It’s fine, Mum. I promise.
When I told my Mum I was going to South Africa (or, more accurately, screamed at her – I was really excited) the first thing she said was: “Don’t go to Johannesburg!”
My response? First, crazy lady (poor Mum, she’s not crazy at all, she just loves her daughters, but I was in my early twenties so… you know) I don’t really have a choice on account of Jo’burg being the ONLY airport to fly into from Australia. And secondly, I have no control over the itinerary since it’s a junket so you’re just going to have to deal.
I should also admit, here, that up until this point I’d been a smartarse who’d actually taken pride in travelling to places that gave my Mum anxiety. I was a shithead. And I fully expect my kids will return some of that karma (I’m really not looking forward to it).
Anyway, so I knew Jo’burg didn’t exactly have the best of reputations, but if the nation’s official Tourism Board was taking us there, I trusted we’d be fine. And we were.
Jozi is full of big, bold characters; of smiling faces; and of the kind of history that takes your breath away. This incredible metropolis can only be understood through experience.
*Note: to make sense of my experience, bear in mind that my time in Jo’burg was actually split in two: one night on the way into the country and one night on the way out. But we managed to cover a lot in that time.
Getting there (and away)
Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International is serviced by flights from every continent bar Antarctica and is one of the main African hubs. It’s clean and secure, but I tell all my clients to allow extra time as it can be a bit of a rabbit-warren and there are often extra security checks.
Nice and rested after the Qantas Business Class service from Sydney, I found disembarkation really straightforward. However, I was pretty unnerved when heading to baggage claim, and the signs read “to Firearm Import/Export”. Getting out of the airport to meet my transfer was a bit hectic as it wasn’t particularly well-signed and the group got a bit lost (bear in mind, our group leader was flying there almost monthly at that point, so it wasn’t due to lack of experience).
On the way back, I got caught by the extra security checks and had to race through immigration. Over the course of the trip, though, we encountered these extra checks in Cape Town and Durban too. It’s just something to be aware of throughout the country.
Once in, we chilled in the Shongololo Lounge before our flight back to Sydney. It’s not a huge lounge but it provides comfier seating, more space, snacks and WiFi. There are six Premium lounges of which Shongololo is one; you can purchase passes on the airport website if it’s not included in your ticket (it was for us thanks to Business Class).
I know, of course, the safety concerns people have when thinking of Jo’burg exist for a reason. So I won’t take the piss and pretend it’s for nothing.
When I first arrived, I was waiting for our transfer car and, without thinking, I left my handbag on top of my suitcase and turned my back. Our group leader was so quick to remind me to keep my valuables on me at all times, I couldn’t help but wonder what we were in for the next couple of weeks.
There was actually only one time I felt slightly unsafe though, and that was driving through Hillbrow on a tour of the city. Hillbrow is a rough inner-city neighbourhood that was once part of the vibrant CBD but is now dilapidated and fairly sketchy. But honestly, I think part of the issue is always when you’re told you should feel unsafe. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to get out and walk around, but I was also specifically being shown the rougher parts of the city.
I think the key is this: yes, there is a crime problem (as there is in many huge cities), but the same safety rules apply everywhere. Don’t make yourself look like a target (easy-to-grab handbag, flashy jewellery, one-too-many alcoholic beverages), travel in groups, practice situational awareness and steer clear of dimly lit streets. Keep the doors of the car locked. If you’re following these rules of thumb, the risks are far fewer. Admittedly, I think to have someone in our group who was really familiar with the city really helped us. So if safety is a concern for you, it might be worth linking up with a group or a guide.
Places to stay
Close to the airport is a complex called Emperor’s Palace. This is where we stayed the first night – it’s like a tiny little Vegas. It’s unreal. It’s a huge entertainment complex with a casino and a bunch of restaurants (such as Tribes, in the picture above) all shooting off from the surrounding hotels. In fact, there was an underground tunnel that connected our hotel, the Peermont D’Oreale Grande, to the complex itself. Shuttles are constantly running between the complex and the airport.
I thought the D’Oreale Grande was gorgeous; it is, admittedly, ostentatious, but if it wasn’t it would look out of place in the complex. For itineraries that feature one night in Jo’burg before flying onwards, it’s perfect. Great food, hospitable service, a beautiful pool, and a whole bunch of entertainment on your doorstep if you want it.
In Sandton, my group leader really loved the Michelangelo Hotel. It backs right onto Nelson Mandela Square and rooms are about $400/night; we had a quick look and it was lovely. I’ve booked lots of clients here and all have raved about it.
I stayed at the Crowne Plaza in Rosebank, which is a few suburbs south of Sandton (towards the city). It definitely doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi of Sandton but it’s clean, easy to navigate and felt safe and homely. I was able to walk around comfortably on my own and enjoy the experience. The Crowne Plaza itself is an excellent business hotel just a few steps away from the mall. There are also a whole bunch of places to eat and drink close by.
Out and about
The Gautrain will take you straight from the airport to the city, making many stops depending on your final destination.
The shopping in Jo’burg is excellent. Sandton City Mall (right next to Nelson Mandela Square – photo op in itself) is my pick. I also picked up a few things at Rosebank Mall, which is more lowkey, since I was staying close by. Rosebank also has a cool African Craft Market.
I don’t think any visit to Jo’burg is complete without a tour of Soweto. This is the Township you’ve undoubtedly heard about if you know anything about South African history. Nelson Mandela’s house is a huge attraction here. For something different, book a Soweto Cycling Tour. The other absolute must-do is the Apartheid Museum, but I have to warn you – be prepared to feel a lot of things (and that’s why it’s a must-do). If museums are your thing, Johannesburg has plenty of others too – try the Origins Centre or Lindfield Victorian House Museum. And if you have the time, get out to the Cradle of Humankind. This World Heritage Site is about 50km out of Jo’burg so it’s something you need a bit of time for, but if you can it’s worth it to see the richest site of hominid (human ancestor) fossils in the world. If that’s your thing… it’s definitely mine!
For something a bit more relaxing, Moyo Zoo Lake is a lovely spot to sit and contemplate everything you’ve experienced. Enjoy afternoon tea by the lake and take a moment to marvel at this beautiful green space in the middle of this gritty metropolis. This was, for me, the perfect spot to end my trip before flying home.
Well, that was a lot of words for 48 hours. Have you been to Johannesburg? Share your tips below!
Cover image by Paul Saab / flickr
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