The second part of my post on my home town was going to be on the things one should do when visiting Durban. After all, while I may still call Durban home, very soon its not going to be my home town anymore. I’m going to be one of the Vaalies (if indeed I haven’t already become one) who only visits during school holidays to make the roads busier, fill up the malls and make visiting the beach impossible. As soon as I was done writing part 1 of 2, I edited the feature image and wanted to dive right in and have this post done immediately. Then I got to planning and thinking about it and I came to a rather disheartening conclusion.
I might not be the best person to ask what a visitor to Durban should actually do. The list of 5 things to do or places to visit does not come as easily for Durban as other towns I would normally be a visitor in. Unlike when I visit Cape Town I don’t have a list of things already planned to see and do that then get shuffled around as the weather or my sister’s schedule allows. Even Joburg has its charms and if you asked me to be a tour guide for a couple days I would be able to find enough to fill up the time. But time in Durban seemingly passes at a different rate. You can, and I have on a few occasions, pitch up on a Friday with a plan to do nothing at all and leave on a Sunday completely tired wondering where the time went so quickly. That Friday and Sunday could be two weeks apart and still leave you feeling the same. You would have done so many things but achieved nothing at all. The other major reason is that my time in Durban is usually not my time for most part but reverts to being my parents time to do with as they wish. So while I might want to be on the beach, my parents might need shopping that has to be done or relatives that need visiting and takes precedence.
If there is one thing I have learnt over the last 10 years driving or flying up and down to Durban it is that you can never really plan what to do in the city. You just got to go with it and see where you find yourself. So my 5 things to do in Durban if you find yourself with some free time to go with it are as follows:
1. Eat and be merry
I guess you would be thinking that this is Maslow and his darn needs kicking in again. And you would be correct but only partially. Because for me at least, eating in Durban transcends the need to satisfy your hunger and starts to become a act that is more often than not attached to a myriad of emotions, mostly good ones. The meals most remembered are the ones at the large family gatherings such as weddings or prayers where eating three helpings of biryani was not only acceptable but expected. And then soji for dessert in the same biryani plate. The bunny chow, one of Durban’s most famous Indian exports may have been invented as the perfect way to package curry and bread for lunch time in the cane fields but ask anyone and they will tell you the best way to enjoy one is on the bonnet of a car with 2 or 3 friends (And when you done, you wash your hands with the water you carry around to refill the radiator with when the car overheats). I am often asked where the best place to buy a bunny chow from in Durban is and I give the same answer. I don’t really know because my mom’s bunny chow is probably the best in Durban. Honestly it is. So gather up the friends and go catch a bunny chow. Or if you can get yourself invited for a big function go try the biryani. And if all else fails, pitch up all dressed up at Kendra Hall on a Saturday while there’s a wedding on and say you are from the boys side, you will get fed!
Trips to Durban usually mean a phone call a week ahead so that my mom can get the ingredients for the dishes we’ll be eating. In fact mom’s cooking is one of the best parts of Durban no matter what she is cooking. Except brinjal perhaps because I don’t like brinjal. My sister does though, so I’m sure my mom does a good job. My favourites are kitchree and chutney and dhal rice and bhaji (herbs) or cabbage. Each has a story behind why I love them. My sister’s is brinjal like I said, I don’t know why and my brother loves mince and peas and roti that’s been made the day before, again I don’t know why. I am actually dreading my mom moving up a little, maintaining my weight is (and always has been) already a struggle. Her cooking is going to be the death of me. I will be inviting my friends over for some sharing of calories though so start sending those gifts now already! Who know’s we may still make Aunty Lallie’s cooking a tourist attraction in Joburg.
2. Head off to the beach
Durban is a harbour town which lies on the East Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. Lapped by the warm Indian Ocean and blessed with warm, almost tropical weather all year round, on the beach is probably the best way to spend time in city. The city and the province as a whole, is home to some of the best beaches in the country. Most of the city’s residents don’t even realise how lucky they are, choosing to visit the beach on perhaps 3 or 4 days a year, including Christmas, Boxing day and New Year’s day. There has been a recent uptick in the number of people using the main promenade and north and south beaches so you will have company if you visit, but not much if you are visiting outside the major holidays.
