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Sunset From the Office of a Sandton Diamond Dealer (and some exciting news)

Yesterday evening, as one does, I found myself in the posh office of a Sandton City diamond dealer with four lively ladies from New York City.

I’m not much interested in diamonds, although I was intrigued by the tanzanite and semiprecious stones. I’m still thinking about a pair of purple-gold amethysts that I saw, toying with the idea of an early birthday present to myself. But I digress.

As the lively ladies from New York City inspected the diamonds with discerning eyes, I wandered out onto the balcony and watched the sunset. It was pretty.

Sandton sunset resizedSunset from the balcony of Bryna the diamond dealer, adjacent to Sandton City Mall and just across from the Michelangelo Hotel. See the pigeon on the ledge?

This photo reminded me of some news: SandtonPlaces, the book I co-authored with Gerald Garner and Brian Unsted, is about to be published. The book will hit store shelves in Joburg during the last week of June. Excitement.

There will be two public launch events for the book:

1) Wednesday 2 July, 6:30 p.m., at Exclusive Books in Sandton.
2) Tuesday 29 July, 7:00 p.m., at Skoobs in Montecasino (Fourways).

If you want to buy a book and have it signed by me (I can’t believe I just wrote that) and the other authors, please come to one of those events. Or just buy a book because it’s going to be awesome. The eager beavers among you can even pre-order at a discounted price and have the book delivered right to your house (South African cities only). Contact Gerald at for more information.

The more I think about it, I believe I really need those purple-gold amethysts in my ears for the launch. I’m SIGNING BOOKS.

Bryna the diamond lady: Thanks for letting me take pictures from your balcony. Please expect a call in the morning.

Joburg’s Best Bunny Chow

The bunny chow is a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry. Invented by South Africa’s ethnic Indian community and traditionally eaten without a knife and fork, bunny chows are one of this country’s best-kept culinary secrets.

I ate my first bunny chow nearly four years ago, a week or two after moving here. The photographic evidence is comical — see pictures here. (Neela’s, the Melville restaurant that I wrote about in that post, has since closed.)

Bunny chows are a local specialty in Durban and some hard-core enthusiasts refuse to eat them anywhere else. I have eaten a few Durban bunnies (I’ll tell you about my most recent one in a future post) and they are indeed beyond compare. But there is a legendary Sandton dive, Curry-n-All, which is known to be the best place in Joburg to order a bunny chow. I went last week to see for myself.

Curry-n-All bunny chow small

A mutton curry bunny chow from Curry-n-All. Take plenty of napkins — you’ll need them.

Curry-n-All used to be located in a petrol station at the corner of Katherine Street and Grayston Drive. But my friend Louise and I showed up there and found the station boarded up. Fortunately there was a big sign notifying us of Curry-n-All’s new location in a strip mall two kilometers away.

Bunny chows are bit pricier here than at comparable joints in Durban — this is Sandton, after all. But R45 ($4.50) for a mound of perfectly spiced curry, crusty white bread, and a side of carrot and chilli salad is still a great deal. A serving of chicken curry with rice and dhal is also R45. Portions are huge.

I devoured my bunny — by hand — in less than ten minutes. I’m more adept now than I was four years ago.

I’ll be back soon for more.

Curry-n-All is at the corner of Rivonia Road and South Road, behind the Shell garage. It’s extremely busy at lunch, especially on Fridays. Get there early to avoid the rush. There are a few plastic tables outside but the restaurant is currently expanding and will soon have indoor seating.

A Slice of Istanbul in Midrand

Seventh in my series of Sandton Snapshot posts, leading up to the publication of SandtonPlaces. Browse all of the Sandton Snapshot posts.

Just off the M1 highway in Midrand, four minarets stretch into the sky behind the Dis-Chem warehouse. If you’ve traveled that stretch of road you have undoubtedly seen these minarets and wondered what the deal is. Perhaps you did some research and discovered that the minarets belong to a huge Turkish mosque, called the Nizamiye Mosque, and made a mental note to check it out.

You probably haven’t gone yet. Unless you live in Midrand the mosque is a bit of a drive, and the idea of visiting a mosque might seem daunting if you don’t know much about Islam. Am I right?

