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Sights & Attractions in Johannesburg (South Africa)

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  • A bit hard to find your way around
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      09.03.2005 10:22
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      A short summary
      Nikki and I went on a trip to Johannesburg in South Africa from December 13th to December 31st 2004. The main goal for our trip was of course to see Nikki’s family and friends but we also got a chance to visit places like the Apartheid museum, Constitution Hill, Soweto, the theme park Gold Reef City, Cradle of Humankind, South African National Museum of Military History etc. We also got to go on a wonderful safari at Djuma Game Reserve located in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve near the Kruger Park (there will be a seperate trip report for this). Although this was a family trip I hope that some of the information in this trip report can be of some use to others. Get in touch if you have any questions or comments and I’ll do my best to answer. For more pictures from the trip please visit my homepage http://gardkarlsen.com.

      Prelude
      I have been to Johannesburg (Joburg) before and in the past I have been a bit negative about the place. Why? Well, it is not easy to come from a small town in Norway to the big city. It is a bit frightening to come to a big city where the general advice is to keep your car door locked when you are driving, where most homes have bars in front of doors and windows and electrical wires on top of the big fences that surrounds the properties etc. I have always felt a bit more…eh…free in Cape Town. But I promised Nikki that I would go to Joburg with an open mind and take another look at the city :-)

      Did you know: South Africa has 11 official languages

      A few words about South Africa
      I guess most people know where South Africa is located…after all it is in the name :-) The Republic of South Africa has a population of about 45 million and about 3 million of them live in Joburg. Before I got to know South Africa through Nikki I guess I only knew the basics which can be summarized in keywords such as apartheid, Nelson Mandela, gold and diamonds.

      In South Africa it is common with three pronged plugs and it is 220 volts. I bought an adapter at the airport in Frankfurt and that was a real rip of. My advice is of course that you wait until you get to South Africa to buy it...it is much cheaper.

      The currency in South Africa is Rand and most of the prices in this trip report with be listed in this currency.

      Did you know: Joburg is located at about 1740 meters (5700 feet) above sea level?

      The trip begins
      Getting tickets to South Africa was not as easy as we had expected. Over the past couple of years it has become increasingly popular to go to South Africa and I guess this trend will continue as we get closer to the soccer World Cup in 2010. We ended up flying South African Airways (SAA) and we had to pay about 9200 Norwegian kroner (about 1500 US dollars) per person for the tickets. On Monday December 13th we took the short 1 ½ hour flight from Stavanger to Frankfurt with Lufthansa and after a few hours we boarded the SAA plane. I was not very impressed by the Frankfurt Airport. It’s supposed to be one of the busiest airports in Europe but I think Schiphol in Amsterdam is far better. It was hard to navigate around the airport in Frankfurt due to both strange maps and lots of passport control points. And there were not that many shops to browse around in.

      We got on board the SAA flight at about 9 and it was a fairly new Airbus plane (A340-600 maybe). I was of course looking forward to trying the in flight entertainment that I never got to try when I was fly Continental to the USA this summer. But it turned out that I would be disappointed once again. Our little TV screen did not work at all during our 10 hour flight to Joburg…and I have trouble sleeping on board planes so it was a boring flight. But I was quite impressed with SAA in general. They seemed to listen to us when we were unhappy when the TV wasn’t working, the food was pretty good and the service was good.

      We arrived the following morning in Joburg and we were met by lovely weather and about 27 degrees Celsius. The arrivals part of the airport has not changed much since I went to South Africa for the first time in 1997. Nikki’s family came to pick us up at the airport so we didn’t have to worry about getting a taxi. Coming to Joburg is not a big culture shock...at least not to start with. When I came to Joburg the first time I just reminded me of a typical big city with high rise buildings and big freeways.

