Jo'burg: The unknown holiday resort

The best thing about Johannesburg in summer is the weather. The way the sunlight turns greenish as it is filtered through the meteorological soup of a thunderstorm with who knows what sulphurous additives. The way the earth and the pavements steam fragrantly as the city catches its breath and shakes off its umbrellas as the storm passes and the clouds turn coppery in the last of the sun.

Johannesburg has great, and as yet untapped, potential as a Christmas holiday resort for Capetonians trying to escape the Southeaster.
Also for Capetonians trying escape Jo’burgers. Not to mention Jo’burgers trying to escape Jo’burgers—it’s the latter category which accounts for the greater part of the December population.

But what do you do in the one week of the year when your Egoli work ethic has an off-sick note, apart from driving round and round the ring road in the rain until you get hijacked? Well, there’s always that good old Jo’burg standby, the malls, which this year, as always, are laying on more Christmas cheer than you could possibly want.

If last year’s snow in Sandton City wasn’t phoney enough for you, the big attraction this year is the ice sculpture exhibition at Eastgate, where you can pay R35 to see reindeer carved out of ice as opposed to the usual polystyrene.

But the challenge in Johannesburg is to find hangouts which aren’t in malls. Most of the choices are in Melville, where you pay extortionate prices for bad service in chic surroundings, or Yeoville, where you pay extortionate prices for bad service in grungey surroundings.

My favourite waitron-from-hell hangs out in a long, grey dress at Rockey Street’s Coffee Society, and is often to be seen wandering glassy-eyed from table to table with a cup of coffee in her hand. “Did anyone order coffee here?” she asks the first tableful of customers. She moves on. “Who’s having coffee?” A note of anxiety creeps in as the coffee starts getting cold: “Who’s this coffee for?”

Come pay-time, though, and you’ll wish all the waitrons in Jo’burg were like this one. Go to the till, and be confronted by the same blank stare that accompanied the coffee: “I’m sorry—what did you have?”

But by far the best of the non-mall restaurants is in Fordsburg: Delhi Palace in Main Road. Just walking into the place provides the kind of sensory overload that you’d normally only experience on a frantic, one-night-one-capital tour of the world: green walls, Hellenic columns done in bronze paint, tinkly chandeliers, a sunset mural backing a water feature and a bed of plastic flowers ... and the food is the best Indian cuisine this side of Nairobi. The place does not serve alcohol, and you’d better not take your own if you want to escape with both hands intact, so go and drink beforehand or afterwards.

For early evening drinks (especially for those of you who wish you were doing sundowners on Clifton beach), try The Portal in Commissoner Street, Fairview, from where you can see the best sunset in Jo’burg silhouetting the towers of Hillbrow.

For post-dinner drinks, head for Hillbrow itself, to George’s Bar in Kotze Street. The chairs will probably all be taken by the time you get there, so you can sit on a beer crate which you’ll most likely have to share with someone who will either want to marry you or do business with you, depending (usually) on gender.

The glasses are all inexplicably painted red or yellow on the base which gives your beer a sickly hue, and you’d better not leave your quart bottle too long on the table or you won’t see more than the first glassworth of beer from it. The best thing about George’s is the music, with a Zairean rhumba band that jangles away most evenings.

If summer brings on thoughts of ice-cream, Johannesburg’s best is at Tre Scalini in Tyrwhitt Avenue, Rosebank. New this summer is orange-Cointreau flavour, worth travelling from Vanderbijlpark to taste. If the ambience is too pretentious for you, you can always take it away in cones.

No city is a real city without a Chinatown, and Jo’burg at least tries hard with its little cluster of Chinese restaurants and supermarkets down at the western end of Commissioner Street. The food in these places is good and reasonably priced, and you can entertain yourself while waiting for your order by surveying the range of imported Chinese trinkets which are on sale, stacked on shelves right up to the ceiling.

You might go home with one of those beautiful gilt lanterns with orange dragons that swim around the lampshade, propelled by the heat of the bulb. Or stock up on things like bamboo shoots, dried mushrooms, Chinese tea and White Rabbit sweets for your own culinary pottering.

If, on the other hand, your tastes have a garlic flavour, make for the Mediterranean Fish Centre in Jules Street, Malvern. The name is misleading, as there’s plenty to eat there even if you don’t like things that once lurked on the sea bed. Imported pasta, cheese, olives, olive oil, nuts, tomatoes, ethereal Portuguese bread—and then seafood as fresh as you’re going to get it this far from the sea, oysters ready bagged but still alive in a glass tank. Go shopping for a summer feast which will banish Yeoville waitrons to an unpleasant memory.

Now all you need to do is befriend someone with a swimming pool to keep yourself cool until the next thunderstorm.

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