We had to take a taxi from Sani Pass Lodge to Howick, a small town few kilometers north of Pietermaritzberg, to catch the Baz Bus heading to Durban. South Africa's third largest city, Durban is located on the Indian Ocean coast and is unique within the country for its vibrant mix of cultures and ethnicities. It is home to the largest concentration of people of Indian descent in South Africa and this gives the city a distinct Asian feel.
Almost two decades ago, M had spent nearly two months here on work. V was working in Pretoria at the time and had visited Durban during M's stint here. So this visit was partly to satisfy curiosity about how things have changed in the intervening decades.
While we don't recall safety being of particular concern in the city all those years ago, reading recent reviews on travel forums indicated that the central areas had become quite seedy and petty crime was a problem. In any event our backpacker lodge was the 'safe' Berea area, a couple of kilometers northwest of the city center. From here, frequent minibus taxis get you into town in a matter of minutes. These usually leave when full and pick up passengers all along the route as and when any space frees up. They complement the city bus system well, though it is rare to find any local whites using this mode of transport.
Durban's historical center is not too large and is easily explored on foot. It is centered around the imposing City Hall and spreads over a few blocks straddling Smith Street and West Street and is an eclectic mix of colonial buildings and modern development. It is also the commercial district where many businesses, malls and restaurants are located and it has the bustle and vibrancy that you expect in a large city. We were particularly struck by the number of hair salons and hair dressers on the streets. Hair-dressers, mostly women, sat on short stools with large photo albums displaying the various ways they could braid and style your hair! Interestingly, people in this profession seemed to stick together - we sometimes found a dozen or so of them seated in a line on the sidewalk.
As we approached what is referred to as the Indian area, sights, sounds and scents of the Indian subcontinent were more evident. In Grey Street and nearby small streets are some of the oldest Indian shops and businesses and they sell everything from clothes, shoes, leather goods, jewelry and electrical appliances. Also on Grey Street is Juma Mosque, said to be the biggest mosque in the southern hemisphere.
Across the sheet we wandered into Victoria Street Market which is packed with traditional Indian crafts, curios and knick-knacks. The lower floor was festooned with colorful garlands and incense was in the air. It also has several stores that specialize in selling aromatic Indian spices. Descriptive names for several varieties of red chill powder invoked the most maligned familial category on the planet, the mother-in-law. Among them were : Arson Fire - Mother-in-Law Exterminator and Mother-in-Law Curry Mix (Hot)!
For lunch, we were in the quest of that uniquely Durban specialty - Bunny Chow, and asked at an Indian run shop for a recommendation. We were directed to a local Bunny Chow joint and were not disappointed. A hollowed out loaf (or half or quarter loaf) of bread filled with a spicy Indian curry is to Durban what Chocolate is to Belgium. You just cannot leave without trying it.
Later we headed to the much recommended KwaMuhle Museum which some guide books say is an absolute 'must-see' and were disappointed to find that it was closed for pest control. With threat of imminent rain, we decided that it would make better sense to continue our sightseeing from the inside of a bus rather than on foot. We had learned about the People Mover bus system at the Tourist Information Center which we had popped into first thing when we got to the city center. Two bus lines, City Loop and Beach Line cover most of the places of interest and a day pass entitles you to unlimited rides and transfers. It is a convenient way to travel around the city and also along the beach front.
The City Line runs on a circular route through the city's main thoroughfares. It dropped us off on Marine Parade, the street that fronts the beaches. Known for its long stretch of high-rise hotels and restaurants, it was where M's hotel was located when she was here and she tried in vain to identify the specific building it was in. Perhaps it has been demolished and replaced with a new construction. Perhaps is was just painted in a different color. The area seemed a little run down compared to how we remembered it but the seaside promenade appears to be a as popular with today as it was then.
Before the drizzle turned to rain, we high-tailed it to the closest transfer point and jumped on the scenic Beach Line that runs north-south along the coast. We took the northbound bus and it terminates at Moses Mabhida Stadium, one of the host stadiums for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Topped by a distinctive arch, it is popular tourist destination by itself and a viewing platform at the top offers views over the city and the ocean. From here the south-bound bus took us to the other terminus at uShaka Marine World, a relatively new attraction in the city which boasts, among other exhibits and attractions, the biggest collection of sharks in the southern hemisphere.
Transferring buses a few more times got us back to the lodge, just a little wet, but with all our belongings intact. Wary of the city's increasing reputation for crime, we had taken care to leave anything of value back in the lodge and headed out with only a day's worth of spending money, but we had not felt particularly unsafe when walking around town. While some areas definitely look rather run down, the city seems to have made a lot of investment to clean up the business district and revitalize the city center.
Later that evening we were pleasantly surprised find that the SF bay area couple we had met earlier at Bulungula were staying at the same lodge as us. While we were exploring the Drakensberg, they went further along the Wild Coast. They told us about a a good Indian Restaurant they had discovered the previous evening and we decided to go out for dinner to the same place with them. Our good deed for the day - introducing a couple of Americans to the delights of Rava Masala Dosa in South Africa!
Ahhh. Bunny Chow indeed. The pride of Durban !!
Was expecting Kingsmead, ABSA stadium, aunties in sarees overnight at the casino, a few clicks in Zulu ........ From , on Apr 4, 2013 at 12:07PM