We woke up early this morning to catch the red tour bus that we booked last evening. Usually I am against taking your buses, but due to the nature of Johannesburg Andrew and I both thought it would be best if we didn’t wander the streets on our own.
Steven dropped us off at what South Africans call “the black taxi stand”, and we proceeded to ride one of the little old white mini buses into the city center. I guess some tourists have issues with taking the local transport, but after four months in Africa Andrew and I have become very acquainted with it.
We arrived at Park Station after a short 30 minute bus ride (I say short because most of our bus rides in Africa have been much longer). The city of Johannesburg actually reminds me a lot of New York City or London. The buildings are tall and compact and the majority of them are home to not only businesses on the bottom floors, but apartment buildings on top. The difference between Johannesburg and those cities lies in the number of abandoned buildings that occupy the city center. Many businesses and families are unable to pay their taxes and are therefore kicked out of their dwellings. Glass windows are broken, doors are rotting, and old clothes and pieces of furniture litter the streets.
That being said, Johannesburg is actually a very beautiful city. After our red bus tour we can definitely speak to its beautiful for ourselves.
At park station we hoped on the red double decker bus (just like the ones in London) with a few other people and began down the route. Johannesburg operates a series of 5-6 buses that continue on a circular route around the city making stops every 30 minutes at different stations. The red bus gives you a good opportunity to see a lot in a short amount of time.
Our first stop was at Ghandi Square, a place that honors Ghandi’s impact on South Africa and the world. Did you know that Ghandi actually lived in South Africa for 20 plus years before he returned to India and eliminated the caste system? Ghandi and Mandela were actually good friends and both of them experienced racial segregation and violence during their time in South Africa. Ghandi was actually kicked out of his law office during his stay in South Africa. I have been lucky enough to visit Ghandi’s home in Mumbai and see just how honored he is in India. In South Africa, people love him just as much.
Our second stop was at the Carlton Center, home to the tallest building in all of Africa. We rode the lift to the 50th floor or what they call the roof of Africa. The view of Johannesburg from the top was amazing and the historical photos and artifacts that lined the walls around us were very interesting. Johannesburg was a city built solely on the discovery of gold nearby. The location of Johannesburg is actually one of the absolute worst locations that a metropolitan city could be built on. The city has to pump water from 360 kilometers away just to service all its people.
The third stop on our tour included a visit to the James hall transport museum, and the fourth stop a visit to the gold mining district of Johannesburg. While we didn’t actually go inside the gold mines, we learned a lot about how gold and other precious metals and stones are extracted from the earth. While the gold mines around Johannesburg once gave the city the name “the gold city”, most of the mines are now empty and the debris from the old mining pits blows all throughout the city. Due to this problem, the people of Johannesburg began planting trees all around the city to prevent the mining dust from flowing freely in the air. To this day Johannesburg is known as being the largest man made forest in the world.
Our fifth stop was my favorite, Soweto. Andrew and I just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and since then we have been very excited to explore South Africa. Soweto is the township where many of the events during the apartheid uprisings took place. During Afrikaans rule (the white Dutch and English who were living in South Africa), they began to segregate people from different racial backgrounds. There were black, colored, Asian, and Afrikaans groups and each had strict rules they had to live by. The blacks (who were mostly involved in labor intensive mining) were confined to specific locations such as Soweto where they could be watched closely. They were forced to attend school in the Afrikaans language, and we’re not allowed to have certain jobs. Soon everything blew up and what we know as the apartheid struggle began.
Nelson and Winnie Mandela were at the front of this struggle from the 1950s to the 1990s. Students died (such as Hector Peterson), political activists were thrown into prison (such as Nelson Mandela), and much violence occurred (such as in the township of Soweto). We were able to visit many important sites in Soweto such as the Hector Peterson Memorial, Nelson Mandela’s home, the only street with two Nobel peace prize winners, the apartheid museum, soccer stadium, and many sites where apartheid events took place in Soweto.
Many people died, but during the struggle many people also came together in ways that no one imagined was possible. Still to this day people refuse to move away from Soweto because of the honor an pride they had of what happened there in the past. Soweto is a place where the poor mingle with the rich and the criminals live as neighbors to the priests.
I actually purchased one of my favorite souvenirs of all-time from Soweto, a globe made out of old wiring and gas cans. I discovered a little old man siting on the street corner making these globes and I decided to go talk with him. I walked away with a great friend and a “beautiful” scrape metal globe for only $5. He needed the money.
The remainder of our stops included the mining district, new town, wits university, braammfontein, and constitution hill. The tour was so informative that we decided to take the bus around another time just to listen and learn more about the city.
