Eight reasons to add Joburg

 

 

 

 

It’s the gateway to Southern Africa: Johannesburg is the major hub for both South Africa and the neighbouring countries. Whether you’re aiming for Mozambique, Namibia, Cape Town, Victoria Falls or the Okavango Delta, chances are you’re going to have to come through Jo’Burg’s Oliver Tambo airport.

 

The Apartheid Museum: An essential stop for anyone wanting to understand South Africa’s history and present, the Apartheid Museum traces the nation’s route to racial segregation and the post-Mandela attempts to create an equal society.

 

It fills in the hazy outlines many of us have about Apartheid with a wealth of detail, and many of the videos of key moments in the anti-Apartheid campaign pack an extraordinary punch.

 

Soweto: The once notorious townships to the South West of Johannesburg have a very different vibe to them these days. There may still be shacks and enterprising streetside barbers in Soweto, but a burgeoning black middle class has decided to stay in the place they regard as home rather than flee to wealthy Johannesburg suburbs. It feels like a place of hope and pride – and one where outsiders willing to sit in a bar and talk are welcome.

 

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum: This focal point of Soweto commemorates all the children who died in the struggle against Apartheid. And, in particular, the 1976 Soweto Uprising which started after police opened fire on schoolkids making a peaceful protest. The use of video and eye-witness accounts is hugely impressive – you’ll walk around with a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes.

 

Rugby: South Africa has a ferocious love of rugby that makes even rugby stronghold towns in Britain and Ireland look utterly tame. Ellis Park is the high temple of the South African game, and turning up on a Saturday afternoon to watch a game is as genuine a cultural experience as you can get.

 

 

Football: If rugby is the game of traditional South Africa, football is the game of the new Rainbow Nation. Huge crowds pile into to watch the teams that grew up in Soweto, but have moved to bigger stadiums just outside to accommodate. The biggest are the Kaizer Chiefs – who play at Soccer City, venue of the 2010 World Cup final – and the Orlando Pirates. The fans are, well, fanatical. If you can get tickets, prepare for a lot of noise.

 

Constitution Hill: South Africa’s new Constitutional Court was put in a hugely symbolic position inside the old fort that was once used to detain political prisoners. These included Mohandas Gandhi, who formed his ideas about peaceful resistance whilst in South Africa.

 

The visitor centre of the old fort has been turned into a mini-museum about Gandhi’s early years, whilst displays go into the horrific treatment suffered by black political prisoners. Oh yes, and the court’s a pretty darned impressive building too.

 

The Cradle of Humankind: Just outside of Johannesburg are the Sterkfontein Caves, where bones of human ancestors thought to be almost 200,000 years old have been found. Nearby is Maropeng, a  high-tech interactive museum/ experience which explores where we came from. It covers DNA, evolution and a bizarre boat ride back in time. It’s fun, it’s educational – and it’s important.

 

 

 

 

 

by David Whitley

 

 

You can get the Jo'burg included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW or on our Discoverer RTW deal

See all deals via Africa here

Train

 

I can’t ever remember a night that involved quite so much shaking. I’ve travelled on long distance trains in many parts of the world and the Rift Valley Railway line that runs out of the Kenyan highlands from Nairobi to Mombasa is probably the shakiest train ride in the world.

 

I woke a couple of times thinking we’d come off the rails – and once I lay awake wondering if maybe they’d never laid rails in the first place. After three weeks of humping a camera bag around Kenya the nightlong pounding massage seems to have done me the world of good though. We’d rolled out of Nairobi in the dark – the shanties and slums just showing as patches of lantern light and smog-zones of burning garbage along the trackside. Dinner was served in the dining car and about the time we were approaching the great truckers’ haven of Athi River with its, gas-stations, beer shops and whores, we were tucking into dollops of curry and rice.

 

A waiter came around with a pyramid of sweating beer bottles on a tray and instead of risking removing a Tusker from under the heap I carefully lifted the top one – a bottle of White Cap with its label showing the peak of Mount Kenya which would be a hundred or more miles directly to our north.

