Last updated: 11:10 AM ET, Thu May 19 2016

Dispatch Durban: Way Cool, Way Underestimated

Destination & Tourism | David Cogswell | May 19, 2016

Dispatch Durban: Way Cool, Way Underestimated

Photos by David Cogswell

Durban is one of the great beach cities, and a very underrated place in my opinion. Located on South Africa’s east coast, it sits on the shore of the Indian Ocean, which is kept warm by currents flowing from the tropics to the north. It’s a great place to be. You don’t really have to know any more than that to enjoy it.

The warm Indian Ocean climate is in contrast to Cape Town, on South Africa’s southwestern corner, where it receives the cold currents from the South Atlantic.

READ MORE: South Africa on Sale

I was in Durban to attend Indaba, the African travel trade show, which really livens up the city every May by bringing a huge influx of people from the international travel industry to the city. Indaba is said to be the third largest travel trade show in the world, after ITB in Berlin and the World Travel Market in London. So the influx of people for Indaba makes Durban an especially exciting place to be in May, which is late autumn in Durban, warm and mild.

I stayed at the Southern Sun Elangeni hotel overlooking the beach and Snell Parade, the beach drive. The Elangeni stands along Durban’s Golden Mile, a stretch along the beach where there are many hotels, including both high rise major brand hotels and little properties heavy on personality and local color. It’s a beautifully developed beachfront with many sparkling and colorful concessions and public resources.

There are always some sand sculptors along the beach, standing aside their monumental figures and architectural shapes created from sand, hoping for contributions from picture takers.

Durban is South Africa’s third largest city by population, though the population rankings vary according to how the boundaries are drawn.

But even though population figures vary, in most aspects South Africans would agree that Durban is the country’s third largest and most important city, after Johannesburg, the business capital of Southern Africa, and Cape Town, South Africa’s most beloved international city.

Durban gives those cities a run for their money, though. Part of its appeal may well be that it still feels like a well-kept secret. A relative few Americans and other internationals are familiar with Durban, so it remains unselfconsciously out of the spotlight, and just its naturally cool, funky self.

Durban is the city with the highest Indian population outside of India. The Indian presence goes back to the 19th century, when many Indians were brought to the colony for labor. The Indian culture has a strong presence in the city, which is, typically for South Africa, a rich mixture of ethnicities and cultures.

In Durban’s great blend of ethnicities, Zulu is largest subgroup. Durban is the capital of the KwaZulu-Natal province, the land of the Zulu kingdom. The first European to discover the area was the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who arrived at Christmas in 1497 and named the bay area Natal, which is Portuguese for “Christmas.”  

Durban’s port is the busiest in Africa, and the city has that gritty sophistication and worldliness that is typical of port cities, where goods, ideas and culture flow in and out of the harbor on a daily basis.

The city of Durban was established in 1824 by British colonists, one of whom, Henry Francis Flynn, was able to make a friend out of King Shaka, the Zulu king, by helping him recover from a stab wound he had sustained in battle. King Shaka granted the English a strip of coastal land 30 miles long and 100 miles inward from the shore. The city was named for Sir Benjamin d’Urban, the former governor of the Cape Colony.  

When gold was discovered at the Witwatersrand, near modern Johannesburg, Durban became the portal to get the gold to world markets, and it became a rich city, which it still is.

I took a tour of Durban, a quick survey of some of its highlights and local color, with a local tour operator. We started by driving along the waterfront, where we were able to see the port industry that fed the growth of the city. We stopped at a place called artSPACE Durban, a complex of galleries, studios and workspaces in the light industrial area near the port.

PHOTO: Artist Everaldo Matonse.

We could hear the voices of a children’s choir singing in soaring, joyous harmonies so typical of South Africa, as we toured the space. They were rehearsing in one of the rooms. And we were able to meet the artist Everaldo Matonse in his studio and purchase prints from him. With the current exchange rate for the South African rand, we got a lot for our money.

We drove into the Morningside area of Durban where we saw great, expansive views of the city, and beautiful old mansions. We stopped for lunch on Florida Road near Currie Street, an area known for great shops, restaurants and nightlife. At lunch time, there was only a hint of what that nightlife would be like when the sun went down. But we chose a very colorful restaurant called Cubana that specialized in Cuban style dishes.

The food was delicious, plentiful and inexpensive. The decor was eye-catchingly colorful and the service was highly congenial. The challenge was eating an entire portion. The food was piled high on the plates.

We also visited Victoria Street Market, definitely a recommended highlight of Durban. It was an enclosed space populated with vendor booths offering a great variety of products at amazing prices. It’s especially good for Indian spices and incense. But whether or not you buy anything, it is a treat for the senses.

I had one more particularly precious experience of Durban the night I attended a dinner at the restaurant in the fantastic Oyster Box hotel overlooking the beach in Umhlanga, about 20 minutes drive out of Durban.

The Oyster Box is known for its authentic Indian curry buffet, of which I partook that evening. Then during a lovely dinner gathering of friends and colleagues, one of my friends invited me to a jazz club after dinner. I was determined not to go out that night. I had much work to do and sleep to catch.

But she told me I was a wuss if I didn’t take the opportunity while in Durban to go see this jazz club. She had learned of it through an expert Durban tour operator named Briony Leigh Smith.

Not to be forever branded a wuss, I decided to go to the jazz club, and soon after that I was very glad.

The place was called The Chairman. It was founded by an architect, who also designed it, using a fascinating array of funky chic elements, such as a rhinestone encrusted crucifix in a tryptich mounted on glossy red brick walls near the bandstand.

The Chairman is a lounge, with a range of seating options from tall stools at long narrow tables, to plush sofas and chairs around small round tables. There were also stools around the bar, and some standing room.

Beyond the main bar room at the front were other rooms, each with its own ambiance, decor and energy. It was a friendly atmosphere. People were relaxing and enjoying themselves and the feeling was contagious.

When we arrived, a band was playing on the bandstand, surrounded by a crowd of people focused intently on the music. It was a jazzy form, but an extremely incendiary interpretation of the style. It did not inspire people to sit politely in their seats and clap at the appointed moments as you might see in some jazz clubs.

No, this audience was standing around the band, pushing in as close as possible and the people were riveted. The music built to a greater and greater intensity, then to a climax and a final explosion and then stopped. The band left the stage and were gone, leaving a stunned silence as if in the aftershock of an earthquake.

The DJ filled the emptiness with recorded music and people went back to their conversations.  

As I absorbed the atmosphere of reveling and celebration in the bar I recalled some words of Ernest Hemingway that I recently came across while researching Cuba.

Not college educated, Hemingway preferred traveling as his means of education. And the best way to use your time to learn about a new city, he said, is to attend its bars.

“Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares,” he said, “If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.”

READ MORE: Africa Insights: Indaba 2016, Incubator for Africa's Future

In The Champion, I felt that I was getting as authentic a feeling of life in Durban as I was likely to get. It was mostly a local crowd, though there were some people there who were attending Indaba. It had such a great feeling about it, to be where the local people came to relax and unwind from their work day.

That night I felt I experienced the real Durban, the part behind the cardboard cutout that every place presents to the world's tourism industry. And it was great.

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