At about 5:00pm we received a call from Steven telling us he was on his way to come pick us up and take us to a braii and Roxy’s parents house. The best thing about couchsurfing is that you get to have incredible experiences with local people. That is the reason why I travel, and the reason why I never travel and spend my time in tourist resorts or hotels.
On the way to the Braii, Steven and Roxy took us to the top of the NorthCliff suburb to watch the sunset. The view was absolutely beautiful. They told us stories about how they would always come up there as children to have picnics with their friends. For a moment Andrew and I felt like local South Africans.
Dinner was amazing, Roxy’s parents actually taught us how to make Babotie (a very famous cape Malay meat dish in South Africa) and we enjoyed a beautiful evening in their home. We talked about business ideas, the history of South Africa, travel plans, our families, and our dreams for the future. We left late in the evening having made many new friends and with open invitations to stay with any of their family in Italy, South Africa, or Seychelles and Mauritius. The night was good.
(Below: Andrew’s post)
Unfortunately my long and lengthy post that I scribbled down on the train was deleted so I’m going to make an effort at recounting a very long and incredible day… A second time!
When Kylie and I woke up this morning we both felt immensely refreshed. After so many days of roughing it and living the backpacker lifestyle it was nice to have a hot shower, a soft/warm bed, and clean clothes. Funny how you take these things for granted at home.
As we waited for Stephen to get ready, Kylie and I prepped for the day. We had made plans to take the hop-on hop-off bus around Johanesburg since we wanted to see as much of the city as possible with our one real day in the downtown.
As I got ready I saw on Stephens countertop a documentary film titled ‘Johanesburg city of gold or city of death.’ Curious I picked it up. It was a documentary style film from the looks of it, that delved in johanesburg’s history and why it has the reputation it does. In the U.S. We hear about Johanesburg being a city of death, where violent crime rules the streets, but in Africa it is the city of gold, the place of opportunity and riches.
What we’d learn today it can be both, but regardless of reputation, you have to experience a city to understand it.
Stephen was kind enough to drop us off at the ‘black taxi stand’ (black referring to the people who take it – don’t worry, his words not mine) and we boarded a local bus into the CBD.
We were a little nervous given the city’s reputation as we pulled into an entirely black community area, but I was confident things would be just fine. An interesting side-note, there are a few ethnicities that make up Johanesburg. Whites are obviously the minority and can be white-English or white-Afrikaans people. Then there’s coloured (people like me, or Asians) etc, and then there’s black (African, Zulu, etc).
As we pulled into the downtown and disembarked just a couple blocks from park station, I realized just how much of a sore thumb Kylie and I were (we were the only white and coloured people on the street). We hurried to park station, thankfully with no incidents, to board our red city bus tour.
As we jumped from sight to sight, I enjoyed listening to the commentary over the headphones.
Johanesburg essentially is an old mining city that never died when the gold ran out. From golds discovery in 1886 the city became a bustling hub in South Africa. Despite the fact that water has to be pumped in from over 300 km away, the city is thriving and growing.
And some pretty influential people have called the city home. Ghandi had come to South Africa (Durban) to practice law and lived in the city for 20 years. During his time there, the persecution actually motivated him to begin his fight against the injustice he saw in India. Crazy how Johanesburg and South Africa played a part in history.
After swinging through Ghandi square we stopped at the Carlton tower, the highest building in Africa. The view was incredible, but the most interesting thing was learning from the guide about the taxation situation that arise shortly after Nelson Mandela came into his presidency.
Many businesses who were used to not paying taxes didn’t make the switch when the government implemented business taxes and had to close. This resulted in a massive exodus as buildings were emptied and squatters moved into the vacant spaces.
The next stage of our tour was incredible, as we visited Soweto, home of Nelson Mandela and other incredible sights.
Since I’d recently finished the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, this was a particularly meaningful stop as I gained insights to the apartheid struggle that the people faced.
Soweto was formed as a bout of bubonic plague hit the migrant workers in the area. As a result, the government took it as an opportunity to evict the black residents and implement separate locations for them. Very similar to the Indian reservations formed in the United States.
After visiting some of the sites and areas around the city we went out to Soweto to see some of the historical sites. All tied to the apartheid struggle, Kylie and I saw the hector Peterson memorial (student who was killed during the Soweto student uprising, the Nelson Mandela house, the apartheid museum, and much much more.
Our guide for the Soweto leg of the trip even gave us Xhosa names. Kylie was named Palesa which means beautiful flower, and I was named Tabo which means joy.
The entire day was incredible, and we finished it off by visiting Roxanne’s family and sharing a wonderful traditional South African meal with them. The food was wonderful and so was the dinner company.