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Published: June 16th 2015
Soweto’s most iconic sight. You can bungee jump off the bridge in the middle.
Perhaps I should’ve always known that my time in Johannesburg was never quite going to go to plan. As convenient as the BazBus is, depending on the route you are taking, the bus does not go every day – going from Durban to Johannesburg, the BazBus only goes four days a week – something I had overlooked despite my meticulous planning.
The upshot of all of this was that I now had to spend an extra night in Durban, a city I wasn’t too enamoured with after my last visit there
. And I now had to cram four days’ worth of Johannesburg sights and activities into three.
But what is there to see and do in Johannesburg anyway? A lot of people asked me this question. Some even questioned why I was bothering to go.
Before I came out to South Africa, even I was questioning the wisdom of visiting such a place, given all the stories about muggings, car-jackings and being the murder capital of the world.
But it is South Africa’s biggest city and arguably its most important. There is also plenty for the tourist to see and do – a visit to Soweto, the Apartheid Museum, the Cradle Of Humankind,
Venue of the 2010 World Cup Final.
a visit to nearby Pretoria and the glitzy shopping malls of Sandton to name but a few. And like any other city, you just need to keep your wits about you and don’t go anywhere where you shouldn’t - which admittedly in Johannesburg, is a lot of places.
And I had
to go there – that was where my safari tour was picking me up and it is also where I am flying out of South Africa from – so I might as well check the place out.
For now however, I am going to take you back in time a little to when I arrived back at Khotso Backpackers in Underberg, following my return down the mountain from Lesotho
It was Greg’s – one of the hostel workers – birthday, so we were to have a braai
and a few drinks to celebrate.
It was a fun night, a small party with a group of friends around the campfire at mate’s place in the country. And we needed that fire, because it was f*cking cold.
Lee was providing a few laughs – he told us how he wouldn’t perform certain sex acts on certain women without his inhaler, introduced us all to “Steak
North View Of Johannesburg
Taken from the “Top Of Africa”.
& Blowjob Day”, and thought a ventriloquist was a “transviloquist”. I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time.
The next day I did some horse riding in the morning, given that I missed out on a pony trek in Lesotho and that Khotso are famed for their horse trails.
I had done it before so I sort of knew how to handle a horse – I think had control of “Joan” although I probably really didn’t. My horse was a keen one – if any space opened up ahead of it, it would just bolt. It’d even stop for a bit to open up a bit of space from the horse in front of it, just so it could trot a bit to catch up. When it was time for a gallop, I just about held on for dear life and was on the brink a couple of times, before managing to get Joan under control. It was exhilarating though, despite the graze on my tailbone from constantly rubbing against the saddle.
Leaving Khotso, Yannick, Lee and I saddled in for the last leg of my journey with the Chevy Spark back to Durban Airport. It felt
A bust of Mahatma Gandhi looks over the prison that once kept him.
like a lifetime since I had picked the car up from the same place some eleven days ago – the same time it has been since I was last at Smith’s Cottage.
After dropping me off at Smith’s, it was time for Yannick and I to part ways – he’s been a great travel buddy and it was a bit sad to see him go, given we have basically spent two weeks hanging out together. Go well Yannick, it’s been emotional.
It was also fun hanging out with Lee for the last three days – he’s a good lad and a good laugh.
I spent my whole extra day in Durban just hanging out at Smith’s, catching up on writing. It was nice to stay put after constantly moving just about every day for the last eleven. It was also comfortable and quiet at Smith’s, with nice warm weather. I was basically just hanging out at their house for a day – having been there a few days now, I felt right at home. I’ve grown fond of Keith and Pat too, who’ve made me feel like part of the family.
It was then time for my final
Situated right next to Constitution Hill, this court hears cases relating to the constitution and human rights.
BazBus ride where after dropping off an Israeli guy, I was the only passenger on the bus all the way to Johannesburg. It was a long ride and quite bumpy too – I also had a strange rash on parts of my body which was a little uncomfortable.
