I’d never heard of Santarama Miniland until I took Joburg’s Red Bus Tour. The fourth stop drops you off on the side of the road in Rosettenville near Wemmer Pan, in front of a larger-than-life statue of Jan van Riebeeck. The entrance to Santarama Miniland looks like a motor garage, and I half expected a mechanic in grey overalls to walk out, wiping his hands of grease on a dirty old rag. I paid my R30 entrance fee, having no idea what I was getting myself into, and walked tentatively into the weirdest wonderland I’ve ever stumbled upon.
A strange entrance area is scattered with kids’ rides, an old (derailed) electric train set which clearly no longer works, and a giant gorilla. Stepping out into the sunshine, I thought things would get more normal. I couldn’t have been more wrong. A massive blue Michael Jackson stands proudly in the grass, looming over a mini-golf course. There is so much weirdness all around, I wasn’t quite sure where to look next. I couldn’t seem to get an overall sense of the place, and soon realised I’d be there a while, trying to figure it all out.
I started by talking to a gentleman who appeared to be working in the garden. “This is a very strange place,” I said, anticipating he would hold the same view and feeling strangely self-conscious that he knew exactly how strange it was, and here I was, visiting it; with a fancy camera no less. “Yes,” he said, “but we’re busy fixing it up. It’s going to be great.” I realised immediately that he was in fact proud of this peculiar fantasy world, and I felt a sudden compassion toward him.
I looked over at the flock of Sacred Ibises littering the models with their white poo. “Shame, these birds must be annoying; they make such a mess,” still trying to gain traction. “Yes,” he said, “but they are living things, and therefore we must respect them and live in harmony.”
Just when I thought I’d seen all there was to see, and started heading out, I was stopped by a man who asked if I had been on the train ride. “No,” I said excitedly. Of course I had to go on the train ride! I was met at the train station by the man who had been tending the garden earlier, and he was very proud to welcome me on board as he pulled on the starter motor and readied the old girl for a noble one-passanger voyage. And so, we wound through the miniature models, through the overgrown grass and Sacred Mess, picking up black-jacks as we brushed past the unwieldy shrubbery. Of course, we didn’t just go around the track once; that would be far too normal. After over an hour of wandering, and two surreal train trips through the Santarama Miniland, I finally felt sure that I had seen it all.
I left Santarama Miniland feeling kind of special; like I had just experienced something that was beyond explanation. While I was there, I kept wishing I could share this weird place with someone, but I was also really glad I was there alone, so I could indulge my desire to explore everything in great detail. Sometimes I’m quite a sentimental person, so the nostalgic aspect of the antiquity of the place appealed to me; but at the same time I felt sad that it had suffered so much neglect and was so politically outdated. It would be remiss not to mention with regret, the evidence of the apartheid mindset throughout the place. ‘Bantu villages’ appear on a hillside almost as an afterthought, and are displayed as a point of interest, making note of distinguishing features of the various ‘tribes’. Mine workers in the Kimberley Hole represent the millions who have suffered underground, little plastic figurines ironically scattered about. I don’t mean to over-politicise the experience altogether, but there’s certainly a haunting sense of the imposing grandeur and suppression of apartheid throughout the Miniland.
I have since managed to ascertain that Santarama Miniland was created in the early 70s to showcase some of South Africa’s landmark treasures in a time when travel and TV were not as prevalent in society. It was intended to raise funds for SANTA, an NGO that promotes the control of TB and was originally supported by many sophisticated sponsors. Santarama seems to hold many fond memories with Joburg locals who describe the fascination and intrigue they felt when they visited it years ago.
I gather from the City Sightseeing website that there are plans afoot to upgrade the old antique. I’m really glad about this, but I do hope they manage to do so without ruining some of the quirky charm of the original relic.