B&B basis which includes an optional game drive. 

Address: Ottos Bluff Rd, Chase Valley, Pietermaritzburg, 3231, South Africa
Phone: +27 33 569 1324

Makaranga Garden Lodge offers rooms on a B&B basis from £88 which includes access to the gardens.

Address: 1A Igwababa Rd, Kloof, 3610, South Africa
Phone: +27 31 764 6616

Images of Karkloof Safari Villas and Spa ( including main image ) courtesy of Chris Allan Photography.