JOHANNESBURG - South Africa Part 1
Thanks to Wild Collective and Nicky Arthur PR, we were given an amazing opportunity to explore South Africa. Our first stop after 23 hours in transit was Johannesburg. There is so much to cover that we have decided to talk about it in sections:
Johannesburg has a reputation for having an increased crime rate and this is mainly due to the high levels of poverty. People need to steal to survive. We were given lots of advice on how to stay safe during our visit and here are our tips for future travelers:
- Avoid wearing anything that displays wealth: such as watches, rings, earings or any jewellery for that matter.
-Avoid having your smart phones/cameras/videos out on display (this is the reason we decided not to film in Johannesburg).
-Carry your belongings in a non flashy bag: like a plastic bag or plain drawstring bag (handbags are a target and are easily stolen).
-Don't take taxis and avoid walking around at night.
We had never traveled with Airbnb before, but now that we have, we would highly recommend it to anyone. The website is straightforward and simple to use. The different styles of accommodations available from a single room or whole apartments to luxury penthouses, means there is something to suit everyone. As long as you do your research into the area you want to stay, Airbnb will do the rest. You even get a chance to chat to the host of the accommodation before you arrive which helps with answering any questions, organising time of arrival and accessing keys. We stayed in the amazing Garden View Apartment in Bedfordview which was only a short drive from the airport and was in a safe neighborhood. All the houses on this street were protected with barbwire fences and they had paid for a security car to patrol up and down the street. Our host, Ingola went above and beyond to make sure we felt at home and that we were fully catered for. She even organised a guided tour of Johannesburg with only a days' notice. She really was like our mum away from home. Because Ingola's main house was attached to the Airbnb apartment we were staying in, it meant we had the added bonus of a pet dog and free range chickens to play with. By the time we left it really had felt like we'd made a friend in Ingola.
Guided Tour Of Johannesburg
After recovering from the flight over, we only really had one full day in Johannesburg. We wanted to make sure we made the most of our time, as well as getting a good idea of what Johannesburg was all about, so opted for an all day guided tour. From the second our tour guide Steven picked us up, we knew we were in good hands. Any worries we had about our safety and all our luggage being in the car were quickly put to rest. Steven being a local, knew all the key places to take us and had so much local knowledge, we felt we could ask him anything. He was just a top bloke and by the end of the day together, we really felt like we had made another friend. He even personally returned my phone, which I had accidentally left in the car at the end of the tour (which would have been at least an hour round trip for him). The tour covered:
-Apartheid Museum: The Apartheid Museum is the first of its kind and illustrates the rise and fall of apartheid. It shows the world how South Africa is coming to terms with its oppressive past and working towards a future that all South Africans can call their own. While the museum is informative and a must see for understanding South Africa's history, it requires a lot of reading and the layout can be confusing and hard to follow.
-Soweto (aka South Western Township): Soweto became the largest black city in South Africa, but until 1976 its population could have status only as temporary residents, serving only as a work force to Johannesburg. It was created in the 1930's when the white government started separating blacks from whites. It is a large piece of history in relation to apartheid with large civil unrest and serious riots. While part still consist of the makeshift homes it has started to become a more modern and vibrant part of Johannesburg. It is home to many tourist attractions such as the ones we are about to discuss.
-Regina Mundi Church: While not overly pretty to look at this church has a strong historical significance and is often referred to as the people's church. During the apartheid era it opened its doors to anti-apartheid groups and provided shelter to activists. During the 1976 student uprising, many protesting students fled here to escape police bullets and tear gas canisters. Police followed students into the church firing live ammunition. Damage to the marble alter and crucifix, as well as bullet holes can still be seen today.
-Hector Pieterson Museum: This museum commemorates the role of the country's students in the struggle against apartheid and in particular the role played by the school children who took part in the student uprising in 1976. Many of whom where shot by the apartheid police while protesting against the sub-standard of education in South Africa. One of the first to be killed was a 12 year old boy name Hector Pieterson. The picture of Hector being carried by another high school student with his sister running alongside has become iconic worldwide as a representation of the senseless cruelty and brutality of the apartheid state.
-Nelson Mandela's house: The Mandela house tells the story of President Nelson Mandela in the context of the house and in the context as his life as a whole. The street where the Mandela house is located is buzzing and vibrant with local cafes and bars. Its where the locals all come to hang out.