      Stuff to see and do
      So what is there to see and do in Joburg? I get the impression that most people just stay overnight in Joburg because they “have to” in connection with a safari in the Kruger Park. And when I went to Joburg the first times I also got an impression from guide books that there was not much to see and do. But this time we wanted to spend some time "discovering" Joburg. Nikki’s father did a great job playing the tour guide for us :-)

      Constitution Hill
      If there is one thing I would recommend as a “must see” it would be Constitution Hill. This is the home of the Constitutional Court in South Africa and it is built on the site of and old prison. The prison was called Old Fort Prison Complex but was commonly known as Number Four. Many leading political activists including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were kept here for periods. The prison itself did not close until 1983 and the main reason was that it was getting overcrowded.

      When we got there we thought the place was closed because there was only one car in the parking lot and it was a public holiday. We got a great tour of the area with a guy called David. He took us through the history of the prison with his great knowledge and he could tell us a lot about the past but also about the complex today. We started looking at the old fort entrance and the barrier that is built around the fort and we were told how the prisoners were treated when they first arrived. We were taken through the old cells where we could look at sleeping arrangements, isolation cells and there were also small rooms with TV’s where we could here stories told by people that were kept in the prison. The tour ended in the Constitutional court itself.

      But the main thing in this complex is the symbolism. Part of the prison (known as the Awaiting Trial Block) was torn down to make room for the court itself. In order to show that the injustice of the past can be a part of the justice for the future, the bricks have been re-used in the new court house. The stairwells to the building have been preserved and two are even incorporated in the court building itself. The Constitutional Court is also a building full of symbolism. The logo itself shows people in shelter under a tree discussing and it represent the past way of doing things. This can also be seen in the lobby of the court house where pillars are skew to represent the tree trunks and natural light comes in through the ceiling and the lights are formed like leaves. The door into the court itself is a 9 meter timber door and 27 human rights are carved into the wood.

      It might sound boring to see a prison and a court house but I learned a lot from it. The fact that this place of terror only shut down about 20 years ago makes it frightening. I think that it was amazing to see how they have used symbolism to bring the past with them in order to prevent that stuff like this happens again. Please visit the website www.constitutionhill.co.za to get more info on how to get there etc. If you go there make sure to get a guide!

      Did you know: In 1905 the largest gem-quality diamond ever discovered was found in South Africa. This stone still remains the largest diamond ever found. The Cullinan I, known as The Great Star of Africa, is the largest cut diamond in the world; it is a 530.20 carat pear shaped stone set in the Sovereign's Royal Scepter as part of the Crown Jewels displayed in the Tower of London.

      Gold Reef City
      If you get tired of museums and shopping you can take a trip to Gold Reef City and have some fun :-). The place is a theme park built on the concept on mining. Not only is South Africa known for its gold and diamond mines…Johannesburg itself is located right on top of one gold ore and the park itself is built around and on top of No. 14 shaft of Crown Mines. But most people come here just for the ride and fun of course. We went with my brother and sister in-law, Karabo and Ame. After paying 80 Rand per person (only toddler’s don’t pay) at the entrance we got access to the park and all the rides in the park. In the park we had great fun trying out the roller coasters Anaconda, Jozi Express, Golden Loop and Tower of Terror. The last one is not really a roller coaster but you get a 47 meter drop which is pretty mean :-) We had to wait for quite some time for this because they only had one car and only 8 people could go each time :-( Miner's Revenge was also quite fun and to our surprise we also got a bit soaked on it.

      But the highlight for me in the park was the underground tour. We had to pay an extra 50 Rand per person for this but hey, it is not every day you get to go down in a real gold mine :-) This is no. 14 shaft of Crown Mines but it was actually the 13th shaft according to our guide but they skipped this number due to superstition. After getting a helmet and torch (with a big battery pack) we were lowered down to 220 meters below ground level and we got a short and hectic tour of the first level of this mine that stretched down to a staggering 3293 meters (about 10000 ft). The mine itself was shut down in 1977 and at the time they only produced 4 grams of gold per ton of rock that was mined. It is amazing to be able to get to go down in a real mine and get an impression of what the working conditions were like. We also went to see the gold pouring but due to bad luck the show had to be cancelled due to electrical problems. According to what I have read you get to see 12.5 kg of gold being poured and made into a gold bar. And they say you can take it home if you can pick it up with one hand on the first try…well, I was looking forward to bringing that gold home! :-) Check out their website on www.goldreefcity.co.za for more information and directions. The park is worth a visit and you can have fun and learn a bit about the Joburg and mining history at the same time :-)

