New sights and smells: A group of friends run BESETdurban, which provides free monthly tours around Durban. The walks help people get off their couches and explore areas of the city they are unaware of. The tours cover areas such as the Warwick Markets, Rivertown and Florida Road and the old whaling station. Picture: SUPPLIED
New sights and smells: A group of friends run BESETdurban, which provides free monthly tours around Durban. The walks help people get off their couches and explore areas of the city they are unaware of. The tours cover areas such as the Warwick Markets, Rivertown and Florida Road and the old whaling station. Picture: SUPPLIED

Besides botanists, few people enter Compton Herbarium in Cape Town. In the climate-controlled space with a background hum, more than 850,000 specimens from the Greater Cape Floristic Region lie neatly ordered in sealed cupboards.

It is a treasure trove of irreplaceable specimens and floral knowledge and fascinating in its complexity; but without expert insight, largely inaccessible to nonscientists.

Meanwhile, in Durban, a restricted military area on the Bluff basks in near silence, gun battlements that date back to the Second World War slowly corroding in the humid air. The area has been out of the public eye since a whaling station based there closed in 1975.

These intriguing places have recently been chosen as sites for public tours and walks. The events were organised by very different organisations, but both were designed to give curious locals a behind-the-scenes peek at lesser-known urban spaces.

The appeal may be part of a wider shift to what the Guardian has described as the "experience economy": a desire to do memorable things rather than gather material stuff. It quotes trend forecaster James Wallman saying "experientialism is more about finding happiness and status in experiences.… It used to be that our car, or handbag or wallet showed our status. Now we post Facebook pictures from a chairlift in Chamonix or the latest music festival."

Experiences are big in travel — Airbnb introduced customised activities with knowledgeable locals. In Cape Town, this includes hiking up Table Mountain, hitting a local surfing spot, or visiting Langa with a comedian to see a re-enactment of the enforcement of the apartheid pass laws.

Airbnb in 2017 also trained Western Cape township residents to host visitors, making these areas more accessible. The value of going somewhere new — and hearing all about it from someone who knows the place intimately — is being marketed worldwide.

In SA, there is additional potential for exploration. Because of the country’s bitter past, locals unconsciously echo spatial divisions introduced by apartheid. Museums and many iconic buildings were forbidden territory for the largest sector of the population.

Founder of specialist arts and design tour company Culture Connect Kate Crane Briggs says her digital communications intern Nwabisa Mbana went to high school on the edge of the Company’s Garden but had never set foot in the Iziko South African National Gallery or South African Museum.

"She thought it was just where white people went," she says. "In Cape Town, we still stick to our areas and our cars. People don’t get out and walk."

Briggs worked in the London art world for 20 years before returning to SA.

Culture Connect’s public tours — it also offers private experiences for people with specific interests — take people, mainly locals, inside hidden places or offer deeper insight into familiar spaces.

At the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, senior scientist Nicola Bergh shows visitors perfectly pressed specimens and explains such mysteries as the fumigation and freezing that keeps them safe from the ravages of time and insects.

Graham Duncan, the world expert on Lachenalia bulbs shows us around the Kirstenbosch Collections Nursery, a wonder of local species, protected from moles, porcupines and the odd tourist who nicks plants. Rare Moraea loubseri nod in the greenhouse, hopefully soon to augment the last five of the plants known to exist in the wild near Langebaan.

If I go to a museum I can read the captions, but to have the artist talking to you just enriches it and makes it more enjoyable
Kate Crane Briggs

Expert opinion and knowledge is the staple of these experiential tours. Briggs has visited artists’ studios where they speak about their work.

There are Bo-Kaap Cape Malay meals and discussions with Faldela Tolker of Cooking With Love.

There has been a Waterfront tour with the author of a book on the harbour’s spaces, an Art Deco tour with a professor and a talk on the King’s Map in the South African Museum by University of Cape Town professor Ian Glenn.

Culture Connect has even taken a group backstage to meet with the director of a Cape Town opera performance.

"Culture Connect experts are often world experts in what they’re talking about. They bring not only the facts and the figures, but also a personal element that brings things to life. If I go to a museum I can read the captions, but to have the artist talking to you just enriches it and makes it more enjoyable," says Briggs.

As many experts offer their services free of charge, Culture Connect’s tours — occasionally also offered in Johannesburg or Pretoria — can’t always repeat experiences on demand.

This could be seen as a weakness, but in the experience economy, it also means each event is more authentic; possibly unrepeatable. This can add to the pull factor.

On the other side of the country, four thirtysomething friends run BESETdurban, which offers free walks once a month. They’ve covered areas such as the Warwick Markets, Rivertown and Florida Road.

Their walks spring from the founders’ interests and curiosity — because two of them are architects, buildings are a strong focus. One ramble covered Derek Crofton and Issy Benjamin’s "jazzy" modernist beach front buildings.

Another took visitors to the old whaling station.

"Beset is about getting people off their couches and on to the streets — we’re not a tour company," says Jonas Barausse.

Events are free to help ensure there are no barriers to locals joining in what they describe as social experiments.

"[Durbanites] tend to tell visitors all the places you shouldn’t go, versus celebrating our city," Barausse says. "There’s this culture of ‘don’t go to Warwick or you’re going to get mugged’, or ‘don’t walk along the promenade at night’.

"By creating positive storytellers and people with a rich sense of appreciation for our city’s past and present and future, we improve the odds of people hearing about all the amazing sides Durban has."

Beset’s speakers vary from "renowned architects, respected scientists, world champion surfers, prize-winning authors and outright Durban nerds", says its website.

"We will not organise a walk if we don’t have either the person that knows about a particular area or building or someone who knows a lot about it," says Barausse.

The visit to the Bluff Military Base was enhanced by the whaling station’s former factory manager, Peter Froude, who had worked there for 17 years.

Beset’s first walk drew 40 people and numbers can reach 400. While relatively diverse, most participants are suburban locals. Walking immerses people in the city and challenges perceptions and fears.

Experiential walks and tours also deliver on the simple human pleasure of getting behind the scenes.

Visitors can admire the bathtub in former presidential residence Groote Schuur, or walk down Pixley Kaseme Street, which BESETdurban’s Cameron Finnie says displays just about every architectural style the young city has to offer.

"You’re so, so close to the city, just separated by a little water, yet the beaches are teeming with crabs," marvels Barausse.

"There are literally pods of dolphins – and then these Second World War gun emplacements: massive concrete, imposing, postapocalyptic; some of them falling into the sea. They’re remnants of a global conflict that I think most Durban youth are detached from."

• Culture Connect’s next tours are of the Company’s Gardens (October 28) and collections held at the Iziko National Gallery ( November 11).

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