The Red Bus

G and I have been enjoying the beach in Port Elizabeth (even though it is winter) and meeting up with friends and family over the last two days, but more of that later.

I can’t finish talking about Joburg without mentioning our Red Bus Tour. These hop on – hop off tours are available in most big cities globally, but I have never thought of doing one in South Africa (I find myself becoming more and more of a tourist in the land I still think of as home – not quite sure if this should make me sad or not). It was actually quite an amazing experience and we got to see places that my friends and I would not have considered going to, mostly for safety reasons.  The bus is a double-decker variety with a half-open top. From the top, you can see a whole different perspective – it’s also fun for little kids to climb that windy staircase and sit with the wind in their hair. One gets issued with a set of red earphones which provides access to the running commentary offered in multiple languages through a little port at the side of each seat. There is even a channel especially for kids.

We drove past Zoo Lake and the Zoo and learned that this park was donated to the city on the condition that people of all colors would have access to the park and that there is a monthly jazz concert that is free and open to the public. The land that this park, the Joburg Zoo, and War Memorial were built on was initially part of a farm called Sachsenwald and was a favorite spot for the Randlords to pass time in recreationally.

We passed through the suburbs of Houghton and admired all the mansions of the Randlords and Johanessburg elite. Quite interestingly, this suburb has a mosque, synagogue, and some churches. It is also home to St. Johns, Roedean, Sacred Heart College and King Edward VII High (my dad went here). The first two, in particular, have magnificent grounds and are all over a hundred years old.

The tour then took us to Constitution Hill ( an interactive museum complex that depicts SA’s path to democracy – you can tour the old Women’s Jail, the Old Fort etc – really interesting, but maybe too much reading to keep a 5 year old entertained). At this point, we changed buses to go on the city line. Next stop was downtown Joburg. What a busy city! People everywhere. Vendors selling things on the side of the road, flower and produce sellers, taxi’s (white mini-vans that pretty much rule public transport in SA), laundry hanging on balconies in apartment buildings, and signs and billboards everywhere. One street looks like it could be in any European city, the next like a chaotic African city. This city is so interesting and fascinating. So much history!  Johannesburg was first established when a gold reef was discovered nearby. Nobody thought that the gold rush would last, so not much thought was given to the fact that it was not near a water source and that it was at a rather high altitude (1.753 metres above sea level).

The tour then headed out of town towards Gold Reef City and the Apartheid Museum. As we headed in that direction we went through an area called Orlando (nothing like the Disneyland one) – it is part of the larger area called Soweto (SOuth WEst TOwnship) and borders on an industrial area where one can find a very large fresh flower and fruit market where many of the city vendors buy their produce. As we were riding through this very low income area with small houses and tiny patches of garden, I noticed a few orange trees heavy with fruit as well as a pomegranate tree, also with fruit. For some reason this struck me as interesting and cool. As we were heading back towards the city we drove past a very large area containing multiple warehouses called China Mall. I have recently heard a number of people talking about the growing Chinese influence in South Africa and was quite surprised to see the extent of this shopping area. Everything sold here is made in China and I bet you can find just about anything under the sun. Not sure if this is a good thing for us….

G and I made a stop in Newtown where we spent some time at the Sci-Bono Museum. This museum was perfect for kids (and adults) as it had a whole lot of interactive experiments, games and puzzles that all taught scientific concepts. G loved it and did not want to leave. I enjoyed looking at myself in the skinny mirror! The South African Brewery was across the road and had some very tempting tours and tastings. I exercised my better judgement and decided this might be better to do when my partner in crime was at least 18.

My favorite factoid about Joburg was about the story of the Ponte Tower. Built in 1975, this tower is the highest residential skyscraper in Africa and has 55 floors. Back in the day when Hillbrow was hip and happening, this was a cool address. The building is cylindrical and the core is open with a rock floor. In the 80’s and 90’s when downtown Joburg became rather unsafe, gangs slowly started to take over the building and it became synonymous with violence and drugs. Apparently ownership of the building went from hand to hand until eventually in 2007 it was bought and renovated as part of the initiative to revitalize Berea and Hillbrow before the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Legend has it that rubbish filled the core of this building until the 11th floor (or somewhere thereabouts). A former military man moved in as caretaker and kicked out all the rif-raf floor by floor and now the tower is back to being trendy. You will notice it in the Joburg skyline as the building with the massive Vodacom sign. Thanks Mandy for the extra details!

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