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KwaZulu Natal - Historical Beauty at its Best

The 100 kilometer stretch from Durban to the Tugela River is KwaZulu-Natal’s sugar country. The climate here ranges from hot and humid and the Mozambique current flowing down the coast is seldom less than 25 degrees. The sands are golden and the verges are lined with palms and bougainvilleas in myriad vivid shades.

The northern coastal belt is about 50 kilometers wide and was once a dense coastal forest growing in rich soil and is the natural garden setting ideal for the cultivation of tropical fruits and other crops. The trade path from Durban to Zululand led up the north coast and was the route followed by the ivory hunters, traders and the Zulu army on its periodic raids into Natal. Shaka liked the area so much that he built his last capital there and named it kwaDukuza and is on the site of the present day town of Stanger. Europeans noticed the potential of the area as they travelled through it on their journeys to trade with the Zulus and with what was left of the other tribes.

Pioneers observed that a species of wild sugar cane called mpha by the Zulus grew in the area was chewed with relish by African and European alike. It was juicy and sweet but its sugar content was not high enough to make it commercially valuable. In the 1840s Mauritians settled on the north coast and because the climate was so similar to theirs they felt completely at home. They introduced the litchi trees and also planted papaws, bananas and mangos.

In 1847 a firm from Durban called Milner Brothers imported sugar cane seeds and cuttings from Mauritius and Reunion. There were around 40 000 tops of an inferior variety of sugar cane known as Mauritius red cane. This cargo was auctioned in Durban and cane tops were purchased by settlers from different parts of Natal who planted the tops on their lands.

KwaZulu-Natal was in a bad economic state at that time because everybody admired the beauty of the countryside but nobody had been able to come up with a profitable crop for the area. The experimental shipment of cane brought in by Milner Brothers was watched with the keenest interest by all in the area.

In 1848 Ephraim Rathbone arrived from Mauritius and he travelled up the north coast to oversee an experimental cotton estate which was managed by Edmund Morewood. On his way there he noticed a patch of Mauritius red cane growing on a farm on the banks of the Mgeni River. Rathbone obtained a few samples of the cane from the farmer and he persuaded Edmund Morewood to plant them on a spare piece of ground among the failing cotton crops. This was the beginning of an industry which today produces more than 2 million tons of sugar every year, enough to supply the whole of South Africa with a huge surplus for a healthy export market.

Further north and slightly inland is Zululand which was built on hills, valleys and battlefields. The climate is hot and humid on the coastal belt but where the land raises the sea breezes sweep in carrying misty rains which keep the vegetation rich and green. These conditions are ideal for wild life. The sweet grass and shrubs with nutritious leaves and bark was a paradise for so many species of birds and wildlife.

The people who occupy Zululand today arrived at the beginning of the 17th century and called themselves the Nguni and they migrated down from central East Africa. Then came an even larger group who spoke the same language but with a rather peculiar lisp and a different leader, a man named Dlamini. Both groups were delighted with Zululand and they dispersed into numerous independent tribes and built homes and raised their livestock. Some of the tribes consisted of only a single family with its retainers, friends and dependants and they did fight and argue with other tribes but there were no real battles of any historic relevance. They flourished from season to season harmoniously and their herds grew from strength to strength.

They believed in a Nkulunkulu (‘great great one’), but had no fixed religious rituals but what was most significant to them was their supernatural world because the spirits of their ancestors played an important role in their lives. Their clothes were simple comprising mostly of skins and feathers. Their huts were shaped like beehives covered with plaited grass and harmonized with the setting of rounded hills. The Nguni had a rich and expressive language full of proverbs, metaphors and subtle meanings. They were sturdily built rather than tall and burnt amber rather than black. They were courageous and made good friends and stubborn enemies. The Nguni were wonderful dancers and drummers and had no other musical instruments except for their drums.

