In a country with so many attractions, Durban is often overlooked by international tourists who instead hurry north to the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, or west to the Drakensberg Mountains. However, as is often the case, the locals know best and as a result Durban is a favourite domestic destination for South Africans from the Western Cape to the Eastern Coast.
The city dates back to 1824 when a party of 25 Britons arrived from the Cape Colony and established a settlement. An adventurer named Fynn helped the Zulu King Shaka recover from a battle wound and in return was granted a "30-mile strip of coast a hundred miles in depth."
A sugar cane industry was established in the 1860s, but the indigenous Zulus refused to work on the plantations so the British imported thousands of indentured labourers from India on 25-year contracts. When the contracts expired the labourers stayed and made Durban their home; 150 years later the city is said to feature the largest Indian community outside of India.
Today Durban is a truly multicultural city, where tourists can rub shoulders with English, Afrikaans and African residents before taking a Zulu-pulled rickshaw to an authentic Indian restaurant to enjoy the traditional Durbanite delicacy, Bunny Chow.
Durban is all about the beach, as its surfing museum will testify. The city’s downtown beaches are known as the Golden Mile, and this stretch of sand along the Indian Ocean attracts hordes of surfers, sunbathers, sangomas and sari-clad strollers to its warm waters. The promenade is dotted with pools and playgrounds for children, while adults will love the hotels, bars and restaurants, all with a sea view. If you don’t feel like walking the waterfront, hail a brightly coloured rickshaw pulled by a battle-clad Zulu, complete with magnificent headdress.
On the outskirts of Durban in Umhlanga is the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, a research organisation which has become an attraction in its own right. Tourists flock here to learn the science of shark conservation and how the board is trying to protect beach users and limit shark/human interaction.
Second only to the beach is Durban’s Asian heritage, and its Indian District makes for an interesting visit. Located east of the city centre, around Grey Street, this area is home to Jumah Mosque, reputably the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere. Two fascinating markets, the Oriental Bazaar and the Indian Market, in fact feature stalls manned by Zulu sangomas (traditional healers) selling 'muti', or medicine. A little further inland you can visit the very spot in Inanda where Mahatma Ghandi pioneered the concept of Satyagrah, or passive resistance.
It’s impossible to talk about the Durban dining scene without discussing curry. There is much more to the restaurants here than rice, roti and rogan josh, but the Durban Curry has developed an ardent fan base for good reason.
Derived from hot peasant curries that were brought from the provinces of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, the Durban Curry is red and spicy due to the fiery dried chillies it contains. The curry is often served as the curiously-named Bunny Chow; curry spooned into a halved loaf of bread with the inside scooped out. The name derives from the word bania or ‘Indian trader’. Other favourites are Samoosas (Indian samosas), triangular savoury pastries filled with curried meat or vegetables. Try the Indian neighbourhood near Victoria Market or Windermere Road for some authentic options.
South Africans love to socialise and Durbanites are no exception. Grab a sundowner at Wilson’s Wharf, Durban's mini waterfront complex. Situated on Victoria Embankment, its location provides the perfect vantage point to watch as the sun slips over the harbour horizon. The BAT Centre at the port is home to several other much loved watering holes while Morningside and Glenwood are full of happening bars, cafés and restaurants, night and day.
Two hours northwest of Durban is South Africa’s highest point: the 200km-long Drakensberg mountain range. The awe-inspiring peaks of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are snow-capped in winter, tower over riverine bush, yellowwood forests and cascading waterfalls, and form a barrier between KwaZulu-Natal and the Kingdom of Lesotho. The only road access to the Drakensberg is via Sani Pass, which boasts the highest pub on Africa, 3 000 metres above sea level.