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Sunday, 01 September 2013

Johannesburg: More than Meets the Eye

Written by Isabel Buettner
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I never thought I would end up spending two weeks in Johannesburg South Africa. I usually travel in Asia. Japan, Korea or Hong Kong are more my cup of tea and are relatively save destinations if you are a girl traveling on your own. All I knew about South Africa is that it’s dangerous, racist and sexist so naturally not a destination ranking high, if at all, on my list of ‘must visit’ destinations. 


And then, whilst traveling in Thailand, I meet a guy from Jo’burg. JJ, for two weeks, he’s raving about how great the city is, how much there is to see and learn, about the beautiful country side and the lekker food and so on. Only later I find out he studied tourism. I basically fell for the hard sell. Still, I wasn’t sure about safety but apparently “it is much saver than people might think”, although, he admitted that a large proportion of people live in secure building complexes with security gates, finger print and retina scans, high walls and lasers. I think the lasers sold it in the end because barely three months down the line I am on a plane to visit JJ in laser land. This is either going to be the best holiday ever or a total disaster.

Carlton Centre City View1 

Job’urg or Jozi as the locals call their city is not your typical holiday destination either. Most people use it as transit hub to go to the more tourist friendly destinations such as Cape Town or Durban following the promise of beauty, beaches and Mediterranean climate. Jo’burg instead is the most populated city in South Africa. It’s also the world’s largest city not situated near a river, lake or coast line. No beach holiday for me then. Instead, I’ll be on a high-altitude inland plateau about 1,753 meters above sea level, which gives it a nice subtropical climate. In the winter, you may get frost and on rare occasions snow. I think the last snow was during winter 2012.


I decided end of March would be the best time to go, which means the South African summer is coming to an end and autumn season begins. Perfect for me as the 30+ temperatures cooled down to a bearable 26-29 C degrees. I live in London and that is more summer than I can ever ask for; I don’t need a furnace. It’s also perfect in terms of budget as the main holiday season in SA is ending and so are the school holidays. Entrance fees and B&B prices are back to off season. 


After a lot of research, I booked a B&B in Melville. It’s got a village type feeling with a lot of pubs, bars and independent shops around. On weekends it turns into a clubbing district for the nearby students. It’s also one of the city’s gay villages; although nothing like Soho. Instead, everything blends in seamlessly. Raz bar became my absolute favorite. A small 1980s style rock bar offering cheap but super yummy cocktails and cheesy pop. You’ll find all sorts and ages and people in here and on some occasions a few drag queens dancing on the table. But most of the time it’s just a great simple bar. 


Most of the restaurants are located on 7th street and with over 30 guesthouses it’s one of the most popular tourist stopover destinations in town. Guesthouses range from 2-4 stars and it really depends on what you want to spend for the night. I booked a guesthouse on 4th Avenue and in walking distance to all the amenities, which was important to me as I didn’t want to rely on JJ all the time or on expensive taxis. It’s not advised to walk around on your own and off the main road after dark but I felt save in this area. The B&B I booked was 3 stars and less than £32 a night. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised as it could easily be classed higher and I even got an upgrade in week two. Shopping around in advance really paid off, as many accommodations are happy to give you a deal if you stay for a certain number of nights or opt for self-catering.


“You choose well”, I’ve been told and with the seal of approval I can now concentrate on panicking about what could go wrong such as running out of things to say to each other on day one.


But I am already on the plane and we are almost ready to touch ground. Celia, the South African lady I met during the flight, is as exited as I am. She took me under her wing and thinks I have embarked on a quest of some sorts. We exchange numbers and I promise to give a detailed report once I return home. “Do you have a plan of what you two are going to do over the next 2 weeks?”, she asked me at one point. “Yeah roughly” I reply. Don’t get me wrong, I have done my homework and we discussed in advance what I’d want to see and should experience. But we haven’t made a strict schedule and decided to go with the flow. I was chuffed when I found out he agreed to be my tour guide taking time off work and basically chauffeur me around for the entire time. If we are getting on that is. Because one thing became clear during my pre holiday planning. Jo’burg is like LA . You need a car to get around and have a feeling of how to find places. I am not keen on driving in a city I don’t know and I forgot to arrange for an international drivers license anyhow. On top of that, the city hasn’t got a public transport system as most European cities do. I’ll tell you, you may be moaning about Transport for London but not having a tube at all or a bus system you can safely uses is very restrictive. Planning your holiday based on taxi fares means it’s going to be an expensive trip.


Ok, I am making it sound awful. There is some public transport of course but not very well linked up. The Gautrain, for example, joins Johannesburg with the neighbouring Pretoria. It’s also the easiest way to get from the OR Tambo international airport into town. So if you use it try to find the station nearest to your guesthouse and then take a taxi to get to your final destination. Some B&B’s may offer a pick up services. The stations are clean and modern and everything still feels brand new. You may say it’s just a rapid rail, nothing new for anyone using the underground or speed train everyday to commute for work. But the Gautrain is Africa’s first high speed urban train. A lot of people wanted to be the first taking a ride when it opened in 2010 for the FiFA World cup and even today taking the kids or granny for a ride on the train is a very popular weekend activity for families in the region. In that sense, people take great pride in the Gautrain and I think rightly so. 

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Last modified on Sunday, 01 September 2013

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