Experiencing All Walks of Life in One Day in Durban (Hectic Route Day 5)

In Day 5 of our Johannesburg to Cape Town road trip, the Hectic Route, we experience every spectrum of South Africa's society—from the very poor and terrifyingly criminal to the ostentatiously rich—in our one day in Durban.

Ladies balancing stuff on their heads at Warwick Market
Ladies living a balanced life. And why is there a pool table on the sidewalk?

Market Morning to Begin Our One Day in Durban

After a non-eventful 3-hour-20-minute drive from the Drakensberg's Cathedral Peak Hotel (where we'd spent two awesome days), we arrived at Durban's Victoria Market just in time for the 9:30 a.m. Markets of Warwick tour.

We had yet to visit any of the less-glamorous (i.e. poor) parts of South Africa and this tour seemed like a good way to do so. Plus, we were curious to see how the markets here compared to those in Latin America and Asia.

Our guide, Lihle, seemed perfect for the job. A long-time owner of a beauty salon right in the middle of the market, she had all the on-the-ground perspective we could've hoped for.

There was just one problem:

We had a hard time understanding each other.

Maybe it's our Canadian accent, but most of the time she'd answer our questions with completely unrelated answers. By the middle of the tour, we gave up and just followed her silently.

Guy eating cow's head at Warwick Market
This guy made me take a photo of him eating cow's head.
Produce market at Warwick Markets
We wish there was a produce market like this in downtown Cape Town.

Despite the communication let-down, the two-and-a-half hour tour (100 rands each) was worth it. We saw (and felt and smelled) some unusual products—like traditional wedding gear, all sorts of dead animal parts used for healing, and fried cow heads—and gained a slightly better understanding of the side of South Africa us wealthy tourists are normally shielded from.

Lime balls at Warwick Market
Balls of lime that students studying traditional medicine cover their bodies with while training.
Fried dough balls at Warwick Market
Dough balls. Surprisingly dense and heavy and surprisingly good for just 5 rands.
Cabbage for sale at Warwick Market.
As you can see, we had a "ball" touring Warwick Market.

Very Dis-Durban

Note to self (and readers): When driving from the Warwick Markets to Durban's Golden Mile beachfront, take the scenic route along the water and avoid the back streets as much as possible.

If you disregard this advice, you'll have a disturbing and appetite-squashing drive through the crumbling buildings, extreme poverty, drug dealers, and prostitutes.

And you might even see something worse, like we did.

While driving down Mahatma Gandhi Road, a white SUV ahead of us swerved into the lane to our right and screeched to a halt to cut off the car behind it. Then, as we cruised by no more than a few meters away, curious to see what was going on, a well-dressed young Indian gangster got out of the SUV, calmly pull a gold-plated pistol from his waistband, and approached the driver.

We sped ahead, in complete shock.

It was like a scene from a movie…

…One we definitely didn't want to stick around to see the ending of.

We couldn't stop thinking about it, and how things can go from commonplace to life-or-death, as we ate lunch only three blocks away at Surf Riders, a California-style beachfront burger shack on Durban's relaxed, heavily-policed Golden Mile.

Same City, Different World

After lunch, we checked into our absolutely fantastic studio Airbnb (this one), chatted with super-host Nicole, then took her advice to go for a drink at the 5-star Oyster Box hotel in Umhlanga.

At Oyster Box, where rooms start at 6,200 rands a night, we marveled at the decadent display of desserts at the 365-rand high tea, considered returning for the 100-rand "Evening Indulgence", which included some of the same plus a fruit cocktail and limitless sparkling wine, then went up to the Lighthouse Bar for craft beers overlooking the sea.

High tea at the Oyster Box Hotel.
Elegant high tea at the Oyster Box Hotel.

What a difference from this morning, when we bought 5-rand donut balls from a lady who pays 600 rands a month in rent.

We sure were grateful to have the opportunity to experience (and afford) both.

Chris and Kim in front of Lighthouse in Umhlanga
A photo of the lighthouse is obligatory if you visit Umhlanga.

Durban Delights

Though we'd been told Umhlanga was the nicest part of Durban, we walked around a bit and couldn't find anything nice about it.

Sure, compared to the area with the gun-toting gangster it was Eden, but it seemed like a poorly-planned American-style highrise suburb full of malls and chain restaurants (even a Hooters, which our server at Oyster Box said was his favorite restaurant).

Umhlanga did at least have a decent selection of restaurants (aside from Hooters). We settled on a casual one, fish, that Sam van der Riet, from the family that owns the Cathedral Peak Hotel, recommended.

Both Kim and I wanted the calamari and hake platter but couldn't decide on grilled or fried, so we ordered both and split them. The fried was alright, but the grilled killed it. The sauce was scrumptious and the squid and fish perfectly cooked. It wasn't nearly as big as the same dish we'd had a couple weeks ago at the Brass Bell in Kalk Bay (near Cape Town), but the flavor was better.

Hake and calamari platters from fish restaurant in Umhlanga
Both calamari and hake platters from fish were good, but the baked one was the best.

Then, since we only had one day in Durban and had yet to try the city's signature dish, bunny chow, we stopped by Capsicum to pick one up. Bunny chow is South Africa's version of the Tim Horton's bread bowl, but with a spicy curry instead of chili poured into a hollowed-out square bread instead of a round roll.

Close up of bunny chow
This bunny chow is just as comforting and messy as it looks.

And, just like the Timmy's fave, the bunny chow proved to be an unspectacular but satisfying comfort food. A comfort we needed after a crazy up-and-down day.

Back in the relaxing confines of our Airbnb studio, we felt one day in Durban hadn't been enough to get a good feel for the city, but we also felt we'd seen enough and were glad to move on.

Quick Tips:

  • Schedule your Markets of Warwick tour in advance. The easiest way is to WhatsApp Chantal at +27 (0)71 325 0167. You then pay the guide in cash (100 rands each) after the tour.
  • Parking for the Markets of Warwick Tour is cheap and secure, but tricky to find. Here's the street view and location on Google Maps.
  • Stay at Nicole's Airbnb if you're looking for a great-value, comfortable studio apartment with secure parking in a decent location. Here's the listing.

Next Up (Hectic Route Day 6):
Escaping (un-)civilization on the long drive to the Wild Coast

Man, goat, road, and rondavels

How to Have an Even Better South Africa Road Trip than Ours

South Africa Road Trip Planning tips cover image of a sign saying bon voyage in xhosa
"Hamba kakuhle" means "bon voyage" in Xhosa.

For everything from safety tips to how to find the best rental car to what our absolute favorite experiences are, check out our South Africa road trip tips.

Disclosure: Whenever possible, we use links that earn us a cut if you pay for stuff we recommend. It costs you nothing, so we'd be crazy not to. Read our affiliate policy.

What do you think? (Leave a Comment.)