South African Adventure: Johannesburg's Bungalows, Storms and Sunday Socials

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By Cath Everett | December 6, 2013 4:16 AM EST

The skyline of Johannesburg

There are three things that have struck me about Johannesburg - the dramatic thunderstorms, the fact that everyone lives in bungalows and the focus on Sunday sociability.

So I'll take these strange phenomena in order. Firstly, the amazing electrical storms they get here in spring/summer have to be seen to be believed. It's like having your very own light display in the sky. Blue and white forks of lightning searing the firmament, it's a photographer's dream.

And then there are the sound effects - deafening cracks of thunder, pounding tropical-style rains and the odd bit of hail if you're lucky. All very theatrical.

In fact, my Beloved and I witnessed one of the biggest storms of the year so far over a bit of dinner on Fourth Avenue in our new neighbourhood, Parkhurst, this week, which was rather exciting.

We'd been lucky enough to get a seat outside on the street and were just tucking into some tasty Italian fare when the wind picked up and it all kicked off.

I've never had ringside seats in a storm before, but it was an amazing thing to watch from under the tarpaulin. The only downside was that my chicken cacciatore got colder a bit quicker than it would normally, but hey - it was worth it.

In fact, in true mad dogs and Englishmen fashion, we were the only ones who deigned to stay and view the spectacle almost to the bitter end. The rest of our feint-hearted neighbours ran inside, pursued by anguished waitrons. But even we gave up when we started having to hold down the tablecloth.

Given their intensity, these breath-taking storms are over pretty swiftly in the main though, and then you're back to the usual pleasant sunshine, or cool-ish evening depending on when you're out and about, with all of the clawing humidity gone.

Bungalows

One of the unfortunate side effects of these atmospheric dramas, however, is that they tend to take out apparently random traffic light systems. Which is all a bit terrifying the first time you approach one.

But presumably everyone's well used to the situation here as they're all very civilised about it. If it were London, everyone would dissolve into a state of panic and you'd end up taking your life in your hands trying to negotiate the resultant undignified scrum.

But here, people simply behave as if it were the most natural thing in the world and treat it as a four-way US-style stop junction. This means that priority is given to people arriving first who have right of way over everyone else.

Inevitably this requires an element of trust as well as eyes everywhere, but it does seem to work, particularly if you have the comfort of being surrounded on either side by driving experts who presumably know what they're doing. Or that's the hope anyway.

Number two on my list of unexpected Jozi characteristics, meanwhile, is the fact that, although some people live in apartments like they do back home, no one seems to reside in normal two-storey houses - despite the fact that it's a big city and, you would have presumed, more space-poor than other areas of the country.

While in the UK, and most of Europe for that matter, the place is awash with multi-level abodes, albeit of varying colours, shapes and sizes, here everyone lives in bungalows.

But they're not bungalows in the British sense of ugly, suburban accommodation for the retired, nor in the South African sense of being small, wooden holiday homes.

Instead, whether in the townships or middle-class neighbourhoods, it's just that accommodation has been stretched over a larger plot of land than their British equivalents, which means that houses grow out rather than up.

The King's Road of Joburg

But while this all seemed reasonable enough in the Cape, which is less densely populated and has lots of land to play with, I hadn't necessarily expected to see the same in a huge urban centre like Joburg. Which just goes to prove how spacious this country really is.

There's no way that London could wantonly sacrifice so much land for its housing needs, but it does help to give Jozi a much more open and less packed-in feel, which undoubtedly reduces stress levels.

As for my last observation on local mores, that would have to revolve around the fact that everybody, but everybody, goes out and lives it up on Sundays.

In the UK, it's traditionally been a relatively quiet day where people relax, read the papers, have a spot of lunch and catch up with the reality tasks that they haven't had time to do during the week, after having done their social rounds on either Friday night or Saturday.

But in Joburg, much more than in the Cape, the opposite is true. Sunday, it seems is the day for "visiting with friends or family". So even though there may be work next day, the bars and restaurants of trendy Parkhurst, which, it appears, is the King's Road of Joburg, are absolutely heaving.

Due to the excess of beautiful people, my Beloved and I have now taken to comforting ourselves with a bit of  'Normal Person-spotting', but they're definitely few and far between.

Nonetheless, after a tiring weekend of household goods shopping in order to stock our semi-furnished home, we decided to pass on such pleasures, much to the surprise of an English guy who was walking his dog up our street when my Beloved bumped into him.

"Everyone goes out on a Sunday. We must be the only people in the whole of Joburg who haven't," he said. And judging from the party that was being held a couple of doors down, I think he might be right.

READ:

My South African Adventure: Exploring the Secret Side of the Cape

South African Adventures: Cape Flats Townships, Table Mountain and Grand Contrasts

South African Adventure: Road Safety Statistics Close to Record Murder Rate [BLOG]

South African Adventure: Able Seamen and Endangered Penguins

South African Adventure: Moving to Johannesburg Poses a Daunting Challenge

Cath Everett is a resting journalist who has written about business, technology and HR issues for over 20 years. She recently moved from the UK to South Africa with her husband

To contact the editor, e-mail:

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