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London is a city I believe I know pretty well. I’ve caught many a tube, prefer the buses when there’s time, and have spent hours on foot.
I’d relegated the Hop-on, Hop-off London Bus sightseeing tour to your run-of-the-mill tourist (not me!) until I went there a few years ago with a Californian friend who’d never visited the UK. He had only four days. A tour bus seemed a good idea.
And it was. I probably learnt as many new things as he did. And it made me a city bus convert. I seek them out now and pretty unhesitatingly jump on in both familiar and unfamiliar cities.
So why not Durban?
Or maybe I should rather say, what took me so long to board Durban’s double-decker Ricksha Bus? I saw it for the first time last year during the World Cup when I returned after some long years spent in California.
Who could miss it, wending its way along the Golden Mile, moseying down Florida Road, or stopped at The Cube on Innes Road, with people spilling out to get scenic shots of the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
And a history, geography and sociology lesson on Durban via the art that features on The Cube, it turns out, is something you need to catch the bus to know.
I did, finally, hop aboard – during the Indaba this year when it was offered as an optional media activity.
Do yourself a favour. You think you know Durban? Invest the R50 for adults; R20 for pensioners. And take your visitors. It’s worth it.
Tour guide Khetha Mkhize is a bit of a joker, as the better tour guides tend to be. You want to be entertained and not lectured, right? He starts by giving us an overview of what’s in store, from beachfront to burbs. “We’re going to see almost the whole city of Durban,” he says.
“You can eat on the bus and you can drink on the bus – anything except alcohol. And no smoking is allowed; if you have to, you can during our two five-minute stops.”
And, he adds, there is a toilet downstairs “that you can use for emergency purposes. And for Number 1 only. Not for Number 2 or 3.” Ha ha.
As we set off, Mkhize darts up and down the stairs so he can share his guided tour with those sitting more sedately inside the bus, and our open air group, able to jump about and move around to take photos and videos as he points things out.
So what are some of the things we hear and what do we see on our tour? To share a brief 12 snippets from my notes:
• The population of South Africa is about 49 million. Of these, there are about 10 million people living in KwaZulu-Natal and 3.6 million people living in the eThekwini municipality (Durban metropolitan area).
• The Golden Mile, with its residential and rental apartments and hotels – stretching from South Beach to the Suncoast Casino and Entertainment World in the north – is so named because of the golden sand and the colour at sunset. (I would add “and at dawn”. Enthusiastic Durbanites make a point of piping up and adding to the commentary.)
• The ricksha came to Durban from Japan, introduced in 1893 by sugar pioneer Sir Marshall Campbell after a trip to Japan.
• South Africa has 11 official languages. English is the most widely spoken followed by Zulu.
• The Beach Hotel is the oldest on Durban’s beachfront.
• The design of uShaka Marine World was inspired by a Zulu homestead and has the tallest water slides in Africa. (Mkhize’s statement that polygamy is a part of Zulu culture and a man can take up to 10 wives if he can afford them draws gasps.)
• The aquarium at uShaka is the biggest in Africa and the fifth biggest in the world.
• The Victoria Bar on Mahatma Gandhi Road (formerly Point Road) is one of Durban’s oldest bars and now a heritage site.
• Durban has the largest container terminal in Africa and the busiest harbour, although not the biggest.
• Driving up Margaret Mncadi Avenue (the old Victoria Embankment) we hear the John Ross story and the Dick King story.
• And turning into Anton Lembede Street (formerly Smith) as we approach the City Hall and Frances Farewell Square where, says Mkhize, we can get to see a young and pretty Queen Victoria (the statue), we hang out of the bus and cheer a street brawl.
• The Juma Masjid Mosque on Dr Yusuf Dadoo (formerly Grey Street) is the biggest mosque in the southern hemisphere.
• The art at The Cube gave scope for tour guides Khetha Mkhize and Bongani Motaung to share information that ranged from facts and figures on the Shembe religion to the origins of bunny chow in Durban. Oh, and I had forgotten that the city has a cycling track in the sporting hub that centres on the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
The day the World Cup started last year an artist friend and I were on Durban beachfront. The ricksha pullers were out in force, hoping the big-tourism expectations would extend to them. They weren’t having much luck.
“You ever had a ricksha ride?” my friend asked.
“Years ago,” I replied.
“I haven’t. Let’s do it,” she said.
And then we had a debate. How could we sit there like two Madam Mucks and let a grown man pull us down the street? We almost didn’t, but when the umpteenth guy solicited us, we succumbed.
And giggled all the way. Albeit feeling uncomfortable.
I hope lots of tourists and children – and any local who has never done it – go and ride in a ricksha so this old Durban tradition continues and keeps these guys in business.
But I’ll stick to the Ricksha Bus.
• There are two Ricksha Bus city tours a day, seven days a week. Tour times are 9am to noon and 1pm to 4pm. Children under 5 free. Booking and departures from 40 Boscombe Place behind the Garden Court. Call 031 368 1253. - Sunday Tribune