South Africa - Part I: Johannesburg in Three Days

How did it all happen?

Have friends that will jump on flight deals with you.

Have friends that will jump on flight deals with you.

Early on in 2016, I made it a personal goal of mine to start visiting the great continent of Africa. As much as I travel the world, I honestly felt a little guilty for never visiting the Motherland.  I changed that last April, when I booked my solo trip to Egypt.  You can read about my times in Cairo, Aswan and Luxor at your own leisure.  Full disclosure:  I wrote about Luxor months after the trip because…I lost motivation after the tragic results of the U.S. election.  Anyway, I did understand that because of the massive size of Africa, I was going to need to visit a lot more countries on the continent to get a better feel for its awesomeness. Then, a flight deal popped up on my phone (I may or may not have all of the travel deal blogs’ tweets pushed to my phone and Apple Watch) to Johannesburg, and I hopped on it.  Typically, round trip flights from New York City to South Africa can run you anywhere between $1,000 and $1,400.  This flight on Qatar Airways, however, was $650.  It was a no-brainer.  I then texted a few friends and asked if they were interested in coming along, and I briefly posted a status on Facebook with an open invite.  Note:  I deleted that status like an hour after I posted it because I didn’t want to attract people who could be annoying and possibly ruin my trip.  I had four great friends bite, and book their trips.  Shout out to my college friends, Justin and Devin, fraternity brother, Damon (who also booked the trip to celebrate his birthday), and my hometown friend, Deirdre!  As people booked their tickets, I added them to my South Africa WhatsApp group, and the planning began!

 

First night in Johannesburg, after dinner at Codfather.

 

Justin, Devin and I flew from New York and we had a seven-hour layover in Doha, Qatar.  Our initial plan was to take advantage of the free city tours offered by Qatar Airways, however it’s first-come-first-serve, and by time we got up to the counter, they only had one seat left. PISSED!  So, we had major time to burn.  We went to the food court and had a meal (nothing to write home about), and then, since I’m a Priority Pass member, we went to the Al Maha lounge to chill out. After watching part 2 of the New Edition biopic, a little bit of the Rent stage play, and just taking advantage of all the free food and spirits, we were boarding our connecting flight to Johannesburg, where we’d meet Damon, who flew from DC, and Deirdre who arrived later from Virginia.

Let's get this trip started!

So, the logistics…

We tapped Kearan Fourie for his tour guide services, and he also offered to pick us up from the airport to take us to our AirBNB.  The house we rented was actually located in the Westcliff area of Johannesburg.  It was a guest house, and was directly adjacent to the private pool. The owners were extremely nice, and they even had a beautiful golden retriever named Shelby who would occasionally come up to our glass door to greet us and play.  At the end of the trip, we found out Shelby was a therapy dog and it made total sense because she really did make all of us smile every time she popped up…even the time she walked in the place, snatched one of my socks and ran outside to lay on her back, forcing us to play with him for a bit before giving it back.

You wouldn’t believe how many times we were told that we were staying in the very uppity and gentrified neighborhood.  I wanted to holler, “WE GET IT!” The place was super nice and affordable...and we were comfortable.  This was a vacation, dammit!

When we weren’t being escorted around the city with Kearan and his driver, Marlon, we used Uber (which was very cheap) to get around.

What we did…

On Day 1, we settled in to our place, caught up on a little sleep, while waited to Deirdre to arrive that evening.  For dinner, we met with Damon and I’s frat brother, Niyi, who is a current resident of Johannesburg at Codfather.  Again, it was a fancy area…we know.  We just went where we were invited and weren’t disappointed.  The atmosphere was extremely nice, and the customer service was also exceptional.  One of the managers brought us to the fish counter to show us all of the fresh selections we could choose from.  Because the wine and spirits were extremely cheap, we took advantage.  Four bottles of wine and a few cocktails later, we were ready to go out.  Niyi recommended this spot called Harem.  We took car service there and paid R200 (about $22) to get in and headed right to the bar.  We stayed for a couple hours and danced, but around 2AM, we left because we had a 5AM call time for Day 2’s activity, and we were all pretty low on sleep.  Note:  As we were leaving, many people were just arriving because we could clearly see that the party was just getting started. 

