Durban - the port that needs to expand

Oct 26, 2006
Author: Terry Hutson

To dig a new port, or not – that is the question

Durban boasts the busiest port in Africa, if not the Southern Hemisphere and is the economic gateway not only to the rest of South Africa but the entire sub-continent. A vast number of people owe their employment to port activity in Durban either directly or indirectly.

Each year about 65 percent of South Africa’s containerised trade passes through Durban harbour in addition to large volumes of breakbulk and bulk cargoes. This includes the majority of southern Africa’s sugar exports, the majority of its motor vehicles both import and export, vast quantities of paper and forest products, almost all the country’s petroleum products including chemicals and large amounts of the country’s fruit and grain imports and exports.

The port, which boasts a array of sophisticated cargo handling equipment also handles the bulk of the finished goods and machinery necessary for the upkeep of an established yet still emerging industrial giant like South Africa - truly Durban Harbour remains the beating heart not only of a great city and an impressive province but of the country and much further afield.

Durban Bay from the air, as it is in 2006 although the green area of the City Terminal at the Point is now fully developed and the brown shaded area of Pier 1 is close to completion as a dedicated container terminal. Click on image to enlarge. Picture is courtesy NPA

On top of all this commercial activity the harbour has long been a focal point of much of the city’s recreation, and the recent development of modern waterfronts encroaching on the harbour plus other aquatic and marine activity developments are not only manifestations of this role, but also place further strains on the port’s development.

But primarily Durban has become a container and motor vehicle port. More and more containers are handled each year at the two container terminals (over 1.9 million TEU in 2005) and other areas of the port and the import and export of motor vehicles continues to expand beyond all forecasts. As this occurs the squeeze on other space intensifies with the latest victim being the South African Naval Station at Salisbury Island, which faces being reduced to little more than a berth alongside a quay.

The following report is based on an article written by Terry Hutson that first appeared in The Mercury Wharf Talk column but which has been updated with additional background and information. It is based largely on discussions with the Durban Port manager, Mr Basil Ndlovu and with other people who are or have been influential in the port.

Dig out port remains an option

A new ‘dig out’ port remains an option, but not at the Durban airport site!

There’s little in life that appears certain and a dig-out port on the site of the present international airport to the south of Durban, which was once considered as the ‘only option’ for Durban port’s future growth, no longer appears high on the agenda of the National Ports Authority (NPA). At least not for the immediate future, although the NPA will consider acquiring the land for possible future use once it becomes available.

The idea of extending the port southwestwards has been around for many years and became something of a serious option following the often heated debates over extensions to the container terminal in the mid 1990s, when strong public feeling mitigated against the filling in of more areas of Durban Bay. As a result of this debate port planners turned their attention elsewhere.

Initially the idea of building a new port south of Durban received favourable attention. This would be built on land currently occupied by the Durban International Airport, which is scheduled to relocate to a new airport site to the north of Durban from 2009 or 2010.

However, for various reasons this concept no longer sits high on the current planners agenda, but what is being seriously considered is a proposal to dig out a large part of the Bayhead area beyond Bayhead Road – an area that has historically been a flood plain through which several rivers empty into the bay – the Umhlatuzana and Umbilo among them.

Who that is old enough can possibly forget the ‘swamps’ on that side of Durban Bay, with tidal islands forming ideal breeding grounds for mangrove forests – who can forget the thousands of flamingoes and other bird life that migrated annually to this water wonderland. Today much of the waterway has been drained and concrete walls now form most of its boundaries – the rivers have become canals and the ‘islands’ are now the roads and rail sidings of Kings Rest and Bayhead marshalling yards.

This entire area began to be reclaimed and drained from the late 1950s into the 1960s and was subsequently developed with railway marshalling yards and ship repair basins. Even the old flying boat base, once the home of South African Air Force Sunderland and Catalina flying boats, became a ship repair yard.

