African City Vibes
My work brought me again to South Africa this year – first we were scheduled for Johannesburg so I thought to take the weekend before and explore the city a bit. I wanted to find out if this city is really such a dangerous place as everybody tries to tell me. In most of the SA tourism itineraries Johannesburg is only the flight hub and is often left out for any sightseeing, so I wanted to see if this city has really nothing to offer. And what to say: there is actually a lot to see inside and around Jo'burg plus I could feel the vibes of a very cool and developing place. So yes Johannesburg is definitely worth to stop by.
As my previous trip to South Africa also this one was booked through my well trusted agency Royal African Discoveries (www.royalafrica.co.za) – Johan and his team are always keen to give you a tailor-made program away from the main tourist streams with high quality services. All their suppliers are handpicked, so I can really recommend booking with them.
My hotel in Johannesburg for the weekend was the Garden Court Sandton Hotel (www.tsogosun.com) – a nice, convenient city hotel with a small outdoor pool and centrally located opposite a huge entertainment complex called Montecasino with a shopping mall, many restaurants (among them Trump Steakhouse (eh, well the steaks are good despite the name!) and Hard Rock Cafe), hotels, casino and so on. So you do not need to move far from the hotel to get entertained and as Johannesburg is not the safest city to roam around at night, that is super convenient.
If huge hotels are not your thing, then I can recommend a very nice B&B, where I was staying with our team during our business days. The St. Andrews Garden B&B (www.st-andrews.co.za) – is a lovely family runned guesthouse tucked away in a beautiful green and lush residential area. Rooms are spacious and you really feel home away from home here. Upon request they also cook you a delicious dinner.
First day of my private "Explore Johannesburg Tour" I was picked up by my great guide Mthandeni – at least this was the name mentioned on his name tag and which was the tourist friendly version. Mthandeni is a Zulu and the Zulu language involves some tongue clicking phonetics, which for a foreigner sound really weird and there was no way I can remember or speak his name in the correct Zulu pronunciation. Mthandeni – I am really so sorry for that, I tried hard!!! Maybe in my next Zulu life :-) Another main feature of the Zulu’s is their height – as lots of them are really tall, so was Mthandeni – meant I had a rock beside me with who I felt really safe and was ready to jump into the darkest streets of Jo-burg – ok, I admit we haven’t gone that far!
So first on our tour we passed by the later house of Nelson Mandela and had some nice scenic stop close by for some pictures over the area.
After we drove to Constitution Hill (www.constitutionhill.org.za) – which is a kind of living museum as it used to be the place of a prison and military fort. You can learn all about South Africa’s troublesome way to democracy here. Best I liked the glimpse into the Constitutional Court – it has a real African feeling with its flags and animal furs.
Then we proceeded to some more history with a visit to the Apartheid Museum (www.apartheidmuseum.org) of course what you see there is hard to digest – but I think it is a must visit on every Jo’burg tour. Everybody should know about this grim history and I find that it makes you understand the country and its people better. It is the story of over 20 million people turned into 2nd class citizens and their liberation through Nelson Mandela, the prisoner who became president. Pictures are not allowed in the museum and you should calculate at least 2 hours as you can get some very detailed information there. The week before my visit Winnie Mandela passed away so there was also a small memorial hall and a condolence book for her at the museum.
The afternoon was dedicated to more pleasant things and to a city which is slowly turned by its younger citizens into a trendy urban place. The Neighbourgoods Market (www.neighbourgoods-market.business.site) is one example of these new additions to a vivid city life for locals and tourists alike. This food market is located in a former office building in vibrant Braamfontein. On two floors you can indulge in delicious local and international foods and later have a drink on the upper level terrace. A DJ is playing chilled vibes there and some stalls are offering local handcrafts. This market is taking place every Saturday and should not be missed to spend a relaxed afternoon. I had a super nice Paella from tutto food who are also doing delicious toasties (www.tutto.co.za) together with some berry mixed cocktail - yummi!!!!
