Johannesburg’s Amazing Race

I have a confession to make: I know a lot about Joburg, but I know nothing about Joburg’s public transportation system.

Give me a car and a set of directions, and I’m off. I’ll get lost a few times, but I can find anything in this city by car. Take those car keys away, and it’s another story. Don’t ask me to get on a bus, board a train (not counting the Gautrain, which is easy to ride but has limited reach) or signal for a taxi. I don’t have a clue.

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In South Africa, the term “taxi” refers to a minibus taxi. About 90% of Joburg’s population uses the taxi system — an informal network of dilapidated minibuses — as a main mode of transport. 

“You can’t survive in Joburg without a car.”

I’ve heard this a thousand times, and I’ve said it a thousand times myself. But actually, you can survive in Joburg without a car. The vast majority of people do it. Two days ago, I did it too.

This week the South African Cities Network hosted a conference on spacial transformation of cities. The conference delegates —  city planners, architects, and government officials from all over South Africa and the world — participated in an “Amazing Race”-style journey around Johannesburg, dividing into teams and making their way through the city using public transport.

Each team was assigned a “chaperone” — an Instagrammer (cell phone photographer) responsible for documenting the team’s progress and helping navigate. I was one of the Instagrammer-chaperones.

My team consisted of four people: Eloise, a woman from Cape Town; Richard, a man from Hartebeespoort; Patrick, a man from Nairobi; and me. None of us were familiar with Joburg’s public transport system. We walked, rode the Rea Vaya (rapid-transit bus), and took taxis, traveling from downtown Joburg, to Soweto, and back downtown. (There were 12 teams in total, following five different routes.)

My team had a fantastic time and experienced only one meltdown. One team member — who shall remain nameless — became frustrated and claustrophobic in the crowded underbelly of the Bree Street taxi rank and blurted, “Let’s just go outside and catch a cab!”

Okay, that team member was me. Everything was fine in the end though.

Here are the photos I took along the way (shot with my iPhone), along with some commentary on the route.

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The race’s starting point: the Bus Factory in Newtown. It rained for most of the day.

From Newtown we walked ten minutes southwest, through Old Chinatown to the Westgate district, where we boarded the Rea Vaya.

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Entering the beautiful Rea Vaya station to catch a bus to Soweto. It was mid-day and we waited 13 minutes for the T1 bus. (We just missed a bus while buying our tickets.) Our tickets to Soweto cost R13 (about $1.25) each.

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The bus was about three-fourths full. The people around us were incredibly friendly. (Apologies for the blurriness of my bus shots.)

Once in Soweto, we stopped at the Boomtown station and switched to the F4 bus, which took us to Vilakazi Street.

Quick gripe: Vilakazi Street is the most famous street in South Africa, but we had a hard time convincing the Rea Vaya driver to stop and let us off there. Surely, the bus stop at this world-famous tourist attraction should be more clearly marked, and the drivers should be inclined to stop there?

We eventually managed to disembark at the top of Vilakazi Street, and strolled down toward Nelson Mandela’s former home.

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Vilakazi Street mural honoring Nelson Mandela.

On Vilakazi Street we asked directions from a pedestrian, who directed us to go to Khumalo Road and signal with one finger pointing down. We did so, and within a couple of minutes we were on a taxi bound for Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

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In the taxi to Baragwanath. The fare was R7.50 (about $.70) per person — all of our taxi fares were either R7.50 or R8. When riding a taxi  you pass your money up to the front and then your change is passed back to you. The person sitting next to the taxi driver is responsible for dealing with the money. It’s a bit confusing,

Baragwanath Hospital, also in Soweto, is the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere, with 3200 beds and more than 6700 staff members. It took us about 15 minutes to get there from Vilakazi. The area around the hospital is like a city — you can find anything there.

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Need a tombstone? A photocopy? A bus to Mozambique? It’s all here.

The hospital is massive and we got out of the taxi on the opposite end from where we needed to go next. We walked for several blocks.

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One of countless shop stalls around the massive Baragwanath taxi rank, which is called Baralink.

Our notes instructed us to visit Baragwanath’s St. John Eye Hospital. We found the hospital, took a look around, then headed back to Baralink.

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My favorite shot of the day.

It was a little confusing finding the right taxi back into town from Baralink, especially as the busy rush hour approached. Eventually we figured it out with the help of the guys working at the taxi rank.

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Hey look, there’s Brad. Brad was chaperoning the other group in Soweto. We passed each other on our way into town.

