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Durban: You are now entering South Africa's comfort zone


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The Oyster Box hotel. You know you want it

The Oyster Box hotel. You know you want it

John gets ready for oysters

John gets ready for oysters

Bunny Chow

Bunny Chow

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The Oyster Box hotel. You know you want it

I love the excitement of going to a country for the first time.

You may have heard a lot about it. You have seen it on TV. Your friends have raved about it. You have images, but nothing can replace the sounds, smells, atmosphere, colours...

I was excited as we landed in Durban in the early morning. As it happened we were met by a first blast of warm rain, but that didn't last long and after a few beautiful days I had forgotten that I ever felt wet except in the pool or the sea.

The drive to downtown Durban has greenery everywhere. Star of the show is the magnificent Moses Mabhida Stadium, which was built for the World Cup in 2010. In among all the modernity you still see roadside stalls selling food and clothes, and even an outdoor hair stylist was at work at this early hour.

My hotel, The Capital Pearls, in the Umhlanga suburb of north Durban had a bedroom view of the sea, which I discovered when I woke up from my post-flight nap.

A guided bike ride is a great way to get the feel of a city. I went with a company called Bike and Saddle (www.tri-ecotours.com). Our guide, the co-owner Siphiwe, was informative and gave a great eco-perspective. When I saw a jogger pass us I knew we were not being over-exerted. Durban is an active city on a Saturday morning with lycra-clad people everywhere running, walking or drinking coffee and looking out to sea.

We started next to Kings Park Stadium, which is home to the Sharks and just beside the Moses Mabhida Stadium, which you cannot look at without hearing a vuvuzela. There were people walking up the support structure to the top to bungee. Include me out. We pedalled on and saw some vervet monkeys, which are so human-looking it is scary. They come out at particular times to feed on everything. They are good timekeepers, unlike the trains, I am told as we pass the station. Apparently in South Africa if you are late for anything, blame the train.

There are bikers, joggers, adults, children and the coolest electric go-kart I have ever seen. All is buzzing.

A short drive along the seafront and fine hotels, each with a view, brought us to Florida Road in Morningside and the House of Curries for lunch. Durban has a large Indian population which dates back to the 1860s.

On the way we passed an enormous variety of buildings. Durban has a policy of refurbishing the insides of beautiful buildings and retaining the facade. In the HOC, which is like eating outdoors with a roof, we were given good advice. Ask for mild. It was plenty hot enough for me The Bunny Chow (see panel) is deservedly popular.

Durban is on the Indian Ocean. Having funked the stadium bungee, I went surfing. The water is warm and the waves are good. We were guaranteed no sharks as they have a netting system. But there might be a dolphin. I am not convinced I can tell the difference riding a wave. But then the chances of me riding a wave and living the dream are not high.

The wetsuit is the first part of the saga. I do not look sleek and seal-like in my wetsuit. If you do not have a perfect body, then prepare for disappointment. What I thought was a well-maintained stomach was revealed in all of its glory. Just saying 'suck in' before the photo doesn't work.

Then to the actual surfing, which none of us had ever done before. It began with an 'on the beach' lesson, where you lie down on the surfboard. You have to be in the right position. It is hard. Then you learn how to stand up on the surfboard. It is also hard, though frankly they are both easier than putting on the wetsuit.

But when you are actually in the water surfing is not easy. Maybe it is one of those knacks that you get after a while, and the ever-patient Matthew almost got us there. It was great fun if you can deal with failure. The Indian Ocean is a beautiful temperature.

After a respectable amount of time had passed, I returned my board and had a very enjoyable swim, having established that I am improving at carrying a surfboard on land while holding in my stomach.

We retreated to the Surf Riders Café. The chairs say THIS IS LIVING and the coffee comes with a surfboard biscuit. It is staffed by people who are living their hobby and who were kind enough not to laugh at our efforts. I had one of the best cups of coffee of my entire life. I learn from our guide that I am to have my bones read tomorrow. What will they think of next?

