The flying time between California and South Africa was a grueling 22 hours in length for us (not counting a 4-hour layover). We tried hard not to think how long a time that really is. To that end, we officially began our trip with a toast made with Graham Beck Brut NV, what else? We have had this delicious South African sparkling wine made in the Method Cap Classic style (South Africa’s Méthode Traditionnelle) several times. It is always delicious and just what we wanted to celebrate the beginning of what we expected to be an exciting vacation.
The five of us traveling together from California gathered at our home for the toast before our airport transportation arrived. We all enjoy wine tasting together on a regular basis. That weekly nexus is what brought the five of us together for this trip.
In all, twelve of us booked the Ultimate Africa trip through Overseas Adventure Travel. It is our second trip with OAT, as everyone calls the travel company. Others were first-time OAT travelers and one member of our group had been on twenty OAT trips! Along with its small size, one of the very nice things about this booking is we knew most of our fellow travelers before this vacation.
We left the West Coast late on a Wednesday evening and arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa on Saturday morning. The rest our group not traveling from California had arrived the day before and were enjoying breakfast when we dragged in. We all introduced ourselves and grabbed some coffee and a quick breakfast.
We all stayed at the Protea Hotel OR Tambo at the Johannesburg airport. OAT usually schedules flights to arrive late in the day with departures for Victoria Falls the next morning, but everyone in the group decided to arrive early to have a bit of rest time before departing for our safari the next morning. Our group was the last to arrive.
Arriving early also gave us the opportunity to see a bit of Johannesburg. At our request, OAT scheduled a afternoon driving tour of Joburg (apparently only tourist call it Johannesburg) that included a drive around the city and visits to the Apartheid Museum and Mandela House in Soweto. Our time in Joburg was short and this tour gave us only a snapshot of the city. I cannot offer more than our very superficial impressions of Johannesburg.
It is a city of great contrast. A very modern airport, many multi-lane highways, numerous sky scrapers, at least one enormous soccer stadium, suburbs, gated communities, open space within the city. The city and its surrounding communities are spread over an enormous area and have a population of over 10 million.
The streets of the city’s business district were filled with people, and the skyline is punctuated by many skyscrapers. In portions of downtown many large buildings are empty, the result of the exodus of white-owned business after the end of Apartheid, we were told. Other buildings have been or are in the process of being renovated.
We heard from several South Africans that Joburg is the cultural heart of South Africa. They visit regularly to enjoy that culture and soak up the vibrant atmosphere. Everywhere we drove there were lots of vehicles and lots of people walking everywhere (even on the highways, yikes!) The city does appear to be very busy.
Our first stop was at the Apartheid Museum. The modern building includes exhibits both inside and outside. It is one of the most interesting museums I’ve toured.
Every ticket purchased for entry into the museum arbitrarily classifies the the holder as either ‘white’ or ‘non-white’. You are instructed to use the appropriately labeled, and separate, entrance into the museum. It was a very tangible way to emphasize race classification, which was the basis for apartheid laws.
The museum exhibits begin by summarizing how Johannesburg came to be a racially mixed community, how segregation developed into apartheid and what life was like for ‘non-whites’ under apartheid.
Exhibits continue with the individuals who fought to impose and those who fought against apartheid. Of course the familiar name of Nelson Mandela is there, but there were many others who fought the system. The exhibits are very detailed and do an excellent job of explaining this very dark part of South Africa’s history.
The exhibits bring you out of this awful darkness to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the fall of apartheid, a new South African constitution and the 1994 presidential election which saw Nelson Mandela elected president. With the detailing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission another familiar name was present, Archbishop Desmond Tutu who was chair of the commission.
As I said, a moving and thought-provoking experience. I am very glad we took the tour.
Soweto was our next stop. Soweto appears to be a busy and crowded area with a definite sense of community. The former township includes very nice homes, some located behind gates, as well as very simple homes, and tiny box-like homes opening directly onto the busy streets.
We drove only briefly through Soweto to Vilakazi Street. The street is famous because two Nobel Peace Prize recipients lived on this street, just blocks from each other. Mandela House, the former home of Nelson Mandela is located here and just a few blocks away Archbishop Desmond Tutu also has a home.
This was the first home Nelson Mandel owned and his second wife Winnie lived here during his imprisonment.
“It was the opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own and I was mightily proud. A man is not a man until he has a house of his own.”
Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom
We walked along several blocks of Vilakazi Street and once again the street was full of people. There were busy restaurants, homes and many roadside stands selling everything from clothing to wooden carvings. It is a ‘touristy’ few blocks, but there is a definite sense of community among the residents. Everyone seemed to know everyone else.
Bally, the owner of the tour company that provided our driving tour was also our driver. He had come to Johannesburg from another part of South Africa because he believes there are better opportunities for advancement in Johannesburg. Over his lifetime he has had a variety of occupations and speaks something like seven languages. We were astounded. He said it was easy, because many of the 11 officially recognized languages of South Africa are similar. Still, seven languages. That’s just amazing.
As the sun began to set the warm afternoon turned chilly. We piled back into our mini-van and returned to our hotel at OR Tambo International Airport. That was our very brief introduction to the city of Johannesburg. Too brief, but just enough of an introduction to leave us with the desire to return for further exploration.
The following morning we departed for Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe where we were met by our trip leader and then transferred to Baobab Lodge in Botswana along the Chobe River. That is where our safari begins!