From Deep House and decadent milkshakes in Melrose Arch, to high-flying manouveres in Midrand, from a Jazzy bike ride through Soweto to a journey back in time, we spend an action-packed weekend in the City of Gold, Fire & Ice.
7pm: Warm Up Time
Every hour is Peak Hour in Joburg, and Friday afternoon on the freeway after work is Peak-Peak-Peak Hour. So by the time we strode into the lobby of the Fire & Ice! in Melrose Arch, we were hooted-out and frazzled. The Guest Relations Manager, as bubbly as the exclamation mark in the hotel’s name, welcomed us warmly and suggested that we head to the first floor for a warm-up session.
That sounded a bit too much like exercise, but it turned out to be the best kind of unwinding, because a Warm Up Session at the Fire & Ice! involves slinking back in a padded, high-backed chair and listening to a deejay while sipping a double-thick milkshake.
In keeping with the hotel’s glitzy Silver Screen theme, the bar is ornately styled, with mirrors and chandeliers and fleur de lis flourishes in black. The deejay played a superb, seamless mix of Deep House and Trance tracks, which I discreetly Shazammed on my iPhone for future reference. The music was as tasteful and as smoothly blended as the milkshakes, which were the grown-up kind, with a bit of buzz to balance the sweetness. Not just Warmed Up, but Fired & Iced Up, we hit the streets to see what was happening in the Arch of Melrose.
9pm: Sushi Time
People from out of town are often surprised to learn that Melrose Arch doesn’t have an arch, just as they may wonder why Hyde Park doesn’t have a park. That’s because, in Joburg, we like to think laterally, not literally, so the arch we talk about in Melrose is an attitude, an air of playful swagger that makes this the swishest district in town.
It’s also one of the few parts of the city where people take precedence over cars, so you can stroll the generous boulevards and plazas without worrying about robot-jumpers and pavement-mounters.
We chose Orient, a smart and stylish fusion restaurant, decked out in regal shades of purple, silver, and copper. From the sushi bar, we shifted our gaze from the chef’s deft slicings and wrappings to the lights of the mini-city, where a cruising Porsche gave way to the hiss of the Gautrain bus opening its doors. Joburg, where everybody is going places, even when they’re sitting still.
*Orient is at 4 High Street, Melrose Arch
8am: Bounce Time
Everybody wants to fly. To slip the surly bonds and hover in a state of grace, suspended between your fears and your dreams. The trouble is, gravity will always let you down. But not at Bounce. Here, at this massive fun-fitness facility in the Waterfall Lifestyle Centre in Midrand, you spring straight back up again, higher and higher, the endorphins surging as your muscles get a workout that feels like a playout. The sensation that you’re floating in a different space, weightless, liberated from your woes, begins with the ankle-socks you have to wear: bright blue, with little plastic studs underfoot. As they grip the gummy floor on the way to the trampolines, you feel like a caterpillar, inching along a branch. And then, like a butterfly, you fly.
*Bounce is at the Waterfall Lifestyle Centre, corner Woodmead and Maxwell Drives, Midrand. Book at http://www.bounceinc.co.za.
10am: Constitution Time
You need a strong constitution to get by in South Africa, and happily, we have one that fits the bill. But it’s all fine words and abstract ideals, until you view it from the hill.
Constitution Hill, on Kotze Street in Braamfontein, is the home of the highest court in the land, and the precinct on which it stands is rich with history and symbolism.
There is the Old Fort, an austere, white-walled enclave that once housed such icons of resistance as Mandela and Gandhi. Its dark and grimy cells now serve as a somber counterpoint to the serenity of the courtroom, with its finishings of brick and wood and cowhide illuminated by light streaming in from the high windows.
A giant South African flag, hand-beaded on fabric, watches over the seats of the judiciary, and when you step outside, there is art everywhere, a gallery of striking contemporary works that bring the Bill of Rights to life with colour, verve, and wit.
To wander around the hill, on the walkway that links the guard huts and overlooks the panorama of the city, on the plaza where the flame of democracy flickers, down the cascade of steps where schoolchildren laugh and play, is to get a sense, in a masterfully-designed physical space, of what the Constitution of South Africa really means. Liberation, open to the sky.
*Constitution Hill is at 11 Kotze Street, Braamfontein
11am: Brunch Time
I’m always on the listen-out for buzzy new places to breakfast or brunch in Joburg, and the word-of-mouth on the street was: Elemental. This is a bright and breezy “meatless café” in Linden, a quietly unassuming suburb that is home to some of my favourite independent establishments.
Cheese Gourmet (3rd and 7th), where cheese of distinction is evangelised with expert, friendly fervour; Ronnie’s Allbang & Strumit (354 Republic Road), a jam-packed musical instrument joint that oozes old-time Rock ‘n Roll; Not Bread Alone (63 Malibongwe Drive), famous for its twisty cinammon sticks and hot, fresh ciabattas. I gladly add Elemental Café to the list.
The menu, which includes wraps, sandwiches, pizza and burgers, is vegetarian and vegan, prepared with creativity, flair, and care under the mantra of “food made with love”.
It’s a casual, family-friendly place, with a separate play area for kids, and a rack of fine magazines, a touch that makes it feel even more like home, assuming you can get a Gorgonzola Supreme Pizza this good at home.
