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Looking down on Hillbrow
One of the saddest sights that you'll see from the Top of Africa viewpoint on the top floor of the Carlton Centre is the once vibrant inner city highrise suburb of Hillbrow: once THE suburb of choice for young professionals, artists, musicians and cosmopolitan immigrants.
Unfortunately since its heyday in the 1970s and early 80s, Hillbrow has shamefully been allowed to descend into an appalling downward spiral of overcrowding and lawlessness, and is now a dangerous slum that is a haven for Nigerian drug lords and prostitutes.
Sadly these days, the safest way to experience Hillbrow is from the excellent vantage point on the eastern ramparts of the old Johannesburg Fort, which is part of the fascinating Constitution Hill complex.
Finding your way to the Top of Africa
The Carlton Centre was completed in 1972, and still remains the highest building in Africa.
Having been constructed at the height of Grand Apartheid - and then having experienced the precipitous decay of the CBD in the transition to the new political order - the Carlton has undergone an unexpected and very welcome renaissance as the headquarters of the parastatal Transet group, which controls South Africa's railways and ports.
It's not hard to find the Carlton Centre, but it is surprisingly difficult to find the lift up to the Top of Africa, especially if you're visiting over a weekend when the information kiosk is not manned. Asking for directions is unlikely to help, as most of the people frequenting the Carlton Centre will never even have heard of it, let alone visited themselves.
If you're coming on street level, take the escalator one floor down (to the level one above the food court) and then look for the Levi's Outlet store in the picture above. Walk straight down this passage, away from the central atrium and keeping Levi's to your left: the lift entrance to the Top of Africa is down a side passage on your left hand side about 50m on. This will take you up the 50 floors to the viewing platform on the top floor.
At the time of writing (May 2012), the cost for an adult was a very reasonable R15.
Let's be blunt: the Carlton Centre is no longer the crown jewel of the Johannesburg skyline, and it's all a bit dilipidated. The main attraction here are the wonderful views, so don't come expecting glitzy amenities like those at the CN Tower in Toronto, or you'll be disappointed.
The Top of Africa is open until 19:00 in the evenings, and the view would be particularly attractive in the late afternoon, as the sun sets over the city. There is a rather soulless cafe at the top, but it didn't look like a very exciting place to have lunch or sundowners: when I visited, several other people had brought their own food and drink up, and nobody seemed to be objecting.
Commemorating the Satyagraha movement
Of all the things that I had expected to find at the top of the Carlton Centre, a small exhibit dedicated to the Satyagraha movement was not one of them.
'Satyagraha' was the term coined by Mohandas Gandhi to describe his philosophy of passive resistance and civil disobediance which he started to develop during the twenty years he spent working in South Africa. The word is derived from two Sanskrit words, which loosely translate to "insistance on holding firm to the truth", and was key in shaping subsequent campaigns for peaceful social change championed by influential leaders such as Martin Luther King. In the first decade of the 20th century, Gandhi defended many Indian and Chinese clients in Johannesburg who were charged with passively resisting various racial legislation, and he himself ended up being jailed for a similar offence in 1908.
In keeping with its surroundings, the exhibit is shabby and dog eared, but interesting nonetheless, and I did particularly like this statue. It is the only exhibit of its kind that I know of in Johannesburg - to my knowledge, the only other place where Gandhi's time in South Africa is commemorated is at the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg - and is well worth a few minutes of your time if you're intending to enjoy the wonderful view from the Top of Africa.
If you are interested in Gandhi, then take a short detour to the bus terminus at Gandhi Square. This was renamed in his honour after its revamp in 2001, and is home to a rather unusual statue of Gandhi as a young man in his flowing legal robes.
Mine dumps - Jo'burg's reality check
There is no escaping the fact that Jo'burg started life as a mining camp that managed to persist despite the odds, and the remains of mine dumps and head frames still punctuate the landscape along the old Reef outcrop to the south of the CBD. Whilst these stark landforms are certainly not beautiful, they serve as a powerful reminder of the origins of our city and provide a reality check lest we forget our history and develop delusions of grandeur.
The mine dumps are technically tailings dams, and contain the residue left behind after the gold-bearing ore has been crushed and chemically leached to extract the gold. The dams were deliberately constructed at the steepest possible angle to minimise the 'footprint' of land occupied, and these steep slopes, coupled with the residue of process chemicals and the almost complete absence of nutrients required for plant growth mean that the original dumps are almost impossible to revegetate.
For decades, Jo'burg was plagued with poor air quality in the dry winter months, as the strong winds preceding the rains blew dust from the mine dumps up into the atmosphere where it combined with smoke from burning wood and low quality coal in the unelectrified black townships. This noxious cocktail was then trapped close to the ground by the temperature inversion that prevails over the Highveld in winter and the result was not pretty.
