Published: November 30th 2009October 21st 2009
Since being mugged last year, I'm now ultrawary of places with bad reputations for crime so the thought of mooching into Johannesburg has little appeal from the off. However, with it being the only sensible gateway to Madagascar, I have little choice. By opting for a hostel near the airport, and choosing the backpacker-tastic Baz Bus hop-on/hop-off service to get there, I figure I should be able to at least arrive in the city unmolested.
The Baz Bus is easily the most convenient means for getting around the main tourist parts of South Africa and Swaziland, with hostel-to-hostel drop-offs in over 100 places in the region. This obviously comes at a price that initially seems excessive compared with, say, public buses, but it's much more reasonable when you consider that no taxis are necessary at either end of your journey. The other price you pay is that of total insulation from any of the fun and games that African public transport involves, in particular any interaction with local people, but I feel like I've built up enough credit in that regard to justify one Baztravaganza.
It's clearly still the low season, as there is just one twentysomething Canadian couple
and myself on the leg from Swaziland to Nelspruit, at which point they are replaced by a young German girl.
The scenery is enough to keep me occupied, and I see a hotel named after Jock of the Bushveld. With my one brief previous exposure to South Africa having been two weeks in and around Port Elizabeth about ten years ago, I only remember English as the main language so it's intriguing to see the many signs in Afrikaans.
We arrive hours early in Joburg, and I soon learn that my chosen hostel is almost permanently full because it's so close to the airport. The clientele are nearly all one-nighters, on their first or last days in Joburg. This means I have to take a dorm bed for the first time in Africa. It's nearly a year since I last stayed in one but the skills come back immediately, my stuff arranged for minimal late night/early morning rustling.
I'm told that the area near the hostel is perfectly safe during the daytime but not at night. I wander to a nearby shopping mall, the largest I've seen in Africa. It's astonishing to see so many white people,
even more so when I consider that, having felt like an alien for much of the last eight months, I'm now in a country that epitomised the worst of racial segregation, despite having a large white minority that in theory should've enabled some prospect of a genuine multiracial society.
The mall, perhaps reflecting South Africa's priorities, has no proper bookstore and the books in the Smiths-like newsagent CNA are whoppingly expensive. The only Internet cafe is as pricey as in Swaziland yet they can't burn CDs, let alone DVDs. However I do find four pie shops.
The hostel's owner has a couple of kids, who request my assistance in retrieving a football that they've managed to boot into the upper branches of a dense bush in the front garden. Showing my dexterity, I retrieve the ball but in the process manage to lose my anti-perspirant in the bush as well as break a giant wooden fork (part of a giant wooden salad set). I guess you had to be there.
There are two other people who are staying for multiple days and, like me, they are anomalies among the usual guests. One is a young American guy
who works for Delta. As such, he is entitled to free standby tickets. However, often the airline will choose to take extra cargo over standby passengers so, for five consecutive nights, he has trooped to the airport only to be told that there is no seat for him. Understandably he looks miserable. The kicker to this is that he is trying to get a flight to New York so that he can obtain a same-day tourist visa for India then immediately fly to Delhi, which represents an enormous detour for a visa but perhaps one worth making if one's flights are free and time isn't short. Showing admirable flexibility, he says he will have one more standby attempt then jack in this scheme entirely and switch to the small matter of overlanding to Cairo - a nice plan B.
The other odd 'un is an American chap in his 60s who's been travelling for about ten years. He had a fascinating job for Raytheon involving deep space communication and research, working all over the world and retiring at 50. He has bases in Quito, Prague, and Bangkok, and intersperses down-time in these with frequent travelling. With over 170 countries
under his belt, and in good health, he has a decent shot at visiting all the globe's nations - for what that's worth. My own ambitions in Joburg are simply to find a cheap flight to Madagascar, but he's also hoping to rope in the Comoros Islands, Mayotte, Reunion, and Mauritius.
Not that everyone else is dull by comparison with these two. I meet a Belgian girl who had been running a hotel in Inhambane, of all places. She survived a bankruptcy when her South African business partner cleared out the enterprise while she was on holiday in Belgium, rebuilt the business, but was then shafted a second time when the landlord, seeing how successful the hotel was, decided to terminate her lease on it. With him being a Mozambican lawyer, she had to just suck it up. Despite these setbacks, she's determined to return to Mozambique when she's earned some more cash back in Belgium.
There's also a brace of the inevitable Peace Corps volunteers, these intriguingly based in Benin.
