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Razzle-Dazzle Days and Nights Rediscovering Durban
Last time I was in Durban, #SouthAfrica was 27 years ago. Nelson Mandela was still in prison, toilets were segregated, and the city was a "frayed around the edges" kind of #charming. Heading back here, on the edge of the warm Indian Ocean, I was not prepared for how ravishing this bewitching coastal metropolis had become, nor how #affordable everything was.
Not the Durban I Remember
King Shaka International Airport in Durban was where my suspicions were first aroused. Everything looked new and pristine, no dust, no dirt, no cattle queues, just a massive world-class airport. I was accompanied by our CFO, no stranger to travel, but had never set foot in Durban. It was outside the airport, looking for a taxi, that we had our first encounter with one of the 500,000 plus Indian (Indian, not Asian) people who make Durban the largest ‘Indian city’ outside of India. Charm personified, this security worker got onto his cell phone and called up a friend to come pick us up. "You’ll see him just now in a blue Camry, he’s Indian like me, but he’s got crazy spiky hair. His name is Gyan."
World Cup Wonder
Sure enough, five minutes late, Gyan and his impressive spikes arrived to drive us to the Southern Sun Elangeni Maharani, situated on Durban’s Golden Mile beachfront. That’s where my second suspicion soon arose. The roads were gorgeous, beautifully tarred with drainage culverts, and eight lanes wide in places. They made the motorways in the UK look positively backward. No matter where I’d go in the city, it was all the same, flawless roads with perfect signage. The answer for this soon came into view - the Moses Mabhida stadium, Durban’s venue for the 2012 Fifa World Cup.
The Durban I knew was gone and I was eager to see what else had changed.
"Everything in Durban was spruced up for the World Cup," said Gyan. The Durban I knew was gone and I was eager to see what else had changed.
The Amazing Maharani
My next surprise was the hotel. The Elangeni’s sister hotel, Maharani had been a building I had gazed up at in wonder as a kid, particularly the gleaming red elevator with its glass windows that travelled up the 32 floors on the outside of the building.
Hotel Southern Sun Elangeni
The elevator is now gone, but the opulence is unmistakable and the sea views totally hypnotizing. My room was immaculate - the tea caddy filled with a huge choice of beverages, including cookies which were replenished daily.
Breakfast Like a King
Downstairs on ground floor, I soon made very close friends with the Vigour and Verve restaurant over many a leisurely breakfast. With fresh fruit prepared within view and trays full of crispy and non-crispy bacon, all kinds of eggs, mushrooms, donuts, croissants, cured hams, cheeses, yoghurts, it would keep my engine running well into the balmy afternoons.
It would keep my engine running well into the balmy afternoons.
After we’d checked into to rooms on the 5th and 17th floor, the CFO and I caught a cab to Durban’s dazzling International Conference Centre (ICC) to register for the Loeries Awards events. Our sixty-something taxi driver George, another Durban Indian, would become a real buddy, picking us up all hours, or making sure he sent someone else along, usually his son, Tommy.
For 400 Rand return (about $40) Tommy transported me to The Gateway Theatre of Shopping, easily the biggest and most luxurious shopping mall I have ever set foot in. Modelled on the Mall of America, it includes over 20 cinemas, 90 restaurants, 400 stores, a science theme park and a thrilling outdoor attraction called Wave House Durban.
Welcome to the Wave House
Along with the biggest man-made stationary wave in the world, Wave House also includes a 4000m2 indoor skate park designed by Tony Hawke, and the highest indoor climbing rock in the world. Prices are fantastic too, just $4 for all-day entry into the skate park with tuition available and skateboard rental. Knee and elbow pads were also available for hire for only $5. In addition to two FlowRiders that are fun and quite safe for beginners at $7.50 an hour, Wave House Durban also boasts the world’s only Double Point Break wave of its kind, dubbed the D-Rex, or Durbanicus Rex. I paid $12 for a hour of exhilarating surfing, with the impressive 10 foot barreling wave a big thrill.
