When visiting South Africa most people skip Johannesburg and head straight for one of the many wildlife parks in the country. The largest city of South Africa (8 million people in the greater metropolitan area) has a reputation for not being one of the safest places in the world and has few real sights of interest for the casual visitor.
Packed first days
So why stay there when the country has so much more to offer? It’s an understandable way of thinking when you’re short on time, but if time is less of an issue Johannesburg can be an interesting place. With almost 4,5 weeks to spent we had enough time to fit Johannesburg into our itinerary. On the other hand, South Africa is a big country to cover, even with that amount of time.
So we decided on a packed first 1,5 days to do the things in Johannesburg we really wanted to do. We had arrangements made before leaving for South Africa for doing a half day bicycle tour in Soweto, a bicycle street art tour in Johannesburg’s central Maboneng district and a visit to the Apartheid Museum, to maximize our 1,5 days in Johannesburg.
We had based ourselves in Melville, a quiet bohemian suburb north of downtown Johannesburg. We were just a little bit too early to see the Jacaranda trees in full bloom, they’d just started blooming a few days before. Staying at Ginnegaap Guest House (comfy bed, great breakfast, great hosts, spotty wifi) we were close to some great places to eat and have a drink. All in all it was a perfect location to get settled into a South African rhythm after the long 11 hour flight from Amsterdam.
Soweto cycling tour
We’d chosen a local Soweto outfit – Lebo’s – to do a 4 hour morning cycling tour of the famous ‘South West Township’, that was an integral part of the apartheid system and also played a pivotal role in the abolishment of racial segregation in the 1990’s and nowadays is home to about 2,5 million people. We were supposed to be picked up at 9.15 AM from our guesthouse in Melville for the tour that would start at 10 AM.
Our pick-up only showed up a few minutes before the intended tour time, but by breaking some traffic rules here and there – speeding being the most important one – he managed to get us to Lebo’s just before the group left. Being late we got stuck with the worst bicycles however. It was all part of a somewhat wobbly introduction to South Africa. The night before our pick up from the airport hadn’t shown up at all….
The bicycle tour was great though. With only some very gradual uphill climbing, cycling is the perfect way to get a feel for the township (and way more preferred than visiting on a tour bus). Our guide Linda – in South Africa a man’s name as well, meaning precious – told our group of ten all about life in Soweto and how more and more people have moved upward in life. Shantytown shacks can also still be found though, often co-existing next to newly built middle class homes. For those who worry: Not one moment did we feel unsafe.
The tour took us past a local market, through residential areas (homes lie surprisingly spread out), to a local high school, we had a taste of mealie-meal (the South African corn maize staple) with some meat at a local shebeen (pub) and saw some of the landmarks associated with the struggle against apartheid; like Meadowlands – site of forced land removals -, the Nelson Mandela House Museum (but no time to go inside) and the Hector Pieterson Memorial named after a 13-year-old boy who was shot dead in the 1976 uprising. Regretfully we didn’t make it to the Orlando Towers, visible in the distance all the time. You need to book the 8 hour cycling tour for that (we wish we had).
Maboneng street art
Since we were on a tight schedule and our tour had returned late we had to take the included lunch into the car with us that would take us to once gritty and now hip and upcoming Maboneng, where we had the street art cycling tour scheduled for 3 PM. Being in Johannesburg on a Thursday and street art tours only being held in the weekends, Gummie Tours had arranged for a private tour for us, which was much appreciated. We’ve dedicated a separate post to this 1,5 hour tour, which you can find here.
Top of Africa
After finishing the street art tour we took a taxi to the so-called Top of Africa. We had a look around the city center first before we took the special lift to the top floor of the Carlton Center – at 223 meters the highest building in all of Africa – for some early sunset views over the city through very dirty windows (the very low entrance fee obviously doesn’t cover window cleaning….).
The next day our guesthouse host brought us to the Apartheid Museum in the morning so we could enter as soon as it opened its doors at 9 AM. Driving out to the museum we had a nice chat about life in South Africa. Two hours later we were met again for the transfer to Oliver Tambo International Airport, where we’d pick up our rental car for the first part of our road trip through South Africa.
Two hours isn’t much for the Apartheid museum, since it requires a lot of reading. But we came prepared. Before we left home we’d downloaded a learners book for elementary school students from the museum’s website about the history of apartheid. This we read on the flight to Johannesburg and gave us the necessary background to comprehend the exhibits without needing to read all the information panels.
The museum was very interesting (but no photography allowed inside) and really is a must for every visitor that wants to have a little bit of understanding about South Africa’s recent history and present-day society.
We visited Johannesburg in October 2016