Yes – the picture above is John. He is dangling from the top of the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
Durban is our second vacation in Africa. One of our PCV friends found a super cheap trip with a total cost of $250US to spend 4 days and 3 nights in Durban. The transport and the hotel checked out and the price was too good to say no.
Seven of us decided to go: Dana, Finda, Adam, Karla, Kristen, me and John
John and I were quite familiar with the concept of “you get what you pay for”; but we had no other plans and the group was a fun one.
Transport: The 6:00 AM departure from Gaborone forces us to start our travels a day early so we could make the morning bus. A taxi to a hotel the night before and then again to the bus station (which was actually just a regular Gas Station) started our travels. The bus didn’t have heat or air and we froze the first 3 hours and then overheated the last 4 hours (7 hour bus ride from Gaborone to Johannesburg). We then spent 6 hours on a layover in Johannesburg. Then we were scheduled for a 12 hour overnight train to Durban and finally a short 15 minute taxi to the hotel. But the train left 1.5 hours late and somehow arrived 3 hours behind schedule. So overall it took nearly 48 hours to travel about 600 miles! The return trip was the same thing. So 4 of the 7 days was rather uncomfortable traveling.
Besides the temperature issues the bus was comfortable for a bus – but 7 hours is a long ride. The overnight train was ok too. They had bedding and a dining car and acceptable service. But it will always be difficult to get a comfortable night sleep on a pull out vinyl bench with a rickety, loud train that stops every few hours.
In the beginning: One of our friends’ parents had come to visit her and we met them at the hotel in Gaborone. We got to hear their impressions of Africa. They had been here for two weeks and were planning to come back, but they made it clear, the return trip was to see their daughter more than revisit Africa. They cut down on the number of places to visit due to the discomfort of travel. Mr. Channis informed us the word “travel” is from the word “travails” – which I would not have understood until I came to Africa and found out how hard travel can be. I am truly starting to understand why people don’t travel much here.
John went to the hotel bar and asked for a beer until he heard it would cost 38P ($5); normally it is 8P ($1.5). John asked where the closest bottle (liquor) store could be found and the bartender said he would go to the bottle store for John if John would give him a tip. So John got 3 bottles of beer for 40P including a small tip! The bartender just left his job, went to the liquor store and brought the booze back in a brown bag, slipped it to John and went back to work in the bar. Business as usual.
The first 7 hours of country side scenery looked a lot like Botswana but a little more green and more terrain and mountains. Near the end we would start to see lots of farm land and it looked like Iowa – but there were hills and mountain and things were getting more and more pretty.
1st Stop – Johannesburg: Johannesburg is the biggest city in sub-Saharan Africa with a population of about 3.8 million. There are five languages spoken with the most spoken language, Nguni being spoken by only 37% of the population. English is the 3rd most spoken language with 17% speakers. The unemployment rate is 37%. The business district was busy like New York streets but only a short ways away it was more desolate like St. Louis streets. It reminded me of a mix of West Side Chicago with its big, once nice, buildings and St. Louis which was never that grand, but still run down. We had been warned by everyone that Johannesburg was exceptionally dangerous and we should be careful because it is likely we would be killed as soon as we got off the train.
However, when we stayed in the business district people were moving and nothing seemed very frightening. We stopped to enjoy our first McDonald since we left America and we liked the familiarity of the food and setting – but McDonald’s is still pretty uninspired, although we find it much more in our budget range now. We made our way down to the South African Brewery, which was opened by Nelson Mandela in 1994.
The South African Brewery is one of the biggest breweries in the world, and unbeknown to us, owns all the Miller products along with Peroni and Black Label and many others. The tour was very nice, discussing the meaning of beer in the African culture, and it lasted a couple of hours making our layover an educational experience.
We did notice a little more hustle in the workforce here than in Botswana. Back at the train station we stopped for a dinner and coffee which was half price if you ordered “in”. 15 minutes later, the food and the train arrived at the same time. So we ate in one minute and asked for to-go cups for our coffee. We were told by two people they didn’t have to-go cups (this is a train station food joint). John told them we would leave the ceramic coffee mugs we were using at the train and we left with the cups. The manager RAN about a block to catch us and tell us we couldn’t take the cups. If we came back with the cups they would give us to-go cups, which they did. I don’t know why there is such little value in customer service all over Africa – but I am glad to know someone will move and accommodate if you are going to leave with their nice coffee mugs.
