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Johannesburg - I’ve often been a tourist in my own country – from taking tours of the battlefields in KwaZulu-Natal, to Robben Island, to doing a shebeen tour of Soweto, a tour of Alexandra township, Vlakplaas and Liliesleaf in one day, to the suburb of Fordsburg. But this was the first time I had sat atop the top deck of the hop-on hop-off buses more commonly seen in overseas cities than in our gritty streets.
I was familiar with the concept and have used such buses in London, Paris and Budapest – but I’ve been a real tourist in those cities, the landmarks strange and unknown, places untouched by my own personal history.
Taking a tour in Joburg was a different experience – familiar, of course (I’ve lived here since the age of five) and yet also strangely unfamiliar in some senses. I had a bird’s-eye view of the streets I regularly drive to and from work – our newspaper offices are situated in the heart of the city – as well as the streets I walk when shopping in the city.
It was a different experience watching Joburg’s residents walking the streets, seeing the wares displayed by hawkers and observing the antics of motorists. A private taxi cut in front of us through a red traffic light – and we roared with some shock and not a little bemusement. Well, here was a typical Joburg sight at least, and one we’re all used to.
But it’s all so different seeing it from the top of a red bus. Or, hearing the “music of the streets” as the commentary rather prosaically put it: hooting of numerous minibuses combined with blaring tinny sounds from a taxi’s cheap radio. All so familiar – as familiar as mud, yet watching your city from a tourist bus seems to put you at a remove somehow.
I drifted into reverie, listening to the tour guide’s commentary and switching constantly between delight at seeing the city through alien eyes and remembering all these places: streets I’ve travelled, explored, driven along and walked from my student days at Wits in Braamfontein, catching a bus into Eloff Street and then another bus home, through the years of working, mostly in the city centre.
The red hop-on hop-off buses have finally arrived in Joburg and the excitement was at fever pitch at Gold Reef City, where a jamboree had been set up to introduce media, and dignitaries and travel industry people to the concept, before taking us on a ride through the city.
Arriving first in Cape Town – where MC and comedian Alan Committie joked that they slowed traffic down – you can easily imagine what’s going to happen in our city where traffic is already, well, you know…
The route takes in a small zone at first, incorporating 12 stops, mainly in the city centre, Newtown, Gold Reef City and a few areas of interest in the south, but there are plans to extend the route, into Soweto for example and other parts of the province, as Gauteng MEC for Economic Development Nkosiphendule Kholisile explained at the launch.
As to why the buses are being introduced here and now, Ruby Mathang, the City of Johannesburg mayoral committee member for economic cevelopment, said: “Johannesburg is a cosmopolitan destination, despite its youth in global terms.
“It’s a city that boasts layers and layers of fascinating history. Urban tourism is coming into its own in Johannesburg, from exciting downtown developments, to Braamfontein, the CBD, Alex, Soweto, the neighbourhood market in Braamfontein and the Arts on Main market.”
And the aim is to get locals and tourists to use the buses to explore the city, according to Claus Tworeck, of City Sightseeing South Africa. The company is working in partnership with Tsogo Sun, whose chief marketing officer, Rob Collins, commented that, “it will hopefully herald a new era for tourism in South Africa”.
The concept is well-known – devised for tourists, you board the bus at any of the stops, and alight wherever takes your fancy, explore, then hop on one of the buses which come along at regular intervals.
It’s a chance for tourists to take in the sights without the need to hire a car or work out complicated bus or train timetables.
These City Sightseeing tours operate in 100 cities around the world, and I’ve found them easy to use, making negotiating and touring a strange city remarkably straightforward.
Our journey started at Gold Reef City, where three packed buses departed. You can begin your journey at any of the destinations, although it’s recommended you start either at Gold Reef City or Park Station.
The first stop is the Apartheid Museum, before the buses proceed along the highway into town. Sitting on top meant a panoramic view of the Joburg skyline, set against a dazzlingly, typical blue Highveld sky.
Through the mining district, and the World of Beer, again you can hop off at any of these stops and then, heading into Braamfontein, we heard an almighty racket. A group of children in a school bus next to us were waving excitedly, flashing phones, snapping pictures and showing typical Joburg friendliness: it was a lovely start to the tour.
The commentary is delivered through earphones, in a number of languages, and I found it worth listening to, picking up nuggets of information I didn’t know. No matter how well you think you know your city, there are, it seems, always facts that have escaped your notice.
For example, at Wits, with stops at the Origins Centre, there was a comment on the Wits Art Museum, and then through Braamfontein to Constitutional Hill and past Gauteng Station at Park.
As we pulled away from the former fortress and jail, the commentary asked how to rise beyond a place that had caused so much pain, and again returned to the present and the future, pointing, again, to the friendliness of Joburg’s citizens.
At times the commentary verged on euphemism: referring to walking around Hillbrow, it was suggested although it’s a place of bars and vibrancy, you should take a guide with you. Or that, although there are cameras in the city centre, don’t flash cameras and jewellery, for example. I’d say you have to be a little more careful than that, especially if you’re a tourist used to slightly safer cities in Europe.
We wound through the heart of the CBD, Eloff Street, the Carlton Centre – built in 1973 and still the tallest skyscraper in Africa, according to the tour commentary. Past Gandhi Square and a look at the statue of Gandhi, again unnoticed previously by me, making me aware of so many other places to notice and explore here.
The bus goes through the south, through La Rochelle and Turffontein, and stops at Santarama Miniland, as well as the James Hall Museum of Transport. Meandering through the southern suburbs I listened to commentary on Daisy de Melker, South Africa’s most famous poisoner. She lived in these suburbs and, hearing the familiar story again while going through the areas she lived in, was poignant.
History seemed to come alive in a way that was curiously moving and unexpected.
Tickets can be purchased from the City Sightseeing Tour office inside Gold Reef City; online at www.citysightseeing.co.za; or on the bus using a credit card. Tickets for the Joburg tour cost R150, discounted to R120 if they are bought online at www.citysightseeing.co.za.
City Sightseeing can be contacted on 0861 733 287. - The Sunday Independent