I was much the same, until a few weeks ago when I finally went to the mosque to write about it for the SandtonPlaces book. I enjoyed it so much that I went back for a second visit. And I still haven’t had enough.

Mosque wide shot

The Nizamiye Mosque.

I knew about the mosque before it was even completed in early 2012, mainly because I have lots of photographer friends and this is one of the most photogenic buildings around. I’d seen photos of the mosque on Facebook and various blogs. So when I finally got there I could barely contain my enthusiasm — I stormed in and started clicking.

Mosque courtyard2

A photographer’s dream.

Mosque ceiling

Ceiling of the mosque dome itself. I later learned that this ceiling, and all of the ceilings in the complex, are hand-painted.

For the record, I did remove my shoes and cover my head before going into the mosque, and I didn’t take any photos inside until I saw some other guys in there taking pics with their phones. But I traipsed right past the sign at the entrance to the complex that politely instructs visitors to check in at reception before taking photos. Oops.

Heather in mosqueI couldn’t resist taking a selfie in the mosque. I hope this isn’t disrespectful — I’m assuming someone will tell me if it is.

Eventually I did happen past the reception office and go in to introduce myself. I met Ahmet Coban, the PR guide for the mosque complex, and Ibrahim Atasoy, the mosque’s imam. Ahmet and Ibrahim welcomed me warmly, gave me tea, and told me many fascinating stories. They also forgave me my impertinence for barging in and taking photos without asking first.

Ahmet then proceeded to give me a tour of the mosque, introduce me to his wife and two adorable children, and host me for lunch.

Mosque courtyardThe mosque courtyard.

Inside Mosque

Instagram from inside the mosque. The carpets are incredible. Like all the other materials that were used to build and decorate the mosque complex, the carpets are imported from Turkey.

Mosque food

Lunch at the restaurant. I actually can’t remember exactly what this is. I let Ahmet order first and then I asked for the same thing. It was delicious.

Turkish coffee

Turkish coffee.

As you’ve already figured out, there is a restaurant at the Nizamiye mosque. That’s the thing about Nizamiye — it’s actually a lot more than a mosque. It’s an entire complex including a couple of schools, a health clinic, a restaurant, a bakery (serving amazing baklava), and several shops. One of the main purposes of the complex is to educate South Africans and other visitors about Turkish culture, and about Islam more generally. In addition to being a place of worship, the Nizamiye complex is a little piece of Turkey in South Africa.

The Nizamiye complex has a fascinating story behind it, too long and interesting for me to fully recount. But just briefly: The mosque was dreamt up and built by Ali Katırcıoğlu, a very wealthy Turkish businessman known as Uncle Ali. Uncle Ali originally planned to build the mosque in America but he struggled for years fighting U.S. government red tape. He eventually abandoned America and came to South Africa, where he was able to buy land and start building immediately. Uncle Ali designed the mosque as a smaller replica if the Selimiye mosque in Edirne, Turkey. All the building materials were imported from Turkey and mosque was completed in slightly more than two years. The mosque has space for thousands of worshippers and may or may not be the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere. (Many sources report this but it hasn’t been proven for certain.)

If you want to learn more about the mosque, I highly recommend taking the tour with Ahmet. Tours are free for everyone. Be sure to check out the art gallery.

I ran out of time on my first visit and didn’t complete the tour. I also didn’t have time to stay until sunset. On my second visit, I made sure to come late in the afternoon and stayed after the tour to take photos as the sun went down.

Mosque early sunsetView of the mosque from the east, just before sunset.

Mosque sunset1

Sunset reflecting off the west side of the mosque.

Mosque and moon

Moonrise over the mosque.

I went to the Nizamiye mosque expecting to get some pretty pictures and a strong cup of Turkish coffee. I wound up getting much more than that. This was truly a delightful experience.

Thanks to Ahmet, Ibrahim and the rest of the staff at the mosque, Turkey has now moved to the top of my must-visit list. And I guess that’s the point.

Mosque sunsetMosque silhouette.

The Nizamiye complex is at the corner of Old Pretoria Road and Le Roux Avenue in Midrand. For more information or to schedule a tour, contact Ahmet Coban at 079-029-0488 or You can also follow @NizamiyeJoburg on Twitter.

Vegan Food That Every South African Will Love

Sixth in my series of Sandton Snapshot posts, leading up to the publication of SandtonPlaces. Browse all of the Sandton Snapshot posts.