      Apartheid museum
      When growing up I remember seeing news stories on TV about a South Africa ruled by the apartheid government. In 1990 Nelson Mandela was finally released from Robben Island after 27 years in prison, he won the Nobel Peace Prize together with Frederik Willem de Klerk in 1993 and won the first free elections in 1994. The Apartheid museum is located right next to Gold Reef City. The entrance is pretty clever…it is split in two entrances: one for the ‘whites’ and one for the ‘non-whites’. To start with you get a bit of information about the race classification in the old regime. From there on we went through the museum to look at life (for both sides) under the old regime, about the homelands, about the Soweto uprising etc.

      The museum didn’t look that big when we arrived but you need some time to go through the museum. We got there a bit late and before we knew it, it was 5 pm and we got “kicked out” of the place. You probably need 2-3 hours to go through the museum. I think we paid 25 Rand per person to get into the museum. Some of the videos in the museum showed the Soweto uprising and how the police went about to control the situation. I guess when you see how brutal the police were in some situations it is easy to understand that the police still have a bit of a bad reputation in South Africa. And I guess it also shows that it will take some time for the wounds to heal and for the country to move on. The museum web page on www.apartheidmuseum.org contains more information on the exhibitions, the history, other places of interest etc.

      Soweto
      It is said that a visit to Joburg is not complete until you have visited Soweto. There are lots of companies that offer tours in the township but we didn’t have to organize this since we had local guides :-) Soweto is located south west of Joburg and the name itself stands for “SOuth WEstern TOwnship”. It is a HUGE area today and the estimate of how many people that live there vary from 1.5 million to 3 million people. Driving into Soweto was like coming to a totally different place at least if you compare it with the rest of Joburg. First of all the houses are much smaller and there is not much vegetation in the form of trees. There were people everywhere and the rumor has it that the unemployment rate is quite high. I guess that also explains all the people that were trying to set up businesses like car wash, car repair shop etc around in Soweto. We started out by visiting the large Catholic Church called Regina Mundi. This church has played a key role in the history of Soweto and the uprising against the apartheid government. There is not that much to see in the church today.

      We needed something to eat so we stopped by one of the most popular places for tourist in Soweto: Wandies Place. The restaurant was packed when we came there but they managed to squeeze us in but the service was pretty slow because there were so many guests. They mainly serve a buffet and I think that it cost us 50 Rand per person for the meal (excluding dessert). On the buffet there were different dishes of chicken, lamb, beef and curry varieties. There were also some “typical” South African dishes on the menu such as pap which is like the rice part of a meal and it is some sort of cornmeal porridge. When I came into the buffet I was met by an unusual smell – at first I though something had gone off. But it turned out to be something called ‘mala mogodu’ or tripe – boiled and seared sheep intestines and/or stomach. My sensitive nose felt a bit assaulted but the tripe didn’t taste all that bad – not one of the worst sheep parts one can eat :-)

      We continued our tour in Soweto by stopping by the corner where Hector Pieterson was shot dead by the police on June 16th 1976. He took part in a demonstration against the introduction of Afrikaans as a language in the black schools. Hector was only 12 years old. We also stopped by Hector Pieterson museum and it only cost 10 Rand to enter. In the museum you will find information about the events leading to June 16th and the uprising that followed. The museum was not that big and I found the Apartheid Museum more interesting. When we drove into Soweto the weather was great but at the museum we were surprised by an earsplitting hail storm. Fortunately, it wasn’t the big windscreen cracking type.

