Think Durban, think a humid, sticky climate that hits you the minute you step off the aeroplane. Think gardens that appear to grow on their own and inevitably end up looking like out-of-control subtropical forests, seemingly as a result of nothing greater than the power of suggestion.
Durban brings to mind endless miles of white, sandy beaches (Durban lays claim to the only surfing museum in the country), the Golden Mile, and beachfront high rise flats that have re-emerged as the ‘place to stay’. Perched on the top of a ridge is the city’s university in the gentrified and academically artsy neighbourhood of Glenwood, whilst on the other end of the ridge you’ll find the fashionable Florida Road, where a few restaurants and choice shops are a better place to hang out by far than the centre of town.
Business has escaped the city centre choosing the north coast’s Umhlanga as its home, where hugely ambitious malls nestle in amongst a flurry of new and modern townhouse complexes and business parks with sea views, and an avenue of green acacia trees.
Durbanites are pretty laid-back on the whole. The people who live here are a mixed bunch – descendents of British colonialists and the Zulus, and the Indians who arrived as indentured labour to work in the sugarcane fields. It’s one place you make sure that a curry and a bunny chow are high on your list of choice meals, and where a swim in the warm sea is not something you pass up on, unless in the dead of winter, and even then…
The TOP things to do in Durban
Durban Botanic Gardens
Aside from the fact that you can do a permaculture course here on food gardening and watch a series of summer concerts in the amphitheatre known as Music at the Lake, the Durban Botanic Gardens are also a beautiful spot in the heart of the Berea of Durban in which to get lost. It has an orchid collection displayed in an orchid house that is particularly gorgeous, a herbarium, a Cycad collection, a Bromeliad Collection, a Palm Collection and a tea garden under the trees. Wander the lake area, the garden of senses, the sunken garden, the fern deli and take advantage of being able to picnic, well, anywhere.
It’s along here, that, if you must, you can ride a rickshaw – a rather sedate traditional way of getting around, the fun of which is debatable. They’re rather gimmicky, but tourists seem to love them or they wouldn’t still be on offer. Besides, they make great photo moments. The Golden Mile in Durban is called such because at night the series of lights along the beachfront mark it like a beacon in the night. It is, quite literally, a golden mile that runs from the uShaka Marine World all the way to the Suncoast Casino and is worth strolling, although perhaps not in its entirety.
uShaka Marine World
A theme park of note, the oceanarium alone is worth the fee and if you’re with kids, the amusement park, shopping and beach fun fills a day easily. There is even a shipwreck thrown in for fun. Water rides, frolicking dolphins, seal stadiums and penguin rookeries make this a bird’s eye view of the western Indian Ocean. Despite uShaka Marine World being a touristy thing to do, you would be hard pressed to beat it.
Umgeni Bird Park
With over 3000 exotic and indigenous birds on display in amongst a wonderful setting, complete with watefalls, the Umgeni Bird Park almost closed in 2009 after 25 years of providing a wonderful space for Durbanites to be amongst birds of all shapes and sizes, rescued at the last minute by the Durban City Council who now run the park. Free flight bird shows are a highlight, as are the baby room, the cranes, the toucans and the owls. It lies just inland of the Umgeni River mouth in a former quarry – peaceful, full of shady nooks and a fantastic showcase of birds.
Point Road Waterfront
This part of town may have once been a ‘no go’ area that saw more ladies of the night than night life, but the development that has risen up around uShaka Marine World has changed all that. Now there is a modern offshore Marina at Point Waterfront where beach flats, pavement cafés, retail shops, and a 5 star hotel overlook the new harbour mouth and a series of canals giving the illusion of having stumbled upon a surreal Venice, rather than Point Road.
Francis Farewell Square
Now more commonly known as Luthuli Square this is the square that would pass as the centre of the city, the square just outside City Hall (a replica of City Hall in Belfast, Ireland) where a Lieutenant Francis Farewell apparently pitched camp with a group of settlers in 1824. This is where history is maintained, and there are a host of monuments in the square to prove it, mostly referring to the two World Wars and the Boer Wars, but you’ll also find ones to Jan Smuts, Louis Both and Queen Victoria. The Post Office is here too, famous for the speech Churchill gave after escaping the Boers, where he served as a journalist. And there is the virtually iconic cenotaph portraying the departing spirit of a soldier, supported by two angels.
Grey Street (Yusaf Dadoo) Mosque
Grey Street is, and has always been, the heart of the ‘Indian Quarter’ in Durban – you come here to find incense, spices, material, cushion covers and jingly doorway bells. On the corner of Yusaf Dadoo and Queen Streets you’ll find Jumah Mosque, the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere; a rather grand affair that is rich blend of Islamic and Colonial architectural styles, built in 1927. Actually, the history is a little longer than that and the site was already marked out as the place for a mosque in 1881 where a tiny brick and mortar structure was built. Rebuilt in 1884 when land next door to it was bought, the building has undergone a number of metamorphoses. To enter, remove your shoes. Guided tours are available.
Township tours are relatively new to Durban and a multi-stop taxi ride through the streets of Kwa-Mashu will allow you, amongst other things, to sample Shis’nyama, a local style of braai, visit a sangoma or witch doctor, a shebeen and a myriad other fleeting stops that, by the end of it, will have changed your assumptions and given you what passes for an adventure. (Contact Street Scene Tours on +27 (0)31 368 5909)
Useful Durban Links:
The ‘secret’ spots
- Hare Krishna Temple of Understanding
- Victoria Street Market
- Madressa and Ajmeri arcades at the ‘Indian Quarter’
- Chilli dusted pineapple & the cable car at the Fun Fair
- The Yacht Mole
- Florida Road
- Mangrove Swamps on the Mgeni River