Let’s shout about it: a family’s guide to Durban

Posted on 4 March 2015

Taweni Gondwe Xaba and family started a new year in a new city, and she’s discovered that the lively city of Durban is great for a family to explore.

Also read: Photoblog: dropping into Durban

Please note: All prices quoted were correct at time of going to print, but may have changed since. We have retained them here to give an idea of costs involved, but please do check with each venue or establishment to get the latest prices before travelling.

When I met my husband 16 years ago and he told me he was originally from Durban, I remember saying, ‘That’s interesting.’ But it wasn’t really. I mean, I had travelled there on business a couple of times, but having lived in Cape Town for 12 years at that point and having taken a lot of business trips to Johannesburg, an idea had insidiously seeped into my brain that Durban was a lacklustre third in the hierarchy of South African city-dom. So, yes, I simply uttered a polite, ‘That’s interesting’ and moved on to the more pressing pursuit of getting the brother to put a ring on it.


Taweni Gondwe Xaba is enjoying discovering the delights of Durban, with daughters Tapiwa, Zakithi and Kulunga

Taweni Gondwe Xaba is enjoying discovering the delights of Durban, with daughters Tapiwa, Zakithi and Kulunga.

Being Zulu, he eventually did take me to Durban for the obligatory once-over by the extended family. I must have put on a decent enough show at the traditional family wedding because he received the thumbs-up from them and proceeded to do the right thing shortly thereafter. However, it wasn’t only me under scrutiny that long weekend. Durban was being checked out too.

My strongest memory of the city back then is one of rowdy and generally cheerful people with no volume control. Be it in Q Section in Umlazi township, the shopping centres of Morningside and Musgrave or in the fine restaurants of Umhlanga, this characteristic continues to fascinate me as it cuts across all flavours of people in the city (in my multi-cultural family we don’t do race, preferring to refer to flavours, a much juicier way to experience human beings. It’s hard not to love a peach).


Golden moments abound for Kulunga, Tapiwa and Zakithi in the warm Indian Ocean.

Golden moments abound for Kulunga, Tapiwa and Zakithi in the warm Indian Ocean.

Anyway, Durbanites are, erm, loud! And I love it. It reminds me of vibrant African cities I have visited, such as Lilongwe, Bamako, Lagos, Nairobi, Maseru and Lusaka. To be honest, I find Durban the most ‘African’ city in South Africa in terms of how it ‘feels’. There’s an openness, a lack of social contrivance, and a readiness to smile and laugh that is as good a reason to visit the city as any.

Over the years, whenever I couldn’t make it home to Malawi for Christmas, Durban was always a good alternative. We would mostly visit the in-laws’ family homestead in rural KwaZulu, the beautiful beaches and Shakaland, the cultural village near Eshowe which was originally built as a set for the movie Shaka Zulu. You know, the usual touristy places. It was always great fun and I have the cheesy photos to prove it.

An early morning cycle ride along the Golden Mile is a fun way to take in the sea views.

An early morning cycle ride along the Golden Mile is a fun way to take in the sea views.

Fast forward to 2014 and, by virtue of a series of curious-and-unanticipated-but-greatly-appreciated events, our family – we now have three daughters – finds itself relocated and living happily by the shores of the Indian Ocean. We rolled into Durban on New Year’s Day and it’s been a whirlwind, building our social life from scratch. We’re still in exploration mode and it’s exciting to be discovering interesting ‘destinations’ in the heart of the city. Here are the ones we love most.


Rollerblading is popular around the stadium precinct.

Rollerblading is popular around the stadium precinct.


Things to do with kids in Durban

1. uShaka Marine World

uShaka Marine World offers languid rides, thrilling slides, an aquarium and Sea World shows

uShaka Marine World offers languid rides, thrilling slides, an aquarium and Sea World shows.

With three active daughters, Tapiwa (8), Kulunga (6) and Zakithi (4), it’s no surprise that uShaka Marine World features highly on our list. The last time we took assorted nieces and nephews there and were asked how old our youngest was, someone in our party (who shall remain unnamed to protect their personal dignity) brazenly told the cashier that Zakithi was two and a half. Little madam, not known for her delicate way with words, promptly piped up with an indignant ‘That’s not true! I am three and a half! You were at my birthday party, how did you forget?’ It’s a blessing that Unnamed is of a flavour that is incapable of blushing because the cashier and fellow patrons fell about laughing. We paid full price.