Safety: the areas that I am describing here are in general safe to go – but still remember you are in Africa so try to mingle in and don’t play the typical tourist. Leave big cameras at home as well as big hand bags, large amount of money and jewelry. With a little bit of pre-caution you will be totally fine. Also stay on main roads and avoid small, dark alleys or remote places. All common sense – but still worth to repeat :-)
Another new and creative area that is coming up is Maboneng (www.mabonengprecinct.com). Between old warehouses you can find a mix of restaurants, coffee shops, clothing boutiques, art galleries and studio spaces. Inner-city public, a chic suburban art going crowd and tourists are all united in this place. If you are here on a Saturday don’t miss the Skyfood Market on top of the 12 Decades Hotel (www.12decadeshotel.co.za), which by the way is also a nice place to stay if you are looking for something different. Also a pleasant courtyard space is Canteen - where you can sit under olive trees and enjoy some drinks and food plus have a look in the local art spaces around.
Last place of this kind that we saw was 44 Stanley (www.44stanley.co.za) – the most established precinct and a bit more sophisticated than the previous two. In shady arcades you can experience downtown urbanism. Go on a shopping tour in some of the independent stores, try delicious fair trade coffee @ bean there (www.beanthere.co.za) or have lunch in one of the green courtyards between what was once a series of industrial buildings. Very urban and very Johannesburg!
My second day of sightseeing brought me first to the famous suburban metropolis of Soweto, home of around 3.5 million people. Most visitors that are familiar with South Africa will have heard that name. This place is mainly referred as the most famous township. My first impression when we reached there was very different from what I have expected – it looked more organized and “wealthy” than I had in mind. Maybe I thought more of the Brazilian favelas or Indian slums – in Soweto the main areas are covered by the old “matchbox” houses or four-room government houses that were mainly built for the black workers during Apartheid. In between you can always spot some better houses built by some wealthy Sowetons. So the overall impression was rather positive and I felt safe walking the roads around here.
After we have passed Africa’s largest soccer stadium which hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final and is now nicknamed the “Calabash” for its resemblance to the African Pot – we reached the outskirts of Soweto.
We first stopped by the house of Winnie Mandela – whose funeral was just the day before. So her house gate was still covered in a sea of flowers. Winnie Mandela has been worshiped from many, however was also a controversial person with some dubious history. If you are interested in her story you will find that at the Apartheid museum as well.
In Soweto we visited the Nelson Mandela House (www.mandelahouse.org) which is nowadays a nice little museum as well as the Hector Peterson Museum (www.joburg.org.za) – another grim part of history as you will see how the rise of the tragic riots led to the death of Hector. In Soweto you can also stand on the only street in the world that housed two Nobel Peace Price winners – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Nelson Mandela House
Hector Peterson Memorial
Churchgoers in the Streets of Soweto
At the end of the tour through Soweto we also stopped by a shanty town, which resembled more my initial idea of Soweto. I know that all tourist groups on a Soweto Tour will get to see such a shanty town – and I must say I have mixed feelings for that. On one hand yes I have to admit I was curious as well, however it just feels not right to step in the houses and invade their private space – well, houses is a bit exaggerated as they are only shacks made of plywood, metal, sheets and plastic – however inside they were surprisingly clean and organized. On the other hand your guide will ask you to give them some donation with which of course you help that family. So I think everybody has to make his/her own decision if you like to go there or not. If you want to take pictures do that discrete and if you want to photograph people ask their permission first. Of course I had my rock Zulu beside me, but even without him I would have felt quite safe there – heavy weapons are not so common in the townships here as you see them vastly in Latin American slums.
With this our city program came to an end and we drove out of town to experience also a bit of country life. A visit to the Lesedi Cultural Village was scheduled for this afternoon. The village consists of a number of different traditional villages. You will get to know to 4 different tribes and their traditional culture: the XHOSA – with their beautiful thatched homes and red blankets; the ZULU (Mthandeni's tribe :-))– with their fighting sticks and cosy beehive huts; the PEDI with their rhythmic drums and the SOTHO with their conical straw hats and sturdy mountain ponies. You will first get some traditional welcome ceremony, followed by an introduction movie and then the walk through the different settlements guided by one of the tribe members – who was in our case a real funny guy and could have been a comedian (somehow he reminded me of Eddie Murphy :-))
Welcome to Lesedi
At the Zulu Village
At the Sotho Village
At the Xhosa Village
At the Pedi Village you can try some traditional meal made out of worms - I wasn't brave enough for that adventure.
