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Published: April 6th 2023
The journey from Reunion to Durban, South Africa is a three day sail. The sea day routine reestablishes itself. Lectures, art classes, meals and evening entertainment. Perhaps the best evening (and it is a close call) is provided by The Four Harps, a group of four Irish male singers (although one seems to come from England for all his ginger beard and green jacket, he even describes himself as a “plastic paddy”). They have the audience joining in several rousing singalongs, Wild Rover etc.
But it is not all endless pleasure, oh no. We experience real hardship as comes inevitably to all seafarers. I am sitting in the lounge reserved for World Cruise travellers when a woman comes in and looks upset. “There’s no ice cream in the machines”, she wails. It appears the ship has run out of whatever it is they put into the self service ice cream dispensers, think Mr Whippy machines. Now this is serious and suggests that we are only one short step away from hunger, starvation and possible cannibalism! The sense of underlying concern is strengthened the following day when it emerges that fresh grapefruit are no longer available. I assume these vital provisions will be restocked at Durban, Port Elizabeth or most likely Cape Town. Anyway now you have a deeper comprehension of the deprivations we are going through, much, I imagine as Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and other long distance navigators endured in earlier days. (Happily supplies of fillet steak and lobster tails are currently holding out so the weevils are safe for the moment.)
Eventually despite our travails we wash up in Durban, the biggest port in Africa we are told with 80+ berths. We can see two enormous car carriers that look like vast buildings that have been laid on their side and had a slightly pointier bit put on the front. There are thousands of cars waiting to be loaded and it seems that the process goes on all day while we are in the port.
Immediately adjacent to us is a Chinese vessel, with innumerable ariels as well as four huge satellite dishes. The captain refers to it in several public addresses as “the expensive Chinese spy ship next door.” I am sure he is mistaken and the good ship Tik Tok (probably crewed by people from the Huawei Corporation) is an innocent fishing boat. But he is probably right in saying it’ll have better internet than us.
Regardless, after going through the necessary immigration process we get on our coaches for the tour of Durban we have booked. Local dancers and bands are playing for us and people seem genuinely pleased to see us. That is nice, but needs to be balanced by the dire warnings about the prevalence of violent crime and how we should stick together and not have anything of value on show.
We drive through the city. Streets names are a strange mix of obvious colonial heritage (Southampton Street) and ones which have been renamed for liberation heroes (Joe Slovo Street). While the main roads are 6 lanes wide traffic is no faster moving than normal in a large city and many areas seem to be running down, with semi derelict buildings, broken windows etc.
We see several large colonial buildings including the two city halls and the main railway station. The guide tells us that the architect of the railway station also designed a station for a major Canadian city. The parts for both stations were fabricated in the UK then shipped to their respective destinations. In the first winter the roof of the Canadian station collapsed under the weight of snow. It transpired that the two countries had received the others station. The one we were looking at is designed to hold 80 tons of snow on the roof, which is useful given that the average winter temperature is 10c.
The first stop is the Botanic Gardens, always our favourite destination. The guide is extremely knowledgeable and walks us through assorted collections. The gardens have been ravaged by floods and storms over the last twelve months and are not looking their best, but they are still a placid restful place with pelicans roosting in some of the trees.
We move onto a view point over the city. As you increase in height the value of the buildings increase because it is cooler. The view point is a reservoir and almost at the highest point of the city. The surrounding houses are large, perimeter walls are draped with electric wire / razor wire fences, have warning signs that they are protected by armed private security companies and in a fair number of cases have a uniformed security man sitting by the front gates. It seems crime really is an issue. A distinct contrast to the centre of the city with its far less affluent feel.
Our guide takes us to a large and extremely impressive football stadium which was built for the 2010 World Cup. He has previously mentioned the problem of rampant corruption, in this case he points to the equally large rugby stadium which already existed, immediately next door to the football venue. He tells us FIFA insisted on a new stadium as the rugby stadium seating was too steep for football fans (??!?). He suggests that a corrupt sporting organisation with a corrupt nation government saw the opportunity to make some private gain. Regardless the stadium was built. As part of the design it has one of those arch’s that rise over the roof and pitch which seem popular in sports stadia. A rack and pinion railway rides up the arch to give stunning views from the top. Well I say that, the railway broke down and there was no money to repair it, so small shrubs are now growing on the track.
The stadium is not suitable for rugby, cricket, athletics or any other sporting activity. So the only source of income is from those attending football matches. It seems football is “a black man’s game” and as such the tickets are priced very cheaply (to allow the supporters to attend). All this means that the stadium is not even covering it’s maintenance costs, hence the broken railway etc. regardless it seems to sum up some of the problems, corruption and a still obvious divide between white and black populations.
We finish up with a drive along the extensive seaside esplanade. Hotels fronting onto a boulevard which then meets the beach and sea. Assorted pleasure facilities are clearly visible and without doubt it could be a great place to have a holiday but for us there is still the underlying concerns over safety.
It is absolutely unfair to say we saw all that there is to see in Durban, you can only view so much in a single day. But we saw much of interest. It is unfortunate that the chilling warnings we have been given for a number of days before arriving (which have specifically said Durban is particularly dangerous even in the context of South Africa) inevitably colours your attitude. We have been to South Africa before and have never had any issues, but then we have always followed the guidance and advice and intend to do so this time as well.
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