Feeling trapped in Johannesburg.

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We stopped over for lunch on the side of the road. Soliwe had already informed us about the infamous Beitbridge so we expected the worst. I heard stories from other travellers who were stuck there for 15 hours so I thought the same thing would definitely happen to us. Trapped in an endless chaos. All that crowd and traffic on the border control. I experienced this once back then in Costa Rica, I remember in that very hot day when we waited for a while to cross border to Nicaragua. It took 8 hours for us to do so. The least I expected was spending two and a half hours in Beitbridge. I guess it was just our lucky day.

 

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Tshipise

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Group photo.

We continued further into the Limpopo Province. By late afternoon, we stopped over in a small resort town called Tshipise for an overnight stay. The following day, we drove south along the Great North Road. The tour officially ended in Johannesburg. We said our goodbyes and I took a taxi further into the eastern part of the city. I was on my own once again. Completely alone in South Africa’s largest city known for its high crime rate. Many people have warned me to stay away from J’oburg. A friend from France once told me that he felt much safer in Kruger National Park. He actually visited the city eight months before me. He was robbed on the way back to his hotel. Then I met a Namibian who also had a bad experience. When I mentioned South Africa as my last destination, he told me to skip the city because it was too dangerous. He never fancied being held at gunpoint and it happened in a mall. I was not going let these people discourage me.

Accomodation in the city is plentiful so I ended up choosing the one with the highest rating, mainly the Curiosity Backpackers, which is located in the vibrant cultural neighbourhood of Maboneng Precinct. I was glad that I made it to the hostel safely. The plan was to stay in the city for at least two nights. I originally intended to fly to Cape Town right after the tour. But I decided to stay despite the risk.

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View of Fox Street from the balcony of Curiosity Backpackers.

The neighbourhood seems quite safe due to the presence of several armed security guards patrolling the area. The Fox Street was the only street I could walk around without worrying. The rest was be avoided. The hostel also offers some organized tours. Among them was the Soweto tour and Kruger National Park. I’ve had enough of game drives already so I ended up choosing the Soweto.

 

The Soweto

By 10am, a local guide picked us up from the hostel and driven to the starting point of the tour. On the way, our guide gave us a bit of history lesson. The name “Soweto” is an acronym for South Western Township. A melting pot of South African urban culture. A place so rich in history of the struggle against the apartheid. It has the most populous black urban residential area. How the Soweto became established is linked to the discovery of gold in 1885. Many people from around the world, as well as South Africa migrated into this area to seek their fortunes or jobs. By early 19th century, there were already hundreds of goldmines in the area. As the industry developed, so did the need of workers increased. A bubonic plague occurred in 1905, which led to relocation of the first residents into an area called Klipspriut (later renamed Pimsville). The City Council used this as an excuse to establish racially segregated residential areas. Under Prime Minister Jan Smuts, the government passed the Nature Urban Act. This enabled the government to relocate the people. In the early 1930s, the number of blacks increased probably due to forced removals in the countryside & the great depression. In 1931, black people were relocated to Orlando, the place that would become the first township of Soweto.

FNB Stadium

FNB Stadium

First stop was at Nasrec. We were there for a few minutes to get a glimpse of Africa’s largest stadium, FNB stadium. Also known as “Soccer City” and as “The Calabash” due to its resemblance to a traditional African pot. It served as the main venue for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It is also famous because this is where Nelson Mandela made his first speech after his release from prison.

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From the stadium, we ventured through the large mine dumps. These were large mound of sands making it look like landfills. The area served as a reminder of the gold industry that brought the development of Soweto. Soweto is quite large and is home to almost 4 million people. On the way, I immediately noticed the contrast of the place. There are fine brick & concrete homes, with garages and fenced in yards. In other areas, are small shanty homes surrounded by piles of trash.

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Next stop was at the Bara Market where we had lunch with some locals. Cow jowls were served on a table. And the pap, which is a very thick porridge corn meal, was served on a tin plate. The guide instructed us to take the pap in our hand. Roll, dip in salt and then grab a small piece of meat before putting it in our mouth. My thoughts were “Did they ever clean that table before chopping the meat there?”. I tried to think of something else and hoped that I would not get food poisoning. It was a very good lunch combined with a small cup of flavoured chicken soup.

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The coolant towers, also known as Orlando Towers, are prominent landmark for Soweto. Built in 1951 for the coal-fired power plant and decommissioned in 1998. Nowadays both towers are painted. One is use as a billboard for advertising. While the other one showcases the largest mural painting of the country. Both are also use for bungee jumping from a platform between the top of the two towers.

