The Natal Harbour Board offices. Pictures: Myrtle Ryan
The Natal Harbour Board offices. Pictures: Myrtle Ryan
Barista Siphiwe Ndebele at Cafe Velentino
Barista Siphiwe Ndebele at Cafe Velentino

Durban - How well do most of us really know the city in which we live? My mission was two-fold: to explore some of the architecture from another era, along the Point Waterfront area and Victoria Embankment, and to find out how tourists view Durban.

My first encounter fluffed out the feathers of civic pride. A mother and young son on holiday from Joburg said they found the people of Durban friendly and helpful.

The driver of the People Mover – where a R15 day pass allows the option to hop on and off, retrace steps and use buses on different routes – was smiling and friendly.

Having boarded near the SunCoast casino, I disembarked at the harbour entrance. Tape across the steps prevented anyone from climbing on to the small viewing platform, but see-through perspex meant there is still a view of ships passing up and down the passage into the Durban’s bay.

My companion for the day, The Itafa Amalinde Heritage Trust’s Guide to the History of Durban, was to prove invaluable, as I started down Mahatma Gandhi (Point) Road. According to the guide, Durban was a veritable social melting pot and the town’s Bamboo Square was one of the first informal settlements in the country.

Back in 1860 the railway line between Durban and the Point was the first in SA and Point railway station served as a terminus until 1927.

Looking spanking in a coat of white and blue paint, the Natal Harbour Board Offices was the first structure to catch my eye. Designed by Harbour Engineer Charles Crofts in 1902, with the crow’s nest facility added on to the roof in the 1930s, this building still stands proudly surveying the busy entrance to Africa’s busiest cargo port, and home to one of the largest and busiest container terminals in the southern hemisphere.

While there are many modern blocks of flats, it is the old structures and facades which still lure. On closer examination many are just a front – like some Hollywood ghost town. Behind the fascinating face, lies a derelict ruin. Even so, like a former beauty queen still gracious in old age, they have lost none of their ability to enchant.

Walking past some of them, I could almost feel the spirits of those who once worked and played here. It seems most of these tumbledown buildings will collapse long before they can be incorporated into future plans for the Point Waterfront.

In many parts of the world, old mining towns, gambling and dance halls, buildings from another era, all attract tourists in their droves. There is big money to be made in yesteryear, but our city has not yet really jumped on that bandwagon. The combination of modern attractions and vintage edifices Durban has to offer could be priceless.

The ghosts walked with me, as I continued strolling. At one point (78-104 Mahatma Gandi Road) I learned a group of fine buildings were originally built as offices in the Victorian and Edwardian periods for chandlers, shipping and coaling companies and agents. Extensive, now battered and derelict, warehouses were once the workhorses of this area.

The Gate Retiring Rooms (built in 1914, and so much more genteel than the name “toilets”) stand as a reminder to Victorian sensibilities on the callings of nature. A beautiful tiled mural still adds panache.

The busy Point enclave once housed the King’s Bond Store (1906) which was designed as a railway bond store, but never used as such; the Point Road railway station, and the Point Road Post Office.

What was once a crowning glory of the area was the beautiful Addington Children’s Hospital (1926). Originally funded by the citizens of Durban, it had courtyards, statues and mosaics. Now it’s a weeping sore. Interestingly, I noticed work being done to an adjoining building, and the area has been fenced off. Perhaps this princess will again don her glass slipper...

Circling back, I admired the face-brick structure of the elegant Docklands Hotel, and debated taking tea in its Wodka restaurant. However, not far away Cafe Valentino seemed more fitting for an outdoor cup of coffee.

Of course, it is the people we meet along the way that enhance any experience, and manageress Haseena Khan at Cafe Valentino told me her grandparents came to this country from Afghanistan, over 50 years ago. “My dad was a small boy at the time. I remember my grandparents being very strict,” said Haseena. “I had to wear punjabis, and there was no talking to guys.”

Barista Siphiwe Ndebele went about his coffee brewing with a smile. Hailing from KwaMashu, he said he had learned his trade at Ciro’s in both Johannesburg and Durban.