They seldom slaughtered their cattle and venison was the meat their main form of protein. Like many African peoples, they worked their women hard and the females’ fetched water, cooked, cleaned and produced large numbers of children. The men and boys looked after the cattle and enjoyed lazing in the warm sun and seldom worked hard. The hills of their homeland were their entire world and they knew nothing about and cared less about what lay beyond the sea to the east or over the mountains the west, they were at peace with their precious world. As history goes this was the birth of the ever prominent and mighty Zulu tribe.

Bergville - Only 50 kilometres from the towering cliffs of the Drakensberg and on the upper Tugela River is the town of Bergville which is the terminus of the branch railway line from Estcourt. A blockhouse was built in the town by the British during the Anglo-Boer War and is a monument and museum.

Dundee - In many areas of KwaZulu-Natal the early settlers found coal exposed on the surface. In 1880 a geological survey proved that there were workable deposits in a 3000 square kilometer area of northern KwaZulu-Natal. In the centre of this area with especially rich deposits lay a farm called Dundee. A pioneer of the Natal coal mining industry named Peter Smith laid out a town on the farm Dundee to serve as a centre for several coal mines. It soon grew to be a substantial trading and railway centre which houses the geological and mining museum in the town centre.

Eshowe - On the top of a ridge of hills is a forest known to the Zulus as Dlinza (‘a grave-like place of meditation’). The town below the hills is named Eshowe which is said to be the sound of the wind sighing through the trees.

At the end of the war the British selected the area of Eshowe as the site for their administrative capital. A small fort was built and some of the forest trees were cut down and in their place an attractive town grew up. In 1887 Eshowe became the capital of Zululand and it retains much of the atmosphere of its founding days. Today The Dlinza Forest provides a sanctuary for birds and wildlife. In the centre of the forest is a clearing known as the Bishop’s Seat and occasional church services are held there.

Harding - A narrow-gauge railway line runs for 87 kilometers from Port Shepstone through the hills to the small town of Harding. It was founded in 1873 and named after Walter Harding who was a Supreme Court judge. The town is the administrative and agricultural centre for the area. The narrow gauge railway is a gem of its kind and well maintained by proud drivers.

Himeville - The small rural centre and magistrate’s seat of Himeville was founded in 1902 and named after Sir Albert Hime who was the governor of Natal at that time. The Himeville Nature Reserve is beautiful with two trout lakes in a well-grassed valley scattered with flowers and pretty vegetation. The two lakes attract many species of wild water fowl and there are a few resident antelope of various species strolling about. From Himeville a road leads up the famous Sani Pass to the top of the Drakensberg and into Lesotho.

Ixopo – There are very few villages in South Africa that have a lovelier rural setting than Ixopo. The village of Ixopo was founded in 1878 as an agricultural and timber-producing centre and was named after a marsh which the Zulus called ‘eXobo’, from the sound made by a person squelching through the thick mud.

Kokstad - One of the most harrowing and difficult mountain journeys in the history of South Africa was accomplished in the early 1860s when a group of the Griqua people, led by Adam Kok, left their homes at Philippolis in the Free State. They trekked eastwards to a reputed promised land on route through Lesotho and over the Drakensberg, at a saddle which they named Ongeluksnek (‘accident saddle’), due to the death of one of their men during a hunt for eland.

On arrival they realized that they had indeed discovered a promised land. The area was ideal for agriculture and they established a centre which they called Kokstad after their leader, Adam Kok. Every male Griqua in the group was given a farm of at least 1200 hectares, but sadly most of them sold their farms and squandered their money. In 1874 Griqualand East was annexed to the Cape colony and Kokstad became the administrative centre for the district of Mount Currie which looms over the town and was named by the Griquas after Sir Walter Currie. Adam Kok is buried in the main street of the town which he so bravely started.

Ladysmith - The Anglo-Boer War made Ladysmith a household name. The 120 day siege of the town lasted from 2 November 1899 to the 28 February 1900. This horrible, drawn out, incident so captivated people’s imaginations that songs were composed, poems written and every event of the ordeal was reported in the newspapers of the day.