      We also stopped by Nelson Mandela’s first house in Orlando West in Soweto. The humble house was Mandela’s home from 1946 and it is a tiny place. I think that we had to pay 20 Rand per person to get in and we got a short 2 minute tour of the place. Yes, it is an intimate meeting with the home of a great leader but there is not much to see. And if you compare the entrance fee to other attractions that we went to I’m almost tempted to call it a overcharge. I would say that it is not worth a visit.

      What surprised me about Soweto was the fact that there were all sorts of houses there. They ranged from typical suburban houses to squatter camp shanties and everything in between. Looking out over the large area that the squatter camp covered has a tendency to put things into perspective. I hope that many of my fellow Norwegians get to travel the world so that we can realize how fortunate we are. I regret not that I didn’t take more pictures in Soweto itself. It would have been great to have some shots of the every day life in this township.

      Did you know: The only street in the world to house two Nobel Peace Prize winners is in Soweto. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both have houses in Vilakazi Street, Orlando West.

      Cradle of humankind and Rhino & Lion Nature reserve
      About 40-50 km outside Joburg you’ll find the Sterkfontein Caves which is a parr of the Cradle of humankind. We drove out there one day to get a tour of this place where they have found fossils of our human ancestors so to speak. The first cranium was found in 1936 and right now they are working on “digging out” a skeleton that is believed to be about 4 million years old and 99.9 % complete. But it is a slow process because they have been excavating this one fossil since about 1994. So maybe we’ll get to see this Australopithecus Africanus (our guide seemed to enjoy saying these words) in a museum in a few years time. We paid about 20 Rand per person for the tour of the cave and it seemed like the guide was pretty knowledgeable when he took us through the cave. There are a few steps down (and eventually up :-) and in some places you have to crawl a little bit. There is a tiny museum at the entrance area that will tell you a little bit about the history of the cave, the fossils that has been found there etc. Due to the fossils found here the site has become a World Heritage Site.

      From Sterkfontein we drove to Rhino & Lion Nature reserve. At the entrance we paid to get into the Rhino and Lion reserve and to get a tour of a place called Wondercave. This cave belongs to the same system of caves as the Sterkfontein cave but was quite different. Before the tour we relaxed at the little café on the site and we were kept company by an ostrich and a couple of wild boars :-) The tour started by descending quite a few steep steps (45 degree steep) and then we took an elevator down to about 60 meters below the surface. In the enormous cave there were beautiful examples of both stalagmites and stalactites. Some of them were humongous and weighed up to 40 tons according to our guide. The cave was pretty dark and it was hard to take good pictures. It was kept dark to keep the environment as natural as possible.

      After the visit to the cave we drove around in our car in the nature reserve. The dirt roads were bumpy and most cars were in for a challenge. But we did manage to get pretty close to lions, wild dogs, a cheetah, a couple of rhinos etc. It is pretty amazing to get this close to the animals in your own car. I wonder if there are any "accidents" in parks like this. After all there are a few daring tourists out there and there were no supervision :-) There is also one area in the park where you can find tigers, lions, crocodiles and hippos in more confined areas. They also have a place where you can take a closer look at vultures. You will find more information on their homepage www.rhinolion.co.za

      South African National Museum of Military History
      When Nikki’s dad came up with the suggestion to go to the National museum of Military history I said “sure” because I do have an interest in history and like most boys I’m impressed by all sorts of gadgets :-) . I had never read or heard about this museum so I didn’t really have any expectations at all before we got there. The museum is located is located right next to the Johannesburg Zoo and we paid 10 Rand to get in. I realized pretty quickly that there were a lot to see and read in this museum. First of all there is a lot of information about the military history (obviously *grin*) and the aspects of the Anglo Boer war (between 1899 and 1902) are covered with pictures, strategic plans, posters etc.

      Apart from information we also found a lot of military hardware. I was surprised to find lots of planes including old planes like German Messerschmitt, British Spitfire and even one of the first jet planes that the Germans developed during World War 2. Outside there were more modern jet planes on display. There were also an impressive collection of tanks, canons, small arms, decorations, uniforms etc. I enjoyed the visit to the museum and for that price it was a bargain. It is a bit sad to admit it but it is quite interesting to see how much effort man has put into building stuff to be able to kill each other. If you are into history and military hardware I would recommend a visit to this museum.