It’s not the cheapest place to go, but it offers great value for money, with wonderful exhibits and a vast array of marine life. We watch a lot of National Geographic programmes on television so the girls always enjoy identifying what they see in the aquarium. The regular Sea World shows featuring dolphins and seals also contain a strong conservation message that is important for every South African child to internalise if marine life in our waters is to survive.

Other attractions in the precinct include Dangerous Creatures, where you can see the anaconda, which is the longest and heaviest snake in the world, and the Gaboon adder, with the longest, most venomous fangs. At the risk of gender stereotyping, my girls were too petrified to enter but I have witnessed little boys almost pass out from sheer excitement coming out of this place. Entrance is R40 per person.

Get there: The amusement park and the aquarium both cost R149 per adult and R115 per child, although a R199 combo ticket will get you in to both. (FYI: kids genuinely under the age of three get in free!)


2. Shark cage diving

Fascinated by the sharks in the aquarium, the adventurous Miss Tapiwa and I decided to go cage diving in the open waters of the Indian Ocean on the South Coast. We were on the road shortly after 5am to make the one-hour drive to Rocky Bay beach at Park Rynie in time to suit up and take a 10-minute speedboat ride to a place known locally as ‘Shark Park’. Back in 1999, I trekked with Tuaregs in the Sahara desert north of Timbuktu in Mali and I thought that was remote. But after you cut the boat engine, there is a silence out at sea that really touches you deep in your soul.

Guided by the human encyclopaedia on sharks, John Miller of Shark Cage Diving KZN, this turned into a precious bonding moment with my daughter. Watching John’s team lowering her into the cage, I felt complete trust and calm. Those who know me will know this is a big deal because I’m a total wimp when it comes to open waters, never mind shark-infested ones.

We must have seen 20 sharks, if not more, during our dive, accompanied by a few foolish fish that quickly became shark breakfast in front of our eyes. Sharks are magnificent in design and we learnt a lot about their nature and behaviour. Contrary to popular belief and hysterical headlines, they’re not as aggressive as they are portrayed. They are a wonderful tourist attraction and revenue generator for South Africa and more should be done to discourage human aggravation of these creatures – starting with DStv discontinuing the screening of Jaws.

As we rode back to shore, three whales frolicked in the distance in a breathtaking display of aquatic gymnastics. Mother Nature was a total show-off. I knew my normally highly verbal firstborn had reached sensory overload when she kissed me for five whole minutes without words.

Get there: No diving experience is required, wet suits are provided and kids above the age of eight are allowed. Total cost for the two of us was R2 600.


3. Picnic at the Durban Botanic Gardens

The botanic gardens is great for teaching children about some of SAs diverse flora

The Durban Botanic Gardens is great for teaching children about some of SA’s diverse flora.

Back on dry land, the Durban Botanic Gardens (established in 1849) in the heart of the city had been on our to-do list and when we finally went there (accompanied by our extra-large picnic basket), it delivered some pleasant treats: manicured gardens, wide walkways, unique plant life, greedy ducks quacking for bread and the obligatory bridal couple posing for wedding photos.

Were it not for the pile of dog poo that sullied one of our pillows, I would have given it 10 out of 10 for tranquillity. Biggest attractions? A breathtaking collection of exotic orchids and the Old Mutual Music at the Lake Concert Series.

Get there: Entrance to the Durban Botanic Gardens is free. The concerts are R160 an adult (R130 on webtickets.co.za) and R50 for 8-12 year olds. Bring anyone and anything except pets and braais!


4. A long walk in the Virginia Nature Reserve

We love taking long walks to diffuse pent-up energy levels in the little people and a moderate walk for them is the Virginia Nature Reserve, a 38ha reserve in the heart of Durban North. Once inside the gates, they forget they are in the city and Dora the Explorer adventures take over. On a great day, you’ll see blue duikers, mongoose and some rare species in this popular bird-watching site.

Get there: Virginia Nature Reserve is off the M4 heading north. Take exit number 5 off the M4 to Hinton Grove Road in Durban North (to Virginia Airport). Make sure to enter via the main entrance on Hinton Grove Road, which is five minutes from the freeway. Entrance is free.


5. Beach, bikes and breakfast

My ideal Sunday morning involves a bracing swim and sandcastle building on Addington Beach, followed by gut-busting-but-oh-so-delicious bacon and egg rolls washed down with creamy cappuccinos or fruit juice from Afro’s Chicken Shop in its cheerful bright yellow container overlooking the ocean. Follow this with a bike ride of penance along the 6km promenade popularly known as The Golden Mile.


