Magical Midlands

The somewhat mysterious sprawling beauty of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands has always intrigued Mary Willemse, but the ‘powers that be’ (read grumpy hubby) could never be persuaded to take a trip to this not-so-hidden gem. So, when the opportunity recently arose, she convinced one of her besties from high school to join her for a weekend escape to the countryside.

The former first lady of the United States and political activist in her own right, Eleanor Roosevelt, once said that the purpose of life, after all, is to live it… to taste experience to the utmost and to reach out eagerly and without fear for a new and richer experience. My high school bestie, Karen Richards, and I certainly took this advice to heart with our short, but super busy breakaway to the Midlands. We truly tasted the Midlands experience – from the fresh produce at the myriad of padstalletjies and delis to delicious wines and, finally, “tasting” victory by overcoming my debilitating fear of heights when soaring above the incredible Karkloof Forest…

There comes a time when a mother simply must have a holiday to herself… No snotty noses to wipe, no lunches to pack or homework to check… Responsibilities fall away, and she can simply be herself for a while (and by herself if she likes!). Karen and I had been talking wistfully about such an adventure for some time and were super thrilled that our schedules finally synced. So, we headed off for a weekend in the Midlands.

But first things first – the car. The Midlands is about 550km from Jozi and with the ever-increasing fuel price we certainly did not want to waste too much of our holiday fund on fuel. Luckily Toyota South Africa has a hybrid variant in its popular RAV4 range. With a claimed fuel consumption of 4.7 litres/100km, the 2.5 GX-R CVT Hybrid E-Four was the perfect partner for this adventure. Considering our fuel prices, South Africans have been surprisingly slow to embrace hybrids, and after this trip – with a very frugal 5.6 litres/100km average, not too far off the ambitions claims by the manufacturer – a hybrid has certainly jumped to the top of my consideration list for when I am replacing my current vehicle.

Next up: a place to rest your head. There is certainly no shortage of options – ranging from pampered luxurious stays to rustic self-catering accommodation – in the Midlands. Since we wanted ample natural beauty and seclusion, we opted for the Rockwood Karkloof Lodges. Situated on the Spitzkop Farm and within the Karkloof Nature Reserve, this little piece of heaven offers four selfcatering accommodation options – the Farm Cottage (sleeping four adults in two bedrooms), the Farm House (sleeping eight guests in four bedrooms), the Forest Lodge (sleeping six guests in three bedrooms) and finally our home for the weekend, the Mountain Cabin. Although it sleeps up to six guests in three spacious bedrooms, it was just ours for the weekend.

Gravel awaits!

The website said you require a 4×4 vehicle to get to the Mountain Cabin, but upon enquiry we learnt that a vehicle with a decent ground clearance would suffice. Perfect, I thought – it should give me a good opportunity to test the RAV’s offroad ability. And test it, we did. Upon our arrival fairly late in the afternoon (Karen is ALWAYS late!), we were met by the lodge manager, Sue, and told to follow another Rockwood team member, Lucky, in his bakkie. Having been involved with the launch of the first-ever hybrid vehicle in South Africa in 2005, the Toyota Prius – which, at that point, could not even drive on gravel – I had massive concerns about the RAV’s ability to traverse the rather rough looking route… However, it took it in its stride, as if made for it!

Heading up the road to the Mountain Cabin, Karen commented that it was like stepping back in time and I had to agree… Gazing upon massive herds of cattle and horses grazing in the meadows, you would be forgiven for thinking you had teleported into a Jane Auston novel! It is simply exquisite and, when we noticed the mountain bike and hiking trails, were sad that we only booked a weekend stay. With birding and fishing, as well as swimming, tubing and canoeing in the rivers and dams we agreed that this would be a perfect breakaway for an outdoorsy, active family. Another great added extra is the fact that you can pre-order select ready-made meals from the Howick-based eatery, The Cookhouse, which are placed in the freezer ahead of your arrival. This was especially welcome on the first night after a long drive. We opted for a delicious, braised beef stew and a country-style chicken, bacon and pea pie – simply delish!

