Johannesburg: Exploring one of the world’s great cities
Women stand in circles, their fingers expertly braiding their customers’ hair into intricate designs as they laugh and chat among themselves.
Around them are vendors selling food, clothing, Bibles, rat poison, hair accessories, sunglasses, nappies and plastic flowers.
It’s early afternoon in downtown Johannesburg, and the hustle and bustle of the city is almost subdued. Almost, but not quite ...
There are throngs of people walking the pavements and a constant stream of metro buses, hooting mini-bus taxies and cars. The mix of languages and accents as vendors try to entice you to come and sample their goods and buy, is bewildering.
The pavements are a constant fashion parade – there’s a woman in bright blue stripes having a loud conversation with another wearing an orange skirt and tight black top, stretched over her ample bosom. That’s not the most striking thing about her – it’s the shades of blue eye shadow and her long talon-like nails painted the most vivid pink that capture your attention.
Another woman walks past, all sky-high stilettos and braids down to her bottom, clad in the tightest jeans.
She swerves to avoid a mamma, snoozing baby wrapped snuggling to her back, a huge bundle of groceries precariously perched on her head, while holding on to the hand of a toddler.
Walking in the other direction are three young men, all slogan T-shirts and dreadlocks, each sporting huge headphones over their ears. A man on a home-made skateboard whizzes past, neatly avoiding crashing into the parked cars.
On a balcony about three floors above the bustle of the streets, businessmen in crisp blue and white shirts have a quick smoke break.
Downtown Jo'burg, much like every other part of the city, is a myriad of contrasts. Old corner stores, which have been trading for generations, are dwarfed by huge glass and chrome buildings; and ramshackle blocks of flats stand across the road from newly refurbished apartments, with a price-tag of millions of rands.
It’s a tough nut to crack, but once it gets under your skin you will find it’s the start of a beautiful love affair.
There are quiet oases where lunchtime customers can have a quick bite to eat among the offices, and there are bars, fast food outlets, supermarkets and retail clothing stores. There’s also the Central Methodist Church – haven to thousands – the old Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Cosatu House, the Johannesburg Theatre, and the National School of the Arts that South Africa-born Oscar winner Charlize Theron attended.
There’s also the Carlton Centre (still the highest building in Africa), Constitution Hill, the University of the Witwatersrand, the African National Congress headquarters, Braamfontein – fast becoming the hippest part of the CBD – Newtown and the Market Theatre, all sentinels and silent witness to the ever-changing face that is downtown Johannesburg.
So much to see and savour…
I was lucky enough to see all this when I was invited along for a test run of the soon-to-be-launched City Sightseeing hop-on, hop-off bus service in Johannesburg (the Johannesburg CBD is one of the major areas through which the bus travels).
The route starts and ends at Gold Reef City casino and amusement park, and takes in downtown Jo'burg; the CBD and almost-forgotten parts of the southern suburbs, or SoJo; the yellow mine dumps that are as much a part of the city’s landscape as the buildings that grew up around it; the well-known Turffontein Racecourse – all green lawns and the smell of horses; Santorama Miniland with its huge effigy of Jan van Riebeeck, the first commander of the Cape; and the transport museum.
As the commentary that accompanies the tour aptly states: “The people of Jo'burg make the city. It’s a tough nut to crack, but once it gets under your skin, you will find it’s the start of a beautiful love affair.”
The City Sightseeing hop-on, hop-off bus tours will be launched in Johannesburg early next year. Online tickets will cost R120, but you can buy a ticket for R150 without booking. Main ticket sales are at Gold Reef City.
Tours will run seven days a week, irrespective of the weather. There are 12 stops along the route, with buses coming by every 30 minutes along the designated stops. Running commentary in a number of languages – English, Afrikaans, isiZulu and a number of European languages, as well as a commentary channel for children – forms part of the features of the bus.
Visit citysightseeing.co.za for more information.