The metropolis on the Indian Ocean is the most multicultural of South Africa’s cities.
At the same time, Durban is the most important port in southern Africa, South Africa’s second-largest metropolitan area (after Johannesburg) and also the country’s most important holiday destination due to its long sandy beaches and mild climate.
However, it owes this status to South African vacationers, while foreign tourists usually make only a brief stop in Durban on their way to the national parks of Kwazulu-Natal and those of the north.
Durban’s six-kilometer-long sandy beach, called the “Golden Mile,” is undoubtedly the city’s biggest attraction. In addition, there are the northern beaches of La Lucia and Umhlanga, whose land side is partly spoiled by apartment buildings or built up with expensive villas and vacation homes.
The warm, subtropical climate makes bathing possible all year round, and the beaches are well guarded and secured with shark nets. The latter also makes Durban’s beaches very popular with surfers.
Architecturally and culturally, Durban can certainly keep up with Cape Town, which receives considerably more international visitors.
Durban not only has the classic sights such as the Vasco da Gama Clock, which commemorates the founder of the port, the historic City Hall and the Old Court House Museum, but also a remarkable selection of Art Deco buildings and examples of contemporary architecture.
Furthermore, the Juma Mosque, the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, together with the Madressa Arcades and the Victoria Street Market, owe their existence to Durban’s Indian population. Also worth seeing are the remarkable Kwa Muhle Museum, whose exhibition documents the history of racial segregation and the infamous Durban system, and the Port Natal Maritime Museum on the Durban Esplanade.
Even among the soccer stadiums for the 2010 World Cup, Durban is esthetically ahead with the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
Sports highlights are rarely on the schedule here, but every first Saturday of the month there is the I Heart Market, a colorful mix of design, flea and food markets that is well worth a visit.
Durban’s “European” history dates back to 1497, when Vasco da Gama anchored here on Christmas Day and consequently baptized the area “Terra do Natal”. Since the Portuguese already had a good port in Maputo at that time, they showed no interest in settling in a bay surrounded by mangrove swamps and tropical coastal forests. Until the early 19th century, only pirates, slave and ivory traders docked here.
It was not until 1824 that “Port Natal” was established as a permanent settlement, founded by traders from the Cape Colony with the permission of the Zulu King Shaka. The small settlement developed very slowly, as its inhabitants were tolerated at best by the Zulu population, but also faced regular attacks.
Two years after Durban received its present name (after then Cape Governor Benjamin D’Urban) in 1835, the Boer Voortrekkers led by Piet Retief arrived in Natal. The latter had concluded a purchase agreement with the Zulu king Dingaan for an area between Durban and the Tugela River in order to establish a Boer republic there. But a little later Dingaan invited the Boer delegation to his kraal and had them murdered.
Under Retief’s successor Pretorius, the Boers defeated the Zulu in the dramatic battle at the Ncome River, which was to be named Bloedrivier after the battle.
The Boer republic of “Natalia” claimed Durban as a port and promptly met fierce resistance from the British, who finally secured their dominance in Natal in 1844.
The Voortrekkers had no choice but to move further north, where they established the Orange Vrystaat and the Transvaal, while Durban was incorporated into the British Cape Colony.
In the second half of the 19th century, thousands of Indian contract workers came to Durban to toil in the sugar cane fields of the hinterland under the most lousy conditions.
After their contracts expired, many remained in South Africa and settled in the greater Durban area.
Among the later immigrants to South Africa was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who disembarked the SS Safari in Durban in May to represent a compatriot in a legal dispute as a young lawyer.