Late post this week because I’ve been spending far more time living it than writing about it. For the last two weeks in May, I was staying at CurioCity Backpackers in the Maboneng Precinct of Johannesburg. I’m on the road again now, en route to Cape Town with a few overnight stops along the way.
But let’s back up a bit… Last year, on a weekend visit from Durban, I stayed at CurioCity and fell in love with Maboneng in less than 24 hours. This year, knowing I wanted to spend more time than an abbreviated weekend, I arranged a two-week bartending gig to keep me in the area for a bit longer. This would give me more time to tap into the creative energy of the neighborhood as well letting me interact with countless other travelers to help plan the next route on my journey (because my itinerary is a blank slate now). Across both intents, I got far more than I had aimed for.
CurioCity is located in the Maboneng Precinct, a neighborhood in Johannesburg self-described as the “the epicenter of the Joburg inner-city renaissance”. Maboneng is fittingly named after the Sotho word for a ‘place of light’. What started in 2008 as a reconstruction of a warehouse into the food and craft market that is now Arts on Main, Maboneng has extended all the way down Fox Street filling the neighborhood with art, food, and a rich positive energy. In 2013, Bheki Dube and his team brought CurioCity Backpackers to the neighborhood. It’s become the place for travelers to have a home in the heart of Joburg and mingle with the locals at the bar.
My gig behind the bar put me in the perfect place to meet everyone and the question of how an American ends up behind a hostel bar in Joburg always led to some new friends. Apart from the amazing travelers and local regulars that I was able to meet, getting to spend time working with the staff at CurioCity was an incredible privilege. To see this group of entrepreneurs (all under 30) building and maintaining such a powerful brand was an inspiring thing. With the second location already open in Durban, I expect great things to come from CurioCity in the coming years.
Like me, many of the travelers I met in CurioCity were in Maboneng after a first visit in the past and felt a strong pull to bring them back. The unique talents and projects of other curious travelers were clues that this area attracted a certain type of person. Like the entrepreneur who is designing and selling journals, my most valued travel accessory. Or the philosopher and an all-around interesting person who has started creating their own art. And the many others who left their corporate job to start their digital marketing agencies, alcohol delivery service apps, or restaurants and juice bars. I’m still not sure what I’ll do when this trip ends, but I know who my inspirations will be.
The majority of my time in Joburg was spent at the backpackers or around Maboneng. With constantly changing characters and good friends that did stay, sticking around in one place didn’t get stagnant. Other than the day trip to Magaliesburg for hiking, a typical day in Maboneng went something like this…
- Wake up at 6 or 8 AM depending on if there is a morning jog and boxing class scheduled and on what time I got back the previous night.
- During the first week, I’d try to use the morning time to get some reading or writing done and get frustrated that there were so many distractions around. By the second, I put the ‘productivity’ aside (hence the tardiness of this post) and started enjoying the company of the amazing people I was constantly surrounded with
- If it was Sunday, you could find me at Arts on Main for the food market, stuffing my face. Saturday, it was similar activities at the Neighbourgoods Market. Other days, I’d take an Uber to a new neighborhood to test out all the coffee shops in the city or to see some galleries. (Personal favorite coffee spot was FATHER in Braamfontein)
- At 3 PM I’d come back to the backpackers for my shift and spend the next seven hours mixing cocktails, making sure the beers were ice cold for particularly discerning regulars, and dancing dancing dancing.
- Our bar closes at 10 PM to allow the other guests to sleep so in the evenings we went out to some places in the area, bars in Melville, or Kitcheners in Braamfontein; listed in increasing order of party. If I end the night at Kitcheners, I’m probably not getting up for boxing class.
Like most places I’ve been staying for a week or more, Joburg was a tough place to leave. Maboneng felt like a place I could have called home and my new friends made it very tempting to end the journey there. But in the end, I did leave. There is still more to see and more to learn. Next stop is Clarens as I accompany my new friend Jelmer on a drive to Cape Town…