What’s the word? Johannesburg

So it was salad and chips and a spectacular sunset while crossing the Karoo from Cape Town to Johannesburg by train. Not at all dangerous as quite a few people we had told we were doing it had warned us. Just 27 hours of chilling in our cabin watching the Karoo roll on by.

I’ve been told there’s a song that claims ‘There’s not much to do in the Karoo’, so I don’t think we missed much.

I like arriving in new places by train. Mainly because there’s always good (well, at least some) graffiti to view from the tracks, but also you usually end up in the centre of a place with half a chance of seeing some of it, unlike when you fly.

Johannesburg, Jozi, Jo’burg, the city of gold, eGoli – whatever you want to call it – is a funny place. I’ve previously avoided it or treated it as a stop-over when getting to other places, while using and abusing my relatives who live there’s hospitality. Most people think crime, grime and whites living safely secluded in their gated compounds in the northern suburbs, driving between work, the mall and the mock Tuscan village just off the highway that serves as a safe evening venue. And all that’s true. The challenge was to find what else makes this city tick that seems more normal to us from a European mindset.

It wasn’t that easy. What we did find and liked were: the well-stocked book shop with its counter serving Seattle Coffee Company cappuccinos in the corner of Sandton City shopping mall. The couple of streets in Parkhurst we wandered up and down with antique and design shops, delis and cafes spilling onto the street front and a British-style boozer. The 60s style apartment block with minimal security we were invited to in Illovo with its balconies over-looking a communal garden which felt part Barbican part Nottinghill. And a cluster of shops in Parkwood in a small, non-energy-zapping shopping centre.

There’s obviously a lot more going on in a city that truly has a heart, as these sites are testament to: Jobusy – a guide to loving Johannesburg city and a lovely, inclusive, people-focused campaign You Make Jo’burg Great.

A friend and new blogger Ross who lives half in Jo’burg and half on a construction site in Mozambique, but is from Kenya, very aptly said: “Here the highs are higher and the lows are lower.” Other adjectives included edgy, gritty, raw, fresh, sharp and exciting.

Another insight was the North-South divide between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Wherever you are, locals will claim their city is better than the other. Here are some of the sort of things we were told (not exact quotes but you get the gist):

“Jo’burg has the better climate; did you experience the wind in Cape Town?”

“I don’t want to scare you, but Cape Town’s more dangerous these days!”

“But there’s no beach near Jo’burg, it’s all air conditioned malls and running on a treadmill.”

“Cape Town is so arty-farty… they’re all living in their own bubble world.”

“The real business happens in Jo’burg, people in Cape Town as soooo slow at replying to emails and on a Friday afternoon they’re all on the beach.”

“They may have a mountain, but we’ve got Kruger and the Big 5 at Sun City.”

To get a much better idea of the real Johannesburg, I can recommend the book ‘From Jo’burg to Jozi: Stories about Africa’s infamous city‘ edited by Heidi Holland and Adam Roberts, and written by journalists and writers who have lived and worked there.

And also, the Gil Scott Heron song Johannesburg recorded just before the Soweto riots for some of the upbeat Jozi vibe. It’s pretty kewl.

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