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Donkeys in Kameel

#10SouthAfricanTowns, Part 2: Kameel

Kameel is the second stop in my  #10SouthAfricanTowns campaign, for which I’m visiting ten small towns across South Africa in 2020. Kameel means “Camel” in Afrikaans. The original farm there is called “Kameel Bult”, which roughly means “Camel Hill”, and I assume the town got its name from the farm. This might make sense if there were a hill in the area, but there isn’t. This land, in the far reaches of South Africa’s North West province, is flat as can be. The sky is huge. Kameel Bult could also mean “Camel’s Hump”. The name could be a reference to the ubiquitous camel thorn trees in the area, or maybe to the mounted police who used to ride camels in this part of the country. No one knows for sure. Like Val, Kameel is technically a hamlet, not a town. It has about 30 residents, two B&Bs, a general store, a bottle store (liquor store), a co-op (hardware store) with petrol pumps, and a post office. (The post office is just a few post boxes in the general store.) Kameel has more maize silos than people. I visited Kameel for three days and stayed at the Kameel Rust & Vrede B&B. […]

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Val train tracks at sunset

#10SouthAfricanTowns, Part 1: Val

Val is the first stop in my #10SouthAfricanTowns campaign, for which I’m visiting ten small towns across South Africa in 2020. After months of talking about it, my #10SouthAfricanTowns campaign has finally begun. I visited Val, a tiny hamlet in Mpumalanga province, on the third weekend in January. Val, which has only 10 permanent residents, is not large enough to be considered an official town. But for the purposes of this project I’m defining my towns loosely. I chose Val because: 1) It was recommended by a couple of my readers; 2) I was intrigued by the idea of such a tiny “town”; 3) The Val Hotel sounded like a fun, quirky place; and 4) It’s only a 90-minute drive from Joburg and I wanted to start somewhere close to home. I spent three days in Val, which is a long visit in such a small place. I really learned a lot, about the town and also about myself. But somehow I still didn’t manage to see and do everything I wanted. I’m considering another visit to Val before the year is over. Rita Britz, the Grand Dame of Val I don’t think Val would still exist without Rita Britz […]

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Top floor of 9 Rose Road, Johannesburg

The Ruins of Rose Road: Photo Bonanza

The Ruins of Rose Road The moment I saw the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation announce this tour — even before I read the description — I signed up. I had never heard of Rose Road. But the tour’s title was so evocative…My mind’s eye quickly filled with images of haunted mansions and stately gardens of a bygone era. My mind’s eye was spot on. The Ruins of Rose Road were everything I could have imagined, and more. Rose Road is a dead-end street at the top of a ridge in Joburg’s wealthy Upper Houghton neighborhood, overlooking the Wilds Municipal Nature Reserve. All the north-facing mansions along the western end of the road, built between the 1920s and 1940s, are — for reasons I don’t completely understand — unoccupied. The land is owned by a property development company and slated for redevelopment, taking into account the historic heritage of several of the homes. But due to South Africa’s stagnant economy there are no immediate plans for this redevelopment to begin. Johannesburg heritage gurus Brett McDougall and Flo Bird took us on an exploration of three houses along the road, each of which required climbing a steep, winding driveway. 3 Rose Road Number […]

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Tswana dancers on Vilakazi Street in Soweto

Touring Soweto with a South African Blonde

Last week I did an all-day tour of Soweto with Eenblond Tours. “Eenblond” means “a blonde” in Afrikaans, which makes sense because that’s exactly what Gilda Swanepoel is. Gilda and I are kindred spirits — we’re the same age and our life stories have many parallels. Gilda spent lots of time traveling solo around southern Africa and used to write a travel blog. She loves getting to know Joburg’s people and cultures in a very intimate way. I’d been meaning to take one of her tours forever and she does lots of different ones, around Joburg and all over South Africa. But I was particularly keen to go to Soweto with Gilda. I’ve been to Soweto — which is technically part of Joburg but really its own place entirely — countless times (browse all of my Soweto posts here), but I’ll never pass up an opportunity to go again. Soweto is so huge, so historic, and so diverse that no one visit is the same as another, even when you go back to the same places. My tour with Gilda was no exception. A Day in Soweto Gilda fetched me at my house and then we went to pick up […]

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Travel books at Maps 4 Africa

