Surfer dudes retreating from the ocean with longboards tucked under their arms. Men in traditional Zulu dress pulling rickshaws down the promenade for packs of delighted children.
Spend an hour on the beach in Durban, on South Africa’s eastern coast, and you’ll catch a cross-section of South Africans of all walks of life converging to revel in the sun — a refreshing scene in a country that still feels very segregated, more than two decades after apartheid ended.
I like to try to understand a destination through its flavors, and perhaps nothing tastes as quintessentially “Durban” as the chili-laced pineapple I purchased on a whim from a street-cart vendor just beyond the promenade. The plump, juicy slab of pineapple evokes the promise of sunshine and salty water; the healthy coating of fiery red spice transports me back to India. That, in a nutshell, summarizes Durban for me: a breezy tropical getaway where the sun is blazing, but with a distinct Indian accent.
Since I moved to Cape Town over three years ago, I’ve spent many a holidays boarding the two-hour flight to this coastal city. While Cape Town might trump Durban for its sheer beauty — staggering mountains, pristine beaches, and global appeal — humble “Durbs” has one major card in its pocket: unlike Cape Town’s frosty Atlantic waters, Durban’s location on the country’s Indian Ocean coast makes for warm, eminently swimmable waves. Cape Town is where you might go to look at (or Instagram) the water from a safe distance, but Durban is where you head to properly frolic in it.
But Africa’s third city is much much more than a quiet holiday retreat. It’s a destination defined by its Zulu culture, English colonial rule, and vibrant — and long-running — Indian influence. Since indentured laborers began migrating to Durban from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu in the 1860s, the city has gone on to become a major Indian hub. These days, Durban is home to one of the largest Indian communities outside of India — and yet, because many of these Indian South Africans have been removed from their country of origin by many generations, they’ve developed a unique culture of their own. Think Durban Indians are no different than India Indians? Think again.
After my day at the beach — tucking into scrambled eggs with haloumi and eggplant at the seaside Circus Circus restaurant, watching sandcastle maestros sculpt their elaborate works of sand art, sipping coffee at the hip Surfriders’ Café, admiring the Art Deco oceanfront buildings that are second only to Miami’s, and having my fill of as many tart and spicy pineapples as my stomach could handle — I headed into the heart of the Central Business District. Here, the city’s Indian influence becomes even more evident: with the glinting golden domes of the Juma Masjid, the mounds of scarlet, marigold, and copper curry powders on sale at the spice shops of Victoria Market, and businesses with names like B. Bhagwan & Co, Gopal’s Shoe Repairs, and Bassa’s Fashion Fabrics, you’d be forgiven for wondering if you’ve inadvertently found yourself in Mumbai.
But Durban it is, and nowhere was that more evident than when I bit into my very first bunny chow at Victory Lounge restaurant. This funnily-named dish is a Durban invention, a hollowed-out bread bowl filled with messy curry, meant to be devoured by hand. At Victory Lounge, the Moodley family has been serving bunnies since the 1940s, and I can definitely see why their broad-bean bunny is such a hit with the locals. “Durban Indian food is Indian, but more Westernized,” says Billy Moodley, the owner. “It’s not as pungent. We have our own taste.”
This distinctive taste can be experienced across the city, and not just in popular bunny-selling hotspots like Oriental, Britannia, and Patel Vegetarian Refreshment Room. One of the main reasons locals head to the opulent, oceanfront Oyster Box Hotel, the height of Durban colonial splendor, is its sumptuous curry buffet. And even the new districts popping up to cater to the city’s booming arts culture can’t escape India’s shadow. Long after losing its creative talents to Cape Town, Johannesburg, and even overseas, the city has made recent efforts to inspire artists, designers, and chefs to stay home. And while artisanal delights reign supreme in these trendy parts of the city, you’ll also find naan wraps, lamb jalfrezi burgers, and masala eggs galore on offer.
In the Station Drive precinct, the Morning Trade market is a weekend hipster haven, with vendors hawking cronuts, coffee, and more to a diverse mix of patrons. Next door, the Con Amore Home furniture shop is a cavernous space with chic housewares, antiques, and decor items — keep an eye out for retro signs in Urdu and vintage Union Jacks. Around the corner, the 031 restaurant serves one of the best brunches in town.
On my last night in Durban, I stopped by the Chairman, a sophisticated jazz lounge tucked away in a dodgy part of town. But exteriors can be misleading: inside, I was in another world altogether, complete with glittering chandeliers, exposed-brick walls, plush mismatched sofas, and Indian-style archways. To a soundtrack of live sultry Afro-jazz, I spent my night grooving alongside a stylish, cosmopolitan crowd. So much of what I love about South Africa — the diversity, the music, the creative design — all blending seamlessly in one place.