During the last five minutes of our flight to Durban, the man in the next seat and I were talking about its tourist attractions.
"There’s uShaka Marine, of course," he said. "Then you’ve got the Snake Park, the beaches, the bay, the harbour and the Yacht Basin – oh, and the City Hall and the Indian market… How am I doing?"
"Not bad, I said, "but you’ve left out the most memorable feature.""Oh," he said, "what’s that?"
"'The arcades," I replied.
"What?" he said, staring.
"It’s true," I said. "Durban’s arcades are out of this world."
He gave me the look that people reserve for eccentrics, fanatics and placard carriers. Then we were coming in to land, so I couldn’t explain why I loved arcades, any arcades, but especially Durban's.
Visitors who start at the City Hall, usually first go round the back into Samora Machel (Aliwal) Street to see another attraction not mentioned by my flight companion – the Local History Museum. Fascinating as this is, if they had only turned the other way, towards Dorothy Nyembe (Gardiner) Street, and walked a few steps further on, they would have found themselves in arcade-land.
There are 24 arcades in the central shopping area, not counting the many lanes and open passageways.
The true arcade is either completely covered in, or has archways and overhanging balconies, as in Madressa Arcade. I believe to qualify, an arcade should also have an entrance at either end, it should lead somewhere. An arcade is never an end in itself.
Why has Durban so many? To answer that, we’ll have to go back 178 years or more. Of the several men who had a hand in the city’s layout, George Cato drew the original plan in 1840. He chose the only area close enough to the bay, and dry enough to be built on. He had been told that the two main thoroughfares, Smith and West streets, were each to be 18m wide.
But Cato was having none of this. He increased the width of each to 30m, "so as to allow a span of oxen to turn round easily". But the two streets were only 90m apart anyway. The result was – long narrow blocks with very few cross-streets.
Another reason for central Durban’s elongated shape was the "military reserve" inland, of what were later called Soldiers Way and Monty Naicker Road (Pine Street). This so-called "ordnance land" prevented Durban’s development in a northwards direction for years to come.
So these oddities of planning resulted in an ideal excuse for introducing arcades. It is to the credit of Durban’s property developers that they have, over the years, built more and more of these pedestrian paradises.
Barend van Niekerk, in his Durban At Your Feet – An Alternative Guide To A City, put up a very strong case for the arcade system to be extended.
He envisaged a further maze of inter-connecting passageways between Field Street (now Joe Slovo), Gardiner Street (now Dorothy Nyembe) and West Street (now Dr Pixley KaSeme). Sadly, this was not to be. But what we’ve got is still pretty good…
Obviously, the greatest attraction of arcades is their exclusiveness for pedestrians. This feature, as rare as gold in most cities of the world, results in their being unpolluted and leisurely. You can saunter or loiter as you will, free of the rush to reach a traffic light before it turns red, and free of the need to dodge turning vehicles.
With the freedom from fumes and traffic noise comes, too, the bonus of being usually unaffected by extremes of weather. One finds one’s sense of smell returning.
Each shop has its own aroma in pleasantly surprising contrast, from coffee to carpets, from herbs to haberdashery, from Indian spices to incense. Each arcade has its own special charm, and some are steeped in history.
The usual entrance to Mutual Arcade is on the site of Acutt’s Mart, where in 1855 the first sugar grown in Natal was auctioned. The northern arm of this arcade comes out into what was West Street near where the Wesleyan Church stood until recent years.
The formerly Gardiner Street entrance to Trust Arcade is on the site of George Potter’s Saddlery Shop, which he had built from pieces of the ship, Minerva, wrecked off the harbour in 1850.
Madressa Arcade has quaint archways, linked balconies, and brightly hued cloth sunshades over its shopfronts.
Further towards the other end of the block, Murchie’s Passage is on the site of the alley named after Alexander Murchie, who emigrated from Scotland in the 1850s and set up his fresh produce business on that spot, with his stables next door.
Old Well Court in Anton Lembede (Smith) Street marks the site of Buffalo Spring, an important source of fresh water for the settlers and visiting ships until 1860. The arcade at what was 320 West Street replaced the old Castle Arcade, demolished in 1968. This had been built on the site of the house of Dr Charles Johnstone, one of Durban’s first medical men and a member of the first town council elected in 1854.
The 320 Arcade is interesting on account of its 22 huge mosaics in glazed tiles depicting Durban’s life and history, the work of Mary Liebermann and Anne-Marie Maresch.
Sanlam Arcade is on the site of the original Brittania Inn, where Central Hotel stood in later years. This, the lowest point in West Street, was described by George Russell in his History of Old Durban as being "nothing better than a tidal swamp in 1850".
In complete contrast, the arcades of the Grey (Dr Yusuf Dadoo) Street area offer a glimpse of Durban’s past in a colourful oriental setting. Madressa Arcade has quaint archways, linked balconies, and brightly hued cloth sunshades over its shopfronts.
The name, Madressa, comes from an Arabic word meaning "a place to learn".
Ajmeri arcade is low-ceilinged and cacophonous with amplified Indian music. The shopkeepers, always friendly, yet never obtrusive, encourage browsing by allowing their wares to overflow on to the pavement in kaleidoscopic variety.
The Nufield Arcade in Dr AB Xuma Street (Commercial Road) is more restrained in character, yet its shops display an unrivalled range of Indian and Oriental curios, art-work, and bric-a-brac of all descriptions.
We must not neglect Durban’s open lanes. Mercury Lane and Mark Lane are connected to the arcade system by passages, and except that they are open, overhead, to the weather, are equally attractive to the pedestrian. And there are many lanes.
Allister Macmillan summed up the thoughts of many when he wrote, in the mid 1930s:
“…The little lanes of Durban have stores of tiny size,
But big in public favour for varied merchandise,
As dainty meats and pastries and jewellery and flowers,
And bags and shoes and saddles for glad divergent hours.
Say, do you want a Bible, a clock or watch and chain,
A baby’s wicker basket or any work of cane,
A realistic photo or something for your eye?
The little lanes of Durban can all these things supply.
I wish the present highways were as they used to be,
Before the petrol engine was shipped across the sea.
I much prefer the byways that keep out motor-cars,
And have inviting tea-rooms and cheery, cosy bars…”
The day after my return to Durban, this last line was in my mind as I approached a group of chairs under their decorative umbrellas. I was hailed by the man who had been my flight companion. Almost before I had sat down at his table, he said enthusiastically: "Aren’t Durban’s arcades out of this world?"
l Coyne is a Durban-based author and has published several books, some with a historical slant, such as A Guide to South African Mountain Passes and Poorts and a collection of short stories, The Flying Lady.