Port HistoryPorts

Durban Port, in Words and Pictures


Take a drive into the Durban CBD, take a turn onto the Esplanade road, and you will be driving alongside the Port of Durban, or the Durban Harbour as it is called locally. Situated in the province of KwaZulu Natal on the Indian Ocean, it is the largest and busiest shipping harbour in sub-Saharan Africa, the second-largest container port in Africa (after Port Said in Egypt) and amongst the top 5 busiest container terminals in the Southern Hemisphere, handling close to 3,000,000 TEU. It is also by far South Africa’s busiest port, handling the largest volume of sea-going traffic in the country.

Durban Port
Durban Port

We offer you a glimpse of the Durban Port in numbers and facts :

The Port Area

The province of Kwazulu Natal, which the port calls it’s home, was formerly known as Natal, and named after the Nativity by Vasco da Gama who is said to have sighted the bay on Christmas Day of 1497 whilst trying to find a route to India. Since then, many ships of all types and sizes called at the bay, however, it is mostly agreed amongst the knowledge-bearers that Durban Port dates back to 1824, when the first European settlers made a landing in the Durban Bay. Their intention was to set up a trading post. This is considered to be the date that the modern port was first established.

According to Ports.co.za website, the first harbour master was appointed in around 1840 which is strictly speaking when it was established as a port.

Interestingly, between the 1930s to the 1950s the port served as a base for flying boats, both for commercial craft and for World War reconnaissance flights whose base was formed at Bayhead.

Between 1837 and 1844 there were many skirmishes in Natal over land ownership, including ownership of the port. These happened between the Dutch pioneers, the Zulus and the British, ending with British rule. This saw a gradual increase in migration to Durban from the Cape and from Europe.

Durban Port
Sir Benjamin d’Urban – image courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the British groups that had arrived in 1824 was named Henry Fynn. He befriended Zulu King Shaka and was granted 40km x 160km wide strip of coast. According to World Port Source, In 1835, 35 white people who lived in Fynn’s territory decided to build a town called d’Urban after the governor of Cape Colony Benjamin d’Urban. The Port became known then as the Port of Durban. It is believed the Fynn family still lives in The Port of Durban.

With the arrival of the railroad in 1860, the discovery of gold in the area in the late 1800s, and the discovery of coal inland at Dundee, the economy boomed. The railroad stretched inland 500kms to Johannesburg and the Port of Durban bustled. Related industries such as shipbuilders, chandlers and stevedores established a presence in the port and a dry dock was built.



This period also saw the booming of the sugar cane industry in Natal, with Durban Port eventually becoming the busiest sugar terminal in the world.

In 1935 the Port of Durban was granted City status and today remains one of the busiest transport and economic hubs of sub-Saharan Africa.

The Port Area

The Durban Port is situated in a natural expanse of Durban Bay, covering an area of 1850ha, with an entrance channel protected by two breakwaters. On the North, there is a 335m breakwater and on the South, there is a 700m long breakwater. The navigation width of the port is 222m, with a channel depth of 19m at the entrance decreasing to 16m within the harbour.

Over 4700 commercial vessels call at the Durban Port each year and get to enjoy a choice of 59 berths to suit their individual needs, operated by more than 20 terminal operators.

The distance around the port is 21km and the port also boasts 302km of rail tracks with major marshaling yards.

Durban Port also boasts an impressive car terminal opened in 1998, and a cruise terminal. The car terminal has a capacity of over 60,000 vehicles a year. The cruise terminal is the base for MSC cruises which call at the port between November to April. Many of the world’s large ships like Queen Elizabeth 2 also call at the port.

The port also offers world-class ship repair facilities at their Durban Dry Dock complex. There are currently 11 large-scale projects earmarked for the complex.  According to newspaper Independent Newspapers, the R48 million refurbishment of the dry dock’s 35-meter-long, 900ton outer caisson, which closes off the dry dock from the rest of the harbour, was the first to be completed in 2016. Port of Call Consulting offers underwater maintenance and repairs at the Durban Port, one of our busier areas of operation.

The Durban Naval Station, formerly a full naval base, is also found at the Durban Port, at Salisbury Island. The naval station still enjoys occasional visits from warships from time to time.

Durban Port Facilities

The Port of Durban has the following facilities:

  • Tugboats
  • 2 floating cranes
  • 59 berths
  • Pollution boat
  • Cruise ship births
  • 3 yachting marinas
  • Point Waterfront
  • Cargo punts
  • A diving team
  • 5 business units that are managed by Transnet Port Terminals (PTT), and consist of Pier 1 Container Terminal and the main Durban Container Terminal on Pier 2
  • Passenger Terminal
  • Durban Car Terminal
  • Multi-Purpose Terminal
  • Ship repair facilities
  • Maritime Museum

The container terminal is the busiest and largest in Africa, and the containers handled at this terminal represent over 60% of the total number of containers handles by all of the South African ports. The Durban Car Terminal is the country’s largest import and export facility when it comes to the motor industry.

Cargo Volumes

According to Engineering News, Container volumes increased by 9.5% year-on-year to 2.96-million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2018 – the highest volumes handles by the port in the last 7 years. Imports grew by 10% and exports by 17%. A strong drive in bulk exports led to a dry bulk volume increase of 5.8% year-on-year, with liquid bulk volumes growing by 3.1% year-on-year.  Growth was also reported in the port’s automotive throughput, with imports up 4% year-on-year and exports more than 15% higher year-on-year.


The Durban Harbour bustles with activity, particularly on weekends. There are 3 Yacht moles, a canoeing club where kayaking and canoes launch from, and there is a small craft harbour where pleasure boats and harbour tours cruise from.

There is also the nearby recreation area of the Point Waterfront which is home to restaurants, a popular bathing beach and a water-theme park called Ushaka Marine World.

Of course, no visit to the Durban Port is complete without a visit to the Maritime Museum which “offers an insight into the influence of maritime culture on local life while also reflecting on the rigors and romance of lives lived at sea. Amazing voyages, dramatic tales, and old yet inspiring collections form the basis of an unforgettable experience, with attractions including the multi-ton floating vessels”. One can view tugs, a minesweeper, photographic records of Durban Harbour, whaling history exhibits, and more.

As our parting shot: We follow closely on social media an independent port agent, David Crouch, who works with vessels in Durban. We’re super pleased to have permission to post some of his incredible sunrise photos of Durban harbour here.