Most first-time visitors to South Africa fly in and out of Johannesburg, the City of Gold, and then travel on to Cape Town before leaving the country. The Cape is undeniably beautiful and cosmopolitan, but if you want a true African experience in South Africa, head for Durban, Africa's busiest port and a balmy coastal metropolis in the heart of the legendary Zulu Kingdom.
eThekwini, Durban's Zulu name, means "the place of the bay." This city of more than 3.5 million people is less polished and earthier—some say grittier—than Cape Town. Yet Durban is renowned for its steamy tropical climate and magnificent bathing and surfing beaches. It has been a beach vacation destination since the first sugarcane farmers built their holiday cottages on the coast in the 19th century.
Plan to walk along the Golden Mile promenade to see—among other attractions—uShaka Marine World, the famous Zulu rickshaws and the iconic Moses Mabhida Stadium. Or, take a trip out to sea with the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board to watch crews service shark nets and, hopefully, get to spot some dolphins and whales. If these options don't suit you, there's hiking, sailing and scuba diving, or spend your time leisurely soaking up the sun on the golden sands.
The city also has a rich and interesting cultural diversity, which gives it a vibrancy enjoyed by few other South African cities. Durban is home to South Africa's largest Indian population, reflected in the tasty curries and colorful shopping bazaars and festivals. Evidence of Zulu culture is on the streets, where vendors sell crafts and curios, and in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, which is dotted with rural villages. Colonial influences are exhibited by the facades of grand buildings in the central business district and Victoria Embankment, and in the attractive Victorian and Edwardian houses and lovely parks in the Berea suburbs, which were developed by the city's early European settlers.
Durban is situated on the southeastern seaboard of South Africa, bordered by the Indian Ocean on the east and by the Drakensberg mountains to its west. The city center lies within the wider metropolitan eThekwini municipality, which covers 890 sq mi/2,300 sq km from Umkomaas in the south to Tongaat in the north, moving inland to Cato Ridge in the west.
There are two main streets in the central business district that lead to and from the Durban beachfront, which is the place that holds the most interest for visitors. Dr Pixley KaSeme Street runs to the beachfront and Anton Lambede Street leads away. Residential neighborhoods ring the city center, and the Berea, in particular, is one that appeals to many tourists. Berea is actually the name of a ridge above and to the northwest of the central business district, but is also the collective name for Durban's oldest and most attractive suburbs. These include Essenwood, Musgrave, Morningside and Windermere. Many hotels and guesthouses are located in this area, as well as restaurants, nightlife and shopping, particularly on or around fashionable Florida Road, which straddles Morningside and Windermere.
Considerable archaeological evidence suggests that the Durban area was extensively occupied during the first millennium AD. White settlement on Durban's harbor began in the early 1820s when a band of traders, led by Lt. Francis Farewell and James King, made their way by ship from the Cape. Durban was part of the empire of the Zulu King Shaka, who had used his exceptional military talents and diplomacy to weld disparate clans and tribes into a nation in the early 19th century.
In 1824, the white settlers secured a land grant from Shaka and named the harbor settlement Port Natal. The tiny trading settlement grew as more people arrived from the Cape, and in 1835, it was renamed after Sir Benjamin D'Urban, then governor of the Cape Colony. The settlers believed they owned the land granted to them by Shaka. However, Shaka considered them governors of his territory.
Around this same time period, a large group of Boers (South Africans of Dutch and French Huguenot extraction) was breaking away from British rule in the Cape. In 1837, they crossed the Drakensberg Mountains in their wagons in search of fertile land. Shaka's successor, Dingane, first attempted to accommodate the trekkers, but then tried to annihilate them.
In 1843, the British annexed Natal, and 1849 marked the start of large-scale immigration from Britain to Natal. The next group to arrive in Durban was composed of indentured Indians from India. They were shipped there to cut cane on sugar plantations, because the British hadn't yet found ways to coerce the Zulus, traditionally cattle herders, into working for them. The Indians arrived in 1860 on the Truro and Belvedere, and a headline in the local white press announced that "the coolies" had arrived.
As time passed, the plight of blacks—African, Indian and Coloured (mixed-race people)—grew worse. A 1922 clause in a municipal ordinance restricted the sale of land owned by the city council to whites only. (Nevertheless, the 1940s' wartime economic boom years brought thousands of Africans into the city, despite the myriad hardships they endeavored to call Durban home.) The National Party came to power in 1948 and began to implement a program of apartheid, a system of separating the races. It was a policy intended to maintain and extend political and economic control of South Africa by the white minority. By 1958, the screws of injustice tightened even more when the city council put its Group Areas plan into operation. According to this plan, whites would gain nearly 3,000 acres/1,214 hectares of prime city land from Indians—uprooting more than 75,000 Indians and some 8,000 Coloureds. Also by the late 1950s, labor legislation became stricter and more severely applied. From then onward many thousands of Africans became subject to daily harassment, arrest, eviction from the city, and imprisonment.