In recent years, the high gold price has justified the reprocessing of many of the old mine dumps, as modern extraction methods are more efficient than those employed when the dumps were first created. The tailings from reprocessing is disposed of in modern tailings dams, located well away from the CBD, whose design aims to reduce pollution potential and assist in rehabilitation and revegetation.
Tailings reprocessing has generally had a positive effect on the Jo'burg environment, removing dumps that were considered by most to be eyesores, freeing up land for redevelopment and also reducing the dust pollution. However, one sad casualty of this reclamation has been the demise of the historic Top Star drive in, which was built on a mine dump immediately to the south of the CBD and was for decades one of central Johannesburg's most recognisable landmarks.
End of the high rise
One of the most striking aspects of the view southwards from the Carlton Centre is the abrupt divide between the high rise development to the north and the low rise development south of the CBD.
Anderson Street is the southernmost street in the Johannesburg CBD that has highrise development: south of this, development is exclusively low rise, and the break between the two is dramatic.
There is a very good reason for this: south of Anderson Street, the historical underground mine workings extend too close to surface to allow the construction of foundations capable of supporting tall buildings. In the Mineshaft Museum at the Standard Bank headquarters, you can actually see a mining stope that was intersected during excavation of the complex's foundations.
In a city where bylaws are often flouted, this is remarkable for being one of the very few planning restrictions that has been strictly enforced throughout Johannesburg's history - a miracle in itself!
Ponte City: from bling to Bladerunner and back!
The Hillbrow Tower and Ponte City are probably the two most instantly recognisable landmarks on the Johannesburg skyline and are clearly visible from virtually every part of the city.
Ponte has the twin distinctions of being the tallest residential building in Africa (173m and 58 stories), and supporting what is claimed to be the largest sign in the Southern Hemisphere - currently rented by Vodacom.
Ponte City is an apartment block that was constructed as a futuristic complex in the 1970s, during a time when Hillbrow was a fashionable and desirable suburb. With its unique cylindrical form (designed to let in light from the core of the building as well as the outside) and commanding a view out over the Jo'burg CBD and suburbia beyond, Ponte was a hip, trendy and desirable place to live.
I moved to Jo'burg in the late 1980s and rented a flat in the shadow of Ponte. At that time, Hillbrow and Berea were still safe and it was a cosmopolitan, slightly bohemian and convenient area to live in, much favoured by singletons, young couples and a sizeable community of East European Jewish emigres.
In the dying days of apartheid, gangs, drug dealers and prostitutes took advantage of lax policing to take over Hillbrow. Ponte in particular bore the brunt of Hillbrow's spectacular fall from grace and was transformed within a few short years from a desirable place of residence to a vandalised and squalid shell that wouldn't have been out of place as a set from Bladerunner.
Ponte was used to accommodate many South Africans returning from political exile in the 1990s, and the resultant overcrowding further exacerbated the slum conditions. Residents contributed to the squalor by treating the central 'core' void as a waste dump, and at one point, the accumulated refuse extended from the ground up to the 5th floor. At one time, the concept of redeveloping Ponte as a prison was mooted, and by that point, its residents could have put up a convincing argument that life in the building was little better than incarceration.
After years of neglect, Ponte was bought by property developers who embarked on the torturous process of evicted the problem tenants and gutting the building in order to renovate. With urban renewal of Jo'burg's CBD, there are signs that people are beginning to embrace the possibility of returning to the inner suburbs and after a couple of false starts, it seems as though Ponte may again become the desirable real estate it once was.
Carlton Center, Top of Africa
Carlton Center, a mall actually...take the elevator up to the 50th floor something for 7.5 Rands a ride. But the point is...this area is stated dangerous, I suggest you park your car under the building and go directly up to the top...don't just walk outside. Spend like half an hour or a bit more.
The night view is spectacular, but at the same time, are you sure about the safety factor? Not when you're in the building, but when you're driving on the way back to the hotel.
- Road Trip
Carlton Center Observation Deck
Carlton Center is a high rise building designed and constructed in the late 1960's. From the top 50th floor, you get a wonderful panoramic view of Johannesburg which reveals it true enormous size. You can also see piles of golden color earth in the distance and beautiful green parks. The gold dirt was excevated from gold mines during the gold boom days of early Johannesburg. Today the Central City is being revitalized after many years of decline and rampant crime. A partnership between business and private security forces is making a lot of headway in reducing street crime in the area.
- Historical Travel
Carlton Centre "The Top of Africa"
To have an eagles eye of Johannesburg, the place is the the city centre.
Visit the tallest building in Africa , 50 stories high, called the Carlton Centre .
The top floor is dedicated to entertainment and viewing of the whole of Johannesburg.
Entry is relativelly cheap costing about one us dollar for an adult and half a dollar for a child.
This building was built in 1971, I have added more photos of the views on travelogues and main page/s.
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Johannesburg Travel Guide
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