Apart from that final ride though, the BazBus has been a convenient way to travel South Africa without a car and an awesome way to meet people. Recommended.
Arriving in Johannesburg – aka Joburg or “Jozi” – in the evening, it was like I had returned to Khotso, as it was damn cold.
The hostel was another converted house but with a lot of real estate within the compound where a large lapa
bar and a swimming pool has been installed. The place is a little crusty though and very quiet – much like the area of Boksburg, where it is located. There wasn’t much happening out here in the ‘burbs.
So far, so inauspicious – and the theme continued the next day.
Over breakfast, an Aussie guy at the hostel tells me about how he got all his stuff stolen. Not a good omen. I was booked on a
Constitution Hill Complex
The tower on the right houses an eternal flame.
tour of the city but the tour guide then rang up saying he was on his way to hospital with breathing difficulties. Fair enough (!).
So I was shoehorned into another tour done by another tour company that was pretty much the same tour, but R260 more expensive. Bad luck eh?
The first stop on the tour was Constitution Hill, which I learned was a prison where black and “coloured” prisoners were very harshly treated. An example of this was the “tausa” – which was basically a strip search where black men were made to strip naked and have humiliating cavity checks in front of all the other prisoners and guards. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi are two of the more famous prisoners to have done time here.
The museum was pretty keen on feedback with mandatory forms to be filled in and I even did a radio interview.
Next stop was a drive through Johannesburg’s infamous city centre. There are a lot of grey, 60s, modernist, concrete monstrosities mixed in with 80s-style glass skyscrapers and nice art deco buildings…it could become a lot like New York if they cleaned the place up and invested a bit more
Johannesburg City Centre
A sample of the architecture present in Johannesburg’s city centre.
money into it. Crime unfortunately, has driven away a lot of businesses from the city centre and many of the office blocks are in fact empty. Even the Carlton Hotel is now just a shell.
Looking around the streets, it didn’t seem unsafe to walk around the city – but I have been warned by many about the city centre and have heard the horror stories, so I wasn’t taking any chances. This was something I lamented.
While in the city centre, we went to the “Top Of Africa” – the highest building in Africa. It had some impressive views of the city and the downtown area, allowing me to take photos of buildings and landmarks from a safe distance. It also gives you a good orientation of the city.
Incongruously juxtaposed against the run down city centre are the number of flash cars around. There was certainly no shortage of Audis and Beamers cruising around town. Another interesting observation was seeing that the gold mines that established Johannesburg are still standing and are mostly in the middle of town.
A subject that is unavoidable in any conversation about South Africa is apartheid
. With Johannesburg playing such a
The museum is housed inside a beautifully designed complex.
major role in apartheid’s history, it is naturally home to the Apartheid Museum which chronicles the background, implementation, enforcement, resistance to, and ultimately, the fall of the apartheid regime.
The museum is quite simply awesome – one of the best I have ever been to. Housed inside a beautiful complex, the museum contains everything you’d ever want to know about apartheid and has a lot of poignant touches, one of which is the assignment of an entrance to every visitor – you either go through the “whites only” or the “non-whites” entrance, each of which offers visitors a different introduction.
I was very interested in knowing why apartheid came into being, so I concentrated on apartheid’s roots. Basically there were four main reasons; British colonial racism; Afrikaner nationalism; the whites’ fear of being overrun by the blacks; and the vision of South Africa’s two most influential politicians – Jans Smuts and J.B.M. Herzog.
Seventy-five minutes unfortunately, is nowhere near enough time to properly ‘do’ the museum – you’ll need at least double the time at a minimum. It was an excellent museum to visit and it was a shame I couldn’t really see the whole thing properly.
A typically chaotic scene in South Africa’s most famous township.
the struggle against apartheid is the famous, sprawling township of Soweto. An anagram of SOuth WEst TOwnship, Soweto is where the majority of Johannesburg’s black and coloured population were forced to move during apartheid.