At the end of the tour you see the cultural dance show .
Lunch reflected the different traditional cookings from the different tribes - touristfriendly without cooked insects :-)
Once again mixed feelings on this experience. Of course it is purely touristic and I would call it an African Tribal Disneyland. The guides and actors try hard to preserve the culture of their ancestors which of course is a good thing, but somehow you can’t neglect the feeling that they seem to be in the wrong place, especially when modern bras and sport shorts glimpse out under their traditional tribal cover. But still you learn a lot about their culture, the dance show at the end is colorful and the served lunch authentic and good. I would not mark it a must see, but if you are in the area and have some time left for sure it is nice to visit. More interesting maybe is an overnight there – as you can choose between houses in the different settlements. That’s for sure an unique experience (www.aha.co.za/lesedi/).
The hotel part for those who like to stay overnight
Last a recommendation for a relaxed dinner in a bit different venue in Jo'burg – Moyo is an African themed restaurant beside the Johannesburg Zoo in a lush green park. If the weather is nice you can zip on delicious cocktails on their terrace and indulge in traditional African cuisine – very yummi and super nice vibes (www.moyo.co.za).
Further attractions in and around Johannesburg to check out:
Lion & Safari Park www.lionandsafaripark.com
Monkey Sanctuary www.monkeysanctuary.com
Elephant Sanctuary www.elephantsanctuary.com
Aerial Cableway Hartbeespoort www.hartiescableway.co.za
Gold Reef City Entertainment Park www.tsogosun.com
Free Walking Tours www.nielsentours.co.za
Cradle of Humankind Maropeng www.maropeng.co.za
If you are looking for some cheap hostel accommodation check out www.curiocityhostels.com
As I had an exhibition to attend in Cape Town my time for private excursions was very limited. So the main interesting things to see you will find on my previous main South African Blog. However some few new things here to recommend:
I stayed at the Park Inn by Radisson Foreshore (www.parkinn.com) – which is very convenient for all visitors to the convention center as it is in walking distance. For tourists the hotel itself is nice as well with modern rooms and best is the rooftop bar and a tiny swimming pool on top with spectacular views on Table Mountain. However I must say that the area around is quite abandoned at night, so I did not feel comfortable walking around the hotel in the later hours. Thus I chose to use a taxi to go to the Waterfront or other areas from the hotel.
On my only free day I did a tour with one of the red double-decker city tour busses (www.cightysightseeing.co.za) like in other major cities this company is running various hop-on/hop-off routes plus additional services as boat or helicopter tours. They also organize longer day tours out of the city plus walking tours in the center and through a township.I went for the Blue Line which will bring you to some famous wineries and you can spend some relaxed time at the beach in Houte or Camps Bay.
My personal highlight was the visit to the Groot Constantia Wine Estate (www.grootconstantia.co.za), where you can take nice walks around the winery and of course do great wine tastings and have some delicious food in one of their restaurants like for example the Jonkershuis.
Another good place to go off the bus is Houte Bay for a nice seafood lunch and a beach walk on the fine white sands of the Bay. The docked fisherman boats and the green hills surrounding the Bay are a very picturesque scene.
A more sophisticated and hip crowd you will find in Camps Bay with many chic restaurants and bars ideal for some sun-downers.
With all that culinary stops en route I have to admit that I made it back to the hotel a bit tipsi - lol :-) you can also end the tour at the famous Waterfront for more restaurants, bars and entertainment.
A final restaurant recommendation which is a bit of a bizarre place up hill is the Bombay Bicycle Club (www.thebombay.co.za).Cosy and totally over-decorated it is a fun hang-out where you can get a tasteful cross-over cuisine. They call themselves a wacky Bohemian love den where everything is possible - so be ready!
Cape Town and me we are in love!