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Afro's Chicken Shop (Photograph by Krista Rossow)

Durban: Into the Zulu Kingdom

“Ready for complete sensory overload?” asks Dane Forman, a surf-nut videographer with a hipster moustache.

He walks me through Warwick Junction, the hectic hub of Durban’s market district and what he calls the “buzzing center of South Africa.” Roosters on the loose, potatoes by the ton, township music blasting from overloaded lorries, beaded Zulu isicholo hats, and nearby, at the Victoria Street Market, Indian spices like “Atom Bomb” make up this multiblock, multiracial mash-up in South Africa’s third largest city. “Pretty kiff, right?” says Forman, using the surfer slang for “cool.”

Durbanites don’t mind that their sun-drenched coast is overshadowed by Johannesburg to the northwest or Cape Town to the southwest. “We’re culturally richer and a bit more out there,” says architect Nokuthula Msomi. “You can’t just live in your own bubble when cultures as different as the Zulu and Indian are overlapping all around you.”

Creative social enterprise is helping to redefine the city in the post-apartheid era. Cargo-container cafés, craft beers, and pop-up green markets have turned “Durbs” into a city on the verge. And in the wilds beyond, “we’ve got the bush, the ‘Berg, and the braai,” says blogger Nicola Ashe. Grab your beads and go.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park: Embracing Your Inner Animal

“Rhino on the road!” Four words every safarigoer dreams of—as poachers mercilessly advance—are becoming as rare as rhinos themselves. Today, however, all that separates us from our endangered object of obsession is 30 feet of gravel and a sense of awe.

Leopards, with their rosettes, are only occasionally easier to spot than rambling rhinos. The uMkhuze Game Reserve is a vast veld beloved by birders and populated by pachyderms, giraffes, wild dogs, lions, zebras, and busy little dung beetles. With such a menagerie on the prowl it seems surprising that they’re all hiding.

How does a guide find them? “Symmetrical shapes and movement,” says Rhys Scott-Dawkins, director of Endless Summer Tours, a Durban-based operator. And with that he spots an African crowned eagle in the sky and picks up the trail of an elusive pack of wild dogs.

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Hippos face off in St. Lucia Lake—Africa’s largest estuary—at iSimangaliso Wetland Park. (Photograph by Krista Rossow)

uMkhuze is part of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage site and an interlinked set of eight ecosystems that stretch from the Indian Ocean to interior grasslands. Its name means “miracle and wonder,” and it’s easy to see why on a sunrise kayak paddle in Lake St. Lucia, Africa’s largest estuary. After nearly capsizing in croc-infested waters the color of chocolate milk, I sensed wonder at the miracle of my own survival.

A guided afternoon boat cruise provides safe distance from the hungry hippos. “No one’s yawn is as big as the big guy’s yawn,” says Stacey Venue of Shoreline Safaris, our boat captain and guide. We see giant kingfishers, herons, yellow weavers, and pods of slumbering hippos—dozens of them resting up for nocturnal adventures that keep locals on their toes. “At night we sometimes have hippos walking the streets,” Venue says. “We call them the ‘townies’—they’re looking for grass to eat.”

The Drakensberg Range: Enter the Dragon

It takes three hours to drive from Durban to the Drakensberg, a misty, mountainous region so epic that your mind turns to Middle-Earth. Native South African J.R.R. Tolkien was so taken by the cliffs and kopjes (hills) of the approximately 600-mile range that they inspired his imagined realm. It’s easy to see why. At sunrise, rising fog makes “Dragon Mountains,” as the Afrikaners called it, resemble a mythical beast rousing from slumber.

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The majestic Amphitheatre attracts hikers to the Drakensberg area. (Photograph by Krista Rossow)

Its Zulu name is equally evocative: uKhahlamba, “barrier of up-pointed spears.” Southern Berg, the region around the vertiginous Sani Pass, contains a rich repository of rock paintings by the San hunter-gatherers. In the Central Berg, hikers head to Giant’s Castle for more than 25 trails. And in the Northern Berg, the three-mile-wide, 3,280-foot-high Amphitheatre is a supreme rock star. It’s so monumental that it nearly conceals another superlative: Tugela Falls, the world’s second highest waterfall, a silvery ribbon cascading from the cliff face.

