Travel Journal

Johannesburg, South Africa

(Monday 21 February 2011) by Mike and Julie's sort of round the world trip
Day 178-186 1/30-2/7/11
We arrived at the bus station in Manzini and quickly found a bus to Jo-burg. It was the same set up as the one we used to get to Swaziland. Immigration was a breeze and we continued on to downtown Jo-burg. We had decided to stay at Gemini Backpackers on the ride over since it had free internet which should keep me busy for the week; but we had no idea where it was. After getting out at the long distance bus station, we wandered around for awhile asking for help but no one seemed to know the area the hostel was located at. A taxi driver called for directions and told us the better known neighboring community and offered to drive us there for thirty dollars but that was just too high. Armed with a better location, we found a mini-bus that drove to that area and got in. I had put the coordinates into our Garmin but because we don’t have the street maps for So. Africa, the GPS unit will just give directional information. When we felt the bus was past the hostel and going in the wrong direction we yelled out to stop and exited the bus.
This is where Julie and I discovered what a township was really like. We jumped out and started walking with our backpacks in Alexandra which is a pretty hardcore shanty town. The people seemed nice and it was around 1 PM so in full daylight and we worked our way out to a major street bordering the township with no problems. A nice lady offered us a ride to find our hostel telling us it was too dangerous to walk in the area. She drove us about twenty meters before we arrived at the hostel. They had a double available and we took it sight unseen as we were too tired to try and find another place that day. The room was okay though we transferred to a shared bathroom the next night but back to the first room the following night when we found that none of the electrical outlets worked in that room...
We spent nine nights at the place. There were some long term renters staying in tents or in the dorms that showed us the ropes: How to get around town using buses, where to buy beer, where the hidden washing machine was, and so on. Julie cooked most of our meals there as there were no restaurants close by and we saved quite a bit of money doing this. The major downside to the place was the amount of dirty dishes stacked up from the guests who wouldn’t clean them and the frequent power outages. We were told at first when the lights went out that it was a city problem but they later admitted it was a problem with just the building which was finally fixed on our seventh day there. It was rather frustrating as I would try and download a TV show for Julie which would take a few hours and finally with ten minutes left the power would go out cancelling the download. Here’s a picture where you could usually find me along with a friend we met there called Sean. The snooker table is the second most popular spot at the place.
We signed up for a Soweto tour with the hotel which included the Apartheid Museum. That was our first stop and we spent a few hours there. I really like how they laid out the exhibits here. They didn’t try and cram in too much which allows one to stroll through the rooms and reflect on the exhibits. We drove past Nelson Mandela’s current house which was lined with news reporters as he was currently recovering from a hospital stay. We also passed the Foundation he created. We went to Soweto (short for SOuth WEst TOwnship) which was originally a community set up for the black mine workers to live outside the city limits. There are divisions within the township which show the upper, middle and lower class still living together with a strong sense of community. The tour passed the cooling towers which a local bank donated money to have them painted. This was another scene from the Amazing Race where a team crossed the towers but I did not want to repeat this. We drove past the house of Bishop Tutu and the ex-house of Nelson Mandela who lived on the same street which is the only place where two Nobel Prize winners lived so close together. We stopped in at the Hector Pieterson Museum which honors the child killed during the protest of schools forcing the curriculum to be taught only in Afrikaner. This was not a single incident as hundreds of students shot by police or agents of the police over several weeks in the seventies. I had never heard of this and indeed the government had managed to keep it well hidden from the world.
We had a buffet lunch at a very nice local restaurant in Soweto and almost ate an embarrassing amount as the food was that good. We finished our tour with a stop at an area of Tin Houses – houses made of corrugated tin and wood where people have lived for years trying to get into government housing. These were not like we had seen in Alexandra as these are long term residents that have done the best they can to build, maintain the shelter, grow vegetable gardens, and try to improve their situation. The tour by the local was a bit force though asking for money to be donated to the family we visited, the community overall, and support the local shopkeepers. Regardless, it was an enlightening experience.
The major activity in town seems to be shopping. There are plenty of malls around to spend time at and we did our fair share at a couple. We found a bank at one that would exchange the Mozambique money we had left over, we had Julie’s birthday dinner at a restaurant and saw the movie “Black Swan” which is a rather odd movie, I replaced my hiking shoes which have been on many trips around the world – sob. I also looked for an IPod classic but they don’t seem to sell them here. I had hoped to buy one at a duty free shop in the Johannesburg Airport but they didn’t sell them there either.
We did make it out to the Bruma outdoor market which several people recommended but it was slow there with about half the booths closed and most shops sold the same junk. Julie had gotten a football (soccer) jersey downtown and was hunting for more but couldn’t haggle the merchants down to a good price. Across from the market was the Chinese Market which is an indoor collection of small stores which we spent a bit of time walking through before returning back to the hostel.
We spent one morning at the Museum Africa, which is in wonderful old building. The geological section is very kid-friendly but with some interesting tidbits for adults. There is also a section on photography and a special exhibit on comic strips from South Africa.

One of the reasons we chose Gemini was for the free pick up and drop off at the airport. We left them the information on our return flight and told them we would call when we arrived back and got a driver to take us to the airport. I had called the Jo-burg office of Air Madagascar to arrange a domestic flight at a discount since we were using their airline to fly into the country. They could only let me pay by bank transfer (not going to happen) or if I took my credit card to their office (too much of a hassle) but said I could pay for it at the airport. I asked my contact there about it and he said he would check on it. An hour later I checked back and he still didn’t have an answer but said he should have one before our flight left seeing as it had been delayed five hours. We went through customs and it was not possible to go back through to check at the counter. I saw my contact as we were boarding the plane and he apologized because it had been hectic and he would forward the information to Tania about the flight info. I told him I hope so as our flight was the next day! The cabin door was sealed and we were out of there.

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