The monotonous, lush green landscape that flanks the N2 national freeway is occasionally interrupted by tantalising glimpses of the Indian Ocean’s blue waters. My journey is taking me to the stunning oasis of Margate Beach, situated south of Durban and rated the best beach in KwaZulu-Natal. The past few weeks have been scorchers, say the locals. No such luck today. It’s gloomy. The sky is cloud-clad and the sun is just not visible – a dampener for beachgoers.
Travelling from teeming and humid Durban, this autumn Tuesday, I can’t escape a cacophony of hoots and music – house, hip hop and kwaito – blaring from minibus taxis and privately owned buses shuttling commuters in all directions. A summary, albeit coincidental, of SA’s economic contrasts is in the form of funkily painted minibus taxis emblazoned ‘Street Kid’ and ‘Quality Life’.
Along the N2, towns and villages with rhyming names like Dududu, Bhobhoyi and Ifafa mingle with the likes of Oslo Beach, Rocky Bay and Sea Park. These go by amid rolling hills, blanketed in deep green as if to defy autumn.
Once in a while, hills (and sub-tropical forests) take a bow, perhaps to provide a sneak preview of the ocean. At one point I glimpse a grazing herd, about a dozen cattle, with woodpeckers in their company. Right there, as if on canvas, the ocean looms large in the background. It’s an abiding sight.
Watching the world go by
The pristine Margate is not short on spectacular sights. It is barely two-hours’ drive from the buzz of Durban – a 3.4 million-strong metropolis, known as eThekwini – but it feels like a different country. Drivers don’t honk, for one. After all, traffic is foreign. The absence of brand-conscious types is noticeable but so is the presence of locals who haven’t moved beyond the watershed 1994 as far as race relations go. That is my only gripe.
People-watching, whether from beach-hugging restaurants or apartments and hotels boasting sea views, is common. From Desroches Hotel’s rooftop restaurant – where quick grub such as a burger and cold beverage costs no less than 70 rand (Ksh500 or US$5) – I watch the world go by and unwind. Below, beachgoers are milling. I relish the background of natural sound effects – a howling ocean and waves crashing against rocks that flank the nearly kilometre-long beach. The red light district – a handful of roadside spots, actually – comes to life at night. Prospective clients, men in cars, big and small, discuss deals. Some are clinched.
Fishermen, meanwhile, toil all day and night thanks to a zigzag pier – that spot is also the perfect vantage for watching the sun rise from the ocean. I bump into André Loubser, a local, who fishes for fun and to earn a living. He started fishing, with his folks, when he was just five years old. Loubser looks 30-something now. He lets me in on the world of fishing (and his record of a 17kg catch), and tells me that he plans to go out fishing again around 2am. It’s midnight and I’ve just spent an evening at Senzi’s Butcher Shop & Grill. Senzi’s menu is vegetarian-friendly but has a variety of seafood and traditional cuisines, too. A calamari plate costs 100 rand and cold beverages (beers and soft drinks) 30 rand. Its music playlist is a reminder that hip hop is gospel according to youngsters. By day, Senzi’s attracts couples, families and corporate types.
With a population of no more than 30,000, Margate is tiny. This beauty was so-named, more than 100 years ago, because it reminded surveyor Henry Richardson, an Englishman, of a Kent resort town back home. Previously, locals simply referred to this area as eNkongweni after a nearby river.
In the 1820s, this area – then considered to have been no man’s land – was part of the southern border of King Shaka’s Zulu empire. A century later the gigantic Trunko showed up days before perishing. While it was never scientifically determined what creature this was, it too found its way into lore and history books. Marine fossils at a neighbouring nature reserve take visitors down the prehistoric lane.
MARGATE – YOUR WAY
Back to the present, Wednesday’s clear sky has eclipsed the gloomy weather. “I always check the weather report. The sun will be back tomorrow,” said librarian Phindi Zikalala matter-of-factly on Tuesday when I, perhaps sporting a long face, met her on my way from the art museum in town. She was right.
Today, with the mercury soaring and the ocean a magical azure, the number of people on the promenade has swelled. Joggers, walkers and pram-pushing parents can be spotted. Others use the shore to just lie or tan while some play football and volleyball. Children build sandcastles. Somewhere around the lagoon (where you can take a boat for 25 rand per 20 minutes), I chance upon three karatekas (karate practitioners) out here to train on the beach. They make the trek to Margate once a week, they say, and are now readying themselves for national championships in July in Cape Town.
