Johannesburg, very often called “Jo’burg”, city of contrasts and inequality… or how did I have a cultural shock as I just arrived in South Africa. Be careful, beginning of this round-a-world trip on the Bleeding Edge!
Welcome to South Africa
After moving goodbyes (and I weigh my words) with some of my most precious friends and relatives, I am ready to take off for a one-night flight. 4h later, first stopover in Cairo. As we fly over the city, I notice that it seems to keep on blinking everywhere. I understand once we get closer for landing, that it’s actually the public lights that seem to be working with troubles!
Just some time to get a salad at the airport (no vegetarian meal with Egyptair, I had not anticipated that!), then it is time to board for the second – and longest – part of the trip. I sleep intermittently, but I sleep (thank you my friends for this last party before leaving that made sure I would be tired!), we land in Johannesburg in the morning with the most tasteless breakfast plate.
First Visa tamponed, backpack recovered, local Sim card bought, train to the city centre quickly found and very safe… all of this sounds good and those first steps are quite easy!
Bang! Back to reality.
I get down at Park Station, the central station close to my hostel and go light-heartedly to look for it. But I take the wrong exit and find myself in the Central Business District, a district that is all but recommendable. I get accosted from all sides; feel that everybody is staring at me, as if “TOURIST” was written in bold on my forehead. A policeman arrests me and asks where I’m heading. He has immediately understood my situation and warns me: 5 minutes more in here and I’ll get robbed from all I have. Not even time to understand what’s happening and I am in this car, driven straight to the hostel! (We can now laugh about this story but I am really grateful to him from avoiding me a situation that could have turned bad from the very first day…)
The hostel is very design and contrasts with its neighbourhood. While taking a coffee to recover from my emotions, I have a little chat with the waiter about this incident. He is of course not surprised and gives me some tips to be more careful (using my phone only in a shop instead of the street, taking as much Uber as possible…)
Uber is your friend
I intend to go to Melville to have a walk and lunch there. This district is indicated as safe and rather “bobo” by the Routard. This will be my second fail of the day! Distances from one district to another in Jo’burg cannot be compared to what we know in France. All the districts are linked with main roads composed of 3 or 4 lanes that can be compared to motorways. These no man’s lands are absolutely not appropriated for strolls; the only pedestrians that you meet are people begging at the traffic lights… not really reassuring! It doesn’t take me long before heading back to the hostel: I really don’t want to ruin my trip from the very first day…
I’ll then go to Melville with an Uber, whose driver definitely convinces me of how dangerous her city is. For her, it is not only worth considering walking alone, even during the day and even more on a Sunday, when it’s quieter.
I take some energy with a huge pasta plate in a Portuguese / Mozambican restaurant recommended by the Routard (very generous proportions for very little prices!) and notice that even this district that is described as safe, doesn’t seem to be that secure…
As Jo’burg’s streets are not appropriate to stroll alone, I take another Uber to go to the Apartheid Museum, located in the South of the city. 3 little men in the Routard, it looks like a must-see! Indeed, I will spend three hours there, visiting the temporary exhibition on Nelson Mandela and the permanent one, that tells all about the discovery of the gold mines, the birth of segregation and all the steps of Apartheid, up to Mandela’s election in the 90’s.
This museum is really rich and dense, with a very intelligent organization and scenography. It’s difficult to get a perfect understanding of all the conflicts that agitated South Africa over the last century but it’s a very touching immersion deep into this story that is still so recent. Essential to understand all the sufferings of these people that were oppressed for all those years, and why so many inequalities still subsist.
A last Uber to come back to the hostel (I’ll never have made so many Uber rides, that takes the biscuit!), some quick shopping to get something to eat tonight (a girl working at the hostel comes with me so that I don’t go out alone), and here comes this first South African day to an end.
The cultural shock will have been immediate, a strange mix between the kindness and the richness of the talks I had with all the people I already met, and this very oppressing feeling of insecurity once in the street. Not even necessary to mention that I didn’t use my camera today, except at the museum. I knew that Johannesburg was one of the most dangerous cities in the world but I was innocently thinking that it was rather at nightfall – and I think the Routard itself is quite optimistic in its descriptions of the districts and their safety.
As another Uber driver explained me, we have to forget our European vision of the cities: the further you go from the city centre, the more expensive and safe it is to live, whereas the city centre is more dangerous and not very residential.
However, it is exactly the city that I imagined regarding the architecture: a heterogeneous mix of high concrete buildings, in a general brown / red color, same as the sand that covers the road and pavement. We will see if I get a chance in the future to visit Soweto, the sadly famous township of Joburg (not to visit without a guide).
I am more than eager to discover deeply this so interesting country that is also really welcoming. Next step not far from Knysna, where I start a volunteering project in an organic farm!
TIPS & PRACTICAL INFOS
Once In Joburg: Very design and friendly hostel, well equipped, with beautiful facilities, efficient WIFI and a very welcoming staff. Be careful with the neighbourhood, far from being the safest in Jo’burg.
Night in a 4-bed girls dorm with en-suite facilities: 230 R – 14,35€
Airport – City centre: The Gautrain is a direct train that is very safe and goes fast, without 120 and 170 R depending on the destination – From about 7 to 10€
For the rest, even if I love walking, count on Uber! Jo’burg doesn’t really have common transportation, instead of minibuses that you shouldn’t try before knowing how it really works.
Food & beverage
The Immigrant Bar, adjacent to the hostel – One coffee: 22 R – 1,30€
Nuno’s: Portuguese / Mozambican restaurant with a shady terrace and very small prices for a family and generous food. Pasta plate with vegetables and cheese + water: 120 R – 7,50€
Apartheid Museum: 85 R – 5,30€ for the free visit. 20 R – 1,20€ for the audio-guide (not tested)