So little time, so much to do

On to the third important element of a breakaway (the first two being the car and accommodation, of course): the itinerary. The magic of travelling sans kids and our “grumpy old men” (read hubbies) is that we could do whatever we felt liked. However, we had limited time and a full itinerary, so we were up early the next morning. After a quick coffee we were determined to begin the meandering… When booking, we were told about all the stops along Karkloof Road, which became our first route to explore.

First up was the Old Mushroom Farm, where old mushroom-growing tunnels were turned into artisanal spaces occupied by a few boutiques, a bakery, coffee shops, an event space and even a gym! Chatting to the owner of the Bluebird Coffee Roastery (find them on Insta – their coffee is brilliant, and you can take out a coffee subscription, ensuring you get the best java as it drops!), he told us that we simply had to pop into the Karkloof Farmers’ Market enroute to ‘town’ to sample the fresh produce and other goodies, all under one roof in an old shed… He was not wrong – it was a treat, and we also stocked up on some of La Petite France’s (also on Karkloof Road) famous French style brie and camembert. Other Karkloof Road highlights include the Karkloof Country Club, Karkloof Conservancy and, of course, the Karkloof Canopy Tour (but more about that later!).

Breakfast was taken care of at the famous Piggly Wiggly. Rudi and Cindy Kassier bought Highgate Farm in 1996 with the vision of a simple farm life and to provide for their children. With the farm being located on the busy R103, Rudi identified a need for a ‘stop and go’, a farmstall where you could pull up, and pick and choose your own freshly grown vegetables. As the word spread of local fresh produce being readily available, people flocked to the little farmstall under the tree. It soon became quite the social point and so Piggly Wiggly was born.

After our breakfast and a leisurely stroll through some of the shops, we headed off to another must-stop: the Nelson Mandela Capture Site. Commemorating the moment in history with a beautifully curated visitor centre and renowned sculpture at the spot where Nelson Mandela was arrested on 5 August 1962, a visit is well worth your time. Driving past it on the R103, the sculpture resembles randomly erected drift-wood pieces, but when nearing the emotive artwork, it morphs into a side profile of our most respected statesman. The sculpture was created by artist Marco Cianfanelli and is made up of 50 steel column constructions between 6.5 to 9.5 meters tall that come into alignment to form the portrait against the rolling hills and valleys.

Inspired by the magnificent piece of art, we headed to The Platform at the old train station. This beautiful space offers the ideal outlet for talented local artists, and you will find a good mix of stunning bronze work, gorgeous water colour paintings and other mixed-material pieces. Tummies rumbling by now, our next stop was the Highgate Wine Estate, one of only three certified wine farms in the province.

Strolling through the vineyard to the cellar and restaurant, we were greeted by the classic smell of oak barrels. We found a spot in the welcoming restaurant and ordered a cheese platter to enjoy with our wine tasting. We tried a selection of four wines made on the Estate, the one more delicious than the other. We both particularly enjoyed the Pinotage, called Sakkie (after the estate dog, a beautiful boxer). We are told that Sakkie adds tremendous value to the team during the harvest season – from his keen sense of smell, telling the team when the grapes are ripe for picking, to keeping everyone safe. His face graces the label, so it just made sense to name a wine after him. Good boy, Sakkie!

While we could have lingered the afternoon away, enjoying the beautiful weather and wines, we still wanted to head out to probably the most famous road in the Midlands – Notthingham Road (or Notties, as the locals call it). As we drove past Michaelhouse (home to Spud) and a number of other places of interest, we agreed that a Midlands trip should become our annual “bestie breakaway” – there is simply too much to see and do for such a short stay!