      Language
      Did you know that South Africa has 11 official languages? The languages (in alphabetical order) are Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. You can get by without any problems speaking English in Joburg.

      When I came there the first time I was a bit surprised by a few words. Nikki kept on saying “turn right at the robots” when she was giving me driving instructions. Well, I didn’t really see that many robots in the streets :-) But robots is the word for traffic lights. When I talked to Nikki’s family and telling them things they kept on saying “izzit?” (like in “is it?”). Well, my natural response was of course to confirm by saying “Yes” but later on I realized that the “izzit” is just a phrase being used when you listen to someone tell a story and I guess it can be translated into “really?” There is also the expression “howzit” which is more or less like “Hi, how are you?”

      I also kept on asking for ketchup and got pretty blank faces. In this part of the world we’re only talking about “tomato sauce”. Talking about food: one of the South African past times is barbecuing - known as ‘braai’. One of the best things to braai is a boerewors - an excellent meat sausage (mixed with herbs & spices).

      Safety
      Most people that I have spoken to associate Johannesburg with one thing: crime. Unfortunately the city has got a bad reputation and I was a bit scared too when I got there the first time and Nikki told me about the safety precautions that she usually took when she was driving, staying at home etc. These are issues that I never really give any thought to in Norway. According to BBC (in September 2004) murders committed in the year to April fell by 8% to just under 20,000 compared with the previous 12 months. Canada which has a similar sized population has only about 550 murders on average per year. I guess it is not fair comparing these two countries but I guess it shows that South Africa has a challenge when it comes to crime.

      Getting around in Joburg
      So how do you get around in Joburg? To make a long story pretty short I think that it is safe to say that it is hard to explore Joburg if you don’t have a car. Yes, there are buses and taxis but I’m not sure if they will get you to your destinations in an efficient way. Even if you do have a car it can be tricky to get around. First of all you have to deal with the fact that they drive on the wrong side on the road (ok, the drive on the left side if that makes it clearer :-) and they have a different driving style. The speed limit on the highway is 120 km/h and they drive really close to each other especially when they are trying to indicate that they want to over take you. It seems like there is a bit of focus on road safeties these days with posters along the roads with Speed Kills, Arrive alive, radio adverts telling you to buckle up etc. But I do recall that the French and Italians are also notoriously bad drivers – so ‘bad’ driving styles are comparable. The tow trucks are nick named ‘vultures’ …small tow trucks wait at different intersections and I guess they are only waiting around for an accident to happen. Rumor has it that they get to the site of the accident before the police and paramedics.

      If you do drive around Joburg have a map reader that can help you out with all the signs along the route. Be aware that there will be some street vendors and beggars on some intersections around town and some intersections are even marked with signs saying “Hijack Hotspot” (a new feature that even locals are not quite used to). Some roads are not that well lit so keep an eye out for people walking along the road. I think that a lot of lives could have been saved if people starting wearing reflector chips like we do here in Norway :-)

      Eating out
      Eating out in Joburg is great. There is a great selection of restaurants with excellent quality and it is so cheap - at least compared to Norwegian pricing. You can even buy a bottle of good South African red wine without being ruined :-) We went to a couple of places that I would like to mention. Moyo is a “chain” of restaurants around Joburg and we went to the one in Market Theater in Newtown. The place was really nice, had a great atmosphere, good food and you even have the company of a storyteller if you want to. I enjoyed my Oxtail Potjie there :-) The other place I would like to mention is The Butcher Shop & Grill at Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. We went there one night to get some good meat and we got it :-) I had crocodile carpaccio as a starter and Nikki and I shared game platter which included wild boar, ostrich, eland and springbuck. I guess we went all the way because for dessert we had tiramisu and brownies. There are lots of restaurants in the square and in the shopping mall itself so it is not a problem finding something good to eat. If you are having trouble deciding where to go to eat, check out the web site www.eating-out.co.za. Here you will find links to lots of restaurants, maps, menus, price etc. For fast food I can recommend Nando’s. They serve excellent Peri-Peri chicken and lots of other chicken dishes :-)