After a pretty jam packed day of sightseeing we were ready to relax. AtholPlace hotel was the perfect place to finish our stay in Johannesburg. It was in total contrast to everything we had just seen. It was modern, spacious and five star luxury. It is located in Atholl which, although we weren't left with time to explore, we had been told was one of the most beautiful parts of Johannesburg. It is only a short distance from the commercial center of Sandton City and Nelson Mandela Square. It is an intimate Hotel with only nine rooms, meaning you almost felt like you had the entire use of the grounds to yourself. Given we were on holidays we thought is was our duty to test out all the facilities and headed straight to the bar where we sampled one of the most amazing strawberry daiquiris we have tried to date. We had the choice of dining outside under the trees or on the covered terrace. Either option felt secluded and slightly romantic. It really was ideal for us to recuperate and prepare ourselves for our next part of the adventure........SAFARIS
When stepping off the plane in Johannesburg, it was hard to forget all the stories of crime people had told us before leaving. I had a constant tiny thought in the back of my mind that something bad could happen to me while here. I've never had that feeling while travelling before (but that could be my own naivety to the dangers of all travel). I had to take everything one step at a time to avoid freaking myself out. First step, find transport to our Airbnb that wasn't a taxi. We probably overpaid for a private transfer but given our insecurities it was worth it. Once arriving at the Airbnb and meeting our fantastic host Ingola, I was made to feel instantly relaxed because she was able to give a local's perspective on the reality of crime and how to stay safe in Johannesburg. All of this advice we has shared above. Ingola shared a story of how as recently as two months ago her handbag had been stolen right off her shoulder in the supermarket while she was reaching for an item on the top shelf. She gave great advise about just carrying only the things you need in something plain such as a shopping bag. I ditched my new Collette bag (which I had bought for the trip) and instead used a drawstring plain bag that my hair dryer had come in. It worked perfectly because I could wrap the drawstring around my wrist and hold the bag in my hand. There was no way anyone could grab onto that. As a matter of fact, I had it wrapped so tight that I eventually snapped the drawstring and had to go with a plastic bag.
Our second step was to get supplies. The first night we hadn't planned on leaving the apartment, we were so drained from the flight all we could think of doing was sleeping. If you're ever looking for a supermarket in South Africa always go to a SPAR. It was like a supermarket on steroids and has an almost market feel with different stations serving up all fresh food: like sushi, bakery goods and desserts, coffee, ready to eat meals etc. We also went in to a few local supermarkets with no luck. Although they were cheaper, they didn't have the variety we were looking for, especially when trying to find fresh healthy food. Most things seemed packed and processed.
We basically shut ourselves in for the first night and recovered. Meanwhile Ingola had been working behind the scenes to organise a private tour of Johannesburg. We awoke from a nap to find a handwritten note under our door with all the details we would need for the tour. I won't rehash everything we did because we've already talked about it above. I just want to talk about the highlights, which for me by far was the people we met along the way. Starting with our driver Steven, who for a guy that finished school at year five, knew so much. He was friendly and showed a genuine interest in getting to know all about us, while we had a genuine interest in getting to know him and what his life was like in Johannesburg. Eating the local food is always of interest to me as well. For the majority of South African people every meal consists of paps, which is a maize based dish that has the consistency of mashed potato. Basically it's cheap and filling so is a staple. It is served with stews and meats to help add flavour. I loved it although imagined it probably wouldn't be that healthy if eaten on a daily basis.
After a long day packing in history and the culture of Johannesburg we moved on to one of the most relaxing and tranquil accommodations called AtholPlace. This place was stunning, it was hard to believe I still managed to have a little freak out. For some reason I became stressed over trying to take the perfect pictures to truly capture the beauty of this place that I forgot to fully sit back and enjoy it. I will probably be the first to admit that while travelling and blogging looks glamorous, it can be stressful too. Lawson is always the one who knows the right things to say. He put into perspective all the amazing things we had just seen that day and that people here are so happy living off so little that it was crazy to be freaking out over a camera. It's amazing how important a little perspective can be. AtholPlace was the perfect end to the perfect day.
I felt we had seen most of the things we had wanted to see in Johannesburg and would say that 2-3 days was the ideal amount of time for us. We were well and truly ready for the next part of our South African adventure.
