SURF AFRICA; Mountains, Seas and Elephants. KwaZulu Natal Has Got the Lot
Byline: JACQUI THAKE
ON arrival in Durban the customs officer greets me with a cheery "Good morning, sir."
I know it's been a long, sleepless, overnight flight but gender-changing? Well really. Hubby Tom now delights in calling me Jack instead of Jacqui.
It's an inauspicious start to our tour of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province but it can only get better.
And it does. Our first few days are spent in the glorious Drakensberg mountains.
Gather every superlative you can possibly think of and you will have some idea of just how stunning the scenery is in this country that's all set for next year's World Cup.
No wonder this 200km undulating wonderland was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000.
These slopes have been venerated for aeons since the San people - or bushmen - roamed them. Tens of thousands of paintings depicting their daily life can still be found on the rock faces.
This is perfect trekking country. Then Tom discovers he's only brought one walking boot. Sorry, mate, you don't get out of the dawn hike I've got planned for us that easily.
Luckily for him he's also brought a pair of trainers so we set off as the first hint of sun traces a halo around the mountain edges.
We're based at the Alpine Heath resort in the northern Drakensberg, where there are trails marked out with varying degrees of difficulty. I choose the semi-challenging Cascades trail and we follow the blue bear "footprints" which indicate the way.
It may be winter here but by now the sun is blazing and there's not a cloud in the sky. This is to be the pattern of our days - temperatures into the 20s during the day, but boy, do they drop at night.
Our trail is so beautiful that Tom gets plenty of breaks to catch his breath as I stop to take pictures - but he soon complains he's ready for breakfast.
I can see the lodge in the distance so I make encouraging noises. It's then he realises he's lost his glasses. He admits he took them off to look macho for a photo while negotiating the stepping stones across a brook.
We retrace our footsteps to no avail. Fortunately his eyesight isn't too bad or he'd miss out on the many other wondrous sights this area has to offer.
Our itinerary takes in a visit to a birds of prey sanctuary - Falconridge in Champagne Valley. Vultures, buzzards and eagles, with the help of co-star trainer Greg, put on a spectacular show, swooping, soaring and diving against a backdrop of huge skies and towering mountains.
Mountains were also the backdrop of the famous historic battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal where, for close on a century, Zulu, Boer and Briton competed bitterly for possession of the land.
The battlefields route takes you through sensational countryside. It's difficult to believe these rolling hills, rivers and gentle grasslands once served as the blood-soaked cockpit of South Africa.
We visit Rorke's Drift, the best-known battlefield site of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. We stand reverently before the memorial to the British in a cemetery surrounded by juniper trees. It's both humbling and sobering to be here where 11 VCs were won.
Nearby is a memorial to the Zulus. A beautiful sculpture of a leopard, a symbol of peace, straddles a mound of shields. It's so peaceful and tranquil and, surprisingly, there's little commercialism to spoil it.
We overnight at Isandlwana Lodge, which is built into the side of a mountain overlooking the site of another famous battle where the British suffered their worst-ever defeat in the history of colonial warfare.
The lodge is designed to look as though it grows out of the rock formations on which it is built. The atmosphere is lightened in the evening as the lodge hosts a display of Zulu dancing on the veranda. Now the sun's gone down I'm clad in five layers of clothing plus one of the ponchos provided to each guest. …