“Ready for complete sensory overload?” asks Dane Forman, a surf-nut videographer with a hipster moustache. He walks me through Warwick Junction, the hectic hub of Durban’s market district and what he calls the “buzzing centre of South Africa.” Roosters on the loose, potatoes by the ton, township music blasting from overloaded lorries, beaded Zulu isicholo hats, and nearby, at the Victoria Street Market, Indian spices like “Atom Bomb” make up this multi-block, multi-racial mash-up in South Africa’s third largest city. “Pretty kiff, right?” says Forman, using the surfer slang for “cool.”
Durbanites don’t mind that their sun-drenched coast is overshadowed by Johannesburg to the northwest or Cape Town to the southwest. “We’re culturally richer and a bit more out there,” says architect Nokuthula Msomi. “You can’t just live in your own bubble when cultures as different as the Zulu and Indian are overlapping all around you.” Creative social enterprise is helping to redefine the city in the post-apartheid era. Cargo-container cafés, craft beers, and pop-up green markets have turned “Durbs”into a city on the verge. And in the wilds beyond, “we’ve got the bush, the ‘Berg (Drakensberg mountain), and the braai (grilled meat),” says blogger Nicola Ashe. Grab your beads and go.
Rhino on the road!” Four words every safarigoer dreams of which—as poachers mercilessly advance—are becoming as rare as rhinos themselves. Today, however, all that separates us from our endangered object of obsession is 30 feet of gravel and a sense of awe.
Leopards, with their rosettes, are only occasionally easier to spot than rambling rhinos. The uMkhuze Game Reserve is a vast veld beloved by birders and populated by pachyderms, giraffes, wild dogs, lions, zebras, and busy little dung beetles. With such a menagerie on the prowl it seems surprising that they’re all hiding. How does a guide find them? “Symmetrical shapes and movement,” says Rhys Scott-Dawkins, director of Endless Summer Tours, a Durban-based operator. And with that he spots an African crowned eagle in the sky and picks up the trail of an elusive pack of wild dogs.
uMkhuze is part of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site and an interlinked set of eight ecosystems that stretch from the Indian Ocean to interior grasslands. Its name means “miracle and wonder,” and it’s easy to see why on a sunrise kayak paddle in Lake St. Lucia, Africa’s largest estuary. After nearly capsizing in croc-infested waters the colour of chocolate milk, I sensed wonder at the miracle of my own survival.
A guided afternoon boat cruise provides safe distance from the hungry hippos. “No one’s yawn is as big as the big guy’s yawn,” says Stacey Venue of Shoreline Safaris, our boat captain and guide. We see giant kingfishers, herons, yellow weavers, and pods of slumbering hippos—dozens of them resting up for nocturnal adventures that keep locals on their toes. “At night we sometimes have hippos walking the streets,” Venue says. “We call them the ‘townies’—they’re looking for grass to eat.”
It takes three hours to drive from Durban to the Drakensberg, a misty, mountainous region so epic that your mind turns to Middle-earth. Native South African J. R. R. Tolkien was so taken by the cliffs and kopjes (hills) of the approximately 965-kilometre range that they inspired his imagined realm. It’s easy to see why. At sunrise, rising fog makes “Dragon Mountains,” as the Afrikaners called it, resemble a mythical beast rousing from slumber. Its Zulu name is equally evocative: uKhahlamba, “barrier of up-pointed spears.” Southern Berg, the region around the vertiginous Sani Pass, contains a rich repository of rock paintings by the San hunter-gatherers. In the Central Berg, hikers head to Giant’s Castle for more than 25 trails. And in the Northern Berg, the five-kilometre-wide, 3,280-foot-high Amphitheatre is a supreme rock star. It’s so monumental that it nearly conceals another superlative: Tugela Falls, the world’s second highest waterfall, a silvery ribbon cascading from the cliff face. Trails leading toward the Amphitheatre cut across mountain meadows lined with proteas and forest hollows populated by rock hyrax, cartoonishly cute furry critters that are, improbably, the closest living evolutionary relative to elephants. “When we started hiking this morning, a mob of guinea fowl ran around our cottage,” says Jemma Dicks, a London-based hiker on her second visit to the Drakensberg. She stayed at Thendele Lodge, a KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife-run camp situated on a hillside within the park’s boundary, a perfect starting point for sunrise hikes. Outside the park’s perimeter the Berg House offers a panoramic view. “We gave up cows and came here to farm people instead,” says Cantal Piccione, who, with her husband, Vaughan, transformed a pasture into a hilltop B&B. A pack of horses nibbles the grass while guests watch the sun set behind the Berg, its gold light glimmering like a ring of fire. “It’s our little mountain paradise,” says Piccione. “Every day is different.”
