I was pretty lucky with my flight from US to South Africa. From Chicago to Munich, and from Munich to SA, I had a row of seats to myself, which, although it did not help with my perennial difficulties sleeping in the air, it did make the whole experience a lot more comfortable than usual.
Johannesburg International Airport
Johannesburg international, or Oliver Tambo International as it is formally known, is about the most un-African airport you could ever hope to find in Africa (because it works). My journey through customs and immigration, which can be very difficult anywhere else, was smooth, quick and trouble free. The next stop was the Avis desk. I picked up my hire car and was out on the Joburg freeway system in less than an hour.
Thats when things do tend to get a bit scary in South Africa. With all of this ostensibly developed world infrastructure, it is easy to imagine that this is a safe and easy city, but the fact is that Johannesburg is an edgy, wild and extremely dangerous place. It is known as Egoli, or the City of Gold, its raison d’être little more than the gold of the Rand mines, and capitalism in its purest and most unadulterated form. Crime is endemic, and a generally f**k you attitude is pervasive everywhere.
The Backpackers Ritz
Joburg is a hard, tough and unyielding place, evidenced by the walls with cut glass edges, the spiked fence and miles of razor wire that surrounds the perimeter of the Backpackers Ritz backpackers lodge in the swishy Dunkeld, or Hyde Park neighborhood of Johannesburg. I opted to stay at the Ritz because of economy, but also for old-time-sake. This in the old days was the heartbeat of the Africa overland industry, and over the years I have picked up and dropped off many groups of tourists en-route either to the Cape, Victoria Falls or as far afield as Nairobi. Many a good thrash has been held at the Ritz, an old castle-like structure that at one time was the home of some minor member of the European aristocracy, but now is a slightly depressed establishment run by three brothers whose fortunes have certainly seen better days – this, I must add, being because of the European and US recessions that has hit the travel industry across Africa very hard.
Johannesburg Country Club
One of my missions while in Joburg was to connect up with Pat Armstrong, the last commanding officer of the Selous Scouts Regiment of Rhodesia, and the subject of one of my books. We shared an extremely enjoyable lunch at the Johannesburg Country Club, a little bit of a throwback to the grand old days of yore, and something of an anachronism, but nonetheless very enjoyable. While I waited under the great oak tree for my host to arrive I was entertained by the conversation of two elderly white ladies, obviously preoccupied with older days, discussing the British public school and university system, with evident reverence for the days when that meant something. It was a unique little experience that reminded me a little of my own roots (my old Dad was nothing if not a British style club man), and the fact that the Empire is still alive and well in pockets of South Africa.
From there it was on the road, battling with festive season traffic down the excellent N3 highway east out to the KwaZulu/Natal coast. There, amid the heat the humidity, and the almost impossibly green hills and the holiday atmosphere of the beach side (the SA South Coast has often been described as Southern California in the 1950s), it was time to take a breather before heading north up to Zimbabwe, and Africa proper.
A Few Useful Facts
- Johannesburg has tons to offer and there is lots to do. Don’t be afraid of its reputation, but rather make sure that you see what is to be seen in the safety of a reputable guided tour, which can be arranged at the reception desk of any decent hospitality establishment.
- There is a wide array of hospitality options available in Johannesburg. Most offer an airport transit, so book in advance and make the relevant arrangements.
- South African backpackers lodges are a fantastic way to plan a long range trip. They are cheap, safe and well organized. You can find out everything that you need to know about your onward destination here, other reputable backpackers lodges, safety information and anything else you might need to know.
- Johannesburg is a dangerous city, but the rules of caution should apply. Do not wander around the city at any time alone, and certainly not at night. At all times remain connected to your group or tour leader.
- If you are traveling independently make sure you use a reliable taxi, suggested by your hospitality establishment, don’t flaunt your valuables.
- Remember, HIV/AIDS is rampant in South Africa, so wrap up your good buddy in rubber, or insist that your new friend does.
- South Africa has fantastic health facilities, but health insurance is vital