Durban has no shortage of good restaurants, and the Big Fish restaurant was a two-minute walk from the hotel. I began with some oysters and then normally would have gone on to the sushi for which Big Fish is famed.

The chef said "if you don't like my sushi you don't pay". I think he was serious. But I had never had kingklip before so I had to try it. Like a lot of words here it is of Dutch origin and means something like King of Rock fish. It is a firm, sweet fish that I enjoyed with a Spier white South African wine.

The following morning my bones are to be read by a sangoma - a traditional healer. We drive out of town through lush greenery and purple tabachin trees. Durban's population is about 550,000 but the greater area is home to 3.4 million people. The trip to Isithumba Zulu village on the Umgeni River brings us into the spectacular Valley of a Thousand Hills, a day-trip must-see. I learned to say hello in Zulu which I remember as 'Sonny Bono' from the days of I Got You Babe. It seems to work.

The valley has its own school, shebeens and a church but most shopping is done in the nearby provincial capital Pietermaritzburg. We pass cattle, goats, chickens, cockerels, the occasional dog and a funeral attended by the whole village. It is usual here to be buried in one's own garden.

A local woman, Maju, cooked us a great lunch of cows' head meat, pumpkin leaves, yams, chicken, tomato and a 3pc beer made from maize and sorghum called umqombothi, and a fruity yoghurt drink called amahewu, made from maize. There was a fantastic range of tastes and textures and all served from ice cream cartons.

Maju never stops smiling and like a lot of the locals wears traditional costume and Converse or Vans. The cottage floor is cow dung, in case you asked.

The sangoma lives in the best house in the village, so business is booming. She showed us the mixed herbs that work wonders and threw some bones which were actually ocean shells.

"Do you have to believe for it to work?" I asked and was answered in the affirmative. Early grave for me. She runs a side business in colourful beaded jewellery - so that was my presents sorted without breaking the bank.

The pool at the Capital Pearl is surrounded by 30-storey buildings with a gap to view the sea. As the sun set this was a pool to cool you down before dinner in The Oyster Box - one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever set foot in.

This beachfront hotel is full of local art, antiques and mahogany; it has a Raffles or even an Indian feel. The Lighthouse Bar looks over the beach to, well, the Lighthouse.

The hotel feels like it has been there for ever but was redeveloped in the 1990s with no expense spared. The dominant colours are red and white to go with the lighthouse, and the flower arrangement is little short of spectacular.

The buffet claims to be the best curry buffet in the world. Agreed. If this dreadful virus keeps up its work I can think of nothing better than a flight to Durban and a month of social isolation in The Oyster Box.

Take Two: Top attractions

Using your loaf

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Bunny Chow

Bunny Chow

Bunny Chow

Bunny Chow is a Durban must. Take half a loaf of bread. Scoop out the inside. Pour in curry. The bread removed from the inside is placed on top for presentation and you eat the curry with it.

The red carpet

The Oyster Box is beautiful throughout. It is a visual feast. And they have a flower arranger who creates marvellous displays throughout the hotel. Only one rule; they are red.

Getting there

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John gets ready for oysters

John gets ready for oysters

John gets ready for oysters

* John stayed at The Capital Pearls, an ideal stopping-off point for your holiday. https://thecapital.co.za/hotels/DURBAN/Pearls

* When in town, you could take a Durban city tour with Jonas Barausse from the recent #MeetYourSouthAfrica campaign. See travelmassive.com/community/jonasbarausse

* Or take a cultural tour and lunch with Thoko Jilia, also from the #MeetYourSouthAfrica campaign Wisdom Tours. Thoko is a wonderful guide who has visited Ireland. www.zulu.org.za/tourist-guides/wisdom-travel-and-tours-T69944

* British Airways flights direct to Durban from London Heathrow one-way from £281. britishairways.com

* southafrica.net

NB: This story originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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