Durban on South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal is hot in climate, character and local curry, this east coast city lays itself bare with relaxed and uncomplicated confidence.
Populated by a mixed people, yet dominated by Zulu and Indian culture, with remnants of early Colonialism and English influences, here we find impressive architecture and hipster retailers alongside street vendors selling colourful beaded works and delicious chilli samosas. Whichever it is you’re after, you’ll find it offered up with a raw honesty.
Take a stroll along the promenade and catch a surf with the locals. Have the best conversations with taxi drivers and find the Victoria Street market, African muti stalls and rows of colourful and rather cheap imports from China, all within easy striking distance of each other. Then venture up to Florida Road where the restaurants are top class, the shopping options impressive and the English just a little more proper.
I like Durban. It’s an African city. It smells of spice and sunblock. Holds memories of dripping soft serves and simple sandcastles. Beachfront holiday apartments and ships bobbing on the warm Indian ocean. And there was that time I dated a boy here. He drove a beetle with a surfboard strapped on top, the Beach Boys bursting from the tape deck as he drove me around his city …
When you get to Durban, these are some of the things I recommend you do.
– For a good introduction, consider a city tour on the Riksha Bus, which operates every day between 9 am and 1 pm. A perfect orientation and overview that will help you plan your time there. Bear in mind that the city is divided into Central, North and West, as should visits to the attractions be. To help get around and to save on entry fees, get a See Durban Pass. It covers most of the must-dos.
– Walk the Golden Mile beachfront which runs from North to South Beach. There are cycles for rent too and African traders selling beautiful curios along the way. The water is warm and you could walk one-way feet in the sand, the other along the promenade, to get a different perspective.
– Visit the Moses Mabhida Stadium which stays vibrant all year round and has a personality that extends far beyond its obvious use for concerts, events and football games. Take a trip on the SkyCar or make the 550-step adventure walk to the top of the arch to enjoy the panoramic views. For an in depth look there are all-access tours on offer too, a variety of restaurants, shops and even a gym. But for the most fun, try plunging off the 106 metre arch on the Big Rush Swing. I did it. Crazy! Here’s my video.
– Take a boat trip with KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board which leaves Wilson’s Wharf daily to join the crew checking the shark nets. At the same time learn more about the fragility of these apex predators and the conservational challenges that sharing the waters with them bring.
– Time at uShaka Marine World to learn about the inhabitants of the Indian ocean. There are loads of attractions from snorkelling to village walks, restaurants and Africa’s largest water slide here. A great day out with the children especially. (Note: I do not endorse the animal encounters or believe they should be holding dolphins captive). Other than that, loads of fun to be had.
– Take a canoe paddle on the uMgeni River estuary, one of the most important biodiversity assets in the area. You can experience the combo of beach, estuary and river with great bird watching in particular and the beautiful mangrove swamps.
– Learn some of the histories by visiting the Town Hall, Emmanuel Cathedral, Cato Manor Heritage Centre, Juma Musjid Mosque, Old House Museum, Francis Farewell Square and take the Inanda Heritage Route to some of the most important historical sites of Durban.
– Take a rickshaw ride with pride. Linger in Mini town. Swim at North beach.
– Go shopping for Indian spices, incense, authentic fabrics and delicious food at the Victoria Street Market which opened in 1910 and creates an illusion of the Maharajah’s palace. Also on offer in the dry market are African curios, carvings, brass treasures and clothes. To me, the main attraction is the people. Be sure to engage in conversations and learn about their rich history.
– Just around the corner is the African muti market, not for the faint-hearted. I recommend you hire a guide from Durban Tourism to see you through stalls of drying skins, snakes, jars of lion fat and different herbs, among others. Herewith the right guidance from a Sangoma (traditional healer), you will find all you need to heal any ailment. A fascinating look at African traditional medicine. Here I discourage photography.
– Talking markets, there’s also the Markets of Warwick with 6000 shops that offer anything and everything, in all colours.
It will be hot and a little sticky in Summer and even if you’re there in Winter, pack shorts and t-shirts. It’s called ’the warmest place to be’ for a reason.
To help you get by, some useful Durbs slang: ‘skrik’ – fright | ‘smaak’ – like | ‘bru’ – brother | ‘dop’ – alcohol | ‘pozie’ – house | ‘shot’ – thanks and get yourself invited to a ‘jol’ or party. Remember to get your African bangle, woven basket, a tummy full of bunny chow and spread the word that Durban is a cool city that deserves discovery. Don’t be confused by its brave diversity, be intrigued by it. Give it a chance. I know you’ll smaak it.