Urban jungle

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Cream presents a travel special on South Africa. Each week we focus on one of the nation’s many colourful regions, this week honing in on Johannesburg. Though often considered an imperative short-term stopover before travellers make their way to a safari/gaming destination, Jo’burg offers a dazzling ‘wild’ life experience of its own. TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANTONINO TATI.

About 12 hours by plane from Sydney, Johannesburg Airport, otherwise known as OR Tambo (named after anti-apartheid politician Oliver Tambo), is the initial entry for most international travellers into South Africa. The city, named ‘Egoli’ or ‘City of Gold’ by the Zulus because it was founded on the gold fields that kick-started the South African economy in the late 1800s, still possesses remnants of its prospecting past with mine dumps dotting its outskirts.

Another motif first-time visitors will note is the barbed wire on fences that surround everything from homes to shopping centres to even boutique hotels. This ‘fortress’ mentality of Johannesburg might have existed in the days of apartheid but even in a contemporary era of positive racial integration crime here, like in any big city, still needs to be kept at bay.

Behind the walls, gates and wiring, the intrepid traveller will spot wonderful examples of postmodernistic architecture that would make Frank Gehry blush. All yellow and red brick with black-painted iron and tiny peepholes for windows, a lot of homes and commercial properties look like interpretations of classic Soho warehouses. And indoors things are indeed plush with Jo’burg locals unafraid to spend big.

South Africans like in little quirk to their architecture. The popular Soccer City Stadium, built primarily to host last year’s World Cup is shaped like a super bowl – literally. Designers steered clear of the traditional concrete look that such sporting venues adopt, and instead flirted with a variety of ochre and tan hues.

By night the Johannesburg skyline shines bright and beckons you to recognise the city’s involvement in big business, even outside of the usual mining assocations (first gold, now still diamonds). Where South Africa is one of the few countries known to possess three ‘capital’ cities – Cape Town being the legislative capital, Pretoria being the administrative, and Bloemfontein being the judicial, Johannesburg is very much its unofficial business capital. You’ll hear many residents saying they “work hard in Jo’burg but like to play in Cape Town”, for example. That said, Jo’burg does offer plenty on the social, cultural and entertainment front.

Pictured top of page, clockwise from top left: Johannesburg city skyline by night; the massive bronze statue of Nelson Mandela in Mandela Square; flags outside of Winnie Mandela’s current home; dancers at the Bruma Lake Flea Market; Soccer City Stadium which hosted the 2010 World Cup.