Born and bred in the beachfront village of Umhlanga Rocks, North of Durban, I have grown to love the different people, historical narratives and activities that make this region the number one holiday destination for South Africans.
“Every day is Durban day”, is the all-year-round sub-tropical welcome from the locals. Durban by the sea is in the midst of a 600km coastline stretching from Mozambique in the North to the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape. Durban poet Adam Knight described it as “Indian Ocean – washing machine of the soul”. Surfers, bathers, bodysurfers, and beach-walkers alike take great refreshment from these warm waters.
Healing and personal transformation has an ancient route for visitors to Durban. Throughout time, traditional African people travelled to these shores to pray and bathe in the rivers and ocean. A favourite place for people of all faiths is the meeting of the mighty Umgeni River and the Indian Ocean at Blue Lagoon, site of the southern-most mangrove swamps in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela both changed to non-violent resistance on their stays in Durban. One can connect with these histories through the annual Salt March (26 April) that walks from the city centre to Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement, or the historic permanent exhibition at the Mandela Capture Site in Howick.
Wildlife, too, has found respite in these waters. The annual sardine run during mid-winter (July) brings the sea-life to the surface with shoals of glistening silver sardines and dolphins dancing in the waves. To witness the run from the rubber duck boats is an incredible experience, although there is also always action from the shore as people collect the straggler sardines in their buckets.
Durban is a ball
The local Zulu people describe Durban as a ball. The Zulu name eThekwini means testicle, referring to the shape of the bay. The name Durban was adopted with the founding of the city in 1835 and was named after the then Cape governor. Early paintings of the bay depict an unmatched natural beauty with an abundance of sub-tropical jungles, mangroves, trees, animals and birds.
Today, the harbour remains an urban attraction, described by sailors and visitors onboard luxury cruiseliners as the most beautiful harbour in the Southern Hemisphere. Various restaurants provide entertainment on the waters edge while boat cruises, such as the unforgettable Sarie Marais, offer trips around the harbour.
Flanked by Durban’s most recognisable landmark, the ridged and forested Bluff jutting out into the ocean on one side and the famous golden mile of beaches on the other, is a constantly developing landmark with a growing point development that includes attractions such as uShaka Marine World and a warehouse converted into the cities trendiest live music venue, The Chairman Lounge.
Florida Road is a high street for entertainment. Historically, this long and winding road was the walkway elephants used as they made their way from the ridge to the marshes, which is now the site of the Royal Durban golf course.
Although much of the wildlife has been pushed North into the reserves, there are still a number of fabulous natural emblems to experience. The Botanical Gardens, a shady respite from the summer humidity, offers a visual slither of the natural beauty that Durban once was with an array of beautiful trees and splendid flora. Year-round live music concerts at the Gardens are a popular attraction.
Home of the Zulu
KwaZulu translates as ‘home of the Zulu’ and the indigenous culture is often on display with annual festivals and events in established venues such as The Playhouse, City Hall, Conference Centre and The Rivertown Precinct. Favourite styles include maskanda made famous by ‘the white Zulu’ Johnny Clegg; the vibrant mbaqanga rhythm, which went to world number one on Paul Simon’s Graceland album; and the isicathimya vocal – a capella style that earned Ladysmith Black Mambazo five Grammy awards. Currently, the Durban house music genre, Qgom, is trending worldwide.
The bright Zulu beading tradition is showcased at the Durban beachfront while the African Muthi (medicine) Market in Warwick Junction sells alternative medicines of the nyangas (herbalists) and sangomas (spiritual healers). A host of well curated walking tours offer insight into these and other attractions such as King Shaka’s inspirational and extensive military history.
But what makes Durban unique is its melting pot of diverse perspectives and people. The British influence is marked by grand and evocative Victorian, Edwardian and art décor architecture. City Hall was built in the epicentre of the Durban in the early 1900s in a neo-baroque style and is resplendent with statues of early leaders and word war monuments.
Durban was one of the first cities in the world to introduce cinema, with the Electric Theatre established in 1909. The film legacy is celebrated in the annual Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) that takes place in July (durbanfilmfest.co.za).
With the largest population of Indians outside of India, the Eastern flavour is always on display, particularly in Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street, named after one of the spearheads of the passive resistance movement. In the same street is the large and attractive Juma Masjid Mosque, with the Madressa arcade running through it.
On a side street called Dr Goonam is my favourite eatery, The Little Gujarat. This restaurant offers authentic vegetarian South Indian food at exceptionally good value. Directly across are a number of textile shops specialising in the popular Shweshe fabric and around the corner is the Victoria Street Market crammed with African curios and Indian spices.
For many visitors, Durban is a gateway to the vast and exquisite coastal and inland reserves of KwaZulu-Natal. Exploring the many wonders of this region is an exciting and never-ending story.
When to go
Durban has great weather all year round. Due to the sub-tropical climate, some visitors find the summer months too humid and prefer May to November.
Where to stay
Curiocity Durban has lovely inner-city rooms ranging from R320 per person per night, including breakfast. They have inner-city walking and bicycle tours, food tours and day tours to neighbouring attractions.
Durban’s most famous meals include the Zulu tradition of shisa nyama (meat cooked on an open fire), the Indian tradition of bunny chow (curry in bread), and the coastal seafood delights.
Durban is very affordable compared with other major metropolitan cities in South Africa.
From King Shaka Airport, there are affordable airport transfer services and car hire. The taxi apps are a popular way to traverse the city and surrounds.
Words: Struan Douglas