Kwazulu-Natal: South Africa’s East Coast
By David CogswellSouth Africa’s Kwazulu Natal province will be hosting two of more than 50 packages offered for the ASTA International Destination Expo March 8-11. During my recent visit, I traveled as a guest of South Africa Tourism to Kwazulu Natal to get an idea what ASTA members who visit the province will encounter there.
Though Pietermaritzburg is the provincial capital of Kwazulu Natal, the coastal city of Durban is its main urban center. Durban is South Africa’s third largest city, with 3.5 million inside the city limits and 5 million in the urban area. Johannesburg is the business center of South Africa and the international air hub for all of southern Africa. Cape Town, with its dramatic seaside mountains, its variety of urban attractions and the nearby wine district, is the highest profile tourist destination. But Durban may still be the most familiar South African destination to people in the travel industry because it hosts Indaba, the annual travel trade show of Africa and the third largest travel trade show in the world.
Durban is sometimes described as the Miami Beach of South Africa, a great beach town overlooking the Indian Ocean on Africa’s east coast. Its excellent beach puts it in a league with the world’s great beach towns, such as Miami Beach, Rio and Cape Town. But Durban has its own distinct flavor. What sets it apart from other beach towns around the world is the African landscape and its own distinct cultural personality. It’s Durban’s own variety of the great cultural diversity that stretches across South Africa and gives every city or region its own unique blend. The cultural melting pot of The Rainbow Nation is overflowing like a fine stew. At every turn you are presented with novel twists on all the familiar features of civilization.
What is now Durban was first established as an international port by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who landed there on Christmas Day in 1497 and named it “Natal,” which is Portuguese for “Christmas.” Like all of the major cities of South Africa, Durban bears traces of nearly every culture in the world, but the principal pillars of its cultural foundation today are the Zulu, British and Indian cultures. Durban has the largest Indian population of any city outside of India. It has a nice moderately warm climate. The average temperature ranges from the low 60s in winter to the high 80s in summer, with some days up into the high 90s or down to the 40s.
When rail lines connected Durban to the gold mines at the Witwatersrand (white water ridge) near Johannesburg in 1890, it became South Africa’s busiest seaport, and it still is. The Rand, as it became known, produced 40 percent of the gold ever mined on earth. The city has grown from the waterfront up the hills that surround the harbor. It’s knitted together with webs of labyrinthian streets that wind around its hills and harbors. Its vintage British colonial architecture has roots going back to the founding of the modern city in 1835, with some striking post-Apartheid touches like Che Guevara Street. There are high rises along the ocean drive along the beach’s Golden Mile and public areas between the street and the beach. Along the beach, young men exhibit their sand sculptures hoping you’ll make a contribution if you take a photo.
We were fortunate to arrive in Durban the day of national rugby championship and we got to attend the game at the Absa Stadium in Durban. This was the Currie Cup, the winner of which would be seen as the top team in South Africa. It seemed like most of the people on our plane were going to see the rugby match. Nearly all the chatter was about the big game. One of the passengers was a rugby player. He was so big he needed at least two seats to accommodate his shoulders. When the game began, the field at the stadium was full of similar giants in shorts and shiny shirts. They seemed like another species, twice as large as ordinary humans.
That night the Natal Sharks beat the Blue Bulls, which hail from Pretoria, so Durban was in a state of glee, or so it seemed from our vantage point. We stayed at the Sibaya Lodge, a swank hotel casino and mall designed in a Zulu style. It was a good headquarters for our activities, with plenty of food and entertainment options in the mall.
The next morning we were greeted by Mark Mgobhozi of Meluleki Tours, who was our ground operator for the area, the babysitter who took care of all our connections while we were in the area. He was a solid guide, with all the native lore at his command, and was an amiable companion, always smiling and cheerfully accommodating.
Mark took us on the three-hour drive to Richards Bay where we went on a game drive in Hluhluwe Umfolozi National Park, the oldest game park in South Africa, dating back to 1895. Mark was a competent guide and amiable companion and we knew we were in good hands when we were with him. It’s amazing to be able to enjoy a modern city like Durban and in a few hours drive be at a game park where impalas, zebras, giraffes, rhinos, leopards, lions and elephants can be seen.
On the way back to Durban we stopped at the Shakaland Zulu Cultural Village, which is set up to demonstrate the traditional way of life of the Zulu people. The village was made up of a number of round huts surrounding a cattle kraal. We were shown around the village and shown some of the rituals and daily activities of the Zulus. It’s about an hour and a half drive out of Durban.
Most American tourists will want to see Cape Town and Johannesburg when they are getting their first taste of South Africa, but for those who want to dig a little deeper into the vast range of what South Africa offers, Kwazulu Natal should be high on the menu. For more information on the ASTA IDE, see www.asta.org/ide. For more information on South Africa, see www.southafrica.net. For more on Kwazulu Natal, see www.zulu.org.za. -- David Cogswell