Africa never leaves you.
Once you’ve smelled the air, laid footprints in the red dirt, and caught a flaming hot pink sunrise you just want to go back and do it all over again.
Six months ago, I was lucky enough to spend more than a week in E Thekwini, or Durban, South Africa’s very own kingdom by the sea while filming host spots for a Nat Geo Channel documentary (see a sneak peek here).
Though my job affords me some terrific travel opportunities, Durban — a thumping and feverish city, smiling and alive with people, color, and bright lights — occupies a special place in my memory. I loved watching the ships pour in and out of the harbor while standing on the end of a beach jetty in the early morning, smelling the spices on the street, and catching the parade of surfers riding wave after wave.
No city is more African, more Indian, and more British than Durban. No city folds all three cultures into one with such magic, passion, and glamour. And no city offers the cast of characters that Durban does.
Even though I could rave about this city all day, these stood out as must-dos if you’re thinking about planning your own South African adventure:
- Eat a Bunny Chow. Durban’s deep-dish delight is a hollowed-out loaf of white bread filled with a steaming heap of spicy Indian curry. My favorite? The classic, extra-hot mutton button at the Britannia Hotel.
- Peace Out. Visit the Phoenix Settlement, the well-preserved homestead of Mahatma Gandhi, who began his long path to positive change at the edge of this hilly Durban township. Stepping inside the tiny house where such a great man lived and worked is incredibly moving.
- Rock the Township. Umlazi rivals Soweto as the largest township in South Africa. Come see how the locals live and witness firsthand how quickly the post-apartheid landscape has changed. For a seriously African meal, try the shisa nyama at Max’s Lifestyle, where the party lasts all night.
- Swim with Sharks. The city’s rugby team is called the Sharks for a reason. The Durban coast is a hotspot for many different shark species, most of which you can observe up close at uShaka Marine World, a terrific aquarium right off the beach. If you’re brave, you can swim among the fierce-looking “Raggies” (ragged-tooth sharks) in a glass cage.
- Have a Cuppa. Feeling posh? Make time for tea time at the Oyster Box in Umhlanga, an extraordinary seaside hotel next to a historic red-and-white-striped lighthouse. Before indulging in the ridiculously rich spread, work up an appetite by body surfing on one of the great beaches just north of the city.
- Find Luck. Durban’s Muti Market is a chopping, stirring, shouting kind of marketplace for traditional African healing — from medicinal tree bark to amulets containing python parts. Come for the spectacle alone or take the time to learn about age-old healing practices. But remember: this is no tourist attraction but an actual working, indigenous pharmacy. Make sure to ask before photographing anything or anyone.
- Get High. Ride to the top of Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban’s football epicenter during the 2010 World Cup, to take in the best view of the city and outlying townships. Take the thrilling Skycar or (even more thrilling) walk up 550 steps suspended in mid air. The fastest way back down? Bungy jumping right down into the stadium.
- Pay Tribute. In 1994, during the first open, free, and democratic elections in South Africa, Nelson Mandela chose to cast his vote at the Ohlange Institute, the nation’s first African-run educational institute. For a better understanding of the price of freedom and the long road to African liberation, visit this historic site as you make your way around the Inanda Heritage Route.
- Spice Up Your Life. Liven your kitchen with a shopping trip to Victoria Street Market, where you can find a crazy collection of spices from around the world. My own kitchen is now stocked with saffron, curry powders, cardamom, and super-hot peri peri that I picked up in Durban. The nearby bead market is also not to be missed.
- Learn Zulu. Practice your sanibona! (hello) and siyabonga (thank you) in the heart of Zululand. Durban’s Zulu nation is one of the oldest and most established in South Africa with longstanding traditions that make this 21st-century city entirely unique.