By Gavin Weale, managing director Live Magazine SA
On the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa, 350 miles south-east of Johannesburg, Durban is a tourist destination that chimes with the subtropical overtures of Mozambique to the north: warm water, hot summers and a laid-back beachy ambience. Yet culturally it’s very much a South African city, albeit one often pigeonholed as the less sophisticated, beach-bum cousin to the tourist mecca of Cape Town.
The whole of KwaZulu-Natal province certainly has glorious beaches. You can surf your heart out along Durban’s Golden Mile – in water that won’t make your feet go numb within seconds, unlike the icy swells in Cape Town. But these days, beyond the sand and waves, the more comparisons that are made with its Western Cape sister city, the more substance Durban has.
It’s got a thriving craft food, beer and spirits scene, an internationally respected annual film festival, and a new homegrown musical movement (gqom – pronounced qwom) that has one aim: getting people on the dance floor. So infectious is the lo-fi sound of Durban’s underground that a recent UK compilation of gqom tracks has made its way into the playlists of hip Westerners hungry for a different beat. There are also attempts at cutting-edge city renewal: with the development of the Rivertown Precinct, Surf City is starting to rival Johannesburg’s urban regeneration thunder, too. Add in the steamy climate – with an average of 320 days’ sunshine a year – and it’s clear why some people are now looking east.
The city is well set up for large events, with many big international touring artists including it on their itineraries, along with major annual music awards such as theMTV Africa Music Awards (the Mamas). The United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2011 put the city on the map for the international development community, while its Playhouse Company and KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra add to Durban’s respectability.
Speak to Durbanites about their city and you get a distinct sense of polarisation. The lively harbour feels like the headiest cultural mix, with a downtown edge, but other worlds are not far away. Culturally, Durban still divides itself into pockets. Northern suburbs such as Umhlanga are fairly white, with sedate cafes and beachfront hotels; areas like Chatsworth, Phoenix and Tongaat will offer authentic curries and sari shops as part of a massive Indian community, dating from the British use of indentured labour from the subcontinent in the 19th century to work on sugar cane plantations; and vast – mainly black – townships like KwaMashu and Umlazi are often avoided by tourists who believe too much of the hype of the Western media. But downtown, the vibe feels more mixed and an adventurous explorer can sample all of these flavours – from some of the best curries outside the Indian subcontinent, to barbecued meat and house music in KwaMashu, and café culture or fine dining in the northern suburbs.
All of which might be a bit bewildering for a short stay. But Durbanites’ lack of pretension and dedication to lighting up the night means there’s always a party somewhere to even things out. As local gqom superstar DJ Target says: “People in Durban, they don’t want to sleep …”
Music and clubs
By Sandile Phakathi, aka DJ Target, whose song Umthwalo Wami, with DJ Ndile,became a dance-floor anthem last summer
People in Durban love dancing, drinking and partying. They don’t like to sleep. We call the parties “morning bangs”.
I was a dancer, and used to dance to electro – I loved the fast-step music. I always wanted to make that sort of music, but mix it with South African house. I started to play in taverns and they used different words to describe it – but gqom (meaning “drum” in Zulu, “noise” in youth culture) – that was the name that people loved. Gqom is South African electro, fast music. When you’re playing it, people dance. And gqom is special to Durban.
The main club I play in is called Chill Action Bar Point, which is on Dr Pixley Kaseme Street, in the Belmont Shopping Arcade, right next to South Beach. Every weekend, people come in huge numbers. On its two dance floors people will be bouncing to gqom, but they also have slot machines for those feeling lucky – or tired.
There are good clubs all over the city, such as Club101, on Samora Machel St in Central, which is a favourite for gqom lovers, and where the dance floors are packed until dawn. Another in Central is Havana Music Lounge, on Monty Naicker Road, a small club that’s always full. During the day, it’s an upmarket bar where people can have a drink while listening to music, but at night it throws great parties.
Away from the city centre, there is Eyadini in Umlazi township, which has cheap drinks and appeals to a mixed crowd, aged between 20 and 40, who party to DJs and bands in an open-air space. In my home town of KwaMashu, north of Durban, there’s Enhlanhleni Tavern, and in Inanda, a township in eastern KwaZulu-Natal,Under the Moon has regular DJs and a spacious outside dance floor. For people who follow a softer type of music Egagasini in South Beach plays deep house and R&B.
