Bisley Valley Nature Reserve, a hidden gem located 7 km from Pietermaritzburg, is a stunning destination for those seeking a peaceful retreat in nature. This 350 hectare reserve boasts of thornveld and grassland, offering ample opportunities for picnics and bird-watching.
The reserve is a paradise for bird enthusiasts, being home to a diverse range of species, including spotted thick-knee, green wood hoopoe, southern black flycatchers, fan tailed widowbirds, bush shrike, African emerald cuckoo, southern boubou, African black duck, little grebe, little rush warbler, thick-billed weaver, six different types of cuckoo, four types of honeyguides, widow finches, whydahs, southern tchagra, dwarf bittern, corncrakes and booted eagles. There are two bird hides overlooking wetland and grassland, providing excellent viewing opportunities for these feathered friends.
Visitors to Bisley Valley NR can enjoy its offerings without having to pay an entrance fee. The reserve has several picnic sites and trails aimed at bird-watching, as it lies on the Midlands sub-route of the Southern KwaZulu-Natal Birding Route. For those not interested in bird-watching, there are also several marked walking trails, where one may spot giraffe, impala and zebra. The reserve provides safe parking for up to 15 cars.
Pietermaritzburg, nicknamed the “Garden City”, is home to the 65-hectare Alexandra Park, established in 1860 and named after Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII. The park has a rich history as the social center of the city and continues to be a popular gathering spot for outdoor events today.
Visitors can attend the annual Art in the Park, the largest outdoor exhibition in South Africa showcasing African artists. Cars in the Park, Martizburg Fantasia, and Alex and Oval Sunday markets are also popular events held in the park. The Victorian Pavilion, a national monument and home to cultural city events, is located near the Mayor’s Garden. The Umsindusi River forms a natural boundary to the park and is surrounded by mature Plane trees and Jacaranda trees, as well as various indigenous and exotic flora.
Two beautiful cast iron bridges span the river and the park features various walking trails, a conservatory, flower beds, a rose garden, rockeries, succulents, and trees such as Aloes, Azaleas, Agaves, Bougainvilleas, Cape Chestnut trees, Cycads, a Palm Tree avenue, Weeping Boerbean trees, and Yellowwood trees. The park also offers a braai (barbecue) area, Sunday lunch near the cricket pitch, and facilities for swimming, cycling, and soccer.
Blue Caterpillar Art Gallery
Not too far from Bisley Valley Nature Reserve lies the Blue Caterpillar Art Gallery. It’s a must-visit for art lovers and those interested in South African artists. The gallery showcases a diverse collection of works by renowned artists such as Frans Claerhout, Ezequiel Mabote, Derek Miller, Jo Kotze, and many others. It offers a range of beautiful oils and mixed media pieces, as well as unique African works by Mabote, a master woodcut print maker. If you’re in the market for fine art, be sure to visit the Blue Caterpillar Art Gallery at 37 Willowton Road in Pietermaritzburg.
The Comrades Museum
The Comrades Marathon House serves as the headquarters and museum of the world-renowned Comrades Marathon, South Africa’s most popular road race. The Comrades Marathon, first run by 34 participants, has grown to become the largest ultra-marathon in the world, attracting over 10,000 to 13,000 runners from all over the world. The 90 km race alternates its starting location annually between Pietermaritzburg, the inland capital of KwaZulu Natal, and Durban’s coast, with a predominantly uphill course starting from Durban and a mostly downhill experience from Pietermaritzburg.
The Comrades Museum features a scale model of the race route and historical photographs that document the start of this global event, initiated in 1921 by World War 1 veteran Vic Clapham as a tribute to the South African soldiers who died in the Great War. The museum also showcases the champions and legends of the Comrades Marathon, including Bruce Fordyce, Frith van der Merwe, Wally Hayward, and Arthur Newton. Visitors can also admire the collection of personal marathon mementos donated by former competitors, paying tribute to the rich history and future of this phenomenal sporting event, a national treasure of South Africa.
Tatham Art Gallery
The Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg is a must-visit for art lovers when exploring the KwaZulu-Natal region. Housed in a historic building dating back to 1903, the gallery is considered one of the most significant art museums in South Africa and showcases a diverse collection of art pieces, including works by local and European artists. The permanent exhibitions feature a mix of paintings, pottery, and other crafts, with special emphasis given to the art of KwaZulu-Natal.
The Main Exhibition Room regularly holds major exhibitions featuring the works of a single artist or a group of creatives, sometimes focusing specifically on local artists from the region. Temporary exhibitions are also held, providing visitors with a dynamic experience every time they visit.
The Tatham Shop, located within the gallery, is a popular destination for souvenirs and gifts, offering a variety of handmade crafts, including ceramics, beads, embroidery, and woven goods. Visitors can also enjoy a meal or a drink at Café Tatham, which features an eclectic decor and is a cozy spot for a Sunday lunch buffet.
Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the province, is located about an hour from Durban and the King Shaka International Airport, making it a convenient stop on a tour of the region.
Nestled in the heart of Pietermaritzburg, Rosehurst Garden is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. This converted Victorian cottage, located at 239 Boom Street, boasts a beautiful garden that has been lovingly cultivated for nearly three decades. Inspired by the garden at Sissinghurst Castle in South East England, Rosehurst Garden features an array of lush greenery, including hedges, topiary, and informal plantings, divided into smaller gardens with their own unique color themes.
Take a stroll through the pink lawn garden, bask in the sunshine of the yellow sundial garden, relax in the white gazebo garden, or enjoy the tranquil ambiance of the mauve side garden. The café on site serves light refreshments, including decadent chocolate scones, and the shop is filled with a range of quirky items, making Rosehurst Garden the perfect place for a delightful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Whether you’re looking for a tranquil place to have a cup of tea or a beautiful garden to admire, Rosehurst Garden is the ideal destination.
The Natal Museum, one of South Africa’s “big 5” national museums, offers a unique experience for visitors. With 10 Cultural History and 8 Natural History Galleries, it showcases a diverse collection of authentic artefacts, fascinating displays, and extensive research. From the skeleton of the last Wild Elephant in KwaZulu Natal to life-size models of Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and T-Rex, the museum brings the natural world to life. The Taxidermy displays bring exotic tropical birds and cheeky Chimpanzees to life, while the Mollusca Collection showcases tiny and giant slugs from across South Africa. The museum also features original San Rock Art displays, Zulu Pottery, bead art, handcrafts, and bronze treasures from Mapungupwe. The exhibitions are regularly updated with traveling displays on topics such as politics, relationships, arts, and crafts. Visitors can also enjoy the monthly poetry readings by the local township poetry group, Knowledge of Self Society (KOSS), and the museum’s beautiful 1905 national monument building is home to oversized cockroaches, spiders, and ants. Overall, the Natal Museum is a meeting ground of national culture and natural history, with an impressive international reputation for its displays, artefacts, and collections.
Pietermaritzburg National Botanic Garden
The Pietermaritzburg National Botanic Garden offers a serene environment for visitors to enjoy nature and the surrounding beauty. With its 22-hectare international section and 24-hectare Southern Hemisphere indigenous section, the garden is dedicated to the conservation of endangered species and indigenous plants of South Africa’s eastern grasslands.
The garden is a popular destination for birdwatchers, with 150 species of local birdlife attracted to its lush greenery. Visitors can take a walk along the avenue of London Plane Trees, declared a national monument, and relax by the Kingfisher Lake. Dogs are welcome on leashes, and guided themed walks can be arranged during different seasons.
The garden’s Victorian roots date back to 1874, with specimens of the Northern Hemisphere’s Swamp Cypress, Tulip Trees, Camphor Trees, Giant Figs, and Magnolias on display. In the Useful Plants Garden, visitors can learn about the medicinal and cultural significance of plants used by the Zulu people. Self-guided trails through the Natal forest section offer a chance to explore the micro-habitats and create a beautiful picnic area.
Voortrekker – Msunduzi Museum
Visitors to the Bisley Valley Nature Reserve can also learn about South African history at the Voortrekker – Msunduzi Museum. The museum is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Afrikaans pioneers, known as the Voortrekkers, who migrated to the interior of South Africa in the 19th century. The museum is comprised of five buildings, each showcasing different aspects of South African history. The Main Building serves as a gallery for South Africa’s democratic history, while the original 1840 Church of the Vow is now the Voortrekker Complex. Visitors can also learn about the Anglo-Boer War in exhibitions housed in original 1849 Voortrekker architecture and about tribal lifestyle at the Zulu Hut. The Shiva Indian Temple represents the heritage of South Africa’s Hindu communities.
The museum houses many important relics, including the second oldest oxwagon in South Africa, original Voortrekker clothing and rifles, a prayer book belonging to former Voortrekker leader Piet Retief, and authentic lifestyle memorabilia. There are also artefacts, sculptures, and collages showcasing the role of African people in the Boer War and African beads from the Royal Residence of King Dingane. The museum also has an auditorium for educational presentations, a shop, and a restaurant.
The Olive Tree Coffee Shop
The Olive Tree Coffee Shop is a must-visit for foodies in the Pietermaritzburg area. This charming little café is situated just outside the city center, near the Midlands Liberty Mall and the Royal Show Grounds, and is part of the MacDonald’s Nursery complex. The menu offers a range of tasty dishes, including chicken lasagna, beef curry, lamb shank, prawn salad, pepper steak pie, and burgers, making it the perfect place to stop for lunch. After your meal, be sure to explore the nearby nursery and take home some new plants for your garden.
In conclusion, Bisley Valley Nature Reserve is a must-visit destination for those looking to immerse themselves in nature and enjoy the beauty of the bushveld. So close to town, it’s a great opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle and relax in the great outdoors. The reserve is run by the Mzunduzi municipality.