Mon. Apr 22nd, 2019

Jet-Letter by Rhynie Greeff: The ghost of Johannesburg past

I wonder whether Paul Kruger (President of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1902) ever knew that a street in the Mojave Desert in America was named after him in the 1890’s?

The post Jet-Letter by Rhynie Greeff: The ghost of Johannesburg past appeared first on The South African.

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He might have been as unaware of that as most people on Earth are
unaware of two strange towns near Death Valley.

Death Valley is America’s lowest elevation point and the world’s spot of
highest recorded natural ground surface temperature.

On this road I stop at a very confusing road sign:

Johannesburg

Population
172

Shakespeare might have asked: Egoli or not Egoli? That is the question.

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Near the Egoli sign, on the one side of the desert road, I see a gas station (that is a petrol station for people with non-Trump accents). There is also a small post office and a minuscule convenient store. On the other side, there is a second-hand shop carries the sophisticated name Joburg Junque.

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A large billboard states: “Really Good Fresh Jerky 75 Miles.” Junque
might sell well in Johannesburg but jerky, that sweet American biltong, is obviously
not in great demand. Who is going to drive 120 kilometres to buy a packet of
dried meat?

Anyway, here I am actually following in my own footsteps. As a young
student I once visited Johannesburg in California during the Jurassic era’s
bell-bottom period when Eric Clapton sang about how he had shot the sheriff and
Billy Joel proclaimed himself to be a piano man with bread in his jar.

My wife and I turn into a sun-cracked street named The Rand. We stop at the corner of Johannesburg Avenue to chat to two senior locals in their vegetable garden. Their aprons prove that they are probably more into growing dust than vegetables. We ask them what there is to see. They are surprised that we came all the way from South Africa. Maybe as surprised as two Johannesburgers would be in their Linden garden chatting to two Americans at their fence who say they are from Johannesburg on the other side of the world. Directed by the dust gardeners we turn right into Johannesburg Street and left into Oom Paul Street. Yes folks, named after the old Boer with a missing thumb.

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Then we cross Buluwayo Avenue. Ja well no fine, it is not Bulawayo but Buluwayo as a result of desert dyslexia or just adventurous spelling. All along Oom Paul, we drive out of Johannesburg to the neighbouring town of Randsburg (yep, as Ned Flanders would say, it is ding-dong indeedily Randsburg, not Randburg). Randsburg is a living ghost town with weathered structures, rusted mining equipment and pock-marked ground. This holy place resembles a battlefield littered with so much scrap that I wonder if it could be the stocking source for Joburg Junque.

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What happened here?

In 1895 three prospectors found gold deposits which seemed to be as promising as that of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and so they named the area The Rand. A mine came into being, Rand Mine, with a Rand Camp which quickly became Randsburg. Two years later in 1897 the three prospectors mushroomed into a population of 3500 people scattered over stony ridges, churches, bordellos, an opera house, bars and a skating rink.

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Below Randsburg, on flatter ground, a supply town called Johannesburg popped
up in 1896. Johannesburg even had water piped to its homes and businesses. The
town grew so fast that it had a nine-hole golf course by 1900 with 13 members
of which seven were women. The golf course was laid out in a circle around town
with the lesser populated streets serving as fairways. In a way the golf course
itself was probably a massive sand trap in the desert.

By 1897 the Randsburg Railway Company brought communication links with a
telegraph service and a telephone exchange.

Rand Mine later became the Yellow Aster Mine
but then labour unrest led to frequent unexplained fires and infectious
diseases took their toll. The gold dried up. The miners started to move out, abandoning
their shacks which are still dotted today between open shafts and rusted equipment
skeletons. And the dry desert air still preserves it all for posterity.

These days the main street of Randsburg is a parade of bleached corrugated iron and plank structures. It looks like a derelict Cowboy film set which is actually close to the truth as it was the location for external scenes of the 2011 Steven Spielberg film Aliens and Cowboys with Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. At the small fire station a sign states: “In case of fire, be calm. Yell loud.”

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It is Friday when Randsburg is as tranquil as a cemetery, maybe with the exception of a solitary tumbleweed or a slow tortoise in the road across from the scorched corrugated iron post office where a bleached skull droops over a sign stating: “End of the trail. Randsburg, Cal.”

I gaze at a row of faded shops with a wooden pedestrian deck. A barber, a shop selling pickles and a vulcanising tyre re-treader with a 100-year-old fuel pump at the front.

I photograph a seated skeleton with a hat sunbathing in front of a bar. Ghost towns can be a real laugh.

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Randsburg on a Friday is dead but on a Saturday it is an ants’ nest when
off road motorbike scramblers and four-wheelers roar all over the town. It
takes two hours from Los Angeles and two hours from San Diego to get to create
noisy clouds of dust at Randsburg. The greatest challenge for these enthusiasts
is not to speed-slip into the emmental cheese mining holes.

Afterwards they congregate for a Jack Daniels at The Joint or a beer at the White House Saloon where a sign warns: “Please don’t flirt with the cashier”. For non-alcoholic desert speed heads, there is ice cream and soft drinks at The Randsburg General Store with its 100-year-old soda fountain, dating from the time when people still bought soft beverages in glasses and mugs from a tap.

Randsburg once had an optimistic flash in the pan. In the 1930’s the South African mining giant Anglo American took control of the mine but that fell away again. Today it is just a good-looking ghost town with a City Jail with two cells. The jail is so small that the front door is about as wide as the width of a cell. I got a little tied up in my own thoughts over there.

Life is so listless that Randsburg’s desert museum is open only on weekends and holidays when the buzzing bikers and rumbling four-wheelers are in town.

Today Johannesburg and Randsburg in California are living ghosts linked to South Africa but then there is also a ghostly mirror of an American link in South Africa dating back to the 1800s. It relates to Pretoria, now renamed Tshwane.

How many people know that Pretoria originally started in the mid-1800’s
half-American as Pretoria-Philadelphia? The Quaker William Penn founded Philadelphia
in North America based on a name derived from the Greek word for brotherly love
(“philos” for love and “adelphos” for brother.)
Philadelphia was the interim capital of the USA when Washington DC was
being constructed. At the founding of a capital for the old South African
Republic the reverend Dirk van der Hoff incorporated the brotherly love of Philadelphia
by naming his congregation Pretoria-Philadelphia. For a long time the city was
colloquially known as Pretoria-Philadelphia.

Today Pretoria-Philadelphia is also just a ghost.

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Rhynie Greeff has a doctorate in commerce and a background in international business related to diplomacy, chemicals, minerals and telecommunications.

Remember to come back every second week for Jet-Letter by Rhynie Greeff, exclusive to TheSouthAfrican.com.

Read his previous Jet-Letter here.

The post Jet-Letter by Rhynie Greeff: The ghost of Johannesburg past appeared first on The South African.

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