Planning a business trip or holiday to Durban anytime soon? You may know Durban as a popular surfing city, but here are 10 facts about Durban which shows it’s South Africa’s playground, with more to it than just sea and surf…
On Christmas Eve, 1497, Intrepid Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sighted the natural harbour where the current city of Durban was later founded. He named the site Rio de Natal (Christmas River in Portuguese). In 1824, the British colonised the area and named their settlement Port Natal. In 1835, it was renamed Durban, in honour of Governor Sir Benjamin d’Urban.
The Zulu call it eThekwini, from itheku, meaning bay or lagoon – a reference to the large natural harbour and the large lagoon (Blue Lagoon) formed where the Umsundusi River meets the Indian Ocean.
Africa’s biggest port
The Bay of Natal, as it was known, is one of the very few natural harbours on the East Coast of Africa and it’s for this reason that European settlers set up permanent camp here. In 1840, the first harbour master of Port Natal was appointed and, since then, the harbour has grown to become Africa’s busiest container port and the 9th busiest harbour in the world, operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Durban’s not known as Surf City for nothing – it’s one of the county’s top surfing spots, so if you’re keen to catch some waves, head on over to Dairy Beach, North Pier, and the Bay of Plenty. Unlike surf hotspots down the Cape coast where full-body wetsuits are required, the warm ocean temperature means surf shorts are in fashion all year round. Durban is also where surf legend – and one of the 10 greatest surfers of all time – Shaun Thomson, was born and bred.
Durban plays host to Africa’s greatest horse race – the Durban July, held annually on the first Saturday in July at Greyville Racecourse. While the first official horse race took place there in 1844, the first Durban July – then called the Durban Turf Club Handicap – was run in 1897. It’s been run every year since then and now attracts over 50,000 visitors to Durban over ‘July Weekend’.
The Durban beachfront
The Golden Mile is traditionally Durban’s most popular tourist attraction, and has had many incarnations over the decades, from the sedate promenade where elegant Victorian and Edwardian ladies and gentleman used to enjoy an afternoon stroll, to the vibrant and colourful spot it is today. Its profile may have changed, but one constant has remained throughout the years – the Zulu Rickshaw Runners. Durban’s first 10 rickshaws were imported from Japan in 1892 by sugar magnate, Marshall Campbell. To everyone’s astonishment, they rapidly became a popular mode of transport in and around Durban and soon crowded the streets of the city. In those days, being a Rickshaw Runner – the man who pulled the rickshaw cart – was a (comparatively) well-paid and sought-after position. The City proposed that these men wear simple calico uniforms, which they embellished with traditional Zulu adornments, giving rise to the now-famous Durban rickshaw dress. Today, rickshaw men are an indelible feature of the Durban beachfront!
Durban has a fascination with sharks; the local rugby team is even named for these magnificent creatures of the deep. The infamous Black December, which actually lasted from December 1957 to April 1958, marked five deadly shark attacks off Durban beaches in just 107 days. These weren’t the first deadly attacks – between 1943 and 1951, the city experienced 21 shark attacks, seven of which were deadly. The resulting hysteria amongst beach-goers after Black December prompted the authorities to take action, and a navy frigate was called in to bomb sharks with depth charges.
In 1962, the Natal Sharks Board was created to explore the installation of shark nets at Durban’s swimming beaches, an exercise which had been attempted, with little success, as early as 1907. Nowadays, while most Durban beaches are protected by shark nets, sharks are a tourist attraction, with people coming from all over the world to have close encounters via shark cage diving.
While many associate Durban with sharks, not many people make the connection between Durban and whales. In fact, Durban was once a busy centre of the whaling industry, with many thousands of whales processed in the whaling stations on the Bluff. Thankfully, whaling was outlawed in South Africa when whale numbers plummeted, and the Durban whaling stations were closed in 1975. Since then, whale numbers have recovered and whale watching is now a major Durban tourist attraction.
Says Tourism KZN, Durban is one of the most significant repositories for Art-Deco architecture in the world. Art-Deco is an architecture and design style which has its origins in Paris in the first decades of the 20th century. Art-Deco follows an ornamental and lavish style, and is characterised by stepped forms, curves, geometric designs, and motifs.
Durban – a developing and emerging city at that time – embraced this radical new design. Art-Deco buildings can be seen all around the city, most notably on the Victoria Embankment, in the City Centre, and on the Berea Ridge.
From the beautiful buildings of yesteryear, to Durban’s brand new architectural icon – Moses Mabhdia Stadium. Built for the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, the stadium was designed by German firm, GMP Architekten. Named for the former secretary general of the South African Communist Party, the stadium boasts state-of-the-art technology which maximizes light, protects spectators from wind, and still allows a free view outwards.
Situated on a raised platform to enhance its visibility, the stadium can be seen from as far away as Ushaka Marine World. The iconic arch houses a skycar which gives unparalleled views of the city and coastline.
Ties with India
Durban has a strong association with India. In fact, it was here that Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi first embarked on his career as a political and social activist. First bought here as indentured labourers in the late 19th century, people of Indian descent now make up 40% of the city’s population.
The Indian influence can be seen and felt throughout the city, from some architecture – the many mosques and temples and the Victoria Street Market – to cuisine. The city is famous for Durban Curry and Bunny Chow, a dish which originated in 1940s Durban.
What have you experienced of Durban? What are the 10 things that make your business trips to Durban worthwhile?