Why You Should Put Durban on Your South Africa Travel Itinerary

Let me start with a disclaimer. You probably know a few Francophiles, those weird and wonderful people magnificently obsessed by France who don’t have a drop of French juice running through their veins other than what they swill down when they pull the cork (or twist the screw top) on a tasty Rhône-style red.

Well, I’m a Durbanophile.

My bias and what distinguishes me from your average Francophile — beyond the obvious geographic and cultural considerations — is rooted in the fact that I was born and bred in Durban.  Since I made the San Francisco Bay Area my home-from-home and became an Oaklandophile (you can’t cuckold a city so I reckon it’s OK to spread the love), I’m happy to admit that I’ve been compulsively pulled back over and over again.  

My Durbanophile tendencies manifest when I meet people in the United States who have been to South Africa, most likely switched planes in Johannesburg, then restricted their city adventures to Cape Town.

And yes, Cape Town is the country’s most scenic city with its iconic Table Mountain backdrop and easy access to Africa’s most famous wine region.

But I think of Cape Town as Europe-wannabe with its chichi restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops, its upscale touristy waterfront and its profusion of galleries and kultcha.

By comparison Durbs-by-the-sea, as it’s familiarly known, is uniquely African. The term “melting pot” might well have been coined for this sprawling sub-tropical Indian Ocean port — and resort — city with its British colonial roots, where first and third worlds intersect and where Zulu (Durban is the biggest city in the Zulu-stronghold province of KwaZulu-Natal), Indian and European cultures collide, dissect and blend.

Bovine Coffee Klatch

So, for example, the traditional Zulu version of the “coffee” klatch has women paring bloodied flesh from the skulls of decapitated cows, boiling the carved-off chunks of facial meat and serving it on wooden boards along with dumplings — steamed hand-rolled balls of flour, water and yeast — to men who lounge on plastic chairs and wonky wooden benches sipping tea from enamel mugs, chatting animatedly and using their hands to eat the meat.

“Those dumplings are the food of the Gods,” says Thabo Zulu.

He is our guide at the Bovine Head Market, a refuge in the frenzy that defines Warwick Junction, site of nine markets (book a tour via Markets of Warwick on the edge of inner-city Durban that support huge creative entrepreneurship. Around 460,000 commuters a day come and go from this hub. About 6,000 street vendors and up to 8,000 market vendors support themselves by selling everything from apples and oranges tobeads, live chickens for rituals and the pot, tailoring skills, spices and medicinal “muti” herbs and much more.

When I toured, Zulu (our guide) encouraged our group of about a dozen people, from the U.S., Sweden, Germany and other parts of Africa, to sample the boiled meat and dumplings sprinkled with salt — old fashioned and iodized, not Hawaiian or designer or artisanal — poured from a plastic Cerebos container.

While the fare is palatable, it’s unlikely to have you scrambling for seconds.

But the good news is, there’s a veritable feast of compelling reasons — many comfortingly less “exotic” and including a vibrant “conventional” local restaurant scene — to visit what many South Africans will tell you is their favorite vacation city.

Heritage tour options offer access to both historic and lifestyle “happenings” like the Bovine Head Market and shisa nyama (“hot meat”) feasts at township taverns , where butchers’ cuts of your choice are grilled barbecue-style over open fires. Enjoy with local beer such as Carling Black Label or Castle Lager.

Dynamic, Delicious Durban

But Durban, with its hot, humid summers and mild to warm winters, it’s lush greenness, bustling African-city downtown, philharmonic orchestra, upscale shopping malls (know that Gateway  has become restaurant central if you visit), art deco beachfront casino (more restaurants), acclaimed Durban International Film Festival and access to “big-five” game reserves like Hluhluwe–iMfolozi, the oldest proclaimed wildlife preserve in Africa with the largest population of white rhino in the world, has a lot more to offer.

I most recently returned to Durban just two short weeks ago. To stay with coffee klatches and the food I can tell you that, same as Oakland, each time I come back I find myself both reacquainting with old favorites and stumbling upon a lot that’s new.

Pop-up food markets abound and the city has a good selection of restaurants serving sustainable, seasonal, creative cuisine.

About 15 minutes north of Durban is the resort “suburb” of Umhlanga, which brims with restaurants and is home to The Oyster Box, a destination hotel with sublime sea views that originally opened in 1947 and recently was given a state-of-the-art face-lift. Enjoy tongue-in-cheek colonial splendor, a delightful collection of original art and several restaurants and bars that while pricy, are worth it for the style, the charm and to experience this gem.
If you visit, it’s worth exploring the Umhlanga food scene. A bunch of top restaurants have relocated there. Chef Themba Mngoma, who we featured in Cuisine Noir in July 2012 (Hot tips For At-Home Summer Entertaining from a South African Warrior Chef), has recently taken over as executive chef at Little Havana.

Bunny Chow and Peri-Peri Portuguese

For something uniquely local, you need to eat a bunny chow  and Portuguese peri-peri chicken.

The city’s single largest population group is the descendants of the Indians from India who came as indentured laborers to work on the sugar plantations more than 100 years ago. Mosques and temples plus spices and curries are among the rich legacy — and bunny chow, originally a cheap meal for laborers comprising half a loaf of white bread, the inside scooped out, bean curry spooned into the bread “bowl” and the inside put back to mop it. Bunny chow now comes in many “designer” forms.

For Colonial Portuguese, a unique cuisine that had its roots in Mozambique, check out North Beach’s unpretentious Neo Café. I had a “half a peri-peri chicken; half calamari” experience there last week. An erstwhile Durban university buddy, visiting from Scotland, had the peri-peri queen prawns. We both vowed we’d be back soonest.

Life’s a Beach

For the record, Durban’s best attribute by far is its beachfront.

In fact there are several beaches, strung together, running past the iconic Moses Mabhida Stadium with its distinctive arch and skycar for city-viewing, built for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. The beachfront with its pedestrian walkway, great for strolling or cycling, continues all the way to the harbor entrance.

The beachfront is a hang-out for surfers, kayakers, stand-up paddlers, swimmers, strollers, runners, sun-worshippers, seine-net fishermen and usually at the weekend, robed African priests who arrive early to conduct services that usually involve dunking the faithful — perhaps to exorcise some irksome ancestral spirit.

The swimming beaches are protected by shark nets and tourist attractions include booking a seat on the KwaZulu-Natal Shark’s Board viewing boat. You get to watch the nets get serviced and enjoy great views of dolphins, the city and the sunrise.

For the best beachfront coffee and brekker go to Jiran or Circus Circus at North Beach. Anytime after 10 am head for Moyo-on-the-Pier at uShaka Beach for a beer with a view. Check out uSharka Marine World where you’ll find the city’s aquarium and dolphinarium.

See you in Durbs sometime, happy travels getting here — and if you’re coming, know that South African Airways  flies daily from New York and from Washington to Durban via a brief stopover and plane change in Johannesburg.

Photo credit: Wanda Hennig   

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.