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As one of the few natural harbors on Africa's east coast, Durban developed as a port city after the first European settlers landed in 1824 with the intention of establishing a trading post. It's the busiest port in South Africa as it exports large volumes of sugar and is home to the country's largest import and export facility for the motor industry, and now it's become a busy cruise port. It's also a place steeped in history and culture. Gandhi lived and practiced law here, and Winston Churchill visited as a young man. It's home to the largest number of Indians outside India. Its province, KwaZulu-Natal, is now defined as the Kingdom of the Zulu, and the local Zulu population (about 2.2 million) is characterized by warm hospitality and friendly smiles. The Indian population—originally brought here by the British in the late1860s as indentured laborers to cut sugarcane—has also made an indelible mark and now represents about 1 million of Durban's total population of 3.5 million.
Durban has not escaped the crime evident in every South African city. While there's no need to be fearful, be observant wherever you go. Taxis here are metered and are easy to find. You can also travel by rickshaw, but negotiate the rate before you get in.
Bartle Arts Trust (BAT) Centre. The vibrant center (though perhaps a little on the seedy side these days) is abuzz with artists and musicians. Most days—and some nights—you can watch sculptors, dancers, musicians, and painters at work. The center is home to several small galleries, which showcase the work of local artists. 45 Maritime Pl., Small Craft Harbour, Victoria Embankment 4001.
City Hall. Built in 1910 in Edwardian neo-baroque style, the hall looks as if it has been shipped straight from the United Kingdom column by column—hardly surprising, since it's an exact copy of Belfast City Hall. The main pediment carries sculptures representing Britannia, Unity, and Patriotism, and allegorical sculptures of the arts, music, and literature adorn the exterior. City Hall still houses the mayor's parlor and other government offices, the Durban Art Gallery and Natural Science Museum, and the City Library. Dr. Pixley Kaseme (West) and Church Sts., City Center 4001.
Durban Art Gallery. The gallery presents a vibrant, contemporary mix of local, southern African, and international work, though the main focus is on work from KwaZulu-Natal. City Hall, entrances in Anton Lembede (Smith) and Church Sts., 2nd fl., City Center 4001.
Durban Botanic Gardens. Opposite the Greyville Racecourse, Africa's oldest surviving botanical garden is a delightful 150-year-old oasis of greenery interlaced with walking paths, fountains, and ponds. The gardens' orchid house and collection of rare cycads are renowned. The Garden of the Senses caters to the blind, and there's a lovely tea garden where you can take a load off your feet and settle back with a cup of hot tea and cakes—the crumpets (similar to flapjacks) are the best in town! 70 St. Thomas Rd., Berea 4001.
Jumah Mosque. Built in 1927 in a style that combines Islamic and colonial features, this is the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere. Its colonnaded verandas, gold-domed minaret, and turrets give the surrounding streets much of their character. Tours (the only way to visit) are free and can be arranged through the Islamic Propagation Center, in a room at the entrance of the mosque, or through the Durban Tourism offices at Tourist Junction. If you plan to go inside, dress modestly, as in most mosques around the world. Women should bring scarves to cover their heads out of courtesy, wear skirts below the knees, and cover their shoulders. Men should not wear shorts. You'll have to take off your shoes as you enter, so wear socks if you don't want to go barefoot. Yusaf Dadoo (Grey) and Denis Hurley (Queen) Sts. 4001.
KwaMuhle Museum. Pronounced kwa-moosh-le (with a light e, as in hen), this small museum, housed in what used to be the notorious Department of Native Affairs, tells of Durban's apartheid history. Ironically, the name means "place of the good one," Kwa meaning "place of" and "Muhle" meaning "good one". Exhibits provide the often heartbreaking background on this period through old photographs and documents, replicas of passbooks, and lifelike models of people involved in the pass system, including shebeen (an informal bar) queens, who had to apply for permits to sell alcohol. 130 Braam Fischer (Ordnance) Rd., City Center 4001.
S.A. Sugar Terminal. Much of Durban's early economy was built on the sugar industry, and even today the hills and fields around the city and along the north and south coasts are covered with sugarcane. It's not surprising then that Durban's Sugar Terminal is the largest in southern Africa and one of the most advanced in the world. It's extraordinary to see the terminal's three enormous silos piled high to the domed ceiling with tons of raw sugar. The architectural design of the silos has been patented and used in other parts of the world. 25 Leuchars Rd., Maydon Wharf 4001. Admission charged.
