So there I was travelling the highways and byways of the city in a big red open-top double decker bus, making good on Alain de Boton’s declaration that “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset 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 it’s right to speak an international language, 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. More people, longer stays, and lots of word-of-mouth recommendations fuel tourism worldwide and as tourists buses traverse regular pathways, they also contribute to creating the perception of a safer city.
It’s fun to be on the bus, with a comfortable seat from which to view the streets below. There’s a choice of soundtracks to help you navigate the stops – I chose to listen in Zulu, not because I understand the language but because it seemed most appropriate. The bus travels in a loop across the city. From Park Station’s Gautrain stop it takes in and stops at some of the most significant sights – including Constitution Hill, Gandhi Square, Carlton Centre and Origins Centre at Wits. It then makes its way across the southern side of the city to the James Hall Transport Museum, Santarama Miniland and Gold Reef City with its odd combination of amusement park and less amusing Apartheid Museum. A Soweto route is planned next.
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 in 40-minute intervals and if you wanted to stay on the bus and survey the entire loop while being guided by a soundtrack in your choice of major language it takes around two hours to complete. It’s not something City Sightseeing’s South Africa’s CEO Claus Tworeck recommends though. “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 travel the buses are just a few days old and passersby stop to watch them travel past. Children and adults wave and smile at us. From that height the city is a study of contrasts as 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 city’s greatest achievements such as the Nelson Mandela Bridge and Main Street’s mining heritage but also of the city’s unfinished business – broken pavements that ironically are often the price of progress as they have been dug up to add high speed cables, lost in action manhole covers, sewer grates and other recyclable-for-cash-material, missing street signs, piles of rubble and overflowing garbage bins. My bus ride was made more enjoyable by the fact that the dignitaries had gone up ahead and MECs, MMCs and VIP’s were getting the same eyeful. In fact 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 see citysightseeing.co.za. This article was first published in the Mail&Guardian