24 hours in Durban, South Africa

South Africa’s third-largest city may not be as dynamic or creative as its bigger sisters, but it affords a fascinating experience if you know where to look

Durban (Zulu: eThekwini, from itheku meaning 'bay / lagoon') is the largest city in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. It is also the third largest city in South Africa after Johannesburg and Cape Town. It forms part of the eThekwini metropolitan municipality. Durban is famous for being the busiest port in South Africa. It is also seen as one of the major centres of tourism because of the city's warm subtropical climate and extensive beaches. The municipality, which includes neighbouring towns, has a population of almost 3.5 million, making the combined municipality the biggest city on the east coast of the African continent. Getty Images
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Durban has many guises. For some, it is a mere gateway to the wildlife-packed parks and reserves of KwaZulu-Natal. For others, it’s South Africa’s biggest port. Or it’s a beach destination, with several kilometres of golden sands lapped at by the Indian Ocean.

South Africa’s third-largest city may not be as dynamic or creative as Johannesburg or Cape Town, but it’s a melting pot of culture, which makes it feel diverse – its large Indian population having a strong influence. And while many skip the centre and head for more affluent mall-lined outposts up the coast, you can have a fascinating experience if you hone in on the right pockets.

06.30: Cruise with a twist

There are a few fairly mediocre boat trips that leave from Durban's waterfront, but the one run by the kwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board (www.sharks.co.za) is rather different. That's partly because it's a working trip as well as a pleasure cruise. Sure, you'll get to see the beaches and landmarks such as the Moses Mabhida Stadium, but its primary purpose is to service the shark safety nets off Durban's beaches. That makes the jaunt a good opportunity to learn about the region's rather toothy marine life, and see up close the efforts that are made to protect swimmers on the Golden Mile beaches from it. The trip lasts two hours, costs 350 rand (Dh99) and must be booked in advance.

A picture taken on April 21, 2010 shows employees of the Kwazulu-Natal Sharks Board  pulling out a shark's net from the water outside Durban's Golden Mile beach side close to Moses Mabhida World Cup 2010 Stadium in Durban. The KZNSB services a combination of shark nets and recently-deployed drumlines, spread at intervals along 320 km of coastline in KwaZulu-Natal, thereby providing protection against shark attack at 38 localities.  Each net is pulled to the surface, where it is examined for captured animals and damage, a procedure known as "meshing".  Dead animals in good condition are removed for examination by the research staff, decomposed animals are discarded at sea and live animals, including potentially dangerous sharks, are released, with many being tagged first.
Take a boat trip with KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board and lay safety nets to protect surfers and swimmers from the sharks lurking beneath the water. AFP

09.00 Learn the history

The jarring thing about KwaMuhle (www.durbanhistorymuseums.org.za/kwamuhle-museum), a museum about South Africa’s past, is coming to realise the long history of segregation in the country. The building was once where black South Africans came to be given permits to work in the city, but this was in place way before the Apartheid regime took over. “The Durban System” – which, segregated by race, imposed the need for black workers to have passes to be in certain areas, and reserved skilled work for white workers – came in during the early 20th century, and basically acted as the forerunner to many of Apartheid’s disgraces.

The museum is a little all over the shop, but is frequently thought-provoking. One section of the space covers the story of a man who killed five by bombing a shopping centre, and the shades of grey in it are regularly surprising – not least through the father of one of the victims accepting that this was part of a war for freedom.

11.00 Stroll the streets

Close to KwaMuhle, the Indian District is something of a chaotic mix, and feels like a hit of real South Africa, rather than the cloistered retreats from it that can sometimes be found along the coast. People sell cigarette lighters and TV remote controls on top of upturned cardboard boxes, shops are piled high with light bulb fittings and plastic footwear, and there’s nary a recognisable shop or brand name to be seen. In among this bedlam is an absolute beauty, though. Juma Masjid is a graceful multi-domed structure that could have been transplanted straight from 1900s India.

12.00 Chow down

Durban’s main contribution to the culinary world is bunny chow – essentially a loaf of bread hollowed out, with curry poured in. It works surprisingly well, and Oriental restaurant at The Workshop mall, next to the Central Market, is as good a place as any to try it. A quarter loaf mutton bunny chow costs 59.95 rand (Dh17). More conventional shawarmas and curries are also available.

Read more:

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13.00 Marine life

Ushaka Marine World and Florida Road, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Courtesy SA Tourism
Underwater life at uShaka Marine World. Courtesy SA Tourism

uShaka Marine World (www.ushakamarineworld.co.za) is Durban's primary attraction – or, rather, slightly weird gathering of attractions. The main two are Wet 'N' Wild – a waterpark packed with slides, rapid rides and pools – and Sea World. The latter plays host to some ethically questionable wildlife shows, but it's also the largest aquarium in the southern hemisphere and the aquarium section – built into a ship – is genuinely excellent. Sharks, stingrays and some incredibly brightly coloured tropical fish flit around in big tanks, and there's an educational slant to the signage. Combo tickets start from 210 rand (Dh60).

15.30 Venture into the stadium playground

Durban’s new pride and joy is the Moses Mabhida Stadium (www.mmstadium.com), which was built for the 2010 World Cup and was in danger of becoming something of a white elephant. But it has found a new lease of life hosting music concerts as well as sporting events – and becoming a brilliantly bizarre adventure centre.

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 05: A general view of the Moses Mabhida stadium prior to the Super Rugby match between The Sharks and Crusaders at Kings Park on April 05, 2013 in Durban, South Africa.  (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
The Moses Mabhida Stadium, built for the 2010 World Cup. Getty

Activities include the 90 rand (Dh25) Adventure Walk, which essentially means clambering up the outside of the stadium’s 106 metre-high arch, and the Big Rush Big Swing. This is considerably scarier, and involves being harnessed up, stepping onto a platform high on the arch, then jumping off to swing across to the other side of the stadium on a bungy rope. That’s an 80-metre drop, a 220-metre arc and more than a few frayed nerves, costing 695 rand (Dh197).

19.00 Steak out

Central Durban is quite uninspiring at night, but Florida Road in the affluent Berea area is buzzing with restaurants and cafes, most of which are in gorgeous old buildings. Of these, Butcher Block
(www.butcherblock.co.za) is the one for meat fans. It does good schnitzels and lamb shanks, but the steaks are what you really come here for. Expect to pay 195 rand (Dh56) for a superb 300 gram fillet, and a little extra for rich Roquefort sauce.

Rest your head

The Benjamin (www.benjamin.co.za) is inside one of those handsome old buildings on Florida Road, and quite aside from being a good base for an evening out, it does a nice line in homely luxury without ever feeling too chintzily B&B. Freshly cooked breakfasts, big beds covered in a mountain of pillows, private parking and a palm tree-lined pool are among the bonuses here, while the walls covered in sepia photos of Florida Road in the past give a touch of heritage. Rooms cost from 1,400 rand (Dh396) a night.

Getting there

Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct to Durban from Dubai, with economy return flights costing from around Dh3,613.