 

“Old man’s beer,” jibed the friendly Kenyan couple who were taking the train journey as part of their honeymoon on the coast.

 

Our first-class cabin was basic. Even in India, it would barely have qualified as second-class but a first-class supplement means that we had it to ourselves. We slept well apart from the occasional jolting reminders that we were rattling through untamed African bush. I woke about 2am to a distinctive rattling and figured that we were probably going over the Tsavo Bridge. I’d driven this way in a hired 4wd years before and knew that this famous bridge is actually a surprisingly humble little suspension span across a river that is rarely more than a trickle. Yet this engineering job had been the greatest challenge in the building of the line. It has been called ‘the Lunatic Railway’ because it was only really a fit of pointless colonial bravado that convinced the British to build what would be the greatest railway in East Africa, all the way from Mombasa, through Nairobi to Kampala. It took two rogue Tsavo lions to teach the British bwanas (and, unfortunately, their Indian coolies) the real error of their ways. In the course of a few horrifying weeks the lions brought the might of the British Empire to a standstill when they killed and ate 38 Indian labourers. They became so brazen that in the end they would go into the tents to drag their victims out.

 

I wake just before the sun rises and staring, bleary-eyed, through the fly-screened window I can make out a landscape that is now spiked with shaggy headed palms along with the stumpy form of baobabs. The white-washed minarets of little village mosques rise above the thatched and corrugated shacks. We’ll arrive on the Indian Ocean coast in Mombasa in a few hours.

 

The odds were completely against this line ever being completed built…and these days it still seems to be pretty much inexplicable why the Lunatic Express continues to run. The long-distances air-con buses that run along Trans-Africa Highway are cheaper and faster and the dangerous little crammed matatu combis are MUCH cheaper…and probably faster still.

 

There’s only one reason why this train continues to make its lunatic run three times a week. It’s almost the same reason for which it was built in the first place: sheer inexplicable railway mania.

 

Contact Twiga Tours for details about travel on the Nairobi-Mombasa express, or for help with domestic travel arrangements around Kenya.

 

 

You can stop in Kenya with the Discoverer RTW

We also have some great overlands tour deals here

 

 

Table

 

David Whitley bites off more than his beer and pie-addled body can chew as he attempts downhill mountain biking in Cape Town.

 

You could be forgiven for thinking that Table Mountain is something of a theme park. Thousands of people go exploring on Cape Town’s icon every day, many of them fat old gimmers kept alive by a McDonalds drip. When you’ve got cable cars and buses ferrying you around somewhere, there is a tendency to consider it well and truly tamed.But try exploring Table Mountain under your own steam, and it’s altogether different. There are countless walking trails around the mountain. Many of them are steep heat-traps. It’s easy enough to get lost, dehydrated and worse.

 

 

Then there are the bikes. When I signed up for mountain biking down Table Mountain, I had assumed it would be a case of just following a nice sealed path as it slowly spiralled downwards. And, after falling off within three minutes of the descent, I realised that my preconceptions had been very wrong indeed. My experience of cycling is largely limited to nipping round to a friend’s house when I was younger and having the odd half-hearted go on my fiancée’s exercise bike while she’s at work. This CV doesn’t prepare you for going down steep scree slopes, with rocks, logs and miscreant tree roots all intent on smashing your limbs to pieces.

 

Cycling downhill over what amounts to rough gravel with numerous obstacles thrown in is largely an exercise of permanently squeezing your brakes and hoping that you’re not thrown over the handlebars. Some people may find this a thrill. I’m not one of them. I managed to survive this terrible peril with the odd graze and a lot of swearing, but then my guide informed me that this was just the test run. The next step in the torture process was going round and up again to where we started. This involved furiously pedalling through what may as well have been deep sand. Or, in my case, lugging my bike slowly through it as I trudged on foot. By this stage, my energies were being entirely channelled into creating new compound swear words.

 

Finally, we made the road for a nice bit of more uphill climbing – this time into a howling, fierce wind. Again, I managed very little actual cycling and considerably more huffing and puffing. By the time we’d got to the start of the actual descent, I was already a broken man. “There are two routes down, an easier one and a harde...” announced my guide before shooting a glance in my direction. “I think we’ll take the easier one.” Easier is very much a comparative word in this case. I faced more brake-clutching terror, and delightful though the scenery was, I was more concerned that my hands were entering a state of cramped agony.