Each of these Durban hotspots has a different crowd, from a who’s who of Durban politicians and celebrities, to tourists wanting to experience the city like locals.
Food and drink
By Andrew Rall, master distiller and founder of Distillery 031
The early mornings are the best time of day in Durban during the summer, and the Circus Circus beach cafe in Central (it has five branches in and around Durban), offers about as close as you can get to breakfast on the sand. Watch the sun rise and enjoy breakfast options from scrambled eggs to a full farmhouse breakfast for 64 rand (about £3).
Durban is rightly famous for its curries, and Little India in Musgrave serves a wonderful selection. I particularly like the red and yellow potato curries on its veg mains menu for under £2, and traditional dishes such as breyani (biryani elsewhere), rogan josh and madras in a quintessentially Indian setting. Sunrise Chip ‘n Ranch (Cape Town branch on Facebook) in Sparks Road is known locally as Johnnies and serves legendary roti rolls all night long.
For drinks, Panorama Bar at the luxurious Elangeni Hotel is the best place to watch the surf while enjoying a sundowner, with great views of the Bay of Plenty. Simple but stylish Umhlanga (north Durban) venue Lucky Shaker is the brainchild of renowned mixologist Michael Stephenson. His knowledge and passion for cocktails is unmatched, down to the ice cubes that he makes on site to achieve the perfect mix. Try his Nectar of the Gods – gin with fresh nectarine, raspberry liqueur, lychee and freshly pressed apple.
Opened to the public in November 2015, Distillery 031 produces spirits made with local ingredients, including vodka, gin, cachaça and absinthe. Its selection of gourmet street food has a legion of loyal followers – signature dishes include a beef and oxtail burger with bacon and pineapple jam, lamb jalfrezi burger and truffled biltong mac’n’chini (its take on arancini rice balls)
Heading 14 miles into Durban’s western hinterland, next to Pinetown taxi rank isRainbow Restaurant, an institution that has hosted top jazz artists for more than 20 years, and comes alive on Sundays with live jazz, flame-cooked fatty chicken and beers served by the quart.
Hlabisa Shisa Nyama on Timoni Rd in KwaMashu is township-style shisa nyama(which literally means “hot meat”). Buy your meat by the kilo from Hlabisa’s butchery and enjoy a cold beer while it is expertly braai’d (barbecued). If you’re nervous about navigating KwaMashu township on your own, ask Street Scene Tours to take you there.
Arts and culture
By Justin McGee, photographer
In terms of art, Durban is weird. It goes in cycles. It’s prolific and then there’s a downturn of two, three years before the next crop comes through, as artists rebel in small waves against the more commercial, mainstream side. There are often group shows at Artspace, in a light industry zone in Windermere, two miles north of Central. It’s a cool, small gallery started 12 years ago by Karen and Claus Bradtke, that constantly has shows by new young artists.
The Bat Centre, off the Victoria Embankment (Esplanade), has been going for 50 years – Hugo Bartel, an eccentric Austrian entrepreneur and adventurer, left millions of rand in his will to establish an arts trust. Its mission is “to celebrate the arts and culture of Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal and South Africa by promoting local talent”, and to that end the centre teaches locals sculpture and painting, for example, as well putting on workshops that turn into exhibitions. Situated in the harbour, it’s a great place to view art and chill out.
I used to shoot digital collages a few years ago, and I would create landscapes inspired by the beachfront, where I’ve lived for so long. The beachfront scenarios change. The actual Golden Mile, running from South Beach up to the Suncoast Casino towards the Moses Mabhida Stadium, is simple and chilled, but the further north you go, the more beautiful it gets. On the other side of the harbour, there’s the Bluff, where there are mangrove swamps.
There’s a lot of heritage in places like Tongaat – Indian communities that I’ve shot a lot. The expansive sugar cane fields there have created backgrounds for my collages. You can go through the fields and find communities living among the sugar cane.
