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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. 


But the Gautrain will not get you to all the sights in Jo’burg. However, you can try the Hop-on, Hop-off City Sightseeing Red Bus; same thing as the open top city tour bus in London. As mentioned, I have my driver but a couple at my B&B used it and they were really impressed. You can buy a day pass between R120-150 depending on season and if you buy the tickets online you get a bigger discount. Now all you need to do is make your way to the first stop somehow. 


There is also the Rea Vaya Bus system. It calls itself Johannesburg’s fast, safe and affordable rapid bus system. I have seen stations across town going all the way out to the suburbs and even up to Soweto but most of them were not in use. It would be an ideal transport system and it annoyed me to see stations ready to be used but closed off for no apparent reason. This may have improved since my visit but during my two weeks I have only ever seen one bus and that was in the middle of the city. I hope they can fix that as it would really improve transport and would make Jo’burg more attractive to tourists.


The only other option is to use the city’s infamous mini buses. You can find these mini vans everywhere and in every condition imaginable; some look they could fall apart at any moment. Guide books recommend not to uses them because of health and safety issues. I think if you have to and during the day, you should be fine. I wouldn’t get into one on my own at night though. Safety isn’t your only problem when using the mini bus, but knowing where they are going to and how to tell the driver where you want to get off. They don’t bear signs of any kind. People simply stand along the road and wave them down. I found out later that there are particular hand signs that indicate where you want to go and if a bus heads that direction it will stop. You’ll also need to tell the driver somehow when to stop, again by hand sign. Don’t expect the driver to speak English. This is a country were at least 11 languages are spoken everything from Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana to Afrikaans. English is only the fourth most common language spoken. People using the mini busses are mainly non-whites, some are immigrants and/ or from the poorer townships. Hand signs do make sense to break the language barrier. Don’t worry everywhere else in the Gauteng region you’ll get by well with English.


“Welcome to laser land”, I’m greeted at the airport. I am an hour late due to the long queue at immigration and I am grateful for the hug, smile and the bottle of water. I have to say heads up to the immigration officers. Clearly understaffed they kept calm and cool and were probably the most welcoming I have met in all my travels. Despite tourists loosing their nerve in the heat and long wait. 


I am too early to check-in to my guesthouse so we are heading for a welcome brunch to JJ’s parents house where I am introduced to my first SA specialities; Pap and biltong (dried meat such as bulls tongue, venison or antelope). Pap is made of maize and has the consistency of polenta except it’s white. I think it’s more considered porridge after all pap is the dutch word for porridge. But I don’t think it is anything like porridge not in the English sense anyhow. People eat it like rice with their meals although you can sweeten it and make it into pudding just like rice pudding. I liked it. Not so much the biltong which is more like eating salty leather but at least I tried it as I do with all new things on holiday. 


In general South African food is a real melting pot if influences: Dutch, German, English, Indian and indigenous all come together. I don’t know if there is a single traditional South African dish as such. But one thing is for sure South African’s like their meat. If you are a vegetarian or vegan then you may have difficulties finding a decent restaurant. I don’t mind meat but after a while I was craving salad. You tend to get good value for money and the portion sizes are more than generous. For some reason people think you may have been starving for weeks in the desert so the plates are really large. I personally think it’s based on a cultural thing and the belief that guests need to be proper welcomed. A lot of restaurants make you choose between sides such as rice and chips or a salad. You never have both. Small side salads are often not available so you end up ordering a main salad, which comes in big bowls. If you really fancy some greens with your food get someone to share it with you. 

Bunny Chow 

There are two ‘must eats’ that you should try if possible. Bunny chow and boerewors braai. Bunny chow or ‘Bunny’ is a curry stuffed into a hollowed out loaf of white bread. It’s originally from Durban which has the largest Indian population outside India and is now represented in other regions of South Africa. Boerewors literally translates as farmers sausage and it’s mainly minced beef but often mixed with pork, lamb or other meets. They are traditionally braaied (barbecued). Braai’s are very popular and any chance to have a braai is welcomed here. When I had a braai it was already dark and JJ’s dad simply wore a little head light to see what’ going on. One tip for the girls. We all know men like to take control of the braai, I think that is a truth universally acknowledge around the world. However, it’s taken to another level here so much so that even Lonely Planet felt to include a line about it into their guide. “If you are female, do not poke the fire or pick up the tongs - men do the cooking, beer in hand, while women make the salads”. Make up your own mind. I actually read this out during my braai and it caused great amusement. “We may be near the cradle of human kind but surely not cave men.”


What not to try?, I’d say part-time prawn. This only ever happens to tourist but on my first day, I had a salad wrap which included a part-time prawn. Now I am not big on seafood but I don’t think anyone would like to have this specimen in their food. Part-time prawn is a rather cute way of saying cockroach. This was the only time I had a food scare during my visit and I only mention it because I like the expression ‘part-time prawn’. 