Ladysmith lies in the warm valley of the Klip River (‘stone river’). The town was named after Lady Juana Smith, a renowned Spanish beauty who was the wife of the popular governor of the Cape, Sir Harry Smith. Ladysmith is a busy junction on the main highway from Durban to Johannesburg. Cattle and horses are bred in the district and, in the town a museum exhibits many items from the war years.

Matatiele - The southern reaches of the Drakensberg have a particularly forbidding appearance and the very name Drakensberg, meaning ‘dragon mountain’, is thought to have originated from a myth about a mighty dragon that once lived in this part of the range. When the Griquas migrated from Philippolis in the early 1860s they settled in this area and the town of Matatiele was founded on the verges of a marsh called Madi-i-Yila (‘the ducks have flown’).

Until 1874 there was no law and order in the area and rustlers, smugglers and renegades hid here from the police. It soon became a base for horse thieves who hid their stolen animals in the Drakensberg. Adam Kok did appoint a magistrate for Matatiele but he was always drunk and usually closed his eyes to law breaking provided he was supplied with enough whisky to dampen the guilt. The Cape government then sent a more respectable police force and after 12 months the district settled down and authority was partly restored in Matatiele. However gun running and rustling remained profitable for the locals and some colourful characters made their homes in the area. Today Matatiele is the centre for a prosperous farming and horse breeding district and polo is a popular local sport.

Mtubatuba - When the railway line was laid up the coastal belt of Zululand to Golela on the Swazi border a siding was laid out at a place named Mtubatuba. There was a lot of sugar cane planting in the area and the construction of a crushing mill in 1916 stimulated development and Mtubatuba became a village. The name comes from the chief of the local section of the Zulu nation. He was given the name, which means ‘he who was pummelled out’, on account of the difficulty the midwives experienced at his birth. The town has large plantations of eucalyptus trees in the area and roads branch off east to Lake St. Lucia and west to the Hluhluwe uMfolozi Game Reserve.

Mtunzini - At Mtunzini (‘the shady place’) there is a fine beach with a backdrop of coastal forest. John Dunn the famous chief had his holiday home at Mtunzini. There are forest covered dunes, small lakes and a spacious lagoon at the mouth of the Mlalazi River. In 1948 some 900 hectares of this coastal area were proclaimed the Umlalazi nature reserve.

Newcastle - The fourth town established in KwaZulu-Natal after Durban, Weenen and Pietermaritzburg was Newcastle and was named after the British colonial secretary the Duke of Newcastle. It was founded in 1864 as a trade and administrative centre for the most northerly part of KwaZulu-Natal. There was much fighting in the vicinity of Newcastle during the Anglo-Transvaal War of 1881 and the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. The town was used as a depot by the British Army and the battlefields of Majuba, Laing’s Nek and Ingogo are near the town.

Richards Bay - The Mhlatuze (‘forceful’) River received its name because of its power when in flood. The river reaches the sea in a deep lagoon which is the home of hippos and aquatic birds. The lagoon covers 3 000 hectares and has a channel leading into the sea.

During the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 the British navy had to land supplies on the Zululand coast and the lagoon of the Mhlatuze River was used. The entrance was named Richard’s Bay after Admiral Sir F. W. Richards who was the officer in command of the West Africa station of the Royal Navy. Year’s later plans for the building of a harbour started and a holiday resort grew up on the northern side of the lagoon. Huberta the famous wandering hippo began her adventures from the Mhlatuze lagoon in 1928 and back in 1891 a crocodile 6,7 meters long was recorded in the lagoon by John Dunn.

After the Second World War the development of South Africa called for a new deep water harbour in Richard’s Bay for the export of metal ores on large bulk sea carriers. The Richard’s Bay harbour was opened in 1976 with an electric railway to link the new harbour with the mines of the interior. An oil pipeline was also built that flowed to oil storage facilities in Gauteng. An aluminum smelter and a fertilizer plant have also been erected at the harbour and large deposits of titanium are being mined in the sands close to the bay.