Trails leading toward the Amphitheatre cut across mountain meadows lined with proteas and forest hollows populated by rock hyrax, cartoonishly cute furry critters that are, improbably, the closest living evolutionary relative to elephants. “When we started hiking this morning, a mob of guinea fowl ran around our cottage,” says Jemma Dicks, a London-based hiker on her second visit to the Drakensberg.  She stayed at Thendele Lodge, a KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife-run camp situated on a hillside within the park’s boundary, a perfect starting point for sunrise hikes.

Outside the park’s perimeter the Berg House offers a panoramic view. “We gave up cows and came here to farm people instead,” says Cantal Piccione, who, with her husband, Vaughan, transformed a pasture into a hilltop B&B. A pack of horses nibbles the grass while guests watch the sun set behind the Berg, its gold light glimmering like a ring of fire. “It’s our little mountain paradise,” says Piccione. “Every day is different.”

The North Coast: From Urban Durban to the Beach

Beach-bound Durban is considered one of the world’s art deco capitals, but locals are more likely to see their city as an urban jumble than an architectural gem. This fragmentation was reinforced by apartheid-era urban schemes that created physical barriers to cultural exchange.

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Durbanites head out for a morning surf on the Bay of Plenty. (Photograph by Krista Rossow)

“In many ways, Durban was designed to exclude,” says architect Mark Bellingan. “Even today, most people never get into the fabric of the city.” To remedy this, Bellingan and his buddies launched BESETdurban, a “social experiment” through which they lead narrated “archiwalks” around town. One recent walk was so crowded—some 400 people showed up—that it looked like a protest demonstration. In a way it was: a pedestrian rally to reconnect locals with their city.

The buildings don’t end at the beach; they just take a sandier shape. Seaside Michelangelos sculpt sports cars, crocodiles, and Nelson Mandelas in the sand along the Golden Mile, a four-mile-long promenade that runs south from the Umgeni River to Durban Harbour. Revitalizing this strand democratizes the city’s shoreline from dawn (when the surfers arrive) to dusk (when families stroll). On weekends, the brunch set kvetches at Circus Circus Beach Café, and body-boarding teens scarf down burgers and tjips (fries) at Afro’s Chicken Shop.

uMhlanga, Durban’s neighboring town north of the Umgeni River, is an enclave of luxury inns and restaurants. Removed from the city’s buzz, this beachside settlement is less surfer bravado and more all-day mimosa. It’s the only place in South Africa I saw a Rolls-Royce pull up to a valet stand. The terrace of the Oyster Box hotel, a grand dame that has transported the Dorothy Draper aesthetic to the Indian Ocean, is a cinematic perch for sipping sundowners above the sand and surf.

iSithumba and Beyond: Heritage in the Heartland

“The river is our laundromat, old men have three wives, and there are chickens in the yard. You can see all this yourself—it’s what I mean by living villages,” says Thabo Mokgope, a guide who specializes in cultural tours to the tribal lands around Durban.

The Zulu are South Africa’s largest ethnic group, and their communities, ranging from farm settlements to dense townships, are scattered throughout KwaZulu-Natal’s Valley of 1,000 Hills. Mokgope brings guests to iSithumba, a village bound by tradition but open to engagement.

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A Zulu tour guide wears a traditional animal skin collar at Shakaland, a cultural village. (Photograph by Krista Rossow)

From a car window, you see rolling green hills and dusty red roads, children in uniforms marching home from school, and beehive huts called iQhugwane—traditional homes that often sit beside brick houses. But walking through a Zulu settlement is an immersion that bridges experiential and cultural divides. Mokgope points out the hues of homes. “Color is how we express ourselves,” he says. “We take visitors from one house to another and don’t inundate anyone. We talk, we eat, we laugh. The goal is to make connections.”

Mokgope’s narrative ranges from the history of Shaka, the military leader who formed a powerful Zulu kingdom in 1818, to the culture and crafts of the people. The focus is on the legend of the king at Shakaland, about two hours away from iSithumba. Around the set of the television epic Shaka Zulu, the park presents a choreographed spectacle including warrior dances, pounding drums, and weaving displays. The tour wraps up with a taste of Umqombothi, a beer made from maize and sorghum porridge. It’s like a Zulu’s microbrew—and it packs a punch.

George W. Stone is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler magazine.