KZN Midlands to the North Coast – via the back roads

Written by Narina Exelby and Mark Eveleigh

In December last year, there was a news story that opened with the line ‘Motorists on the N3 can expect years of slow traffic when work gets underway to upgrade the section between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.’

Years of slow traffic? The news didn’t get any better from there. ‘…Construction on the busy stretch of freeway, and planned upgrades on the N3, will take between eight and 10 years to complete.’

Many readers rolled their eyes, gritted their teeth and made a mental note to always build additional travel time into their schedules, while others started to look for alternative roads to travel.

The R103, the old main road that connects Estcourt with Hillcrest, is the most obvious alternative: it winds through the scenic KZN Midlands down Town Hill and through Valley of 1000 Hills where, in Hillcrest, you’d turn onto the M13 and head for Durbs.

If, however, your final destination is north of Durban, there is a more beautiful and infinitely quieter route that you can take. It’ll take only 15 minutes longer than if you took the N3 (on a good N3 day) – and the journey will take you on a meandering route through towering pine plantations, ripples of sugarcane fields and rolling hills down to Ballito. Check out some things to do in Durban

The two-hour / 150km route looks like this:

Exit the N3 at Howick, then head out of town on the Karkloof Road; 12.5km up the road, turn right at the sign for the Karkloof Country Club. The tar ends at the club, and from here a wide gravel road will weave you through lush dairy farm pastures and into towering pine plantations.

Just after the turn-off for the Karkloof Safari Spa (the road will be tar again by now), sugarcane fields replace the pines and you’ll be able to see Albert Falls Dam in the distance. At the crossroads turn left onto the R33, which is surrounded by farmlands as it takes you into tiny New Hanover.

Just after the town’s Total garage turn right onto the P156-1 and you’ll drive through more sugarcane country, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Dalton and past the UCL Sawmill, where the road becomes the R614. From here the landscape will begin to crumble into hazy valleys and distant hills; at Appelbosch the farmlands come to an end for a while, and homesteads with tin-roof rondavels start to line the road.

Back into sugarcane fields, the landscape smooths a little and the road descends slowly towards sea level. At the big Bhambayi supermarket near Isinembe, turn left off the R614. You’ll be treated to more views of sugarcane fields before you turn right onto the Esenembe Road, which will take you down into Ballito.

There are no farm stalls along this route, but there are plenty of opportunities for you to fuel up on coffee and padkos before you leave Karkloof. At the very “beginning” of the Karkloof Road in Howick is Yard 41, where both Village and The Treatery serve up delicious meals and coffee.

If you’re travelling on a Saturday morning, pop into the Karkloof Farmers’ Market for breakfast or padkos (it’s open until 11 am). The Old Mushroom Farm, also on the Karkloof Road between Howick and the Karkloof Club, is a contemporary lifestyle centre where Home Slice Café is open from Wednesdays to Mondays.   

This route is a brilliant one for trail runners and mountain bikers, and if you have the time you might want to add a day to your journey so that you can enjoy some of South Africa’s top trails. Karkloof Country Club is the hub for the revered trails in the area (find info and trail maps here), and the route we’ve outlined above ends at Sugar Rush Park, home to the much-loved Holla Trails.

Not into trails? There is plenty to do at Sugar Rush –  from a trampoline park, putt-putt and play zone to a spa, boutique stores and a fantastic café.

Whether you start in the Midlands or Ballito, this route really is about both the journey and the destination, so make sure you give yourself enough time to enjoy both.