A fresh gander at our favourite meander

Posted by Mishqah Schippers on 20 October 2021

The misty valleys, tucked-away forests and rolling farmlands of the KZN Midlands have become a favourite destination for those who want peace and quiet – or to invest in local art, indulge in good meals and explore exciting trails. Narina Exelby takes a look at what’s new(ish) in the area.

Words: Narina Exelby | Photography: Narina Exelby

You don’t have to get far off the network of roads to find peace in the KZN Midlands. Guests at Copperleigh Trout Cottage can do a number of short, scenic walks around the sheep farm and well-stocked Mavela Dam.

There is a morning from the early 1990s that exists as clearly in my memory now, as it did when the moment unfolded on that early autumn day. It was 1 April – my mum’s birthday – and our yellow station wagon was pootling along the windy R103. I was 14, wearing a Madonna T-shirt, and I’d stuck my head out the open window. Eyes closed, I drank in the crisp air. I was exhilarated; a dreamy bundle of excitement because a) we were listening to Capital 604 and the DJ had just announced that Vanilla Ice was coming to Durban, and b) because we were “doing the Meander”.

In essence, the KZN Midlands is a network of driving routes in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal linking arts and crafts outlets with restaurants, lodges, historic landmarks and all manner of fun and inspiration. While it took days to recover from the disappointment of the April Fools’ joke, I’ve never lost that feeling of anticipation – that excitement – of driving Midlands roads and knowing that just around the corner, there’d be something interesting to look at, something new to discover, something that would fuel my creative soul. Thirty years on, driving the R103 still feels the same.

Cottages at Ashton Wold are tucked around two dams, in a quiet part of Curry’s Post.

Barn Owl
Over the past 30-odd years, the name Groundcover has become synonymous with the Midlands. Hand-crafted leather shoes are still sold in the old iron house in Curry’s Post, just a few metres from where they’re made… but what has changed is that Groundcover now has a new neighbour. The Barn Owl country café is growing a reputation for its superb coffee, gorgeous valley outlook and delicious food. It’s particularly popular with families, as kids love the playground here.
Open daily 9am–4pm
072 714 6870, thebarnowl.co.za

Come for the coffee… stay for the view and scrumptious meals served at The Barn Owl.

The Platform and VT
Coffee Café

If you’re driving through Lions River you won’t miss The Platform, which stands right alongside the R103. The old shed-like station – full of character – is now a gallery for artists from around the Midlands. Adjacent to the gallery is a platform of a different kind. The recently opened VT Coffee Café and The Local eatery are housed in containers, with a deck built above.Order a coffee or bunny chow and sit upstairs to take in the views and wave at passing trains.
Open daily 9am–4.30pm
084 999 2223, facebook.com/theplatformlionsriver

On the outside, The Platform at the old Lions River Station is full of character – and inside it’s a treasure trove of local art.

Ashton Wold
Deep in the Curry’s Post area – high up and with views towards the farmlands of the Karkloof – four stone and thatch cottages stand quiet watch over two small dams. The cottages – restored over the past three years – have become a haven for those who want to escape the craziness of the world for a little while (phone signal here is sketchy), take their bikes out on the forest trails nearby, fish for bass in the dams, or nip out to explore all that the Midlands has to offer. Cottages sleep from four to six people; from R750 pp pn, sharing
082 440 1882, ashtonwold.co.za

Fuel up on coffee and bunny chow adjacent to the old Lions River Station.