In the 1970s and '80s, Durban experienced strikes, violent protests and massive damage to property, as the black majority sought to break the back of the strict system of apartheid. The conflicts marked a new period in politicization within Durban's townships and also between the aligned forces of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party, the party of the Zulu people, who sought a federalist system of government.
In 1990, the first mass rally officially organized by the ANC since it had been banned in 1960 took place in Durban, foreshadowing an end to apartheid. Nelson Mandela addressed the crowd. Then in 1994, South Africa held its first all-race democratic elections and elected Mandela as president. He cast his vote in a settlement just outside Durban, near the grave of the first president of the ANC.
As apartheid and its segregation polices broke down in the late 1980s, Durban's urban population swelled considerably with a huge influx of people from the rural Zulu areas looking for work. The fabric of the city center changed from a whites-only enclave with its pockets of Indian business districts, to a racially and culturally mixed community. At first, and particularly in the 1990s, crime and poverty were issues, especially in the built-up areas behind the beachfront and in informal settlements that had sprung up on open land in the rest of the city. But a number of initiatives in recent years, such as an increased police presence, the installation of CCTV cameras and upgrading of local infrastructure and housing, have improved the situation a great deal.
Two decades after its first democratic election, Durban continues to forge ahead in its efforts to reconcile the past with the present.
With its sunny climate and Indian Ocean beaches, Durban is foremost a holiday destination. The famous Golden Mile was first developed in the 1970s and now stretches along the length of Or Tambo Parade (formerly Marine Parade). It's lined by a broad, paved promenade that runs just over 3 mi/5 km from South Beach to North Beach. This is backed by high-rise hotels on the land side, and a string of beaches popular with swimmers, sunbathers and surfers on the ocean side. Attractions include paddling pools, gardens and cafes, colorful curio markets and rickshaw drivers, numerous activities at uShaka Marine World, and shops, restaurants and nightlife at Suncoast Casino and Entertainment World.
An exploration of the bustling city center will give you an insight into the cultural hodgepodge that makes up this part of South Africa. Its history too can be learned through the grand British-built architecture; the markets, bazaars and mosques in the Indian District; and the Kwa-Muhle Museum, which illustrates the country's apartheid era.
Thanks to its subtropical climate, Durban has more than 50 nature reserves, parks and specialized gardens, and the municipality's Parks Department maintains 16,061 acres/6,000 hectares of parkland and recreational open space. The standout is the Durban Botanic Gardens, a beautiful park filled with trees, decorative flower beds and elegant fountains where you can indulge in an old-fashioned high tea with scones or an open-air concert at the lake. Mitchell Park and the Umgeni River Bird Park are other green spaces that offer a shady respite from the city's sultry heat.
There are plenty of bars and nightclubs scattered around the city. Most of the big hotels, shopping malls and casinos have cocktail bars where the trendy folk hang out. For upmarket nightspots that feature food, live music and dancing, head to Florida Road in Morningside. This tree-lined street is a hive of restaurants, sidewalk cafes and bohemian boutiques, many of which are in restored Victorian and Edwardian buildings.
In Durban, the cuisine is as diverse as the population. You'll find Portuguese, Moroccan, Greek, French, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Mexican and German eateries, among others. But curries are what this city is best known for, and no visitor should leave without tasting some of the local Indian delights.
Durban is said to have the largest population of Indians outside of India, and their presence has greatly influenced the local appetite. Curries can be mild, hot, very hot or "exterminator" hot, and unless you're accustomed to pungent foods, we suggest you tell your server "mild, please," or ask for spices on the side so you can add the right amount of heat to your dish. While there, try breyani (a specialty offered at many restaurants), samosas (three-sided, deep-fried triangles with spicy curry fillings) and roti (a flat, round pancake-type bread).
If you're lucky enough to get invited to lunch or dinner at the home of an Indian family you know, definitely accept the offer. You will experience a feast fit for royalty, as Indians are known for putting on a big spread. Don't be surprised if your hosts eat with with their fingers: It's common.
"Bunny chow" is a favorite local dish, eaten with your fingers, and it's unique to Durban. As the story goes, bunny chow got its start during the apartheid era when blacks were not allowed to be seated inside restaurants, but could be served takeaways from a back window of restaurants. An innovative restaurateur got the idea to scoop out the middle of a half-loaf of white bread, fill it with curry and replace the inside as a lid. One eats it by tearing off a piece of bread near the top and dipping it into the curry, until you've worked your way down to the bottom. Today, bunny chow is a staple food of students, surfers and laborers, as it's tasty, filling and inexpensive. Bunnies come in halves and quarters and can be found at many takeaways.
Not surprisingly, fresh seafood features prominently on area menus, with langoustines and prawns from Mozambique among the most popular dishes offered. There are also several restaurants serving traditional African fare in the city. Try pap, which is made from maize meal (Africa's staple food); mogodu (dumplings), umqushu (tripe), samp and beans, smiley's (boiled sheep's head), morogo (African spinach) and always inyama (meat).
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drink, tip or tax: $ = less than R100; $$ = R100-R200; $$$ = R201-R300; $$$$ = more than R300.
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