What I Didn’t Know About Joburg

“You know more about Joburg than most South Africans.”

People say this to me all the time. I hear it so often that I started to believe it. Even though I’ve lived in Joburg for less than three years, I had begun to think of myself as an authority on all things Jozi.

Then I went on the JoburgPlaces “Regenerated Inner-City Walking Tour”, led by Gerald Garner. During this tour I realized that, actually, I don’t know as much as I thought I did.

view from Rea Vaya

Pretty downtown building glimpsed from a rapid-transit bus platform in downtown Jozi.

I love Jozi walking tours and I’d been meaning to take one of Gerald’s for a long time. Unlike the other walking tours I’ve done, which provide in-depth glimpses of small sections of the city in two-hour snippets, Gerald takes his guests on five-hour jaunts through large swaths of the central business district (CBD), combining walking with public transport. As the group travels around town, Gerald presents a comprehensive narration of Joburg’s short but fascinating history.

We started our journey on a blazing hot Saturday morning in Braamfontein, across the street from the trendy Neighbourgoods Market. Braamfontein is a bustling neighborhood on the northern edge of the CBD, fast becoming one of the city’s hot-spots.

Gerald began by explaining that despite Jozi’s reputation as a “car is king” kind of city, this town was originally founded as a mining camp and therefore designed for walking. So even though Jozi’s outer suburbs are far-flung and impossible to walk between, the inner city remains walkable.

(Note: I recommend taking Gerald’s advice to fill up on food at the market before the tour begins. Otherwise your energy will flag before the tour is over and you may become cranky. Also, do not make the mistake I made, and engage in a strenuous workout before embarking on this tour. Bad idea.)

salon pic

Typical Jozi entrepreneurship: hair salon, laundry service, and internet café all rolled into one.

Randlords

Randlords, one of several rooftop vantage points that we visited in the tour. Randlords is a chic Braamfontein party venue with a jaw-dropping view of the city. I don’t think I am hip enough to actually attend a party here so I’m glad I got to see it on Gerald’s tour.

After exploring Braamfontein we walked to Park Station, Southern Africa’s transport nerve center, and took a Rea Vaya rapid transit bus deeper into the city. I had never ridden the Rea Vaya before and was happy for an excuse to finally do it.

Rea Vaya

Rea Vaya station.

The bus ride was pleasant — the Rea Vaya buses are state-of-the-art and spotlessly clean. The only problem with Rea Vaya is that the routes and schedules are rather confusing and unreliable, especially on weekends. More on that later.

The Rea Vaya deposited us near the Kerk Street market. Kerk Street is a lively pedestrian street  devoted to shopping — yet another place in Jozi I had never been to. The market stretches for several blocks and is lined with tall trees. Informal traders set up in the center part of the street, flanked by retail outlets along either side.

hair braiding

Kerk St. is THE place in Jozi where women go to get their hair braided. All the best hair stylists work here, according to Gerald, so many women opt to have their hair done on Kerk St. rather than the fancy salons in the northern suburbs.

Markham building

Around the corner from the Kerk Street market is Eloff Street, home to many of South Africa’s largest retail chains. Markham, a men’s fashion retailer, still has its headquarters in this beautiful historic building on Eloff.

I’ve written a lot already and I’m not even halfway through the story. Plus I don’t want to steal Gerald’s thunder and give away all the best things about the tour. So I’m going to speed up a bit now.

Rissik St.

Rissik Street Post Office. 

Gandhi iPhone

We visited Gandhi Square but I didn’t get a good photo — the sun was too bright. So here’s a shot I took there a few weeks ago. The Gandhi statue is one of my favorite Joburg monuments.

Reef Hotel

Checking out the view from the Reef, an upscale hotel around the corner from Gandhi Square. They’re on the verge of completing an amazing bar on the roof of the hotel — workers were putting on the finishing touches while we were there. I can’t wait to go back at night. 

Gerald storytelling

Gerald, perched on some old machinery at the Reef, weaves a tale about the rise and fall of Johannesburg.

Impala

“Impala Stampede”, also featured in my previous post. Interesting fact: This sculpture was vandalized in the 1990s when it stood in its original location in Ernest Oppenheimer Park. The heads of the impala were hacked off. Later on the the sculpture was restored and the heads replaced. Look closely at this impala: You can see where the head was re-attached at the base of his neck.

