A City Dies: Robert Remembers Johannesburg, South Africa

The Chelsea Hotel, Hillbrow – Or What’s Left Of It

Jan Smuts International Airport is about seven miles east of downtown Johannesburg, but even in 1991 that seven miles was probably about the most dangerous road I’ve ever driven. We never took one vehicle, always two. Race didn’t matter: black, white, coloured, chinese – nobody cared. If you were a foreigner you were fair game. I am “black” in Barbados but in Jo’burg I was “coloured”.

That was in the days when I was starting third seat on 727’s and “any cargo, anytime, anywhere” was the motto. The biggest lesson I learned that year was to use far more straw than the “experts” recommended.

You say, “Straw? Boeing 727 and straw? What the devil is he talking about?”

A healthy 727-200F can carry about 300 live goats plus a few pallets and lots of fuel. It was a hell of a way to make a living, but that was how I spent most of 1991. My time there was short but full of (mostly good) memories – with the exception of a bad bad happening on 03 Left that I shall never forget. It is a long story but there was no damage and nothing was injured except our pride. Nothing that a change of underwear couldn’t cure.

Although we usually stayed close to the airport, a few times I stayed at the Chelsea Hotel in Hillbrow because one of the chaps had some pretty friends there. The former white enclave became a bit of a free-for-all zone in the early 1980’s but by 1991 the party was ending.

An old friend sent me the above photo of how the Chelsea Hotel looks now and links to a website that shows what is left of the city. He says that the Johannesburg is dead man walking. Nothing remains. Anyone who could get out has gone.

“What about you?”, I said.

“Home is home”, was the reply.

Good luck, old friend – but you’ll have to visit me because my days of travel to Jo’burg are well and truly ended.



Filed under Africa, Aviation, Barbados, Traveling and Tourism

16 responses to “A City Dies: Robert Remembers Johannesburg, South Africa

  1. Ed

    what is the purpose of this article???

  2. BFP

    Obviously Robert has been at the rum tonight and is reminiscing. You know how old men are!



  3. Rohan

    what is the purpose of this article???

    Good question.

  4. 109

    The purpose of this article is to illustrate that Bajan calypso of some years
    about how Bajans and other natives subscribe to the “Mash up en Buy Back” philosophy.

    When de time ready dum gyne tear down de hotel en put up a new one.
    Matter fix!

  5. 156

    The picture looks, and the article reads like Georgetown Guyana. Bajans have their own Jo’burg just 300 miles away as opposed to Jo’burg thousands of miles away.

  6. Jefm

    We, the people of Barbados, deserve and demand a better standard of debate in the Honourable Parliament.

    We do not want comments and asides rife with insults hurled at opposing members, but intelligent and informative discussion about the people’s business

    What obtained these last two days reminded one of bickering neighbours being mean to each for the entertainment of the neighbourhood; experienced and intelligent legislators must behave decently and be an example to the newcomers.

    The electioneering is over – it’s time for our parliamentarians to get down to serious business.

  7. SBS

    How many Bajans flew 727 aircraft full of goats in 1991 in SA? It shouldn’t be too dificult to find this “robert”

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  11. David Small

    Please post the link for the photographs. I live in Johannesburg and would like to compare Hilbrow as I knew it to the Hilbrow of today. Shocking!!

  12. 193

    OMG!!!!! THE CHELSEA!!! what have they done?????? and still doing anf still getting away with it. G-d help us all x

  13. B_JHB

    Ha! whats all the fuss… Even New York has a down town. so why are u suprised at Hillbrow/Chelsea Hotel? Get OVer IT

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  16. Jon

    Stayed there in 1989 and 1993 — it was edgy and a tad dodgy by cheap and safe and clean. Now it’s a toxic dump. Shame on you, Joburg!