Durban – as a born and bred local – but observing through the eyes of a visitor


Durban was founded in 1835 on the site of Port Natal and was named for Sir Benjamin D’Urban, the governor of the Cape Colony. In the late 1830s and early ’40s the Boers clashed with the British over control of Durban. It became a borough (town) in 1854 and was created a city in 1935. http://www.britannica

A little bit of history about this (still very young in the bigger scheme of things) city where I was born and brought up and visiting over the past few days, noticing how nothing has changed but at the same time how different it all is.

Taking a short trip down memory lane with a first stop at Musgrave Centre.  Growing up in this sea side town in the 60’s to the 80’s, shopping centres were not a dime a dozen as they are today. I may be wrong but think that Musgrave Centre was the first commercial centre in Durban having been built in the 50’s. A distinct memory is visiting with my grandmother and ending up at a little coffee shop located at the end of the single corridor and the aroma of ground coffee beans wafting through the doors, the hiss of the shiny brass steamy percolator is something that has been indelibly imprinted in my mind.  Going back to visit now and seeing the levels of parking garages, intertwined with snaking, narrow never ending circles of ramps, located literally right on the land of the very house where I used to live, resembles nothing of the original ambience of the place.  For the small foot print of the property, the developers appear have tried to cram too much in and a visit there can make one feel almost claustrophobic.

Next stop is Mitchell Park, which has not changed one iota.  Walking through the entrance gates I felt almost transported back in time.  The beautiful gardens, with the exact same pathway, which as a child I would follow the different pavers without stepping on the cracks, leading past the tea garden to the “zoo”. A stop at the tea garden is a must, sitting in the shade of the hundred year old trees, listen to the never end chatter of birds and the laughter of children coming from the playground.   The park was originally built as an ostrich farm in 1910 in honour of the governor of the British Colony of Natal and Zululand, Sir Charles Bullen Hugh Mitchell. It was later transformed into a zoo with leopards, lions, panthers, brown bears, polar bears, buffaloes and eland.  The greatest gift was presented from the Maharaja of Mysore in 1928 – an Indian elephant called Nellie. Nellie was full of personality and loved to show off and soon learned to play a mouth organ, how to crack open coconuts, and allowed kids to ride on her back. She was so popular in Durban that over 20 000 children attended her birthday celebrations.  Nellie was relocated in 1949, for reasons unknown, to Taronga Zoo in Australia. The authorities in Australia we unaware of how lovable and affectionate Nellie was, and they placed her in an enclosure surrounded with a trench to prevent her from getting out. Nellie longed for human company and one day attempted to cross the trench to where some kids were playing. Sadly she failed and fell into the trench, breaking her back and veterinarians subsequently had to put her down. As a child I had been told about the story of the Nellie but sadly never got to meet her.



As a treat on a Sunday, my parents would take us for a drive through Burman Bush, so I made my way across, following roads there as if I had driven them yesterday.  Houses in the suburbs looked the same, with the distinctive colonial Victorian and Edwardian architecture unchanged. One landmark that as a child my dad had been horrified with, was the large block of flats – Kensington – which towered over the beauty of the hectares of natural forest in the heart of suburbia. Arriving at the top of the drive, I was disappointed to find the road gated and locked.  For security reasons the area is no longer a drive through and access is through one guarded gate.  The forested area remains the same as it was from 50 years ago with the ever present vervet monkeys which the local surrounding residents curse as pests. Lets hope it still remains an unspoilt haven.

Onto the beach front, which has changed dramatically over the years with the pedestrian promenade stretching for kilometres from Blue Lagoon all the way down to what I knew as Vetchies Pier and now houses Ushaka. Even with these changes the old landmarks are still there. Mini Town, the original hotels along the beach frontage have had a few face-lifts but are still recognisable from their heydays, the informal traders, the revamped beach baths where I had swam too many laps to remember and where we, as hatted school girls, had screamed and chanted our war cries during the exciting inter school galas.  The good old road houses are no longer there and have been replaced by fast food outlets and a number of restaurants.  Here a soft serve ice cream was a necessity to stroll down the promenade and onto one of the piers, adjacent to what I remember as Dairy Beach.  So different now, but still so much the same.  One difference as the number of beggars – in a matter of minutes I had been approached twice by down and outs , one of which who became quite insistent when I said no. But them aside, the sea side holiday atmosphere is not dampened.  The elderly, over tanned leather skinned lady sunning herself, the surfers disobeying the rules of not jumping off the pier into the ocean to catch the perfect surfing waves rolling into the shores, the fishermen at the end of the pier, ships anchored out at sea waiting their turn to enter the harbour, the smell of the sea salt and feel of sea breeze against my face – I could have been in a time warp of 50 years ago.

Taking a drive around this old Snell Parade area, brought back so many memories, with the vacant land that used to house Durban Drive In, adjacent to the large accommodation block that still houses the local constabulary. One glaring, but very pleasing addition to this landscape is the iconic Moses Mabida Stadium, where visitors are invited to either walk up the hundreds of rather precariously angled stairs to the 106 m top or to catch the SkyCar.  The views from the top of beautiful Durban are spectacular.


As a child growing up in this town, the warnings of venturing down Point Road were a big no. It has been renamed Mahatma Ghandi Road and I feel he might be turning in his grave knowing the reputation of this rather seedy area.  Street name changes abound in the city and ones I would have difficulty remembering – the two easiest ones being West and Smith Streets, one leading to the beach front and the other back have names I do not know.  Their names may have changed but that is about all.  One thing that struck me on my wanderings, is how much closer and smaller everything seems now compared to my fond childhood memories.

At the end of the day – Durban is still Durban and will be forever in my heart. I have one warning though – try not to visit in February, unless you have air conditioning in your car and you don’t mind feeling drenched in sweat for 24 hours of the day.


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