The changing face of Durban Bay

Jan 31, 2007
Author: Terry Hutson

By the end of 2007 it is quite likely that the face of Durban harbour will have begun taking on a different appearance to that which it has presented for the past 30 – 40 years.

The Bay has indeed undergone many changes in the 160 or so years of its establishment as a working harbour and will never again resemble the stretch of waterway that early settlers found when they set out to establish a port and settlement in these parts.

The changing face of Durban 1 – a scene of Durban Bay in the 19th Century, looking towards Salisbury Island (top right) and the Umbilo hills in far background. The Bluff is on the left top of the picture which was taken from the end of the Bluff

The changes due to take place from later this year include the widening of the port entrance, which are scheduled to get underway during the course of 2007 that’s assuming there are no further hitches.

Whether or not work starts on actually removing the North breakwater during the year remains to be seen but the port engineers are currently putting the final touches to their plans, whilst other related work such as the sub-aqueous tunnel underneath the entrance and undertaken by the city engineers is almost complete.

The new tunnel is considerably longer and deeper than its predecessor, which was installed in the late 1950s to replace old sewage outfalls at the Point. The old tunnel was also constructed in a very different manner to the latest version which involved boring well below the entrance channel seabed.

In the case of the older tunnel, the method used was to cast large round concrete pipes in the graving dock and float them to the entrance where divers placed them in position on concrete sleepers along a trench excavated in the harbour bed. Once all were in position the engineers pumped the tunnel dry, leaving the pressure of outside water to bring the sections together in an interlocking position with each other.

This relatively simple system worked extremely well and even the occasional smack from several passing ships – even a large ship like the 50 000-ton SA Winterberg, hasn’t left any lasting problem.

The changing face of Durban 2 – the harbour in 1956 at the height of the Suez Canal crisis

Sadly the entrance widening will also bring the curtain down on another landmark of old Durban – public access to the north breakwater, which has continued unimpeded through the years, becoming a favourite place for a weekend of fishing or simply to watch the ships go by. The breakwater also made for an excellent view site across the Golden Mile of Durban’s beachfront.

Keeping the new breakwater open to the public is in doubt, although there has been no public indication by the National Ports Authority. There are those within the NPA with strong feelings against allowing continued access, citing security as a factor demanding more fences of exclusion. If they are to have their way it will be a retrograde step and is one that the public should express themselves volubly while they still have a voice in the matter.

Of course the new marina being planned for the area outside the north breakwater will influence the outcome. It may turn out that the only people with access to part of the breakwater in the future will be those using the marina, while Joe Public is excluded completely from the area.

In fact all this talk of security is at times a bit over the top. There are many examples of international ports throughout Europe and the United States and elsewhere, places like Rotterdam and Antwerp and Los Angeles in the United States – all large and security-sensitive ports - where the public continues to enjoy vantage points from where they can watch ships come and go in reasonably close proximity.

In these places it seems there is a balance and an understanding that public support is necessary. In some of the places the port and city authorities have even gone out of their way to encourage interaction, with boardwalks and pathways along which the public has controlled access – where the authorities are aware of the immense value of ships as an attraction for both tourist and local resident alike. Durban (and South Africa’s other ports) need to guard against a creeping authoritarianism or an overreaction that excludes the public – a sense of balance is required.

Above all it needs to be remembered that Durban Bay belongs to the people of Durban. The port authority and terminal operators are simply custodians.

Other landmarks at the port entrance that will disappear include some of the original foundation rocks from the Milne breakwater of the 1850s – rock cut from the Bluff and floated across on barges to build the first breakwater. Part of Milne’s breakwater was absorbed in the existing north breakwater.

Still other landmarks destined to go include the King George battery of the World War II era, which amidst much publicity was converted for use as a pub and restaurant but has since disappeared from the radar of public opinion. Restaurants along this piece of waterfront, looking directly out into the channel and literally a stone’s throw from passing ships, have already begun closing and moving out.

The changing face of Durban 3 – an aerial image of the city and port towards the end of the 20th Century. The long finger of green is the Bluff, the 100m high peninsular that provides the port with its protection from the vagaries of the sea. Salisbury Island - by this stage built up and fully developed as a naval base - can be seen across the bay facing the end of the T-Jetty which, as its name suggests, juts out from the Point docks to the left. By 2005 the Point docks had also been extended further into the bay, forming the City Terminal for breakbulk cargo. The container terminal is the Z-shaped structure in the right centre with Bayhead on the extreme upper right. Picture NPA

And most controversially, although not strictly a part of the port redevelopment, one of the best stretches of unspoiled beach will also go, while who knows yet what will happen to Vetch’s Pier once the new marina is built.

The latter is today a valuable marine resource, which I’m told contains a mussel bed and is a safe place for ‘rookies’ to learn skin diving. One forgets this was a man-made pier, one of several efforts at creating a safe entrance for the harbour. It was named (and frequently misspelled) after its designer, Captain James Vetch of the Royal Engineers, who came up with the idea of the pier from the comfort of his office in London without ever having visited Natal.

That it was an abject failure is obvious but his legacy had unintended benefits and has become a wonderful marine resource – one which is now under threat from development of the new marina.

Most if not all these changes, then and now, have been for the good of the port and the good of Durban. Some have worked, others not. A lot more changes lie ahead, including a start (hopefully) this year on the Congella (Khangella) overhead bridge connecting Bayhead Road with Umbilo Road while somewhere in the future is the proposed digging out of parts of Bayhead to create new waterways and quays for large new container and car terminals.

These improvements are designed to help bring greater prosperity to the city and its people but those responsible for bringing them about need to remember that a sense of balance needs to be struck, because with progress come many challenges like road congestion, risk and inconvenience.

Either way the port of Durban has come a long way in 160 years and still has a longer distance to travel.

Another face of Durban, looking down at the Bluff Yacht Club and the Trawler’s Wharf in the Bayhead Silt Canal, still an oasis of tranquility amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy port. The prominent building on the horizon, visible from most parts of Durban, forms part of the University of KwaZulu Natal. Picture Terry Hutson



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