Of Bikes and Hikes
This is the sound of the suburbs: A bike essay
For centuries a bike has been a good place to think and imagine. Bike riding, like hiking, offers a chance to get intimate both with yourself and your surroundings. It allows you to witness both civilisation and its discontents, feel the land and observe its people.
Bikes were born in 1818 or thereabouts. Before the bike was the horse. Both have had an important part to play in social commentary.
At the beginning of the 19th century the English reformer William Cobbett documented rural beauty, poverty and inequality that he observed from horseback in parts of the English Midlands, compiling his observations in a little book titled Rural Rides.
In scenes of inequality that have an uncanny familiarity, Cobbett lamented how in Wiltshire he saw “Fine fields and pastures all around; and yet the cultivators of those fields so miserable… Everything had the air of the most deplorable want.” (Rural Rides can be found here).
Just more than a century later, Sol Plaatje got on his bike to record the effects of the 1913 Native Land Act on black communities, describing, for example, how one cold afternoon:
“as we cycled into the ‘Free’ State from the Transvaal… and towards evening the southern wind rose. A cutting blizzard raged during the night and native mothers evicted from their homes shivered with their babies by their sides…”
(Read a wonderful article about Plaatje and his bike here).
Another century on the bike remains a good way to wander and wonder.
Sounds and sights of the suburbs
Dawn is a good time to watch Johannesburg waking up. If you get up and out early enough on a suburban Sunday morning, you will encounter a subculture of human beings on their bikes. Many of them seek nature and parks (of which we have plenty), but some of them stick to the streets, which has its own ecosystem.
I enjoy both, but this is a story of city wonders.
Today’s ride starts in the Alberts Farm conservancy, a jewel of Joburg, where you can pause by the 150-year-old graves of the Alberts family and watch the sun climb out from behind the city’s dawn silhouette – 150 years ago the Alberts’s farm fed nascent Johannesburg, and when the farm was partitioned out for housing one of their daughters, Sophia, lent her name to Sophiatown.
Or so a local historian told me.
It’s ironic, because from her grave you can see the bell tower of the Church of Christ the King on the opposite side of the valley; this the church where Bishop Trevor Huddleston’s ashes are interred, the redoubt from where he fought against the demolition of Sophiatown.
Something draws me there and into the unkempt church grounds, which with a reciprocating view back to Alberts in the park, contain a beautiful mosaic of the turbulent priest, with the inscription, “WHAT is the Meaning of LIFE?”.
Good question. We’re still not sure.
From here it’s a biker’s equivalent of a hop, skip and a jump to Ontdekkers Road, one of those calcified arteries (like Louis Botha Ave to the north) that stretches from the city centre all the way out to the city limit. According to the Roodepoort Record, Ontdekkers (meaning Discoverers), was built in the late 1880s, and is the original road to Heidelberg.
It feels to me like an ancient Roman road that time has covered up and time has uncovered; reinvented from generation to generation. I first travelled along it in the early 1980s. In those days it had a brashness and confidence. Precursors to the modern mall, like the Flora Centre, were popping up on its edges. Florida and Roodepoort exuded white suburban power and privilege. Today, it’s tired and wan.
Once on Ontdekkers, I rode east, up Hurst Hill, through the heart of Brixton, skirting the edge of Mayfair. Then into Braamfontein, passing its procession of dying cemeteries.
In my experience, once your bike and body are in harmony (something that happens during exercise) these sights summon up a soundtrack, and the songs they mysteriously call to mind form a playlist that begins guiding you through the streets.
Thus, in the late 1970s a one-hit-wonder punk band by the name of The Members had a hit with an anthem of ennui called The Sound of the Suburbs. This track accompanied me on my journey into the city’s waking.
The sounds of shop shutters being lifted by little old shopkeepers, as they have done for decades while the city changes around them.
The sounds of rats in rubbish piles awaiting non-collection. Forming the detritus of the city. Making the streets mean.
The sounds of a few runners as they beat the tar: sporting Comrades Marathon caps, secret signals to those who’ve been on that journey with them. A private story of endurance and ambition. Pride. Something you can do even if everything else in life is against you.
The sound of street sleepers climbing out of bus shelters.
The sound of recyclers, already harvesting the streets.
Catching people’s eyes. The smiles exchanged in reply had me thinking of Kae Tempest’s poem, People’s Faces.
By now that old Ralph McTell song, Streets of London, has entered my head, particularly the refrain:
“So how can you tell me you’re lonely,
and say for you the sun don’t shine,
let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London,
then I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind.”
