The last nugget of gold…at least for now.
Sprocket Rocket, Fujifilm Superia 200
I sat beside a rock, switching between quick-sketching passers by, and slowly detailing a drawing of the skyline that I returned to every time I visited the park. It had been my neighborhood retreat; a patch of green overlooking the bustling grey city. Overlooking it, but removed from it, as if offering perspective and distance from the trudge of the high-rise life. Here I could escape into a novel, disappear behind a lens, or immerse myself in my own pencil-point world.
On this particular winter afternoon, I had retuned to my skyline drawing after a considerable interlude, and I was lost in the shadows and the trees. A small girl appeared beside me, maybe three or four years old, a dummy throbbing beneath her sweet little nose. She must have been standing there for some time, because as I looked up she was ready with her question; head tilted to one side, “What are you drawing?” I held my sketchbook up to the horizon, expecting she would make the connection. Still she looked perplexed. I pointed, “The city skyline. Can you see?”
“But why are there no colours?”
I was enchanted by this little sprite of a child. She plonked down beside me and watched me draw. I had many pencils, but she was right, I had no colours. Nonetheless, she accepted my offer of joining me. Her nondescript lines and shapes, the innocent interpretation of her surrounds was far more imaginative than my own. I was transfixed.
Unabashed and unconstrained, she assumed a connection with me in a way that is all too uncommon amongst adults; a momentary friendship requiring only the acknowledgement that we are both human. We shared each other’s company as if we were lifelong friends with nothing left to tell, leaving only common knowing and common being, quiet and content.
In the midst of this magic, a close friend of mine arrived to meet me, and found me sitting cross legged on the grass with a glowing bundle of freedom. She had brought me an apple, which my new friend was also eager to share. And so we sat, three girls, eating apples and enjoying the last rays of sunlight, until the little girl disappeared again, just as quickly as she had arrived.
Some of my most uplifting experiences, both whilst travelling and in daily life, come from the tiny interactions I have in passing with strangers. Sometimes it’s an exchanged glance or a quick conversation, even something glimpsed in the distance, other times it can be a spontaneous interaction that extends for hours and can even evolve into a lifelong friendship. As much as I love travelling and exploring with friends, I often find myself doing these things alone, and I’ve come to realise that this is when I’m most receptive to the chance encounters which add interest to my day.
I had one of these moments on my recent Red Bus Tour in Joburg. I took a little stroll down Carr Street in Newtown, a street that’s known to be lined with cool graffiti, and met a guy who was taking a break outside. He walked the street with me, and we chatted about art and life and work and happiness, and then I left, feeling a just little bit more connected to the world.
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.
I recently returned from a trip to Johannesburg, where I had a chance to cross a few more things off my Jozi Bucket List. I finally took the Red Bus Tour, which I have been dying to do since it opened a route in Joburg last year. I’ve got lots to show for my Red Bus adventure, but I’ll start with a few pictures of the city and its people, captured from the bus.
Joburg is a great city, but it is also one of contradictions. It’s got an incredibly rich diversity of people and such a layered, complex history. It is where the county’s wealthiest and poorest citizens meet, and yet seldom see each other. The streets downtown bear the evidence of the tragedies of the city’s past, whilst simultaneously revealing the undeniable tensions of the present, and burgeoning hope for the future. It is at once beautiful and heartbreaking.
Items with links will take you to the corresponding blog post, and those not crossed out I haven’t yet managed to do. I happen to be in Joburg for a few days as I write this, so I’m sure I’ll be crossing off a few more before I leave. I hope you enjoy.
The Bucket List
The Apartheid Museum
- The Bag Factory
The Bassline Bruma Lake Flea Market New Chinatown
- Collector’s Treasury
Tour of Constitution Hill View from the Carlton Centre Cradle of Humankind Critical Mass Gold Reef City Eat out in Fordsburg
- Hope School field
- Lomo Walk
- Mainstreet Walking Tour
- Market Theatre
The Military History Museum Neighbourgoods Market Bungee jump from the Orlando Towers Red Bus Tour Concert at Soccer City Troyeville Hotel Sundowners at the Westcliff
- Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Howl Night at Wolves Cafe
- Lookout point at Zietsies
Johannesburg Zoo Row a Boat on Zoo Lake