Backpacking in ‘Mandela’s hide-out’

2014-05-18 06:00

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Curiocity Backpackers, the first inner-city backpackers’ hostel in Joburg, was a printing house where activists used to print their newsletters while hiding away from the security police during apartheid.

The monthly journal Fighting Talk, once edited by Ruth First and banned in 1963, was printed at Pacific Press in 1961.

The April edition contains former president Nelson Mandela’s views on the “struggle for a national convention”.

The April 1961 edition of Fighting Talk, featuring Nelson Mandela

Back then, Pacific Press was on Fox Street in Jeppestown – one of Joburg’s oldest surburbs – but today, 302 Fox Street is in the centre of Maboneng Precinct, dubbed “hipster” central of downtown Joburg.

It is precisely because of this rich history that Bheki Dube and Jonathan Liebmann decided to turn this forgotten building into a backpackers’ lodge.

“This very building used to be a printing house called Pacific Press. They printed material for banned underground movements during apartheid, including the ANC,” said Dube.

“Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo used to hide here,” said Dube, pointing at a bar inside Curiocity called The Hide Out Bar in memory of the great leaders.

Curiocity Backpackers is the latest project in the development and reconstruction of old and dilapidated buildings in central Joburg. The Maboneng Precinct regeneration has transformed the area by redesigning and redeveloping iconic properties.

Dube said he and Liebmann realised there was a growing demand for low-cost, authentic and comfortable spaces and they started conceptualising the idea of an inner-city backpackers.

“It is the only backpackers in inner-city Joburg. It was a necessary establishment,” said Dube.

Dube, a 21-year-old entrepreneur, partnered with Liebmann, owner of Propertuity, which is responsible for the development and regeneration of Maboneng Precinct, and established Curiocity Backpackers late last year.

“We provide inner-city tours where tourists don’t travel on buses and have plastic experiences but walk, cycle and use taxis to explore the inner city,” he said.

Dube said what differentiates them from hotels and bed and breakfasts is that they take their tourists on a walking tour of authentic Joburg.

“We take tourists to the Mai Mai traditional healers’ market, the Collector’s Treasury (the biggest second-hand bookstore in the country), the Ethiopian Quarter, also known as Little Addis, and Newtown. Then our tourists get on a taxi at Bree taxi rank and come back to Maboneng,” he said.

Dube said Joburg has a negative reputation because of the 90s urban decline and as a result of that, people stopped engaging with the city.

He said Curiocity Backpackers was also established to encourage Joburgers who want to be in touch with recent events to learn about cultural exchanges and the history of old Joburg.

“Curiocity provides a space for this.”

Dube admitted that the weaker rand has been good for business. “The rand fell by a large amount against the euro, pound and dollar, which has made it even cheaper for tourists from America, the UK and Europe to come and to explore South Africa.”

Currently, most of their guests are from Europe and America but a lot of local guests also stay over the weekend.

The Maboneng Precinct also houses Arts on Main, The Bioscope (the only independent cinema in Joburg), the 12 Decades Hotel, which has 12 rooms themed with South African history broken down into 12 distinct eras, a number of quaint restaurants, coffee bars and quirky clothing stores.

Curiocity Backpackers has 54 beds, which include mixed dorms, single-sex dorms and private rooms.

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