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THERE’S SOMETHING INEVITABLY FOOLISH about reducing hundreds of years of history to a few pages. For one thing, the texture of history evaporates without the countless individuals whose lives have been played out on its sweeping canvas. For another, in a multicultural society such as Durban, many important contributing strands are bound to fall by the wayside. But perhaps a little historical context will nonetheless prove useful to visitors to our fair city who would like to understand, in some way, how we got where we are now.

The timeline of human habitation in Durban goes back to long before the advent of recorded history in the region. While some of the earliest remnants of humanity are found in the nearby Drakensberg, it is now established that prior to the arrival of the Nguni people and subsequent European colonialists, the area was populated by the original people of Southern Africa – now collectively called the Khoi/San. Then, several thousand years later, on Christmas day in 1497, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama passed the mouth of Durban Bay and promptly named it Rio de Natal (Christmas River), presuming that several rivers flowed into the bay.

Back then, before the intrusive advent of industrialisation, the bay was separated from the sea by a sandbar, where crocodiles, hippopotamuses and flamingos spent their days in the vast waters of the bay while its swampy edges were densely populated with mangroves. Beyond the bay lay a ridge of hills which was home to elephants, hyenas and lions until about a century ago, and now houses Durban’s suburbs.

Over the subsequent years, Rio de Natal came to be a popular stop-off point for explorers and traders, mainly because the bay offered one of the few protected anchorages on the southern coast of Africa.