Tag: My Backpack

Why you should definitely go for a walk through Johannesburg’s dodgiest neighbourhoods.

‘Are you sure you trust me?’

It’s the first question he asks us, and while there’s a twinkle in his eye, there is some depth to our guide, Gil’s question. We are, after all, about to walk into Johannesburg’s most notorious building – the 54 storey Ponte City Tower.

The round, hollow tower is infamous for lots of things – its nickname of ‘suicide central’ for all of the people who have ended their lives through its windows high above the Johannesburg skyline; its status as a hijacked building, run by gangsters, and the 14 storey high pile of rubbish that once filled its hollow core, created by the 10,000 people who once lived in the tower with no access to water, electricity or waste removal.

It’s a part of Johannesburg that has, until 2012, been totally off-limits to visitors, and many locals would still never dream of going inside. Surrounded by some of the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods – Hillbrow, Yeoville and Berea – it’s a place that bears almost no resemblance to its former glory: in the 1970s it was Johannesburg’s most exclusive apartment building.

We learn all about its history from the 52nd floor – a three-bedroom apartment repurposed as an event venue for the local organisation, Dlala Nje (meaning just play in Zulu). Our guide, Gil, is a Congolese born South African, who moved to Johannesburg with his aunt when he was nine and spent much of his life living in the tower. Now he runs walking tours through Ponte and its surrounding neighbourhoods, the proceeds of which fund the Dlala Nje’s community centre on the ground floor, which aims to provide a safe learning and socialising environment for local children and youth.

“I am here to break down your preconceptions,” Gil says purposefully. He wants to know what we’ve heard about the Ponte tower, and then tell us the full story – from a local’s perspective.

It’s a trend that’s becoming more and more popular in tourism – real experiences, led by locals. To me, it’s a great example of responsible tourism*, and since this is both my passion and profession, it’s fantastic to experience it first-hand right here, in South Africa’s economic epicentre and melting pot of the continent’s cultures.

After being given the full Ponte rundown by Gil in the 52nd floor room with a view, we take a rather dark staircase to the rocky core of the building to get some perspective of how high the famed 14-storey rubbish dump really was. It’s repugnant to think that people living on the 12th and 13th floor had to go upstairs to dump their rubbish, as the space outside their windows would have already been blocked with waste. Even more revolting is our newfound knowledge that amongst the 14 storeys of rubbish were at least 23 human bodies, all of which were pulled out by hand – together with their decomposing surroundings – when the building was cleaned up to be liveable again in the early part of this decade.

Minds full of this knowledge and phones full of upward-facing selfies (the view to the top of the building from the inside is dizzying), we make our way back up to ground level through the underground carpark, where residents busy washing their cars greet Gil with friendly hellos.

Once outside of Ponte, Gil advises us to keep an eye on our belongings, as our walk from here will take us past many people who ‘work hard at being pickpockets.’ We walk through busy streets – Berea first, and then into Hillbrow, all the while being mostly ignored, but sometimes eyed off, by the suburbs’ many residents. It feels like rural Africa here, or a city less developed. Buildings are mostly intact but the streets are dirty; women walk by with their babies strapped to their backs and others stride past in uniforms, heading home from churches and from workplaces.

We feel safe with Gil and another Dlala Nje team member who has come along to keep an eye on things, and it actually feels like a privilege to be in this part of a city which often carries such a dire reputation. We’re taken through a local market and encouraged (but never pushed) to purchase some of the freshly washed and laid out vegetables, not because of any backward deals but because it will help the local community.

At the end of the tour we are taken to a local shebeen (pub), where we are sat down at a long table full of locals drinking beers and watching the rugby. We’re given beer bottles the size of which would make any German proud and a lunch pack wrapped in Styrofoam: it’s filled with delicious fried chicken, kale, slaw and a whole lot of other delicacies – the kind of food which tastes amazing and so foreign, you know you could never fully duplicate the flavour if you tried to ever recreate it elsewhere. As we leave, the owner of the shebeen hugs us all individually – the grin on his face, and the photos he asks us to take with him in them, speak volumes more than his words probably could. You can tell it means a lot to him to have visitors from ‘the outside’ coming to enjoy his generous hospitality.

As always in this continent, Africa’s heart beat is most clearly felt through the warmth of its people.

I love this continent’s energy, its contrasts and its vibrance. I am so excited to be back in South Africa – one of my favourite places in the world – and can’t wait to see what lies ahead for us in these next 3 weeks.


*Responsible tourism is based on the idea of making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit. More info here.

So – tell me about Brisbane. Well, that’s a funny story.

[Also, erzählen Sie mir doch mal etwas über Brisbane. Tja, das ist eine lustige Geschichte…]

I don’t really know what I’d expected. That I could just wing it? Read notes off a piece of paper and expect it to work? Who did I think I was?

