The first thing that hits you when arriving in Durban from other, more temperate cities in South Africa is the humidity: hot, wet and sticky, it truly feels like tropical Africa. That’s because, unlike Capetown, with its temperate Atlantic climate, or hilly, chilly Johannesburg, Durban lies on the country’s east coast, in the KwaZulu Natal province, and is warmed year-’round by balmy Indian Ocean currents.
But the weather isn’t the only thing that sets Durban apart. The city’s unique blend of British, South Asian and indigenous Zulu cultures makes it one of South Africa’s most dynamic, and sometimes hectic, urban experiments. A seaside playground with a gritty, urban feel that’s been both an imperial outpost and an incubator of rebellion, a former industrial powerhouse with a thriving arts scene, dear, dirty Durban is like nowhere else.
Durban is Africa’s largest port, and its geography has dictated much of its short history. Originally a mangrove-choked lagoon “discovered” by Vasco da Gama in 1497, the site was granted to an English speculator named Francis Farewell by the legendary Zulu king Shaka in 1824. The British formally annexed Durban as part of the Colony of Natal in 1843, but it was still a frontier backwater until the arrival of steamships and railroads over the next few decades. By the late 19th century, Durban had fought off both Zulu and Afrikaner attacks to become a thriving port and a linchpin in the British domination of the Indian Ocean, with a thriving sugar industry and a burgeoning Indian community that had been brought over to labor in the surrounding cane fields.
After a long, losing war against British colonial armies, local Zulus, too, were entering the workforce at this time and changing the face of Durban permanently. But in 1922-26, years before Apartheid, the Durban city council restricted the sale of city land to whites only. This policy was given a boost by the Apartheid system, which lasted until 1994, and Durban transformed itself into a popular beach resort for the white upper class, both English and Afrikaner, while Africans, Asians and “coloreds” were relegated to townships and less fashionable neighborhoods.
But the city was also a hotbed of anti-Apartheid resistance: both the ANC and the South African Trade Unions have a long history in the city. Durban was also where Mahatma Gandhi lived and practiced law for 21 years (the Phoenix settlement he founded and his house, Sarvodaya, though gutted, still stand today). In the 11 years since the dismantling of Apartheid, “Durbs” faced real challenges: rampant street crime, skyrocketing unemployment and continuing clashes between supporters of the ANC and the IFP (the Inkatha Freedom Party, a mostly Zulu opposition party, based in KwaZulu Natal). While poverty and unemployment are still widespread, violent crime is on the wane, and the city is emerging once again as a major holiday destination for all South Africans.
Downtown Durban offers some interesting sights: City Hall and its attendant museums, the Kwa Muhle Apartheid museum, the commercial hustle of Grey Street, etc. But the real draw is the Indian district, a bustling corner of the city that feels more like Delhi than Durban. Orient yourself by the massive Juma Masjid Mosque (the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere), and check out the local market stalls at the nearby Madressa Arcade. Shop for spices, saris and all manner of South Asian geegaws there or at the Victoria Street Market, famous for its spice and fish vendors. For the truly adventurous, try the Warwick Triangle area, a vast open-air African market that features stalls climbing all the way up an unfinished highway overpass.
Of course, Durban’s main attraction has long been its beaches: all white sand, limpid water and long, rolling breakers that have made it a surfer’s paradise for decades. The main strip of beaches, known as the golden mile, is a 6 kilo
| Travel notes|
How To Get There:
While there are no direct flights from the U.S. to Durban, there are daily flights to Johannesburg available on South African Airways. From there it’s an easy connection and short flight to Durban. For more info go to www.flysaa.com.
What To Eat:
South Africa boasts a wide range of tasty local comestibles, from biltong jerkand braai barbecue to peri peri chicken (try Nando’s!) and the unique whitefish known as snoek. But Durban’s claim to fame is its famous “Bunny Chow,” a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with any kind of curry you could wish. Reflective of the city’s huge Indian population, the dish is a great vegetarian option in a largely carnivorous country, and the best versions are available at Patel’s Vegetarian House.
Where to Stay:
High-rise hotels line the golden mile, and rooms are plentiful there, if a little generic. If you’re looking for an off-beach change of pace, there are plenty of B&Bs and boutique hotels. Try La Bordello, a swanky former bordello in the upscale Berea neighborhood.