Copperleigh Trout Cottages
The iNhlosane Mountain is visible for miles around the Midlands, but tucked on a sheep farm below its peak there is a picturesque, private hideaway. The log cabin at Copperleigh Trout Cottages – well equipped for self-catering – stands on the edge of Mavela, a dam that is stocked annually with trout. You can fish here, of course, or take out the kayak, walk on the farm or use this as a base from which to explore the Midlands. The evenings at the log cabin are just beautiful – sun dipping behind distant mountains, otters slipping into the water, ducks pulling trails across the dam’s surface while frogs and herons call in the night.
Cabin (sleeps two) from R450 pp pn, sharing
082 460 1815,

The sculpture at The Capture Site is spectacular – but don’t forget to look out for the exceptional artwork created by the women at Impumelelo Beads

Taste Buds Farm Stall
For more than a decade, Midlands locals have known one thing: the pizzas at Post Postino are hard to beat. During Lockdown, the restaurant in Dargle’s old post office got a new neighbour, Taste Buds Farm Stall – and it has become a favourite with those who choose to shop local. It’s well stocked with fresh goods from its bakery, as well as produce that’s grown and made in the area, from cheeses, honeys and jams to fresh flowers and veggies, pickles, pies, pork and grass-fed lamb. Taste Buds serves coffee and light meals, too.
Open Wednesdays and Thursdays
9am–4pm; Fridays 9am–5pm; Saturdays 9am–3pm; Sundays 9am–2pm
082 926 8084,

The iNhlosane broods over Copperleigh Trout Cottages and Mavela Dam

Nelson Mandela Capture Site
The intriguing sculpture of Nelson Mandela at the Capture Site, just over the road from where Madiba was arrested in 1962, was erected years ago but it was only one month before Lockdown that the new visitor centre opened. The museum’s world-class display begins with the Bhambatha Rebellion and traces the apartheid era, the struggle for freedom and the life of Nelson Mandela, as well as other freedom fighters. It has been superbly curated.
Open daily 8.30am–4pm
Adults R100, seniors R60,
young adults (12–18) R30, under 12 free
072 351 0967, thecapturesite.co.za

Order a coffee from River Café then walk onto the ‘island’ in the river for a picnic

River Cafe
River Cafe, which opened in April, is housed in a sweet little railway building that’s been relocated to beside the Lions River. It’s a lovely setting, with the river flowing just a few metres from the veranda. Tables are set up here but you can also take your coffee or picnic box (which River Cafe will prepare) and relax on the grass beside the river.
Open Mondays, Wednesdays to Fridays from 9am–4pm; weekends 7am–4pm
061 290 7531,

The growing tunnels at The Old Mushroom Farm are becoming an architectural icon of the KZN Midlands.

The Old Mushroom Farm
The Old Mushroom Farm is a lifestyle hub in the Karkloof – and in the 18 months since it opened the venue has become a popular spot for meanderers, as well as the runners and cyclists who use it as a base for getting to the Karkloof trails. The old brick tunnels of what was once a mushroom farm now house a collection of artisanal workspaces: Blue Bird Coffee Roastery, Scew Space art gallery, DoughM bakery, Activ8 gym, Home Slice Cafe, Rock Paper Scissors contemporary goods store, The Spot bistro and Sally’s Midlands Mixes, which sells granolas and other healthy snacks. In June this year, Howick-based creative content hub Ubuntu Nest added MoDi. From Thursdays to Sundays MoDi hosts theatre shows, storytelling and poetry events. Crafts and books are also sold here.
Tickets for MoDi productions are R150; book through webtickets.co.za or 079 934 8185
Open daily 8am–3pm
(The Spot from 10am–8pm)
060 470 1218,

The Falls House at 11 Karkloof offers plenty of space for a getaway with friends or family.

