By Lark Ellen Gould
As the jumping off point to the wildlife and cultural tourism offerings of KwaZulu Natal, and as South Africa’s second largest city, Durban deserves some attention of its own. It’s a compact town of some 3.5 million residents, and then more if you count the garden house suburbs and the Umlazi Township beyond where some 500,000 black Africans live.
But in the city itself — marked by a relaxing golden beachwalk on one side, Africa’s busiest port on the other, and a lot of writhing city in between — begs to be explored. Laid out on a map the city is a very walkable two or three square miles. But within that terrain you will go from family-focused beach front to quaint colonial parks and tea houses to loud and colorful sidewalks of commerce where you can get a manicure for $8, a haircut for $5; you can buy a treasure trove of fine African beadwork and carvings for less than the cost of a magazine at an American newsstand, and you can find magic in the strange powers of muti, easily accessed at the muti market on the edge of town.
A walking tour would start at the beach promenade on the north side of the city. The Golden Mile, as it is known here, stretches between the Suncoast Casino on the north side to the uShaka Marine World in the south. Between the two points are cafes, restaurants, and lots of colorful entertainment. Among the highlights of a casual stroll might be seeing a group of boys dressed as Zulu warriors beating the drums and performing traditional dances with infectious rhythmic passion.
The days here are warm in all seasons but most pleasant in the “winter” months of May to October. It’s not unusual to see bands of local village mothers collecting plastic bottles on the beach or surfer dudes catching the southern swells. The walk from north to south runs by collections of mid-priced hotels and ends at the UShaka Marine World – a complex of shops and restaurants and an aquarium that is the fifth largest in the world. Attractions include an underground passage designed around a series of shipwrecks. Sharks, rays, penguins, seals, jellyfish and a bounty of tropical marine life get the complement of regularly scheduled dolphin shows. Visitors can also swim with the fishes if they choose to get wet. A snorkel lagoon packed with local fish does the honors and even offers a shark cage dive in a setting replicating the ocean floor.
Head inland from the ocean quay and find what local culture there is in Durban. Streets here team with music, stores selling all manner of plastic goods from China, and the usual array of fast food emporiums. But you can step into the less traveled side of Durban with a visit to Victoria Market and the muti market beyond. For souvenirs of Africa, beaded jewelry, baskets and intricate weavings, Victoria Market is the right stop. The items are often artful and authentic crafts from as far away as West Africa and can be had for prices that beat the hotel and airport shop alternatives. Bargain a little, not a lot, as the prices are low to begin with. And then head across the pass to the muti market for a look at South Africa’s black magic traditions. The stands here are ramshackle shacks stacked to the brim with odd collections of bark, powders, rocks, shells, and animal carcasses. If you have a headache or want to attract a certain partner or want to square with your ancestors once and for all, this is the place.
Then wander through the Spice Emporium or just meander down Dr. Yusef Dadoo Street for an intense experience of Eastern and African cultural confluence. To see the city by casual tour bus, take the Ricksha on a three-hour tour of the city that will include stops at UShaka Marine World, Emmanuel Cathedral, Victoria Street Market, Burman Bush and Blue Lagoon.
For an added dose of adrenaline, go to the Moses Mabhida Stadium that was built for the 2010 soccer matches and take the leap of a lifetime. The “Big Rush Big Swing” has only the bravest of visitors casting off from the top of the stadium arch and taking the 660-foot arc for $10 a jump.
A stay in Durban can be accommodated at all ranges. Tsogo Sun runs the Elangeni at the north end of the beachfront walk with rooms overlooking the Indian Ocean. Rooms are clean, modern and comfortable with deep soaking tubs, large closets. The $300/night price tag includes a full buffet breakfast.
High end travelers will want to soak up the views at the Oyster Box, about 15 minutes down the coast in quarters that were created for travelers with sophisticated preferences. The property comes out of the sensibilities of the 1940s, built for diplomats and high end travelers who wanted to take in the beauty of the South African coast. Today, those 86 rooms and suites maintain a country look and feel with white rattan patio furnishings over looking the waters and cushy, bright interiors. An onsite hotel spa, one of the few in Durban, has a hammam and plunge pool and provides intriguing therapies with African and Indian motifs. Not to be missed: the curry buffet served nightly at the Ocean Terrace. Rates start at around $400.
Durban also has a Hilton hotel, a shiny glass high rise in the center of the city, connected by walkway to the Durban International Convention Center. Rooms run around $200 per night.
For more information contact Durban Tourism.