And on my final night in Joburg, I meet a German/Colombian couple who will also be leaving for Madgascar the next day, though on a different
flight. They're only the second and third Madagascar-bound people I've yet met on this trip, so we swap notes, and head to the airport together the next morning. My Madagascar trip is blogged separately.
On returning to Joburg, my spirits are lifted by the news that my sister wants to celebrate her milestone *?th birthday in Paris in the run-up to Christmas. This will cut a week off my African jaunt but that's news I'm actually quite glad to hear.
I also hear that a-ha have officially broken up. Not that they've been exactly prolific over the last ten years, but their albums have always been worth buying and some of their best songs have accompanied me on my MP3 player over the last four years. I have another blast through "The Swing of Things".
After much research, it appears that the best cost/time balance for getting up to Victoria Falls is to fly. I'm told that both $ and rand are legal tender in Zimbabwe these days, after the demise of the trillonaires' favourite Zimbabwe dollar earlier in the year, but I decide to change some of my rand to $ just to be on the safe side. This is a right faff - they want my passport, proof of how I got hold of the rand, my ATM card, my reason for wanting $, and my intended address in Zimbabwe. The woman asks, (I think) jokingly, if I'm related to Robert Mugabe, presumably because our surnames share four of six letters.
Once again, I leave Joburg without having been anywhere close to the city centre. Dull but possibly useful info
i. You can probably get from Manzini to Joburg for about R200 on a public (mini)bus but you'd no doubt spend at least another R200 on a taxi from the centre of Joburg to any hostel near the airport. (The public minibuses won't drop you at the airport because that's not their "patch", meaning a possible scuffle with the guys that do the airport run.) So that's already R400, without even considering the door-to-door convenience of the Baz Bus, and the safety issues associated with being a first-timer with luggage in central Joburg. I bought a point-to-point Baz Bus ticket from Southern Cross Lodge in Ezulwini to Shoestring Lodge in Joburg, costing R430 (this is cheaper than the standard hop-on/hop-off cost of R490, but i) you have to specify the date of travel, and ii) you can't hop off along the way (or rather you CAN but you won't be able to hop on again subsequently)). It picked me up at about 8:10AM. It took us about 30 minutes to reach the border at Ngwenya/Oshoek and eventually Shoestring at about 3PM (this was fast because of the lack of customers). We had a loo break and a lunch break, in addition to two hostel stops in Nelspruit. The "bus" is a VW minibus and is comfortable.
ii. The South Africa visa (at least for Brits) is a 3 month temporary residence permit and is free. From what I could gather, it's multiple-entry hence is NOT renewed if you leave South Africa and then return. So 3 months after your initial entry you'll (probably) need to apply for an extension. I'd heard this was to restrict long-stayers but I don't know how much of a faff it is in practice for a Western tourist.
iii. I stayed at Shoestring Lodge near Joburg airport (the owner offers free rides to/from the airport) paying R150 for a dorm bed (8 bed dorm - creaky beds, plus it's right next to the dining area so isn't the quietest) then R250 for a single (my first single had "ensuite" (loo and sink but no shower), the second used shared facilities). There's free Internet (one machine) but as the (friendly and helpful) owner pays for bandwidth, sometimes he'll remove the router if he thinks there's "too much" usage (who? me??). Breakfast (toast/marmalade/cornflakes/tea/coffee) is included. Seems like only one of the shared bathrooms has a shower (the rest have baths) and only one has a mirror (though the kitchen inexplicably has a ton of mirrors). The swimming pool isn't the cleanest body of water on the face of the planet. The place has a slightly grubby feel overall but is fine for its intended demographic, i.e. people needing convenient access to the airport, and the owner is really keen to help. Several of the owner's family seem to live in the hostel, and sometimes I felt that I was intruding on someone's home (which I was ...)
iv. There's a small supermarket about 15 minutes' walk away and the massive Festival Mall about 35 minutes' walk away.
v. Normally it's difficult for visitors to get a South African SIM card because you need to have a permanent address and proof of it - this is in an attempt to combat crime, so that calls can't be made from a phone and the authorities have no idea who the owner of the phone is. It may be possible to get your hostel owner to vouch for you, however that puts responsibility on their shoulders that they may not be willing to take, plus it sounds like a documentation faffabout anyway. Easiest is to get your SIM at the airport when you arrive, as (for whatever reason) they don't have the requirement for proof of a permanent address.
vi. Though I didn't end up taking this journey, there are buses from Joburg (Park Station) to Gaborone in Botswana for R220, leaving at 2:30PM and arriving at 9:10PM.