Sani Pass - One of the traditional passes over the Drakensberg onto the highlands of Lesotho follows the upper valley of the Mkomazana (‘little Nkomazi’) River. This is a romantically beautiful pass and the name Sani means Bushman in the Sotho language. The river rushes through the gorge in a sequence of winding cascades and many of caves and shelters contain Bushman paintings on their walls. Vegetation is luxuriant and vultures nest in the high cliffs. The road to the summit is steep and windy and it is advisable to use a 4x4 vehicle to take trip to the top.

Stanger - During the late years of his life Shaka built a new capital for his Zulu nation in the warmth of the north coast. He named it kwaDukuza (‘the place of the lost person’), because of the capital’s complex labyrinth of huts. It was here where Shaka was assassinated by two of his half-brothers, Dingane and Mhlangane, on 22 September 1828. They buried his body in a hole and the site can be seen in a small garden in the centre of Stanger and is marked by a simple stone memorial erected in his honour by the Zulu nation.

Dingane succeeded Shaka and abandoned kwaDukuza which has collapsed into ruins. In 1873 a European town was planned on the site and named after William Stanger who was the surveyor general of Natal. The town is the commercial, magisterial and communications centre for a major sugar producing district.

Tongaat - The Tongati River is named after the Zulu word for the Strychnos mackenii trees which flourish on its banks. Europeans corrupted this name to Tongaat and applied it to the straggling sugar town. Tongaat is an English looking town which has a village green where cricket is played. Streets are shaded by jacarandas and bamboos and are lined with stalls selling tropical fruits. The town is the centre for the Tongaat Sugar Estates.  

Tugela River - The Tugela River is the principal river of KwaZulu-Natal and flows through a prodigious valley set beneath towering cliffs and stunning vegetation. The river is known to the Zulus as Thukela (‘something that startles’). For many years it was a serious obstacle to travellers and what was known as the Lower Tugela Drift provided a hazardous crossing point. During floods the Tugela was impassable and travellers were sometimes be delayed for days even months. Today the river is spanned by a bridge, 450 meters long and was named after John Ross. He was a 15 year old boy who walked the 900 kilometer return journey from Durban to Lourenco Marques back in 1827. The round trip across wild country took 40 days and he did it to fetch medicines and supplies that were needed by the traders and hunters. During his journey John Ross visited Shaka to pay respects and the Zulu king provided him with an armed escort and throughout the journey he had the protection of the king forever.

Further down the south bank of the Tugela River is the original Lower Tugela Drift which is overlooked by the ruins of Fort Pearson which was built in 1878 by the British when they were preparing to invade the Zulus. It was named after Colonel Charles Knight Pearson who was a commander of the British forces at the time.

One and a half kilometers from the fort stands a wild fig tree known as the Ultimatum Tree and in its shade, on the 11 December 1878, the British presented an ultimatum to a Zulu delegation. The term of this ultimatum caused the war with the Zulus and was a huge turning point in the history of South Africa.

Ulundi - When Cetshwayo became king of the Zulus on 1 September 1873 he created a new capital for the nation. This place was named uluNdi (‘the high place’) which was called Ulundi by Europeans. On 4 July 1879 the British army captured Ulundi and burned it down. This was the final battle of the Anglo-Zulu War and the plain on which it was fought is still littered with cartridge cases, spent bullets and other relics. A memorial has been erected on the battle site. Today Ulundi is a bustling little town with lots of beauty and a welcoming feeling resides.

Underberg - In 1917 the village of Underberg began as a terminus for the branch line from Pietermaritzburg. The berg (‘mountain’) under which the village lies is the 1904 meter Hlogoma (‘place of echoes’) Mountain which is part of the Southern Drakensberg Range. The village is a centre for trout fishing and from it roads lead to several resorts and weekend getaways in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg. The view of the Drakensberg mountain peaks from Underberg is a spectacular sight and often, during the winter months, they are covered in snow.

