Just Another Outing in Joburg

It’s official: Noisette and I are utter snobs. As recently confirmed on an outing we embarked on right here in Joburg.

This is how it happened: I often feel slightly guilty about my inclination to happily stay at home on weekends, so when an opportunity presented itself to go to Soweto for an event called “The Flyover Show,” I suggested it to Noisette as something to do on a recent Saturday. Noisette loves airplanes, having been a private pilot for most of his life, so this sounded like a good plan.

Well. Would you have guessed that the Flyover Show has nothing to do with airplanes? It was just a big concert with various local (and perhaps non-local) groups performing. But still, it would be a chance to see Soweto as a lively place for a change. We’ve enjoyed touring Soweto before, and there are many interesting sights to see, but to me one of its biggest shortcomings is the lack of street life. When we were there with our kids, I was dying to buy them some food at any street stall, as I imagined there to be hundreds, which is why I hadn’t packed any snacks. Okay, to be honest, I never pack any snacks. But can you believe that not a single food stall was to be found in all of Soweto that day?

Anyway, so I brought up all this while seeing Noisette getting tenser by the minute as we slowly progressed through traffic. I could see him thinking, I am in this mess every single day of the week, why am I doing it again on the weekend? I conjured up visions of a party for the ages, an unforgettable day at a lovely open air concert complete with flame throwers and exotic food. Plus, it was such a gorgeous day to be out and about, with a big rain just having swept everything clean and a hint of the first crispness of fall in the air.


Except Soweto disappointed again. I honestly don’t think there is any street life to be found in Soweto. You can go into Alexandra any regular day with nothing special happening there, and it is always such a lively and crazy place. A bit scary, yes, but never dull. Soweto on the other hand feels  like the sleepy small German town on a Sunday I remember from my childhood. “Sidewalks flapped up,” we called it. Soweto’s history? Fascinating. Soweto today? Boring. Unless I suppose I could be talked into bungy jumping off the cooling towers, but don’t hold your breath for that story.

We got there just as our friends, who had arrived earlier to watch a gumboot dance by the Kliptown Youth Program, were already leaving, because the show had gotten so lame. It turns out that was the highlight of the day, and we’d missed it.  Can I just say here that the whole South African concept of time is actually still a mystery to me. Whenever I’m anywhere at the appointed time, nothing happens, and it turns out that I’m way too uptight about keeping to a schedule. But then when I think surely an event will start later because they always do around here, that’s the day when the program started right on the dot.

So what to do now? Walter Sisulu Square, a vast space framed by the very seedy-looking Soweto Hotel, conjuring an aura of 1970s Eastern Block, was more or less deserted. [Note by editor: the Soweto Hotel has since then been renovated, check out the Soweto Hotel website.] The only thing showing up en masse was not flame throwers but a long row of porta-potties. I think the event planners might have gotten a little bit ahead of themselves. And the DJ music, presumably tiding people over to the next event, was terrible. The entire scene was depressing, to be honest. Our friends decided to head to the Kliptown Youth Centre to hand out a few donations and perhaps catch an impromptu encore of the gumboot dance, but I knew it was futile to attempt dragging Noisette there. I can barely get him to attend our own kids’ various music and sports performances.

A scene one could only dream of at a Bruce Springsteen concert:

Walter Sisulu Square below, with Soweto Hotel on right and Freedom Charter rotunda on left. I mean, doesn’t it look like people actually made an effort to NOT be there that day?

Leaving nothing to chance: There was definitely enough choice of porta-potty to be had:

We’d already visited Walter Sisulu Square previously, and had read its most prominent feature, the Freedom Charter, enclosed in a rotunda at the center. The most memorable part about that, back then, was the guy who could play the South African national anthem on a recorder blowing through his nose. But when that guy approaches you the second time around with a huge whiff of alcohol preceding him from five yards out, then it’s not quite so cute and quirky anymore. So after some debate, and after me breathing a huge sigh of relief that our car was still where we had parked it because surely Noisette would have blamed me and my ill-fated outing if it hadn’t, we decided to check out the antique stores in Parktown North/Parkhurst.

Drive-by shooting of Joburg:


That’s when the day started taking a visible turn for the better. I got some good pictures of the Jozi skyline, straight out of the car driving by, and then what should we see emerging out of thin air like an oasis to the thirsty? A sign for the Westcliff Hotel. All we had to do was turn into a side road and it was right there, in all the glory we imagined. And do you know what? With every symbol of luxury and posh-ness that emerged from the minute we turned into their gate – the security gate, the parking guard, the immaculately turned out concierge at the front reception calling ahead to make a reservation for us at the polo bar, the luxury golf cart taking us up in impossibly steep serpentines pas the most gorgeous gardens – our spirits lifted. We were in our world again!

The Westcliff Hotel (now renamed):



Beats Walter Sisulu Square and a row of porta-potties, if you ask me!

Sunday High Tea on the terrace of the Westcliff Hotel is a Johannesburg institution, apparently. But you know what? Saturday mojitos and lunch aren’t so bad either! We were surprised we even got in. The views from up there are truly spectacular, though the best view in Joburg is from Northcliff Hill.

We finished off our outing on another high note in trendy sidewalk-cafe-dottted and antique-store-lined-streets Parkhurst, where we almost ended up buying a new patio table, something we’ve been looking for pretty much ever since we’ve arrived in Joburg. But we thought better of it, perpetually undecided, and settled on some to-die-for and much more affordable freshly-baked bread instead.

Rooftop seating at George’s on 4th, a Joburg restaurant I can highly recommend:

Freshly-baked bread at Vovo Telo bakery on 4th Avenue, Parkhurst:

I’m telling you, I enjoyed the second part of our day just as much as Noisette. Two snobs in a pod.

And, what do you know, we ended up seeing an airplane that day after all, at a regular Sasol gas station at the side of the road, as if airplanes on rooftops of gas stations were the most natural thing in the world:

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