Part Time Prawn 

Refreshed and fed we are heading out to explore the city. It’s Sunday which means market day. There is a great choice of weekend markets and you should find something to your taste. For my first one we are heading to Maboneng, located on the east side of Jo’burg’s CBD (Central Business District). It’s the first of a new wave of urban regeneration projects stretching through the city with the aim to revive old neighbourhoods by bringing back residents and small local business. So far Jo’burg was spared the Starbucks culture and I really hope it stays that way. In Maboneng you can browse through local boutiques and art shops or try the areas little independent cinema. The Market on Main over the weekend offers local produce of food and wine and pop up art galleries. If art isn’t your thing simply relax in one of the rooftop bars, which have become very popular and are popping up everywhere in town. We went to ‘Living room’ where I got my first Johannesburg panorama view. You pay an entrance fee but it’s worth popping up for the view. If you want to get a feeling of how vast this city really is you need to head up to floor 50 in the Carlton Center. Also know as Top of Africa and indeed for 39 year it was the tallest skyscraper in Africa. But they are building something even bigger at the moment so the title is going very soon.


When you have enough with the view leave the Living room and head for Canteen’s rooftop, it’s free and you can try your first local beer but more important just chill.


A friendly piece of advice, be aware of the traffic wardens in the area. Although the neighborhood is laid out for tourists and Sunday dwellers, inviting photo opportunities with graffiti art and other installations, try not to take one when the police are around. Bad press has made them nervous and being snapped is not in their interest. I took an accidental picture of one and got into trouble. Again, it only ever happens to tourists on their first day. Police are to be avoided at all costs, you never know if you’ll get a doggy one and we thought he was probably up to no good. I lied my way out and made sure to leave before he could take my camera. 

Maboneng Police

Crossing Nelson Mandela Bridge 

Another market you should try, if possible, is Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein. I actually prefer this one. It’s located over several floors of what looks like an old parking house and located literally right beside Nelson Mandela Bridge, you can’t miss it. The market offers mainly food. Incredible yummy food I have to say and so much choice you don’t know where to start. I recommend to skip breakfast and head straight there. What’s nice is that the whole area, which is a rather average part of town during the week, comes to life on the weekend. Pop up bars and local shops open their doors on a Sunday. You get up-cycled pubs, second hand shops, bars and more important people who wouldn’t set foot near the area during the week come and mingle with the residents on a Sunday. In fact, venture out and explore the area a little ‘by foot’ - try to find the Eland. South African’s really don’t like to walk. They drive to where they need to be and then drive back home. I made JJ walk through Braamfontein, which was a whole new experience for him and made him see this part of town in an a new light. Nervous at first, he actually had fun. So much so that we crossed Nelson Mandela bridge on foot the next weekend taking a friend. You get a brilliant look at the Joburg’s 42 train lines. I call them the rainbow fleet as the carriages are painted in bright colors. And you can see the abandoned Victorian train station, which stands alone reminding one of times long gone.

Bramfontein Pop Up Bar 

Bramfontein Street Art


If it gets too much with the Sunday market crowd, head to Newtown. Originally, the place to go on a Sunday, it’s now feeling the competition. I suggest trying the night market instead and if possible seeing a play at the Market Theatre. Founded in 1976, it has a great tradition and is one of the institutions that challenged the apartheid regime. At least take a look inside and check out the picture gallery to see what types of play have been staged here and who the actors were. 


Last but not least the African market on the rooftop of Rosebank’s shopping mall. Now, here you can do all you souvenir shopping. All kitshch and traditional cheesey items family and friends would expect you to bring home from Africa. You get everything from the fake lion and shark tooth to African masks, pottery, glass pearl jewellery and wooden frogs. 


ROAD TRIP! By now we have explored the inner city pretty well and I am starting to feel a little claustrophobic. London to Jo’burg, all I have done is replacing one big city with another. No matter how good the company there are only so many 1970s high rise and forgotten art deco buildings I can take. Where is the Africa of my imagination? The wilderness can’t be gone for good can it?  “JJ, I am not feeling the ‘Out of Africa’ vibe yet”, I complain. Truth be told he doesn’t know what to do with me either so we decide it’s time for a road trip or two or three...


Thanks to Sponge Bob, our little yellow KIA Picanto, we venture out to explore. Starting with Pretoria and its European replica architecture. It’s a pick and mix of different styles an eras. In some parts you have a strong Italian look and feel and then suddenly you hear the familiar sound of Big Ben. Pretoria is the least African place in Africa. 


Whilst JJ is driving I am reading out the current news headlines, which are plastered to every tree and robot in town. Yes, there are robots everywhere. No panic they are not taking over the world just regulating the traffic. For some reason, South African’s call their traffic lights robots, probably to enjoy the dumb expression on tourists faces (aka my face) when asking for directions and being told turn right after the third robot. 


If you don’t have a car, book a tour. Most guesthouses have deals with tour operators, including door to door pickup service so you don’t have to worry about much except the price.


