The Wonderful World Around Durban
By Monique Burns
On South Africa’s east coast, Durban offers activities for beachgoers and sightseers alike. There’s the Golden Mile, four miles of sun-streaked beaches along the Indian Ocean. Artsy nightlife enclaves and glittering casino-resorts. Museums showcasing the culture of Indian and Zulu citizens as well as early English and Dutch settlers. Parks blooming with colorful orchids and other native plants. Plus three golf courses, rugby and soccer stadiums, and a racetrack that hosts South Africa’s most prestigious equine event, the Durban July Handicap.
But for many visitors, it’s Durban’s multiculturalism that’s most intriguing—whether you’re sampling Indian curries and Zulu stews, or browsing markets that sell colorful Zulu beadwork and fragrant Indian spices.
Only a 30 to 45-minute drive outside Durban, more heritage sites await in the villages of KwaZulu-Natal Province. Visit the Zulu townships of Umlazi and Inanda, with ties to historic figures like Nelson Mandela. Travel to Phoenix Township with its surprising connection to Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. In the Valley of 1000 Hills, spend the day or night at 1000 Thrills resort where you’ll tour a traditional Zulu village, visit a healer’s beehive-shaped hut and savor wild game grilled on the braai.
For centuries, South Africa’s Zulus lived in what is now modern-day KwaZulu-Natal Province and Durban, its largest city. King Shaka’s vast empire stretched almost as far north as Mozambique and as far south as what is now Cape Town. Honored with a statue in London’s Camden Market and immortalized in the 1986 miniseries, “Shaka Zulu,” his name now graces Durban’s ultramodern King Shaka International Airport.
In 1824, Shaka gave English settlers a strip of coastline 25 miles long and 100 miles deep. But 55 years later, with Shaka long dead, the English and Zulus clashed in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The spear-carrying Zulus fought bravely, winning the Battle of Isandlwana and other major engagements before their defeat at Rorke’s Drift.
Banished to townships outside Durban, the Zulus endured even more isolation and repression during South Africa’s infamous Apartheid era from 1948 until 1994. For over a century, Zulus were unable to participate fully in their homeland’s civic life. But, miraculously, they held on to their rich culture.
In Umlazi, South Africa’s third-largest township, you’ll find more than a dozen restaurants and bars offering authentic Zulu cuisine. The most famous, Max’s Lifestyle, has been extolled by that well-known arbiter of taste in travel, Condé Nast Traveler. In 2009, Max Mqadi, an enterprising local with little education but one helluva creative vision, opened the sprawling nightlife venue.
On the open-air lower level, traditional Zulu dancers and local bands perform onstage, meat and game from the on-site butchery sizzle on the braai, and locals enjoy beer, cocktails and Zulu culinary specialties while swaying to syncopated South African isicathamiya and mbube music first popularized by local groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Upstairs, in the cavernous VIP Lounge, are two bars, a dining room serving traditional Zulu dishes, and sitting areas with oversized white-leather wing chairs and sofas. From a wraparound balcony, patrons watch the onstage action below.
Max’s Lifestyle also has a salon, a boutique, conference rooms, and an “auto spa” where cars are detailed while guests party. All that might sound like overkill for a neighborhood hangout. But, hey, this is no ordinary joint. It’s Max’s Lifestyle.
A half-hour’s drive northwest of Durban Central and just west of the tony Umhlanga beach community is the Zulu township of Inanda with connections to celebrated South African heroes, Nelson Mandela and John Langalibalele Dube.
Born in Inanda and educated at the Ohio prep school that later became Oberlin College, Dube established South Africa’s first Zulu-English bilingual newspaper. Perhaps more importantly, in 1912, he became founding president of the South African Native National Congress, forerunner of the African National Congress. Largely credited with overturning Apartheid in 1994, the ANC counted among its leaders future South African President Nelson Mandela.
Influenced by the book Up From Slavery by African-American educator Booker T. Washington, founder of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, Dube and his wife, Nokutela, established three local schools. Opened in 1901, Ohlange Institute, then known as the Zulu Christian Industrial Institute, was the first South African school founded by a black person.
Ohlange’s most famous alumnus was Albert John Luthuli, a Zulu chief, lay preacher and teacher who became an ANC president. In 1960, Luthuli also became the first black African to win the Nobel Peace Prize for work in South Africa’s non-violent Apartheid Movement.
At Ohlange Institute, on April 27, 1994, future South African President Nelson Mandela cast his vote in South Africa’s first democratic—and racially inclusive—Presidential election.
Standing at Dube’s hallowed burial site, Mandela declared: “Mr. President, I have come to report that South Africa is now free. “
Along with Dube’s grave, you can see a bronze statue of Mandela and a tablet with a quote acknowledging the debt he owed to Dube and other early activists.
After visiting Ohlange, consider heading three miles west to the Inanda Seminary School, founded in 1853 by American missionaries Daniel and Lucy Virginia. The girls’ school counts along its alumnae such celebrated South African women as Baleka Mbete, former Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa; the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, both South Africa’s Minister of Justice and Minister of Health, and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist and professor of Studies in Historical Trauma at Stellenbosch University in the Cape Winelands outside Cape Town.