Something we agreed could not be left for a next visit was the chocolate dipping experience at Chocolate Heaven. Situated at the Junction in Notties (there is also a smaller shop at Piggly Wiggly), owner Neil is a self-confessed chocoholic. He has created a fun experience for young and old, which sees participants dipping anything from fruit to biltong (yes, you read that right) in delicious, rich Belgian chocolate. Heavenly indeed!

After a full day of meandering and exploring, the trusty RAV4 got us safely back up the mountain to our cabin,where we were planning a relaxed braai experience on the eco-friendly Big Green Egg versatile outdoor cooker.

We were quite proud of our girl scout abilities as we got the coals ready to braai and enjoyed a relaxed evening with a glass of bubbles to celebrate our successful day of exploring. Rockwood certainly was the perfect hideaway for our break and we both agreed that the Farm House would make the perfect destination for our 50th birthdays (which is closer than we care to admit!).

Watch out for that tree!

Another early start the next morning had us turning our steed’s nose to Karkloof Road again – this time in the direction of the Karkloof Canopy Tour. I’m not even going to lie, this was the one activity I was not looking forward to!

Meeting up with our guides and the rest of our group and after the safety briefing, I had hoped the fear would dissipate. It didn’t. Nor did it on the bumpy 4×4 ride high into the mountain. The rest of our group were all smiles, while my heart was racing. You see, I am afraid of heights. Not a little bit – a whole lot! I do not do heights or roller coasters – so why on earth would what essentially combines these two things, with me sliding at speeds of up to 70km/hour from up to 40m heigh platforms – be a good idea? But here I was, ready to face my fears.

The views on the drive up were spectacular and I I am told that on the canopy tour they are even better. I wouldn’t know – I was too busy trying not to die to appreciate it! Okay – after the fourth or fifth of the 10 ziplines, I did open my eyes and yes, it was spectacular. Will I do it again? I am not sure, but I do believe everyone should at least try it once (or anything that forces you out of yorur comfort zone). All said and done (and safely back on solid footing), it really was exhilarating to let go and fly…

While driving home, I couldn’t help but think about the promise made on the Midlands Meander tourism association’s website: “We know you’ll love visiting the Midlands Meander. And you’ll want to return to this good place.” Indeed – we are already planning the next trip!

Our steed

The RAV4 started life in 1994 as a cute toy-like two-door short wheelbase SUV (back then, the term crossover has not yet made its way into the automotive dictionary). It was ground-breaking back then and everyone loved the funky little adventure partner. It has grown considerably over the years and today, measuring 4.6m in length, it is one of the largest medium SUVs on the market.

This length translates into a spacious cabin and road trip practicality is further enhanced by a 580-litre boot space and 195mm ground clearance. The 2.5 GX-R CVT Hybrid E-Four we sampled has a normally aspirated 2.5-litre petrol engine mated with an electric motor for a total output of 160kW. The engine’s 221Nm is supplemented by 202Nm from the electric motor to give you a heathy dose of torque.

The animated power flow meter on the infotainment screen shows how the petrol and electric energy is being managed in real time and it became somewhat addictive to see how long I could keep it in pure electric mode (my best eco score was 78%). It has a small battery that is charged by energy regenerated from the engine and the car offers a limited electric-only range when driven with a very light foot. The transition between petrol and electric power, however, is almost undetectable. There is no jolt at all – just a change in sound as the engine chimes in and out, which makes for smooth power delivery.

The interior is upmarket with ample use of soft-touch materials and supportive sporty seats. Orange stitching is used on the seats and complemented by some orange trimmed trays for all your odds and ends. No squabbling over getting your devices charged either, thanks to a total of five USB ports (two at the back, two in the centre console and one below the 10.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system featuring wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as cloud-based satellite navigation).

On the gravel roads we travelled, it performed exceptionally thanks to Toyota‘s very clever torque vectoring system enabling traction control and constant shifting of drive between front and rear. While it was barely noticeable while driving, it could be seen via the on-board display which showed that on pull-away, more power was sent rearwards. In normal cruise mode frontwheel drive was employed. All other traction requirements are automatically adjusted to suite the conditions.

