A Midlands Meander. Pietermaritzburg to Midmar Dam | 225km

Pietermaritzburg.

PIETERMARITZBURG

Enjoy South African holidays in Pietermaritzburg, also known as The Heritage City. The city owes its special character to its rich architectural heritage. Laid out on a grid plan, with a market square as the focal point, part of the city's unique atmosphere and charm comes from the network of quaint, narrow pedestrian lanes linking Church and Longmarket streets. Regarded as one of the finest Victorian cities in the world, Pietermaritzburg's numerous historic treasures include the imposing City Hall (1900) - the largest all-brick building in the southern hemisphere - the Legislative Assembly (1889) and Legislative Council (1899) buildings, Government House (late 1860s), Publicity House (1884) and the late-19th-century railway station.

Despite its overwhelmingly British colonial character, the city's history is intimately linked to that of the Voortrekkers, who settled here in 1838. They named the settlement Pietermauritzburg after Pieter Mauritz Retief, who led the first trek into Natal. In 1938, it was decided to honour the leader of the second trek, Gert Maritz, as well and the name was changed to Pietermaritzburg. Among the buildings relating to the trekkers are the Voortrekker Museum, Voortrekker House (the only surviving double-storey Voortrekker house in Pietermaritzburg, dating back to 1846) and Welverdient, the house of trek leader Andries Pretorius.

Of more recent historic interest for visitors on South African holidays is the statue in Church Street Mall honouring Mahatma Gandhi, who developed the philosophy of satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, to achieve social and political reform in South Africa. Other major attractions include the Natal Museum, the Macrorie House Museum (furnished with Victorian period pieces) and Comrades Marathon House, headquarters of one of the world's most famous ultra marathons. The Tatham Art Gallery has an extensive collection of South African art, as well as collections of 19th and 20th-century British and French painting. An interesting pastime is hunting down the more than 2 000 elephants that are depicted on buildings, arches, poles and windows in the city. The Natal National Botanic Garden covers 49 ha of landscaped and natural gardens focusing on the indigenous flora of KwaZulu-Natal. Outdoor enthusiasts can explore the city's Green Belt along several well-marked walks.

MIDLANDS MEANDER

The route described here mainly follows the Midlands Meander, stretching from Hilton northwards to Mooi River and from Rietvlei in the east to the Dargle Valley in the west. Formed in 1985, when six artists and craftspeople opened their studios and workshops to the public, it is the original arts and crafts route in South Africa and has since developed into the largest route of its kind in the country. The Midlands Meander consists of four routes linking over 120 art studios, country hotels and pubs, guest houses, and herb and flower gardens - a great destination for guests on South African holidays.

HOWICK

Situated in the centre of a thriving agricultural district, the small town of Howick is also known as the Heart of Waterfall Country. Here, the Mgeni River plunges 94 m over sheer dolerite cliffs into a narrow gorge as it makes its way downstream to the Albert Falls Dam. Howick Falls, together with 32 ha of land around it, was
proclaimed a national monument in 1951. A viewing platform provides fine views over the falls, but the more adventurous can set off on the Gorge Walk, a two-hour hike to the pools at the base of the falls and back. In addition to the Howick Falls, there are four other waterfalls in and around Howick.

UMGENI VALLEY NATURE RESERVE

...covers 700 ha of land along a 10-km stretch of the Umgeni Valley immediately below Howick Falls. Owned by the Wildlife and Environment Society of Southern Africa, the reserve was established in 1976 and serves as an environmental education centre for school children, teachers and adults. The diversity of habitats, ranging from acacia thornveld to grassland, can be explored along a network of trails. Visitors on South African holidays can see African wildlife such as giraffe, eland, wildebeest, zebra, impala, nyala, mountain reedbuck and oribi, while some 213 bird species have been recorded to date.

KARKLOOF FALLS

After winding through grasslands and pine plantations, the Karkloof River tumbles over the Woodhouse Falls before plunging 88 m over a sheer cliff into the 50-km-long forested Karkloof Valley. Situated on a plantation owned by forest products company Sappi, picnic facilities are provided, but the area is closed to the public during the fire season. Keep an eye out for the Karkloof blue butterfly (Orachrysops ariadne) which is endemic to the area and which is also the emblem of the Midlands Meander.

At one time, the valley was the main route between Natal and the Transvaal; the Afrikaans name means 'horse cart ravine', and refers to an incident in 1845 when a horse cart overturned after the horses took fright. The Karkloof River is a tributary of the Mgeni River, and its Zulu name, Mlambomunye, means 'one stream' or 'another stream'.

MOOI RIVER

Mooi River, the northern gateway to the Midlands, is a busy agricultural centre for the surrounding cattle and dairy farms, as well as several racehorse studs. The town was named after the Mooi River (Afrikaans for 'beautiful river'), a tributary of the Thukela, which rises high in the Drakensberg. The Rhode Museum contains photographic displays and a collection of dairy implements. The upper reaches of the Mooi River offer some of the finest brown trout angling in the country.

FORT NOTTINGHAM

Surrounded by undulating hills and plains, the quiet agricultural settlement of Nottingham Road was founded in 1905. It owes its name to the Nottingham Regiment, which was stationed here in the early 19th century in anticipation of incursions by the Basotho. Situated some 10 km south, Fort Nottingham is the third-oldest fort in KwaZulu-Natal. It was built in 1856 to discourage cattle raiding by the San. During the Langalibalele Rebellion of 1873, the fort served as a base for military operations against Chief Langalibalele.

LION'S RIVER

Between Lion's River and Tweedie, a commemorative plinth marks the site where South Africa's first democratically elected President, Nelson Mandela, was arrested on 5 August 1962, while driving with Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) member Cecil Williams. Following his arrest, Mandela was tried with ten others in what became known as the Rivonia Trial, which began in October 1963 and ended in June 1964. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, many years of which were spent on Robben Island, and was released on 11 February 1990.

MIDMAR DAM

...is one of the major components of the Midmar Scheme, which provides water to millions of urban and rural households from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Situated on the Mgeni River, the dam has a capacity of 178 million m3 and covers 15,6 km3 when full. It consists of a 140-m-long concrete overspill section flanked by earth embankments, with a total length of 1 310 m. Construction began in 1961 and was completed four years later. A popular venue for yachting, water-skiing and windsurfing enthusiasts, Midmar also offers excellent opportunities for bass and carp fishing. The dam and certain designated areas are managed as a resort, offering accommodation, camping, children's playgrounds and picnic spots. The adjoining Midmar Nature Reserve is managed by KZN Wildlife, and has been stocked with white rhino, reedbuck, red hartebeest, Burchell's zebra, blesbok and blue wildebeest.

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