A Traveller’s Take On Durban’s Many Urban And Cultural Delights

The capital of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province reveals itself as a treasure of big-city experiences, Zulu culture, a notable Indian connection, and simply a whole lot of fun!


As I stand at one end of the Golden Mile—Durban’s expansive promenade dotted with historic buildings, alongside the Indian Ocean—it’s hard not to feel like I’m back home in India. No, I don’t have an ancestral connection to this megalopolis; rather, it’s more a matter of mise en scène. If I look to the left, I can see the billowing jade waves of the ocean, while to my right are magnificent waterfront Art Deco structures. Either way, it reminds me of my hometown Mumbai, a city whose Marine Drive has much the same format—gushing sea on one side and geometrically flamboyant architecture on the other. “And let me add to that feeling,” chimes in my friend and Durban-local Kimala. “Durban has the third largest number of Art Deco buildings in the world, after Miami and Mumbai.” It just proves my nostalgia is not misplaced, after all! Over the next few days, I’m introduced to Durban’s many other delights, as well, which encompass urban adventures and escapades of the ‘wild’ kind. And I can’t wait to tick them off my
bucket list!

The Golden Mile stretches along the horizon, as locals and tourists enjoy
a morning on the beach in Durban.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes

The Golden Mile stretches invitingly between two of the city’s most popular attractions, the Suncoast Casino and uShaka Marine World; both are on my itinerary for my first day here. Kimala and I begin with the casino, trying our luck at the slot machines. We then move to the blackjack and roulette tables—it’s not a day of much financial luck, but I’m still happy to be here. And, without letting the lack of cash prizes dampen our spirits, we decide to gorge on some delicious bunny chow at Jeera Restaurant, located within the Suncoast Towers in the same complex. This ‘Indian South African’ dish comprises hollowed-out bread filled with meat or vegetable curry, accompanied by a desi salad.

The lively Golden Mile promenade at night.

Historically, it was a quick meal sans crockery for the Indian labourers who worked on the region’s sugarcane plantations. Today, it is hugely popular in this part of South Africa. I opt for a butter chicken bunny chow and end my meal with a cup of traditional rooibos tea. Delish!

Fortified by the wholesome lunch, we drive down the Golden Mile for about 10 minutes till we reach the uShaka Marine World, a wonderfully exciting aquatic oceanside theme park spanning more than ten hectares! It’s home to South Africa’s largest aquarium and highest water slide, as well as a shopping centre, restaurants, a snorkelling lagoon, and more. But the highlight for me is, without a doubt, the thrilling ‘Shark Dive’ experience. Adrenaline is on a high as I am briefed by an instructor and any last-minute fears are thwarted by a smiling Kimala giving me a thumbs-up from a safe spot. The modus operandi includes being locked in a cage and immersed in waters swarming with these killer fish. The cage has widely spaced bars, so it’s easy to see the sharks in all their glory. I take a deep breath and centre myself before we are submerged underwater. The Jaws theme music plays on loop in my mind as my eyes are locked in a gaze with one fierce beast that circles the cage twice. But soon, fear gives way to fascination as I am enraptured by the beauty of these majestic creatures. Before I know it, my tryst is over and I’m pulled out of the water. It’s in times like these when one wishes to be a Disney princess with access to a wish-granting genie—I’d choose a day among these sharks. From a safe vantage point, of course!

Visitors enjoy an adrenaline-pumping Shark Dive experience at the uShaka Marine World.

It’s a little after 6 PM when we wave goodbye to the sharks. After freshening up at our hotel, we head to Uhmlanga Rocks, an upscale resort packed with luxe hotels and eateries, about 20 minutes north of Durban Central. Tempted by the many options, we choose the sophisticated Café La Plage for a delicious dinner of grilled jumbo prawns, oyster platters, and a salmon sushi roll. It’s been a good day!

A Multicultural Ethos

A delicious serving of bunny chow.

As I continue my explorations the next day and for the remainder of my trip, it becomes evident why the place feels familiar. The number of people of Indian origin in Durban is remarkable. While most came over during British colonial times, the community now has its own customs and traditions. And as most people know, this was also once home for Mahatma Gandhi. So, in the spirit of all things desi, and after a quick breakfast at the Circus Circus Beach Café, I hop on board the ‘Ricksha Bus’—an open-air vehicle that takes tourists through the city. We begin the journey at the North Beach Tourism Office, pass the iconic Moses Mhabida soccer stadium, and enjoy the views with the wind in our hair, before getting off at the bustling Victoria
Street Market.

The Zulu Gasa tribe performs a traditional
dance at the PheZulu Safari Park.

In total contrast to our outdoor adventures, this bazaar is fully covered, and Kimala informs me that it’s one of the oldest in the city. It’s also where I first brush shoulders with Durban’s vibrant Zulu community. There’s an electric buzz in the air as Indian and African crafts vie for my attention, making it a haven of diverse pleasures: seafood, curries, handlooms, African beadwork, stone and wooden artifacts, incense, brass items—the works! Needless to say, I don my haggling hat and fill my shopping bags with souvenirs and
décor objects.

Vibrant wares on display at Victoria Street Market.

Shopping desires satiated, we make our way to Florida Road, where restored colonial-era buildings now house trendy cafés, restaurants, and nightclubs. We begin our revelries at the Irish-style Dropkick Murphy’s, before making our way to Capella & Costa Coffee for some dancing, and eventually, end the evening with a nightcap and Latin beats at Cubaña Durban. This city knows how to party!

A Millennium of Wonders

Breathtaking vistas of the Valley of a 1000 Hills.

My last day in Durban is reserved for the ethereal Valley of a 1000 Hills. It takes a little under half an hour via road to reach from the city, but still feels like a different world, as the metropolis gives way to verdant, rolling hills. For me, it’s one of the best places to soak in true Zulu culture, especially at the fascinating PheZulu Safari Park here. It’s where I try unique game meat (like crocodile fritters!) for the first time, get enthralled by a rhythmic dance performance by the Zulu Gasa clan, and learn to ride a Segway to spot giraffes, zebras, and other animals in their natural habitat. The call of the wild is continuous and so, I head out yet again to satiate my need for nature—this time on a safari drive—and hope to spot South Africa’s ‘Big 5’—the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo. As I take in the untamed wilderness around me, I marvel at how Durban has given me much more than just five things to smile about.

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