When we woke in the morning we were still about an hour outside Durban and it was mostly picturesque beautiful. Rolling farmland and terraced cities up mountain sides, although occasionally we would see the shanty towns of thousands of extremely poor people living in wall to wall steal corrugated houses that were 10 x 10 with no water or electricity anywhere near.
Destination Durban: Finally we arrived around 11 AM instead of 7. Our hotel was very nice for the price. Since we came in the wintertime it was super cheap and rooms that normally cost $200 were going for $30. There was also an International Film Festival in Durban which our hotel was a part of, bringing interesting people to the hotel all day and night. It also had a free and incredibly good all-you-can-eat buffet each morning which had a choice of every breakfast item you can imagine. Its final glory is that it was right on the ocean with a very beautiful beach! The water was warm and even though it was winter it was in the 70’s during the day and the 60’s at night.
We fiddled around most of the afternoon walking along the sculptured promenade on the beach and seeing the sites around the beach area.
Durbin has about 3.5 million people. It is also considered a tourist hub in SA with its beautiful beaches. While only 9% of the South Africa is white and only 8.2% speak English, about 25% of Durban is white and everyone we spoke too could speak English. Durban also holds the highest number of Indians in a city outside of India. The largest tribe and most spoken language in the city (and the country) is Zulu. It was very diverse and we almost always felt safe. However, we were regularly warned to be very careful.
There is a new Casino there called Sun City. It is obvious it is trying to emulate Las Vegas casino’s with its large number of restaurants, movie theatres, and a spa. But in reality the ambiance is much closer to the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, Illinois. John noticed the Blackjack card shuffling machines were sealed so you could not know how many decks were inside and it was quite obvious that most of the face cards had been removed. This seems to be standard practise outside of the US casinos. There also were no craps tables and no side bets on the Roulette table.
It is much harder to make plans in Africa for things like theatres, tours or other events. There is little hotel help and what little is provided is usually wrong. There are rarely phone books or travel agencies. It also costs a dollar a minute to talk on the phone in Durban and the taxis are all prohibitively expensive. When there is limited communication and transportation it makes it much harder to find fun things to do and I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on something great. But we managed to have a good time anyway.
The beach area was very safe and filled with tourists. It felt a little like the lakeshore in Chicago. The Indian Ocean seems to be beautiful, inviting and relaxing everywhere in the world.
We were told there were a lot of fun things on “Florida” street – which did seem somewhat like Florida with several references to Cuba and lots of restaurants and lively bars. We found an antique bookstore and I bought an illustrated edition of “Out of Africa” which I would say is one of the best books I have ever read – especially now that I am reading it in Africa. We stopped at five or six restaurants and had an appetizer and tea at each one. Our favourite place was Taco Zulu which was totally packed. They served the biggest pizza in Durban (maybe the world) which were a meter wide.
Earlier we had tried to set up a tour and we couldn’t make it work, but the guy generously gave us advise on a great sushi place and a place to hear some good live music. The sushi was very good. The live music was only ok – but it was an environment that again reminded us of Chicago and was quite enjoyable. However, we were 30 years above the average age and left after an hour or so. We ended up at the Casino and lost nearly all our betting money on Roulette, but John won it back on the last play and we left literally even.
The next day was our “big” day as we planned to bungee jump from the Moses Mabhida stadium which is the really new cool stadium they build for the Soccer World Cup Championship in 2010. I have attached a video of my jump and some pictures of John’s jump (we couldn’t afford to pay for two videos). I know it looks like I passed out at the bottom – but I was only finally relaxing after spending the five most terrifying minutes of my life up there.
