Halfway between the Drakensberg and the sea (The Midlands), nestling in a green valley of bougainvillea's and azaleas, is Kwazulu/Natal's capital city, Pietermaritzburg. Here, as in many places in South Africa, the strength of Africa is in tandem with the architectural refinement of the British Empire. The Voortrekker settler and Indian culture are very obvious too.
Colorful parks and gardens, jacaranda-lined streets, ("city of flowers"), gabled red-brick Victorian and Edwardian mansions, museums and old churches, all combine to give it a peaceful colonial and country character.
The city is a good base from which to explore the rest of the Midlands.
The golden beaches of the north and south coasts, the game reserves of Zululand, and the battle sites of the interior are within half a day's drive of the city. The Drakensberg Mountain Range is two hours away and offers spectacular terrain for climbing and walking.
In 1838, the Dutch-speaking Voortrekker Boers trekked from the Cape in their wagons. They clashed with the Zulu's of King Shaka's domain and settled in the Msunduzi Valley.Here they established a village, as their new capital. Pietermaritzburg was named after two of their leaders, Piet Retief and Gert Maritz.
WHERE TO GO AND WHAT TO SEE
The British turned the hamlet into a military garrison town five years later, and laid the foundations of the British Colonial style
As a traveller, your best bet is to acquire a copy of "Pietermaritzburg Town Trails" from Publicity House in Commercial Street, telephone no. 0331 - 451348. Enumerated trails start at the City Hall. Built in 1900, on the site of the original Voortrekker council hall, it is the largest all-brick building in the Southern Hemisphere.
It was declared a national monument in 1969. It houses an enormous organ, still used for recitals and concert recordings.
Church of the Vow, a Voortrekker Museum, is also on Churchill Square. The Natal Museum in Loop Street has impressive displays of Natal history and natural history, African ethnology, bushmen paintings, a dinosaur gallery and fascinating display of ships wrecked on the South African coast. Since Pietermaritzburg was home to the famous Gandhi, the museum houses a collection on Gandhi as well.
The miniature chapel, complete with altar, is one of the highlights of Macrorie House, a Victorian museum in which early British settler life in depicted. The Tatham Art Gallery, across the road from the City Hall, is a "must" if you're interested in local ethnic and leading South African artists. European artworks by Degas, Picasso, Matisse, Hockney and Renoir are on display too.
Other attractions in Pietermaritzburg are its lovely gardens, notably the Botanical Gardens, Alexandra Park and Queen Elizabeth Park. Alexander Park is the venue for "Art in the Park," the country's largest outdoor art exhibition, and "Cars in the Park," the most popular gathering of vintage cars and enthusiasts. At the end of September/early October Pietermaritzburg comes alive with the sound of music at the Hilton Festival of art and craft, cabaret and theatre. The Natal Witness Garden Show takes place at the same time.
Annual sporting events, festivals and outdoor shows draw some 300 000 people to Pietermaritzburg annually. Best known is the Comrades Marathon in June and attracts no less than 13 000 long-distance runners. The Duzi Canoe Marathon (in January) is three days of hard paddling, which starts in Pietermaritzburg and ends in Durban's Blue Lagoon.
The Midmar Mile, held on the Midmar Dam, attracts some 10 000 swimmers. It is held in February and is the world's largest inland ultra-swim.