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Saturday, 17 March 2018

Journey to the top of Ponte

What the hell are we doing in this crowded elevator - noses against armpits - inching our way up to the top of Ponte, Jozi's most bizarre building, on the edge of Hillbrow, its most dangerous suburb?

"Tales of brazen crack and prostitution rings operating from its car parks, four stories of trash accumulating in its open core, snakes, ghosts and frequent suicides have all added to the building's legend", writes Michael Subotzky in Ponte City, an incredible photo essay of its days of dereliction in 2008. This brutal, whackjob of a building. Dystopian hell, the perfect panopticon.

Yeah, what the hell are we doing?

Haha, sundowners, of course.

Tourist in my own town, darling. Can you believe it's now possible to go for sundowners and snacks (R280 pp) at the top of Jozi's most infamous building, courtesy of Dlala Nje, a community organisation who are promoting Ponte Love - love and kisses for the now cleaned-up refurbished Ponte City.

We're not feeling the love so much as we Uber it in to Hillbrow past the shivering nyope addicts and whippet-thin prostitutes, but once we're inside the gate and grounds of Ponte City, it feels pretty friendly. There are ten of us and we all take selfies with the tower in the background. Then Steve the guide from Dlala Nje, meets us at reception and he nannies us through the Taking the Lift part which is most surreal.

The lifts are apparently newly installed at a cost of R5 million each, which is reassuring since they're being maxed out right now. It's five pm on payday and everyone and their auntie and their fridges, TVs and mattresses are going up and down in the lifts which seem to take an unbelievable amount of cargo. It's noisy and cheerful and we tourists are a novelty, but there are frissons of unhappiness in our party about claustrophobia and just how many people a lift should actually... when suddenly one opens and Steve herds us all in, plus a few, tight like sardines, and we are pulled hellishly upwards.....

But oh my, when we get out at the 51st floor and step into Dlala Nje 5101, this is what awaits. A shebeen chic venue with simple charming decor and the most befok views of Jozi at sunset. Never mind the lovely bar which we fall upon with great glee and starting frantically drinking and chatting and taking pics and exchanging weird stories about Ponte.

My friend Sally said she'd driven past Ponte every day for the past 25 years and couldn't believe she was actually at the top now. One of the guys in the group said he'd shagged someone who lived in Ponte when he was young. Phil confessed he'd visited when it was real dodgy. When I was a teenage delinquent I once visited a guy in Ponte and we saw a druggie throw a puppy over the edge into the pit. 

It's gritty, but it's pretty. And impossible not to get high on the views and the vibe at Dlala Nje 5101. We eat and drink and get festive. Steve give us the lowdown on Ponte - it was built in 1975 by German architects Manfred Hermer and Rodney Grosskopff, it's 173m high. In its day in the 70s it was the height of sophisticated apartment living and Hillbrow was known as Manhattan in the veld. Then when the city collapsed in the 90s it fell into despair and dereliction and became a bizarre slum filled with poor people, immigrants, gangsters and crazy fucks.

"The reality of Ponte and its many fictions", writes Subotsky, "have always integrated seamlessly into a patchwork of myths and projections that reveal as much about the psyche of the city as it does about the building itself".

When it's time, Steve takes us down again, and now, the Taking the Lift part is fine because we're all drunk and supercharged on views and stories. The final dramatic touch is a visit to the infamous pit at the bottom of Ponte, which has been completely cleaned up. We all ooh and aah about what must have been unearthed in the four-storey high trash pile - skeletons, fridges, television sets, pots and pans, beds... I think of the poor puppy.

We stagger out to our Uber trying to feel the Ponte Love and definitely feeling the weirdness of having been inside and up to the top of the city's most peculiar building.

Would I do it again?

Yes, probably, but you'd have to come with me.

For more information on the tour check out Dlala Nje on Facebook

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Think while you Drink Tour

Drink and think. That’s the spirit behind the fabulous Jozi Rooftops and Bars Tour hosted by Gerald Garner of Joburg Places About forty of us meet at the City Lodge in Newtown. Gerald tells us how Jozi became a rough tented camp overnight after the discovery of gold and thereafter the Sodom and Gomorrah of the bushveld. He is very entertaining. There is even dramatic thunder and lightning and then it hails. Gerald has to organise a bus change (from open top to closed) so we get a free drink and my two cohorts and I get to know some of the other okes on the tour - "Ja, we used to drink at the Dev in Braamfontein back in the day, hey", and then the sun comes out and we all depart. 

Our first stop is the Parktonian Protea  Hotel in Braamfontein, 23 floors up with extraordinary views. These are the Swedes who start out as a neat and tidy, happy and shiny group of fine upstanding people and, well, after six bars.. hahaha. I am already already on my third G&T and I'm loving the Swedes. We marvel at the views, the old fort, Constitution Hill, the Hillbrow Tower, the Brixton Tower. Gerald tells us more tales about the boom and bust of this bizarre urban landscape. 

