hospitality to troops became legendary. But today convoys
no longer fill its harbour and HERBERT McWILLIAMS found
a new austerity reigning in Natal.
you remember, after all those months of blackout, that
blaze of light on the horizon as the troopship neared
Durban? Or perhaps you arrived in daylight and saw the
seaside sky scrapers jutting up out of the salty haze,
with the dark green of the bush behind?
Today neon tubes and thousands of electric bulbs make
night into day again - after a spell of really strict
blackout - and the 17-storied blocks of flats look just
as incongruous as ever, towering up among the bungalows.
a long time now Durban people have been leading quiet
lives. Convoys with dozens of troopships and thousands
of men have become a memory of the past - of the days
when the tide of battle ebbed and flowed along the North
African sands, and the 'Med' was closed to our transports.
Those times may hold memories of warm hospitality for
you; for the inhabitants of Durban they meant a good deal
of sacrifice and hard work.
out of danger, Durban felt that the least it could do
was to make the short stay of those travel-worn men a
little brighter and give them a few days ashore which
they could always look back to with pleasure.
the greatest secrecy was supposed to be kept about the
arrival of a convoy everybody seemed to know about it
a day or two beforehand. Canteen workers would be warned
to be on the top line; eggs and vegetables suddenly became
scarce on the markets; there would probably be a notice
in the papers to the effect that the bars would close
early on such and such a night, or that certain foreign
currency would not be accepted.
then Durban would.awake to find the bay fined with giant
grey-painted liners, some of which became so familiar
that even from the Berea schoolboys would name them, swapping
information about their speed and tonnage.
the crowded ships passed into the harbour, men lining
the landward rails saw a woman, dressed in white, singing
powerfully through a megaphone such songs as "There'll
Always be an England!" and "Land of Hope and
Glory." A well-known local figure, she would drive
down from her home on the Berea as soon as she could see
that the ships were moving in.
by the eager welcome given to each convoy one might have
imagined that it was the first to have arrived. But for
months on end, for years, the same thing went on. Business
men gave up their time, housewives their spare rooms,
working hard preparing extra items for the menu, arranging
picnics and planning entertainments. Food was plentiful
then; so was petrol.
would queue up along the Dock Road ready to pick up a
full load to take back to the homes where hot baths, iced
beer, and delicious meals were already ordered. To introductions
to attractive daughters and their friends, to dances and
moonlight picnics, and perhaps even a night in a proper
bed between cool sheets.
the sights to which Service men used to be taken are still
to be seen, but the non-stop clicking of turnstiles at
places like the snake park and the zoo are things of the
past. Along the shady drives in the suburbs, where the
wild monkeys used to be fed to bursting point on bananas
at two-a-penny a few rather thin, incredulous, monkeys
leap out more eagerly at the approach of a car than their
surfeited brothers did ,a couple of years ago.
a backwater as far as the war in concerned, Durban is
having a taste of austerity now. Meat is carefully rationed
and though there is only one official "meatless day"
a week there are many homes where it is off the menu for
three days at least; The bread is brown and uninteresting:
the mustard pots are always empty. Drought or hail (troubles
never come singly!) have reduced the amount of fruit and
vegetables in the markets; the shops are bare of the luxuries
that used to make Service men stand spellbound . at their
a people used to going everywhere by car, the petrol rationing
was probably the biggest blow. (South Africa is said to
have more cars per head of white population than even
the United States.) All over the country now milage has
to be kept to a minimum. Retreading and a noticeable improvement
in driving help to eke out the life of the tyres on the
family cars and keep them on the road. But pleasure jaunts
are seldom if ever indulged in now.
antiquated electric trams - long ago banished from the
streets to make way for silent trolley buses on pneumatic
tyres - have. Been brought out again to help with the
problem of transport, and long queues for them line the
pavements at rush hours. The rickshaw boys have come into
their own once more. Once tolerated, with affection, as
a diversion for tourists, and seldom patronised by local
residents, they are now being gladly used by shoppers
with large parcels.
always gape with amazement at the elaborate costume of
the rickshaw boys; in spite of the hot climate they wear
huge feather headdresses, dangling skins of wild animals,
woollen and bead ornaments; and clusters of rattling seed-pods
round their white-painted legs. As they swing along the
soft hot tarmac, their loping strides and weird cries
give the impression of some slow-motion nightmare. But
many have given up this -savage display now that there
is more work to be done, and money has to be earned by
pulling instead of posing before a camera. An "austerity"
costume of nothing but a kilt and a hat decorated with
a few coloured ostrich feathers has been adopted.
a city where there is so much novelty it probably used
to seem quite natural to find in one of the most important
streets a half-timbered building called "Ye Playhouse."
Though imitation woodwork and the quainty-dainty whimsies
of sham Elizabethan look out of place where palm and mango
thrive, the "Play-house" provided "big
eats" which must still be remembered by those who
came straight from the United Kingdom and its strict.
rationing. Steaks like doorsteps. piled high with eggs
and chips. and soles that overlapped the plate are .not
to be had there now, but you can still sip South African
beer under those lowering concrete beams for all their
unconvincing resemblance to oak. Out at Athlone Gardens
dancing in the open air is as popular as it ever was,but
the great expanse of oval floor is seldom crowded.
is probably more important than ever as a naval base.
Those who remember the harbour as it used to be would
be astonished at the developments that have taken place
recently; the new quays; the extensive dredging; the enormous
new floating dock which nobody can pretend not to see
- even from five miles away.
every mail still brings a letter to someone there. who
during those busy convoy days, played the part of "up
homers" to some strange lad while he was ashore.