*The Elemental Café is on the Corner of Standard Avenue and 1st Avenue, Linden.
3pm: Soweto Time
“My name is Jazz,” said the cool, lanky dude with the specs and red shoes, fastening the strap of his bicycle helmet as he stood on the side of the road. “Jazz Ngwenya. Which means crocodile.”
He was about to take us on a ride to show off his home turf, the most famous suburb in the most famous township in the world. Orlando, Soweto. He pointed out the most important part of our machines – the brakes – and reminded us that Soweto is a place of hills and valleys.
Every now and again, particularly on the crests of the uphills, we would pause to look at the landscape, while Jazz told us stories of heroes and villains and the hardscrabble life on the wrong side of the minedump.
People passing by, on foot or in the traffic, waved at Jazz, and he waved back with a hearty “Yebo!” He seemed to be the best-known person in Soweto, but the truth is, he was just a person in Soweto, and waving back is what you do.
He led us on the streets and off the streets, across the busy intersections, around the potholes, through the dark-mud rivulets, to the Hector Pieterson Memorial, the moving tribute to the 13-year-old schoolboy who was one of the first victims of police gunfire during the youth uprising of June 16, 1976.
And then we cycled to Vilakazi Street, which was abuzz with the thumpa-thump of House music and the chatter of the throng, especially in the vicinity of Number 8115, the humble facebrick house where Nelson Mandela once lived.
Soweto is the heart and soul of Joburg, the epicenter of its modern history, and there are few better ways to see it than from the saddle of a bike, in the slipstream of a man named Jazz, as you slither on the downhills and take it slow and easy, waving to everyone you meet, on the way back up.
*Soweto Bicycle Tours runs 2-hour and 4-hour tours from Lebo’s Backpackers in Orlando West.
8pm: Parkhurst Time
Parkhurst is the part of Joburg that most reminds me of Cape Town. It has a cloistered, villagey vibe, with a high street where chic boutiques and galleries jostle with yesteryear toyshops and bookstores. The suburb is famous for its do-it-yourself community ethos, which finds an outlet in an off-the-grid electricity network and fast fibre Internet.
You will even find stainless-steel doggie-drinking bowls outside some of the pavement cafés, just like you do in Camps Bay, and there is a big Melissa’s for your crunchy oat cookies and organic vegetables.
On weekend nights, Parkhurst catches a jolt that turns it by magic into a prime suburban strip for dining and pubbing and driving up and down looking for parking. (Try the side-streets. 4th Avenue is always crazy-busy.)
We settled into Rockets, a trendy American-style diner with a sports bar discreetly partitioned behind a glass wall of running water. I had the Falafel Burger. It was falafelly nice, served with a big dollop of tahini mint sauce and a tumbler of shoestring fries.
*Rockets is at 24, 4th Avenue, Parkhurst
8am: Breakfast Time
I had heard from an impeccable source that the breakfast at the African Pride Hotel in Melrose Arch is the best in town. It’s not often that I can accuse a fellow Johannesburger of understatement, but this is such a case.
The hotel faces the main square of the precinct, and the interior is earthy and organic, quietly alive with greenery and mood-lighting. My favourite item on the buffet table, amongst the oysters and smoked salmon and pastries and cured meats and pre-peeled litchis, was a generous slab of honeycomb on the rack. This was a buffet fit for Warren Buffet.
From the extensive Hot Breakfast menu, we decided on the Herbed Belgian Waffle with Smoked Salmon and Poached Eggs, and the Scottish Kippers on Toasted Rye with Poached Eggs. We perused the Sunday papers, revisited the buffet, checked the time, and set off. We had a long, long road to travel to our next and final stop.
12pm: Back in Time
Maropeng lies about 60 kilometres to the northwest of Johannesburg, but by the time you get there, you will have travelled for three million years. It’s not that the traffic is bad; it’s just that this is the place where we came from. That is what Maropeng means in Sotho, and in the spectacular visitors’ centre that holds our origins up to the light, we get to experience a close encounter of the human kind.
There is a stillness in the Cradle of Humankind, a whispering of the wind through the veld-grass, that evokes a connection to the land, and to the deep roots that lie beneath it.
In the company of a guide, we explored the Sterkfontein Caves, marvelling at the sharp, musty limestone chambers, and the black lake, so deep that no-one has touched the bottom of it. Then, like so many others, we made our pilgrimage to the bones of Homo Naledi, the “Star-Man” who, so the scientists tell us, was one of our early hominid ancestors.
After a short but dramatic boat-ride through bursts of lava and melting glaciers, we waited in a queue and earned our audience with the new celebrity of paleontology, a man-shaped arrangement of dirt-encrusted fossils preserved under a capsule of glass. We had 10 minutes.
Time enough to snap a few selfies, our cellphones held aloft like the skull of Yorick, as we contemplated the question that is older than who we are: “Who are we?”
Maropeng makes you think, so hard that it hurts, and by the time you emerge from the pyramid-shaped structure, into the blazing light of the wild vista beyond, you will be ready to begin the journey back to the future.
We were born millions of years ago, in fire and in ice. And that, with an exclamation mark, takes us right back to where we started!
*Maropeng is on the R563 Hekpoort Road, Sterkfontein.