We had lots of doubts and worries about coming to South Africa, especially Johannesburg. Reading the guide book gives you the impression that Johannesburg city is a very dangerous place with muggings and violent crimes happening on every street corner. At different times I think both Soon Jeong and I said to the other, ‘lets go home.’ I am sure that both of us thought about it often.
However, we must not let fear run our lives, we must move forward. Our flight left London’s Heathrow airport at 20:05 Wednesday October 28. And yes, the one dreadful phenomenon that we cannot seem to escape is…. the volume of our luggage has grown.
We arrived in Johannesburg airport and had to wait a bit for our couchsurfing host. He had a meeting and would only be able to pick us up at 11:45 am. We arrived at just after 8:00 am so we sat for a bit. At 11:45 our host was there. At this point we felt quite relieved. We were in sort of protected custody and safe from the dangers of Johannesburg; real or imagined.
Thursday, the day of our arrival, was the prescripted nothing day. Just rest, relax, recover from the long flight and perhaps get a little orientated to the surroundings. In the afternoon our host took us to the nearby supermarket. After groceries and cash from an ATM we were set.
Friday we didn’t do much either. Johannesburg is very spread out. The actual downtown area is rather small but it took nearly 30 minutes to drive there. . There are small concentrated populated areas here and there around the city with little in between them. This spread-out characteristic means it is not profitable for a train, subway or bus company to produce a public transportation system. Given that fact that something like only 20% of the entire population pays taxes, the government can’t afford to build an extensive public transportation system either. So, for the traveler, the biggest challenge to seeing “Joburg,” as the locals call it, is simply getting around.
We were lucky, our host had his own business (meaning his work hours were pretty much whatever he wanted) and he could sometimes run us here and there. The other characteristic of Johannesburg that presents a bit of a dilemma for the traveler is, that there isn’t that much to see. We are not talking about a Paris or Rome here. We are talking about an old gold mining town that was just a dusty little out post until gold was discovered in 1886.
The South African diamond mines were already establish by time gold was discovered in Johannesburg. The easy gold that could be panned from a steam ran out pretty quickly. At that point, the rich diamond barons came in and funded mining.
England was the largest buyer of gold and London had but a freeze on the price of gold. The Mining companies had to cut costs as much as they could. The easiest cost to reduce was labor wages. Of course blacks and immigrants were paid much less than the whites were paid. Conditions for the miners were “slightly less than murder” as one person put it.
We took a tour of an old mine shaft and on one panel that described the working conditions it said that the wages paid to 7,000 whites was more than the combined wages of 50,000 blacks, coloreds, afrikanns and foreigners.
One part of the tour was we got to see them melt and pour a solid brick of gold. Then the brought out the one they poured the day before to show us. Oh it was heavy.
Anyway, you only need to remember that Johannesburg was built on gold. Today it is the largest city in South Africa and the center of business. Few touristy things.
Just across the street from the gold mine tour is the Apartheid Museum. Yes, South Africa is where segregation and discrimination based on race became legalized. It certainly had been practiced for many years but it was made a law in 1948. The law lasted until 1991. We highly recommend that you visit the Apartheid Museum. It is a very sobering and disturbing museum but, an education that everyone should have.
On Saturday Oct 31, our host drove us out to a place called The Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve. It was a large enclosed area that held many wild (semi-wild anyway) animals found in South Africa. Our timing was perfect; they had just fed the lions. We drove into an area that was fenced off from the rest of the reserve, the Lion and Predator Camp. It was cool. A pack of lions ripping apart a freshly killed cow.
There was one male lion that was just an arrogant greedy bastard. He would not let any of the female lions eat “His” cow except for one female. The others, he would swat at and chase away anytime they came near “His” food. When he was tired of eating he just laid across the cow gripping on to it while he dozed off.
Every chance he got our host would drive us around through neighborhoods in Johannesburg. Their appearance was not at all like I expected. I expected thousands of people packed into tiny areas and living in tin shacks and cardboard huts. Sure, those areas did exist, but most of Joburg was quite reasonable and some places, like where we stayed, were rather nice middle class neighborhoods.
Sunday our host took us to Nelson Mandela Square; an upscale shopping mall and plaza. It was very nice and had the prices to match it. The square had a large statue of Nelson Mandela. We were told that Johannesburg has many Nelson Mandela bridges, streets, squares and other things named after him. You don’t have to go far to run across a Nelson Mandela something.
Monday we hired a struggling artist friend of our host. We paid him to drive us up to the city of Pretoria so we could get some video and photos there. Pretoria is one of three capitals of South Africa. Pretoria is the Administrative capital. Cape Town is the Legislative capital and Bloemfontein is the Judicial capital.
Pretoria is also known for the Jakaranda trees. Our timing was good; the Jackaranda trees were in full bloom. Large beautiful trees all in bright purple bloom.
It was a good day. I got some valuable video. Actually since Saturday I had been getting good video that I needed for the textbook. Just a little bit here and there. That was fine with me. I was getting textbook video material, ten seconds at a time. Perfect.
Tuesday our host was very busy and could not chauffeur us around. We made the best of it, stayed in and got caught up on some work.
Wednesday he took us to the Gold Mine tour and the Apartheid Museum I mentioned above.
Thursday was our last day in Johannesburg so we just finalized our travel arrangements to Cape Town. We took the train. The overnight train costs 250 Rand per/person and that got you a sleeping car. We booked a “Coupe” meaning a sleeping car for just two. In addition to that Soon Jeong confirmed reservations with a travel agent in Cape Town for an overland safari tour.
Friday we packed up the 1.8 metric tons of luggage we have and got off to the train station. We got settled into our “coupe” compartment and waited for the 10:30 departure. At 11:32 we left for Cape Town.
TIP! If you are ever going to the Johannesburg train station and you think you might want to hire one of the porters who will load all your luggage on a cart,—DON’T. It’s a huge ripoff and just plain deceptive.
Being a tourist they will charge you 20 or 30 rad. [3 to 4 dollars] (We were quoted 30…bargained for 20) They DO NOT take your luggage to the train platform. They only take it inside the building, less than one minute and 50 meters, and drop it. You can then carry it yourself through the ticket gate and down the stairs to the platform or you can hire another porter to get your bags to the platform.
I like train rides. We can sit, relax and watch out the window. Seeing the land is important for me. Lots can be learned and enjoyed by just looking at the land.