“In the inner city there is no excuse for loneliness and this is in welcome contrast to suburban life where so many live behind high walls and commute by car.” (Spaces & Places Johannesburg by Gerald Garner, by p. 75)
For Sandtonites who have never worked in Jozi’s CBD, the idea of venturing into “town” can be daunting, especially if one never has to. Back in the day, I recall trying to get from Parktown, through Braamfontein, to one of the Absa towers in the south east of town. I’d driven the route with my boss before and it seemed simple enough, yet I managed to get lost, driving up and down one-way streets, for up to an hour, every time I tried to go through town. Not even Africa’s tallest building, The Carlton Centre, helped as a landmark. I found it just blended into its surroundings, flanked by fellow tall buildings and shabby yet vibrant streets. After one or two experiences like that, I resorted to taking the freeway to my client, where I could more easily memorise the few one-way turns I had to make in order to locate the relevant Absa parkade.
I also found that even though I may have grown comfortable over the years with making my way from Jozi north to one particular pocket of town, I still had no idea how these pockets connected to others in the CBD. As a result, “town” simply remained a scary mystery.
Until last Sunday, that is.
I heard about City Sightseeing’s Red City Tour of Jozi a few weeks ago and had been keen to check it out as a weekend outing with The Husband and The Princess.
Our outing started off in “European Vacation” style as a comedy of errors (less funny at the time). But instead of acting like ditsy Americans unable to find their way out of the Arc de Triomphe’s maze, we acted like ditsy middle class South Africans who go everywhere by car and who can’t navigate public transport for love or money. I had an old Gautrain timetable (back when they still printed them) for the Pretoria to Park Station line, but it dated back to the days before trains were even running to Park. At 10:43am, I realised that the next train from Sandton to Park Station was at 11am and that trains only ran every 30 minutes on weekends. With that realisation, we made a mad dash to drive the 1.1km to the Gautrain station, park the car, set up the pram, get The Princess in the pram, buy tickets and get the lifts to the platform. By some miracle, we actually made it onto the platform with a couple of minutes to spare. Just as I was thinking that it was odd that the train had not yet arrived, it dawned on me that I had led us to the northbound side of platform B8 where trains headed for Pretoria stopped, rather than the southbound side, to catch our train headed for town. And so we had 29 minutes to spare until the next train to Park Station at 11:30. A real rookie rail-user error. Grrr. Once we were on the correct platform and had caught the train, it was a mere 8 minute journey for the bargain price of 22 ZAR per adult (one way).
When we arrived at the immaculate, brand new Park Station (I confess to being a HUGE Gautrain fan), a Gautrain employee told us to take the well-marked Wolmarans St exit (serviced by lifts and allowing us to avoid road crossings with The Princess in her pram) and to look out for a dude in a red jacket – a representative from City Sightseeing. Our lack of planning meant that we’d just missed the 11:38am bus and so had to wait for the next one at 12:20pm (they run every 40 minutes from 9am).
Looking heavily laden with The Princess in her stroller, we were ushered onto the bus first and so got the best seats in the house – upstairs in the front row. We were able to leave her McLaren stroller downstairs in an open area with no seating (which I assume is intended for strollers and wheelchairs), secured by a special seat belt. Upstairs, The Princess insisted on having her own seat and the stewardess even brought her, her own pair of earphones so that she, too, could get connected for the tour’s commentary.
With a toddler in tow, I wasn’t expecting to be able to take advantage of the individual plug-in earphones and audio guide but The Husband started listening right in the beginning and encouraged me to do the same. The Princess was naturally less fascinated by the commentary after a minute or two but she was excited by the prospect of being on a double decker bus and having a great view of the streets of Joburg. This meant that both The Husband and I were able to listen to most of the commentary.
I have to say, we were both absolutely fascinated.
My knowledge of the history of Joburg’s CBD before this tour was more or less limited to my memory of Eloff Street being prime real estate in Monopoly (and in real life before the mass business exodus and subsequent urban decay that set in, in the early nineties). So those who are more knowledgeable about the city’s history might already know all the basics the Red Bus tour has to offer, but for us it was the perfect amount of content to whet our appetite. Here’s a brief overview of the bus’ twelve stops, interspersed with some pictures:
1. GAUTRAIN PARK STATION
2. GANDHI SQUARE
3. CARLTON CENTRE
4. SANTARAMA MINI-LAND
With a two year old, we decided that either Santarama or Gold Reef City would be our stop of choice, but we learnt that Santarama is currently undergoing refurbishment, so we decided to save it for next time. Not having grown up in Joburg, I had never heard of Santarama, but to The Husband, passing its entrance was like a blast from the past as he recalls going there as a young child.
5. JAMES HALL TRANSPORT MUSEUM
6. GOLD REEF CITY
Gold Reef City is exactly half way along the two hour round-trip bus tour and so it took us an hour to get there from the Gautrain Station at Park. En route, we entered Jozi’s southern suburbs and passed places I had only ever heard of by name like Turfontein Race Course and Wemmer Pan. The Husband has often spoken of his rowing training and racing at Wemmer Pan when he was a teen, so it was great to be able to place it geographically.
7. APARTHEID MUSEUM
Having visited the Apartheid Museum before, I personally wouldn’t choose to combine a visit there with the bus tour. The Apartheid Museum is brilliant but obviously harrowing given South Africa’s recent history. It is also very detailed and best absorbed if you do not have time constraints. In my view, if you have the option, rather go straight there by car or dedicate a few hours, or a morning, to the museum.
8. MINING DISTRICT WALK
9. NEWTOWN PRECINT
10. ORIGINS CENTRE AT WITS
11. BRAAMFONTEIN (THE GROVE)
12. CONSTITUTION HILL
and back to the GAUTRAIN @ PARK STATION
Although we hadlofty plans to leave the house by 9:30am on the morning of our bus tour, we actually left much later and then proceeded to miss our train, so by the time we got to our chosen stop, Gold Reef City, it was already nearly 1:30pm and The Princess was very much ready for her day sleep by then. We popped her in the pram and, after fatigue overcame her curiosity with her surroundings, she dutifully fell asleep. We then decided it was pointless to go into the theme park with a sleeping child and went in search of lunch instead. I had heard of the restaurant Back of the Moon many years ago, so when we happened upon it inside the Gold Reef City hotel and casino complex (right where the red bus stops), we decided to try it. The Princess happily slept through the live band while we enjoyed a romantic lunch – our day was working out perfectly 🙂
We then checked the timetable and hopped back onto a bus at 14:45. Although The Princess woke up when we wheeled her on-board, she knows that she is no longer allowed to keep her dummy once awake and so she feigned sleep every time we looked her way for the rest of the tour! We decided to play along and left her in her pram, secured by the bus’ special seat belt situated near the front of the downstairs area and settled in to enjoy the rest of the commentary. The one down-side was that one doesn’t get nearly as good a view of the sites from downstairs as one does from upstairs. Yet another reason, why we are keen to take the tour again.
All in all, I would highly recommend the experience. We were fortunate in that The Princess really played along and so we were able to absorb the historic and cultural experience. But even if this hadn’t been the case, it would have been just as fun to experience The Princess’ excitement at going for a ride on top of a big red, double decker bus.