The North Beach sand installations are really fun to view – from traditional massive sand castles to life-like rhinos and horses. But my favourite was a six-foot skeleton lounging on a couch. And if you’re into graffiti, the skate park at Bay of Plenty is cool. In Cape Town, street art is banned, but here in Durban, there are legal walls where people can paint without getting hassled. Street Scene Tours(£27pp for four-five hours including burger and beer) offers specific walks based on seeing urban art. They visit little-known urban graffiti galleries as well as more established graffiti hubs like the suburb of Glenwood and Rivertown Precinct, and tours feature artists such as Mook Lion and Ewok. You can also go to the townships and visit taverns and shacks which some of the local street artists have painted.
Fashion and shopping
By Sibu Msimang, fashion designer
Compared with Johannesburg, Durban is very relaxed, but it’s also a bit conservative. In Joburg it’s easy to sport, say, blue braids, which might be frowned upon in some areas here. But a group of young designers in Durban are into experimenting and challenging the conservative view. Top of the list to check out would be the boutiques at 8 Morrison Street, part of the urban regeneration project in the Rivertown Precinct, South Beach. They offer a wide variety of styles, from edgy streetwear by Spine, Swaggerwear and Rooispace to high-fashion pieces by young designers like Jacqui Emanuel and Brett Robson, who produces very interesting, funky clothing, and who blogs prolifically about fashion. As well as fashion outlets, 8 Morrison Street also has really cool little galleries like Artisan (Arts in South Africa Now) – which has local hand-painted fabrics, prints and ceramics – and decor shop Mi Africa.
The Space Pavilion in the suburb of Westville is great if you are looking for on-trend quality and South African-made clothing. You can find designers likeAmanda Laird Cherry, whose style is classic with a twist, in an amazing array of fabrics. Colleen Eitzen produces pieces in which you can dress up or down depending on occasion or mood. My own clothing range is plus-sized ladies’ wear, because there is a market in Durban for women who want to look stylish but can only find conservative clothes in the shops. It’s very feminine – bold, ethnic prints given an update by pairing them with modern silhouettes and everyday patterns.My studio is on Matthews Meyiwa Rd in Morningside (three miles north of Central), in the middle of Durban’s trendiest area.
The I Heart Market – a platform for local foodies and designers to showcase their products on the first Saturday of the month at the Moses Mabhida Stadium – offers a unique range of quality handmade African clothing and accessories. You’ll find the quirky, the edgy and more sophisticated items, including African beaded jewellery, handmade bags from recycled material, and sterling silver jewellery. There’s also a guy called Sanele Cele, and his very cool streetwear brand,Tempracha. I love the way he’s not afraid to experiment with clothes. He’s one to watch, and has a studio on Umgeni Road in Morningside. For something vintage and unique, areas like Victoria Street in the CBD have the most gorgeous vintage clothing and coats sold on the street at bargain prices.
By surfer Avuyile ‘Avo’ Ndamase
I’m from Port St John originally, in the Transkei, and this is my second year in Durban. I moved because of surfing: to try and get in the water more and get exposure. I surf all day pretty much, and the best surf in Durban for me is New Pier, which is next to South Beach. You can surf pretty much anywhere along the Golden Mile, but if the waves are really crazy, South Beach is the place to be. My friend and I also try and surf a lot of other spots outside the city – all the way down to places like Green Point (40 minutes’ drive south of Durban). But sometimes, you’ll go to Cave Rock, on the foreshore of Durban Bluff, and it will be absolutely cooking. February is the best time of the year for surfing in Durban, when the waves are absolutely pumping.
I’m always hanging out on the beach when I’m not surfing, usually by New Pier. It’s the way I live my life, and where I spend most of my time. The beach culture here is still very alive and that helps the lifesaving clubs, which run their own superb restaurants. The Marine Surf Lifesaving Club at Addington beach is a friendly environment for visitors and cooks up some good food, and there’s alsoDurban Surf Lifesaving Club on North Beach. I like to grab a bite at Afro’s chicken shop on South Beach and Surf Riders Food Shack, again on Addington, is a Durban promenade institution that serves breakfast, burgers and pizzas.