It starts pissing with rain again and so our second stop is indoors, street level, a hipster bar where we change to whisky and my cohorts and I meet this group of beautiful young women who are celebrating a twenty fifth birthday.  The rain is not lifting, Gerald herds us onto the bus again and we're off to Maboneng.

The sun comes out en route and everything is golden around the Agog Gallery and Rooftop Bar, "home of the curious". The Nine Barrels Bar is in the same building, and some people go straight in there. We pour ourselves upstairs and from the rooftop bar see old industrial Jozi, theatrically lit.  Gerald talks about the apartheid days when it was one of the richest cities in the world, run on greed on gold. Everyone's pretty tanked up by now and I am feeling passionate about the creative renewal of Maboneng and New Doornfontein and life and art and the new Jozi and well,

I drink more whisky and love these umbrellas hanging over a nearby rooftop. They're styling this precinct as the new African New York with its mix of shops, bars and restaurants, and combination hotel-and-apartments, like at Hallmark House with its resident hip club, the Marabi Club which does fine dining and live jazz. My head is starting to spin and things are getting interesting in the city as the sun goes down and we head off again.

This is the lovely swimming pool at Curiocity Backpackers in Maboneng which is full of young backpackers from the continent and abroad, who are very calm about the noisy onslaught of some forty middle aged drunk local tourists all baying for another drink. It's uncharacteristically cold tonight in Jozi so I sit on the edge of the pool, you know, like it says: explore our world.

 Did I mention, hic, that Curiocity is such a great backpackers, it's full of people from across the world who have come to explore our bad-ass crazy, creative city and I just want to love them all and make friends and so I talk to these two whose names I forget and also which distant city they come from alas.  

We are herded back onto the bus where madness takes hold. My new best friend here finds her inner naughty schoolgirl and gets delightedly into the dogbox, the back seat, as we call it in South Africa.  She is very happy indeed and shrieks at her man Les who is staggering down the aisle and tells us how he used to be a bad motherfucker but now he's in his loving phase. 

Apart from being struck by its splendour, I can't remember too much about our visit to the old Barclays Bank Building which was built in the 40s and is now home to Bridge Books. This is Commissioner Street which some amazing buildings like the old Library apparently and this one, where we go upstairs and perhaps I have another whisky. However I do remember this amazing lighting made from taxi bags, at our next stop which is Hangout Jozi at 1 Eloff Street. This is the coolest spot I've seen for a while. Restaurant and bar, art space, indoor, outdoor venues, great design and look.

My cohorts and I are now raging and raring for more so we make a note to return to this hip and fabulous place and we don't even say goodbye to any of our new best friends and instead we hire an Uber and head for the Troyeville Hotel, always a good Jozi jol and a suitably devilish end to the think and drink tour.  

This is Gerald Garner our Fearless Leader and master storyteller who beautifully paces his talk about the history of Jozi to fit each view and venue. Did you know - like many of the participants by the end of this tour - that Jozi has fallen and risen six times? Do it, it's such fun, check out

Monday, 9 October 2017

Seven great Jozi jols

Jol is one of my favourite South African words, short and upbeat and basically meaning to have a good time. So I go on the jol as we say, and together with friends discover the fabulous new side of this crazy cowboy city. Here are my seven best Jozi jols:

The Marabi Club I fall in love with this jazz bar and its pop up restaurant called The Potluck Club. This is Afro New York at its sexiest. Gorgeous Nigerian doormen dressed in black, Art Deco interiors that evoke Johannesburg in the 20s, a long stylish wooden bar where charming waiters peddle intriguing cocktails; smoky live jazz while you eat. I have the Thai Green Curry Cocktail which is so fabulous I have another one, William and Sally have enormous designer G&Ts, Phil has a lot of whisky. We jol in the chic cigar lounge, we feel hip, we meet people, the food is brilliant, the music is delightful. I never want to leave.

Hallmark House So I spend the night at Hallmark House which is conveniently next to the Marabi Club, First we admire the views from Phil’s apartment and ooh and aah at the nightlights of Hillbrow where I once used to jol too. Hallmark is a fabulous new addition to the Maboneng area, although this is actually New Doornfontein. They’re styling it as African New York, so the first five floors are the hotel and there are apartments above, and small shops and art and of course the jazz club. A great jazz-jol-sleep-over combo. The rooms are hip with slender balconies and killer urban views. There’s a spacious meet n' greet space downstairs looking onto the street, with a bar, restaurant and coffee shop. 

