Touring Johannesburg on top of a bus will give you a completely different view of the bustling metropolis.
So there I was travelling the highways and byways of the city in a red, open-top double-decker bus, making good on Alain de Botton’s declaration that: “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mind-set with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”
I felt like a tourist, even without the uniform of sandals-and-socks and a giant Nikon camera, or its modern incarnation that involves pointing an iPad at some unfortunate local.
The occasion was the launch of the City Sightseeing bus. The shiny red bus is a global icon. With a presence in more than 100 cities (including Cape Town) on five continents, it has earned its right to speak an international language by designating cities as tourist-friendly.
Jo’burg is a newcomer to the tourism scene, eager to pin some economic hopes on the growth of visitor numbers.
It’s fun to be on the bus, with a comfortable seat from which to look at the streets below.
There is a choice of soundtracks to help you to navigate the stops — I chose to listen in isiZulu, not because I understand the language but because it seemed most appropriate.
The bus travels in a loop around the city. From Park Station’s Gautrain stop, it stops at some significant sights, including Constitution Hill, Gandhi Square, Carlton Centre and the Origins Centre at Wits.
It then makes its way across the southern side of the city to the James Hall Museum of Transport, Santarama Miniland and Gold Reef City, with its odd combination of amusement park and the less amusing Apartheid Museum.
A Soweto route is also being planned.
In all there are 12 stops and you get to start your tour at any one of them. The buses run from 9am to 5pm at 40-minute intervals.
If you want to stay on the bus and survey the entire loop while being guided by a soundtrack in your language of choice, it takes about two hours to complete — but it’s not something City Sightseeing South Africa chief executive officer Claus Tworeck recommends.
“The goal is to get people off the bus to meet the locals,” he says. “The people are the city’s real gold.”
On the day we travelled, the buses were just a few days old and passers-by stopped to watch us drive past. Children and adults waved and smiled at us. From that height the city is a study of diversity because you get to see lots of historical architectural details that in most cases stand in sharp contrast to the hawking, trading and hair-weaving going on at ground level.
You get a spectacular view of the Nelson Mandela Bridge and Main Street’s mining heritage, but also of the city’s unfinished business such as broken pavements that are, ironically, the price of progress because they have been dug up to add high-speed cables; missing manhole covers; missing sewer grates and other recyclable-for-cash-material; missing street signs; piles of rubble; and overflowing rubbish bins.
My bus ride was made more enjoyable by the fact that the VIPs and dignitaries had gone on ahead and were getting the same eyeful.
It should probably be made compulsory for city officials to ride the bus regularly.
In his fantasy novel Downsiders Neal Shusterman writes: “Cities are never random. No matter how chaotic they might seem, everything about them grows out of a need to solve a problem. In fact, a city is nothing more than a solution to a problem, that in turn creates more problems that need more solutions …”
If getting on the bus means the city might be prompted to solve some problems for locals, I might even be tempted to wear those socks with my sandals.
For more information visit citysightseeing.co.za