      Talking about food…the South Africans love to braai. We brought along some food and some cold drinks and went to a park called Zoo Lake after we had been to the Military museum. In the park we paid a few bucks (Rands) to borrow a braai stand (half an oil barrel on a stand with a grill rack over it) and we fired it up and put chicken, chops and boerewors on it. This is a great place to take the family to relax, braai and enjoy a cold beer. Most people bring a football or frisbee to kill time – we had to deal with a 10 year old on a quad bike. After some bickering the family finally understood that quad bike riding was not allowed in the park. The area seems well kept although swimming is not allowed and the toilets are, afterall, public toilets.

      Shopping
      We did go shopping a little bit in Joburg and the price level on some items is pretty good compared to Norway at least. There are some larger malls worth mentioning. Sandton City in the north of Joburg has a lot of stuff to offer. Here you can go shopping, go to the movies, go out to eat etc. We also went to Menlyn Park which is located in Pretoria. This is also a big shopping mall and it houses shops, an IMAX theater, Harley Davidson Pretoria etc. We also went to Fourways Mall to play adventure golf. If you have been reading the other trip reports you will notice that we enjoy putt-putt. There is a great 27 hole course here and when we played there it was at night and it was raining a bit. We could hear and sea frogs jumping around and when the ball went out of bounds (no, I never hit my ball out of bounds of course) we were a bit nervous to try to locate them because you never know what size frogs you will find :-)

      There is a 14% VAT on stuff that you buy in South Africa and you can get this refunded if the amount exceeds ZAR 250. But to get the money back you have to keep the receipt and you have to present the goods that you have bought at the airport when leaving. You can also get this done at Sandton City to avoid queues at the airport.

      Flight home
      It is never fun to end a vacation and it is never fun to say goodbye to the family. But on Thursday December 30th we packed up our stuff and got ready to go back to Norway. For the first time we experienced that all our luggage was weighed at the airport…including hand luggage. Our one piece was 11 kg over weight and we were told to lighten it or pay. And when we got told that we had to pay 3500 kroner we decided to leave some of the South African wine we had decided to bring home. I think this arrangement was strange because after weighing stuff at the check in, people went to the duty free shops to buy e.g. wine. The 8680 km flight from Joburg to Frankfurt did go a bit faster…or maybe it just felt like it since I had a TV to watch and tetris to play :-)

      Conclusion
      We had a great stay in Joburg and I would like to send a big thank you to Nikki’s family and friends for being such good hosts, for taking us around in Joburg and for feeding us with all sorts of good stuff. I feel that we got to see and do quite a lot and I got to celebrate Christmas in a foreign country for the first time in my life :-) Thanks. I feel that I did Joburg with an open mind this time and I hope that this trip report has shown that there are a few things to see and do in this city. I agree that it might not be your standard tourist destination but I hope that people now at least can associate with something else apart from crime. My recommendation is to rent a car while in Joburg so that you can get a chance to take a look at the city. Get a good map so that you can find your way around town. And don’t worry…as long as you take normal precautions you can explore this city like any other big city around the world :-)

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    • Product Details

      ""Johannesburg, also known as eGoli (place of gold), is the largest and most populous city in South Africa. The city is affectionately known as "Jo'burg", "Jozi" and "JHB" by South Africans. Johannesburg is the provincial capital of Gauteng, the wealthiest province in South Africa, and the largest economy of any metropolitan region in Sub-Saharan Africa. The city is one of the 40 largest metropolitan areas in the world, and Africa's only officially designated global city (classified as a gamma world city). While often assumed to be South Africa's capital, Johannesburg does not form one of South Africa's three capital cities. Johannesburg does, however, house the South African Constitutional Court - South Africa's highest court.""