South Africans like meat. In my experience this stereotype generally applies across races, genders, colors and creeds. Hence, quality vegetarian cuisine is scarce in South Africa and the vegetarian restaurants that do exist tend to remain best-kept secrets. I myself am not a vegetarian. I don’t eat tons of meat but I’m not willing to give up the occasional burger, chicken leg, or chorizo-laced pizza. But I do enjoy vegetarian food and I’m dismayed that it took me nearly four years to discover the best vegetarian restaurant in South Africa. It’s more than vegetarian, in fact — it’s vegan. That means no meat, no eggs, no dairy. It’s also mostly “raw”, meaning the majority of the food is uncooked or minimally cooked. The restaurant I speak of is the Leafy Greens Café.

Casalinga - Leafy Greens food1

Yummy food at Leafy Greens Café. Don’t ask me what it is. All I know is that there’s no meat in it and it’s good. 

The first time I went for a meal at Casalinga, an acclaimed Italian restaurant on an organic farm in Joburg’s far-northern suburb of Muldersdrift, I didn’t even realize that there was also a vegetarian restaurant on the premises. The people I went with are meat enthusiasts and may not have known about Leafy Greens themselves. Fortunately I trekked back to the Casalinga farm a couple of weeks ago to write about it for the SandtonPlaces book. I had heard about Leafy Greens by then and decided to try it out. (Casalinga is not in Sandton. But the book will include a few “further afield” spots and Casalinga is one of them.) Casalinga - view

Casalinga is way out in the country, about 45 minutes northwest of downtown Joburg off Beyers Naudé Drive. 

It’s easy to miss Leafy Greens when you get to Casalinga. The café is hidden at the back of the garden in a grove of trees, in a small building that spills out onto a small courtyard.

Casalinga - Leafy Greens outside

 The courtyard at Leafy Greens Café. It’s delightful.

I went to Leafy Greens on a public holiday so they were serving a buffet. (The buffets are normally on weekends but there is also an a la carte menu.) The buffet allows you to fill one plate with food for R105; subsequent plates cost R65. This sounded a bit steep to me so I piled as much as possible onto my plate. This is vegan food, after all. I thought I’d need a lot to fill myself up.

In the end, I couldn’t finish my plate. Sorry, I don’t have a decent photo. I couldn’t wait to start eating. And sorry that I can’t really describe the food that I ate. It was a buffet and I tried some of everything. My favorite item was the chickpea curry. The only thing that didn’t blow me away was the chocolate truffle that I ordered for dessert. Next time I’ll skip dessert — it’s really not necessary anyway.

I have no way of proving this, but I suspect that very few of the people eating at Leafy Greens that day were actual vegetarians. They were people who know good food when they taste it. And Leafy Greens’ food is good. The Leafy Greens owner, Antonia De Luca, is the daughter of Casalinga founders Peter and Jenny De Luca. Clearly this family has a knack for food and Antonia in particular can work magic with vegetables. She’s like a vegan rock star. Antonia wasn’t around the day that I went, but if she had been I totally would have asked for her autograph.

I must also mention that in addition to Leafy Greens, Casalinga has an onsite coffee roastery called the Green Bean. I thought I knew all of the Joburg coffee roasteries selling single-origin African beans, but I guess the Green Bean flies under the radar because it’s so far outside of town. I’m glad I’ve found it now though, because the Green Bean’s beans are spectacular.

Casalinga - Green Bean coffee2

Roasting beans at the Green Bean.

The Green Bean’s owner, Lee Anderson, loves talking about African coffee. She also has a really cool dog.

Casalinga - Green Bean dog

I was so focused on the coffee that I forgot to ask his name.

Fortunately Green Bean coffee is available at several retail stores and markets around Joburg so you don’t have to drive all the way to Muldersdrift to get it. Leafy Greens, however, must be experienced in person. Trust me, it’s worth the trip. And if you have a carnivore in your life who refuses to eat vegan, just drop him/her at the Casalinga restaurant (which also serves excellent food) and make your way across the garden to Leafy Greens. Make a reservation first because it gets busy.

You can laugh at your carnivore later for being so closed-minded.

Leafy Greens is open Wednesday to Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Contact 082-882-7300 or I’m not sure of the Green Bean’s opening hours — call 076-469-8995.