Fresh fish display at Codfather in Johannesburg

 
 

On Day 2, Kearan and Marlon picked us up at 5:00 AM and we started our 3-hour drive to the Pilanesburg National Park for a safari.  “OMG!  Africa is not just about pride lands, animals, and such!”  SHUT UP!  WE KNOW!  WE DO WHAT WE WANT, AND WE WANTED TO SEE SOME ANIMALS (who were not being held captive in a zoo).  There was torrential rain and horrible flooding as we got closer to the reserve, and though Kearan and Marlon were determined to get through all of the water, and assured us that we would enjoy the safari despite the rain, a few of us were pretty discouraged, over it, and ready to go home.  As were were driving through the streets, we were seeing so many homes ruined because of the flooding, cars covered in water and people walking through the knee-deep water.  Finally, they figured out a route to get us safely to the reserve, and as soon as we entered, the skies cleared and our moods were immediately listed.  The only rule we were told as we rode through the reserve was, “Don’t be stupid.”  We kept our hands in the van at all times, and we didn’t dare get out for pictures.  All you would have needed was to get out of the van because you dropped your phone or something, and Mufasa or Whoopi Goldberg, and her hyena crew to jump out of the greenery and make you into a surprise brunch entree.  

The park is HUGE, so we were riding around for a few hours and we were not disappointed with what we saw. Since these animals are in their natural habitat, and this was not a zoo, it’s not always guaranteed that you will see certain animals.  We saw almost everything we wanted to see, though.  We spotted everything from hippos to rhinos off in the distance, to having a male lion walk across our path and stay right beside our van for a few minutes before moseying off into the distance. There was even a time where a couple zebras were in our way, playing on the dirt road.  I’d highly recommend you all go on the safari with Kearan. Aside from him knowing any and everything about South Africa, he is so well-versed on all of the animals that you’ll see.  We probably got on his nerves relating everything back to the Lion King, but hey...it was a staple in all of our childhoods...sue us! LOL!  Also, his eyes are able to spot animals any and everywhere on the reserve.  Book him!

After eating a meal, we headed back to our house, and rested for a bit before meeting with my friend Darnell, of Passport Required, for dinner.  I really wanted to have a meal that was not as commercial as the ones we had been having, so he recommended we meet in Maboneg at a place called Pata Pata, and enjoyed a meal along with some live music.  After dinner we walked around the corner and visited the Agog Gallery and rooftop bar, where will chilled for the remainder of the night. We were happy to support this black-owned establishment. Again, remember, drinks are a lot cheaper than they are in the states, so…enjoy!

AGOG, an art gallery and rooftop lounge located in Maboneng.

On our final day in Johannesburg, Kearan picked us up at 10AM, and we went on a four-hour tour of Soweto, which is the largest neighborhood in the world.  Soweto, short for “Southwestern Townships” is very…diverse…to say the least.  We started off by stopping and watching someone bungee jump from the twin towers.  Now, I’m all for adventure, but I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I’m willing to dive toward the ground with nothing but a glorified rubber band tied to my ankles.  We’ll see, though.  Anyway, we visited drove through a number of middle-class areas of Soweto, and then we got out and walked through one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the neighborhood.  Because these were people’s homes, and they were clearly there going about their days and watching us be tourists, I didn’t take any photos.  It didn’t feel right.  We all felt pretty awkward walking past their homes, because we felt very invasive.  However, the few who spoke to us seemed very happy to be having black Americans visit them.  There was one little girl, who couldn’t have been more than three or four years old who greeted every one of my friends with a bright, “Hello!”

We then headed to the Oppenhimer Tower where we were able to get a full panoramic view of Soweto.

You can see almost all of Soweto from the top of the Oppenhimer Tower.

After having lunch, we went to our final destination, which was the Mandela House.  When we walked in, we saw a lady who had a striking resemblance to Nelson Mandela, himself.  Come to find out, it was one of his sisters, and she was the one who gave us the tour of the place!  Before she even started speaking, I was thinking, “Oh, I’m gon’ get me a selfie!”  Anyway, the tour took about 25 minutes, and she knew her stuff!  The house is so small, but there is so much information and cool artifacts packed in there. It’s definitely a must-see if you visit Johannesburg.

After the tour of Soweto ended, we headed back to Maboneng to shop at the Market on Main.  I wasn’t so much excited about shopping, as I was about tasting some of the food there.  We haven’t really been eating much South African cuisine, and I was determined to do so whether my friends liked it or not.  So, while they were walking around and shopping for bracelets or whatever, I sauntered on inside to the food market and picked me up some grub.  No regrets.  Satisfaction!

After the market, we headed back to our AirBNB, and took naps.  Translation: I didn’t wake up until the next morning when it was time to head to Cape Town