Jozi trails: Main street by night
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Johannesburg – I’ve booked for a walking tour called Main Street By Night, but when the time comes I am a little anxious. It’s Saturday afternoon and I am seriously thinking of cancelling.
Walking around the Joburg central business district at night suddenly doesn’t seem such a good idea. I would have to carry my camera, some money, and a credit card, and I don’t want to be a target.
But I have booked, the good people at the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation are expecting me and, besides, I have a story to write.
Down at the Carlton Hotel in Commissioner Street, where I park my car, it is buzzing.
The last shoppers are leaving, people are gathering to socialise and the car guards are eagerly touting for business. The group of about 30 walkers is to meet at the historic Rand Club for a look around before the real walking tour starts.
I am looking forward to that immensely as I have always wanted to see inside the stately old club that was once closed to women. It is supposed to have the longest bar in Africa.
But when we arrive our tour leader, Denise Alexander, has disappointing news – there is a big wedding and the Rand Club won’t allow the tour to go ahead. We stand around a bit and watch the grand guests arriving in full evening dress.
Town is emptying now at this top end, from the Carlton Centre to the beginning of Fox Street, where many of the mining companies have their head offices. We head for the Guildhall, the oldest pub in Joburg.
Again, unfortunately, the power of the heritage foundation could not keep it open and, although it is 5.30 on a clear Saturday evening, the owner has closed the restaurant-pub and ducked. We hang around outside, looking up at the old broekie lace balconies, imagining what it must have been like in the early days of Joburg, the rough mining town that became a metropolis. The pub is said to contain many photographs and artefacts from early Joburg. I make a mental note to go back there soon.
And so our motley crew wander down Albertina Sisulu Road – the old Market Street, where there was once a big market. As we pass the Central Library, youngsters are kicking a ball around in the Library Gardens.
The library building is looking splendid after its cleaning. The façade is bright and clean. I am amazed to see the plaques for Newton and Darwin that I had not noticed before, and the statues of ancient philosophers at the corners.
I am grateful the council is preserving this beautiful library and encouraged to hear plans are afoot to renovate the fire-gutted Rissik Street Post Office.
We head further down, through Chinatown. As we near John Vorster Square a police car stops and a friendly officer asks if we are okay. He chats for a while before asking us to watch our valuables and enjoy the walk.
Now we proceed to No 1 Fox Street, a highlight of the walk and the first pit stop. Also called The Sheds, the address comprises a cluster of industrial buildings that have been revamped like those at Arts on Main.
We just love the echoey, basic interior with its high, high roof – no ceiling – over the market stalls. We stop for a drink at a fabulous bar. I notice there are a fair number of tourists from other countries.
Again, it is heartening to see these decrepit buildings, apparently past their sell-by date, being given a new and vibrant lease of life.
As we come out and head back up Fox Street we see a beautiful rainbow arched just above the magistrate’s court.
You could not have conjured up a more apt and hopeful symbol. Cameras click, but although it is easy to admire a rainbow, it’s difficult to truly capture its magnificence.
We stop at Chancellor House to look at the modest former law offices of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, still with their sign in the upstairs window.
Although it is behind heavy security fencing, the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court is another handsome building, with its elegant classical proportions and statue of the Lady of Liberty. In front of it stands a tall, proud new artwork of Mandela as a young boxer.
By now it’s dusk and we continue further up Main Street to the impressive offices of Anglo American at numbers 44 and 45.
The many security guards in this area make it one of the safest in this part of town. The gardens are expertly tended, with sculpted hedges and trees, and beautifully lit. In one of the gardens, on the luscious green lawn, sits a well-fed grey cat.
On a ledge nearby, two cats sleep side by side, catching the last rays of the sun. “Ah, fat cats,” quips one of our number. The company reportedly feeds the cats that live on the property, although they are clearly not tame.
We spend some time ambling around in the courtyard, ascending the magnificent staircase to No 44 and savouring the ambience of order that large amounts of money create. Old money, the money Joburg was built on.
Further down we will see the stampeding impalas sculpture by Herman Wald, and the platinum headgear where the old cattle market used to be.
