Growing up in Johannesburg, I spent most of my childhood family holidays on the South Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where we had a holiday home in the small coastal town of Pennington. It’s common practise for Vaalie families to flock down to what we broadly referred to as “Durban” (literally anywhere in the province) for the holidays.
It was a huge family home with a pool and an avocado tree and a massive garden which ambled down to a small river where my cousins would fish for mud crabs. It wasn’t far from the beach and during the holidays my mom would wake up early to walk us down to the shore for an dawnie swim so that the other grown ups could get some sleep.
I have such happy memories of that house. Spending days swimming and taking the skateboard I begged for out on its maiden voyage on Christmas Day, only to go flying through the air as a wheel hit a tiny rock, leaving the skin from my knees and hands on the hot tar.
It was thanks to these years spent in Natal that I used to like to think I knew Durban. We would often take day trips to the city to shop for surf brands at the factory shops bulging with Billabong t-shirts with tiny holes or flawed prints. But it was during my recent visit to the city for the annual INDABA conference that I really got to know the beating heart of this urban landscape for the very first time.
In recent years Durban has seen a surge of energy in the inner-city as visitors have become more interested in venturing away from the ever-popular beaches to explore the city, as Urban Tourism soars globally.
My friend Jonas Barausse runs a small tour company where they pride themselves on knowing Durban in all its many shapes and colours. They are the kind of tour operator that knows what’s new and what’s cool. They want to teach you more about the city than what the history books say. They want to show you the blood that pumps through it’s veins.
I booked with Jonas and Street Scene Tours for a little adventure into the thick of Durban’s city.
An eye-opener of a city tour
The city is humid even in May and everything about it tickles the little part of my brain where I keep my cherished memories of Mumbai. We meet our guide, Sthembiso Mbonambi outside the Durban ICC and head for a lookout point.
At Gecko Moon lookout I am reminded again that even the biggest cities in South Africa are just minuscule specks on the global map. When you spend your life exploring and writing about a place it can start to seem bigger than it is. Much like Cape Town, Durban is really a tiny handful of skyscrapers towering into an enormous African sky.
I’d heard from a Capetonian friend that our next stop, the Victoria Market was a bit of a disappointment. If you’ve ever been to a market it Cape Town you’ll know that it’s the perfect place to buy artisan cheese, local craft beer and expensive leather goods. If you’ve ever been to a market anywhere in the rest of Africa you’ll know that Cape Town might as well be another continent.
Our guide Ste shows us into the Victoria Spice Market and gives us some free time to shop around. I am immediately flooded with memories of India as cumin, cardamom and incense waft around me and flood my senses. I stop by a small shop offering almost exactly the same variety of spices as every other shop and purchase a packet of their signature masala spice mix.
I also stop for a set of Zulu beaded jewellery. I hand over my twenty Rand note and wonder who in their right mind would exert the effort that must go into beading the necklace and bangle in my hands for a mere twenty Rand (like, one GBP). Another good dose of perspective is handed to me, wrapped in tiny red beads and a Zulu pattern.
We walk through a variety of fruit and veg stalls before we stop at the steps of a bridge. Ste tells us that this is the Zulu “Muti” Market; the market selling traditional African herbs and medicines. We’re instructed to be friendly but not to take any pictures. I swallow hard and follow closely.
It’s here, between the mounds of roots and herbs and drying animal skins that I realise what a sheltered little life I live in Cape Town. Even in my neighbourhood, notorious for gang-related crimes and drug dens, I hardly ever come into contact with anything this African. Cape Town is an African city in the sense that it is in Africa. Durban is an African city in the sense that it lives, breathes, sweats and bleeds Africa.
It’s a heady environment and the hectic energy and overwhelming smells start to get to me. I shuffle out into the sunlight. I try to hide the fact that I am really moved by the experience. I’m embarrassed that I feel so overwhelmed by something that is such a huge part of a culture I grew up surrounded by. Another little bit of perspective added to my arsenal, thank you very much.
After the Muti Market, the Cow’s Head Market is almost like a walk in the park. Almost. A man is using an axe to hack at an enormous cow’s head, pulling away the skin and meat to cook for hungry patrons. It actually turns my stomach, which is painfully hypocritical, as I eat almost every other part of the cow. Obviously, I think to myself “well, it’s great that those aren’t going to waste”.
Once we’re through the Cow’s Head Market, we head to The Workshop for lunch. I’m not sure I’ll be able to eat after the market, but the smell of Indian food is enough to whet my appetite and I order a traditional bunny chow; a half loaf of white bread, hollowed out and stuffed with Durban curry. Uncharacteristically, I order the veggie option.
The food is delicious and I wash it down with a mango juice. In fact, it’s the best bunny I’ve ever tasted. I eat it with my hands and lick my fingers, like everyone around me.
I feel bashful that the market was such a culture shock, especially since I have actually travelled to other African countries, unbelievable as that may sound after reading this post. I suppose it’s just that when you live in Cape Town, where the Camps Bay strip and Hout Bay Harbour are just part of the scenery, it’s easy to forget that South Africa is part of Africa, after all.
I’m grateful for the experience. For the opportunity to immerse myself in the Indian, Muslim and Zulu cultures of my country. I’m grateful for Ste’s knowledge of the city, the diverse communities of Durban’s melting pot and for his willingness to share it. I make a vow to learn a few more phrases in Zulu and a few more in Xhosa. And to remember that before being South African, before being Natalie, a blogger, a writer, before anything else, I am African.
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