 

Among the iconic areas in the Soweto is the Vilakazi Street in Orlando West. It is the only place where two Noble Peace Prize winners lived. Desmond Tutu and former president Nelson Mandela. We stopped for a bit outside the house of Nelson Mandela. Which is now a museum. It was little bit crowded so we decided to skip it and head to the Hector Pieterson Museum.

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Visiting the Hector Pieterson Museum was somehow sad & provocative at the same time. Inside is a full coverage of the uprising. This museum was opened in honor of a 13-year-old student, Hector Pieterson, and the rest of the students who were killed during a peaceful demonstration. The museum is not far away from where the police opened fire on students on 16 June 1976. In that day, hundreds of students protested against the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in township schools. The student uprising, now referred to as the Soweto Uprising, marked a decisive turning point in South Africa’s history.

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The Shack

We visited the Shack afterwards. One of the few remaining shebeens. There I drank chibuku for the first time. It’s a traditional African beer disliked by many for its horrible taste. It has a weak porridge consistency and tastes like sour milk. But chibuku is obviously more than that. A cultural phenomenon here I guess. The beer is made from sorghum or maize. And this recipe has been around for centuries. Shebeens originally began as illegal drinking spots. In the 1960s, blacks were unable to buy liquor or bottled beer. However, they could drink traditional beer. Many people started home brewing their beer, which led to continued raids by the authorities. Nowadays, shebeens are more like a typical neighbourhood pubs.

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Apartheid Museum

Apartheid Museum

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Last but not the least was the Apartheid Museum. I’m not exactly a museum type of person. But this is one of the few which I find interesting enough to visit. There is so much to see. So much reading to do. I could have stayed whole day. Some exhibits had to be skipped because we had limited time. This museum was included in our tour so we actually had 2 hours left before heading back to the hostel. There was also one particular section I was interested in, the Mandela exhibition. Unfortunately, that place was temporarily closed to the public. The Apartheid Museum is supposed to be a beacon of hope. To show the world how South Africa is coming to terms with its oppressive past. Based on what I have observed, little has changed after the regime.

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I was nervous before coming here. J’oburg is regarded as one of the most dangerous cities on earth. But I’ve already been to many dangerous places so why skip this one? I survived Honduras. I survived Bolivia.and even Colombia. I have to admit that my time was too short. The city is truly a fine urban destination even though it has safety issues. J’oburg is not a place for sissies. There were times when I felt trapped as it was not recommended to walk freely from one place to another. Especially from the hostel to the Park Station. It’s all thanks to organized tours, I was able to see certain highlights of the city. I had mixed emotions the day I left for Cape Town. I wanted to stay a few more days in this vibrant city. There is so much left unexplored. A trip in South Africa is not complete without visiting J’oburg.

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7 thoughts on “Feeling trapped in Johannesburg.

  1. T. Michelle says:

    I’m glad you weren’t scared away by all the negative talk about Joburg. During my last visit, I also stayed at Curiocity Hostel for a few days. They do a fun walking tour of the Maboneng precinct and it’s a great way to see all of the re-vitalization efforts there. I really enjoyed the Arts on Main market on Sunday with fresh food, art and people enjoying the city.

  2. Cynthia says:

    It’s good to be warned and therefor be careful but in the end you have to follow your gut feeling and I’m happy you did. I remember being in Johannesburg 16 years ago, all the houses were fenced off and the crime rate was already very high. Still, it’s worth to visit and experience the city! Your trips sounded very interesting as well. The history of South Africa is quite something! I lived there for a while when I was a teenager and it opened my eyes a lot! Very interesting post!

  3. Joe says:

    Yes I can see what you mean by feeling trapped when you’re advised to stick to well worn travel paths for your own safety; I guess when it comes to places with a notorious rep like this one it can be hard to feel like you’re truly immersing yourself in the vibe of the place. But props to you for giving it a go and ignoring the naysayers, which can be difficult to do…

  4. Thank you for this post! South Africa has been part of my list to travel to as well. Your observation confirms my readings about the country. There is really a wide inequality and travelers can easily see this. Still, I hope you had fun! I will include curiosity backpackers in my notes when I go to South Africa.

  5. Well you learn something every day! I had no idea that Soweto was short for South Western Township. Thanks for another interesting post.

  6. What an experience, this would have been a definite step out of my comfort zone had I been! I want a taste of that Chibuku!

  7. Like you, I went to Johannesburg with some apprehension. A guided tour of Soweto, by a resident, was an eye opening and disturbing experience. I thought the Apartheid Museum was one of the most brilliant exhibits I’ve ever seen. Such a fascinating place. I hope to return.

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