Trip to South Africa - Easter 1997
|Please note that
I have been to South Africa several times since this trip report was
written. You can find a
report from Johannesburg here and you can find a
better Cape Town
trip report here. Please get in touch on
you have any questions.
This review of Joburg is a summary of my three trips to South Africa and Johannesburg (or Joburg as it is often called). I guess it is a bit different from my other travelogues because this is more based on the impressions that I'm left with after going there in 1997, 1998 and 1999.
I didn't not go to Joburg as an ordinary "tourist" because I met up with an internet friend...a friend that would become my wife but that is another story :-) The first thing I did when I came to the airport in Joburg was to go to the toilet. When washing my hands I saw this sign urging people to save the water because it is "precious to mother Africa". I come from Norway and most of the time water shortage is not a problem around here (it rains quite a lot in western Norway :-). When I came out of the airport I discovered that Joburg wasn't that much different compared to a typical American big city: you have large highways, a downtown where you don't hang out too much, big malls in the suburbs etc.
My wife and her family lives in the outskirts of Sandton area (the northern suburbs of Joburg). I guess this community is typical for many other communities in Joburg: you have your concrete house and around your property you have a big fence. And the house has bars in front of the windows and in front of the door to make sure that intruders can't get into the house. Again this was a little shock for me because I'm used to having a little hedge between the neighbors and people are not very worried about people breaking in. The high fences around the properties with matching barb wire/electrical wire and signs with "Armed response" or "Watch dog on patrol" gave me a negative impression of Joburg and my wife thinks that I haven't had an open mind when describing Joburg in the past. But it was quite a change for me to come from little Stavanger to the big city Joburg and see all this. But I have to add that I have not experienced any crime in South Africa yet but I guess I have tried to be in the right places. But I have to admit that I was a bit worried because my wife would tell me horror stories about car-jacking, about people being robbed and so on. The only time I experienced something was when I was taking out some cash from and ATM machine in the Rosebank area. I had trouble getting the card into the machine and this guy came over to me and said that he was going to help me. Instead of putting the card into the machine he hid the card inside his hand and he was very good at it and I didn't see it. But my wife had experience with this so she told him to stay put and show us his hands. We did get the card back and he didn't make any problems. There are also some other images that have stuck to my brain. One day we were driving down the freeway and an open truck drove past us. It looked like the truck was moving something (furniture etc.) and on top of this was a person with a shotgun to protect the load. I also remember going to the bank one day. My wife was picking up a new credit card or something like that and we had to go into a bank in the Sandton area. Well, to get into the bank we first had to go through one door. Once we were in this lock and the first door closed behind us, we were allowed to enter the second door to get into the bank itself. I was also surprised to see that many shops (mainly jewelry stores) had bars in front of the door (even in some shopping malls) so you basically have to ring the doorbell to get in.
I also got to drive quite a lot in Joburg while I was there and there is obviously one thing that is different in SA compared to Norway: they drive on the wrong side of the road :-) Well, you can debate if it is the wrong or right side of the road but they do drive on the left side of the road and it takes a few minutes getting used to. But I was surprised that it didn't take more than that...just a few minutes and I was driving through the streets of the suburbs (with a little help of my wife of course :-), using my left hand to change gears and so on. The roads in Joburg are in pretty good shape but (as always in big cities) there is a lot of traffic work. There is always some part of the road that are being modified or improved. But the highways (or freeways) are big and the speed limit was a 120 km/h when I was there the last time but most people drove faster. And lots of people are being killed in traffic each year I'm afraid. We also drove all the way from Joburg to Cape Town, a trip that is about 1400 km long. And it is a loooong drive of course but again I have to say that the roads are in pretty good shape and people signal if they would like to pass you by flashing their lights. Talking about cars: in SA and Joburg there are people that puts petrol on your car while you just stay in the car. This was another new thing for me because at home you have to do everything yourself. Here in Norway gas stations make more money selling normal groceries and hot dogs and they can hardly fix your car anymore. But in SA it was the car that was in focus. People would fill gas on your car, check the water, and clean the front window and so on.