Sunderland reconnaissance flying boats of No.35 Squadron, South African Air Force at the Marine Air Force Base at Bayhead, Durban in 1948. This area now forms part of the ship repair yards of Dormac Marine. Click image to enlarge. Picture Dir. of Surveys, eThekwini Municipality. You can read more about the military and commercial flying boats of Durban Bay on Allan Jackson’s fascinating website about Durban at

So it is with a great sense of interest and déjà vu that one learns that the engineers are again considering – as an option of the Port Master Plan mind you – of extending the port into the Bayhead marshalling yards and creating a new navigational area where great container ships and even motor car carriers can deliver their cargoes from far off lands.

Bayhead as it is in 2006, with berths 12-15 of Maydon Wharf taking up the bottom left side of the image, and the ship repair yards facing them. The railway marshalling yards that would be excavated for the dig-out terminals are the greenish area in the centre of this picture. Click image to enlarge. Picture courtesy NPA

“The dig–out options are still very much alive,“ says Basil Ndlovu, Durban’s port manager. “In fact they are the cheapest options available, with the Bayhead the cheapest of all. We therefore believe we have to explore this if Durban is to grow as a port, although they’ll have to undergo the necessary environmental studies first.”

The advantage that comes from digging out part of the Bayhead is that it makes use of land already ‘owned’ by Transnet and that it adds more water area to Durban Bay. One of the criticisms of previous ‘extensions’ to the port, such as the Port of Durban Development 2005 (The Point development), was that it filled in large areas of waterway in Durban Bay with the result that the bay has steadily reduced in size.

The Bayhead proposal reverses this process and will add a considerable amount of waterway to the harbour, while facilitating the creation of two large container terminals on either side of a new channel extending deep into Bayhead. There would also be space for either a large car terminal or for breakbulk and bulk cargo handling.

On the negative side the project would reduce land space available for ship building – the present Bayhead Marine Industrial Park would be lost to the port and existing ship repair facilities considerably reduced in size.

The National Ports Authority believes the answer to that question would be for ship building and ship repair to relocate to Richards Bay, where a large ship repair facility is in the planning. However that’s a touchy point and ship repairers point out that ships often need repairing where they are and that a large and busy port such as Durban should cater fully for this trade. Since this article was first published the NPA has held discussions with the association of ship repairers to discuss this issue and explore possible solutions to this problem.

Extending the harbour southwestwards and building new container terminals would also necessitate other major infrastructure changes to the area. Bayhead Road, already one of the busiest heavy duty traffic routes in the city, would disappear underground into a tunnel extending beneath the new channel. A new link road along the base of the Bluff is planned which would connect Bayhead and the existing container terminals with Edwin Swales Drive.

A very similar angle to the picture above but showing how the port would look if the Bayhead dig-out option was taken further. Click image to enlarge. Picture courtesy NPA

The existing rail marshalling yards at Bayhead would shrink in size – much of the marshalling would then take place elsewhere – perhaps as far away as Cato Ridge where there are ambitious plans for an inland terminal (this topic is covered in a following article), and a logistics park would be developed on the Bluff side of the Bayhead near the area known as Ambrose Park.

These developments would ensure that Durban maintained its role as South Africa’s premier container port. Ideally, the new Bayhead terminals would be equipped with rubber tire gantries (RTG’s) permitting containers to be stacked five or six high, compared with the two high at the existing Durban Container Terminal, thus maximising their capacity. The terminals would provide berthing for eight ships and would be built to accommodate the largest post-panamax vessels likely to visit Durban. Officially the NPA talks about the new terminals having a capacity for 2.8 million TEUs but this seems conservative – if RTG’s are employed there should be no reason why they could not accommodate twice that number. And if modern automated container handling systems were introduced, thus improving efficiencies, the capacity could be further extended.

Some more water will flow in and out of the entrance to Durban harbour before these decisions are taken, but they do indicate that there is a plan for Durban which will provide the port with an ability to remain viable as the country’s leading port for some years to come.



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