I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous for the first leg of our trip. We had both heard so much about the crime rate in Johannesburg, that it was hard not to think something bad might happen to us. I didn't ever tell Cat of course, because I didn't want her to stress and that if push came to shove I didn't want her thinking I was scared. On the plane I told her that if something did happen that she would need to run if I told her to, to which she responded how would she be able to leave me? luckily it never came to that. I remember being told not to take a taxi from the airport and it reminded me of a show I used to watch called "Scam City" where the host would travel the world looking for scams. He would always find his first scam in a taxi. That was enough for me to avoid the taxis and pay a little more for a private transfer.
As we headed to our first destination we started driving past what looked like the walls of prisons, which were in fact gated communities with huge walls, barbed wire, armed guards, spike strips and even broken glass. What had we gotten ourselves into? Once we arrived at our first ever Airbnb we started to relax. Our Airbnb host, Ingola was so lovely and gave us the lowdown. it was good to get the perspective of a local. She had hand drawn a map of the area with shops and food locations. This was the first time either of us have ever used Airbnb but it is actually fantastic. You get to live like a local, meet new people and have experiences you might never have otherwise.
We still weren't game enough to go outside the grounds at night, so once we had stocked up on food we locked ourselves in our apartment and ate food, played board games and tried to beat the jet lag.
After a conversation with Ingola the day before, she had been working on organizing a private tour of Soweto for us. She really went above and beyond. We met our tour guide, Steven nice and early on our first full day and immediately I knew we were in for a great day. He was bright, energetic, had a great sense of humour and was really well educated. What surprised me was that he only made it to year five at school and had been teaching himself everything he had learned from reading books and just talking to people. His English was impeccable, i'm always impressed with people who have taught themselves another language. It just goes to show how important connecting and socialising with people can be.
I loved Soweto. I had no idea what to expect and was nervous to enter one of the largest townships in South Africa. We later found out that Steven was from Soweto which made sense because everywhere we went people where saying hello and we both got the feeling that he was a big deal in that area. We pulled into a service station that backed onto one of the main slum areas where tourists can go on a walking tour through part of the township, however when we pulled up, something wasn't right. Steven had changed his demeanour and was a little quiet. A man came to the car and spoke briefly with Steven in another language before we took off and headed elsewhere. Something was going down that day in the township that didnt make it safe for us to enter. Steven apologised and quickly moved on without telling us why. I'll always wonder what was happening that day but I'm glad we didnt enter if it was unsafe. I have to hand it to Steven, whatever was going on, he did his best not to let on that things weren't safe.
I was expecting Soweto to be a miserable place, full of poverty and grief but I was completely wrong. Of course there was poverty but that was the only thing I was right about. What an energetic, busy, happy place Soweto was. The people who lived there had next to nothing and yet they were all happy, smiling, singing, dancing and laughing. It really put things into perspective for me. What shocked me was that Soweto was the place to be, if you didn't live in Soweto you would come in on the weekend to party and have fun. Back home on the day we went to Soweto it was R U OK day. I think R U OK day is good to raise awareness but believe every and any day should be R U OK day, as you shouldn't need a day to tell yourself to check on your mates and their mental well being. Being in Soweto on this day has a lot of importance to me. We get so caught up in our materialistic posessions and social statuses that we forget to cherish the little things in life. These people have nothing and are some of the happiest, most vibrant people I have ever met.
One of the last things we did was check out Nelson Mandela's house. There was something special about that house, though it was nothing special aesthetically. A small house no bigger than a sea container, however the history that was held between those walls was amazing. It was inspiring to see where such an incredible man lived. The street that Nelson Mandela lived on is the only street in the entire world that has produced two Nobel peace prize recipients. One being Mandela and the other, Desmond Tutu.
Loving food as much as I do, another highlight from the day was eating at an authentic restaurant where we sampled the traditional foods and delicious cake-like bread while we were sung to by a delightful couple. Food in general is always a highlight for me but I especially love to eat like a local when I'm travelling and really get immersed in the culture as much as possible.
After such a history and culture packed day in Soweto we finally made it to our resting point for the night, AtholPlace. Such a beautiful contrast to the day we had just experienced. AtholPlace is a very intimate, elegant hotel with only nine rooms which meant they could focus on every minor detail to make sure everything was perfect. The food was incredible, the cocktails where magnificent and full of flavour and the staff were all so lovely.
Everyone we spoke to who heard we started in Johannesburg had said things along the lines of "O GOD why did you go to Johannesburg?" Im glad we started our trip here and learnt so much about the country that got me excited and ready for the rest of our trip.