Jozi From Above

Africa’s tallest building lives in Joburg. At 50 stories and 223 meters (730 feet) tall, the Carlton Center is modest by Western and Far-Eastern skyscraper standards. Even when you get within a couple of blocks, the Carlton Center looks strangely unimpressive. It doesn’t appear much taller than the buildings around it.

The Carlton is straight ahead.

The views from the top convey a different perspective.

The view to the east.

The Carlton Centre is actually more than just the skyscraper – it’s a mixed-use retail and business complex. It was a revolutionary concept when it was designed and built in the 1960s and 70s. In addition to the skyscraper, there’s a hotel, an underground mall, and a parking garage with an ice-skating rink on top. (To my very great disappointment, the skating rink is now closed.) The underground mall connects the parking and the hotel to the skyscraper so you can get from one to the other without crossing the street.

In the 1990s, the Carlton Centre fell into disuse and disrepair. The hotel has been closed since 1997. The mall was once a crime-infested ghost town but it’s now coming back to life — the retail spaces are filled and it was teeming with people when we were there last week. ( I wasn’t brave enough to take out my camera in the mall, which I now regret.) The skyscraper is still occupied, mostly by SARS (the South African Revenue Service).

Going to the top of the Carlton Centre is nothing like going up the Empire State Building or the John Hancock Tower.  We had some trouble finding the ticket window — you have to wind your way through a confusing maze of underground mall shops to get there. Tickets are R15 (about $2) and there was no line. We paid and stepped onto the high-speed elevator, alone.

Joe checks out the view from the top.

The 50th floor of the Carlton Centre, nicknamed “The Top of Africa,” tells a familiar Joburg story. The halls are lined with empty souvenir stalls and shops – not a single Carlton Centre mug or magnet in sight. The only thing open is a small cafeteria. The corridors are neat and tidy but the windows are scattered with finger- and nose-prints, which made photos difficult. I wish I’d brought along a bottle of Windex.

It was nice to have the breathtaking views nearly to ourselves, but it also felt kind of sad.

Looking down at Gandhi Square on Main Street.

Another visitor!

View to the north.

I passed a smiling Carlton Centre employee who I’m sure was dying to chat. I have no idea why I didn’t stop to talk with him. I guess I’ll have to go back.

This family came up just as we were leaving. Thanks to Romeo, the little boy who is enjoying the view so much, I left the Carlton Centre feeling hopeful about the future of this place.

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  • Reply Jeroen March 3, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Great shots, fabulous skies – though the first view is to the east 🙂
    It’s one of the few places in the city centre you’re reasonably likely to see foreign tourists (well, when I visit anyway!).

    • Reply 2summers March 4, 2011 at 8:31 am

      Hmm, Joe misinformed me of the direction on that pic. I am directionally impaired. We did see one person who looked like he might have been foreign.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough March 3, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Fascinating post and fabulous photos! I have never been to Africa, ever, and I am dying to go. My Sara’s favorite place on the planet is Cape Town.

    Hope you day in AC-ed office went well!

    from Haiti,

    • Reply 2summers March 4, 2011 at 9:21 am

      Thanks Kathy. Cape Town is pretty friggin great — I have a few posts from there in Jan/Feb if you’re interested:

  • Reply TheIdiotSpeaketh March 4, 2011 at 4:07 am

    Great shots! J’burg looks nothing like what I had pictured in my mind. Thanks for the great photos!

    • Reply 2summers March 4, 2011 at 9:26 am

      My pleasure. Joburg is an interesting place — it reminds me more of LA than any other African city I’ve been to.

  • Reply amblerangel March 4, 2011 at 10:38 am

    It’s come such a long way from when I was supposed to fly through there in 1999. We weren’t allowed to leave the airport because the company I worked for was afraid we’d get kidnapped. I find this post encouraging.

    • Reply 2summers March 4, 2011 at 10:45 am

      Well, it was apparently more dangerous back then but it sounds like your company was a bit overzealous! The city has certainly come a long way in the last 15 years though.

  • Reply neha March 4, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Gorgeous, bright skies! What I’d give for a swap right now … great photos too.

    • Reply 2summers March 4, 2011 at 10:51 am

      Thanks! We’d been waiting for a nice clear day to go up and the timing finally worked out.

  • Reply Tilly Bud March 4, 2011 at 10:54 am

    In all my years working in Joburg I never went up there. I regret it now I’ve read this post. Incidentally, this post is full of regret on your part. I suggest you make a point of doing everything you said you wished you’d done: they are all do-able.

    • Reply 2summers March 4, 2011 at 10:57 am

      Hmm, you’re right! I guess I was feeling a little melancholy when I wrote it.

  • Reply Slowvelder March 4, 2011 at 11:12 am

    I am loving your series of posts about the inner city. When the whole place turned dingy we just learned to get by without ever having to go there and so many people have stuck to that habit. I am so glad that its looking MUCH better. Lovely photos as usual 🙂

    • Reply 2summers March 4, 2011 at 2:05 pm

      I had hardly been downtown at all myself until the last couple of weeks, and the more I look there the more I find. I wish I’d been here 15 years ago so I could really compare then to now!

  • Reply tinkerbelle86 March 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    wow what gorgeous pics

  • Reply Fidel March 6, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Excellent images as always.

    I have a question for you. I’m considering taking a STA Travel tour of Africa this year around September-October. I’m very interested in their tour that goes to Tanzania, Zanzibar and Kenya. Have you been to either three yet?

    • Reply 2summers March 6, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      Hi Fidel, your comment went to spam again! Stupid Akismet.

      TZ was the first country I ever visited in Africa. It’s truly spectacular and I would highly recommend going there. I’ve only been to the Nairobi Airport in Kenya (more times than I’d like) but I’ve heard only good things about safari trips to the Masaai Mara and the Serengeti. You’ll love it. Never been to Zanzibar but I don’t think you can go wrong there either.

      I can give you some good B&B recs in the Arusha area of TZ, where most safari trips originate. Let me know if you’d like them.


  • Reply Mia March 6, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    What an incredible view right? When we went up there a while ago I got the exact same sad, desolate feeling. It has so much potential, but the only people making use of it was one student couple cuddling in the corner and our crazy “first timer” group. Everyone should go check out the Carlton.

    Oh, and there are tons of shoe shops, for all the shoe-aholics out there.

  • Reply chris green March 8, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Hi there and thanks for such a great photo series again. I love the Carlton, maybe because I used to go and watch it being built! It is unique amongst so many special Johburg structures. I take most of my city tours up there for a ‘perspective’ view. Jozi is so sprawling that half an hour up there can pull it all together. The melancholy is an odd part of it, rather like a forlorn former glamour girl the Carlton no longer is the sassiest place in town, yet it has undergone considerable transformation as has much of the surrounding area too.Your blog is a treat and Joburgers should take note: there’s a great deal more to this city than meets the eye, and it’s not a ‘ mission’ to get there.

  • Reply Hanri May 5, 2011 at 8:38 am

    I grew up in Joburg and have many happy memories about visiting the Carlton centre before Joburg city centre became a no-go area. I even use to ice skate on the now closed icerink. I’m glad to hear that life is slowly returning to the Carlton centre. Great blog!

    • Reply 2summers May 5, 2011 at 9:55 am

      Thanks so much for visiting, Hanri! Glad you enjoyed the blog.

  • Reply Carlton Centre: On a clear day you can see Forever | findingjozi September 3, 2012 at 9:15 am

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