Life, etc

All aboard the Joburg tourist bus

By Greg Nicolson 11 March 2013

There’s a big red bus running through Johannesburg, offering tourists a chance to view the city - once a no-go area - from the safety of their double-decker. GREG NICOLSON went along for the ride and, to his surprise, enjoyed it.

“Joburg is two sides of a coin,” I confidently told my sister back in Melbourne when I arrived here over four years ago. “You’re either hustling for a buck or trying to show what you’ve got.” When she visited I took her to the same museums I was shuttled to – Hector Pieterson Memorial and the Apartheid Museum. She couldn’t walk in town, I told her, as I dragged her into my day-to-day rather than show her what the city’s about. Naturally, she had a better time in Cape Town.

Waiting for the new double-decker City Tour bus Tuesday morning, my misgivings about the city’s tourist menu were ready to be erased. After a taxi to town and hike across the bridge, a guard at Park Station’s Gautrain stop directed me to Alfred, the bus company’s marshal. “We launched on 15 January,” said Alfred, who was dressed in a red vest and hails from Mthatha, Eastern Cape. The red buses pass every 40 minutes. Schoolgirls pressed their cell phones against the windows of their parked bus to photograph me while I waited, flipping the tables on the tourist.

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Photo: The City Sightseeing Johannesburg tour opened on 15 January this year. After going through the south of Joburg it returns through Newtown, then over the Nelson Mandela Bridge.

City Sightseeing opened its tour operations in Joburg 11 years after launching in Cape Town, where it has two tourist routes. It operates in six continents and almost 100 locations, and for six weeks the red double-deckers with open-air tops have been cruising through Jozi.

“The City Sightseeing tour promises to open up a whole new side of Johannesburg, and in doing so, will grow tourism spend whilst providing employment for local city residents… turning passengers into passionate ambassadors for the golden metropolis,” said Claus Tworeck, CEO of City Sightseeing South Africa, when the new route launched.  “The tour will change people’s perceptions of the city of Johannesburg and offer both local and foreign visitors a unique way of exploring this fascinating city.”

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Photo: The red bus is conspicuous as it travels through the Johannesburg CBD, with some people stopping and staring at the open-roofed double-decker.

The bus winds through town, then heads south, making 12 stops at Joburg tourist sites. I pay my R150 for a day pass (you can hop on and off as you choose) and get a pair of earphones to plug in to listen to the guided tour in any of the 10 available languages (most are foreign).

Male and female narrators kindly tell me about the history of Home Affairs on Harrison Street. Down Bree Street they say ,“We can see people having a meal, living their everyday lives.” On Eloff, the GPS-timed commentary mentions the different names that all mean ‘Johannesburg’.

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Photo: The tour bus offers an easy way to see the Johannesburg streets. Here, school children watch the bus pass.

I take to this street on most days, and will walk its length on Tuesday to get a taxi to the Daily Maverick offices. But it’s different from the bus. Everything looks the same, but there’s a corny red cruiser between me and those and the streets. I take pictures and a few people eye me and the absurdity. Detached, I can appreciate the architecture, which the narrators link with a slice of history. Some of you will know the info. Some won’t. There’s the history of Joburg’s founders, Beyers Naude Square, Ghadi’s Joburg adventures, the old post office, the Central Methodist Church, the closed Carlton Hotel and Corner House. It’s an impressive list of surface anecdotes aimed at foreigners.

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Photo: The bus heads south from Joburg past the iconic mine dumps. You can hop off and hop on at the tourist spots with buses coming every 40 minutes.

The buses aren’t so busy mid-week, and I chat with the conductor. Some of the staff on Tuesday say they get mainly foreigners; others say it’s locals who want to see more of their city. For most of my ride, it was just me.

Santarama Miniland looked like a good stop. I’ve been to the Apartheid Museum, Gandhi Square, the downtown mining district, Newtown, the Wits Origins Museum and Constitutional Hill. After town the bus heads south, past the mine dumps to the miniature museum and James Hall Transport Museum. “Mostly old people go there,” says my guide, Brian.

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Photo: The bus can be uncomfortably similar to a game reserve vehicle, but it gives tourists a chance to look around and see the city.

Santarama would be the perfect place for a horror movie. The mini-golf course is lost in an alternative world of neglect, where everything is either tiny or enormous. The shrunken replicas of the Union Buildings, Kiberly mines, downtown Joburg and others I couldn’t make out look like a model of what might have happened if SA descended into full-scale civil war in the nineties. As a kid I would have scoffed at the scene – walking alone around a lake and broken toy models – but as an adult, it’s hilarious.

The bus has been hailed as a game-changer for Johannesburg tourism. “It has been our vision for many years to ensure that the south of Johannesburg takes its rightful place as a tourist and leisure destination with many diverse attractions,” said Rob Collins, Chief Marketing Officer of Tsogo Sun, when the route opened.

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Photo: Santamara Miniland is one of the first stops outside of the city. The run-down miniature land is worth a visit if only to see the sad state of a forgotten tourist destination.

There’s a 10-minute stop at his hotel, better known as the Gold Reef City Casino, which looks like every other casino I’ve been to. Yet I decide to check it out. What’s more appropriate than visiting a site where different generations, genders and races to make quick money? Three gogos wait at the cashier near a sign saying the casino was awarded the best place to take out-of-towners. One of the women hands over a wad of cash the size of a dictionary. Shaking her head, the lady in front of me debates whether this casino is better than the one at the airport. Both are better than betting on horses, she concludes. “The stress,” she exclaims, admitting she donated R1,000 to the slots yesterday.

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Photo: Passengers who had been on the Cape Town bus tour said Joburg’s was nowhere near as scenic, but they enjoyed learning the city’s history.

There’s a City Sightseeing stand at the casino. The three women behind the counter tell me business is picking up, but the Joburg tour hardly compares to Cape Town. “But with the south of Johannesburg, a lot of people don’t know the cultural history there,” says one who is glad to have been shifted from the Mother City tour to Gauteng for the job opportunites. The others aren’t as enthused.

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Photo: Tour guides say the bus has been quiet during the week but peaks over the weekend.

After a win on the roulette table, I head back to the bus. The driver doesn’t mind that I’ve lost my ticket. Back on the bus, it feels as though I’m new to Joburg, detached from the hustle that defines this place, even the depressing low-rise buildings in the south that surround the racecourse like neglected statues of the middle to lower classes.

As the bus returns to town, the skyline of the city dominates the background behind the rows of empty seats. Brian and I chat about girls and his family in Harare before he wants to comment on the bus. “It’s the cheapest way to see these sights,” he says. “A cab would cost you R200 to Gold Reef City, and you’d have to find your own way home.” I leave him in Newtown for a beer at the SAB breweries.

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Photo: A popular stop is Gold Reef City Casino and the theme park and Apartheid Museum next door. The bus company has said it aims to increase tourism in Johannesburg’s CBD and its surrounds, but on Daily Maverick’s visit, most passengers chose to stay on the bus in the city area.

Watching it roll away, it looks ridiculous – a big red tourist bus streaming through the unequal town; “the elusive city”. The audio narrators acknowledge the diversity, but the bus blocks you from interacting with anyone on the streets. There are stops in town where, if you’re brave enough to get off, you can find a fascinating story on every block and get a better sense of the city than any museum will offer.

But the big red bus gives you a chance to see something different, something other than what you know or what you think you know, whether you’ve been a day in Johannesburg or years here. For tourists, it’s perfect: it offers a taste of the city that for so long has been closed to outsiders and denied its rich history. If my sister were here, we’d spend a day on the bus, if only to get all the tourist sights done in a day. DM


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