Eventually Ontdekkers kind of evaporates as you reach the old train yard that radiates out of Park Station. So I ride on unused bike lanes through Braamfontein to Constitution Hill: through the ramparts of the old Johannesburg Fort, under the Johannesburg version of the Arch for the Arch and then bump my bike gleefully down the 100 steps outside the Constitutional Court. I peer into Pieter Roos Park, then turn onto that other artery out of the city: Louis Botha Avenue.
A spur-of-the-moment decision diverts me to the top of Munro Drive, with its view all the way to the Magaliesberg, out over the urban jungle, Jacaranda-purple in spring, now a profusion of greens. Then back onto Louis Botha, past Bhani’s Bicycles and the Radium Beerhall before diverting (again) to go up a little-known lane that zigzags up the quartzite ridge, Steepways or Kallenbach Drive; at the top is another far-as-the-eye-can-see view, the outer limit marked by the Isando power station.
In the space of the last kilometre I have encountered three of the blue plaques that mark Johannesburg City Heritage sites. It makes me think again of how rich in history and heritage are the streets whose significance we ordinarily overlook. (What we could and should be doing to protect and preserve this city is a matter for another day.)
Borders without passports
It’s time to head home again so I divert back onto Rockey Street with all its associations and layers of meaning, memories for me and many others. Entering Yeoville is like crossing a border with no border post. The road ruts and suddenly you’re in another country. A little girl calls out to me: “bike man”, or was it “white man?”
I ride past the memory that was once Tandoori Chicken then cross a few more roads and back over Louis Botha (again) into Houghton.
The soundtrack in my head shifts as if to mark the crossing: now it’s onto Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers to Cross. That makes sense, my subconscious is churning on how to cross the intimidating rivers of 2022.
“Which way to go?’ I don’t know… I’m making it up as I go along. Stop your messing around… better think of your future”. A Message to you Rudy by The Specials.
I ski down the slope that edges The Wilds nature conservancy, another Johannesburg heritage site, brought back to glory and tranquillity (tip your hat to James Delaney and volunteers) by citizens needing a respite; I think of how a young Johnny Clegg would take time out to sit on “our big rock in the Wilds at night” to look at the moon with his friend and collaborator Sipho Mchunu. During one of their moon conversations Mchunu told Clegg: “One day white people would go too far and disturb the Creator… and he will say, Cockroaches! Damn! And spray them with a special spiritual insecticide.”
But no time to dwell on how close that time may be… before long I’m in another country: Saxonwold, ostentatious mansions, the now faded sign for Sahara Computers still fronting Gupta House, a mansion that was retrofitted with a helipad for capture, and then crossing the park at Zoo Lake, over Emmarentia Dam and into the Botanical Gardens.
It’s been 50km of pedalling and I’m tired but still can’t resist nipping in and following the bike path round the park.
By now the human landscape has changed as much as the cityscape. Now it’s white runners running and black workers walking white people’s dogs. Our brand of inequality.
Yet still there’s a serenity; the peace hasn’t gone away. That’s the problem with inequality, you can be peaceful in it, even if not at peace with it. Nor have the eye-shakes stopped. Mute greetings.
We few, we unhappy few.
My last diversion of the day takes me back onto the Jozi Trails maintained path along Braamfontein Spruit and from there to Delta Park (the alternative is to follow the Spruit back to Alberts Farm). A green lung forms around this pretty but strangled stream, gurgling defiantly, as streams do.
Recyclers’ shelters sit precariously on its banks, clothes dry on an electricity pylon.
“Same old boring Sunday morning” indeed. But degrees of boredom depend on your class and colour.
Still, Delta Park feels like Joburg’s Hampstead Heath – expansive, ancient, with enough space to roam or for poets to lose themselves.
Finally, on tired legs, the steep climb up to the city’s high point, Northcliff Water Tower, built in 1939 on “Aasvoelkop”. This suburb’s windy roads offer a combination of natural splendour walled into rich people’s hidey holes that jostle against each other for the best view. The houses are as splendid, ostentatious and as unnecessarily spacious as anywhere in the world. The ancient canvas of the Cradle of Humankind lies spread out before them, the city limits testing its boundaries, but thankfully blocked (for now).
The last track my memory calls up is The Crossing by Johnny Clegg, who has been in mind since leaving the Wilds and whose posthumous memoir, Scatterling of Africa, records his own wonder at this city, its culture and hidden peoples.
“O siyeza (oh, I’m comin’), o siyeza (I’ll be comin’)
Sizofika webaba noma (you know the tide is turnin’)
O siyeza, o siyeza (I’m tellin’ you, the tide is turnin’)
Siyagudle lomhlaba (gonna make this crossin’)
Siyawela lapheshaya (over this dark land)”
Then freewheelin back down to Alberts Farm and it’s over. The sounds, smells, sights of the city recede. I enjoyed the ride. I hope you did too. DM/MC/ML