Operators in the KZN Midlands have reported an increase in visitor numbers, and marketing campaigns aimed at both domestic and international markets, positioning the Midlands as a desirable destination during COVID-19, are bearing fruit.
Gm of the Midlands Meander, Marian Evans, said occupancies in the region over the December period had reflected this. “When the beaches were closed, the area welcomed holidaymakers from Gauteng.” She said during COVID-19, the area’s open spaces, clean air and diverse tourism offerings were a drawcard for travellers.
According to Tourism KZN’s Tourism Performance Report, hotel occupancy rates in December were among the highest in the country, and the best since February 2020 for the area.
Occupancies in the province were 64,9% in February 2020, but dropped to 14,9% in July 2020. After that, figures climbed every month until they topped 51,9% in December.
Deputy gm of the ANEW Hotel Hilton, Brenton Pillay, agreed with Marian, saying: “People will come here for the wide, open spaces. It’s more peaceful and less crowded than the cities and people will be looking for that tranquillity.”
Marian said, although she did not have an exact figure, the area used to see large numbers of international travellers visiting for day-trips. “Because of the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, we would see busloads of international visitors coming to the area, whether it be on guided day trips, or a stop as they were passing through on their way to somewhere else.” This came to a halt due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
But, she said, Midlanders had started to see a new trend, with a lot of first-time visitors exploring the area. She said even visitors from nearby towns such as Pietermaritzburg and Durban were spending more time in the Midlands. And, she added, another trend had emerged, of travellers returning to the area multiple times.
Apart from the open-air activities offering natural social-distancing options, the hospitality industry has also introduced meticulous health and safety protocols. “We strictly enforce our health and safety protocols here at the hotel because there is pressure to do so for the sake of the hospitality industry as a whole,” said Brenton.
Wonderful weekend activities in the Midlands
Many Gautengers prefer to drive, but for fliers, King Shaka International Airport is only two hours drive (in an airport rental car) from the heart of the Midlands, Nottingham Road. It is a lovely drive through the green hills. This is the start of the Meander.
The ANEW Hotel Hilton was established in 1936 and retains its imposing Tudor-style façade. The interior seamlessly blends old-world charm with modern amenities. Black and white photographs of the hotel during the last century adorn the walls.
Travellers share this sense of history in comfort in one of the hotel’s 97 air-conditioned rooms, and the property is well located for many of the Midlands’ attractions, according to Brenton.
An attraction not to be missed is the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, just off the R103 near Howick. A monument and museum have been erected at the spot where former South African President Nelson Mandela was captured in 1962 by the police of the Apartheid government of the day.
The museum has a replica of the car he was driving (he was posing as a chauffeur) and a number of artefacts dating from the apartheid era. A ‘long walk to freedom’ pathway leads guests to a piece of perspective art by Marco Cianfanelli that depicts Mandela’s face when viewed from the right angle.
The museum and sculpture are open every day from 10h00 to 16h00 and a café at the site is open on weekends.
For thrill-seekers, the Midlands is a treasure trove. From hot-air ballooning to ziplining to paintballing, there are activities suitable for all ages.
Hot Air Ballooning SA makes an unforgettable early morning flight over the region, departing from Granny Mouse Country House and landing in a field over 16km away, followed by the traditional glass of sparkling wine served at the end of the flight.
For those who prefer something a little faster, Karkloof Canopy Tours’ 10 ziplines send you soaring through the trees as you descend through a forested mountainside. The longest is 200m and the guides say that on some, speeds of up to 60kph may be reached. Guests are safely harnessed in with equipment designed to hold over a tonne, according to md, Kai Schulz.
The canopy tours are open to guests between the ages of six and 80 and for the more timid, tandem ziplining with an experienced guide is available. The venue also has hiking and walking trails with varying degrees of difficulty, along the forest floor.
Yellowwood Action Combat Paintball Centre offers the thrill of combat in a controlled and supervised environment. Guests are given padded chest-plates and a helmet to protect them, and all the equipment is sanitised between uses.
Arts and crafts are a large component of the Midlands Meander. Although artists have struggled as a result of the COVID restrictions, arts and crafts are bouncing back following the easing of restrictions. Nottingham Road ceramic artist, Astrid Dahl, said: “Business was a little slow at the beginning of the year but it has now picked up.” Her pieces are shipped to places like New York and London.
Here, we also visited talented woodcarver, Alson Zuma. Alson’s unique carvings feature on the walls of hotels in KZN as well as the KZN Cultural Museum. “I am hopeful for the future as the Midlands is now slowly recovering and getting more tourists every day. While some craftsmen’s businesses closed completely, I am fortunate, as I still have customers coming in,” said Alson, who added he had had to find part time gardening work.
Lovers of art and antiques should meander down to The Junction shopping centre, also in Nottingham Road. Craft and antique shops such as The Ugly Duckling are filled to the rafters with trinkets waiting to be discovered.
While there are restaurants at the centre, my attention was diverted by Chocolate Heaven, a chocolate artisan experience, whose speciality is dipping various foods into chocolate. It advertises ‘chocolate anything’ and delivers on that promise. We dipped strawberries, marshmallows, cheese, biltong and even gherkins in the chocolate and left feeling well-satisfied.