Vilakazi Street is where Nelson Mandela’s old house and Desmond Tutu’s current house both reside – Desmond Tutu’s rather flash looking house is almost completely hidden from view behind a wall, while Nelson Mandela’s house is now a small museum. Vilakazi Street itself is actually quite well developed and turns into a market in the evening.
As well as visiting Soccer City, venue of the 2010 World Cup Final, we also visit the Hector Pieterson Memorial (a teenager shot to death by police that sparked the Soweto Uprising) and the iconic Orlando Towers – two massive towers originally built for the area’s power station – which have massive murals painted on them and are connected by a bridge at the top from which people can bungee jump.
I was surprised to learn that Soweto has an informal class system of areas, namely; the lower class (made up of shacks); middle class (decent houses); and upper class (flash houses). Some of the upper class properties in the
‘Upper Class’ Soweto
I definitely didn’t expect to see properties like this in a township. Those from the township who have done well for themselves have chosen to stay in the area and are proud of their Sowetan upbringing.
Diepkloof area are luxurious.
The Soweto part of the tour was a bit whistle-stop so I didn’t get to visit a shantytown or enter a proper shebeen
– so I felt that I really only scratched the surface.
Unfortunately, I saw enough of Soweto so that it wasn’t worth going back again, but not enough to have felt satisfied about my time there.
The next day, I hopped on a tour to Pretoria. Being the capital – technically, one of South Africa’s three capitals – and having heard the city’s name many times through history and sport, I thought it’d be worth a visit. Many people described it as a handsome, orderly city of wide leafy streets, fitting of a capital city.
What greeted me instead, was the same scene I had seen in every other South African city – a chaotic and shelled-out city centre with minibuses driving all over the place.
Our guide was friendly enough, but I had difficulty understanding what he was trying to explain when he pointed things out. I could hear every word he was saying but they didn’t make sense when he put them together. When he did make sense, he was
Voortrekker Monument, Pretoria
Monument and museum celebrating the Great Trek across South Africa by the Voortrekkers.
factually incorrect. For example, at our first stop at the Voortrekker Monument – celebrating the “Great Trek” across South Africa by the Boers and Afrikaner nationalism in general – there were a number of flags hung around the museum. When I asked him what flags they were he tells me that they represent the different countries immigrants have come to South Africa from, when they were in fact flags of the various republics formed by the Boers before the Union Of South Africa was formed in 1910. Having got that fact completely wrong, I wondered what else he told me that was complete bollocks. Perhaps I just misunderstood what he was trying to tell me. In any case, I already knew quite a bit of what was displayed inside the museum, thanks to my visit to the Blood River battlefield
We also visited Paul Kruger House, the pleasant but spoiled-by-construction-work-and-a-preacher Church Square, and the impressive Union Buildings.
There is a massive statue of Nelson Mandela in the gardens in front of the Union Buildings, which themselves were really hard to photograph due to the size of them and the angle of the sun.
Overall, I have to say I was disappointed with Pretoria and the tour.
Church Square, Pretoria
The Old Government House in the centre of Pretoria.
Firstly, I had paid almost the same amount as the Johannesburg & Soweto tour which was much better and was a full day instead of a half day. They then wanted to charge me an extra R350 for an alternative drop-off in Sandton!
Screw that – I took the impressive Gautrain
Clean, safe, cheap and fast, the Gautrain links Johannesburg city centre with Pretoria along with the airport and the popular northern Joburg suburbs of Rosebank and Sandton – the second of which was my destination for the afternoon.
Johannesburg is the financial capital of South Africa, yet many businesses have moved out of the city centre – so where have they all gone?
They’ve gone to Sandton, by far the flashest part of Joburg I have seen. In stark contrast to Soweto, Boksburg and the city centre, there isn’t much to see here but for glass office buildings, gleaming shopping malls and swanky hotels. Admittedly, I felt a degree of comfort in knowing things were safe in this neck of the woods.