Sisulus

Random guy who requested that I take his photo on the laps of Walter and Albertina Sisulu. The Sisulus were great champions of children, which is why the statue is designed this way.

haircut

Afternoon haircut.

The tour wound down and it was time to catch the Rea Vaya back to our starting point. Alas, the Rea Vaya’s unpredictable weekend schedule failed us. We waited for 45 minutes and the bus never came.

selling mielies

Stolen shot from the Rea Vaya platform: A woman sells mielies (corn) on a street corner.

We had to abandon our public transport plan and hoof it back to Braamfontein. I was sad about this, tired and cranky as I was from all the extreme exercise and lack of food.

But it turns out Gerald is right — Joburg is more walkable than we think. We cut through town, plunging through the evening cacophony on Jeppe St., past the historic Ansteys Building and a few more street markets. We entered the cavernous Park Station on one end and came out the other. Sooner than I thought, we were back in Braamfontein.

The tour ended at another spectacular vantage point — the top of the Parktonian Hotel. We finished an hour or two later than planned but no one seemed to mind.

There was a lot that I didn’t know about Joburg before this tour. But one thing I did know already is that the roof of the Parktonian Hotel is one of the best places in town to watch the sunset.

Parktonian sunset

I rest my case.

This was a great tour — perfect for visitors, Joburg newbies, and Joburg old-timers alike. And for those who don’t like walking, Gerald does bus tours, too.

If you want to learn some things you didn’t know about Joburg, sign up.

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19 Comments

  • Reply Gail Wilson March 1, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Have also being wanting to do one of Gerald’s walks forever, thanks for this will book on the next one.

    • Reply 2summers March 1, 2013 at 9:28 pm

      Awesome Gail. You’ll love it.

  • Reply Sine March 1, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    thanks Heather, I loved this (even though it’s a reminder of all that I’m missing out on). Jozi sounds like such an exciting and interesting place when seen through your eyes, thank you for that!

    • Reply 2summers March 1, 2013 at 9:27 pm

      Thanks Sine! If you’re ever come back you’ll have to take one of these tours.

  • Reply Yashik March 2, 2013 at 9:59 am

    As a former Jozi resident, I loved reading this! Of course, all of your blog is incredible, but this post touched me. I often have to defend Joburg’s reputation – it’s the place I call home & a place that I love dearly! The photos were awesome! Thank you!

    • Reply 2summers March 2, 2013 at 10:00 am

      Thanks Yashik, I really appreciate comments like this.

  • Reply cocoaupnorth March 2, 2013 at 11:19 am

    Wow! Thanks Heather for this beautiful post. I just saw my niece in one of your photos (no.5) , the one sitting down having her hair braided. I haven’t see her for 2 years, Now I’m feeling more homesick, not your fault:-). You capture and write about Jo’burg so beautifully, I enjoy reading your posts.

    • Reply 2summers March 2, 2013 at 7:18 pm

      Cocoa, that is amazing! I’m sorry to have made you homesick but thrilled that I gave you an unexpected glimpse of your niece. Thanks for reading!

  • Reply panos48 March 3, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    Reblogged this on southweb2.

  • Reply llafont March 7, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    This was an enjoyable read about Joburg, great blog.

  • Reply De Wet Herselman March 8, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Great to see you enjoy and ‘live’ Joburg in a way very few South Africans do nor embrace. Thanx, nice blogpost

  • Reply sarahcoughlan23 March 30, 2014 at 11:07 am

    I moved from Joburg to London a month ago. Thank you for the posts, you remind all ex pats how amazing our city really is 🙂

    • Reply 2summers March 30, 2014 at 2:18 pm

      Thanks Sarah, I’m happy to remind you.

  • Reply Beckie Knight June 30, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Being born and raised in Johannesburg, the pictures might be well taken, but, sadly, the deterioration of the once great City has been totally lost. I’m not sure where you got the idea that mine dumps “separated” the races?

    • Reply 2summers June 30, 2017 at 12:08 pm

      I’m pretty sure I got that idea simply by traveling around the city and observing where things are. While in Soweto, it’s pretty hard to miss the fact that the view toward downtown Joburg is usually blocked by mine dumps. Perhaps you should go to Soweto and check it out sometime.

  • Reply The Eight Best Johannesburg Sightseeing Tours - Joburg Expat November 29, 2017 at 4:22 pm

    […] rooftops – and trust me, you will want to, as the photo opportunities are incredible. See What I didn’t Know About Joburg for an excellent blog post on one of his […]

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