The Rooftop Bar Tour Tony, Lee and I Uber it to Newtown and get on the bus with forty others and we go to six different bars in and around Braamfontein, Maboneng and downtown Jozi. It’s a think and drink tour. Our fearless leader is the delightful Gerald of Joburg Places who does a brilliant talk at each bar, describing the boom and bust of Jozi which has fallen and risen six times, a bit like some of the people at the end of the tour. We have the best jol. It hails, then the sun comes out, the views are astonishing, the drinks are strong, the rooftops are hip and happening, the bars are trendy, the people are friendly. There is a spectacular sunset down Albertina Sisulu Street. It’s night. The drunker we get the friendlier and louder we all become on the bus, the more exited we get about Jozi city - the style, the regeneration, the friendliness. We are more fun than a barrel of monkeys. We carry on the jol to the Troyeville Hotel.

The Fabric Tour Willie and I hit the fashion district in downtown President Street in style. We start our tour at a hip coffee shop called The Fashion Shack and led by Ishvara of Ancient Secrets. He explains the origins of the area and trade, the stories of the cloth. We wander through the small shop selling fabrics from Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya and different parts of South Africa. Kangas, capulanas, kente, Masai tartan. The colours are beautiful, we meet tailors and traders. I buy a funky cap and a mat, Willie gets shoes.

Keyes Art Mile I have a few hours to kill so I slip into Southern Guild on Rosebank's Art Mile to see an exhibition by the interestingly named Porky Hefer. He has crafted a series of sleeping pods inspired by things like the workings of the weaver bird. I love this pod, it's a very good post-jol pod indeed. I also visit the Everard Read Gallery which is one of my favourite spaces, and Circa gallery next door where I climb to the top and check out the views to the north.

The Roving Bantu Kitchen This fabulous shebeen style spot adds love and life to the historic suburb of Brixton. We drink Zamalek and talk about jazz and freedom and Sifiso the Roving Bantu himself comes to say hi, then we chat to the lovely Ashley and a tourist from Berlin.  The soul food is delicious and the conversation

WAM Bam, bam. Maxine, Kirsten and I go to Wits Art Museum (WAM) to see the Andy Warhol exhibition which is fabulous and and makes us want to listen to Lou Reed and Velvet Underground. We set off the alarm by mistake when we pose too closely in front of Uncle Sam for a selfie. The collection of Warhol’s work is impressive and just being in the museum space is uplifting. We catch an espresso at the coffee shop downstairs and talk about life and art and how trendy Braamfontein has become.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Signs of the time

I take great delight in wacky and quirky road signs and murals. Roadside semiotics is one of the great joys of travel. Like when I’m deep in rural Limpopo, for example, and encounter the sign for a tombstone business that advertises Free Erections. Or when I am on a remote island in Lake Malawi and I see the Honolulu Bottle Store. It’s not just about the signs themselves, it’s about the time and the place too. Here are some of my recent favourites:

Swazi gold I'm cruising down the King's Highway from Mbabane to Ezulwini in Swaziland, destination the delicious Afro-Gaudi-esque House on Fire. I stop for a tequila in a dodgy bar - as one does - and I am rewarded shortly afterwards by this gem outside the official Swazi parliamentary buildings.

Complete Somebody I feel a strange sadness when I pass this sign near the University of Limpopo on the R71 between Polokwane and Tzaneen in Limpopo province. The name apparently comes from the days of Forced Removals under apartheid when the victims who were re-settled here called their barren new wasteland Nobody. Does anyone know more about the story of this name, I wonder?

Which way? “Do you think all roads out here lead to Vhutuwangadzebu?” I ask my traveling friend. “Or is it a circular drive?" “When you see a fork in the road,” he says, “take it”. So being from the Robert Frost School of Roads Less Traveled By (read his famous poem The Road Not Taken) I turn right to Vhutuwangazebu, and as Frost himself would have said, that has made all the difference. Can you spot the difference?

A clear message There’s no real subtlety to this mural on the road near Makhado in northern Limpopo but there’s no mistaking the clarity of the message. I love the fact that it’s on someone’s house. I have to stop and shoot it, but being a fair-weather vegetarian I don’t knock on the door to find out more. Poor Piggy and Chicken.

The search for happiness ends here How can one not feel instant joy at the sight of the Happy Cigarettes Shop & Hair Cut Salon? For some reason we are in Mpumalanga’s grasslands and wetlands region and we stop for whisky and gwaai in Ermelo. Later there’s a big, wild storm and we are happy to be indoors with our happy cigarettes and happy whisky too.

Dreamy lion I have an inordinate fondness for hand painted murals and I fall instantly in love with Dreamy Lion. We are at a bar called Boa Vista which is on the edge of Manica, an edgy, restless market town in western Mozambique. We drink cold Dosh-Em, the local beer, and gaze happily down on the Incomati River snaking its way through the flatlands beyond.

What’s in a name I leave Tzaneen, in Mopani district, for Elim in Vhembe district. I take the R36, then the R81 to Giyani, and then on a whim I decide to go via Lemondokop which will lead me to the R578 which is were I want to be led. I am somewhere in between Sephukhubje and Ximausa and am thrilled to find the Dotcom Hair Salon. It’s washing day here, and it’s also down the road from the Jealous Supermarket.

