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March 16, 2016

6 Fun Ways To Spend Time In Johannesburg

Text by Shashi Baliga. Photographs by Dushyanta Kawdikar

From nature lovers and art enthusiasts to history buffs and foodies, this colourful city has something for everyone

Nobody told me about the smiles in Johannesburg — warm, unexpected, genuine smiles. Often followed by laughter, sometimes accompanied by humour or even a little jig. I spotted them everywhere — in plush malls and game parks, in luxury hotels and in the township of Soweto, in sunny cafes and in the darkness of the bowels of the earth inside an old gold mine. (There was just the one exception, but I’ll have to come to that later.)

Joburg is a city with a chequered history that has reinvented itself to become the cosmopolitan financial hub of South Africa. As with all great cities, there is the energy, and the buzz and there is money. Joburg made its fortunes in gold mining in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the lust for lucre has never left it. Its high-end district, Sandton, is often called the richest square mile in South Africa. Rather appropriate, if you consider that the wealthiest gold field known to man, the Witwatersrand Basin, was discovered here.

Here, there are sprawling, immaculate homes, opulent hotels and edgy nightspots; chic cafes and restaurants; and a swanky shopping centre with a jewellery section called the Diamond Walk. In one of the most visible instances of how the city has reinvented itself, Sandton Square is now Nelson Mandela Square, thus rechristened after a six-metre-tall statue of the anti-apartheid fighter and Nobel laureate was installed there.

It might seem a strange juxtaposition — this champion of the poor and marginalised overseeing the glitter of the Sandton City complex. But that’s part of the diversity of Joburg, a city where you can stroll across from the grim Apartheid Museum to the casino in the Gold Reef City entertainment complex and amusement park. (“Look at it this way — it helps get more visitors to the museum,” says a pragmatic local.)

Casinos are big business in Joburg; this is a city that likes to gamble. It all goes back to the gold rush, says TV actor Jack Devnarain. “There grew a spirit of pioneership and entrepreneurship; people have ideas, they want to challenge themselves and they take chances. That’s become what Joburg is all about.”

Ah, that does explain all those casinos. In Sandton’s Montecasino entertainment complex, designed with a Tuscan village theme, there is even an outdoor section for slot machines. Further to the north of the city, the swish Emperors Palace complex offers private gaming rooms in rich hues for its high rollers. The latter is modelled on the lines of (you guessed it) Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, with oversized Roman statues, copies of famous paintings and a faux night sky suspended over the shopping area and food court.

If the casinos represent the new-age gold rush, vestiges of the original one remain at Gold Reef City, where you can strap on a helmet with its attached miner’s lamp and go down 220 metres into an old gold mine. As you tread carefully through dark, damp, cavernous passages you get an inkling (minus all the dangers) of what miners went through to extract those few precious golden grams.

Gold Reef City also has an amusement park where rides like the Anaconda and Tower of Terror will send your fear factor shooting up (or down). It’s a canny combination — unlike in Vegas, you’ll find families with children at such leisure complexes here. The idea is to create a safe family environment with shopping, dining and various entertainment options under one big roof. The result has a delightful resort-like feel in the heart of the city. No wonder these are so popular in Joburg.

6 things to do in Johannesburg

Nature buffs ahoy!

Exciting wildlife reserves and the African bush are just a drive away from the city. But if you can’t get enough of nature, find your way to the Johannesburg Zoo and the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens.

Art in the right place

Joburg has dozens of galleries selling expensive art. But what catches your eye is the raw energy of street art, as seen in this striking painting in an unpretentious Soweto gallery.

Earthy crafts

The dramatic variety of African crafts can be madly tempting; brushed with vivid colours, striking designs and an earthy aesthetic, they’re irresistible.

Lessons from the past

Soweto’s big attraction, Mandela House, the home where the anti-apartheid activist lived for many decades. Visit Soweto and Constitution Hill for matters political; Museum Africa will give you a broader overview.

Bobotie, anyone?

Exotic game meats like ostrich, venison, impala and crocodile are often the highlights of a South African meal if you’re a proper carnivore. At the Emperors Palace’s Aurelia restaurant we had an ostrich bobotie ravioli that was all innovation (bobotie, the national dish of South Africa, consists of spicy minced meat baked with an egg). Also on offer were oak-smoked venison tartare and impala and aroo lamb deuce. If you’re not a meat eater, don’t despair; most chefs will whip up something creatively vegetarian.

View from the other side

It couldn’t be a starker contrast when you find your way to Soweto, which is inhabited mainly by blacks, and where Mandela stayed through the worst days of apartheid. Soweto, which has played a significant part in the fight against apartheid, is a visibly less affluent part of the city, famed for what are called two-room ‘matchbox houses’, with the odd mansion and plenty of tin-roofed shanties. Soweto is now a major tourist attraction with Mandela’s house being the star exhibit, and locals are justifiably proud that its streets boast of two Nobel Peace Prize winners — Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The two activists’ efforts are meticulously and disturbingly documented in the Apartheid Museum situated in the more affluent section of the city. It is a haunting reminder of the country’s past, designed with a deliberate coldness to make you feel hemmed in and cornered, much like the victims of apartheid. No smiles here, but it’s a must-see for any tourist.

Step out of the museum and you’ll realise the full impact of how the city has moved on from a painful past, and grown into a thriving commercial hub with bustling malls, glitzy casinos, a bullet train, and a more inclusive way of life.

4 things to know about Johannesburg:

Mind your language
South Africa is a cultural melting pot with 11 official languages that include the native Zulu and Xhosa tongues and Afrikaans (a legacy left by early Dutch settlers). Most citizens speak multiple languages, though, so you can get by largely with English.

The Gandhi factor
Mahatma Gandhi lived for a year in Johannesburg, during which time he developed his philosophy of satyagraha, which Nelson Mandela used in the fight against apartheid. There are various exhibits across the city but Satyagraha House is a big memorial to him.

Cradle of humankind
A UNESCO World Heritage site 50 kilometres out of Joburg, it is a complex of caves where some of the earliest hominid fossils have been found, some as old as 3.5 million years.

Bottoms up
The SAB (South African Breweries) beer tour unfolds the history of the brew with, of course, plenty of sampling.

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