In Durban it’s always summer & the action never ends

By Stef Terblanche

While the rest of the country shivers in the grip of winter, Durban and the surrounding coastal areas of KwaZulu-Natal is the one place in South Africa where summer never ends, and neither does the action.

The locals will argue and say it’s cold, wearing their winter jerseys. But those of us coming from other milder-climate parts of the country find sub-tropical Durban’s warm winter climate to be just fine, thank you. That’s why we make it our ‘summer playground’ in winter.

The climate and weather are such in Durban during winter, that going to the beach is an all-year option. So while the rest of the country freezes, you could be lying in the warm sun on beaches from up north at St Lucia to Umhlanga, and down to Durban’s North and South Beaches, and all the way down the South Coast. Durban itself has many other superb beaches.  And if you’re heading that way this winter, you’ll find so much more to do with an action-packed programme to keep you more than busy all winter long.

Comrades Marathon

The Comrades is always a crowd puller and a firm favourite with South Africans and fans from afar. This iconic South African road race that is famous around the world as the greatest ultra-marathon on earth, is being run for the 94th time this year on 9 June! It’s the world’s largest and oldest race.

The race alternates each year between starting in Durban (the 87km uphill race) and starting in Pietermaritzburg (the 90km downhill race). This year it’s an uphill race when the Big 5 Hills will once again be testing muscles and stamina to the very limit. Some 25,000 runners will be taking part.

Since the first Comrades run in 1921 – the idea of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, to commemorate the South African soldiers killed during the war – the only time the race was not run was during the war years of World War II in the 1940s. To learn more about the race, its great history and its greatest winners, you can visit the Comrades Marathon Museum in Pietermaritzburg.

During the race a festive atmosphere grips the entire route, with thousands of fans, well-wishers and helpers lining the route and cheering on those doing battle in the hope of crossing the finishing line before the cut-off time. If they make it in under 12 hours, they earn the much-coveted Comrades medal, a badge of honour athletes from around the world wear with great pride. A runner who has successfully completed nine marathons wears a yellow number, while those who have completed ten races wear a green number, permanently allocated to the runner.

Vodacom Durban July Handicap

 This famous horse race is another super sporting event that takes place in Durban during winter each year, this year being run on 6 July at the Greyville Racecourse which is close to the city centre. The Durban July, as it’s popularly known, is South Africa’s premier horse racing, food and fashion event. Come try your hand at some betting luck, watch those beautiful thoroughbreds come thundering past, be amazed by some strange and wonderful fashion displays, and much more. It’s always a day of great fun, and you could go home with some winnings in your pocket!

Horse racing first came to South Africa together with British rule in 1795 and the Durban July was run for the first time on Saturday, July 17, 1897 with a crowd of 3,000 people and a winner named Campanajo. It’s run on the first Saturday of July each year. Raced over a distance of 2,200 meters, among the many great winners of the past were unforgettable champions like Bold Silvano, Ipi Tombe, Dancing Dual, Flaming Rock, Bush Telegraph, Beau Art, Politician and 113 other great horses.

On race days top fashion designers showcase their designs with fashionistas strutting their stuff in front of the cameras. The who’s who and the lesser mortals among us meet over champagne and caviar in the many colourful private and branded marquees, while those gleaming, immaculately groomed thoroughbreds are presented in the parade ring with their silk-clad jockeys atop. And as the early races are run in the build-up to the main race, the tension and excitement palpably increases in the perfumed air, mixed with the smell of fresh horse manure.

Betting on this R4.25 million contest has already opened, with Rainbow Bridge and early favourite. Among the other great horses in what will be a top field, are such greats as Buffalo Bill Cody, Do It Again, Hawaam, Double Mint, Soqrat, Head Honcho, Cascapedia, and Clouds Unfold, to name but a few. Be sure not to miss out on this great fun event where the thrills and spills never stop.

Durban International Film Festival

For movie buffs the city also annually hosts the Durban International Film Festival, probably the biggest film event in South Africa that brings together around 400 filmmakers from around Africa and the world. This year the 40th edition of this festival takes place from 18 to 28 July in venues around Durban.