Another image that I'm stuck with from Joburg is the red soil that seems to cover the area. Whenever I saw people digging I would see the red soil being exposed. Here in Norway we have a dark, dark brown soil so it is quite different. And in Joburg you also see these big heaps around in town and they are of course leftovers of the mining industry. Joburg itself is located right on top of what is (or at least used to be) a very good gold vein and there has been a mining industry here for quite some time. I did get to learn a bit about this history when I went to Gold Reef City. Gold Reef City is a small theme park built around the mining industry in SA and you can even go down in an old gold mine for a tour. As I said the park is a bit small so it is not enough to fill a whole day but I thought it was great to get into a real gold mine and learn some of the history.
When I first met my wife by accident on the internet I asked her what it was like to live in SA and what the situation were like when it comes to the relationship between the white and black community. I also assumed that she was white but I was of course wrong :-) She belongs to the colored and I was a bit nervous on how people would react when seeing us together. The first time I went to SA was in 1997 and I can't remember seeing that many other "mixed" couples and we did get quite a few looks both from white and black. But the last time I was there (in 1999) I felt that it had become better and I do think I saw several mixed couples. I guess this is something that will change gradually as the years go by. If I'm not mistaken it was strictly forbidden for whites and black to be together in the apartheid period. At one gas station a white guy (one of the people that were filling petrol on cars) came up to me and asked me if the lady I was with was my girl friend. I got a bit nervous (from listening to my wife's horror stories :-) and I gave him a vague answer. I think that he understood this because he smiled and told me that he also had a black wife and that he had been beaten up because of this.
As I said the downtown area of Joburg is not a place where you go. As I understand it there is not much to see or do there. But recently I saw this story on BBC World about downtown Joburg and apparently they are trying to get people back to downtown. To try and fight crime lots of cameras has been put up and the police monitor the whole area.
If you drive around (and outside) Joburg you will see that there is a gap between the rich and the poor. One the one hand you have the people described above with the house and their big fences and on the other hand you have "squatter towns" right outside town. People try to make a living in different ways of course. It is very common to see kids running around cars at traffic lights trying to sell different items. I was walking around in the Rosebank area and this one guy came up to me and asked me for money. He said that he picked me because I had a friendly face compared to all of the other people that were just rushing by ignoring him. I guess he says this to all the people he stops :-)...but it worked because I did give him some of my money.
I had a lot of good stuff to eat while I was in SA. The South African seems to love to barbecue or have a "braai" as it is called here. And one of the best things around to put on the barbecue is of course the boerewors. The boerewors is a sausage with great taste. I'm not sure how to describe it so make sure you try it if you go to SA. And the hottest food I have ever tasted was found in SA. One night we went out and we decided to go to a pizza place. We ordered the "Indian Fireball" and it was HOT. I like Indian, Thai, Mexican food and so on but this pizza was really HOT. I think I had two pieces and then I had to give up. Instead I went over to cold coke and Norwegian milk chocolate to cool down my tongue.
Most people are familiar with Sun City. It is located a bit out of town and it is quite strange to drive in the dry environment and all of a sudden you reach something that looks like an oasis. As I can remember there were not that much on the way out to Sun City but when you get there you will find big hotels, casinos, a water park and so on. We had playing around there for a day and we even went to see a Bill Cosby show there.
Did you know that Johannesburg is located at 1769 meters (5804 feet) above sea level? Well, I assume that the answer is "no" and I can only say that neither did I. When I first went there I didn't have that many thoughts on what the weather would be like. I have to mention that I have been to South Africa in the period between February and April. The weather in Joburg was pretty nice in my opinion. It was a bit cold in the mornings and the evenings but in the middle of the day the temperature was nice.
I like playing mini golf and it have more or less turned out to be a tradition to play when I travel somewhere. And one of the best mini golf courses I have ever tried is located in South Africa. If I'm not mistaken it is located at the Fourways Mall and it has three different 9-hole courses (27 holes all together) and it is great fun. Talking about malls: my wife also took me to different malls in the area. I have already mentioned Fourways Mall but we also went to Randburg Waterfront and to the "king of malls" (at least according to my wife :-) Sandton City. Sandton City is huge at least compared to the Norwegian standard. You have lots and lots of shops and like the American malls you have your food court and cinema.
Well, I hope that I have been able to describe a little bit of Joburg and the life in SA through this review. As I mentioned earlier my wife thinks that I have been too negative when it comes to Joburg in the past. We hope to go to Joburg again in 2002 and we will try to get more around in Joburg itself. I still haven't been to Soweto and I still haven't been on a safari in the Kruger Park. So there are still many, many things to see and do in this great country.