Unless you know South Africa well, chances are you don’t know much about Durban. Perhaps you know that it’s a great surf spot. I certainly didn’t know much more than that before I visited, but by the time I left, I was brimming with enthusiasm for this often-forgotten city on South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coast. Here’s a taste of what you can expect from a side trip to Durban.
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Durban was the site of one of the most important moments in South African history. On 27 April, 1994, Nelson Mandela visited Ohlange High School and placed his vote in South Africa’s first democratic election. The site of this globally historic event can be found on a hilltop in the northern Inanda district of the city. Mandla Nxumalo runs the Ohlange Institute and was one of Mandela’s chaperones when he placed his vote. Having had the chance to speak to him face to face, it was clear that his eyes still gleamed with emotion.
Aside from being the site of Mandela’s first vote, Durban is also the place where Mahatma Gandhi developed his satyagraha philosophy, which underpinned his passive resistance to the unjust politics he sought to overthrow. After arriving in South Africa in 1893, he remained in the country for 21 years, famously claiming: “It was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now.” Gandhi lived in the Phoenix Settlement of Durban where he moved in 1904 as a young lawyer to develop a self-sustaining community. His former home in the settlement is now a museum documenting his life in Durban and South Africa.
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Culture and food
KwaZulu-Natal is one of South Africa’s most traditional provinces and this is strongly apparent when walking through the beautiful herb market at Warwick Junction. Locals can be uncomfortable with photos, so make sure you ask first. Here you’ll see the vast array of traditional medicines used by the Zulu community, from sage lavender used to connect with ancestors to the gory carcasses of animals.
The province name ‘KwaZulu-Natal’ translates to ‘Place of the Zulu’, but it’s a multi-cultural region of South Africa. Durban is home to the largest population of Indians outside India following the mid-1800s when they were brought over as indentured labourers. One of the stamps the Indian community made on South African culture is the introduction of the bunny chow, widely considered to be one of the country’s defining dishes. The bunny is a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry, traditionally made with mutton and spicy enough to get your nose streaming. You eat the whole thing, tearing off chunks of the bread to scoop up the curry. It’s not a first date kind of meal, but it is delicious.
Durban’s Umhlanga Rocks is home to the sleek, luxurious side of the city. This beautiful coastal strip is a world apart from the grittiness of the city markets. In stark contrast are a handful of high-end hotels including the famous, colonial-style Oyster Box with its iconic red and white lighthouse, and the luxury boutique hotel Teremok Marine.
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The beachfront promenade sees dozens of joggers and walkers taking in the coastal views early in the morning before it gets too hot. Just down from the Oyster Box is the pier that was voted one of the world’s best by CNN and features ‘whale bones’ arched over the walkway. Along the promenade, you’ll find the Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve where shaded trails weave through the dune forest.
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A number of new, cool bars are springing up throughout Durban. I headed to The Chairman, a self-proclaiming world-class jazz bar with live music. The authentic house in which the bar is based has been decked out in all manner of quirky objects and furnishings, such as a huge kudu head mounted on the wall next to a bar backed by old record covers. As hip Durbanites arrive, enjoying a cocktail on the leather sofas, a DJ plays until the band starts later in the evening. It’s safe to say the venue certainly didn’t disappoint. Other recommended watering holes include the Oyster Box’s Lighthouse Bar, Moyo for cocktails and Unity Bar for beers.
Need to know
Durban, and the rest of the north east coast of South Africa, can be come swelteringly hot in the summer but is pleasantly warm throughout the winter. This is when South Africans from the cooler Western Cape will journey to these warmer climes.
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Aside from the luxury hotel scene, there are lots of options for accommodation. The Concierge is a popular boutique, design hotel and, for budget travellers, there’s Curiocity Backpackers which opened in 2016.
Durban’s King Shaka International Airport has an increasing number of routes that connect the city to various hubs in the Middle East and Africa. Domestically, there are regular flights from all the major cities in South Africa, including Cape Town and Johannesburg.
This well-connected vibrant hub of activity is, for me, a must-visit when travelling around South Africa. Durban’s beautiful beaches and traditional food are worth the trip on their own – but once you land, you’ll be swept up in the wonderful culture that offers even more.