First they made you climb nearly 300 stairs with a cable attachment that had to be jerked up every 10 feet. By the time you got to the top you were almost too exhausted to be scared. But as soon as I started down that ladder – I found my fear well up from my stomach and sticking in my throat. I must admit I was terrified. But the men that “assist” have no empathy and yelled at me to “get on with it”. They tell you to stand at the edge and then they push your knees in from behind until you just fall. The whole jump lasts about 2 minutes. But the whole ordeal of getting there, getting suited up, “training”, climbing the steps, getting to the edge, jumping, being wrenched back up, descending the stairs and waiting for your video was about six hours, and really all that was for a mere 5 seconds of sheer terror. Afterwards we ended up at the beach for a bit followed by a long Sauna, nursing our sore leg muscles. John stayed in the Sauna so long he felt ill.
See the top cover pictures for final results.
Below are a few pictures of the most beautiful stadium I have ever seen –
Later that night we went to the number three rated restaurant in all of Durban, and ordered two appetizers including one made from bone marrow. I thought it would be better than it was – it tastes just like bone marrow. We also ordered a traditional African dish as our main meal, only to find 15 minutes later that they were out of it. Most restaurants only have half or less of what is listed on the menu available. This seems to be an African thing in general. We slept very well that night.
The next day we went to the Ushaka Aquarium which is not near as nice as the Shed Aquarium in Chicago but is considered the main attraction in Durban. Our friends went into a shark tank that went under water so you could get a bird’s eye view of the sharks – but the water felt too cold for us, and on our limited funds we only wanted to do things we think will be completely enjoyable. We did find another really good sushi restaurant, and enjoyed one of our favourite foods once again!
The last day was the best. We finally hooked up with the tour guide and he took us around to all the historical sites, parks, capital, markets and the harbour. There were a couple of highlights including a “Traditional Healing Market”. We were not allowed to take pictures, but the guide said if we could do it without them seeing that would be ok. So here are a few pictures:
The pictures don’t do the market justice. There were all sorts of dried up, cut up animals, plants, tree barks, mortars, and mixtures of bones and leaves to sell for every ailment. These markets are specifically for voodoo and witchcraft and other “traditional” types of healing. The women vendors all had clay paints on their faces to “keep their skin soft”. My favourite picture below shows the primitive market contrasted against the modern city skyline above.
It is so strange to me, to see educated people who live in the same society that I do, believe in these types of remedies, cures, curses and spells – but it seems a very deep rooted part of a belief system. Most profess to be Christains and will also go to what I call “normal” doctors – but they cannot disconnect from this part of the culture. In some ways I can believe that it isn’t really that different than many Christian beliefs. If I want to analytically dissect truths; it may seem crazy to think God impregnated a virgin women who gave birth to someone who is 100% man and 100% God. (I could go on and on, but I will save that for another post.)
We also went to a market called Cows Head Market. They sell whole cow heads for meat and for pretty cheap. You go in and you can see them hammering, chiselling, and axing the cow heads apart to get every single scrap of meat. We were also banned from taking pictures here. However, when I agreed to sample the meat, with dumplings, John got permission to take my picture eating the meat. He snuck a few others – but missed all the good grisly pictures.
We also stopped by the Gugu Diamini park. Gugu Diamini was a resident of Durbin and was one of the first women to admit she was HIV positive when the country was making a strong effort to remove stigmatization and discrimination. After she made her public announcement she was beaten to death for having HIV/AIDS. Now there is a beautiful park memorial for her.
Later, we ended our tour at the harbour and saw some beautiful art at an Art Centre on the ocean front. This was one of the few moments I wished I had a paying job as there was some really attractive art that I would have loved to buy. My favourite pieces were made of antelope skin, where the hair had be scrapped off to paint the leather. The aminal hair became the human hair or part of the clothing. It was hard to see where the animal skin ended and the artist work began – it was beautiful.
We ended our trip seeing one of the films from the free films at the film festival (most films required a payment). Again – you get what you paid for – but at least we got to be a part of the festival.
Then we braced ourselves for the two day journey home and planned a full one day recovery.
It is always interesting to see new places and new things and learn something about another culture – but John and I both decided we will reconsider further travel – especially if it is just travel because it is cheap – because our aging bodies are just not willing to pay the price for these inexpensive vacations.
I have posted a few other pictures below. I will post the whole album on Facebook this weekend. You can enlarge any picture on this page by double clicking the picture if you are viewing the pictures from the web site.