Surfboard makers are outstanding in Durban – this is where legends Max Whetteland and Baron Stander began shaping Safari Surfboards in a small workshop in 1964. And the surf community mingles daily in and out of the water – guys like Spider Murphy, Hugh Thomson, Graham Smith and Kevin Colby. I’m not too brand loyal, but I get cool stuff from 42 Surf Shop at the back of Victoria Park, and Piranha Surf Galleria in uShaka Centre, which stocks all the major brands. There are also guys like Ocean Ventures, at uShaka Marine World, for touristy activities in the water, like surfing lessons, stand-up paddleboarding and boat trips.
When I’m not surfing I do a little bit of skateboarding. There’s a beach skate park on Snell Parade, the next beach up from North Beach, right on the promenade. That’s where everyone in Durban goes to skate.
Whale and dolphin watching
The coast just to the north of Durban, from Ballito to Shaka’s Rock and further, offers nature lovers the most spectacular Indian Ocean experiences. If you visit in the colder months, August-October, you’ll be sure to spot whales and dolphins just off the shore. Visit the Salt Rock hotel for Sunday lunch, or oysters (no worries if you just pop up from the beach in a bikini/bathing suit). Further north, there is the St Lucia river estuary where one can see hippos and other amazing wildlife. I love this part of South Africa, lovely people, lovely climate – and affordable too.
Stuck in Durban and enjoying it
We are Canadian sailors onboard our yacht waiting here in Durban marina for good weather to sail to Cape Town. We have been exploring the Durban neighbourhoods by walking and taxi. Our first foray was to the Glenwood neighbourhood, for the Phansi Museum with its huge collection of African arts and crafts at 500 Esther Roberts Road. Exceptional. We were guided through by the assistant curator. Then, down the hill to the artisanal Glenwood Bakery, where we spotted the Tartine Bakery (San Francisco) cookbook on their shelf. Devoured the best bread after a year of next to no bread while sailing the Indian Ocean. Next door we ate lunch at the Parc cafe – wholesome, great coffee and iced rooibos tea. We walked further to Bulwer Road and explored the KZNSA gallery. Ended the day at Checkers grocery store on Helen Josephs Road to buy fresh veggies and boerwors for supper on the boat. Another day we discovered the affordable People Mover bus which we took to the shoreline where we walked a few miles along this outstanding people-watching beach. Another taxi took us to the Florida Road neighbourhood, in Windermere, to visit the tourist information centre and the African Art Gallery just a few steps away. We had a tasty lunch at the Spiga Cafe before walking to the Windermere shopping centre to once again buy groceries for an onboard feast. Food is definitely the theme. We have also filled in our forced wait with a visit to the botanical garden in Musgrave, a city guided walking tour, the huge Gateway Mall and of course, a visit to one of the city’s marine chandleries. The best thing has been finding neighbourhoods like Glenwood, sitting in cafes and watching Durban street life pass us by.
Beach volleyball with the locals
I worked in Durban for three months, and a colleague told me about a group of locals who play volleyball on the beach every Friday. A warm, welcoming group, who become lifelong friends. It would continue rain or sunshine. Everyone from any background was welcome. We would alll go for a drink to a local bar afterwards.
Grandma’s amazing voyage
A good few years ago, while talking to my wife’s grandma about her sea voyage to India from Liverpool in 1940, she mentioned that they had stopped in Durban. As we were trying to find out all about this amazing war-time odyssey, we asked her about her impressions of the places she had stopped off at. When it got to Durban, she paused for a moment, reflecting on her distant memories and said: “Durban … it had a lovely Woolworths!” Damning with faint praise or just comparing with something familiar? We shall never know.
Ike’s bookshop and the Chairman venue
What a find this place was. Ike’s is an amazing second hand book shop at 48a Florida Road I found on my last trip to Durban. The interior is everything a second hand book shop should be – calm, atmospheric, and inspiring, making you want to grab books off the shelf and read them. The original owner was an anti-apartheid activist, and a local hero, with much of the shop dedicated to his story. The rest is given over to a vast collection of books. If you have an interest in Africana stuff, or African literature this is the place. Other shouts in Durban are the Chairman (146 Mahatma Gandhi Rd), which has a great harbourside setting, for some jazz and drinks, and Afro’s on the beach front [see above] for chicken burgers.