Four year old Zakithi prepares to take a ride on one of the rickshaws that ply their trade on Durbans beachfront.

Four year old Zakithi prepares to take a ride on one of the rickshaws that ply their trade on Durban’s beachfront.

Alternatively, do like me and let someone else do the legwork while you wobble atop a rickshaw, humming Easy like Sunday Morning and watching surfers flipping on the water in the distance. When the sea is too rough or cold, the kids enjoy a splash about in the warmer public pool on the beachfront before breakfast. It’s colourful, fun, free and well maintained. I just make sure I put their cozzies on at home so we don’t have to use the awful public toilets/change rooms. I hope the municipality will make them paying facilities to ensure their usability.


The majority of eThekwini Municipality public facilities are well maintained and cost nothing. The CAC pool on North Beach is a family favourite

The majority of eThekwini Municipality public facilities are well maintained and cost nothing. The ‘CAC’ pool on North Beach is a family favourite.

Get there: Rent a bike from Durban Green Corridor’s Green Hub for R30 a person for 30 minutes, R60 for an hour or R120 for two hours (refundable deposit of R80). Want someone to handle the planning for you? Guided rides, such as a three-hour City Heritage Cycle for R880 a person, are available from bikeandsaddle.com


6. Thrills, from the air

To end on a high note, two spectacular 360-degree aerial views of Durban city and its coastline are to be had from the SkyCar at Moses Mabhida Stadium or a helicopter flip along the coast. My girls and I have done both and thoroughly enjoyed the thrills. I just wish it was doable at night – the city lights must be spectacular from the viewing platform. The 20-minute ride in the Bell 206 chopper was great fun too. Flying past Umhlanga, it was hard not to visualise myself as a glamorous cast member in Miami Vice. It is surely one of the finest stretches of real estate in the land. Opt for the picnic option if you’re feeling romantic. The pilot lands on a mountaintop where guests have snacks and refreshments.

Get there: Moses Mabhida Stadium has become a vital part of the city. Apart from the big events held inside, the precinct houses a Virgin Active gym, restaurants, bike rental places and traders hawking colourful trinkets, and there’s always a festive vibe. Adjacent to it is People’s Park where music concerts are held regularly. The precinct is a favourite weekend spot for young families riding bikes or skateboarding with their kids. Jumping castles and other rides are also readily available. The sky car costs R55 an adult and R30 a child. Kids under six ride for free.

Do a helicopter flip: KwaZulu-Natal as a whole offers some of the country’s finest scenery from the coast, through the Midlands to the Drakensberg. At first apprehensive about the cost implications, I was pleasantly surprised that the helicopter flip only cost R2 300 for the four of us for 20 minutes. It was a treat to catch an aerial view of the Durban coastline and the city. kingshakaaviation.co.za


7. High tea at The Oyster Box

Of course, for a truly stylish ending to our adventure, we could have done worse than wrap things up with a posh high tea at The Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga. Voted Country Winner in the World Luxury Hotel Awards in 2011, the food and service is exceptional. Don’t be put off by the impersonal reservation system; the experience will make up for it. My Kulunga remarked about the magnificent decor as we walked in, ‘This is interesting!’ And I agreed. Durban is very ‘interesting’ indeed. In all the good ways one can imagine. And we still have so much to discover.


Plan your trip to Durban

When to go to Durban

Durban is one of the few places in South Africa where you can enjoy a great outdoorsy break in midyear without having to dress like a snowman. You will very rarely have to put up your brolly here. Spring comes early and the beaches are clean and not as hectic to navigate as they are in December. Durban really is the warmest place to be.


Need to know

I don’t know if the K53 is taught differently here or what, but be warned… the majority of Durbanites rarely use their car indicators when changing lanes! One unrepentant Durban native told me that in this city an indicator is an optional design feature. So maintain a comfortable following distance to save yourself some unexpected charges on your dinged rental car.

If you still use a printed map book, check your destination addresses carefully before venturing out of your hotel room as many of the street names have changed to incorporate a more inclusive recognition of the history and heritage of the city.


The surfs always up in Durban.

The surf’s always up in Durban.

Google maps on your smartphone will see you right as most of the new names are already incorporated. When you go into shops, take a moment to greet the person serving you as Durbanites enjoy common courtesies. A simple ‘Sawubona’ will almost always guarantee service with enthusiasm. Commonly translated into English as ‘Hello’, Sawubona more literally means ‘We/I see you.’ How beautiful is that? Durban likes visitors and in all the years I have been visiting, I have never heard a local expressing irritation over tourist ‘invasions’.