Organised by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts, it is one of the oldest and largest film festivals in Africa, presenting over 150 films, and also offers workshops, seminars, and discussion forums, among others.

The panel that has to select the films to be show, includes film-related professionals from around the world. They have to select 150 films from 12,300 entries…no easy task with so much talent going around! Films include short, documentary and feature fiction films – the best cutting-edge cinema experiences from around the world with a strong focus on local and African films as well. So stock up on your popcorn and chocolates and be sure to go see some of these fabulous films.

Durban Markets

A visit to Durban’s famous market area is a must. Head into the bustling central city area around Warwick Junction, the city’s main public transport hub where trains, buses and taxis, and about half a million commuters, converge every day. Between 5,000 and 8,000 vendors trade here in 9 different markets and the area is home to what probably is one of the biggest, most varied and most authentic African markets anywhere in Southern Africa.

First stop is the Victoria Street Market, also known as the Indian Market. With the largest Indian community in the world outside of India, the city is famous for its curries and spices, and this is the market where you find them…literally small mountains of them.

From here you can stroll into the Zulu Muti Market where traditional healers – inyangas or herbalists, and sangomas or diviners – prepare and display their medicines, herbal powders and other wares ranging from crocodile teeth and various animal skins, to bird claws, snake skins, dead and skinned monkeys hanging from nooses, black chickens in cages, and powders made from the bark, leaves and bulbs of plants and trees.

The muti market must be one of the biggest of its kind in the world and the inyangas and sangomas are more than happy to explain to visitors their craft and the cures obtained from various medicines. For a tip you can also take a picture of them and their wares.

Next, proceed through the 100-years old vegetable and fruit market known as the Early Morning Market where you will be confronted by the biggest carrots you have ever seen. Then walk through the noisy taxi ranks and into the Berea train station’s maze of stalls and shops housing both formal and informal traders. Other markets in the area include an African bead market, lime and impepho (incense) market, cow’s head meat market, the Brook Street crafts and clothing market, the meat and fish market, and the Music Bridge market.

While in the area, pop into the famous little eatery, Little Gujarat, and try one of Durban’s famous ‘bunny chows’ – a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curry. This little eatery is in the heart of the Indian district. But be warned: they serve only one style of curry – very, very hot!

Heritage Routes

Durban, together with the surrounding countryside, has a fascinating history going back many centuries. So, it’s only natural that the city offers a number of wonderful heritage routes and and cultural attractions.

Some of the historical landmarks right in the city centre include the first and second city halls, the old court house, and the impressive Emmanuel Cathedral which gave Durban its city status. The cathedral was built partially with a donation from Empress Eugenie of France, wife of Napoleon III. In 1880 she came to visit the site where her son, the Prince Imperial, had been killed in the Anglo-Zulu War the previous year and donated ₤5,000 to the local Catholic Church.

On an island between Dr AB Xuma Road and Monty Naicker Street in downtown Durban you’ll also find the famous Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, or rather his bronze bust. Few people are probably aware that Pessoa, one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language who is also often described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century, grew up and schooled in Durban between 1895 and 1905. A couple of street blocks away from Pessoa’s bust, on Margeret Mncadi Avenue, previously the Victoria Embankment, you’ll find the statue of Dick King and his legendary horse. In 1842 they made an epic journey, racing 960km in just 10 days to Grahamstown, fording 120 rivers along the way, to fetch military help for the British garrison in Durban that was besieged by Boer forces.

Travelling out of the central city going north, your reach the sprawling KwaMashu township, the Inanda Valley and the Phoenix Settlement. Here the Inanda Heritage Route starts,  and it’s said that in Inanda, there is “more history per square kilometre than anywhere else in South Africa”. The route will lead you to the house and offices that were once home to Mahatma Gandhi in the Phoenix Settlement. There are some truly fascinating exhibitions to be seen here.