A 20-minute drive east of Ohlange Institute is Phoenix, an Indian township associated with freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi and his nearby Phoenix Settlement. Anyone who’s read Gandhi’s Autobiography or seen the 1982 Ben Kingsley movie will recall that, in June 1893, after buying a first-class train ticket at Durban Station, the young London-educated barrister, dressed in tie and frock coat, was thrown off a Johannesburg-bound train for refusing to leave the “whites-only” first-class car.
Determined to improve the lot of his fellow Indians, Gandhi remained in South Africa for 21 years, founding the Phoenix Settlement, just north of Phoenix Township, in 1904.
Dedicated to Gandhi’s principles of peaceful resistance, non-violence, economic self-sufficiency and racial inclusion, the Phoenix Settlement included lodgings, workshops and schools for the indigenous Zulus. Today, you can tour the commune’s simple corrugated-iron buildings and see the early printing press where Gandhi published Indian Opinion, South Africa’s first Indian newspaper.
An hour’s drive from Phoenix—or a 45-minute drive from Durban Central— is the Valley of 1000 Hills, a centuries-old Zulu enclave ensconced amid hummocky hills stretching down to the uMngeni River.
On the valley’s northwest side is iSithumba Adventure Park, a scenic area being developed for tourists by the Durban Green Corridor, the 1000 Hills Tourism Association, the City of Durban and the eThekwini Municipality. In iSithumba, “The Valley of 1000 Thrills,” enjoy hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and bird-watching, then overnight at a bed-and-breakfast inn or village farm.
1000 Thrills resort in Village No. 4—one of 11 local Zulu villages—is open for both day trips and overnight stays. For simple but romantic rendezvous, as well as family outings and small reunions, the resort has seven beehive-shaped chalets, or “rondevals,” with thatched roofs, that sleep about 20 guests.
Compact and cozy, the rondevals have small bathrooms, wooden beds with wildlife-themed blankets for cool nights, and conveniences like running water and electric lights. To get even closer to nature, camp out in one of the resort’s tents or pitch your own.
Open to both day-trippers and hotel guests, the dining room at 1000 Thrills serves traditional Zulu dishes in a large, thatch-roofed rondeval decorated with African paintings and colorful baskets woven from telephone wire.
A typical Zulu lunch or dinner, with farm-fresh ingredients, might include such specialties as spicy peri-peri chicken; shisanyama, beef and wild game grilled on the braai; nyama yangaphakathi, or tripe, and oxtail and mutton curries. Popular side dishes are chakalaka, made with onions, tomatoes, bell peppers and beans; mieliepap, or pap, a maize porridge similar to Southern grits or Italian polenta, and various sautéed and steamed vegetables, including corn, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes and spinach. Incredibly, a meal at 1000 Thrills starts at 70 Rand, or about $5.
Enjoy your meal with a cool glass of iced tea or South African beer as a group of Zulu men and women, clad in beaded garments and white fur anklets, dance for you. Leaping and whirling with unbridled enthusiasm, they perform acrobatic movements passed down by their ancestors.
While you’re at 1000 Thrills, consider taking an outdoor cooking class. After building a wood fire from twigs and small branches, you’ll cook a simple dish like pap, with onion and wild spinach, in a traditional three-legged cast-iron pot. Brought to South Africa from Europe by 17th -century Dutch settlers, known as Afrikaners, it’s called a potjie or, in Zulu, an imbiza.
As you stir the pot over the fire with a long uphini, or stirring stick, your hosts will pass around homemade Zulu beer brewed from maize and sorghum. Traditionally served in a large ceramic bowl, Zulu beer strikes Western tastes as unusually sour. But to Zulus, once forbidden by British authorities to make and sell their own beer, it must taste uncommonly sweet.
In the surrounding village, Zulu families live in simple beehive-shaped huts made from the region’s deep-red mud or modern-day concrete, with thatched or corrugated-tin roofs, and raise chickens, geese and goats on small farmsteads. In the village healer’s hut, you’ll see jars of dried herbs and grasses used to make potions, and learn the subtle differences between a traditional healer, or sangoma, and a witch doctor, or inyanga.
A gentle hike through the countryside brings you to the uMngeni River falls in the shadow of the distant spear-shaped Drakensberg Mountains. You’ll also see herds of cows grazing on brush and small trees. For Zulus, wealth is measured in livestock, and cows are particularly precious. For a traditional Zulu marriage, a prospective groom will pay a bride’s dowry of 11 cows, costing about 4,000-5,000 Rand or $285-$350. A young man ambitious enough to fall in love with a chief’s daughter must buy as many as 36 cows.
After visiting the Valley of 1000 Hills, consider heading even farther afield. About 55 miles northwest of Durban is the Mandela Capture Site. Just outside Howick, Nelson Mandela was captured on August 1962 before being imprisoned at Cape Town’s infamous Robben Island. Don’t miss the striking sculpture, “Release,” by Johannesburg-born artist Marco Cianfanelli, with Mandela’s face mirrored in steel beams 21-31 feet long.
A 3 to 4-hour drive northwest of Durban, the Anglo-Zulu War Battlefields feature storied sites like Isandlwana, where the spear-carrying Zulus beat the gun-toting British and Rorke’s Drift where the Brits finally defeated them.
Visiting Zulu and Indian sites in post-Apartheid times is a powerful reminder that even the worst defeats are temporary. Peoples with strong cultures always seem to rise again. That’s good news for those of us who journey far afield to learn about their world and delight in it.
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Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.