Maps 4 Africa: Navigating Africa Without Google

In today’s Google-powered world, it’s tempting to believe paper maps and guidebooks are obsolete. Who needs hard copies when every piece of information ever collected is contained inside our phones? I’m as guilty as the next person of operating this way. But as recently as a couple of months ago, I found myself stranded in the middle of Joburg’s northern suburbs when my mobile signal suddenly dropped and I didn’t have Google Maps to guide me to my next destination. And you can’t use the “Well, you live in Africa” excuse, either. The same thing happened last year in Manhattan. I still need maps — real maps — and real guidebooks when I travel. And even if I don’t need them, I want them. Luckily there’s a great place to buy them in Joburg. I discovered the Maps 4 Africa shop many years ago, then forgot about it, then discovered it again last year while looking for a Mozambique guide book for my trip to Maputo. You’d think Exclusive Books, the country’s most popular retail bookstore, would have a wide selection of guidebooks for Mozambique — a major tourist destination and one of South Africa’s closest neighbors. But nope — […]

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Looking up at the Carlton Hotel and Carlton Centre

Memories From Joburg’s Carlton Hotel

The Johannesburg central business district (locals call it the CBD) has experienced tumultuous change over the past 50 years. Nowhere is that change more visible than at the once glitzy, now abandoned Carlton Hotel. The Carlton opened at the height of apartheid in 1972, when black South Africans in Joburg still had to carry passbooks. The hotel was grand, by all accounts, albeit with ugly (in my opinion at least) brutalist architecture. The Carlton had 31 storeys, more than 600 rooms, a rooftop pool, and several fancy restaurants and shops. Only the richest South Africans could afford to stay there. Less than 30 years later, in 1998, the Carlton Hotel was closed and mothballed as the CBD collapsed around it. The Carlton has never re-opened. This hulking skyscraper has been sitting empty for more than two decades, and as far as I know there is no plan to revive it. (It’s not alone, either. The old Joburg Sun Hotel, a few blocks away, suffered the same fate.) The Carlton is closed to the public and it’s not easy (or advisable) to get inside. But thanks to a gutsy friend who shall remain nameless, I recently spent a few minutes snooping […]

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Our Jozi Works piece in Louis Both S-Bend mural

The Louis Botha S-Bend: Walking Through Joburg’s History

Along Louis Botha Avenue between Orange Grove and Yeoville there is a half-kilometer stretch of road previously known as “the death bend”. Louis Botha is one of Joburg’s main thoroughfares between north and south, connecting Alexandra Township and the city’s northeastern suburbs to downtown Joburg. The road is notoriously ruled by speeding minibus taxis. This particular stretch is a relatively steep downhill from south to north and has a few dangerous curves. The Louis Botha corridor is in the middle of a major redevelopment. The death bend was recently straightened out somewhat, and there is now a wide pedestrian sidewalk and a very high wall along the northwestern side the road. A few months ago, that wall was covered with a huge, vibrant graffiti mural illustrating the history of the Louis Botha corridor (previously the Old Pretoria Road). The graffiti project is called the S-bend mural and it’s the largest mural in Joburg, covering 3,000 square meters. The S-bend mural — “S-bend” is meant to be less negative than “death bend”, while still warning drivers of potential danger — was commissioned by the City of Johannesburg Department of Transport, the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), and a JDA-supported art campaign #ArtMyJozi. […]

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The Bank of Lisbon Building implodes

Bank of Lisbon: The Implosion of a Jozi SkyScraper

Yesterday morning I watched the Bank of Lisbon Building, a 31-storey tower in downtown Joburg, fold inward on itself and collapse to the ground in a cloud of dust. I photographed the implosion from just under three blocks away, on the eighth floor of Corner House — one of Joburg’s oldest and most iconic buildings — while peering through the porthole-shaped window of a turret with a giant jacuzzi tub in it. Before I get to the exciting demolition pictures, let me back up a bit. The Sad Story of the Bank of Lisbon Building The Bank of Lisbon was built in 1967 in a Late Modernist/Brutalist style of architecture. Based on the name, I assume the building once housed the offices of a bank from Lisbon. Most recently it was home to three Gauteng provincial government offices. In September 2018, amidst tenant complaints about potential safety issues in the building, the Bank of Lisbon caught fire on the 23rd floor. The blaze burned for three days before the fire department managed to extinguish it (water supply issues reportedly hindered efforts to put out the fire), and three Joburg firefighters lost their lives. The building’s shell remained standing after the […]

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The Shot Hole Borer Beetle: A Deadly Threat to Joburg’s Trees

