Secret Durban

Sunny skies, warm waves and bunny chow – what more could you ask from Durbs? Alison Westwood missioned beyond the usual beach scene and scored all kinds of kiff places to park off. 

Durban has a reputation of being a laid-back city, but it would be wrong to think it’s sleepy or unsophisticated. At its centre, the metropolis is abuzz with exuberant chaos and, in leafy suburbs, the stately homes of sugar barons have metamorphosed into museums, art galleries, cafés and boutique hotels.

There’s much, much more to Durban than long golden beaches bristling with high-rise hotels.  Haunts such as Mitchell Park, the BAT Centre, sunset concerts in the Botanical Gardens and Florida Road’s eclectic collection of restaurants are well-known. But allow the shore and the rollercoaster hills to tumble you into a heady jumble of cultures, flavours and jungly foliage and you’ll find treasures with which even seasoned Durbanites aren’t familiar.

Go monastic

It seems strange to find a rural monastery only 20 minutes’ drive from central Durban in the Pinetown area but, since Mariannhill Monastery was founded in 1882, it’s had a far-reaching influence. It was here that many of Africa’s black leaders were educated and a worldwide movement of missions was spawned.

Phone ahead to arrange a tour of the cloisters, church, convent and a museum that includes a historic printing press, dentist’s chair and a startling collection of creepy crawlies. The fee is a donation to the monastery’s upkeep.

At the tea garden, you can buy Sister Ludmilla’s famous cheese or sip a variety of interesting teas (we chose chocolate honeybush and mountain oolong) while ghostly chanting floats from underground speakers. A monastery market is held on Saturdays from 09h00 to 12h00.

Contact: Tel 083-245-7427 for tours, or for the tea garden tel 031-700-2706, info@monasteryteagarden.co.za, www.monasteryteagarden.co.za.

Getting there: From the N3 towards Pietermaritzburg, turn left at the Richmond Road turnoff, right onto Abbot Francis Road and right into Monastery Road.

Get lost in a garden

It’s a view that could cause you to gawp in an undignified manner. On the veranda of the five-star Makaranga Garden Lodge in Kloof, a bronze statue of Pan dances on the edge of a sloping lawn that leads down to 30 acres of lush gardens and lily-decked ponds.  Wander among them and you’ll find cycads and bromeliads, orchids and azaleas, a Japanese garden, an Italian garden and entrancing Zimbabwean Shona carvings – reputedly the largest private collection in the country. It takes a staff of 23 to maintain the gardens and at least a couple of hours for visitors to walk around them.

The lodge is open to the public for breakfast, teas, lunch and dinner. Cream teas are surprisingly reasonable: I paid R28 for a superb scone and Illy latte. Garden visits are R10 a person and guided tours or golf carts can be arranged for a small fee. The lodge and gardens are wheelchair friendly.

Contact: Tel 031-764-6616, info@makaranga.com, www.makaranga.com.

Getting there: From the N3 to Pietermaritzburg take the M13 to Pinetown, then exit 26 (Everton Road/Gillitts). Turn right at the  traffic lights, right again into Igwababa Road and drive 1,2 km to their entrance on the left.

All a twitter

Never has a nature reserve been better disguised. Behind the undulating suburb of Bellair, past quarries roaring with trucks and over and under narrow bridges hide 253 hectares of sub-tropical forest and grassland rustling with impala, zebra, monkeys, mongooses and duikers. The Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve squawks, hoots and twitters with more than 200 bird species.

A R10 entry fee grants access to 13 km of nature walks, 10 km of mountain-bike trails and pleasant picnic sites. There’s also a specially designed walk, picnic site and parking for the physically disabled. Arrive on a weekday after breakfast when the handful of twitchers has left and you’ll have it all to yourself. Gate times are 06h00 – 18h00.

Contact: Tel 031-469-2807, www.kznwildlife.com.

Getting there: At 1 Coedmore Road, Yellowwood Park it’s off the M1 in Umhlatuzana. It’s tricky to find, so phone ahead for directions.

Old books and couture

On an obscure corner of Florida Road is a moving and memorable bookshop. Unusual and out-of-print volumes stand in slanting sunlight interspersed with odd memorabilia at Ike’s Books. The signatures of Booker Prize winners and first-time authors are scrawled on the walls. Joseph David ‘Ike’ Mayet was the first man of colour in South Africa to become an Africana and antiquarian book dealer and, although he died in 2002, Ike’s is still a special place for fans of historical titles, struggle literature and good reads in general.

If you prefer something more glamorous, you need only cross the corridor to Vino Designs to meet a prominent fashion designer in her studio. Vino Moodley’s couture is regularly paraded at SA Fashion Week and the Durban July, and her bespoke designs can cost up to R10#000. But she showed me her secret sale rack where I nabbed a gorgeous skirt for R250. How can you resist?

Contact: Ike’s tel 031-303-9214, ikesbooks@iafrica.com. Vino tel 031-303-6167, vinomdesigns@gmail.com.