Beach-bound Durban is considered one of the world’s art deco capitals, but locals are more likely to see their city as an urban jumble than an architectural gem. This fragmentation was reinforced by apartheid-era urban schemes that created physical barriers to cultural exchange. “In many ways, Durban was designed to exclude,” says architect Mark Bellingan. “Even today, most people never get into the fabric of the city.” To remedy this, Bellingan and his buddies launched BESETdurban, a “social experiment” through which they lead narrated “archiwalks” around town. One recent walk was so crowded—some 400 people showed up—that it looked like a protest demonstration. In a way it was: a pedestrian rally to reconnect locals with their city. The buildings don’t end at the beach; they just take a sandier shape. Seaside Michelangelos sculpt sports cars, crocodiles, and Nelson Mandelas in the sand along the Golden Mile, a 6.5-kilometre-long promenade that runs south from the Umgeni River to Durban Harbour. Revitalising this strand democratises the city’s shoreline from dawn (when the surfers arrive) to dusk (when families stroll). On weekends, the brunch set kvetches at Circus Circus Beach Café, and body-boarding teens scarf down burgers and tjips (fries) at Afro’s Chicken Shop.
uMhlanga, Durban’s neighbouring town north of the Umgeni River, is an enclave of luxury inns and restaurants. Removed from the city’s buzz, this beach side settlement is less surfer bravado and more all-day mimosa. It’s the only place in South Africa I saw a Rolls-Royce pull up to a valet stand. The terrace of the Oyster Box hotel, a grand dame that has transported the Dorothy Draper aesthetic to the Indian Ocean, is a cinematic perch for sipping sundowners above the sand and surf.
The river is our laundromat, old men have three wives, and there are chickens in the yard. You can see all this yourself—it’s what I mean by living villages,” says Thabo Mokgope, a guide who specialises in cultural tours to the tribal lands around Durban. The Zulu are South Africa’s largest ethnic group, and their communities, ranging from farm settlements to dense townships, are scattered throughout KwaZulu-Natal’s Valley of 1,000 Hills. Mokgope brings guests to iSithumba, a village bound by tradition but open to engagement. From a car window, you see rolling green hills and dusty red roads, children in uniforms marching home from school, and beehive huts called iQhugwane—traditional homes that often sit beside brick houses. But walking through a Zulu settlement is an immersion that bridges experiential and cultural divides. Mokgope points out the hues of homes. “Colour is how we express ourselves,” he says. “We take visitors from one house to another and don’t inundate anyone. We talk, we eat, we laugh. The goal is to make connections.” Mokgope’s narrative ranges from the history of Shaka, the military leader who formed a powerful Zulu kingdom in 1818, to the culture and crafts of the people. The focus is on the legend of the king at Shakaland, about two hours away from iSithumba. Around the set of the television epic Shaka Zulu, the park presents a choreographed spectacle including warrior dances, pounding drums, and weaving displays. The tour wraps up with a taste of Umqombothi, a beer made from maize and sorghum porridge. It’s like a Zulu’s microbrew—and it packs a punch.
“Friendly hipsters”—it sounds like a fantasy, but not in the city’s trendiest suburb, a low-key bastion of beards, brunches, and bungalows. Magnetic attraction draws the moustachioed set to all-day breakfasts at Parc, a spectacle of locally sourced, seasonal dishes. Corner Cafe is an art-filled diner that’s “saving the world, one cappuccino at a time.” The Glenwood Bakery is an oasis of artisanal aromas from the city’s best coffees and breads. Sit down for sandwiches, or walk away with crispy croissants.
Street Scene For a pan-African spectacle, head to Warwick Junction, the hub of Durban’s historic market district. Take a walking tour with Markets of Warwick, see mountains of potatoes at the morning market, sample Indian spices at Victoria Street Market, buy colourful Zulu crafts at the bead market.
Best Buzz Up-with-the-sun Durbanites know their beans. The city is in the midst of a coffee revolution with roasters and baristas battling for cappuccino supremacy. Housed within the Colombo Coffee & Tea Roastery, the Factory Cafe serves up flat whites with flair and espressos with edge. A spare breakfast-and-lunch menu lets the beans do the talking.
Night Bright In the 1960s, jazzmusicians like Duke Ellington and John Coltrane brought African sounds to American ears. The Chairman is a retro-chic jazz club with a twist; here, western jazz is reappropriated and remixed with township beats.
Sky High A mere 500 steps separate you from Durban’s most spectacular view. Strap in for the Adventure Walk at Moses Mabhida Stadium, a muscular march up the 350-foot arch that spans the city’s World Cup soccer field. Two powerful spans merge to form the stadium’s arch, a symbol inspired by the South African flag.
Boardwalk Empire Got kids? The Golden Mile is the place to go for bike rentals, beach bumming, and anachronistic kicks at Funworld Amusement Park. uShaka Marine World anchors one end of the promenade; it’s a fish tank of activity, including the Wet ‘n Wild slide park and Sea World, the largest aquarium in the Southern Hemisphere.
Bunny Chow Durban dining reduced to two words. But this ubiquitous dish—a hollowed out loaf of white bread filled with piquant mutton, prawn, chicken, or veggie curry—is just one local flavour to savour in a city hungrily embracing craft cuisine and the farm-totable mantra. Here’s a menu to dazzle your palate any time of day.
