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Durban’s new passenger terminal: the changing era of cruising

The Ocean Terminal welcomed many passenger ships to Durban

The Ocean Terminal welcomed many passenger ships to Durban

Published Oct 16, 2021


“Africa’s most modern marine terminal” was the headline in 1961, about the construction of Durban’s Ocean Terminal in the Sept/Oct 1961 issue of Trade Links, a newsletter covering industrial and commercial news in the province at the time.

And while the opening of Durban’s new R200 million cruise passenger terminal in the Point is imminent, back in the ’60s, the new marine passenger terminal and fruit pre-cooling store was being completed at an estimated R5m.

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Due to be completed by March 1962, it was described as “the most revolutionary government building in this country” and “the most modern in Africa”.

The new cruise passenger terminal in the Point, Durban. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)
An aerial view of part of the T-jetty showing the lay-out of the R5 million passenger terminal nearing completion in 1961. Picture: Trade Links Sept/Oct 1961 issue

The building consisted of a terminal building for passengers, either embarking or disembarking from vessels and who would “pass through a modern concourse, which is the only one of its kind in Africa”, along with a spacious lounge and restaurant, an eight-storey administration block which would house the Port Office and various other departments.

Under the terminal and administration block were extensive pre-cooling sheds for food and perishables. It was designed by MS Zakrzewski & Partners, with the main contractors being Roberts Construction Company and Consolidated Aluminium Industries Ltd.

The site, which changed the look of the T-jetty ‒ previously used for vessels under repair, also had a concrete expanse designed as a heliport.

In March 1962, the Daily News headline described the new Marine Terminal as “The Epitome of New Ideas”, describing it as “the most modern in the world”.

Construction details in various publications detailed: “About 7 000 miles of steel reinforcing, weighing 5 500 tons ‒ enough to stretch from Cape Town to London and beyond ‒ have been used in the construction of Durban’s ocean terminal. Excavation above the waterline amounted to about 32 000 cubic yards and 4 000 cubic yards of concrete were required. In all 12 000 cubic yards of brickwork were used.”

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It had 54 cooling tunnels with a capacity of more than 4 000 tons of foodstuff.

The terminal’s finishing touches included colourful mosaics, as well as metal sculptures and marble facing, with one publication saying: “Lovers of modern art and architecture will find the marine terminal a place of interest, for within its design is incorporated many unusual artworks.”

Travelling by ship was the most popular way to go overseas during the 1950s and ’60s, but as air travel grew in popularity, as well as rising fuel costs and containerisation, the grand mail ship era came to an end. After all, two jumbo jets could move all the passengers on one ship in 11 hours, not 11 days.

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According to an IOL story by Brian Ingpen, the first mail ship, the Union Steamship Company’s Danem arrived in Cape Town in October 1857, after a 44-day journey from Britain. So began a new UK-South Africa mail service which would last 120 years.

In 1900, Union and Castle Lines amalgamated, forming the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company that became a household name in South Africa.

Huge consignments of mail would arrive every week, with many businesses relying on the punctuality of the service and with letters and parcels filling post office vans across the country.

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A mail ship journey overseas would normally entail a two-week voyage across the sea, so leave from work at that time was normally a six- or eight-week period to allow for enough travel time.

As Ingpen writes, the voyage was a holiday in itself: “Even for those in cabin class, menus announced elaborate and delicious meals that were brought to the table in silver dishes and served with traditional courtesy.” Lounging on the deck by day with dances and entertainment in the evening, travel was far more relaxing in the bygone era.

Back to the future and the new cruise passenger terminal, a joint venture led by MSC Cruises SA, is scheduled to open for cruise ships at the start of the 2021/22 season.

MSC Cruise SA director Ross Volk confirmed this week the terminal would open “once sailing itineraries are agreed by the different cruise liners that will use the new facility”.

“We’re absolutely delighted that the new measures for tourism will allow cruise ships to operate in line with national health protocols and we are now awaiting eagerly for the government’s guidelines for the resumption of cruises for South African holidaymakers,” said Volk.

“We are working with different government bodies and we hope to make an announcement soon about our sailing schedule for 2021/22. The new Durban passenger terminal will substantially boost tourism numbers and make the city an even more desirable destination for cruise ships from all over the world.”

When the agreement for the new cruise terminal was signed in 2018, TNPA said that the global cruise industry was worth $126 billion a year, with 24.7 million passengers being transported in 2017.

The Covid pandemic brought cruise travel to an abrupt halt last year, but as lockdowns lift across the world, the luxury of cruising is back on the cards.

The Independent on Saturday