What you didn’t know about Johannesburg.
- Modern Johannesburg was born 130 years ago, after gold was discovered
- It’s a city with an open, friendly atmosphere
- Earliest inhabitants can be traced back 3 million years
It’s hard to believe Johannesburg didn’t exist 130 years ago.
It used to be a dusty, one-horse kind of place where a few farmers created a living from the land, although traces of early human habitation go back millions of years.
Modern Johannesburg was born with the discovery of gold.
Almost overnight, it became one of the fastest-growing cities in the world as fortune-seekers rushed in.
The stories that make up the Joburg’s past shape its character today, rewarding visitors who venture beyond the sanitized streets of wealthy Sandton to discover the real heartbeat of Egoli, the “City of Gold,” as it is also known.
It has golden foundations
The richest city in South Africa, Joburg is also one of the biggest economies in Africa overall — its wealth built upon that discovery of gold in the late 1800s.
“There was no indigenous population, no water and the only reason for this city’s existence was the discovery of gold,” says Nechama Brodie, editor of The Joburg Book, a guide to the history of the city.
“It laid the foundation for everything else that happened, even the layout of the roads.”
Within a few years, Joburg had become like an African Las Vegas, its wagons and tents transformed into brick buildings and the dusty gathering places become thriving market squares.
But the wealth came at a cost: poverty forced many Africans to work in the mines and they lived in terrible conditions.
Nowadays, gold is no longer such a significant part of Joburg’s economy.
But that frontier spirit — a sense that anything is possible — remains and continues to attract people.
Gold Reef City, south of Joburg, provides a glimpse of the city‘s golden past. Sure, it’s a bit kitsch but the recreated mining town features an original mine shaft you can ride down and you also get the chance to pan for gold.
Standard Bank in the CBD or Central Business District (5 Simmonds St.) features a small museum around a mine shaft inside the building, and from the top of the 50-storey Carlton Center (152 Commissioner St.) you have a good view of the mine dumps surrounding the city.
Past Experiences is one of the best companies for walking tours around the CBD.
Some of humankind’s oldest traces have been found here
Johannesburg has one of the longest recorded histories of human habitation in the world.
The earliest residents can be traced back 3 million years — their presence preserved in a World Heritage Site called the Cradle of Humankind 50 kilometers north of the city.
The area has been the scene of some of the world’s most important paleontological finds, including the perfectly preserved hominid skeleton “Little Foot.”
Maropeng, the visitor center housed within a giant grassy mound, has displays showing humankind’s journey through time.
You can also walk through the Sterkfontein Caves, scene of some of the most exciting archaeological finds in the area.
Museum Africa has a wide range of displays exploring Africa’s first civilizations.
Melville Koppies , a nature reserve in the heart of Joburg with evidence of Stone Age settlements, is a good place to escape the hectic pace of the city. It’s inadvisable to go here alone, so join a guided walk.