Durban renewal

Kate Armstrong visits a city that's rapidly updating its image.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you're told for long enough you're the ugly sister, then you start acting like one. So says Cyril, my South African friend, as we hurtle along Durban's waterfront promenade in a Zulu ricksha. It will later dawn on me that Cyril - who was actually referring to dynamics in his family - could also be talking about Durban, his city.

For too long, Durban - or "eThekwini" as it's known in the local Zulu language - South Africa's major port city and the country's third-largest city, has been compared, often negatively, to its rival "sibling", Cape Town.

Indeed, like an adolescent, "Durbs" (as it is also affectionately known) has experienced highs and lows. The area the city falls within - now known as KwaZulu-Natal - was fought over by the Boers and the British after Shaka, a Zulu chief, had granted the land around the bay to a British trading company.

Indentured Indian labourers began arriving to work the cane fields in 1860, later followed by free Indian settlers; incredibly, these days Durban is reported to have the largest Indian population outside Asia.

For all its flaws, the city is very beautiful.

By the 1970s and '80s, Durban had become the playground of wealthy (mainly white) South Africans who flocked to its beaches, lured by the warm waters, surf breaks and year-round sun.

Until recently, the city's popularity had declined due, in part, to its increasing reputation for crime. The beachfront became tacky and dated, and businesses formerly in the bustling city centre relocated to the suburbs.

This is the Durban I saw when I first visited the city, six years ago.

This time, it's another story: a different, and evolving, city reveals itself. I'm up early, cycling along a revitalised beachfront on the new multi-kilometre stretch of paved promenade that links the city's river - the Umgeni River -with the mouth of the port.


Behind me looms the Moses Mabhida Stadium, constructed for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Its iconic basket shape provides an impressive landmark for the surrounding suburbs, including upmarket Morningside, Windermere and Essenwood, that occupy the Berea, a high ridge behind the city.

While these suburbs are leafy and sedate, the city centre - a mere 10 minutes away in a taxi - pulses to a decidedly gritty, African beat. The hectic streets are lined with buildings - supermarkets, telephone companies and car parks. Muscle-bound youths push trolleys that are piled high with everything from cardboard to plastic implements. Minibus taxis swerve around locals who saunter across the road. And it's noisy. Music blares out of shopfronts. Horns honk loudly.

The more I re-explore the city, the more I discover its long-standing microcosms. The Victoria Street Market, an extensive inner-city bazaar, harks back to India - women wear saris, aromas of exotic spices waft through the stalls. Nearby, the traditional witch-doctor market, the Muthi Market, is piled high with everything from snake skins and bird claws to bark and plants, and potions and lotions that no pharmacist could identify.

Scars aside, Durban's beautiful features include its extraordinary art deco architecture; many of the city's buildings seem straight from the pages of a Superman comic book. A few streets away, the Roma Revolving Restaurant, a '70s-style icon, is one of a handful of revolving eateries in the world.

Indeed, time warps sum up Durban. Even the city's cuisine varies between traditional staples and "cutting-edge" dishes, headed up by locavores. One minute I'm in a cream-hued restaurant enjoying superbly cooked venison, the next I'm at a hole-in-the-wall munching on Durban's traditional specialty, the bunny chow, a hollowed-out bread loaf filled with curry.

But, in keeping with contemporary trends, Durban's coffee culture has finally taken off; a cappuccino has come a long way from being overheated froth in a parfait glass. Good brews are now taken seriously, especially at my daily coffee spot - the tiny Bean Green in Glenwood, Durbs' arty suburb and cafe hub.

But my favourite spot has to be the Durban Botanic Gardens, a tranquil and stunning green oasis that's home to exotic bromeliads and palms, and beautiful birds, including pink-backed pelicans. Established in 1849, the gardens reveal how some of Durban's traits improve with age.

Indeed, as I wander past one of the gardens' rare cycads, I ponder on Durban's reputation and contrasting personalities. The more I dig through Durban's complex layers, the more I like it. For all its flaws, the city is very beautiful. And both the city and its people are starting to recognise it.

Luckily for "Durbs", it seems self-fulfilling prophecies can work both ways.

Trip notes

Getting there

South African Airways has daily flights between Sydney or Melbourne and Durban (via Johannesburg) starting about $1200.

Staying there

Five star — The Concierge. Morningside's new, sleek kid on the block.
Budget — Gibela Backpackers Lodge. Durban's cleanest, most comfortable budget accommodation.

Eating there

The Bean Green Coffee Company 147 Helen Joseph Road, Glenwood.
Roma Revolving Restaurant 32nd floor, John Ross House, Margaret Mncadi Avenue.
Spice Restaurant 362 Windermere Road, Morningside. +27 (0) 31 303 6375.
Joop's Place Avonmore Centre, Ninth Avenue, Morningside. +27 (0) 31 312 9135.
Market 40 Marriot Road, Greyville.