It was a hot January morning, as hot as any January morning would have been for thousands of years. We were walking the concrete pavements, that not that long ago, not much more than 150 years ago, had been sub-tropical jungle, with huge trees and exotic plants growing in profusion right where we were walking.
In that sub-tropical jungle, high above what is now the City of Durban, Kwa Zulu-Natal, South Africa, herds of elephant, bush loving antelope such as puti and bushbuck, the odd leopard, and lots of monkeys had called home. The vervet monkeys, being masters of adaption, did what they do best, and learnt how to cope with the invasion of humans, and are still plentiful. Ferdinand Krauss had noted in the mid-1800s that being in the forest was ‘not safe without a gun in case one of the colossi [elephants] happened to pass by’. The last recorded (note the important use of the word ‘recorded’) lion was shot in 1854, after it was traced from the Botanic Gardens to Mr Cato’s farm, where it was shot. Mr Cato was the first Mayor of Durban.
The last elephant to be seen in Durban, was an Indian elephant by the name of Nellie, who gave the children rides in Mitchell Park in the 1930s.
The Berea, being much cooler than Durban proper, was originally a series of large farming estates, which had a few ramshackle houses on it. Over the years, these early houses were replaced with stately mansions, and beautiful gardens.
Today, most of us drive along Musgrave Road, Innes Road, Currie Road, and all the small connecting roads, concentrating on the traffic, and only see glimpses of ‘lovely old’ buildings, but few take the time to learn about their history.
One can book walking tours of the old suburbs – contact Durban Tourism for more information.
I booked to go along, and a group of us met at the St Clements Restaurant on Musgrave Road near the Anglican Church of St Thomas. Musgrave Road has numerous places of worship, in the aptly named Musgrave Holy Acre. The Methodist Church is the oldest, the original building having been built in 1893. Before the Catholic Church was built in the mid -1900s, the Chapel at the Marie Stella Catholic School for Girls, which was built in 1927, was used by those of the Catholic faith. A Mosque is the most recent addition to the Musgrave Holy Acre.
The Berea started off when a Captain Gardiner retired from the navy and became a missionary. He named the area in honour of St Paul who had preached in Berea (now Veroia) in northern Greece. His little mission school eventually became part of the Cato Estate.
Our tour started off at St Thomas’, where a staffer kindly let us inside. It has beautiful stained glass windows, and a small separate side chapel, which is separated by an ornamental wooden fretwork, which reminded me of the wooden screens used to separate the various chapels at Winchester Cathedral in the UK.
The marble baptismal font, in these times of the Covid 19 pandemic, is a stark reminder of a previous epidemic, where 5 children died, and whose faces were carved into the outside of the bowl. A frame of a kind had been placed in front of a large painting of Jesus, giving me the thought that he had been double crossed. Sorry – no insult intended, just my strange thought processes were at work here.
Our tour continued, and we all learnt all sorts of fascinating history as we admired the beautiful buildings. The small narrow roads, such as Overport Drive, were once the driveways to large properties.
Cute Victorian cottages are often hidden behind blocky blocks of flats and apartments built in the 1960s and 1970s, when, for some reason, architects didn’t design anything pretty, and drew straight utilitarian lines on their drawing boards. Some of these apartments are large and spacious inside, but unfortunately one can only call their exteriors ugly.
Grand houses are everywhere, they just need to be looked for, preferably on foot, as they are often hidden behind high walls. We were privileged to visit one of these beautiful houses, and went to the top terrace, where, except for one ugly blocky block, we had an uninterrupted 360° view of all of Durban.
Some buildings were private hotels, in other words, boarding houses, where persons could live in comfort without having the hassles of keeping a house. Some of these have now been turned in to Homes for the Aged. The Aged with healthy bank accounts, that is.
The first home to be built in the Cape Dutch style, Muckleneuk, built by Sir Marshall Campbell, now houses his daughter’s famous Africana book collection. Killie Campbell and her widowed brother lived in the house until their deaths in the 1960s. The world famous Killie Campbell Collection of 20 000 odd books, and many manuscripts were bequeathed to the University of Kwa Zulu-Natal. One may visit the library and gardens by appointment. Ms Campbell was also a keen gardener – unfortunately, the gardens, although well maintained, have lost their lustre.
Sir Marshall named his house for the region of Scotland that his parents had hailed from. His name lives on in everyday use by much of KZN’s population. KwaMashu, the town ship that developed on what was his sugar cane farm, is named for him, as he was known as Mashu by the Zulu people.
One of the weirdest architectural stories also belongs to this area. 638 Stephen Dlamini Road (formerly Essenwood Road) was in the wrong position on the right piece of land. The owners wanted to add buildings to the land, but the house was in the way. So, they literally moved it 15 metres closer to the road. Spray and Cook, the non-stick baking spray, was supposedly used to effect the move. Whether true or not, the house is often called the Spray and Cook House by Durbanites.
There are a number buildings of Art Deco Architectural design; most which are kept in the often gaudy colours of that style. As Art Deco is a passion, many people travel the world to admire these often strange buildings. One such building has sadly got a humongous modern block of flats going up next to it. Currently the skeleton of the new building is shrouded in netting, and one can only hope that the owners and architect have some sort of appreciation of classy buildings, and that this new modern building will reflect good taste.
A fact that is little known by the people who pass the rounded façade of the Art Deco style Observatory Court apartments, is that once upon a time, in the 1880s, a real, functioning observatory stood here. It was especially built to observe the transit of Venus on 4 December 1882. These observations would be used to increase world knowledge of how the heavenly bodies affected navigation. Due to lack of funds, it closed in 1911, was reopened in 1922, but was closed again shortly there-after, and later the building was demolished.
Occasionally, looking down a driveway, one can see the spectacular views that the houses built here commanded. Sadly, many of these views were ruined when the properties were sub divided, and more buildings were erected in front of them.
There are properties for sale here, some are beautifully kept colonial mansions, such as the house built and owned before the Group Areas Act of the 1950s was enforced, by an Indian rice merchant, a Mr Bassa. Mr Bassa and other non-whites had to sell to whites at non market related prices, and leave their homes and move to where the then South African government deemed they belonged. Naturally, in South Africa today, anyone can buy property where they want to live or invest.
The gardens that one can get peek-a-boo views of, are lush, some are formal and manicured, others are tropical delights. Exotic orchids have been propagated on trees – it isn’t just in Singapore or Madagascar that these delightful beauties can be found on streets for all to admire.
For more information on old Durban, there are many publications which have recorded the rich history of the city.