On past the canals, walkways, bridges and expansive lawns which are found near uShaka Marine World. Incidentally, it being school holidays, the water theme-world was bustling with throngs of people.

Durban ratepayers may rumble like semi-dormant volcanoes at the bail-outs it receives, but let’s face it, tourists expect added value when they visit, and uShaka is a major drawcard.

Outside, Okanda Mboki from Angola, who was taking his two sons to uShaka for the day, said “We only arrived yesterday, so we’ll see how people and places treat us.”

A couple of women who had hired cycles to explore the canal area mentioned they were from Pietermaritzburg, but found it confusing getting about, as parts were cordoned off with mesh netting. “Signage would be good,” they suggested.

The Old Vic Bar (1920) is still for sale. Nearby a tumbling water feature acts as a modern counterpart. The Seafarer’s Club and Residence (1903 and 1913) looked as though it has many a tale to tell.

Again boarding the bus, it was off to Margaret Mncadi Avenue (Victoria Embankment), with a pause to study the former Congregational Church on Samora Machel (Aliwal) Street dating back to 1903, and now housing a photographic studio.

On the embankment The Vasco Da Gama monument, unveiled on 9 August 1967 and presented to the city by the Portuguese Club of Natal, commemmorates the 5th centenary of the birth of this Portuguese navigator who named the area Terra da Natal.

Here Zama Mkhize and Zama Buthelezi were busy with their cameras. They said they were looking for work, but using the opportunity to explore.

At the Maritime Museum, I had a chat with 80-year-old Tex Lishman, who joined the navy in 1949, serving on the destroyers Jan van Riebeeck and Simon van der Stel until 1954, when he switched to the Merchant marine. An old sea-dog, he volunteers his services to keep things ship-shape.

A bust of another Portuguese explorer, Bartholomew Dias – all stern-jawed – gazes endlessly out over the harbour.

The Royal Natal Yacht Club, dating back to 1858, seemed a good spot to have lunch: a simple sandwich, served against the backdrop of containers, cranes, and with a slight sea breeze. Here I met Carol Ferguson and Marion Langlois, who said they are among the club’s “Goblet Girls”, a name given to those ladies who volunteer to help at many of the club’s functions – and so have the honour of taking their tipple from special silver goblets.

Several people were strolling along the road, complete with elegant old railings, to Wilson’s Wharf. At the wharf, groups of school children were queueing excitedly to join one of the harbour cruise boats.

By now I was hankering after a pina colada. The closest I know to this (without the alcohol) is a pineapple smoothie at Zac’s on the wharf. Happily imbibing, I watched the tide lap in, while admiring the pastel shades of the high-rise buildings along South Beach.

Walking back, I met Fatima Adam from Johannesburg, accompanied by her husband and sons Suhail, 2, and Neveel, 5. They, too, were hoping to join a harbour cruise. “Sometimes people just take places for granted,” said Fatima, mentioning how lucky Durbanites were to have such places on their doorstep.

In the old days, people visiting the embankment, would probably have taken a stroll in Albert Park and stopped for one of the famous double-thick milkshakes at the Tropicana restaurant. Nowdays, most people give the area a miss, believing it to be gang and drug-infested, so I hopped on board the People Mover Circle Line. As we drove past the park, I noticed lots of people enjoying a walk there. It looked clean and well-cared for.

On this particular bus, Miriam and Kamohelo Moreli, from Odendaalsrus, told me their small group had done something different each day. They were heading for the Moses Mabhida stadium.

The bus passed the cemetery in the city centre, where many famous former citizens of Durban lie buried. Around the Victoria Street Market, vendors were hawking colourful pieces of cloth, fruit and clothes. Another group boarded here, One of them, Iris Stoffels, told me they were from Oudtshoorn, and come to Durban once every year on a shopping spree.

Finally Mags Matlakane said they were enjoying the spirit of Durban, especially after the tensions in the Rustenburg area where she and her friends live.

A thought struck me. Someone who is feeling lonely can, for just R15, spend a day on the bus. They will find companionship and enjoy Durban in the process. - Sunday Tribune