Shoot me I just love this mural for a photographic studio in rural southern Mocambique. To be honest I’m not really sure where we are – just barreling along some lonesome dust road between Bilene and the next cold beer...

Terra da boa gente The Mozambicans have their own wonderful style of murals, with a seventies feel and interesting colour. I really like this guy and his wine bottles. We are at a little restaurant in the shade in Maracuene for the annual Gweza Muthini festival, it’s only 9 in the morning and already 42 degrees. The festival marks those who died resisting colonial rule in the 1895 Battle of Marracuene. The festival is supposed to involve the killing of a hippo and the kuphalha (invocation of the ancestors) but the hippos have fucked off and these days some poor goat is sacrificed instead.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Travels with a giant pencil

We kick start our adventures by setting out for the Lowveld Book Festival in White River in Mpumalanga. I drive, obviously, but we are delayed by an hour long traffic jam on the N12 trying to leave Jozi. At least this means the service delivery protests blocking the N4 near eMalahleni are cleared by the time we get there. Eventually we are happily barreling down the glorious Schoemanskloof Pass towards Mbombela.

Love at first write In my eternal quest for the perfect travel companion, I come across Pencil in Port Elizabeth of all places. “I’m portable, wacky and most appropriate for a writer”, he chirps from next to the other giant pencils on this curio stand in a market in the Boardwalk hub. “I’m also cheap, take that the way you want to”. Pencil slips happily into my bespoke Barok handbag made by the fabulous Merle Payne.

Pencil this in We meet the charming festival director Louis van der Merwe. “The Lowveld Book Festival is in its second year”, he tells us, “the numbers are up, interest has been piqued”. We pose in front of the lovely ticky creeper in the Casterbridge Centre where the festival is held. The festival focuses on South African literature but with a Lowveld twist. Or Slowveld as we say around these parts.

Pencils do read Pencil and I check out all the fun of the fair. There are panel discussions, author interviews, talks and workshops held in three different venues in the Casterbridge Centre. The centre itself has a Barnyard Theatre, various designer shops, lovely restaurants, bistros, coffee shops and watering holes. And book stalls. We meet Suzanne Tourner from White River Book Dealers. Pencil digs her book stand – collectibles and Africana.

Some lead in my pencil We get thirsty when we see the next stand is Porcupine Ridge. "The wine is free", says the lovely Sue who has the unenviable task of controlling the bottles. I know this well. I went to the Kingsmead Book Fair and the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year, both were awash with wine from our sponsors Porcupine Ridge. But I didn't know that the label was drawn by the late artist Zakkie Eloff of White River? 

Pencil does a panel Oh my goodness, Pencil and I remember I am also a writer and we rush to participate in a panel. It’s called Roads and Stories. We pose for a photo op alongside Fikile Hlatswayo, author of the hilarious and subversive Blacks do Caravan; and the sexy Adam Cruise who has written up his fabulous adventures in and out of the Kalahari in King Solomon the Showman.  We are in conversation with Nicky Manson, editor of Lowveld Living who lets us all tell our very different stories.

Pencil makes friends There are lots of artists, writers, poets, musicians and other shysters in the Slowveld. I connect with some of them for dinner. This bunch are from Hoedspruit and are delighted to meet Pencil. The feeling is entirely mutual. From left is Karin Mitchell, former investigative journalist turned writer who is about to blow us all away with her first book - watch this space; myself, Pencil, Liam Patrick McKay, an Irish-Australian former journalist turned anti-rhino poacher extraordinaire, and his fabulous partner Laura Matter, a teacher and intellectual from California. We laugh and drink and talk.

Mightier than the sword Pencil proves to be a big hit with the people of the Lowveld Book Festival. Everyone wants to hold him and make a joke. The pencil is mightier than the sword is a good one. Sharp sharp. We sign some books and even some menus and napkins and meet lovely new people.

Pencil wanna party! There are so many other fabulous folk at the Lowveld Book festival. We meet poets Athol Williams and Thlookomelo Mashile, we bump into radio personalities Gareth Cliff and Sam Cowan, we say hi to authors Mario Cesare and Tony Park; we meet investigative journo Sizwe Yende who chronicles corruption and assassination in Mpumalanga; we believe the fifth Mrs Andre Brink is here then we bump into Tracy McDonald ex Penguin Books and then Cheryl Arthur who is a fashion designer and things go a bit blurry. Pencil ends up drunk and naked.

Sleepy pencil Next morning Pencil and I are tired but happy. “Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience", he says quoting author GK Chesterton, "if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling”. “In spite of everything I shall rise again,” I reply, quoting artist Vincent van Gogh: “I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on”.