King Shaka rules. Or not?

I’ve always loved landing at Durban international airport. The plane banks over the silt-stained ocean, vectors across the Bluff and drops into the industrial sprawl that tangles the city’s south in steel, asbestos and rust. You step out into heat, vivid green, and the high, aromatic tang of hydrocarbons.

Walk down the gangway in your suddenly too-warm clothes towards the low-slung terminal feeling tropical, cinematic and utterly transported from wherever you began. Inside the airport is banal but functional. It makes no pretence at architecture, but it seems to manage the passenger volumes it is asked to.

From here access to the city’s offices, and its beaches, is through a girdle of chemical plants, factories and urban decay, but it doesn’t take long before you are in the strangely dislocated centre, or speeding towards the fleshpots of the South Coast.

No longer. King Shaka International is R8-billion worth of shiny new kit on the other side of town. And it couldn’t be more different.

The fractal wrinkles of the Midlands are still there as the descent begins, and the wind-scuffed sea beyond, but now the captain feathers the wingflaps over green miles of sugarcane and taxis past farmers’ fields towards the looming block of the terminal building, with its glass-sheathed walkways pendant.

You are processed through corridors smelling of vinyl and porcelain through a shopping precinct to your car, which eases you on perfect tarmac through the as-yet-undeveloped Dube tradeport to the N2.

You are on the North Coast now, perhaps 10 minutes from Umhlanga, where the glass-and-steel cubes of post-industrial services firms erupt from forested dunes. There isn’t a smokestack in sight. Durban proper is another 20 minutes down the M4 where roadworks choke the traffic between the sea and the folded sails of the Moses Mabhida stadium.

Leaving King Shaka is remarkably easy. The departures hall is wide and spacious in the best international style and beyond the check-in there is the usual comfortable anonymity. Once you are in the terminal, you’ve left KwaZulu-Natal entirely ­- except for those sightseeing families, who will probably leave when the novelty wears off.

There are all kinds of questions to be asked of the new airport — whether it was needed at all and whether the location won’t exacerbate the drift north from the faded streets of downtown Durban.

There is no denying King Shaka is an impressive facility. Not many will mourn the fact that it’s so world-class that it is a placeless place, but if Durban gives way to suntanned North Coast sprawl, we’ll all be worse off.

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