Authentic Durban Experiences
Bold, spicy and colourful – Durban has plenty to offer travellers looking for authentic experiences. Durban Tourism shared some ideas with Michelle Colman.
Visit the valley of shebeens and sangomas
Durban is the gateway to the ‘Kingdom of the Zulu’ and just outside the city is the magnificently scenic Valley of a Thousand Hills, which is described as a living museum of Zulu culture.
At the iSithumba Adventure Park in the valley the visitor is guided through a rural Zulu village by locals who have in-depth knowledge of traditions, rituals and customs. Tourists can chat to the Head Man, meet an inyanga, or traditional healer, visit a shebeen (local tavern) and sample Zulu cuisine.
Visitors can also witness ancient Zulu ceremonies at PheZulu Safari Park, such as diviners (sangomas) ‘throwing the bones’ to receive messages from spiritual ancestors. Here members of the Gasa clan host guests in traditional beehive huts, introducing them to traditional ways of life. There’s an impressive Zulu dance show to watch, where dancers show off their athleticism, grace and agility.
A little further off, 160km from Durban on the N2 and R66, aha Shakaland near Eshowe is one of South Africa’s best-known homages to Zulu culture. This cultural village evolved from the set of the television production, Shaka Zulu, based on the life of King Shaka, the warrior credited with moulding the Zulu nation into a military force.
The village is designed as a traditional Zulu homestead and offers en-suite accommodation in thatched huts but with all the mod cons expected of an international hotel. Two giant beehive domes make up the Shisa Nyama restaurant, where dishes include amasi (soured milk), phutu (crumbly or grainy porridge), tripe, ox liver and wild spinach prepared in three-legged pots on an open fire.
During a cultural tour guests are shown the traditional methods of grinding corn, brewing beer, making beadwork, basket weaving and other crafts.
Not to be missed – a loaf of bread with zing
The bunny chow (or just ‘bunny’) is a Durban dish that pays homage to the city’s large Indian community. It’s great for eating as on-the-go street food, and has also found its way on to the menus of elegant restaurants.
Bunny chow is made from a scooped-out loaf of fresh white bread, packed with Durban-style curry. Durban curries are made with a blend of up to 12 different spices and are particularly pungent and not shy on heat. The bread removed from the centre is used to dip into the gravy-soaked dish.
The origins of the dish are disputed, but one popular belief is that migrant labourers from India working on Durban’s sugar cane farms devised it as a means of carrying their curry lunches to work. The hollowed-out loaf proved a better receptacle than a roti, which tended to fall apart.
Another is that it originated in the early 1900s at a Durban restaurant that served caddies from the Royal Durban Golf Club. In the absence of polystyrene containers back then, the restaurant packed the take-away meal into the bread crust. The restaurant owners belonged to an Indian caste of merchants called Banias, hence the name bunny chow.
Initially a vegetarian curry, nowadays the bunny may have lamb, mutton or chicken ladled into it. Beans and chips are a popular, somewhat carb-packed, option. A side salad of carrot with chilli is a regular accompaniment.
As a take-away the dish is inexpensive and is best eaten by hand. A quarter of a loaf is ordered as a ‘kota’ (quarter).
Intriguing belief systems beg exploration
Not many people know about a group of Rastafarians who practise their spiritual traditions just 30 minutes’ drive from Durban on the shores of the Inanda Dam at the eNanda Adventure Park.
Durban Green Corridors offers a guided tour, which it combines with the scenic uMzinyathi Gorge and waterfall. Here guests can hike 300m down the lush valley into the steep gorge to a sacred cliff face cave, where the Rastafarians’ temple and rock houses are located.
A visit comes with the opportunity to tackle some land and water sports on and around the dam and take advantage of a well-maintained hiking and mountain biking trail.
Another fascinating tour option, but one that must be requested well in advance, is a visit to the Shembe Ebuhleni Village, also on the dam. The Shembe church, a blend of Old Testament-based Christianity and African Zulu beliefs, has its stronghold in KwaZulu Natal. Devotees, identified by their white robes, are a common sight in January and July, when religious gatherings take place.
At present, scheduled trips to the village have been put on hold as the church deals with internal issues, but witnessing one of the impressive gatherings is a possibility and should be discussed with Durban Green Corridors.
Oriental and African threads colour city walkabout
City walking tours come with insight and depth not experienced from a seat on a coach, and Durban’s tours on foot are no exception. The city’s fusion of African and Indian cultures is a heady mix and both offer a sensuous experience on one of the popular walkabouts that run most days of the week.
Durban Tourism offers the Oriental Walkabout, which guides visitors through the maze of the central business district, takes in the landmark Juma Musjid Mosque in Grey Street and, right next door, the Emmanuel Cathedral, one of the oldest in KZN. Also on the itinerary is Victoria Street Market – a bazaar of spices, silks and saris. At the Muti Market, traditional African medicines and herbal remedies can be investigated.
The city also offers the Historical Walkabout, which highlights the many architectural styles the city is known for, notably art deco. It takes in Farewell Square and its statues commemorating past events, the Anglican Church, the first City Hall (now the Main Post Office), the present City Hall which also houses the Natural Science Museum and the Durban Art Galleries, the old Receiver of Revenue building, and the Local History Museum, which was the Old Court House.
View the Golden Mile in thrilling style
Durban is the only South African city to boast the rickshaw, introduced by a sugar magnate back in the 1890s. Originally used for transport, it became a seaside attraction for tourists and in its heyday, there were close on 2 000 rickshaws trawling the beachfront for passengers.
Today there are not many left, but they remain unmissable. The rickshaw pullers dress in vibrant gear with huge headdresses, heavily beaded in Zulu cultural tradition. Their rickshaws are just as wildly decorated. They promise a thrilling ride over 10-15 minutes on the two-wheeled carts, punctuating their trots with high leaps into the air, tipping passengers backwards.
Visitors are advised to take advantage of a ride as the activity is a dying one.