Destination Midlands

Steeped in history, a blend of old world and new, we look at why the Natal Midlands and surrounds should be on your events bucket list this year

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When you picture the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, you’d be forgiven for thinking of it as a purely leisure destination.

“This is a place that transports you away from the hustle and bustle of city life and into the tranquility of the countryside, allowing the mind to explore and accept,” says Sean Granger, General Manager of Granny Mouse Hotel and Spa.

But it is exactly this that makes the area a good choice for hosting your next event or conference.

Soft green rolling hills, deep valleys, rivers, dams, and steeped in history – the Midlands exudes elegance and charm. The isiZulu word Eshayamoya comes to mind, roughly translated as ‘where the breezes blow’. Here you will find wide open spaces, horse and cattle ranches, guest farms and welcoming communities. The gateway to this rambling area radiates from the historic heart of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, known as the ‘City of Flowers’.

“It’s about being different,” says Granger. “This area allows companies, event organisers and delegates to explore, act, follow and learn in a fresh air environment, which gives them the sense of freedom.”

This is what sets the area apart.

“No hustle, no stress, just the outdoors and fresh air.”

A CAPITAL PLACE

Pietermaritzburg, founded in 1838, is the capital and second largest city of KwaZulu-Natal. It’s still considered to be one of the best-preserved Victorian cities in the world, but its history is rooted much deeper than that. The city was founded by the Voortrekkers, following the defeat of Dingane at the Battle of Blood River, and according to Pietermaritzburg Tourism, was the capital of the short-lived Boer republic Natalia. Britain took over the town in 1843, making it the seat of the Natal Colony’s administration under the first lieutenant-governor Martin West. In 1893, Natal took responsibility for its own government and an assembly building and city hall was built. In 1910, when the Union of South Africa was formed, Natal become a province of the Union, with Pietermaritzburg remaining the capital.

There are two interpretations as to the origins of the city’s name. One belief is that it was named after Piet Retief and Gert Maritz, two Voortrekker leaders. The other is that is was named after Piet Retief alone as his full name was Pieter Marurits Retief. Ironically, Piet Retief never reached Pietermaritzburg itself, as he was killed by Dingane, King Shaka’s brother, before he even got there.

At the time of the rise of the Zulu empire, what was to become known as Pietermaritzburg was originally called Umgungundlovu – the place of the elephant. Legend has it that Shaka’s warriors hunted elephant to sell the ivory to English traders in Durban. While the town maintains its Voortrekker name, the municipality that it falls under bears the Zulu name.

It was here, on the night of 7 June 1893, that a young lawyer, who would become known to the world as Mahatma Gandhi, was tossed off a train at the Pietermaritzburg Railway station. His crime – he was evited from a whites-only compartment. Of his experience Gandhi later wrote: “I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting-room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty? I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward with God as my helper, and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date”.

And, upon receiving the Freedom of Pietermaritzburg on 25 April 1997, the late President Nelson Mandela, shared: “I feel deeply honoured to be awarded the Freedom of the City of Pietermaritzburg. For me personally the city has strong associations that make this a moving occasion.” He added: “I accept the Freedom you bestow on me with humility, knowing that, through me, you are honouring the whole South African nation.”

Today, Pietermaritzburg is considered to be ‘a little piece of the Old Country’, due to its fine examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture.

PMB CONFERENCING

Pietermaritzburg has a wide range of conferencing venues to suit every need and taste.

The quaint Ascot Wedding and Conference Venue, in indigenous surrounds, offers a wide range of conferencing options, including large bomas and intimate rondavels. Rockeries, flowing water and prolific birdlife give this venue a little bit of something extra.

For something completely different, try Caribe Caribe, which promises to offer a taste of Cuba. Tropical trees and bush surround the house creating an interesting ambience. With an outdoor pool and conference facilities, the Caribe Caribe Lodge and Conference Centre is a three-minute drive from the National Botanical Gardens

Ascot Inn is situated on 15 acres of landscape gardens. A 10-minute drive from the city centre, this inn and bush lodge offers five conference venues. The charming buildings, some of which have stabled legendary racehorses that have raced at the Scottsville Race Course, are found in beautifully-crafted gardens planned to be both functional and enjoyable.

