Being a tourist in the city you’ve called home for the last year is a strange concept, but even after spending our second winter in Johannesburg, James and I still sometimes feel like strangers in this big city (point in case I still need to drive to anywhere except the local mall and work with my GPS). So, when we had the opportunity to show a friend from the UK our city, we couldn’t think of a better way than doing a Red Bus Tour.
The Red Bus Tours are popular all over the world and I find them very helpful and interesting to do when I’m in a new city for the first time. After being on a bus, which is slightly higher than your average car, driving through a new city, you tend to have a much better understanding of the city’s geography. That’s just what the Red Bus Tour of Jo’burg did for us.
We decided to do the Sunday Special Tour starting from Rosebank. I would definitely recommend you do the Tour on a Sunday, you see a much quieter and calmer city than in the week, no traffic, less people just walking across the road and a city that seems almost stripped clean from the rubble and petrol fumes, even if just for a few hours. The Tour itself is not cheap at R400 and it is slightly disappointing that there’s not a special South African price.
The tour itself starts off at Rosebank Mall and has one of those pre-recorded tour guides that play as you drive through the streets of Jo’burg North, past the Jo’burg Zoo and Zoo Lake. The height the bus offers allows you to see some of the beautiful old houses behind their thick brick walls, something you definitely don’t see in a car, as well as an interesting view of some of the animals in the Zoo, we saw the beautiful leopard on our trip.
You drive past Killarney Mall and all the way up the hill through Houghton to a lookout point at the top of the hill where you can see all of the city from Auckland Park to Rosebank to Sandton and even Midrand. The tour then continues past the oldest school in the city, St. John’s where you get a view of their spectacular buildings and sports grounds, very reminiscent of UCT I thought. Next up was a highlight for me, a tour through the CBD. It really was an experience to see the city so quiet and having a moment to look up at all the beautiful buildings towering over the usually swarming streets. The state of many of these beautiful buildings did make me very sad though. You could see that so many of the buildings are clearly high-jacked buildings where people are living illegally. Try explaining the concept of a group of people literally high-jacking a whole building to a foreigner, you suddenly realise how crazy it is and that it is not normal, even though we have become so used to the idea. If I could hope that the newly elected DA Mayor of Johannesburg can do one thing it’s to sort out the CBD, it’s a disgrace what we have allowed it to become and the history and beauty we are letting go to waste.
After a pretty long drive through the poorer parts of Joburg South you get to Gold Reef City, one of the most fun places in Joburg I still hold true. Here you can visit the casino, theme park (which I would suggest to do in the summer rather than winter as there are some great water rides you’ll miss out on otherwise) and the Apartheid Museum.
This is however also where the tour splits into either getting back on the bus to return to the city, or getting in a taxi and setting off on the second leg of the tour to Soweto. I would highly recommend the Soweto part of the tour to anyone. Whether you’ve lived in Joburg all your life or are a tourist (foreign or local), it is a true experience! The tour guides are funny and very informative, no more pre-recorded commentary, now each person in the taxi gets given an African name and it’s a lot of interaction going around the taxi.
You go from the FNB Soccer City Stadium, which is the beautiful sport stadium built in the shape of a traditional African pot for the 2010 Soccer World Cup which we hosted (still one of the best times in the country every!), to the Soweto Tours with their colourful artworks and into Soweto. The guides are very well trained and can tell you almost anything about Soweto and the people and places you see as you’re driving. The tour stops for a little while at the Hector Pieterson Memorial, which was the site of the 16 June uprising by black school pupils against being taught in Afrikaans. It was a significant moment in our country’s history and despite many students wanting to use what happened there for the gain of the new #feesmustfall movement, the space itself in the heart of Soweto hasn’t been tarnished in any way. Unlike many other monuments in South Africa, such as the Kliptown Open Air Museum which is also on the tour but not stop is made (you can only guess that it is because of the safety of the passangers), the Hector Pieterson Memorial was clean, well looked after and you felt completely safe. I have to applauded the caretakers for making sure out history stays in tact here.
The highlight of the Soweto tour is of course Vilakazi Street!
The only street in the world with homes of two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and a street rich with culture, food and many many tourists. You can visit the house Nelson Mandela lived in with his second wife Winnie Mandela. It’s only R40 to go inside if you are from the African Union, which is a bargain for anything really. Despite it not being very big, it is amazing to know that you are standing in the rooms our great president once called home. Unfortunately, you cannot enter Desmund Tutu’s home as his family still live there and Winnie Mandela actually still lives just a few blocks away as well. The street itself is lined with some of the fanciest and most expensive cars I have ever seen and they are all being washed in the car washes. When we asked our tour guide why there were so many fancy cars, he laughed and said it’s all about the image for the local people coming to Vilakazi Street over the weekend.
The restaurants are packed and are unfortunately a little bit commercial, but we wanted to have a real Kota while in Soweto and have our international friend have a truly South African meal. A Kota is basically a bunny chow stuffed with chips and a russian sausage (basically half a white bread stuffed with chips and a sausage). It’s very rich and if I’d taken the full load like boys I probably would have been sick, but it’s an experience.
We also wanted to do some local beer tasting for our international friend. Our tour guide took us to a real Shibeen (pub) in one of the side streets, sure it looked slightly dodgy, but we were going with this. The Shack was a great little Shibeen with the friendliest people and we were brought traditional African beer in an African pot and made to taste. Despite it being a little sour, it wasn’t too bad, but very strong. The men were very nice to allow me to try the beer as well as traditionally the women only make the beer but don’t drink yet (yhea right, I mean you have to taste whether it’s ready yet). We had to of course wash down the traditional beer with a courts of Black Label beer (my traditional student beer back in the day).
The drive back was a bit of an anti-climax after the excitement of Vilakazi Street but there were still some interesting sights along the way. We were back in Rosebank around 3PM (after starting at around 8AM) so it definitely is a whole day trip, but what a day it was. You step off the Red Bus overflowing with information, culture and memories.
It is expensive but I would definitely recommend the Sunday Sizzler Red Bus Tour of Johannesburg to both locals who want to get to know their city better (it really helped to improve our geography of the city) as well as tourists from the rest of South Africa and internationally. It is in my opinion the best way to see the city. To be honest I would recommend this tour even more to locals. It showed me so many hidden gems in Joburg and has helped me appreciate and slowly start to understand, and maybe even like this busy, dusty, crazy city called Johannesburg.