It was here that Gandhi first developed his philosophy of passive resistance against injustice, a philosophy that was applied by the people of both South Africa and India in their struggles for freedom. Here you can look around inside Gandhi’s rebuilt corrugated iron house named Sarvodaya. The original was destroyed during the anti-apartheid Inanda riots in 1985. But it in the quiet of the morning, the house still has a distinct “Gandhi feel” about it. Beside the house is the original building that housed Gandhi’s printing press where he printed and published his newspaper, Indian Opinion.

From Phoenix the road takes one up the hill to Ohlange where John Dube, founding president of the ANC that governs South Africa today, acquired a piece of land and built a school for his community not far from where he was born on the Inanda Mission Station in 1871. The school, the Zulu Christian Industrial School, later known as the Ohlange Institute, was the first black African-owned and run educational institution in South Africa. Dube’s first house also still stands here, while the graves of Dube, his wife and a number of his children are here too…now a national monument.

In 1994 in South Africa’s first democratic elections Nelson Mandela chose the Dr JL Dube Interpretation Centre housed on the school premises as the place where he cast his vote for the first time in a fully free, democratic South Africa. It is said that on that day he went to Dube’s grave close to the house and, facing his tombstone, said: “Mister President, I can report to you that today we are finally free.”

The Inanda Heritage Route also offers insights into the lives and work of many other historical figures such as Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the principal founder of the ANC and its first treasurer general. Then there is the home of Rev Posselt Gumede, a pastor, intellectual, translator of hymns, political activist and founder member of the Natal Native Congress.

A visit to the Hare Krishna Temple, also known as the Sri Sri Radhanath Temple of Understanding, in the suburb of Chatsworth is also a must. This serene place of meditation and introspection is an architectural marvel.

The Sardine Run

This is one of those truly great natural spectacles that have fascinated people for millennia and is right up there with East Africa’s annual mass wildebeest migration. This mass migration of millions of tiny sardines being pursued by large predators like whales, sharks and dolphins, as well as birds and humans, has become so popular that many tour operators now offer a variety of Sardine Run tours and diving excursions so you can watch them from within the water. It is one of those bucket list events every person should experience at least once in their life. Named the Greatest Shoal on Earth, visitors flock to the shores of KwaZulu-Natal east coast to witness the annual migration with many of the sardines washing up on the beaches where onlookers eagerly scoop them up in buckets and nets.

The run usually starts from around May lasting through to the end of July. The first shoals can be spotted much further south, around East London, before they make their way up the coast, with the largest concentrations of fish coming together as they approach Durban and carry on further up. Apart from spectators being able to watch this spectacle from the beach – the fish flee into the shallow waters from the predators chasing them – it also offers spectacular diving opportunities in deeper water, while people also follow the fish on boats.

The movement of these huge shoals of sardines is not yet fully understood, but scientists believe their movement is connected to the seasonal counter-current that brings the sardines with it. The sardines migrate from the cold waters of the Western Cape to seek the warmer waters of KwaZulu-Natal. However, as they are cold-water fish, they prefer cold, nutrient-rich waters, which is why their natural home is along the Western Cape coast. It is thought they take advantage of a very narrow cool water current that moves along the the east coast, and which occurs seasonally.

However, be warned, the sardine run is totally unpredictable and if the current movement does not occur, as happened in 2013 and 2014, no sardines will arrive. An early sign that they are coming, however, is an increased presence of dolphins. Another spectacle that coincides with the sardine run is the annual migration of humpback whales at the same time, although it is not related to the sardine run. Nonetheless, you’ll be able to watch a growing number of whales passing by as well.

Many Other Things to Do

For those who find themselves in Durban this winter, there is even much more to do. You can attend a soccer match or other sporting event at the Moses Mabhida Stadium – or do the bungee jump from the arch over its top. Next-doors Kings Park will be hosting some top rugby games. There are excellent golf courses in around the city too. Or you can visit a Zulu cultural village and watch some foot stomping Zulu warriors do their powerful battle dance. There are restaurants, pubs and clubs aplenty along Florida Road. Or you can visit the fabulous uShaka Marine World with its dolphin shows and massive aquarium. Durban really is the one place in South Africa that doesn’t have a winter, and the action never stops.