Tourists I speak to often view Johannesburg as a stop off point - very seldom is it classified as a destination. But those of us who live here know that the beauty that Jozi possesses is veiled. It only becomes apparent with patience, and sometimes via an introduction from a friend.
The Braamfontein Spruit that runs through the heart of suburban Johannesburg is a gem, and is definitely one of the city's hidden beauties. It is not just the novelty of this urban adventure that makes it exciting- it's the possibility that Mountain Biking on the Spruit can become a lifestyle, offering locals and tourists a chance to become part of a rapidly growing culture in Johannesburg that isn't based on clubs, booze and beats.
Actually, the Braamfontein Spruit is the one of the busiest mountain bike routes in the country. The Spruit is effectively a path that runs alongside the Jukskei River. It joins Albert's Farm, Emmarentia, Delta Park, the Sandton Field and Study Centre and then it continues into the heart of Bryanston. As a mountain bike route it appeals to a wide range of riders. It can be a 60 kilometre mountain bike ride for the endurance riders, including away and return journeys of 30 kilometres each. But it's also a great place to introduce novices to mountain biking. Many parents spend quality time with their children exploring the Spruit. The terrain is not too technical, and it's easy to plan a shorter route to suit any level of fitness.
There are mountain bike parks popping up all around Johannesburg that offer a canned mountain biking experience - you ride, in other words, within an enclosed area. The Spruit, thankfully, defies this. It is not a contrived version of the urban South African outdoor experience. It is a public space utilised by a broad spectrum of the city's population. It is also a rare South African communal gathering ground that brings together people of different socioeconomic classes. On any given weekend you will find Zionist Church communities, joggers, homeless people, horse riders, dog walkers, mountain bikers and working men cycling through the Spruit as a short cut home.
I wish that I could say that this diverse group was able to meld together in the fashion of the once hoped for rainbow nation. Unfortunately this is not the case. The Spruit is a part of urban Johannesburg, and like anywhere else in Jozi you've gotta be aware of what is going on around you. There is a hustler on every corner or hiding behind the next tree. It is safest to cycle on the weekends, when there are many people around, and it is best to cycle in pairs or groups if possible. It is also recommended that you always adhere to basic mountain biker conduct (make sure that you drink lots of water, use sun tan lotion, pack a spare tube in case of a puncture - also make sure you clean up and leave no traces behind you).
I shudder to think what Johannesburg would be like without the rare strips of nature and accessible public space that our parks represent. The Spruit is a crucial buffer between the encroaching Tuscan village townhouses and strip malls that characterise large parts of suburban Jozi. It's also a place to indulge in some of the staples of a healthy lifestyle exercise, to socialise and to get some sun. Lastly, it is one of the many reasons I smile quietly and shake my head when tourists tell me that there is no reason to visit Johannesburg.
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by Dror Cohen