Getting around in Durban

Public transport for a tourist is a bit of a dog show in Durban. Getting information online is complicated too because bus stops have no numbers indicated: I know because I’ve tried. I do see them moving around, which means the locals have figured out how they work, but if you’re from out of town, you’re better off with a reliable cab company such as Mozzies. You don’t need cash and can swipe your card in the car.


Eat and drink

Afro’s Chicken Shop’s has a simple, brilliant menu, with serving staff who are child friendly. Afro’s Chicken is how chicken is supposed to taste. Tender. Flavourful. Happy-making. That is all. Nothing further. Thank you.

Surf Riders Café exceed their promise of ‘Just good chow’. My girls are split for a favourite between the hot dogs and the simple square pizzas. I love their feta, rocket and avo pizza. Best part? For a mum on a budget, their prices are fantastic. It’s so nice to be able to pay for good food without feeling ripped off.

Wakaberry on Florida Road, dubbed ‘the best place in the whooooooole wide world’ by Zakithi, its multitude of flavours and yummy toppings. It’s a family tradition to stop over every Friday after school. For under R100, I am able to buy smiles plus good behaviour, which is a truly sweet start to every weekend.


Fresh air, great views and super more-ish food. Afros Chicken is set to become one of those legendary local spots for grabbing a bite after surfing or catching up with friends over cappuccinos.

Fresh air, great views and super more-ish food. Afro’s Chicken is set to become one of those legendary local spots for grabbing a bite after surfing or catching up with friends over cappuccinos.


Family accommodation in Durban

1. Salt Rock Holiday House

You’ll relive childhood holidays in Salt Rock Holiday House, a sprawling self-catering bungalow directly above an unspoiled beach, just half an hour from Durban. It’s ideal for family reunions as it sleeps 12 in six bedrooms (three en suite). There’s little need to budge from the well appointed al-fresco entertainment and braai area, but the open-plan interior has DStv, ping-pong and pool tables. Linen is provided (just bring towels) and the fully fitted kitchen includes a washing machine, tumble dryer and dishwasher. There’s even a full-time maid, so unlike when we were young, kids don’t even need to do the dishes.
Cost: from R3 500 (off-season) a night.
Contact: saltrockholiday.co.za


2. Grange Guest House

Grange Guest House is a recently renovated Durban North home with an enticing choice of individually decorated bedrooms and all the trimmings (DStv, air-con, coffee plunger). Ask for the two bedroom family unit upstairs – it has great views of the city and sea. There’s also a spacious wheelchair-friendly, ground-floor family room. Generous breakfasts are served overlooking the pool. You can braai at night or explore the numerous restaurants and takeaways nearby. Beaches, mangrove swamps, the Umgeni River Bird Park and Gateway Theatre of Shopping are short drives away.
Cost: Rentals from R1 600 a night for two adults and two children under 12.
Contact: Tel 031 563 6826/9, thegrange.co.za


3. Abalone Place Guesthouse

Children are welcome in Abalone Place Guesthouse, a graciously furnished but relaxed 1920s Glenwood home. Views stretch from Moses Mabhida Stadium to the harbour, and kids have a lush garden to explore and a terrace for games. Wholesome breakfasts include home-baked muffins and cappuccinos. Dinners can be arranged or you can self-cater in the spacious kitchen, but Glenwood has great restaurants. Enjoy these and nearby Bulwer Park, which now has a playground, jogging track and fitness posts. Beaches are 10 minutes away. Two of Abalone’s five suites convert to family rooms, and all have air-con, DStv and free WiFi.
Cost: Available from R700 a night per person sharing, bed and breakfast, children under 12 half price.
Contact: Tel 072 602 5052, abaloneplace.co.za


4. Makaranga Garden Lodge

Set in 13ha of private botanical garden in Kloof, Makaranga Garden Lodge is a four-star, disabled-friendly lodge that makes for a magical getaway. Sweeping lawns and pathways are set with sculptures and hammocks, an Enchanted Garden is strung with mobiles and a swimming pool and playground are within view of the restaurant terrace. There are two plush family rooms with sleeper couches for children aged six to 12, and tasty meals and teas are served in Nonna restaurant, or you can buy a picnic from The Deli.
Cost: from R1 700 per night for a room (sleeps two); children R250 a head.
Contact: Tel 031 764 6616, makaranga.com

Map of Durban

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Getaway Magazine. All prices and activities accurate at time of going to print, but may since have changed. Please confirm with the establishments before travelling.

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