When Encompass Africa told me they’d booked me on a tour of Johannesburg with a company called Coffeebeans Routes, my first reaction was: “Don’t they know I can’t stand coffee?”. But this is Encompass Africa we’re talking about here, so of course they know this about me. They also know that, if you’ve got a day or two to kill in Johannesburg, there’s no better way to get a snapshot of the city than on a tour. So they booked me on one. But not just any tour – this was a one-of-a-kind travel experience with cultural tour operator, Coffeebeans Routes (which, just for the record, has nothing to do with coffee; the name reflects the fact that coffee brings people together from all over the world – just like their tours).
My guide for the day was Michael Letlala, one of the creative energies behind the business. He and a driver picked me up from my hotel at a very respectable 9am, ready for a full day of “Jozi” magic. The different types of tours you can do with Coffeebeans Routes are extraordinary. There are day and evening options spanning everything from cuisine and beer to art, music and history. In order, however, to get an overview of as many different tours as possible for this story, Michael took me on a kind of “taster” tour, combining elements from all of them. And what a day it was.
First stop was a guided tour of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). It houses one of the biggest art collections in the country, with works displayed in 15 exhibition halls and sculpture gardens. It’s a fantastic collection and if you’re an art lover, this will be right up your alley. Personally, I often tend to avoid galleries and museums when I’m travelling. I love looking at the art, but always feel like the meaning of each works passes me by, so it can often end up being an “empty” experience. Having a guided tour of JAG was such an eye-opener – instead of simply wandering around, admiring the art without really understanding it, I got so much out of the experience. It’s definitely something I’ll do again on future trips and thoroughly recommend at JAG if you get the chance.
I love looking at the art, but always feel like the meaning of each works passes me by, so it can often end up being an “empty” experience. Having a guided tour of JAG was such an eye-opener – instead of simply wandering around, admiring the art without really understanding it, I got so much out of the experience. It’s definitely something I’ll do again on future trips and thoroughly recommend at JAG if you get the chance.
Next up we visited Victoria Yards, a creative oasis in a gritty suburb on the eastern side of inner-city Joburg. It’s a unique complex of industrial heritage buildings that have been restored and are now home to a community of artists, makers and artisans – and the galleries, workshops and design studios they call home. You’ll find everything from a glass studio, jewellery workshop and fashion boutiques, to hubs for furniture-making, craft beers and baking.
The first Sunday of the month (“First Sundays at Victoria Yards”) is the absolute best time to visit, when the resident artists open their studio doors so you can take a behind-the-scenes look. There’s also a fantastic farmer’s market on this day, with great food and drinks, as well as organic produce from neighbouring urban farms and Victoria Yards’ own lush gardens, which line the paved pathway winding throughout. It’s pretty cool – even Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, visited on her recent trip to South Africa.
It was here we also met the incomparable Andrew Lindsay from Spaza Art Gallery in the neighbouring suburb of Troyeville. Andrew, a well-known creative in the city, was our guide on a fascinating street-art tour of Johannesburg. We spent the next hour or so driving around to see the city’s best offerings, including graffiti under the M1, the big statue of Nelson Mandela shadow boxing at Chancellor House, and the most exquisite tiny mosaic of Nelson Mandela just off Fox Street in Marshalltown. Exquisite mosaics were also on show at the entrance to the former home of anthropologist and anti-apartheid activist, David Webster, who was assassinated right here, by apartheid security forces, in 1989. It’s a moving and beautiful spot.
Andrew himself is famous for an extraordinary, 20-metre-tall tower in the garden of his gallery, so it was only fitting that we ended with a visit to Spaza Gallery. The *I’Themba Tower (which means means “hope” in isiZulu) was created in a bid to bring awareness to the problem of pollution and the fact that a million plastic bottles are apparently purchased worldwide every minute. This unique tower, which symbolises hope and inspiration, features more than 7,000 plastic bottles. This plastic is not fantastic – but the sculpture certainly is.
We then headed to Bertram’s Inner City Farm for lunch. This organic farm in downtown Johannesburg is run by grandmother Refiloe Molefe (Mama Refiloe), who grows the most incredible organic fruit and vegetables on site. She sells much of it to local businesses, markets and directly to the public, but uses some of the produce to create fantastic, all-organic lunches. The food she cooks is simple but delicious, accompanied by incredible fresh fruit and veggie smoothies, juices, pickled vegetables and ambrosial sauces that really pack a punch.
It’s a truly wholesome experience in every respect – the farm also donates food to local creches and other community initiatives and, crucially, introduces young people and community members to the useful art of farming. It’s pretty basic, so if you’re more of a silver service/Michelin star kind of person, this is not for you. But if you love inspirational projects that are doing real good in the world, this is a must. You’ll be helping just by eating a yummy lunch – and you’ll love Mama Refiloe!
After lunch was another highlight: a visit to Soweto. We drove to the home of Bob Nameng, an activist who founded the Soweto Kliptown Youth group (SKY) when he was just 16 years old (check out his TED Talk on YouTube). Bob showed us around his home which is also the base for SKY, a non-profit youth centre created to aid children and teens in the poverty-stricken region of Kliptown. It was fantastic to meet so many of the kids, who are clearly thriving under Bob’s mentorship and relish having such a colourful and laid-back space to hang out, where murals and artworks of Winnie Mandela and Bob Marley can be seen at every turn. To top off a truly unforgettable experience, Nelly and Gugu from the female vocal group Imbokodo sang for me in the courtyard of Bob’s place.
All the kids from the neighbourhood raced up to watch, peering through the gate or entering the yard and nabbing a front-row spot on the rocky ground, in raptures as the girls belted out numbers by famous South African female singers. Imbokodo means “you strike a woman, you strike a rock” and the powerful, high-energy and soulful numbers sung by such beautiful, strong and emotive voices seemed perfect. In a moving finale, a group of little boys insisted on performing for me too – watching them sing the South African national anthem while slapping their thighs and feet in a traditional “gumboot” dance, which originated in the gold mines of South Africa at the height of apartheid, is something that will stay with me forever.
A colourful end to the day was provided by a quick pitstop to check out the super-cool Soweto Theatre, the central part of a multi-million rand urban regeneration project in the area that’s all about culture. Made up of three enormous colourful “boxes” (in red, yellow and blue), it’s a triumph of design and looks like a sculpture as much as a building.
Photos taken, it was time to head back to my hotel at the end of a day filled with extraordinary experiences and enlightening conversations with Michael about this intriguing city. They were as spirited, fascinating and engaging as its people.
More about Coffeebeans Routes
The award-winning Coffeebeans Routes company has been around for 14 years, and offers a range of experiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
New York Times says ‘a culinary getaway to Cape Town, authenticity… an adventure.’
Time Magazine says ‘a cultural treasure hunt’
National Geographic says ‘a fascinating window on life’
Sunday Times UK says ‘A new and novel way to get inside the city’
The Wall Street Journal says ‘an especially rich experience’