Getting there: 48a Florida Road is below the Argyle Road intersection. Look out for a shop called Vanilla House. Ike’s and Vino are upstairs round the corner.

Peace and understanding

According to the devotee I spoke to, most visitors to the Sri Sri Radha Radhanath Temple of Understanding near Chatsworth think it looks like a spaceship. ‘But it’s a pity you’re not in a helicopter today,’ he said (I had to agree), ‘from the air, you can see that the temple and gardens have been landscaped to look like a lotus flower.’

Built by a German architect in Indian style, it’s a paean to Radha and Krishna, a divine couple. People of any faith – or none at all – are welcome to meditate, pray or simply look around. There’s no entrance fee, but remember to leave your shoes at the door. A restaurant/take-away underneath serves delicious vegetarian food.

Contact: Tel 031-403-3328.

Getting there: From the N2, take the M1 north. You’ll see the temple on your left at the Chatsworth Circle turnoff.

An ear for performance

Founded by Dr Vera Dubin, who wanted to make good music accessible to everyone in Durban, the Friends of Music arrange monthly performances by distinguished international and local classical musicians. The concerts also feature 10-minute prelude recitals, which give young, talented and often disadvantaged musicians the chance to gain concert experience.

Prices for performances are R60 for members and R70 for non-members, and annual membership is R25. Friends of Music also present introductory talks by experts before every KZN Philharmonic symphony at the Royal Hotel for R30.

Contact: Tel 031-202-7823, friendsofmusic@microserve.co.za, www.friendsofmusic.co.za.

Getting there: Concerts are at the Durban Jewish Centre, 44 KE Masinga (Old Fort) Road in the city centre. Secure parking is available.

Africana galore

One of the most significant resources of the history and culture of KwaZulu-Natal is popular among overseas visitors but almost completely overlooked by South Africans. Housed in the Muckleneuk mansion are the Campbell family’s unique collections of Africana books, art and furniture. Tours of the museum are by appointment only (R20 a person), which means you’re likely to have the guide’s undivided attention.

According to Muzi Hadebe, who showed me around, each visitor discovers a particular passion there. ‘For some of the women, it’s the curtains,’ he joked. ‘Another man came just to see the 200-year-old essenwood trees in the garden.’ For me, it was Barbara Tyrrell’s detailed sketches and watercolour studies of Southern African tribal people in traditional dress. The museum owns 953 of them.

Contact: Tel 031-260-1722, campbellcollections@ukzn.ac.za, campbell.ukzn.ac.za.

Getting there: Straight up the hill from Greyville Race Course, 220 Gladys Mazibuko (Marriot) Road is on the right at the intersection with Essenwood Road.

Hot stuff

When Neo Café burnt down a few years ago, it was apparently caused by a fire in a nearby building, but I think it must have been the piri-piri. Owner Ricardo Flores-Coelho hails from Maputo and still makes the sauce according to his grandfather’s secret recipe that calls for it to bubble and ferment, growing ever more murderous.

Diners are mainly locals and homesick Mozambicans, who come for the authentic Portuguese-Mozambique food and the convivial and entirely unpretentious vibe. Suck on a Laurentina beer while you wait for your espetada or prawn curry, and try a fiery aquavita or the Cremora tart afterwards. But for heaven’s sake, go easy on that piri-piri!

Contact: Tel 031-332-2299.

Getting there: Find it at Summer Square on Sol Harris Crescent, off Marine Drive above North Beach.

Taking slacking off to new levels

Billy Budd and his surfer buddies originally took over this wharfside spot among the mangroves as their private club, but now anyone daring enough to venture into Durban’s docklands will be rewarded at Bud’s on the Bay with a ‘somewhat different dining experience’, as they put it.

The menu, which includes Zulu sushi, larny bunnies and mocca ice-cream pie, reflects Budd’s passion for invention. Our caprese salad came with beetroot, lemongrass and pepperdew pestos and our baked camembert was topped with crackly caramelised port.

Any given Tuesday could be black-ball night – surfer-speak for a party. Musician Wesley Ngonyama, who moonlights as a waiter, takes centre stage and anyone who complains about the fun is sent packing. Most popular are the long lazy lunches: six-course sittings that take slacking-off to new levels.

Contact: Tel 031-466-6100, www.budsonthebay.co.za.

Getting there: From Bayhead Road, turn left at the fourth set of lights into Trawlers Wharf Road, then right at Lusitania into Grunter Gully Road.

Slurp a Bombay crush

Every visitor to Durban has heard of curry bunnies, but few know to try a Bombay crush. Properly known as a falooda, this super-sweet pink milkshake tastes a bit like strawberry Nesquik, but is actually made with tukmaria ‘jelly’ seeds and Rooh Afza, a rose-infused syrup. Most refreshing!

Served at Indian restaurants and cafés around Durban – just look out for them on signs and menus. 

First published in the August 2009 issue of Getaway Magazine

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