Utrecht - In 1854 a group of cattle men obtained grazing rights in the area of northern KwaZulu-Natal between the Buffalo and the Bloed rivers. These grants were from King Mpande, the Zulu king. The ranchers then claimed the land as their own and formed an independent republic which they named Utrecht after the ancient city in Holland. The republic was only 32 kilometers by 64 kilometers but it covered some choice cattle country. Utrecht was like a Wild West town with one long main street and the odd saloon and a hotel. Law and order was maintained by Christian Klopper and his wife, a renowned strongwoman who challenged all visiting males to a wrestling match which she always won.

Valley of a Thousand Hills - The Mngeni (‘the place of acacia trees’) River has its source on the slopes of Spioenkop in the midlands of KwaZulu-Natal and from there flows east to the sea at Durban. The river feeds the Midmar Dam and drives a hydroelectric plant at Howick and then tumbles over the Howick Falls and then the Albert falls. From Albert Falls it flows for 64 kilometers through the spectacular Valley of a Thousand Hills. This huge valley was the home of the Debe tribe.

The Natal Table Mountain is known to the Zulus as emKhambathini (‘place of giraffe acacia trees’). This huge, flat-topped mountain dominates the western end of the valley and is geologically a blood brother of Table Mountain in Cape Town. Parts of the Valley of a Thousand Hills are densely populated by people of various tribes and other parts are wild and bushy.

Van Reenens Pass - The booming trade In the 1850s made necessary to build an all weather pass up the escarpment from KwaZulu-Natal to the Free State. Locating a route for such a pass was not easy but Frans van Reenen who was a farmer who living at the foot of the escarpment pointed out a route which he followed when herding his cattle.

The road engineers accepted this location and the Van Reenens Pass was opened in 1856 and in 1891 a railway line was also built. The climb is 681 meters between Ladysmith and the village of Van Reenen and it is a fine winding pass with stunning panoramic views. There is a lookout point known as Windy Corner on the summit of the pass some 1680 meters above sea level.

Vryheid - When Zulu King Cetshwayo died on 8 February 1884 there was huge disagreement over the succession of the Zulu tribe. Cetshwayo’s son, Dinuzulu, found himself opposed by dissidents and the fighting chief, Zibebu, who had been granted independence by the British in their efforts to bring peace to Zululand after the Anglo-Zulu War. Dinuzulu’s followers were no match for Zibebu’s fighting men, who also had the support of a number of European frontiersmen, who were friends of his. Johan Colenbrander was also a friend of Zibebu’s and he provided Zibebu with military guidance.

Dinuzulu was approached by a group of Europeans cattlemen from the north who guaranteed to establish him as king of Zululand if he would reward them with farms. Dinuzulu accepted and about 800 European mercenaries rallied to his support. They crowned him king of Zululand and then, with the Suthu army, set out to defeat Zibebu. This was accomplished in the Battle of Ghost Mountain.

Dinuzulu then found himself in a predicament because he realized that if he rewarded each of the 800 mercenaries with farms of the size they expected there would be nothing left of Zululand. A prolonged argument followed with the mercenaries and eventually 500 mercenaries each received a farm of 1600 hectares and  the other 300 men who had arrived late received smaller grants, known as ‘half farms’.

The mercenaries called themselves The Committee of Dinuzulu’s Volunteers and with the aid of a compass and a cross-bar, set out to survey all the farms and on 5 August 1884 the mercenaries formed the so-called New Republic with a capital named Vryheid (‘liberty’). At the end of the Anglo-Boer War the territory of the New Republic was transferred to Natal. Vryheid has grown into a large town and is a centre for coal mining and cattle farming.

Winterton - In 1905 the Natal government built a weir across the Little Tugela River and founded an irrigation settlement later named Winterton in honour of the secretary for agriculture, a Mr. H. D. Winter. The village of Winterton is now a busy centre for farming in the foothills approaching the Cathedral Peak area of the Drakensberg Mountains.