Durban also boasts the world’s only Double Point Break wave of its kind
Of Pandas & Fantasy Worlds
After my surf ‘n’ shop therapy, it was back to the business of the Loeries. On the Friday, the DStv Seminar of Creativity took place at the ICC, with speakers Ali Ali (Commercial Director of Elephant in Cairo) and Ji Lee (Communication Designer at Facebook) particularly inspiring. Ali evangelised about keeping things ‘stupid’ in order to engage people, his 'Don’t Say No To The Panda' campaign is a great example. Lee, meanwhile, spoke of the transformative power of personal projects. How his childhood love for illustrating fantasy worlds continued into his love for type as living entities.
Following this day-long seminar, I enjoyed an early night, because the next morning it was time to hit the beach. Sure enough, the Golden Mile was filled with beautiful people of all cultures, biking, jogging, strolling, surfing, swimming, or my favorite, Segway.
Segway Gliding Tour in Moses Mabhida
Magalies River Valley Scenic Balloon Safari
Honeymoon Bend Kayak Safari in St Lucia
Another great way of seeing Durban, if you have more time than I did, is on horseback. Horseback Beach Rides offers many options, including the Sundowner Beach Ride, a 2.5 hour ride along hidden trails to the pristine Reunion Beach, an amazing sunset tour which includes a glass of bubbly, all from just $50 per person.
California Dreaming, in Africa
After my Segway tour, it was time for the Unilever Brunch at the paradisal California Dreaming. Along with a few mojitos, the waves crashing and caressing the shore just a few feet away, plus great company and beautiful people to watch passing by, this is easily the best beachfront bar I’ve ever experienced.
This is easily the best beachfront bar I’ve ever experienced.
In no time, it was back to the Maharani to get ready for the first night of the Loeries at the ICC. With The Jupiter Drawing Room (Johannesburg and Cape Town) picking up a good haul of awards over both evenings, it was a thrilling event, flawlessly organised and in an absolutely world-class setting. One of the MCs for the evening was the highly entertaining (and Zimbabwe born) John Vlismas, a stand-up comedian who had the crowd in stitches with his controversial, outspoken wit.
Durban by Night
Borne aloft on a wave of wit and euphoria, agency types from across Africa and the Middle East then hit the Durban nightlife. Let me rephrase that. Fleets of Harley Davidsons and shuttle buses ferried the ad crowd to the city’s well protected hot spots, such as the Cape2Cairo Niteclub at 100 Mahatma Gandhi Road. Because, unless you keep to the very well lit sections of the Golden Mile, walking the streets of Durban at night is similar to walking around Kruger National Park in the vicinity of lions, leopards and other nocturnal predators.
Fleets of Harley Davidsons and shuttle buses ferried the ad crowd to the city’s well protected hot spots
For vultures of the cultural variety, about 300 metres away from the Maharani and well within my I-can-make-it-home-safely-in-5-minutes mantra is bar and nightclub, Joe Cools. On the night I dropped by, the kwaito rhythms were pumping at a deep, tribal level. With the smoke of the hookah pipes billowing and the deep bass beats thrumming, it was a great insight into the kwaito revolution that’s spreading across the world.
It was my last evening in Durban, and with Maharani room service on tap, I did not go gently into that Indian Ocean night, watching re-runs of Man City demolishing Chelsea in HD from my room, and catching bits of a cricket match on the wide, wide open green space, in between the beach and the hotels.
Using a palm tree as a wicket and with at least 15 other Durban Indians deployed across a space as wide as Kingsmead, the cricketers played on and on and on. The last time I checked, at 2:30am in the morning, they were still going. When I woke up again around 4am they were gone.
Lucky to Live Here
But the breakers were still rolling in. From my fifth floor window of the Maharani they sounded just like they did back in 1988. The nature of Durban is timeless, no matter how much crime or progress changes her, time’s relentless passage will ensure she remains in the top three of the world’s coastal supermodels ’til kingdom come. Many things have changed in Durban but like Chuck Porter (Partner and Chairman of American agency CP&P) said in his address at the DStv Seminar of Creativity, "If you happen to live in this city, you are very, very lucky."
The nature of Durban is timeless.
I agree. Durban has changed and mostly for the better. Maybe that’s why I left a piece of my heart there.