I finally fell in love with the place when we went out to Magalisberg and the Cradle of Humankind. Get out of the cities and all of a sudden you see the landscape you heard of in travel guides. Wide planes and grass growing tall above your head. The sky seems so much closer and the clouds through gigantic shadows over the land. At first I thought the sun scorched large patches of grass until JJ pointed out its shadows. Classic dumb city girl mistake. Anyway, I couldn’t get enough of it and would have been happy staring at the landscape for hours. You start imagining what it was like when lions and cheetahs still roamed freely. I am glad I can enjoy this without ending up as cat lunch but it makes me feel sad at the same time.

 Cradel Of Humankind High Grass

Cradle Of Humnakind2


Our trip highlights by far were Soweto and Pilansberg. We booked a 4hrs cycling tour in Soweto, still urban but very different from Jo’burg city. After being to the apartheid museum this is history to be touched. I won’t give an account about apartheid, the museum does that far better, but it helps to have some background knowledge before going into the townships. At least you’ll understand why the place exists, what it means to locals and South Africans and why there is still a great division between rich and poor within the community. We’ve had a great day although getting sunburned and muscle aches from cycling up the hills. We drunk beer from a milk carton, had bull cheeks and pap lunch sitting in what I can only describe as a tin box. We learned the local handshake, a few words of zulu and at the end of the day ate bunny chow whilst listening to South African reggae. What else do you need? 

Soweto Kids

Safari! Of course you cannot come to Africa and not go on safari. Now Kruger is the most famous and popular option but it’s also quite far from Jo’burg. With flight, car rental or airport transfer this can easily double the cost of your entire trip. It’s so popular that you may be stuck in traffic, the only difference being having a wildebeest or zebra crossing the road instead of pedestrians. It’s also malaria country, so you’ll need to see your doctor in advance. 

Pilansberg Zebra 

I couldn’t afford Kruger and resigned to not going on safari when JJ mentioned Pilansberg National Park. Smaller than Kruger it offers everything you’d expect though. From the big five to the ugly. Situated in an volcanic crater, it’s only 2.5 hrs away from Jo’burg. You can drive yourself if you want to and with an excellent offer of well maintained roads even our little KIA could manage the trip. You have the option to venture deeper into the reserve, and maps indicate which roads require more horse power. It’s less crowded and malaria free. For a few rand we bought the area guide book with a list of animals and plants you can cross off. Animal wise we did pretty well spotting elephants, rhinos, wildebeest, zebras, ostriches, etc... We almost got down to all big five but our cheetah in the tree turned out to be just a tree with tricky leaves. There was one minor incident where a rhino almost rammed the car in front us, but I assume it was the end of the day and the rhino had said get out now. The absolute highlight were the giraffes. You wouldn’t think these large animals would be hard to spot but it turns out they are masters of disguise and in fact very had to spot. We couldn’t believe out luck when we finally managed to find them.  I’d love to return and try a walking safari next time. But you should book at least 4 days for it, and they are not cheap. 

Pilansberg Giraffe

Pilansberg Rhinos

Pilansberg Elephant Herd 

Pilansberg Waterhole


If you don’t fancy spending 2 hours driving then you can escape the city within the city. Parks are nothing like home and most offer hiking and animal sightings such as the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens. But our favorite is Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve. It’s not often that you go hiking in the middle of the city, spotting zebras or being chased by some horned beast, yes we were followed by a Mountain Reedbuck who thought we got to close to it’s territory. Make sure to pick up a map, enough water and sunscreen, and to wear appropriate shoes. It’s also where I learned about the art of Springbok poop spitting. Now I have spent the past week with a guy who likes the idea of antiseptic gels and although a great lover of the countryside but not so much the creepy crawlers attached to it, yet this man turns around and says “we have competitions of who can spit it the furthest”. I thought he is pulling my leg just as he lowers himself to pick up a bit, puts it in his mouth and then spits it into the distance. I only watch open mouthed. “Want to try?” , he turns around with a big grin. “NO way!’, I say. Now I regret it tough. I should have tried and it is the only time I went against my own rule of trying out new things I encounter in foreign places. After we reached the top of our hike we got an amazing view of Job’urg skyline in the distance. 


I reached the end of my trip and I was feeling sad to leave. Jo’burg wasn’t love at first sight, but exploring the place I learned to see it’s charmed beyond high rises and crime. I met warmhearted and friendly people from all backgrounds and although I may not share everyone’s political views I never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome.


I enjoyed my last day with another tour through town, ticking off a view sights we left to the end such as the brilliant Circa Jellico museum. You should go there for the building, if not for the art. Now driving through my last sunset for the final family dinner and then off to the airport. Saying good bye to JJ with Banarama’s ‘Walk-like and Egyptian’. Not the soundtrack I would have chosen but then I’ll never forget it either. It kind of fits as I am flying via Cairo. Waving good bye to the guy peering over the fence to see me off and I think it wasn’t such a disaster after-all. Only one thing I am disappointed about. I haven’t seen a single laser.


©Isabel Buettner






Last modified on Sunday, 01 September 2013