/ 30 August 2013

All aboard the night tour

Night life: The view of Hillbrow from an apartment in Ponte.
Night life: The view of Hillbrow from an apartment in Ponte.(Jono Wood)

We are on Yeoville's Raleigh Street at Kin Malebo Village. The doorman greets us in French. The rhythms of Congolese singer Fally Ipupa's Bicarbonate escape the bar into the crisp winter night as the door swings open. Inside, it's warm and inviting. 

The next table over eyes us with curiosity, ordering another round of beers. A group of young men huddle, drink and then get up to dance in a sexy, show-offy way. As a man with a microphone raps over the song, their pelvises slowly gyrate, their leather jackets held open. Big smiles on their faces and furtive glances at us through half-closed eyes tell us they are enjoying an audience.  

It's still early. We had just watched the sun set from the Yeoville ridge, a few blocks from here. We sipped green tea that came from a flask and ate no-name-brand lemon creams and marvelled as pinkish hues played with the skyline to create a perfect Jo'burg postcard, framed, of course, by Hillbrow's landmarks, Ponte and the Hillbrow Tower. 

We were there at the invitation of Dlala Nje (Just Play in isiZulu) which offers walking tours of Hillbrow, Yeoville and Berea. 

Based at Ponte, one of Hillbrow's most infamous high-rises, the walk leaves from the eponymous community centre opened in October last year by former Mail & Guardian journalist Nickolaus Bauer and strategy consultant Mike Luptak. 

It winds its way across Joe Slovo Drive and into low-rise Yeoville. Bauer and Luptak, two white boys who have made Ponte their home, are devoted to the children of the Ponte community and to turning around perceptions of the much-maligned building and surrounding suburbs. 

Up to 800 children live in the 52-floor cylindrical block, and until Dlala Nje opened its doors there had been no focus on recreation. Now the centre is buzzing, bright and cheerful. Youngsters play pool, foosball and hang out near the video games. The walls are covered in artwork and on one a chalk-drawn advert invites them to join the karate lessons on offer. In summer, there are swimming lessons at the Ponte pool, which for years stood unused. 

Using the centre as their base, Bauer and Luptak offer walking tours of the area. These boys fit in, and the walks they offer are of the immersive variety, rather than the urban safari type. The idea is to walk the streets, meet the people, eat the food. 

Back at Kin Malebo, space is being cleared at our table for dishes of perfectly rounded domes of fufu, a sauce of spinach and peanuts, and delicious hunks of roasted fish, including tails and heads with sharp little teeth. 

This is a snack stop. Fortified, we go back out into the cold night, on to Yeoville's throbbing pavements, walking among the hawkers and vegetable sellers, with me lamenting about a return to the blacked-out, silent northern suburbs. Yeoville was once my home. 

Down Rockey Street we head for La Camerounaise, home away from home for the city's Cameroonians, where we sit at a long table in the courtyard eating tasty fish straight from the braai and fries with chilli sauce.  

Later, we climb into a minibus taxi headed back to Ponte for a nightcap at the 52nd floor apartment of photographer Jono Wood, who works with Luptak and Bauer. At that height, you are on top of the world, mesmerised by the view of Hillbrow, the lights like thousands of sparkly jewels, with the otherworldly blue of the Telkom sign on the Hillbrow tower rising into the darkness. 

From that angle, it's not hard to see what keeps Luptak and Bauer tied to this place. Luptak shows me a photograph taken one morning when the top of the tower was all that was left of Hillbrow as his apartment windows looked out on to a carpet of clouds, an extraordinary image you would normally associate with the view from a plane window. 

It's funny thinking that they literally have their heads in the clouds.   

Yeoville night tours cost R300 a person and include a beverage at each stop and all meals. For more information and tours, find Dlala Nje on Facebook or email [email protected]