I struggled to decide how to title this post, as the title above feels like an understatement. While the polyphagous shot hole borer (PSHB) beetle is first and foremost a killer of trees, this insect could also kill our city. And PSHB is not only a threat to Joburg. It’s infesting trees all over South Africa and could eventually spread to the rest of the African continent. I’m not an expert on the shot hole borer and I know very little about trees, other than how freaking awesome they are. There’s a lot of confusing and conflicting information about PSHB floating around and I’ll undoubtedly get things wrong here. But I’m distressed by how few people seem to be aware of this grave threat. I’d like to use this blog to change that. So please bear with me (bore with me?) as I try to lay out the basics on what the shot hole borer is, what it’s doing to our trees, and what we can do to fight it. What is the Shot Hole Borer? The shot hole borer, also known as PSHB (the P stands for polyphagous, which means the beetle can feed on multiple types of trees), […]

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Oudtshoorn sunrise

From the Beach to the Desert, Part 2: Oudtshoorn

After spending two days overlooking the beach in Plettenberg Bay (see part 1), our group of lady journalists took a quick hop over the Outeniqua Mountains to spend two days in the desert town of Oudtshoorn. Oudtshoorn is part of the Klein Karoo (or “Little Karoo”), the southeastern border of the Great Karoo, which is the sprawling, semi-desert region that occupies a huge section of central South Africa. I had been to the Garden Route before and I had been to Oudtshoorn before, but I had no idea how close together the two places are. George, the biggest town in the Garden Route and travel hub for the area, is actually closer to Oudtshoorn (just under an hour) than it is to Plettenberg Bay (just over an hour). The stark, windswept scenery in Oudtshoorn was such a sharp contrast to the lush, green coastal views we had in Plettenberg Bay. Visiting the two places together was a really interesting experience. Two Days in Oudtshoorn The first notable part of our trip to Oudtshoorn is the route we drove to get there. The Outeniqua Pass, crossing the mountains via the N12 highway, is one of the prettiest stretches of road in […]

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Daouda Fashions shop in China City, downtown Joburg, visited during the JoburgPlaces "Of Origins and Migration" tour

Musings on Migration in Joburg

JoburgPlaces, a downtown tour company that I’ve written about many times, recently introduced a couple of different city experiences that center around the concept of migration. The JoburgPlaces Migrant Cuisines Storytelling Dinner is an epic evening at the Thunderwalker (formerly Somerset House) on Gandhi Square, in which JoburgPlaces guide Charlie Moyo explains the history of Johannesburg in terms of the multiple and overlapping waves of migration that have been happening since the city was founded 133 years ago. The historical overview is accompanied by a series of migrant-inspired food dishes cooked up by in-house chef Princess Bulelwa Mbonambi. The Of Origins and and Migration Tour is a walking tour mainly around Troyeville, Ellis Park, and Doornfontein, exploring some migrant communities in that part of Joburg as Charlie explains the city’s history. The tour begins and ends at Thunderwalker. Thoughts on Migration Charlie taught me a lot of interesting facts about the migrant history of Joburg. For example, I never knew “New Canada”, just north of Soweto, was so named because that’s where all the Canadians settled during the Joburg gold rush. I never knew Chinese and Indians — not blacks — were the first people required to carry passbooks. (Passbooks […]

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Mishack Rapalalani in his studio

Madi a Thavha Mountain Lodge: An Art-Lover’s Paradise

I love Limpopo and I also love African craft art. So when I went to Madi a Thavha Mountain Lodge — a lodge outside Louis Trichardt in far northern Limpopo that promotes the work of Venda and Tsonga artists — I was in heaven. Madi a Thavha started 15 years ago when Dutch immigrants Marcelle Bosch and Aart van Soest decided they wanted to open a lodge in northern Limpopo. There was very little tourism development in this area and Marcelle and Aart had a particular interest in this region’s artists and artisans — sculptors, potters, beaders, textile-makers, etc. — as the Venda and Tsonga cultures have very strong and unique artistic traditions. (Read more about the art from this region in my 2016 post about the Ribola Art Route.) Marcelle and Aart bought an old farm, about 10 kilometers west of the town of Louis Trichardt, and set about turning it into a lodge. They named the lodge Madi a Thavha, which means “water from the mountain” in Venda, because the farm’s water comes from natural springs that flow down the mountain. Today, this lodge is basically paradise. I don’t think my photos properly convey the sense of tranquillity […]

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