In the UK we are generally told one thing about Johannesburg: you don’t stop at red lights. The stories I had heard about the city were dominated by violent crime, car jackings and home invasions and so, as an inexperienced solo female traveller, I was fairly terrified at the prospect of South Africa’s capital when I visited it in October 2016.
Using Hostelworld.com, I had done a little research before leaving the UK and I had booked to stay at Curiocity Backpackers. I was attracted to the artsy look of both the hostel and the district, while the 9 out of 10 on reviews sealed the deal (see here for my top hostel booking tips).
“The staff and residents of Curiocity were drenched in a general zeitgeist you could smell at the door”
Walking through the door of Curiocity after a long and sleepless flight, sporting my newly purchased Karrimor utility pants and multi purpose fleece (see ‘what you REALLY need to backpack around the world’) I was met by some of JoBerg’s youngest and brightest things.
Unlike my symphony in grey ensemble, the hostel staff and local residents were resplendent in shredded jeans, metallic Dr Martens boots, wide brimmed felt fedoras over rainbow coloured hair and drenched in a general zeitgeist you could smell at the door.
The hostel was equally aesthetically pleasing. Dominated by dark woods, bright wall murals and matt metals, the ground floor boasted a bar plentifully stocked with local beers, a pool table and a lounging area scattered with flumpy cushions from which to peruse the obligatory backpacker book exchange.
Upstairs was a fully equipped, modern kitchen with space to store your own food and a large communal balcony perfect for smoking, drinking and chatting, This was flanked by the dorm rooms and a communal bathroom – all modern, clean and comfortable. I couldn’t have picked a better place to start.
Filled with newfound confidence and freedom, soon after arriving I set out on a walk of Maboneng and what I found was a revelation: rather than the signs of a city under siege, I found a flourishing district bursting with energy and creativity. Echoing the trendiest corners of East London – Hoxton, Hackney, Dalston – Maboneng is overflowing with hip coffee houses and artisan eateries, achingly cool bars, restaurants and live music venues, art galleries, comedy clubs, pop up boutiques and street art.
Fox Street, which Curiocity is on, boasts the lion’s share of Maboneng’s coolest spots. Arts on Main is the central hub; a large multi-purpose arts space, it houses small galleries and boutiques, a street food market on the weekends and a lively music bar in the leafy courtyard. Just outside is one of the best Mexican’s in town: Mama Mexicana where I enjoyed one of the best tacos I have ever had and where you better get in early if you don’t have a booking.
Numerous coffee houses also line the street; ‘Eat Your Heart Out’ was a stand out for its mud-like americanos and Israeli shakshuka breakfasts enjoyed while slowly smoking a cigarette on its scrubbed pine street tables.
Not far from Fox Street, on the corner of Albrecht and Commissioner Street is one of the many relics of old Johannesburg – The Cosmopolitan Hotel. Built in 1899 as a white gentleman’s club, The Cosmopolitan has been reclaimed and repurposed as an arts venue and events space complete with sculpture garden and bold street art.
“Eat Your Heart Out was a stand out for its mud-like americanos and Israeli shakshuka breakfasts”
During my visit the Cosmopolitan was showcasing the new work of South African super model and photographer Josie Borain. Josie also happened to be staying at Curiocity with her family and kindly offered to give me a guided tour of her show – a collection of collages of her photographs taken over the past two decades, including intimate snaps of the icons like Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford.
Just opposite the Cosmopolitan is the Museum of African Design, an airy, echoing warehouse space that showcases some of South Africa’s up and coming architects, photographers and graphic designers and which is a nice spot to get a little lost in.
For a hopeless book worm like me, however, the highlight of Maboneng is The Collectors Treasury – an infinite, sprawling cave of endless dusty shelves of books, photographs, magazines, vinyls and ridiculous nic-nacks that please the soul. From the entire collection of David Lloyd George war memoirs’ to a 1960’s map of the London Underground to a well thumbed copy of Hollywood Kids – I can fairly bet there is nothing you will not find here.
Maboneng also boasts a few choice night spots. On Fox Street independent cinema The Bioscope is a top choice, with its regular art house themed evenings, while the Pop Up Gallery next door also hosted regular comedy nights. I was lucky enough to attend to attend one with two very blonde Californians that provided the comedy fodder for most of the evening – although all in good fun.
If you’re prepared to splash a little cash Che Argentine Grill opposite Curiocity is a very special spot for a steak and a glass of red, while if you’re lucky you’ll catch the red hot Tango floor show. A little further afield is Lenin’s Vodka Bar, which while I didn’t visit – I am reliably informed stocks a good selection of Eastern European spirits and some killer cocktails.
On my last night at Curiosity, one of the staff – Tsepo – also rounded a few of us up and took us to a serious brai (BBQ) and music venue called Presinct where we saw a popular local band called The Muffinz. Serving up a reggae/bass/rock infusion they had the crowd roaring with glee – a crowd that also didn’t seem to mind a bunch of backpackers crashing their party.
Top travel tip
Maboneng is the beginning of something really inspiring in Johannesburg, if not South Africa: vibrant, creative, inclusive and led by a new generation less encumbered by the ghosts of the past.
However, the district is made and kept safe by a small army of local security guards employed by a private developer – Jonathan Lipman – who in 2009 began buying up the district with the view of revitalising it – to great effect.
While this means Maboneng is safer than others, just outside of the few blocks that make up the area is Main Street, where few foreigners should venture, while at the end of Commissioner Street sits one of the country’s most notorious drug dens.
“Don’t be afraid, but don’t carry valuables and be vigilant”
As such, it is advisable to be cautious when wandering around – don’t be afraid, but don’t carry valuables and be vigilant. If you go out on a walk alone (as I did just fine) carry nothing more than a few rand in your back pocket and wear your most inconspicuous clothing – and definitely do not do so after dark. If going anywhere beyond Fox Street at night use a licensed mini cab, preferably with a local or a large group.
On that note I would highly recommend you download the taxi-booking app Taxify, which is much like Uber but for South Africa, which you can book and track on your phone using the local SIM card loaded with data you bought when you arrived in South Africa (see ‘Backpacking 101: For the love of GOD buy a local SIM card’).
Most of all, though, have fun. Maboneng has a lot to offer and as long as you employ a little common sense and some street smarts, you’ll be just fine.
Find out more at http://www.mabonengprecinct.com/