There’s no shortage of places to go, with an array of restaurants a stroll away and a cultural village whose stalls sell everything from fruit and clothes to books and souvenirs such as beads and sculptures. Also in the mix are picnicking families and, at a flat across the road, a group of friends is having a braai. The smell wafts towards the beach where the ambience and mood are, probably always, relaxed.
Lovers of nature don’t have to go too far to get their fix with nature reserves such as Mpenjati Nature Reserve within striking distance. Those who prefer life in the water can indulge in canoeing, rafting and surfing.
As for the island-like town, it’s an unmistakable mix of beauty and serenity. The umpteen eateries and pubs and their patrons, swimmers and just a few surfers complete the picture. Margate does seem a little out on its own in some ways. That adds to its allure.
Margate assumes a different but likeable guise in December when throngs of travellers, from inland provinces and outside South Africa, come to sample KwaZulu-Natal’s best beach. In summer, temperatures exceed 30°C. In the holiday season, with schools closed and most people breaking for the festive season, finding parking (and accommodation) is a mission. The heat picks up some more in February only to cool down the following month or so. However, as any local attests, South Coast is hardly ever cold. The electrifying Bike Africa Week, which swings by at the end of April, turns Margate into a bikers’ paradise. In July, focus turns to the sardine run. It used to be a crowd-puller but, due to migrating sardines being captured along the way, it’s not as spectacular now.
Another loss for Margate was that of its blue flag beach status – for environmental standards, safety and facilities. A well-toned lifeguard near the lagoon says this is no reason for concern especially because the beach remains world-class. The equally spectacular Ramsgate and Lucien beaches, both parts of Margate, and a short walk from this spot, hoist blue flags.
On all measures, this destination is still a darling – one of the most loved spots in this part of South Africa. I for one am enjoying the relaxation as waves, brushing against the rocks, lull me to sleep.
Margate is a coastal town that lies 135km south of Durban and around 20km south of Port Shepstone.
By air: Fly Kenya Airways to Johannesburg or Cape Town and pick up a connecting flight with Kulula.com, KQ’s codeshare partner, to Durban. From Durban’s King Shaka International Airport, take a local coach to Margate (a 170km journey). Alternatively, hire a car from the airport and self-drive or get a metered taxi (around 2000 rand) or minibus taxi (around 60 rand per trip).
Where to eat There’s no shortage of places to grab a bite to eat and relax.
Here’s our pick:
Just So Chinese Restaurant & Take Away
9 Uplands Road
Tel: +27 39 312 2165
Keg Restaurants & Pubs
Tel: +27 39 312 2575
Mugg & Bean William O’Connor Road
Tel: +27 39 312 2864
Senzi’s on Faya Butcher Shop & Grill
William O’Connor Road
Tel: +27 39 312 1203
Tiagos Open Flame Grilled Chicken
Tel: +27 72 796 5621
The 60 hectare Mpenjati Nature Reserve is just 20km south of Margate. It is home to a host of prancing bird species in a splendour of colours. These include the African black oystercatcher, half-collared kingfisher, and red-capped robin-chat.
Further south, towards the Eastern Cape border, is the 3.2 hectare Umtavuna Nature Reserve. This KZN Ezemvelo-managed reserve doesn’t call itself ‘a botanical paradise’ for nothing. Added to its spectacular scenery and blankets of vegetation in a kaleidoscope of colours, are a variety of bird species and mammals such as baboons, duiker and reedbuck.
Towards the interior, 45km to the north-west of Margate, is the world-famous 200m deep Oribi Gorge. This mighty gorge, traversing forests, spans almost 30km. It’s impossibly beautiful, as the many lookout points keep reminding visitors. But, to be fair, the experience is not scriptable. Its reserve is home to, among others, oribi – a small antelope that is indigenous in this part of the continent.
Just outside Margate is the tiny Skyline Nature Reserve, home to many species of trees – from the indigenous to their exotic cousins – and, to a lesser extent, game. The reserve has a series of self-guided trails.
TOP 5 SOUTH COAST SURFING DESTINATIONS
Love to surf? The South Coast has an abundance of surfing spots, some with surf schools. Many people regard the following five spots as the best places to catch a wave.
What is a bunny chow?
Bunny chow is a hollowed half-a-loaf of bread filled with curry. Customers may choose between beef, chicken, mutton and vegetable curry. A bunny chow is delectable and can be enjoyed while sitting down or as a take-away.