Sunrise Hop in for a street art spectacle and a morning cuppa at the collegial The Corner Cafe with a spread of breakfast and lunchtime sweets and savouries.
Breakfast Relish a breezy brekkie of sweet potato rösti or a hearty lunch of prawn cakes in the garden of Freedom Cafe, crafted from a colourful shipping container.
Lunch Locals say that Indian sugarcane workers invented bunny chow as an edible lunch box. Try Durban’s iconic dish at the century-old Hotel Britannia.
Snack Unity Brasserie’s tasty offerings—peri peri chicken livers, curries, grilled lamb, and beef pies—are but a prelude to the bar’s craft ales and lagers, brewed right across the street.
Dinner Market Restaurant’s farm-to-table dishes—from butternut soufflé and applestuffed pork belly to grilled South African game—are served by candlelight in Durban’s dreamiest courtyard.
It’s not just cultures that are collaborating in Durban. A push for accessible design, contemporary crafts, and home-grown fashions is behind an increasingly visible creative movement. What defines local style? “Durban has a very African soul,” says Sonia Vosloo, owner of Shoppe, which sells South African arts and home wares. “There’s no pretentiousness here—locals are down-to-earth, diverse, and supportive of one another’s efforts. We’ve almost created our own culture.”
Shoppe Track down everything from ceramics to succulents at this eclectic boutique specialising in home accessories, paintings, furnishings, and decorative objects made in South Africa.
African Art Centre Telephone-wire baskets, wooden carvings, Zulu baskets and beadwork, landscape paintings, and modern jewellery star at this non-profit gallery that provides employment and economic uplift for KwaZulu- Natal crafters.
The Space Forget animal prints. Think angles, edges, geometric patterns, and ready-to-wear fashions with a beachy vibe at this clothing shop featuring labels from some of South Africa’s most celebrated designers.
Savior Brand Co. Handstitched leather goods— wallets, bags, phone and iPad sleeves—are the stockin- trade of this hip Durban design house and coffee shop. Come for the leather, stay for a latte.
Appeared in the May 2016 issue as “Into The Zulu Kingdom”.
Durban is the largest city of KwaZulu-Natal, a province in eastern South Africa. It is about 80 kilometres east of KwaZulu Natal’s capital, Pietermaritzburg and 566 km southeast of Johannesburg.
There are no direct flights from India to Durban. Daily flights from Mumbai and New Delhi to Durban International Airport require at least one stop at a Middle Eastern gateway such as Dubai or Doha, or Addis Ababa in east Africa.
Indians travelling to South Africa require a visitor’s visa. The form can be downloaded at www.vfsglobal.com/southafrica/india, and submitted at their centres in major Indian cities. Applicants need to submit bank statements and travel details. Visas take 5-10 working days to process. For Indians the visa is free, though VFS charges ₹1,375/₹1,635 for their services.
What to see
Explore the city’s history during apartheid at the KwaMuhle Museum, located in the erstwhile Department of Native Affairs, where the Durban System of racial segregation laid round work for the national apartheid programme. Interactive exhibits tell the story of subjugation while documenting the anti-apartheid movement and its difficult yet victorious path (+27 (0)31 311 2237; 130 Ordnance Road; open Mon-Sat, 8.30 a.m. to 4 p.m; entry free).
For an immersion into the art and culture of the Zulu, Xhosa, Shangaan, and other African peoples, head to the Phansi Museum, where beadwork, fertility dolls, and other exhibits unlock the mysteries of native traditions (+27 (0)31 206 2889; phansi.com; open Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; entry ZAR40/₹173).
The Inanda Heritage Route links the Phoenix Settlement, which Mahatma Gandhi founded in 1904 as a communal experimental farm, and the Ohlange Institute, founded by the African National Congress’s first president, John Dube. It was here that Nelson Mandela voted in 1994’s ground-breaking democratic election that swept him into office.
Urban Durban has its share of designer dens, but few rival the Concierge Boutique Bungalows for modern style mixed with sunny substance (and dachshund motifs). A dozen guest rooms, some with private garden verandas, sit beside the courtyard of Freedom Cafe within a heritage-listed block. Breakfast is on the house, so just roll out of bed and order a latte served with a wiener-dog-shaped cookie on the side (www.the-concierge.co.za; doubles from ZAR1,190/₹5,070). On the beach in UMhlanga Rocks, the Beverly Hills hotel brings a breezy coastal California feel to the Indian Ocean. Overlooking the stony shore that gives this tony town its
name, the 89-room hotel is a magnet for romantics and an oasis for spa-seekers (www.tsogosun.com/beverly-hills; doubles from ZAR4,315/₹18,500, including meals). Next door, the Oyster Box is a wedding cake of a hotel and the perfect place to set your kids free (though management may disagree). It’s easy to imagine Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire twirling about in this over-the-top inn. Sea-facing family rooms are ideal for little ones, though parents might opt for coastal cabanas with four-poster beds or two-tier suites with private plunge pools and ocean views (www.oysterboxhotel.com; doubles from ZAR5,481/₹23,700, including breakfast).