Durban is probably best known for its glorious beaches and water sports. But there is a whole different world to discover a few blocks away from the Golden Mile. In fact, it’s more than one world. We were taken on a Alice in Wonderland-esque walk through old and modern, muslim and zulu and, of course, the Indian spice market.
Durban was founded by British settlers in 1835, and soon grew to a bustling capital of the territory Natal. The British presence was not conflict-free, and the activities of those early days still reverberate in KwaZulu (the place of the Zulu people) today. The wars between British and Zulu all but crushed the mighty tribe that was once considered the strongest warriors in the land. In addition, the British brought in a large number of indentured labourers from India to work on the sugar plantations, many of whom could never afford to return. This, in combination with Durban being the largest city in the area with the busiest port in the country, has led to Durban becoming a proverbial melting-pot of people and cultures.
Our guide Richard, a retired teacher of British descent who speaks Zulu fluently, leads us past wonderful art deco buildings, through small alleyways with a market selling traditional African outfits, and onto a street where a mosque and an Anglican church compete to dominate the skyline. Richard was is chatting amiably with the people we meet, but also tells a cheeky taxi conductor off for saying something (probably less flattering) about the mlungus (white people). This is not the usual tourist trail, and it is quite sobering to be the one who is stared at. We stand out like beacons with our white skin and sunhats.
We go through a meat market that could make ever hard core carnivores to contemplate vegetarianism. Sheep heads are piled high next to chicken feet and bits of animals that I’m not even sure I want to know what they are. I greet a few of the traders with the little Zulu I know, and am received with cheered laughter and a request to take a selfie with them. As we cross the street and enter into the beautifully restored Victoria Street Market, the atmosphere changes and we encounter quite a few fellow tourists. Here, the Indian spice merchants ply their trade to locals and tourists alike and everyone has a “very good price for you my friend”. I get a few freshly fried samoosas and some chili bites with quite a bite (when the Indians say “spicy”, they mean it), and a bag of spices for pickled green mango.
But we soon veer off the tourist trail again, and cross the bridge to where the locals shop for anything from live chickens to clothes and sound systems. It is busy and smelly and loud. The TV sellers show sport and Nollywood movies (the Nigerian version of Bollywood) with the volume at max, and the music sellers try to outdo them with kwaito (South African house). I buy a bag of five tennis ball sized vetkoek (deep fried dumplings) for five Rand, eat a quarter of one and give the rest to slightly amused passers by. No wonder people sleep on their lunch break; that stuff sits like a rock in your tummy! A bit further along, we pass a fabric stall and I decide to add to my collection of African prints. You can never have too much of this, it brightens up the dullest of days!
A bit further away, Richard stops the group and asks everyone to listen carefully. We are about to enter the Muti Market. This is where the Sangomas (African traditional healers) buy and sell their wares. While most of it is made from medicinal herbs, harvested in a sustainable manner, there are definitely other (and perhaps less legal) things for sale here too. We are only allowed in because Richard has a good relationship with some of the elders here, and it is under a strict “no photos” condition. While I fully respect the wishes of these traditional healers, I couldn’t help but wishing that I had the opportunity to photograph the piles of bark and herbs, the bottles with labels like “bhubesi” (lion) and “ngwenya” (crocodile) and the snake skins hanging at the opening of little, dark huts.
For lunch, we have a Bunny Chow: the iconic Durban dish which is a combination of the city’s heritage in many ways. It is an Indian curry, served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. This, the story says, originates in the fact that black people weren’t allowed into restaurants during apartheid and had to buy food from the back door. With no take-away containers, the loaf of bread became both the vessel and part of the meal. Although we’re having the mild version, many of my Swedish guests are gasping for air in-between their mouthfuls. Like I said, Indians don’t do half measures!
We end the tour at the impressive City Hall, where it all started once upon a time: the colonial rule in Kwa-Zulu that forever changed life in this once rural area where villagers reared cattle and cultivated their land, and where Zulu warriors ruled superior. It has been a day of many impressions: of the many colours and smells of Durban, of challenges and lives lived to the full despite them, of dilapidation and beautifully restored architectural treasures, but most of all a glimpse of the real Durban beyond the beaches and the funfairs of the Golden Mile.
A visit to the inner city gives you a real experiences of what real life is like. But in order to fully understand the place and to ensure that you stay safe, I always recommend that you do it with a local guide. Our tour was done by Richard Forman at Pufferfish Adventures (083 659 6975).