Fashion notes for the police along the Durban beachfront this summer are funny blue hats, high-geared mountain bicycles and smiles. The police weave among the strollers and swoop down the lawns, among the bikini-clad women, showing lots of teeth.
Their hats have nothing to do with the old-style bobby’s helmet; they are flat and pulpy and perch on the very top of the head. They look like iridescent pancakes. The guns strapped to their haunches are big. They wave walkie-talkies and communicate in a staccato rattle. Probably they are ordering stir-fries from Num-Nums.
The police have taken to bicycles, successfully it seems, to keep thugs, who were ripping off visitors and mugging gawkers, at bay.
On a sunny day huge crowds toss any thought of danger out of their minds. There are thousands of parking places near the beach but they are all full.
The beachfront has gradually changed over the years so you wouldn’t recognise it but for the spray from the sea which still smells the same.
Durban is the busiest port in Africa. Lonely freighters loll about beyond the breakers waiting in turn to offload bulk cargoes. Forlorn sailors probably eye the beach women through binoculars. There are lots of tops around but few women are going topless. Maybe a group will start and then there will be a rush. Just beyond the breakers big yachts cavort. Their crews have their own women with them.
Behind the beach the Golden Mile hotels have a jagged splendour. There is a distinctive architectural style. Does it remind one, say, of Rio?
Sadly, the majestic empress of the coast, the famous Edward Hotel — Durban’s Mount Nelson — is temporarily closed. It is being refurbished and will reopen, in time, resplendent with five stars. Who said refurbished? There are cranes dangling out of huge gaping holes in the side of the building. This is not just touching up. It looks like total reconstruction.
Meanwhile, a fashion note for male hand-ball players is that ponytails are in, preferably blond.
Among the hundreds of flea market stallholders nearby are two charmers from Zaire. They speak with a lilting French accent. One of the women explains the figurines for sale are very old. She says they are “very mysterious with special stories, the price is R250”. She adds immediately: “The price is discussable.” She smiles winningly.
Another fashion note: knitted bikinis are in.
There are dozens of fast-food restaurants along the beach, but it is difficult to find a really good curry. A good bet is at the mouth of the Blue Lagoon, a little to the north … However, the owners are strictly Muslim so they not only decline to serve wine or beer with their food, but they refuse point blank to let you take your own. The way to overcome this is to buy their curry in little take-away parcels and picnic on the beach. Cheers.
Then, absolutely new this year, is the Bat Centre near the small boat harbour alongside Durban Bay. Choose the right day and watch the sun set over the water, sipping whatever you like on the balcony alongside Funky’s restaurant, an establishment created by Lou Gottini. He wears a ponytail, too.
His grilled kob, or other linefish, served with savoury rice or with crisp fresh chips, is outstanding. So is his curry.
Two women of Indian descent concoct a magic potion with a multitude of spices in the back. It comes to your table in little three-legged, cast-iron pots. Rice is served separately in its own pot. There is traditional mutton curry, prawns and vegetable curry. One way to go is to share a starter — calamari salad, say — then share a curry.
Incidentally, several of the little streets leading to the Esplanade beside the bay have interesting and often excellent eateries. In Albany Grove, near the Playhouse theatre complex, there is O’Pescador. The big prawns are very good and so is the chicken peri-peri. Portuguese cooking, via Mozambique, has transplanted very well to Durban. The climate, perhaps? There is Portuguese “green” wine available.
But if you want a change from the sometimes fetid humidity of the coast, take a casual drive along the Old Main Road inland (you go west towards Johannesburg on the N3 but turn off at the big toll-road sign, towards Pinetown).
Don’t go into Pinetown, drive up Field’s Hill (notorious for accidents in wet weather) and into the lush foliage first of Kloof and Gillitts, then take a left towards Hillcrest. You are in a different world. Carry on through Botha’s Hill and you can give Cabrito’s Bistro a try in the Fainting Goat building or, further on, turn left and have a pub lunch in the gardens of the Chantecler Hotel.
But one of the very best is in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. The Valley View Restaurant is fine for teas and a fabulous view but, just further, among a string of historic old buildings (The Old Butcher’s House, The Postmaster’s House, The Stationmaster’s House) is Malbre’s. The setting is glorious and the food is mainly exquisite, delicate and presented with utter professional pride.