When we were still in primary school my dad would take us fishing almost twice a week every week after school because he would be finished work by 2pm. And we would be the only people at the beach mostly. My dad fishing and us kids playing in the sand or with the dogs. As we grew older the trips to the beach became less frequent, but remained mostly to go fishing during June and July. Then, after moving up to Joburg, I spent a year without visiting the beach. I decided after that realisation that I could not go another year between visits and vowed to make a stop at the beach at least once every visit. My favourite beaches to visit are Umhlanga because it is only about 15 minutes from home and Warner beach because it serves the dual purpose of being a beach to catch the sunrise at as well as having a nice estuary that attracts a number of bird species to catch after the sun is high in the sky. Warner beach also has a tidal pool which allows for a dip in the warm Indian ocean without being too badly beaten up by the waves.
3. Visit the Botanic Gardens
The Durban Botanic Gardens is Africa’s oldest surviving botanical garden and is Durban’s oldest public institute. Situated on the fringes of the CBD it is a green island to escape to in between the hustle and bustle of the city. When we were growing up my mom would take us into the city every second Saturday to go to the municipal library and afterwards my dad would pick us all up at the end of his work shift and take us to spend the afternoon at the botanical gardens before going back home. As a child it seemed larger than it is, with many nooks and crannies to explore. I love to visit now for the birding, having seen a number of bird species for the first time at the gardens and knowing that there are still a few species that are there but I haven’t seen yet. The flowers in the garden also provide a good opportunity to practice some macro photography. And the gardens are just up the road from the aforementioned Kendra Hall so if you do get kicked out from the wedding you always have a fall back plan. The gardens are usually free entrance to the general public, but sometimes hosts events that will carry an associated charge so this one might need at least a little bit of planning to check that there isn’t anything on during the time you would visit.
4. Take a drive up or down the coast
Like I mentioned, the province as a whole is blessed with a beautiful coast line that I have not explored as thoroughly as it deserves. In both directions, the N2 winds its way through the rolling coastal hills that are still for the most part covered in sugar cane plantations. It is these sugar plantations that brought the majority of Indian people to Natal beginning in 1860 to serve as indentured labourers. The import of Indians as labourers continued for 5 decades until 1911 with some 150 000 Indians brought to South Africa in that period. Many of these labourers remained behind after there servitude period ended and established the permanent Indian population in the province that later migrated to the rest of the country.
Heading south on the N2 will lead you to Port Shepstone, Ramsgate and Margate. My mom and her family lived in the sugar farming town of Sezela about 80km south of Durban until the early 1980’s. My uncle still tell us stories of how they worked as caddies on the Pennington golf course overlooked by the stately Botha house. Two of my uncles later bought houses in Port Shepstone, further south from Sezela. So the drive down the south coast remains a particularly fond one for our family.
Driving north will lead to Stanger, Richards bay and on to St Lucia and the Isimangaliso wetland park which was among the South Africa’s first sites declared World Heritage sites in 1999. Isimangaliso in isiZulu means a miracle and it certainly is. For some reason, growing up I always wrongly held the belief that Durban was to be found exactly half way up the KwaZulu-Natal coastline. However it is actually closer south, with the trip to Port Shepstone being around 120km each way while the trip up to St Lucia is closer to 300km each way.
5. Take in the architecture and history of the city
This might seem like a strange one but there are some truly beautiful buildings in the city that is not known for its skyline. My favourite is probably the City Hall building which was built at the turn of the last century and has a facade that would fit right in to most British towns. The building is home to the Municipal Library, the Durban Art Gallery and the Natural Science Museum as well as the municipal chambers. I spent many hours on Saturday mornings either in the library, the museum and as I grew older in the art gallery. Waiting on the steps outside the library, it was hard not to notice the Durban Playhouse building directly opposite. I later discovered that part of the building looks very much like some of the buildings to be found in Stratford upon Avon in England and probably took it’s design inspiration from there. I of course be using some poetic license drawing that conclusion and the building could have been designed to look like something totally different.
Heading out of the city, the buildings of the University of KwaZulu Natal, my alma mater, stand out on the horizon. In particular the TB Davis building and Howard College, which is home to the school of law stand out when looking up towards the campus. If you get a chance to visit the campus also look back down on the city for what must be some of the best views of the Durban CBD. One of the buildings that you will see looking back is the Moses Mabida Stadium. Built for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the stadium is one of the newest additions to the Durban skyline and has fast become a Durban icon. Under utilised as it may well be.
If anything, I see time in Durban becoming shorter and passing faster in future trips. With the parents moving up to Joburg, the trips will be more filled with visiting family and less with touring and discovering. But hopefully I will at least still get to do the top 2 items on the list…