As with most cities, Durban has developed around the geographic features of the area. Durban is bounded in the south by the Bluff, a range of green clad hills separating the sea from Durban Bay, and stretches northwards beyond the Umgeni River to the high land of Durban North. Inland lies Berea, a ridge of hills encircling the flat, central part of the City.
Being a coastal city, Durban is constantly affected by the warm sea current flowing down its shoreline. Humidity is high. The coast to the north and south of Durban enjoys beautiful beaches and warm water. The Agulhas Current travels southward down the KwaZulu-Natal shoreline, and is one of the most powerful currents in the world. Surfing is one of the main activities on the many beaches, where you will find Surf Lifesavers with numerous signs demarcating areas where swimming is safe. Angling and boating activities are also very popular.
On the shoreline of the city centre is the Golden Mile of beach, leisure amenities and high-rise hotels. Along the ocean a public promenade stretches from Durban?s Harbour area in the south, right along the edge of the city and the sea, to the natural boundary of the Umgeni River in the north. All along this beachfront are public attractions, good surfing, a funfair and a great range of hotels.
The main beaches are the Country Club, Battery, North and South (where there is a family theatre) and Addington. Lifesavers work on all these beaches. Umhlanga, to the north of Durban and Amanzimtoti to the south, continue this long stretch of beaches and resorts.
The climate is tropical most of the year, with the summer thunder storms bringing a slight relief from the humid atmosphere that prevails. The hills above the city are more temperate. The vegetation on the coastal regions are very abundant and tropical, and
visitors to the area will see an amazing range of plants, trees and flowers not found in other parts of Southern Africa.
Metropolitan Durban, or eThekweni in Zulu, is the largest, most vibrant city on the East Coast of Southern Africa. There is a harbour and international airport, both conveniently located for the city. The city centre bustles during the day and amidst the museums and civic buildings of colonial heritage, you will find yourself at the heart of a truly African city. It is a ‘cultural curry’ of different communities, including British, Indian and Zulu. At night, however, the centre empties and can be unsafe, each community returning to their distinct suburbs. You will find the colonial heritage of the city, and a distinctly African pulse, concentrated in the small area between Aliwal and Gardiner streets and on the parallel roads of Smith, West and Pine (Tourist Information office is situated on Pine Road).
The Golden Mile extends along Marine Parade with Snell Parade to the north and Erskine Parade to the south; it is to the West of the city centre. The beaches are the main attraction as well as the Miami-style skyline. There are restaurants, entertainment and amenities galore, but beyond the beachfront development the area becomes more seedy and should be treated with caution after dark. The Seaworld Aquarium is an established attraction and includes over 1,000 fish, with sharks, dolphins, seals and penguins too. The oft-photographed Zulu, Rickshaw Men are to be found nearby, a curious emblem of this culturally diverse city.
To the eastern side of the centre is the Indian Quarter, found along Grey Street running north from West Street. The Jumah Mosque, found in this area, is reputably the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Two markets are of note here – the Oriental Bazaar and the Victoria Street Market. This area has also become home to Zulu herbalists selling muti for traditional medicine and rituals – head for Russell Street Extension where these sellers congregate.
The Harbour is the ninth largest in the world (over 4,500 acres) and the most important in Southern Africa. At its mouth there are two piers – the Point to the north, at the far end of the Golden Mile, and Bluff to the south. The Bluff is a 4km long, narrow spit, which shelters the Bay. On the city centre side of the Bay is the long Victoria Embankment where you will find various memorials, museums and have the opportunity to take a cruise or just view the boats.
On the ridge to the west of the city is the suburb of Berea. Berea is home to several places of note. The popular Musgrave Centre, a shopping and entertainment emporium, the Killie Campbell Africana Museum, a must for those interested in Zulu culture, and the Botanical Gardens (established 1849) are all highly recommended. Some distance beyond Berea, on the eastern edges of the city, is Kloof, the up-market residential area, which is worth a drive around if only to see how lovely an area can be. After Kloof, Botha?s Hill extends along the Valley of the 1,000 Hills, and you will find yourself in spectacular countryside.
On the northern side of the city are the Umgeni River Mouth and the up-market area of Durban North. The Bird Park on its northern bank is highly recommended. Just north of the city is Umhlanga, a popular holiday area noted for its fine beaches, surrounding environment and excellent leisure and shopping centres. While there, take a walk in the Nature Reserve, situated around the lagoon. While you are in Umhlanga the Sharks Board offer fascinating tours of their research facility, if dissected sharks catch your fancy, that is.