11 Karkloof
Settled in the buildings that surround The Old Mushroom Farm is a collection of self-catering accommodation that ranges from comfortable two-bedroom cottages to a 15-bed farmhouse, 12-bed “round house” and a beautiful apartment space that sleeps four. All have quirky collections of pre-loved art and furniture, and have comfy spaces in which to relax. 11 Karkloof has become particularly popular with the mountain bikers and trail runners who travel to the Midlands to explore Karkloof’s epic trails.
Rates are from R369 pp pn in all accommodation (self-catering) except the apartment, which is from R1 100 a night for two people (including breakfast).
060 470 1218, 11karkloof.co.za

Coffee at Village is a popular, chilled eatery by day – and often a vibey live-music spot by night. (Photo: Kristy Smith)

Right in the heart of Howick in the Yard 41 centre, Village is an airy eatery that’s gathering momentum as a place to indulge not only in seriously good coffee, but also a hearty meal, craft beer, cocktails and wine – all with a spectacular view of the Umgeni River valley. It’s a wonderful place for a daytime stop (kids love the lawns and jungle gym), and it has a particularly great atmosphere on Friday evenings when there’s live music – usually by musicians who live in the area. Sunday lunches and Friday evenings are popular; you might want to book a table.
Open Sundays to Thursdays 8am–4pm; Fridays and Saturdays 8am–9pm
064 872 2980,

N-Squared Bakery
Since friends Nova Challinor and Nadine Smith joined forces in November 2020 to create N-Squared Bakery, there has been so much demand for the duo’s outrageously good croissants (give the Bar One croissant a try), cakes, breads and bakes that within six months they had three outlets in the province. The original, in Lidgetton, is a sweet little cafe tucked under the trees, alongside Caladdi B&B.
Open daily 8am–4pm
083 792 3388, n2dbakery.co.za

Padkos, coffee, meals, local goods – all available at The Railhouse Farmstall.

The Railhouse Farmstall
Those who’ve done this route previously might remember that the thatched building that stands on an outer bend of the R103 in Lidgetton housed The Ugly Duckling (a gift and decor shop that now has outlets in Nottingham Road, Rosetta and Clarens). It’s been home to a few outlets over the years, and late last year its doors opened as a new must-visit in the Midlands: The Railhouse Farmstall and, right beside it, Natural Edge. Railhouse is both a cafe serving well-priced meals prepared with local ingredients, and a shop that’s packed with a variety of locally made goodies, from biscuits, rusks and dried fruit to beauty products, plants and crafts. Natural Edge sells beautifully handcrafted homeware and decor: frames, tables, servers and jewellery.
Open daily 7am–5pm
082 829 6417, therailhouse.co.za

Find a quiet spot and settle in for a good meal at the Village Cafe on Nottingham Road.

Village Cafe on Nottingham Road
When Village Cafe on Nottingham Road opened shortly after local travel restrictions were lifted last year, it soon became known for its utterly delicious cheesecake and decadent breakfasts. The menu changes regularly and includes fresh-pressed juices, coffees (of course), healthy meals and sumptuous comfort food.
Open Monday to Saturday 8am–4pm; Sunday 8am–2pm
082 823 0751, facebook.com/villagecafeonnottinghamroad

Somewhere out in Curry’s Post, one quiet autumn morning…

V de V
On most weekends for the past two years, local musicians have been entertaining patrons at V de V, a restaurant just off the R103 in Nottingham Road. It’s a fantastic venue for live music (which is often featured midweek, too). There’s a stage area, large tables, comfy couches as well as indoor and outdoor seating. V de V’s pizza specials on Wednesdays are particularly popular – for good reason.
081 018 0330,

One of the joys of spending time in the KZN Midlands is exploring where the roads will take you. Here, a road looking from Curry’s Post across to Karkloof.

Hit the trails

The Midlands is much-loved for its various trails – walking, trail running and mountain biking. These aren’t new but, if you’re wanting to be active, put these on your radar:

In Howick: The pretty 4km path along the Umgeni River has been lovingly maintained by volunteers for a number of years. Park at the Conservancy sign on Moonwalk Road or the Scout Hall just off Plane Crescent.

In Karkloof: There is a
superb network of singletrack and trails through the Karkloof plantations. A day pass is R80 pp; register at the Karkloof Country Club.

In Dargle: On the first Thursday of every month, the Dargle Conservancy hosts a walk through its mist-belt forest. R50 to walk. Book with Nikki on 083 473 3074.

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