If Cape Town is the pretty face of South Africa, Durban is its hipster soul. The infectious spirit of the locals, the alternative
curry culinary experiences, and the artistic bent of the city blew me away. I fell in love the moment I saw its long white coastline, caressed by the deep blue Indian Ocean; it’s Zulu name eThekwini encapsulates this perfect confluence of water and earth.
Here are some quirky ways to experience Durban:
Delve into the local art scene
My friend Andrea Rees (who runs The Heart of a Woman project near Cape Town) stumbled on a tweet about Hayani while we were in Durban. We landed at the local Playhouse Theatre that night, the only outsiders to catch this phenomenal two-man play that traced the stories of two young boys and how their lives have changed over the last two decades in South Africa. Even though part of it was in the native Xhosa language, the incredible depiction of the characters and the raw emotions of the audience gave me some much-needed perspective into this complex country. Refer to the Playhouse Theatre facebook page and keep an eye on the #meetSouthAfrica hashtag on Twitter to find out what’s happening in the vibrant arts scene of Durban when you’re around.
Eat at a pop-up rooftop restaurant
On our first evening in Durban, South Africa Tourism invited us to an alternative culinary experience on the rooftop of a building, with splendid nighttime views of the central business district. We walked through a deserted building, along candle-lit staircases and corridors, to an obscure rooftop – the most eclectic dinner venue I’ve been to yet. Fusion food, including the spicy chakalaka soup, mini bunny chows and rooibos ice cream, were prepared live by Zak and Tonic, young Durban chefs whose brainchild is this popup, that appears in different urban settings, on a beach or in the backdrop of the mountains! See their website for a public popup dinner that might match your travel dates.
Observe a weekend church in the outdoors
Once upon a time, the eleven native tribes of South Africa were ancestral worshippers, believing that the spirit of the dead looked after the family and must be revered. Although most of these tribes have converted to Christianity, they maintain their connection with nature by holding outdoor churches. On a weekend afternoon, look for small groups of people dressed in white, gathered in a park or the beach, and observe how they reconnect with the higher powers – an otherworldly sight I glimpsed on a mystical Sunday afternoon in Durban.
Get messy with a bunny chow
No, it has nothing to do with rabbits or Chinese food; a bunny chow is simply a hollowed-out loaf of bread, filled with spicy curry and covered with a piece of bread in lieu of a spoon. Thanks to the city’s large Indian-origin community, it has become a Durban food icon! Legend has it that the bunny chow was created by first-generation Indians who worked on the sugarcane plantations in South Africa, as a convenient and waste-free way to carry their curries to work. I indulged in a bean bunny (stuffed with chickpea curry) off a street cart, and was amazed at how delicious and messy it was; take your pick from this bunny chow trail in Durban.
Experience the Zulu way of life in a township
Heed the warnings, but don’t make assumptions about South African townships until you’ve visited one yourself. I was pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome I received on my brief visit to Mamelodi (near Pretoria), and to hear that it was once the jazz capital of the country! I didn’t have time in Durban, but I had shortlisted this trip with Tekweni tours, to get a taste of life in a township with a guide who grew up there, and which contributes part of the revenues to the community. Don’t treat it like a safari, and don’t shove your camera into people’s faces – go with an open mind, make friends, and soak in the chill, reggae, welcoming vibes!
Chill in Durban’s quirky cafes
I’ve seen my fair share of quirky cafes around the world, but Freedom Café raised the benchmark – housed inside a glass-walled tin container, surrounded by shaded courtyards, offering free Wifi and a delicious breakfast, it’s the perfect place to inspire creativity or to while away an afternoon. I also heard about The Factory Cafe and The Corner Cafe, and wish I had more days to explore Durban’s alternative café scene!
Soak up beach vibes on an Instawalk
Get in on the new social media craze, connect with locals and fellow travellers, and pick up a tip or two to improve your photography on an Instawalk – a photography walk to capture the essence of this alternative coastal city – with #IgersDurban on Instagram. On my Instawalk, I met a Zambian photographer living in South Africa, a third-generation couple of Indian origin with incredible stories about growing up in Durban, and folks I’ve tweeted with regularly; it’s more about the people you meet than the photography (and honestly it doesn’t even matter if you use Instagram!).
What were (are) your impressions of Durban?
Note: I visited Durban on invitation from the South Africa Tourism Board, as part of the #MeetSouthAfrica blogging campaign. Opinions on this blog are always my own.
Featured image by The Playhouse Company.