There’s room for cultural and culinary diversity in South Africa. The overall land area is 1,221,040 square kilometers. Of that, KwaZulu/Natal covers virtually 87,000 sq. km. Known as the ‘garden province’, it extends from humid, sub-tropical luxuriance through the grassy, undulating hills of the Midlands to the towering Drakensberg (dragon mountains).
The coastline, warmed by the Moçambique current, is lined with indigenous forest, languid beaches and lagoons. But just an hour’s drive from the city of Durban lies the vast landscape of Eshayamoya (where the breezes blow), with deep gorges, swift-flowing rivers and dramatic waterfalls; grasslands dotted with stud and dairy farms; and placid lakes for trout fishing. Plus the site of Nelson Mandela’s arrest in Lions River, leading to his lengthy imprisonment on Robben Island, and a monument to Mahatma Ghandi, whose ejection from a ‘whites only’ train carriage during a visit to the area, initiated his campaign of active non-violence.
There is nothing in this tranquil region to suggest its turbulent past. But each wave of settlers paid in blood for the territory they took. The Khoisan hunter-gatherers, attracted by the antelope that grazed the grasslands, were ousted by migrants from central Africa, subsistence farmers who lived close to nature in huts of mud and wattle, the men tending the livestock, the women responsible for domestic chores and crops (their method of grinding corn between stones is still common in rural areas today).
In 1818 the Zulu leader Shaka, dubbed Africa’s ‘black Napoleon’, began to build the most formidable military power to come out of the continent. In the subsequent trail of destruction, refugees fled to the Midlands, overwhelming the peaceful inhabitants.
The Zulus in turn were vanquished by Afrikaner Boers (farmers), known as Voortrekkers, who left the Cape to escape British rule. Trekking east in their wagons at a pace of 10km per day – or less in the face of rivers and mountains – they coveted the Midlands as prime grazing land. In 1838, some 500 trekkers defeated the 10,000-strong Zulu army and declared the territory the Republic of Natalia. The short-lived republic was annexed by Britain in 1843, and incorporated into the British-ruled Cape Colony two years later. Ironically, the capital Pietermarizburg, named after a Boer leader, is still referred to as ‘the last British outpost’.
The mix of hunter, herdsman and settler was further stirred by the arrival of over 15,000 indentured laborers from India to work on the sugar cane plantations. With them came Indian traders with considerable capital – and stocks of spices, which filtered through to Durban menus and specialist curry restaurants.
For today’s Slow visitor, the Midlands – where the heritage of the Iron Age past is preserved in the motto ‘live in harmony with nature and with one another’ – has natural riches to offer. Here South Africa’s small dairy farmers started a trend that would stimulate cheese production throughout the country. Trout is cooked straight from the lake; game birds are served with delectable sauces and bush pig from the indigenous forest is casseroled for dinner. Fresh asparagus, wild mushrooms and berries feature on seasonal menus.
Chrissie’s Country Cheeses on Galteemore Farm welcomes visitors (Tel +27 31 7811-791 for an appointment). Made from unpasteurized Ayreshire milk, the cheeses are totally organic and colored with natural vegetable juices such as carrot and beetroot. Pioneering cheesemaker Chrissie Briscoe’s semi-soft and hard cheeses include Nguni, Ayrby, well-matured Cheshire Ancient Cheese, based on an English cheese dating back to Celtic times, and farmhouse cheddar soaked in red wine. Stilton- and Brie-style cheese are available in season.
Swissland Cheese – run by Fran Vermaak, who had two pet goats and turned her hobby into a small, hands-on family business – produces eight different goats’ cheeses during the year, depending on the changing quality of the milk. Visitors are welcome to visit the farm, taste cheese, watch milking or picnic in pleasant surroundings. (Tel +27 33 234-4042).
Family-run River Glen farm near Underberg (tel +27 33 701-1925) provides accommodation (bountiful farm breakfasts and dinner by arrangement), superb views and washed-curd cheeses from a small herd of pasture-fed Jersey cows. Full-cream unpasteurized milk and no artificial preservatives, colorants or animal rennet are used in the award-winning washed curd Underberger cheese, and ingredients like olives, garden herbs, or nettles are added for flavor variety.
Things to do
Follow the clearly signposted Midlands Meander, a country craft route where some 140 craftspeople offer their wares, and you can watch spinners, weavers and potters in action. There are flower and herb gardens, tea gardens and country pubs – even a brewery and wine cellar. Names to look for are Groundcover leather, Rosewood hand-embroidered linens, Shuttleworth Weaving and Kingdom Weavers, and Vukani Arts and Crafts Training, an initiative to identify and encourage talent in local communities.
Boat on the vast Midmar dam or explore the adjoining park where small game flourish; visit the 2,500ha Zulu Falls game farm which is a natural heritage site; or head for the Drakensberg to hike, climb and bird-watch.
Where to stay & eat
Hartford House in Mooi River. The treaty to end the South African war was signed on the veranda of this gracious colonial house, home to one of the area’s earliest settler families. Luxury guest cottages and excellent meals focusing on the area’s fresh produce, with trout a specialty. (Tel +27 33 263-2713).
Penny Lane Guest House in Lidgetton, is family-owned and child-friendly, blending African touches with a country feel. Generous farm breakfasts and home-cooked dinners. (Tel + 27 33 234-4332).
Greenfields Manor House, a working farm in Mooi River, where you eat in the converted stables, and the Cordon Bleu chef gives a gourmet touch to local ingredients. (Tel +27 33 263-1301).
Mpophomeni Gateway B&B, will arrange for visitors to enjoy ‘genuine Zulu hospitality’, watch a sangoma (traditional) commune with ancestral spirits, and sample traditional cuisine in a township house with the family. (Tel +27 33 238 0966).
La Lampara in Caversham offers Italian hospitality in a terracotta farmhouse overlooking a green valley. Fresh pasta, mussels baked in the wood-burning oven, oven-roasted vegetables and rabbit casserole. (Tel +27 33 234-4225).
For more information, contact the secretary, Midlands Meander Association. (Tel 082 803 2327 or website www.midlandsmeander.co.za)
Jos Baker is a food and wine, journalist. She has written numerous books and contributes to Wine Magazine
Photo: Drakensberg landscape (http://www.geocities.com/Yosemite/Forest/4049/photos/index.html)