At the Durban July Cup

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Photo-journalist Dusty Miller is re-capping the Travel Page’s journeys in 2013 and takes another look at Durban in July and Kwa-Zulu Natal which he visited mid-year.

Travel with Dusty Miller

OUR  fact-finding tour of Kwa-Zulu Natal continued with an early morning bus drive from Port Edward 160km south of Durban, skirting the city, ending 35km north-west of it at Phe Zulu Safari Park, Botha’s Hill in The Valley of 1 000 Hills.

“Which Botha?” we asked amiable but disorganised guides and received a shrug. The kopje is named after General Louis Botha’s Oupa. The General, himself, captured a young Winston Churchill in the Second Anglo-Boer War, was a World War I hero, becoming first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa.

The same guides said earlier that Durban’s former King’s House was once occupied by Queen-Empress Victoria, but she rarely left the shores of Britain, never venturing farther than Continental Europe. The present Queen (Elizabeth II) did, however, stay there during the Royal Tour of Southern Africa in 1947, along with her father King George VI. They visited this country during that visit.

Our last four nights were at Tropicana Hotel, a three-star property on Marine Esplanade with splendid views of beaches and Indian Ocean. Well, magnificent vistas from my VIP double room on the 10th (top) floor, courtesy of SA Express airline. I’d stayed there twice before, at my own expense, somewhat lower down the pecking order and recall dull views of a rather dreary car-park!

The hotel was fine as far as our party was concerned, but there are many serious-sounding complaints, whinges and whines on TripAdvisor. Maybe management finally got it right?

I was disappointed the satellite TV “bouquet” initially didn’t include an international news channel, but a call to the duty manager resulted in some brainless soapy, kid’s cartoon programme or one of the less popular sports coming off and Sky News going on.

No, I didn’t feel selfish. This was after 9:30pm and there were more than enough cartoons, superheroes, weepy widows and “jocks” on other channels.

Breakfast buffets
Tropicana’s help-yourself breakfast buffets were among the best I’ve eaten in any hotel in the world, with sufficient helpful, friendly staff to assist guests on the Friday, Sunday and Monday.

Saturday was the R3,5 million Vodaphone Durban July Cup day and the breakfast room, like most of Durban and much of KZN, was chaotic. I had to eat in an ante-room, with little atmosphere, but that didn’t stop me enjoying kippers or smoked haddock eaten each day.

The Clipper Bar, was cheerfully packed most times, serving one-plate special lunches and dinners for R29 (about US$2,90); a 440ml Windhoek Draught Lager was R18 (US$1,80) and many spirits were R20 a double:  Prices which may have Zimbo operators squirming.

We saw the dolphin and seal shows at uShaka Marine World and I spent hours gawping at magnificent specimens on show at the largest aquarium in Africa. I thought it better designed, stocked and more interesting than the Dubai one.

One night we were due to have supper at Betoa Restaurant, which Prof. Google knows nothing about and another at the Zimbabwean-owned Moyo Restaurant on the beachfront at uShaka, where — a couple of years earlier — my party ate a magnificent brunch, before boarding MSC Sinfonia for a coastal cruise to Portuguese Islands, Mozambique.

However, neither of these events happened. On one occasion, the majority of our party went shopping to a late-night mall and those of us who find such activities boring ate at the hotel.

The other night we visited an odd place called Max’s Lifestyle Tavern in Umlazi, the largest township in Africa, if you accept the case that Soweto (South-Western Townships) is by definition many such high density residential areas.

Downstairs, Max’s looked like an up-market shebeen, but the upper floor, where we were entertained, was all chrome-glass-and leather larney, if rather soulless. I ate great boerewors, huku and “pap” (sadza), but it was very dry.

On mentioning that at the bar, a waitress leapt downstairs, returning in seconds with a jug of steaming gravy. The place improved and conversation grew more sparkling as drink flowed and we travellers from landlocked Africa got to know our KZN hosts better. Also torrential rain slowed to steady drizzle; music became hearable and more to my taste.

Oyster Bar
After uShaka, we drove to the dockland for lunch. Gertrude Banda (ex-Air Zim) now Zim and DRC country manager for SA Express and I had a grand sea-food lunch at The Oyster Bar, served by a charming half-Zulu/half-Chinese girl. Most of the party, however, went next door to a Spur and a young Muslim lady with us and elderly vegetarian woman went off looking for something meatless and Halaal.

Our trip to KZN was mainly to sample the new flight direct from Harare to King Shaka International Airport, which takes just over two hours and, of course, cuts out OR Tambo: a major blessing.
But also to enjoy the Vodaphone Durban July Cup: And what an experience that was!

The richest race in Africa, it’s a must for the fashion conscious and has been run the first Saturday in July since 1897.

I’m not a gambler. The Muslim girl asked did I place a bet on the last race and I replied: “The last race I bet on was over 40 years ago, my dear!”

But atmosphere and ambience were priceless. Fashions veered between stunning, jaw-dropping, eye-opening and frankly ugly. As indeed did many of the people wearing those fashionable modes.

Hospitality was overwhelming. We were guests of KZN’s government and its tourism wing; M-Net shared our verandah pitch overlooking the winning post, so a few TV personalities, mainly totally unknown to me as I famously, or infamously, refuse to buy another set, wandered around.

We arrived at 11am, to be met with snacks and hot drinks.  Booze was served soon afterwards.  First two races were cancelled, because the racecourse was still boggy from all the rain that had fallen. The last few races were floodlit.

At one stage it looked like the whole meeting might be postponed due to rain. Then we heard rumours that if Mandela died during the week we were there, all RSA sport would be cancelled as a mark of respect. Probably the last thing, Madiba would have wanted.

Lunch and supper were sumptuous buffets, although several of us were disappointed they appeared virtually identical and contained no seafood, when seagulls performed demonstration flights over the verdant turf.

For US$517 return (cost in July 2013), Durban’s a two hours from Harare four times weekly, thanks to SA Express.