I’ve been sitting on this post for so long because it’s been difficult to articulate what I experienced in South Africa. Every time one of my friends asks me about it, I sigh deeply before telling the few stories I have – not because I didn’t enjoy myself, but because the time was entirely too short and it felt like a dream. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to put together a two-part summary of the trip my mom and I took to Johannesburg, South Africa!
Day 1/Day 2: NYC-AUH-JNB, Arrive at the Soweto Hotel
I didn’t realize just how far South Africa was – it took us a total of 18 hours to get there! We flew Etihad Airlines, the national airline of the UAE, and boy, do they know how to treat their passengers well. Though the flights were long (12 hours to Abu Dhabi and 8 hours to Johannesburg), they were incredibly enjoyable with a vast selection of movies (I watched Birdman, Paddington, Moulin Rouge, and some other Nicole Kidman movie) and tv shows (I discovered the Mentalist), as well as THREE robust meals and two snacks. When I say robust I mean complete meals with non-European portions, that were so full of flavor I gobbled it all up! We left on a Monday and arrived in Johannesburg on Tuesday evening, where we were met with free airport WiFi (why do US airports think this should be a fee-for-service??) and our hotel driver. We stayed at the Soweto Hotel, which you can read more about here.
Day 3: Soweto Part I, Gold Reef City, Origins Centre, Braamfontein, Gandhi Square
Since my mom and I had never been to South Africa before, we decided to spend a good chunk of our time sightseeing, so we bought two-day City Sightseeing passes for one of those double-decker tour busses that are in many major cities. The Red Bus tour package had an option for a Soweto group tour that was cheaper than what the driver from the Soweto Hotel quoted us, so we chose that, but oddly it only departed from Johannesburg so we had to drive there first. On the way, the driver told us a bit about Soweto while driving by some sights. I got my first glimpse of the Orlando Towers, from where I planned to bungee jump before I left the country! We also passed the Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, which is the third largest hospital in the world (the first two are apparently in China, though the driver said they were in Japan). This facility stretched for what I would call blocks (NYC pedestrian, sorry!) and blocks, though Wikipedia says it spans 173 acres. At least we knew if we happened to get sick there would be a bed available for us somewhere.
We eventually approached Johannesburg, saw it’s BEAUTIFUL skyline, and then reached Gold Reef City, one of the main departure points for the tour bus. Though it’s now an amusement park/casino, this beautiful building and grounds used to be a gold mine, and if you go to the museum portion you can see how real gold is poured. My mom and I just enjoyed the scenery, because we wanted to go to Soweto! However, by the time we figured everything out, it was too late to join a Soweto tour so we decided to hop on the tour bus that was going back to Johannesburg.
I have terrible memory, so I forgot most of what I heard through the little headphones on the bus, but there is so much rich and diverse history in South Africa! We drove by the Mining District (Johannesburg is also called the City of Gold, because of its mining history) and Newtown, which I only remember having a World of Beer. Our 2nd hotel was near this area so we didn’t get off the bus to explore. We did stop at the Origins Centre, located at Wits University. Random – my boyfriend’s sister got her law degree at Wits! Anyway, the Origins Centre is essentially an archaeological and history museum, because the university’s department discovered fossils in what is now known as the Cradle of Humankind, a bit outside Joburg. My mom and I aren’t ancient history or fossil buffs, but we went to the museum because we knew we wouldn’t have time to visit the cradle.
After the Origins Centre, the next stop was Braamfontein, a hip area where mom and I grabbed something to eat, our first non-hotel South African meal! Unlike East and West African foods, South African grub – at least from what I saw – is super meat heavy, and pretty basic. I’m not sure if it’s the lasting Dutch influence or if it’s really just regional differences, but I had to put aside my weekday veg life because the options were chicken, beef, steak, or ribs lol. My burger was just alright, but I enjoyed people watching because everyone had all the swag! Man, there were kids beat boxing in the middle of the Grove, street art, stylish threads, I mean, a hipster’s dream! If you’re going to visit this area, the best day to do so is on a Saturday because there’s a huge, bustling open market. Sadly it was a Wednesday when we visited so our experiences were limited.
After Braamfontein, we hopped back on the bus and drove past a bunch of sites, including Constitution Hill, the site of one of the famous prisons during apartheid and the location of the Flame of Democracy. We didn’t hop off because I thought we’d be able to come back and visit, but sadly, there just wasn’t enough time. It’s on my list for must-see places the next time I visit. Next stop was Gandhi Square, and I was surprised to learn that Gandhi was an influential civil rights lawyer in South Africa before changing India. Gandhi Square is in the Central Business District of Joburg, so we saw a lot of people getting off work, and kids getting off school. With my expert direction skills/senses, I navigated us back to our hotel from Gandhi Square, about a 15 minute walk, where we retired for the evening. We stayed in the Mapungubwe Faircity Hotel in the Mining District, which I’d highly recommend as a hotel if you want to be within walking distance of downtown Johannesburg. Later, we went out in the rain for some food at Sophiatown Bar/Lounge and it was the best food I had in my entire stay. So flavorful! The restaurant had wifi so I managed to call an Uber to bring us back to our hotel for a grand total of $2!
Whew – that was just half the trip! Stay tuned for Part 2 of my journey to Johannesburg!