Jozi’s Sunday Market Shuffle

Fifth in my series of Sandton Snapshot posts, leading up to the publication of SandtonPlaces. Read posts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

For years, the weekly flea market at the top of the Rosebank Mall parking garage — the Rosebank B&B Market — was a go-to Sunday afternoon outing for Joburg families. The market was the only one of its kind in Joburg and had hundreds of stalls selling crafts, antiques, food, and countless other locally made products.

I never got around to checking out the Rosebank B&B Market. I kept putting it off because I figured it would always be there. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

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Charged by a Dassie in Fourways

Fourth in my series of Sandton Snapshot posts, leading up to the publication of SandtonPlaces. Read posts 12 and 3.

This past weekend I went to Fourways, the northernmost Joburg suburb.

I know what you Jozi city folk are thinking: Fourways is a sprawling, traffic-choked suburban wasteland and I wouldn’t go there if you paid me. I know many of you are thinking that, because I used to think it myself. Until someone actually did pay me to go to Fourways. So I went. And I discovered interesting things.

Lonehill Dassie_edited-1

Sure, Fourways has traffic and gated communities and Montecasino. But Fourways also has chubby, slightly evil-looking dassies, living in the wild. (Dassies are kind of like prairie dogs. But bigger.)

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The Coolest Coffee Shop You’ve Never Heard Of

Third in my series of Sandton Snapshot posts, leading up to the publication of SandtonPlaces. Read posts 1 and 2.

I’m seriously behind in blogging and it’s starting to freak me out — so many stories to tell and not enough time to tell them. I have great stories and photos from Swaziland, the Free State, and even from my Port Elizabeth trip (which was more than three months ago), not to mention tons of Melville stuff. The list keeps getting longer and I’m continually bumping older stories in favor of breaking-news, like the publication of Johannesburg in Your Pocket or my rescue of the Hillbrow kitten.

Anyway, blogging woes aside, I can’t let this week come to an end without a quick Sandton Snapshot. Today’s Sandton Snapshot is the Bean Republic.

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Sandton Field and Study Centre: Boring Name, Beautiful Park

Second in my series of Sandton Snapshot posts.

While reading my recent post about the impending publication of SandtonPlaces, you may have wondered where the photo on the mock cover of the book — a shot of a dog playing in a river — was taken. A good friend of mine from Sandton, who lives and works a couple of kilometres from where I encountered that cute doggie, looked at the mock cover recently and asked me, “What does this have to do with Sandton?” Haha. Prepare to be enlightened.

The photo was taken at the Sandton Field and Study Centre, a park that borders William Nicol Drive to the west and the Sandton suburb of Parkmore to the east. The Braamfontein Spruit, one of Joburg’s main waterways, runs right through it.

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Sandton Snapshot: Sundowners at Higher Ground

UPDATE: SandtonPlaces was published in June 2014 and is now available in bookstores around Johannesburg. For more information contact Gerald Garner at

You know that book about Sandton that I’ve been working on? It’s going to be published. Soon.

I’ve been working on this project for months. At some point along the line, I think I forgot that at the end of it all there would be an actual book with my name on the cover (along with the names of my two co-authors, Gerald Garner and Brian Unsted), and my writing and photos inside.

Then, Gerald sent me this:

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“Researching” Burgers and Shirtless Men

Warning: This blog post is rated PG-13. Children under 13 must be accompanied by a parent.

Last Saturday night I spent the evening at Beefcakes, a burger bar in Illovo. A burger bar with nightly drag shows and hot, minimally dressed waiters.

Tequila shot

The “boys” (and one girl) of Beefcakes. The guy in the middle, Simon, was my waiter.  Lucky me. (Simon, by the way, is a law student and part-time power-lifter.)

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24 Storeys Above Sandton City

Yesterday I went to the roof of the Sandton City Office Tower to take photos for the SandtonPlaces book. Those of you familiar with Joburg know the building I’m talking about — the office block in the middle of Sandton City mall with the pyramid-shaped cap on top.

Sandton City cap

This is what the cap looks like from underneath. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of the building from below, but they are easy to find on Google. The Sandton City Office Tower has 21 floors labeled in the elevator, but is actually a few storeys taller than that.

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