The RAV4 has been with us for a long time and while many buyers shifted to the more affordable (but smaller) Corolla Cross when it was introduced, I still believe this remains a solid option for someone who is in the market for a sensible, yet fun-to-drive mid-size SUV.

Model line-up & pricing

  • RAV4 2.0 GX-R CVT AWD: R624 800
  • RAV4 2.0 VX CVT 2WD: R635 500
  • RAV4 2.5 GX-R CVT Hybrid E-Four: R663 400
  • RAV4 2.5 VX AT AWD: R723 400
  • RAV4 2.5 VX CVT Hybrid E-Four: R744 900

*All Toyota hybrids are sold with a 3-year/100 000km warranty, a six services/90 000km service plan and an 8-year/195 000km warranty on the battery.

Travel Guide

The Midlands Meander is a collection of arranged routes that offer visitors hospitality in truly beautiful surroundings, stretching from just beyond Mooi River in the north to Hilton in the south, and from Karkloof in the east to the foothills of the Drakensberg in the west. An easy one-hour drive from Durban and around five hours on the N3 highway from Johannesburg, there is much to explore and do in the Midlands.

Our favourites

Karkloof Nature Reserve & Conservancy

A significant area because of its biodiversity of fauna and flora, the reserve consists of about 60% mistbelt forrest and 40% mistbelt grassland, and ranges from 1 000 to 1 767m above sea level. This results in an interesting variety of species, including the endemic Karkloof Blue Butterfly (Orachrysops ariadne). It is also an important breeding ground for the wattled crane. The Reserve offers world-class birding, regular hikes, environmental awareness and education at local farm schools.

CONTACT: +72 (33) 330 2992 | |

Rockwood karkloof

The ideal place to create your own adventure – whether it is walking, hiking, mountain biking, birding, fishing, swimming of simply relaxing in the beautiful surroundings. A variety of exclusive trails, including MTB and hiking trails, start from the lodge and promise exquisite views. The three dams on the property offer trout fishing (brown and rainbow trout).

CONTACT: +27 (31) 502 4043 | | |Facebook: Rockwood Lodges | Instagram: @rockwoodlodges

Karkloof Canopy Tour

Located about 20km outside of Howick, this eco-tourism experience takes you through indigenous forest in a way you have not experienced before. Participants are harnessed and suspended on steel cables, up to 40m above the forest floor and guided between 12 platforms down ten slides (ranging in length, with the longest being 200m).

CONTACT: +27 76 241 2888 | |

Nelson Mandela Capture Site

Commemorating the moment in history when Nelson Mandela was arrested outside of Howick, the site is open daily between 09:00 and 16:00. Entrance fees vary from R30 (for ages 12 – 18) to R100 for adults. Kids under 12 are free and discounted group rates as well as pensioners/student discounts apply.

CONTACT: +27 72 351 0967 | |

Piggly Wiggly

Nestled in the Highgate Wine Estate in the heart of the Midlands, Piggly Wiggly offers something for everyone – from chocolate and candle dipping, to pottery, painting, wine tasting and artisanal shops.

CONTACT: +27 60 344 9359 | |

Highgate Wine Estate

Crafting 100% estate wines, Highgate offers wine-tastings, delicious food, events a weddings, and picturesque scenery surrounding the elegant venue.

CONTACT: +27 66 449 2620 | / |

Chocolate Heaven

Catering for the serious chocoholic, you will find chocolates made using the finest imported Belgian chocolate, with proudly South African fillings (such as koeksisters and milk tart). Find them at The Junction in Notthingham Road or at Piggly Wiggly.

CONTACT: +27 74 828 0132 |

*Download the free app, ideal to see all attractions in one place from the Midlands Meander tourism association website:

CONTACT: +27 (0)33 330 8195 |

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