Pietermaritzburg: A Hometown in Postcards

In Africa, Travel Guides
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Rosehurt, Boom Street.

Stored in the deeper recesses, in that old weathered binder at the back of my mind, and drawn to the surface by the simplest scent or sound, the slightest change of light, are the things I send back to myself from time to time.  In those re-imagined moments, I’m on a journey of a different kind, memories flickering behind my eyelids like dog-eared picture-postcards of home.

Call it what you will

As a child and through my early adult years, Pietermaritzburg was the place I called home, and in some ways, I still do.  My home town – sometimes referred to as City of Choice, Umgungundlovu (Place of the Elephant), Sleepy-Hollow, Maritzburra (of the Lunchbar chocolate advert fame) – is the historic capital of the Kingdom of the Zulu (KwaZulu-Natal).  Nestled in a valley an hour’s drive from the foot of the breath-taking Drakensberg Mountains and the enticements of the Midlands Meander – or 40 minutes to the eastern coastline, if some beach time is what you’re after – lays a city known for its place in South African history and the site of history in the making.

Making the most of the City of Choice

From historical landmarks and artefacts on display, to endurance sporting events, arts and culture and agricultural festivals, charming home industries and cafes, Pietermaritzburg holds a deck of draw-cards for any hand you wish to play – yes, there’s even a casino and active racecourse if those are the odds you favour.

International Sporting Events

For decades, sporting enthusiasts from around the globe have made an annual migration to the city, challenging themselves to participate in the world-renowned endurance races hosted here.

The Comrades Marathon

The famous Comrades Marathon, established in 1921 and approx. 90km long, takes place every year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, and is the oldest and longest ultra-marathon in the world.  Originated with the intention and ethos of fostering a sense of camaraderie and humanitarianism between individuals of diverse backgrounds, the race is very much a community event.  Come May/June, the excitement is palpable as the city prepares with local residents volunteering at Comrades House, and lining the route in welcome and support for the brave runners.

The Dusi Canoe Marathon

For those who don’t mind a little water, another challenging event, shared with sister-city Durban, is the Dusi Canoe Marathon – the largest canoe race in Africa.  The race has been an annual event since 1951, commemorating the first successful completion of the route by two Pietermaritzburgers in a canoe, in 1893. Starting from the Natal Canoe Club on the banks of the Msunduzi River in Pietermaritzburg, and joining with the Umngeni River for a total distance of 120 km over 3 days, this is not an undertaking for the faint-hearted.  The dates vary, depending on weather and water conditions, so if you’re thinking of getting your feet wet, best plan ahead.

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Cultural Activities

Fine Art

I blame Pietermaritzburg for turning me into somewhat of a culture-vulture.  A promising art department on the local campus draws a wealth of talent, both young and old, to any one of the many cultural events hosted in and around the city throughout the year.  If you enjoy taking in works of art from every angle, created by some of South Africa’s most revered talent, the Tatham Art Gallery is at the heart of the city and the local art scene – a Film Club is hosted at the gallery every Tuesday evening, providing non-mainstream cinema fixes by advanced booking.

Theatre

Theatre-lovers might wander over to The Hexagon Theatre, situated on the local campus.  Student theatre by day – shaping the thespians of tomorrow – and a professional theatre by night, the establishment often hosts critically-acclaimed national productions and a variety of local talent.  Take in a play with a glass of wine or two, and then head out into the nightlife at one of the many local bars and restaurants offering good food, live music and friendly conversation.

Fleas, Flowers and Farmers’ Markets

If you fail in your quest for The Arts, don’t despair, weekly flea-markets and farmers’ markets can be expected around the city, on weekend mornings until lunch time.  The Royal Agricultural Show grounds play host to a number of agricultural and horticultural Shows throughout the year.  Should you be so inclined, take a casual stroll among the pens for blue-ribbon livestock, or take a seat for a little show-jumping.  Others may prefer to sample the variety of home industries on offer – homemade preserves, cheeses, wines – or try out any number of gadgets and hobby-kits on sale.  With the added allure of a fairground attraction, and fireworks displays, these events become a family-friendly affair.

Scavenger Hunt

Whatever the time of year, the mild climate and ‘university-town’ atmosphere of Pietermaritzburg lends itself to aimless meanderings to discover the city, either on foot or by car. To the untrained eye, one might pass by the uninspiring urban facades punctuated with the occasional Victorian red-brick monuments that seem to crumble in the face of time and progress, but look closely and see as the locals do – beyond worn edifices, into the promise of stubborn glory and the strength of foundations built on living history.

Historical Museums and Architecture

Jacaranda trees line streets of the CBD like silent watchers storing internal records dating back to a bygone era, casting their quiet shade that once cooled the beasts of horse-drawn carriages, and now does the same for a new kind of thoroughfare – bicycles, pedestrians, school buses, luxury vehicles, even political convoy and minibus-taxis (the South African kind).  The clock-tower of City Hall, the ever-present custodian to the start of the Comrades Marathon down-run, has survived fires and the effects of age and decay to remain a symbol of the historical tenacity displayed by the city as a whole, ringing in the hours and lighting up downtown at night.  The Natal and Voortrekker/Msunduzi Museums are two of the numerous historical buildings scattered around the town centre, dedicated to the preservation of artifacts and records from South Africa’s rich history.  Time moves and despite first impressions, the city moves with it, written on sidewalks and reflected in window panes, inviting you to take a peek inside.

Cafes and Knick-knacks

Rosehurt, Boom Street.

If you are of a more novel persuasion, parts of the once forgotten CBD are experiencing a revival, echoed by a growing number of niche cafes found both within the business district and surrounding suburbs.  For those who dare to seek and find, awaits the notion of stepping through the looking glass. Old colonial fronts are portals to secret garden oases, suburban homes are transformed into tea gardens where peacocks and other wild bird species flit from tree to tea cup in a dreamlike tableau – a stark contrast to the cement block commerce that once dominated the town centre.

A gentle warning, do not be fooled by these little breaths of heaven.  For all its dreamlike qualities, this place does not sleep.  Beneath the misleading Sleepy-Hollow veneer, moves the spirit of a city very much alive, offering a wealth of concealed gems for the more discerning traveller to discover.

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