I really should have seen it coming.

I mean, it was a city tour. City tour guides need to know STUFF. Stuff like dates and names of buildings and funny stories about historical landmarks. I didn’t know anything about Brisbane, even though I’ve lived here for seven years. And I’m not good with dates.

It really shouldn’t have been a shock when the advice of a well-seasoned Brisbane guide came through the phone: Oh gosh no, you can’t just read off a piece of paper! They expect you to know all of the information. They will mark you badly if you just read. Oh well, you have a couple of days. You’ll have to learn.

Oh dear.

I know I’m passing the blame here, but I kind of got roped into this. My editor from Our Planet Travel was supposed to lead the tour, a bus-driven German cruise ship trip around Brisbane, Mount Coot-tha and Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, but couldn’t – so I agreed to step in. The money sounded good, particularly as I have been in-between jobs. And besides, it was tourism! I know tourism, I’ll be fine. Yes, it required me to speak German all day, and to remember a few facts, but surely it couldn’t be that difficult, right?


When it became clear that I had a lot of studying to do (after talking with Waltraud, the expert tour guide who spoke so fast about the route my bus should take and made me feel completely inadequate for NOT knowing every single historical landmark in Brisbane), I went into a 2-day lockdown. The process went something like this: Google – Mental translate – German dot points. Google – Mental translate – German dot points. [Coffee break.] Google – Mental translate… you get the idea.

It was a good system, in essence, as I learnt while I was writing, but it was so time consuming. I created a table with pictures, names and key interesting facts about each local landmark, though as it turned out there are landmarks that we drove past on the tour that I didn’t even know existed in Brisbane, let alone had I studied for them. Nevertheless, I did my table. I revised.

What wasn’t ideal was that we had a wedding to attend at the Gold Coast the night before I was due to be a tour guide. The wedding was absolutely beautiful, and very enjoyable. It also lasted until 11:30pm. I was due to be up at 5am, out the door by 5:30am and ready to meet the other guides at 6:30am. Do the calculations if you like; that’s not much sleep. Worse yet, I woke up at 4am that morning in a panic. Why did I agree to this?!?

Yes, I know – I can be a little dramatic. But when you’re operating on 4.5 hours’ sleep and you’re about to conduct 11+ hours of tours without having memorised lots of dates (and with the demanding tone of Waltraud in the back of your head), it’s a little daunting.

Alas, I made it to the port on time. And there she was, in all her multileveled cruise ship glory: the MS Artania, on her tour around the world.

These passengers would have been on dozens of city tours. They had a lot to compare me to. I was scared.

On my first bus, I had 46 German pensioners and a random Asian man. To this day I don’t know why the Asian man was there, as he didn’t seem to speak any German. The group also had an escort – a lady named Diddi whose bleached blonde hair and pumped up lips were complimented by her holiday-blue polo and chirpy, husky voice.

Diddi didn’t know that it was my first time as a tour leader, not from the start anyway. She looked somewhat critical of my constant flipping of papers to find my notes, and kept encouraging me to talk about random things such as school uniforms, car registration plates and the Brisbane climate. I hadn’t realised how much down time there would be between the port and the inner city, so she was right in encouraging me to be chatty. I wasn’t prepared, but I managed. In my nervousness, I think I made up a few dates and names along the way, but given that I didn’t notice any of the oldies head-down on their mobile phones checking the information on google, I assume I got away with it.

My second tour was much better. Knowing what to expect this time, I chatted happily away about whatever came to mind, intermittently texting Tyson to send me some interesting facts about Brisbane that I could mention. At one stage I proudly told the group that Brisbane had about 380 days of sunshine a year (instead of 280) and that made for an amusing moment for everyone on the bus. The group was chattier; more involved – one man asked me about luxury car import taxes in Australia and another told me half his life story including that he used to be fluent in Russian. The second best reaction I got (after the sunny days) was when I mentioned that there are now over 400 Aldi stores in Australia. Germans! Everyone seemed happier on this second tour – perhaps more relaxed because I was more relaxed. I even ended up with about $150 worth of tips (albeit some of it was in US Dollars, Euros and Barbados Dollars)!

At the end of the day, I was exhausted. I’d managed the tours, despite my fears; I’d learnt some information about my own city and I’d challenged myself. In the end, I guess it’s that last bit that counts.

Never be afraid to embrace a new challenge. Even if it’s terrifying. Even if it’s out of your comfort zone. You may make new friends, you will definitely learn something, and you will realise that the only person stopping you from being successful at something is you.

Take it from me. I’m an expert Brisbane city tour guide now. Watch out, Waltraud!