We were supposed to get off at the Bree Street taxi rank, and find a taxi from there to Wits University in Braamfontein. Unfortunately we didn’t realize that the taxi would not actually pull in to the taxi rank; we should have been watching for the taxi rank and asked to get out when we passed it. By the time we realized this we were several blocks too far.

We got out and made our way down Bree Street, which was packed with people, to the taxi rank. Once there, we had to go two levels down to find a taxi to Wits. It was dark and wet, and the lines were long and confusing. At this point that I had my meltdown. Fortunately my teammates calmed me and we boarded a taxi without a problem.

Four hours after we started, we reached our destination.

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The Origins Centre at Wits University.

This trip was exhausting but I was so grateful to be part of it. First, I feel much more confident now about using public transport in Joburg. I will definitely ride the Rea Vaya and I’ll probably catch a taxi from time to time. Even though the taxi system is confusing, you can always figure out where to go by paying attention and asking those around you for help. Asking for help is an important skill in life.

Second, I was thrilled to participate in a project using Instagram — a photo-sharing cell phone app that I normally use for fun — to educate the public about public transportation in Joburg. Thanks to the South African Cities Network and Mobile Media Mob, who organized this project and hired the Instagrammers, for hatching such a great idea.

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My Instagramming Amazing Race colleagues. I love these clowns.

By the way, you can check out all the Instagram photos from Tuesday’s Amazing Race on the South African Cities Network Instagram feed (@sacitiesnetwork). I also posted several shots from the day on my own Instagram feed.

Happy commuting.

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16 Comments

  • Reply unclescrooch March 6, 2014 at 8:56 am

    I made it onto 2summers.net

  • Reply moirads March 6, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Well done, Heather! I enjoy your blog tremendously.

  • Reply Brian unsted March 6, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Great read and good laughs….

    • Reply 2summers March 6, 2014 at 3:50 pm

      Thanks Brian, I’m happy to hear I made you laugh 🙂

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough March 6, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    What a fun post, Heather. This looks like an adventure I’d enjoy. Here in Cuenca we only take public transport, mostly buses. However, Sara is in the process of getting her driver’s license.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers March 6, 2014 at 3:52 pm

      Thanks Kathy, it was incredibly fun. You’re lucky to live somewhere with such great public transport! So are your U.S. drivers licenses not valid in Ecuador?

  • Reply DS March 7, 2014 at 10:12 am

    I use taxis to get to work each day. My experience of Bree Street taxi rank in Metro Mall mirrors yrs. It’s dark and wet, layers of filth caked to the ground. There’s a company that’s meant to ensure the proper management of these facilities (Metropolitan Trading Company http://www.joburg.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=1291) from what I can make out, but they evidently are useless.

    • Reply 2summers March 7, 2014 at 10:15 am

      Yes, the downtown taxi rank was definitely the most difficult part of the trip. I’m not eager to go back there. That taxi ranks at Baragwanath, on the other hand, were much nicer.

  • Reply Spatial Transition of Cities | Grind Cities March 7, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    […] and experience Johannesburg as most people in Johannesburg do. There were 5 routes and 12 teams. 2summers describes the experience on her […]

  • Reply Sine March 7, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    I love this! And it feels me with longing – riding a minibus taxi in Joburg is one of my unfulfilled dreams. I know it sounds weird, but I so would have liked to have the experience. I berate myself for never doing it, but it seemed more of a challenge (all by myself at least) than climbing Kili, honestly! Well done, and I do hope that public transport in Joburg will expand eventually, to cover a much bigger area with a bus network – real buses, not minibus taxis. that 90% of the population you mention would be much the safer for it.

    • Reply 2summers March 9, 2014 at 9:08 am

      You’ll have to ride a taxi the next time you’re here. Not nearly as difficult or scary as you think! Except for the downtown taxi ranks — those actually are a little bit scary 🙂

  • Reply Vision, Apartheid and Gentrification | The New Neighbour March 9, 2014 at 6:34 pm

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  • Reply Lutho_Hopa August 14, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Heather, I really enjoyed reading about your adventure in Johannesburg…we were tasked with an almost similar task of visiting Vilakazi Street using public transport, about a week ago for our Transport Planning class (I study Urban and Regional Planning at Wits University)…I however used the Metro Rail Trains going there and minibus taxis back to Bree taxi rank…If youb ever come around to SA again I’d like to join you guys on your “adventures”…

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