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Bewitched by scenic South Africa in Chander Pahar?

Durban is quintessentially a Rainbow Nation city. Capital of KwaZulu Natal (KZN) and home to the Zulus and British descendants, it also houses possibly the largest Indian population in any city outside India. “The ships carrying Indian labour for the British sugar plantations started coming here from Madras and Calcutta in 1860,” said our bus driver Hassan Docra, whose grandfather had boarded a Durban-bound ship from Calcutta in 1911.

Durban is home to star batsman Hashim Amla, of Gujarati stock, but few know of the cricketers. “We love the Springboks — our rugby team,” smiles Kajol Bagwandeen, a TV actress and a fourth-generation Indian. Kajol’s latest serial is called Isidingo. “It’s in English but the title means ‘the need’ in Zulu and Xhosa.”

A view of the beach

The spectacular beach has been developed as an entertainment zone. Boys play beach volleyball or create sand sculpture on the sandy stretch, while joggers and skaters abound on the adjacent wide promenade. Colourful rickshaws pull people on joyrides. There are toilets and showers intermittently for bathers. Kids flock to the skating rinks and swimming pools. And on the pavements, ornaments of African beadwork and wood carvings are being made and sold. “The city got a makeover when we hosted the (soccer) World Cup in 2010. Durban takes pride in its sporting culture,” said Paul Railton, a local videographer, pointing to stadia for football, cricket and rugby, golf courses and cycling tracks on the way.

A Gandhi statue unveiled at the centenary celebrations of the Phoenix Settlement in 2004

Deep sea encounters

A long walk along the beach takes us to Africa’s largest aquatic theme park, uShaka Marine World. The central exhibit is a wrecked ship, which houses sea horses to sharks. For good money, one can wear diving gear and watch deep sea creatures from up close from inside an iron cage suspended in the giant saltwater aquarium. There are also dolphin, penguin and seal shows, Africa’s highest water slide and a lagoon where one can snorkel with guaranteed visibility. Not being a fan of creepy crawlies, I stayed away from the snake park. The inmates looked cute on the racks of the memento shop, though.

Off to The Bush

The Bush. That’s what they call the game reserves out here, I learnt, as we undertook a three-hour ride from Durban. And it was only on reaching Hluhluwe Game Reserve that I realised why. The trees are so scattered that only the bushes offer any cover. “It is one of the three Big Five reserves in KwaZulu-Natal,” said Mawande Bantwini, the KZN Tourism official travelling with us. Big Five? Lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros!

After a night at Ubizane Wildlife Reserve ending in a traditional Boma dinner under a starlit sky, we set off at dawn. “Do not get off the jeep. Even if we don’t see the lions, they can see us. For them, we are meals on wheels,” warned our driver Vernon. A solitary rhino was grazing by the road. “That’s a granddad. He can’t sniff lions, can’t fight other males, can’t make babies. So he’s been kicked out of the herd,” Vernon scoffed. But grandmoms, being baby-sitters, are retained.

Then, a rhino couple and a baby. “That’s a 3kg horn on the mother. To a poacher that looks like $60,000,” Vernon quipped. The black market rate is $20,000 per kg. “The rate has shot up after some idiot declared he could cure cancer with rhino hair.” We had seen a rhino skull preserved at the reception of our lodge. Christened Butch, he had fallen to poachers in 2011.

Far off, a hill seemed to be dotted with black. “That’s a herd of buffaloes.” There were hundreds of them! Giraffes, zebras, impalas... the place was throbbing with wildlife. But Vernon got more excited on spotting a dung heap on the road. “Notice the fresh hay in the poop. Wild dogs made a kill just a few hours back.” A skull lay on the faraway grass. “That’s the remains of a giraffe. A lion hunted it a month back. Once he had his fill, the hyenas came. Then the vultures. A tonne and half of meat polished clean!”

The biggest take-away for me on the ride? Being stopped by elephant traffic.

A dozen jumbos crossed the road ahead of us!

Zipcode Gandhi

‘Woza (come to) Inanda’, read the roadsigns as we approached “the township”, the area designated for the “coloured” in the apartheid era. About 25km north of Durban, this is where Mohandas Gandhi set up the Phoenix Settlement — a commune based on principles of shared produce and founded on the philosophies of Tolstoy and Ruskin in 1904. From a printing press here he published the newspaper Indian Opinion. Gandhi’s original homestead had to be demolished around 1945 as the wood had rotted. The brick home built by his son Manilal too was destroyed in a riot in 1985. The house has since been rebuilt as a memorial. A museum stands nearby. “Ela Gandhi, Mahatma’s granddaughter, lives in Durban and runs the Gandhi Development Trust. The trust holds art, music and craft classes and brings out Satyagraha, a newspaper,” said Bongani Mthembu, our guide.

Where Mandela Voted

Barely 2km from Phoenix Settlement stands Ohlange (pronounced Oshlange) Institute which was founded in 1900 by John Dube, the first president of the African National Congress (ANC). His house is next door and his grave a stone’s throw away. “Nelson Mandela conferred with top ANC leaders in this house the day before his arrest,” said Mandla Nxumalo, curator of the John Dube Memorial.

The school is where Mandela chose to vote in the first free election on April 27, 1994. “I was with him that day. He walked up to Dube’s grave and said emotionally, ‘I have come to report, Mr President, that South Africa is now free.’ He had delayed his release to walk out of prison on February 11, Dube’s death anniversary,” recalled Nxumalo.

In front of a courtyard full of international press, Mandela cast his vote for the national election on the verandah of the school hall. “Then he shook my hand. All day I hid the hand as others wanted to shake it too! My hand is part of the history of South Africa,” the 43-year-old chuckled.

In the hall stands a Mandela statue and a message board for visitors. Outside, pictures of a smiling Mandela casting his ballot feature on lamp posts.

Postscript

As I boarded the flight back home, the words of Ela Gandhi, to whom I spoke over phone, rang in my ears: “All these years, Blacks and Indians could not take a flight in South Africa.” And I uttered a quiet siyabonga (thanks in Zulu) to Gandhiji, Mandela and their torch-bearers.