Having spent most of my adult life in the suburbs of South Africa's capital, Johannesburg, I've always been told not to venture too close to the heart of the city. Crime is prevalent, I was told, and it's simply better to stay away.

When I was recently  invited to experience a "coffee tour" of downtown Jozi (as locals fondly call the capital), I felt a mixture of excitement and dread. Would I be risking my life simply to explore this city and taste what I was told would be the best coffee ever?

The tour was organized by Kennedy Tembo, owner of Micro-Adventure Tours and the 2019 winner of the Jurni Gems Award, which aims to put South Africa's most worthwhile and authentic tourism attractions on the map.

Kennedy Tembo, owner of Micro-Adventure Tours, at GOAT Coffee in Johannesburg.
Kennedy Tembo, owner of Micro-Adventure Tours, at GOAT Coffee in Johannesburg.

The meeting point was GOAT Coffee, or 'Greatest of All Time' Coffee. The owner of this quaint little shop welcomed me with a smile and one of the best coffees I'd ever tasted. He told me that GOAT isn't just an acronym; it refers to a specific barnyard animal, albeit a legendary one. The legend is that of a young Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi, who was amazed to see his goats begin to dance after eating bright red beans from an unfamiliar bush. Curious, he ate a few himself and instantly joined his herd in the dance.

Kaldi shared his new discovery with a monk at a nearby monastery, hoping to evoke divine inspiration. The monk disapproved and threw the beans into a fire. Immediately, an intoxicating aroma filled the air. The magical beans were raked from the embers and turned into the dark, delicious liquid now known as coffee.

Tembo met me for coffee at GOAT and then took me to discover the streets of Jozi. His knowledge of the capital was astounding, and his excitement and love for the city was intoxicating. At no point did I feel unsafe. In fact, I felt that I could have been walking around any other city; its streets were vibrant, busy and modern.

The first sightseeing stop was the Standard Bank building in the city center. It seemed like an odd stop; however, once inside, Tembo took us to the cellars of the building and the entrance of a long-forgotten mine stope that dates back to the city's earliest gold-mining days.

The stope is named for Ignatius Phillip Ferreira, a farmer, soldier and prospector who left his hometown of Grahamstown in the eastern Cape to join the Gauteng gold rush in 1886. He founded one of the area's first mining camps in July 1886 and just three months later struck gold.

There is a small but fascinating exhibition illustrated by photographs and early maps detailing the first prospecting of Johannesburg's gold reef and the growth of the city from a dusty mine camp to the major metropolis it is today.

As we traveled from one picturesque coffee shop to the next, Tembo unveiled the history behind the street names and the areas through which we walked. He pointed out the rich architecture of the city, from neoclassical to neobaroque, art nouveau and art deco.

Exterior view of the Rand Club in Johannesburg.
Exterior view of the Rand Club in Johannesburg. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The final stop of this half-day excursion was a lunch at the exclusive Rand Club. The Rand Club is the oldest private member's club in Johannesburg, founded in October 1887, just one year after the establishment of the city.

History has it that Cecil John Rhodes was exploring the town with Dr. Hans Sauer, the first district surgeon of Johannesburg, looking for a spot to establish an exclusive club where the social elite could conduct business or simply come to relax. After walking for some time, Rhodes stopped suddenly and said, "This corner will do for the club."

Rand Club's colorful and often dramatic history is closely linked with the fortunes of the world's greatest gold field and the emergence of modern democratic South Africa.

This original men's club has a remarkable history and bears the scars of several battles that date back more than 100 years. It is here that in 1913, striking miners tried to storm the building that served as the playground of the mining magnates. At least 20 people died in what is today the parking area for the Rand Club.

No women were allowed in the club, except for the occasional "ladies of the night" who were escorted in through a side door. According to Tembo, one of the exceptions was Queen Elizabeth II, although even she wasn't allowed to go up the club's beautiful and opulent staircase unaccompanied. It wasn't until 1993 that women were allowed in the Rand Club,  shortly after people of color were permitted.

During lunch Tembo told us that he quit his corporate job in IT to pursue his dream of starting his own tour company. "I was so sick and tired of people at work telling me that Johannesburg is a dangerous city with nothing worthwhile to offer," he said. "There are so many stigmas attached to Jo'burg, but I love this city, and I know the city has a great number of hidden tourism gems for people who take the time to discover them."

Micro-Adventure has cycling tours and walking tours around the city as well as a night tour where Tembo takes people to downtown's most hip and happening nightclubs and bars. Tembo mainly operates in Johannesburg, but he also takes travelers to the mountains in the Drakensberg.

The coffee tour opened my eyes to a completely different side of Johannesburg, a fun, hip and cosmopolitan city that bears many prejudices. Although I would still not wander by myself through the streets of Johannesburg, this city with its rich history is definitely worth a stop when visiting South Africa. 

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