Tourist Junction. The city's principal tourist information outlet occupies Durban's old railway station, an attractive brick building constructed in 1894 in Flemish Revival style. It's a good place to pick up pamphlets and information for the city and province. 160 Monty Naicker Rd. (Pine St.), at Soldier's Way, City Center 4001.
Umgeni River Bird Park. This bird park, ranked among the world's best, is built under high cliffs next to the Umgeni River and has various walk-through aviaries. The variety of birds, both exotic and indigenous, is astonishing. You'll be able to take close-up photographs of macaws, giant Asian hornbills, toucans, pheasants, flamingos, and eight species of crane, including the blue crane, South Africa's national bird. 490 Riverside Rd., off the M4, Durban North 4051. Admission charged.
uShaka Marine World. This aquatic complex combines the uShaka Sea World aquarium (the fifth-largest in the world) and the uShaka Wet 'n Wild water park. The aquarium's innovative design is as impressive as its size; it allows you to walk on the "bottom" of the ocean among various shipwrecks to view the live specimens, including the world's largest collection of sharks. 1 Bell St., Point 4001. Admission charged.
Umhlanga. Also known as Umhlanga Rocks (meaning Place of the Reeds), this area 20 km (12.5 mi) north of Durban used to be a small vacation village, but Durban's northward sprawl has incorporated it into a popular and upscale residential and business suburb, much like Sandton is to downtown Johannesburg. To the north are the nicest sea views; to the south is Umhlanga's lighthouse. Umhlanga's village charm and lovely beaches have entrenched it as one of the most sought-after vacation destinations for locals and foreigners, and it boasts many of Durban's top hotels.
Gateway Theatre of Shopping. The largest mall in the Southern Hemisphere, Gateway has been designed to let in natural light and is surprisingly easy to navigate. Shopping ranges from surfing paraphernalia and imported and local fashions to electronics and art and crafts. Gateway also has a large variety of entertainment options including an IMAX theater and an art nouveau theater, the Barnyard Theatre, which hosts live music compilation shows in an informal "barn" environment, the largest indoor climbing wall in the world, and the Wavehouse with artificially generated waves and a skate park. New Town Centre, 1 Palm Blvd. 4319.
Valley of a Thousand Hills. I n the early part of the 19th century, before cars were introduced, wagons traveled from the port of Durban up along the ridge of this region of plunging gorges, hills, and valleys 45 km (27 mi) northwest of Durban into the hinterland, where the mining industry was burgeoning. Today the Old Main Road (M103) still runs between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, winding through a number of villages and offering stunning views of hills and valleys dotted with traditional Zulu homesteads.
Assagay Coffee. You can take a tour to see how this homegrown coffee, very popular with locals, is grown, roasted, and packaged. Off Old Main Rd., Botha's Hill 3610. Admission charged.
PheZulu Safari Park. PheZulu is good for people who want a quick-fix African experience. A tour of the cultural village with its traditional beehive huts gives some insight into African traditions, and there are performances of traditional Zulu dancing, but the operation is not as vibrant or professional as the cultural villages up north in Zululand. An old-fashioned crocodile farm and snake park is fairly interesting, if a little tacky. The curio shop is enormous; you can probably get just about any type of African memento or booklet imaginable. Old Main Rd., Drummond 3610. Admission charged.
Durban offers a great array of shopping experiences, from the Beachfront, where you can buy cheap beadwork and baskets, to enormous Western-style malls such as Gateway in Umhlanga. In general, bargaining is not expected, though you might try it at the Beachfront or with hawkers anywhere. Look out for goods indigenous to the province: colorful Zulu beadwork and tightly handwoven baskets.
The most exciting market in the city is the Victoria Street Market (Denis Hurley (Queen) and Joseph Nduli (Russell) Sts., Indian District 4001), where you can buy everything from recordings of African music to curios and curry spices. Bargaining is expected here, much as it is in India. Sadly, pick-pockets and bag-snatchers are not uncommon here, so watch your belongings.
Port Photo: Steven Allan/iStockphoto
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