A day in Joburg
One of three capital cities, and home to over 10 million people, Johannesburg (or Joburg as the locals call it) is South Africa's largest city. In many ways it is also South Africa's most important city as it is the economic and industrial heart of this fascinating nation. It is a culture vulture's dream come true, with a vast number of intriguing museums. It is also one of a million stories, and as you walk the streets (yes, it is safe to do so in many areas) you know if they could speak they'd be able to tell a tale or two. In the evening there are a surprisingly high number of neighbourhoods to keep you occupied, each with a good selection of restaurants that are great value for money and bars too. And while you may have heard mixed reports about Joburg, many of which that were far from complimentary, take it from us - give this city a chance and you'll be glad you did.
I was surprised by the lack of information about things to do in Joburg and by the amount of negative comments I have heard about the city from everyone that has been there before. Reading the rosy reviews such as the above bit from HostelWorld and similar articles on TripAdvisor, combined with the fact that the whole world was 'watching' the city during the world cup, I was eager to give the city a chance.
My rosy picture started to fade right away at the airport - my primary debit card kept getting declined at multiple ATMs when I tried to get some cash so I could pay for my transfer to the hostel. While not really Joburg's fault, that was just the beginning. The MoAfrica hostel was one of the highest-rated in the area so, even though it looked to be a bit far from the city, I decided to stay there. It turned out to be really in the middle of nowhere, in a compound surrounded by fence with barbed wire with absolutely nothing close by.
I arrived together with two guys from Netherlands and we have negotiated an afternoon tour of the city with a visit to the apartheid museum for a decent price. It took us good 30-45 minutes to drive to the city and another few minutes to reach the museum. While it was not a large building, the information was organized to maximize the space available and one could easily spend a day there digesting everything. We went through it in about an hour and a half and that was enough for us.
After the museum, we went on a driving tour through the downtown Johannesburg and our driver would not stop pointing out how bad and unsafe it is, how there are no white people living downtown now and how most of the buildings are empty and up for rent. The highlights of the tour were the visit to the Top of Africa building (the tallest in Africa) with an observation deck on the 50th floor, 248 meters/804 feet above ground, and a quick stop at the Constitution Hill to check out the old fort, turned prison, turned museum. After a tour like this, we definitely did not want to spend any more time in the city. One thing that surprised me was that everything was in English and everyone spoke English, even though there are three African languages that are also being spoken in the country.
Back at the lodge, a few more people have arrived including a girl from New Zealand spending six weeks in southern Africa and a guy from the US at the end of his three-week-long trip of South Africa. We grabbed a couple beers at the hostel at 20 rand each ($2.30), which did not seem too bad to me, but Sean told us that it was the most expensive beer he has had, even a beer at a rugby game was cheaper. On top of that, the staff at the lodge kept refusing to drop us off at Joburg for a reasonable price without a tour. At last, we decided to venture out of the compound on our own to try and find some groceries. That also took us a while and we had to tell them that we are just going to walk a few hundred meters up the hill and come back.
They finally let us out, but their dog went with us and once we got to a road at the top of the hill, the dog started running on the road, almost getting hit by cars. At that point the last thing we wanted was to get their dog killed so we turned around and went back to the lodge, had some (overpriced) dinner and called it a night since I had an early pick up for my safari the next morning and the rest of the folks were going to head out to Soweto (on a tour, of course). I gave Joburg a chance and, in the end, was glad I only spent one day there.
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