Johannesburg - Okay, so Joburg is not London, romantic Paris or show-stopping New York, and it doesn’t help that I’ve trodden Commissioner, Eloff, Rissik and Sauer streets more often than I care to remember. Yet I would recommend the City Sightseeing Joburg Red City Tour in the blink of an eye, because you haven’t really seen a city until you’ve gazed closely at it from a double-decker bus.
I’ve seen the city’s tall red tourist bus on occasion, always with a healthy load of tourists on the open-air top deck, so I thought I’d give it a try to see how it compares to other city bus tours I’ve been on, which include Berlin, London, Singapore, Belfast, Boston and Port Louis, capital of Mauritius.
I’ve been on a clutch more bus tours in Europe, but that was at an age when I was more interested in the boy in the back seat than the Cathedral of Florence.
The Joburg City Sightseeing bus starts off at the Gautrain’s Park Station and runs along a well-chosen route to view the CBD’s most historic sites, then heads south towards Gold Reef City and the Apartheid Museum, then back into town via Newtown to Constitution Hill, returning to the Gautrain station in Braamfontein.
As with city bus tours overseas, you can get off at any of the 12 stops – and at Gold Reef City Hotel you can hop off and hop on another bus for a tour of Soweto – then catch another bus, as they come every 40 minutes during the week, and every 30 minutes over weekends.
Being a local, I knew that while the double-decker bus itself could easily be a transplant of a replica one in London – City Sightseeing is a global brand running tours in 100 cities worldwide, starting its Joburg operation in January last year – our cityscape would surely be a surprise to some of the tourists on board.
After all, most of the Joburg CBD is a crazy mix of old colonial and new-age African, starkly exemplified in gracious tenements from the gold rush era flanked by dilapidated buildings and underpinned by bustling streets full of vendors pumping hip hop and fast-food outlets filling the air with the smell of fried chicken. Quite a different scene to a tour of Washington, Amsterdam or Tokyo.
Being a local I expected to find a glitch in the service, and there was one, but I’ll come to that later. As it turned out, the bus tour is excellent and the running commentary, a standard bugbear on many city tours due to it being too info-loaded, riddled with lame jokes or plain incomprehensible, is world class.
The information is delivered, through headphones that you plug in next to your seat, in an easy-to-understand private school South African accent (as well as in Afrikaans, Zulu, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish). And whoever put the information package together, well done! It is concise, interesting, varied and sprinkled with evocative metaphors, like this gem: “Joburg is like a shark, strong and confident, a city that has to keep moving to survive.”
There are titbits that you’ll not have heard before even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Joburger. I didn’t know, for instance, that landlords resorted to bricking up the bottom floors of their buildings during the exodus of big business to Sandton in the 1990s, to stop them being hijacked by squatters and gangsters; that Wits University was founded as a mining school; and that Joburg is one of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the world.
“I love this tour, and the commentary is great, like the story of Daisy de Melker (an infamous nurse who in the 1930s poisoned two husbands and her own son with strychnine),” said Meghan Lieberum from Edenvale, who has been on the tour twice.
Her mother Leona, also on the bus for a second time, said it was like a trip down memory lane, as Hillbrow and the CBD had been her stomping ground as a girl. “The old charm and beauty of the city is best seen from this height. Going past the old John Orr’s department store and the old City Hall brings so much of my youth back to me,” she said.
Talking of memory lane, I was amazed to see that Santorama Miniland, a quirky mini-town in the city’s grubby south, is still there, though sadly its only attendant was a forlorn looking ticket officer.
Bostonians Stan King and Kera Street, who hopped off at Gold Reef City to get on the bus to Soweto, were also impressed by the richness of the commentary. “This has been a real highlight. It’s given us a good spectrum of the history and landmarks of the city,” said King.
One of these landmarks is the Carlton Centre, where you can step off and have a City Sightseeing marshal escort you to the top floor to enjoy a picnic there if you like. I chose to jump off at Gold Reef City and get breakfast at the casino, where News Café sold a long awaited, very poor English breakfast, despite the fact that there were only five of us in the whole restaurant. Come on guys, the tourism drive has to be a joint effort.
Getting back to my big gripe, there is no indication of where people should park when reaching Park Station to board the bus, and in the end, having driven the Smit and Wolmarans street circuit three times, I rushed to get into the Gautrain parking and ended up paying R100 for parking. Tourists are free of this very frustrating oversight because they generally arrive on the Gautrain from Sandton or Rosebank and go back the same way, but for the rest of us, you have to somehow intuit that Park Station is where you need to find parking before wending your way to Smit Street to the bus stop.
So arrive 20 minutes earlier than planned if this is where you want to hop on. Also, could a parking map please be uploaded on the website?
For the rest, the City Sightseeing bus experience is very worthwhile for tourists and locals alike, and I’m told by my Cape Town-based friend Eric Miller that the Mother City version is as enthralling and, though obviously less gritty, more scenic.
“I kept losing connection with the commentary, but the actual ride, locations and experience were lovely,” he said. As yet, there is no City Sightseeing bus in Durban, but there is the Ricksha Bus, a three-hour tour taking in the beachfront, uShaka Marine World, Victoria Market, City Hall, Moses Mabhida Stadium and Suncoast Casino.
It goes to show that when we put our minds to something, we can excel. In fact, allow me a little gloat. Miller says he went on a topless bus tour in Washington a few months ago, and that the sights and locations “were great of course, but the live commentary was courtesy of a young student. She was generally a pain in the ass, though occasionally amusing. Much of her commentary was hugely Americo-centric, and if you were a foreigner the cultural jokes and references were lost.” To add, my Berlin bus tour found me asleep, due to information overload delivered in a monotone.