Located a stone’s throw from the Provincial Parliament buildings, Protea Hotel Imperial has a distinctive century-old charm blended with historic ambience and graceful prestige. Recently refurbished to add a touch of modernism, this hotel offers eight conference venues.

The Golden Horse Casino is found next to the Scottsville Racecourse, and has a range of conference venues for up to 400 delegates.

THE MIDLANDS MEANDER

Stretching from just north of Pietermaritzburg and extending from Rietvlei and Curry’s Post in the east to Dargle Valley and Fort Nottingham in the west, the Midlands Meander is around 80 kilometres of sights, sounds and activities. Time is much slower in this part of the country, and as Granger shares, it offers a completely different outlook on life. The artisanal and adventure environment encourages event organisers, conference planners and companies to look at embracing something out of the norm. Think team cooking activities, horseback wine tasting, adventure sports, zip lining and so much more.

THE HISTORY

The first white settlers to the Midlands area were the Voortrekkers who began selling their farms to newly-arrived British settlers after Britain annexed the Boer Republic of Natalia in 1843. By 1850s, few of the original families were left in the district. The first British settlers to Nottingham Road was the King/Ellis family: John King, his wife Janet, their three-year-old son James and three-month-old daughter Helen. They were accompanied by Janet’s brother James Ellis and sisters Helen and Elizabeth. They discovered the area through the Byrne Immigration Scheme, designed to attract settlers to the largely uninhabited KwaZulu- Natal interior.

The story goes that each male was paid 10 pounds (which covered the cost of the journey from England to Durban), and was allocated 20 acres of land. The land, however, was largely not viable for farming. The family bought property near to what is now known as Nottingham Road, which was more suitable, and was named after places in their native Scotland. John King named his farm Gowrie, and it was here the Village of Nottingham Road was established.

Today Nottingham Road is considered to be the hub of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Adventure activities are a major drawcard for this area, with mountain bike races, equestrian events, fishing, canopy tours and more pulling in tourists. The Midlands area is also known for its arts and crafts, and the Meander itself, with its five routes, was the brainchild of four potters, a weaver and a couple of artists, who in 1985, decided to invite the public to experience their crafts in their countryside studios. Today the Meander has more than 150 members along the route.

Another drawcard to the area is Nelson Mandela Capture Site and the installation of the remarkable and unique sculpture that marks this spot. On 5 August 1962, on this ordinary piece of road along the R103, a mere five kilometres outside of Howick, armed apartheid police flagged down a car, driven by Mandela pretending to be a chauffeur. By this stage, he had successfully evaded capture for 17 months. He had just made a clandestine visit to ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli’s Groutville home and it was here he was arrested and incarcerated on Robben Island for 27 years.

CONFERENCING IN THE MIDLANDS

Granny Mouse Country House and Spa is a popular conferencing spot that strives to be different. They offer team-building activities such as group tastings, (Brandy and Chocolate Tastings, Beer, Whiskey and Wine Tasting) and Mouster Chef Classes. Granny Mouse aims to give a personalised conference service, with attention to detail, ease and comfort and return ono investment.

The charming and historical Nottingham Road Hotel, is known by the locals as Notties and is home to one of the oldest pubs in KwaZulu-Natal. The venue caters for intimate conferences, events and teambuilding activities with each package custom-designed according to needs and budget. Teambuilding activities, including golfing, trout fishing, hot air ballooning, hiking, game drives, spa treatments and more, can be arranged.

Fordoun Hotel is a five-star boutique hotel that offers state-of-the-art conference facilities at affordable prices. Found on a Nottingham Road dairy farm, the original buildings have been transformed and modernised to meet discerning tastes.

Built in the 1830s, and set on 250 acres of rolling lawns and forests overlooking the Karkloof Valley, Old Halliwell Country Inn speaks of the charms and traditions of yesteryear. The conference venue can seat up to 260 people. Enhancing the venue is the Old Halliwell Rest home for horses, where these gracious animals while away their golden years on lush green pastures.