Durban is the third-largest city in South Africa. It’s generally regarded by South Africans as a beach destination, but the large Indian population gives the city an Eastern feel. Durban makes an excellent base for exploring the rest of KwaZulu-Natal, but the city has more than enough to keep visitors occupied. My top five highlights include performing dolphins, water slides, markets and a brand new stadium with a twist.
Durban – watch dolphins perform
An ambitious combination of giant aquarium, water park and dining complex, Ushaka Marine World is undoubtedly Durban’s key tourist attraction. The aquarium part is arguably done best. It’s housed inside a giant (supposedly wrecked) ship. You go in through the door, down into the hold and are soon confronted with marauding sharks.
The shipwreck theme sometimes goes a little too far – it can be quite dark down there and for viewing purposes, more clear glass would be a better idea than portholes for people to squeeze around. But the information is good, and the range of creatures is really impressive – everything from stingrays to stonefish can be found.
The real stars, however, are the dolphins. The dolphin show takes place in a special stadium at least twice a day. The show’s premise – how dolphins helped the great Zulu king, Shaka, get over the death of his mother – is ludicrous. But it doesn’t matter when Gambit and family are in action. They perform back flips, walk across the water, wave to the audience and even indulge in a spot of headbanging. They’re exceptionally cute – and fully deserve all the fish they keeping getting fed as they show off.
Be a big kid on the waterslides
The other key aspect of Ushaka Marine World is Wet ‘n’ Wild. Billing itself as “the ultimate freshwater entertainment centre,” it’s a collection of pools, water slides and artificial rivers to float around in on top of inflatable rings.
As you may have guessed, this isn’t the most sophisticated thing you can do in South Africa, but unleash the big kid in you and it’s tremendously enjoyable. The pools are big, but a disappointment. They can get quite full and they’re barely deep enough to paddle in, let alone swim in.
But the slides are great. Some twist and turn, giving you a washing machine effect; others allow you to race down against friends and family over the bumps. Some are more child-friendly and an easier ride for the more timid, but The Drop Zone is most certainly not in this category. It’s 18.5 meters (61ft) high and you shoot down at an angle of 45 degrees. It’s fast, and the feeling of colliding with the water at the bottom can be quite, um, tenderising. Viator’s Ushaka Marine World tour allows full entrance to all the main areas at Ushaka.
Relax in Durban’s Botanic Gardens
Durban’s city centre can best be described as ‘gritty’, while its strip of beaches along the sea front isn’t quite as relaxing and idyllic as it may seem – it’s very built-up. But Durban’s Botanic Gardens offer a lovely respite of calm.
They’re the oldest botanic gardens in Africa, having first opened in 1849 and the staff have done a good job of making a walk through as educational as possible. Trees – such as the odd-looking Cannon Ball Tree from the Amazon Basin – are labelled with brief explanations about backgrounds.
Meanwhile there are special displays organised into sections. These include Alien Alley, which identifies non-native invader plants which cause trouble for the local eco-system, and an area which explains how African people have traditionally used indigenous plants and trees.
But even if you’re not wanting to turn a stroll in the gardens into a learning experience, the ferns, flowers, lake and baobab trees make for a refreshing escape. The chance to spend half-an-hour or so exploring the Botanic Gardens is included Viator’s Durban Sightseeing Tour.
Go East in the Victoria Street Market
A large part of Durban’s unique character comes from its large Indian population. Indian workers were brought over during the colonial era when the local Zulu people refused to work in the sugar cane fields – they regarded it as woman’s work.
The Indians were brought over as indentured labour and then refused to go back. As the population grew, so did the clamour for rights and a young lawyer called Mohandas Gandhi went into bat for them. Gandhi first worked on his principles of passive resistance in Durban.
Today, almost 20% of Durban’s population is of Indian extraction, and that can be seen in the city’s cuisine. The favourite local dish is a bunny chow – half a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry. Indian stalls also dominate the Victoria Street Market in Central Durban. Stallholders sell elaborate floral garlands, fragrances and – more importantly – a huge array of curry powders. These include a ‘mother-in-law hellfire’ powder.
It’s worth visiting just for the colours in the giant bowls. The Victoria Street Market is also covered in Viator’s Durban sightseeing tour, along with plenty of history from a knowledgeable guide.
Explore Durban’s new stadium from all angles
Durban’s shiny new Moses Mabhida Stadium has been built especially for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and it’s a spectacular achievement. With a 56,000 capacity (70,000 for the World Cup when temporary seating is added) and a spectacular design, the Moses Mabhida has been constructed to be more than just a stadium.
Integral to this is the Y-shaped arch that curves above the stadium – it is designed to mimic the South African flag and represent two nations becoming one. Up the main branch of the Y goes the Skycar – essentially a railway carriage that goes all the way to the top. Passengers are welcome. For the more active, there is the Adventure Walk. This takes visitors of up 550 steps to the central viewing area way above the stadium, safely clipped on all the way.
The last – and most adventurous – option is the bungee swing. This was still being constructed when I visited, but it seems as though adrenalin junkies will be able to swing across the stadium from an 80m-high platform connecting two of the arch’s branches.
The ‘professional’ stadium tour is also worth doing – it goes into the commentators’ booths, the presidential suite and the ultra-luxurious players’ changing rooms.