What is a shisanyama?
Shisanyama is a place where people buy meat per kilo and braai it (or have it braaied for them). The literal meaning of the word is ‘burn meat’ or ‘grill meat’. Some shisanyamas are places to come and relax, socialise, have fun and drink.
Ask anyone about South Africa and its holiday destinations and Durban will hardly make the Top 5. Despite lagging behind the likes of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Mpumalanga, this KwaZulu-Natal city holds its own in the world of holiday destinations. Leaning on plentiful tourist activities, amid sub-tropical weather and ever-warm beaches, marketers bill eThekwini as the place ‘where the fun never sets’. Shoks Mnisi Mzolo picks out his favourite things to see and do in the city.
By day Florida Road looks no different from any other road in Morningside, a suburb. As night falls, you realise just why it deserves to be declared the capital of eThekwini’s nightlife. Among the many shops, restaurants and clubs is Cubaña, whose environment evokes a picture of Havana. It’s the hottest spot around. I find a personal favourite in the House of Curries, renowned for delectable bunny chows. With art galleries, cafes and shops also in the precinct, there’s plenty to do during the day too.
Some 20-minutes’ drive from the CBD is Umlazi township’s Sibusiso Mdakane Drive – home to two nightclubs-restaurants-shisanyamas: Eyadini and Max’s Lifestyle. Discerning revellers descend on Eyadini to buy and braai meat, drink and listen to music. For Sowetan, a South African daily, Max’s is ‘all about class and fun’ and ‘gives you the true sense of Durban.’
If you feel like getting down, head off to the Origin, which describes itself as ‘an entertainment wonderland’. With four dance floors, a roof garden, and music that spans house and electro, why not bring your dancing shoes and make new memories?
If you don’t mind a bit of the crazy side, check out Moses Mabhida Stadium. Its aesthetics alone are worth the trip. Activities include an adventure walk (90 rand/person) and big swing (700 rand/person), the world’s tallest swing.
3 Beach city experience & shopping
Umhlanga Rocks boasts the world’s best pier – also a site for dolphin-spotting. Surfers and swimmers relish its warm waters and cool waves. If you need retail therapy, drive to the Gateway Theatre of Shopping – Africa’s largest mall.
While significantly smaller, the Workshop Shopping Centre is also worth seeing. Added to shops, a movie house and such, this mall, right in the CBD, is renowned for being home to the best bunny chow outlet in the whole of the city. Outside the Workshop is a flea market that sells everything from dashikis and chitenges to soccer shirts and hip-hop outfits. You can also buy curios, phones and more.
Children and science types are always wowed by the easily accessible Natural Science Museum. This relatively tiny museum brings visitors face to face with Africa’s wildlife. Life-sized replicas of mammals, reptiles, birds and others bring to life these creatures (including the extinct ones). On the other hand, KwaMuhle Museum, overlooking the Workshop, teaches visitors about the struggle against the painful apartheid past.
Don’t leave the coastal city without popping in to Durban Playhouse for a bit of arts and culture. The venue plays host to stage plays as well as poetry festivals and music events.
Where to stay
Uses words such as ‘ultimate accommodation experience’ and ‘world class establishment’ to describe itself. It’s no cheap talk (its prices aren’t either). This 4-star hotel overlooks the ocean. For grown-ups, facilities include an onsite spa, salon and gym while the young ones have a dedicated kiddies’ centre.
RATES: Couple: R2000/night; Single: R1300/night. These rates are for sea-facing rooms, and include breakfast.
TEL: +27 39 312 0435
This 4-star establishment set in 2-hectacre lush tropical gardens is a 5-minute drive from Margate Beach’s ambient Marine Drive and a short walk to Vungu River, which flows into the sea. Stephward is an ideal venue for weddings and conferences. Its features include a tea garden and pools. Due to its small ponds and dams, it’s not suitable for small children (unless it’s by prior arrangement).
RATES: Couple: R1000/night;
Single: R620/night. These rates include breakfast.
TEL: +27 39 315 5926
Earthworm Margate Backpackers Hostel
This haven for surfers and other cosmopolitan free souls is a five- minute drive from the beach. Shower, ablution and other facilities are sufficient and clean. Its braai areas are a popular spot for clients. Shuttle to the beach is available on request (for a fee).
RATES: Couple: R260/night (room); Single: R130/night (bed).
TEL: +27 72 306 6723 / +27 76 424 4651