As well as having a look around the place, the main reason I had come to Sandton was to meet up with my friend Veruska,
The flash part of Johannesburg.
who I met in Egypt four and a half years ago
. It was nice catching up on old times but I had to cut things short in order to catch the last Gautrain back to Boksburg.
Which brings up my biggest gripe about Johannesburg.
The city is incredibly spread out – in many respects, it reminded me a lot of Los Angeles. This means getting around without a car is so frustrating – your options are so limited that you end up either stuck on an expensive tour, or stuck in an expensive taxi.
I think I could perhaps have planned things a little better by staying in Rosebank or closer to a Gautrain station, but I was restricted in terms of where the safari tour could pick me up from. Boksburg is a real hole but Mbizi Backpackers had the best ratings and was in my pick up zone, which was why I picked it. But I had obviously underestimated just how hard it would be to get anywhere from there. No matter where I stayed however, I was always going to be far away from something.
As good as the Gautrain is, it only serves a limited number of places – what Johannesburg really
Mahatma Gandhi Square
Square in Johannesburg’s city centre that acts as a transport hub.
needs is a more extensive public transport system. Which funnily enough, it actually has – but the metro system
is just not an option, thanks to the rampant and often violent crime that occurs on it.
Which brings me to Joburg’s biggest and most publicised problem. There many places that you just do not go. Parts of Soweto and the city centre are two of them, which is why I went with a tour guide but the general level of danger is regrettable. Any new public transport system will incur a load of extra costs just to keep it safe.
I was really interested in going along to the Cradle Of Humankind – but having paid for two expensive tours in two days, I wasn’t about to splash another R1000 on another one. All these tours, taxis and running around…by this stage, I was just over it.
So I therefore spent my last day catching up with Robyn, a friend I made on my tour of the Greek Islands five years ago
. Five years is a long time and in that time, Robyn has since had a son, nine-month old Reid, who she brought along to lunch.
I was keen for some African fare,
Me, Robyn & Reid
Catching up with an old friend and her little one.
so Robyn took me along to Moyo’s, a restaurant set outside in the middle of the picturesque Zoo Lake Park. The African style buffet was accompanied by a three piece African women’s choir who performed a rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for our table. A pretty awesome touch which reminded me a little of Mama Afrika, where I had my first meal in South Africa all those weeks ago in Cape Town
. Included in the buffet were the African staples of “pap” and “samp” – pap being basically polenta and samp being carb dish made from dried corn kernels.
It was a lovely way to spend my last afternoon in Johannesburg – the rented pedalos on the lake reminded me of the pedalos out on the Serpentine in Hyde Park. I do miss London.
After lunch, Robyn took me for a mini tour of Sandhurst, where all the really rich live. Not that you could really see any houses as they were all behind four metre fences. It was as if these houses were all VIP residences given the amount of security they all had.
Which brought into focus the huge disparity that exists here in South Africa. You have all of these luxurious
Apartheid Museum Entrance
Visitors are issued a card telling them which entrance they must take – one of several poignant touches at the museum.
mansions yet on the roads just outside Sandhurst, you have people begging at traffic lights.
It is unfortunately, a legacy of the apartheid years and talking to a lot of older, white South Africans, there seemed to be an underlying lament about the way things have turned out since apartheid’s fall and even nostalgic thoughts about the way things were for them thirty to forty years ago. Which is understandable given all the extra privileges they had – but they understood that it was wrong and that things can never be like they were back then again.
For the majority of the blacks, life is better than when they were oppressed but the country still has a long way to go, a few generations before everyone is truly equal – and it is something that may unfortunately never happen.
I have now almost reached the end of my South African adventure – it is now time for the last instalment and I hope that I have saved the best for last.
I will now be heading back off the grid again for six days of safari in Kruger Park – here’s hoping that it will be lekker
Rugby stadium that was the scene of that (in)famous 1995 Rugby World Cup Final. Although I was obviously gutted the All Blacks lost it, having seen the effect it had on South Africa, I am now glad in hindsight that the Springboks won it. Even if Suzy did give our players food poisoning the night before.
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