I adore sub-tropical Durban, which is so full of childhood memories. Mostly of the annual drive down with the climax of arrival being the first one to spot the sea. Also, rickshaws drawn by Zulu warriors, Gambit the star dolphin at Durban’s aquarium, Mini Town, the fun fair with its shells, dodgems and cable car on the promenade; and the Pizza Hut on the beachfront. But time marches on and Durban is no longer how I remembered it. No, Durban has changed. Durban has evolved. Durban is all grown up.
The first sign of that change announces itself on arrival at King Shaka Airport. Modern, air-conditioned, world-class! I look for the sea (force of habit), but as we sigh along the freeway, all I see is rumple after rumple of sugar cane – their spearmint sabres thrusting up though the tangle. In contrast, the gardens at Makaranga Lodge are a manicured, meditative space, with the sky outside as blue as a robin’s egg.
Just 15 minutes from the CBD you will find the lush green suburb of Kloof, and at its heart, Makaranga Gardens with its 30 acres of indigenous and exotic botanical gardens, 18 ponds, labyrinth, meandering streams and a waterfall. There’s a significant collection of Zimbabwean stone art, but it’s the Japanese garden where I linger, with its oriental bridges, walkways, stone lanterns and hand-carved figures, all imported from Japan and set out according to ancient traditions. The exquisite water lilies proudly display their pinks and purples. They say you should give the Durban Botanical Gardens a bash; I say Makaranga is where it’s at.
A sticky aired hub of bunny chows, balmy beaches and bounteous heritage, Kate Turner discovers the perfect city for a whistle-stop 48 hours.
No trip to Durbs can be bona fide without brushing up your haggling skills at the Victoria Street Market – a veritable Aladdin’s cave, brimming with ceramics, ornate brassware, ethnic curios, not to mention pyramids of pungent curry powders and spices. And just next door you’ll find the ‘muti-market’, where you can step into the colourful world of ethnic medicine. But be warned, you need a strong stomach for some of the more exotic tonics. These markets are a thriving community of sangomas (traditional healers) and nyangas (pharmacists), where you can pick up bark or animal product remedies, or if all else fails, a coffin. Items like tyre-tread sandals, animal hides, and traditional clothing are also on the bill.
Needing a bit of refuelling, I found myself in the vaguely hipster suburb of Morningside. Unity Bar & Brasserie bristles with creative types – craft beer on tap, deep fried olives (delish!), burger sliders and tapas on the menu, and high-fives from the owners. It’s a wonderful mash-up of non-intrusive, laid-back Durban hospitality, but without forfeiting on quality food. Craft beer tip: order their signature Good Advice.
Day two begins with a heritage kick: the new’ish Inanda Heritage Route winds along sites from our country’s embattled past. Expect pit-stops like Mahatma Ghandi’s re-built former home in Phoenix, which radiates heat because of its tin façade, while the mango, guava and pawpaw trees struggle to keep it cool. We also learn about the Shembe people (the largest African church in KZN), whose religion is a cobbled together Afro-Judaeo, Messianic mix (interestingly, they observe the Sabbath). And whose worship spaces include any outside area, shaded by a tree and demarcated by a Kraal of bone-white stones. They too, with their charismatic leader and namesake, Prophet Isaiah Shembe, were instrumental in the dismantling of Apartheid.
With the Durban sun squeezing the sweat from my neck, I felt slightly dehydrated and so after a quick visit to the Rastafarians at the Mzinyathi Falls, I deemed it lunchtime. But quickly, let’s talk rastas – a small, gentle community of them actually live in caves that look like Emmentaler cheese and seam their way along the Mzinyathi cliff face. They subsist on a foraging existence for snakes (which they eat) and small buck (yep, these too!) with their packs of yelpy dogs by their side. You won’t find the rastas on your own, so do enlist the help of the Street Scene guys, who’ve carved a niche out as a tour guide operation that focuses on the obscure, hidden gems of the area.
A shisa nyama beckons at Sbu’s in the Matikwe township, with its thumping house music, African flame trees and heady braai fumes. We order liver, kidneys, T-bone, wors and ox-heart. When in Rome! Then we meet ‘Johnny Walker’, a genuine American showroom dancer with his shiny two-tone brogues, fancy bowtie and suspenders who jives around us for a couple of pieces of silver. His jig resembles the David Kramer of old, but with a distinct township influence, and we are mesmerised.
Back at the Durban beachfront, where I’m encamped at the Elangeni Southern Sun Hotel, I hop across the scalding pavement to the refuge of the frilly sea and promptly get dunked by a freak wave. I limp out, and attempt, ladylike, to discreetly remove the desert of sand that’s settled in my bikini bottoms. And that’s when I see it: “Chips! Cooldrinks! Marsala pineapple!” And just like that I’m 10 years old again, gobbling my spicy pineapple and draining my Stoney ginger beer on the beach, letting the lush heat suck the seawater off my skin, leaving a salty white crust behind. A sip. A sigh. A smile.
DID YOU KNOW? Kerbside spaces in other South African metropolitan areas are largely underutilised, but the Durban Municipality encourages shop owners and roaming beggars to take up available free plots and sow all manner of greens. From lettuces in front of the Town Hall to spinaches alongside taxi ranks and cabbages in between lanes, they’re greening the city as well as feeding the underprivileged. Genius!
DID YOU KNOW? The Street Scene guys will tailor-make your tour to include all of Durban’s finest in your very own whistle-stop. firstname.lastname@example.org, www.streetscene.co.za or find them on Facebook.com/streetscenedurban