History of Durban
The KwaZulu-Natal region has been inhabited since the Stone Age. Remnants of Rock Art are readily found in caves throughout the Drakensberg Mountain range, where the Khoi-San people lived as hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. These same people were still living in the Natal Midlands when the much darker skinned, ‘Bantu’ African tribes moved from the north sometime during the last millennium.
Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer, while discovering the passage from Europe to India, landed along this coast on Christmas day 1497 and, as a result, called the area ‘Natal’. His sailors fished off of the coast of modern day Durban. Slowly, trade developed along the coast, particularly for ivory, and marooned mariners built temporary shelters around present day Durban.
The Bantu tribes went through bloody periods during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Inter-tribal wars were common and the Zulu’s, under King Shaka (Chaka), became the dominant tribal force. They remain the largest ethnic group in the province.
The modern city of Durban dates from 1824, when a party of 25 men, under British Lieutenant F. G. Farewell, arrived from the British Colony in the Cape and established themselves on the northern shore of the Bay of Natal, in what is now Farewell Square. The previous year, Lieutenant Farewell had taken shelter there during a violent storm, and had built a small settlement. With Farewell was the adventurer Henry Fynn. Fynn befriended the Zulu King, Shaka (claiming, falsely, to be an envoy of King George), and having helped him to recover from a stab wound received in battle. In thanks, Shaka granted Fynn some prime land, a “25-mile strip of coast, a hundred miles in depth” (over 9,000sqkm). Fynn styled himself ‘King of Natal’ and took numerous Zulu wives, producing many children by them. On the 23rd June 1835, at a meeting of the 35 white residents in this ?kingdom?, it was decided to build a town and name it D’Urban after Sir Benjamin D’Urban, then Governor of the Cape.
In 1838 ‘Voortrekkers’ (whites of continental descent trekking from the Cape colony to escape British rule, now known as ?Afrikaners?) established the Republic of Natalia, just north of Durban, establishing a capital at Pietermaritzburg. Fierce conflict with the Zulus led to the famous ?Battle of Blood River?. The conflict spilled over into the Durban area and the city had to be evacuated. Finally, under military pressure, the Afrikaners accepted British annexation in 1844. As a result, many Afrikaners left Durban, heading north and helped to establish the Orange Free State and Transvaal. In Durban, a British governor was appointed and settlers came in significant numbers to the area. The municipality of Durban was set up in 1854. You can see the British influence, evident in all of the older buildings around the city, particularly in Farewell Square.
In the 1860s the sugar-cane industry was established. Zulus did not readily leave Zululand (the area to the northeast of Durban) to work on the plantations, so the British brought thousands of ‘indentured labourers’ from India, to Natal, on five year contracts. Many stayed, creating the Asian communities, now among the strongest in the region, with influence throughout South Africa. The sugar-cane farms they initially came to work, are still farmed by the ancestors of those first labourers. The main religious groups of Hindu, Moslem and Sikh are all very active and play a big part in the character of Durban and the whole province of KwaZulu-Natal. Trade with India has become a large part of the local economy.
The most famous Indian immigrant was the young, British trained lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, who arrived in 1893 and worked for 21 years in Natal latterly becoming the social activist we all know. His approach to political leadership was to have a deep resonance in the activities of the African National Congress later in the twentieth century.
During the apartheid era that dominated the twentieth century in South Africa, Indians were regarded as second class citizens, but enjoyed a freedom in business, which allowed them to develop a strong economic base as well as political influence, in the province. In this period, Zulus migrated in large numbers up to Johannesburg and other mining districts. In Natal a nominally independent ‘homeland’ of KwaZulu was established, led by the bombastic leader Mongosuthu Buthelezi (he has the world record for the longest speech). Political tension between Buthelezi’s IFP and the ANC created unrest in many parts of the province, but rapprochement, led by Nelson Mandela in the post 1994 democratic era, eased tensions dramatically, with the ANC making Buthelezi ?Minister of the Department of Home Affairs?. The Zulu King, Zwelentini, continues to play an important, symbolic role, as do the chiefs in their districts.
Durban is still an important port (the busiest in Southern Africa) and tourist destination. The Golden Mile developed a ‘Miami’ feel in the 1970s and the city provided a happy playground, particularly for people on vacation from Johannesburg. It lost its holiday pre-eminence to Cape Town in the 1990s, but remains an important location. Umhlanga just to the north is now the favoured destination for more affluent tourists. The city and province are a curious blend of British, Zulu and Indian and this is quickly apparent in the multicultural feel of Durban.