Now near Sauer Street, we viewed the sculpture of a black miner that was commissioned by the Chamber of Mines after the National Union of Mineworkers asked that something be erected to honour the role of black miners in the industry.
“This part of Main Street is Eurocentric and focuses mainly on the white people who were involved in gold mining,” Alexander says as we view the striking sculpture of the miner, muscles straining as he digs into the rockface, from all angles.
But first is another pit stop – this time at the Mapungubwe Hotel, with its elegant decor and lively lounge and bar.
While some of us avail ourselves of the variety of drinks on sale and chat at the bar, others go downstairs to view an old safe, no longer in use, that was used in the early days.
There’s another pit stop at the Darkie Café, another beautifully appointed, sophisticated venue. As we stand on the balcony, with a light drizzle cooling things down somewhat, two motorcyclists arrive on dazzling bikes. Soon some of our group strike up a conversation and pose with them for pictures. Jolling downtown is turning out a pleasantly sociable experience.
Those who felt like it are directed to Cramer’s Coffee Bar, where some of the best coffee in Jozi is reportedly sold.
It’s a short walk back to The Rand Club, with the grand wedding in swing. I part from the new friends I have made, planning to meet on another walking tour, this one to the historical Bezuidenhout Park area.
One reason for my going on the walking tours is plain curiosity, but another is that I believe if we go to these neglected, often-forgotten areas, we are reclaiming them, reconstructing them for a new era and making them safer.
Reclaiming Soweto for tourism and conservation is the passion of Raymond Rampolokeng, owner of Bay of Grace Tours.
With strategic partnerships – such as Bhoni4Kasi, which repairs old bicycles and rents them out, and the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre, where participants can stop for a meal and drink – he has built up an impressive offering.
We meet at the Orlando Water Towers, scene of bungee jumping, pubs, paintballing and lots of other fun. The towers are close to our first port of call – the Orlando Dam. Birding is a keen interest and, having completed a comprehensive birdwatching course, Rampolokeng also offers birding tours in Soweto.
He arrives on a bicycle – a refurbished, round-handled Royal Post classic from Bhoni4Kasi He is so active and busy it is hard to keep up, and down at the dam he outlines the services he offers, his experiences and his dreams.
Right now he offers the birding tour, which also takes in Enoch Sontonga Koppie, the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre and Moroka Park. As he talks he points out the water birds at the dam, soon to be migrating for the winter, and others.
“Stonechat, warbler, ruff, heron, cormorant, various swifts, swallows and martins… A grey-headed gull, the only gull found inland.”
The dam and the nearby hills have been earmarked for a conservation area to help promote Soweto as a green destination, Rampolokeng says.
“The township was founded on a wetland,” he explains, so there are bodies of water dotted around.
There are plans to create a waterfront, with restaurants, shops and accommodation, where the two towers are.
As we walk up the Enoch Sontonga Koppie, Rampolokeng points out a white-winged flufftail and a red-chested cuckoo, as well as some of the stone formations and relics left by weekend worshippers.
He says sparrowhawks and other raptors find ready prey here among the squirrels and other rodents. The koppie is also home to the secretive Diedericks cuckoo.
We can see way across the city – to the University of Johannesburg campus and the Maponya Mall. The top of the koppie offers a 360-degree view, Rampolokeng says.
He says he is dedicated to the cause of creating a more sustainable Soweto and leaving a better legacy for future generations.
While driving through Dube, he fills me in on local history, and how different sections of the township were allocated to different tribes. “These divisions no longer exist.”
The Eyethu Lifestyle Centre is in Mofolo and boasts a wine-tasting room and wine bar, as well as a vibey and casual courtyard with tables, and function rooms.
With many traffic lights not working there is congestion, so we don’t make it to Moroka Park, but head straight back to the towers, where the bungee jumpers are still leaping off and yelling for their mothers.
Full of hope and happiness, I drop Rampolokeng off and head home, with a changed mindset.
This is a city worth exploring. Not only did I feel safe at all times, but I learnt a lot and it was tons of fun.
Yvonne Fonteyn, Sunday Independent