 

We descended through forest, with often fabulous views of the city and the sea, and finally came out on a suburban road. “This is the dangerous bit,” I was told. Pschaw – I know how spectacularly bad South African drivers can be, but a nice, relatively flat road holds no fears for me anymore. If I can make it down that beast of a mountain - battered, bruised but relatively intact - I can take on the world.

 

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of Viator (Viator.com).

 

 

By David Whitley

 

Soweto

 


 

As Soweto prepares to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, David Whitley discovers how hope and opportunity are changing South Africa’s most famous township.

 

The man behind the street stall calls out to Ted. “Hey Papa, howzit?” The story of how Ted Taylor, a humble tour guide, came to be known as Papa throughout Soweto is a fascinating one. He was one of the first guides to take tourists around Johannesburg’s most notorious township, and made a point of interacting with the residents. So much so that when one of the bead sellers outside the Hector Pieterson Memorial died in 2004, he was invited to the funeral. Ted was the only white man there, and was told by fellow mourners that he was now part of the family.

 

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum are the focal points of Soweto’s burgeoning tourism industry, and they commemorate all the children who died in the battle against South Africa’s apartheid system. Pieterson himself was a 13-year-old boy when he was shot dead on June 16th 1976. Police opened fire during a peaceful protest march by schoolchildren against the new Government policy of black schools being taught in Afrikaans; regarded as the language of the oppressors.

 

Hundreds more were to die in the following weeks, but Sam Nzima’s photograph of Pieterson’s body being carried away from the mayhem by 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu went around the world. The story behind the photograph, the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the subsequent events in South Africa is explored superbly inside the museum. Videos, eye-witness accounts and lump-in-the-throat photography are used to explain what proved to be a pivotal point in Apartheid South Africa’s history. The Pieterson photo showed the world that the reports coming from the government-controlled South African media weren’t entirely trustworthy. International pressure and sanctions increased, leading eventually to the new, integrated South Africa in 1994.

 

As I emerge after a thoroughly absorbing hour of stories I was too young to take in when they originally happened, Ted returns to the story of the bead seller he befriended. “That was Mbuyisa Makhubu’s mother,” he says. “Mbuyisa had to leave the country after the photo was published. He went to Botswana, then Nigeria where he is thought to have died. “People asked his mother why she came to the memorial every day, even though her son was almost certainly dead. She replied that she is a mother, and she would keep coming until she saw her son’s body with her own eyes.”

 

Such sad stories are what many people come to Soweto to learn about. They come to see the bulletholes in the Regina Mundi catholic church, and they come to look at the often appalling living conditions. It’s no wonder that tours of Soweto have gained a bit of a distasteful reputation as being like a visit to a human zoo. Ted Taylor prefers to focus on the positives. We drive past desperate shacks in what are essentially shanty villages, but Ted points out that these are disappearing fast. “Look at the modern housing behind it,” he says. “These are the new homes that people in the informal settlements are being moved into.”

 

He also raves about the entrepreneurial spirit of the Sowetans. Unemployment is high, and there are no government unemployment handouts. But, Ted points out, many manage to create work for themselves. He points out shipping containers turned into takeaway food outlets, canvas shelters utilised as Sowetan-style hairdressing salons and a wooden hut between two schools selling stationary. “These people have a strong sense of pride,” says Ted. “Even the ugliest of shacks will be spotless inside, self-policing keeps crime levels surprisingly low and even though the black middle classes have the opportunity to move out, they want to stay.”

 

And some of those black middle classes have, via a series of extensions, built themselves rather swish houses. Those of Winnie Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are pointed out on most tours, but Ted gets most pleasure in driving down roads where self-made taxi magnates, car dealers and electrical firm owners have well-to-do homes.

 

Other signs of the new Soweto are obvious to see. The two towers of the Orlando West power station – which used to supply white Johannesburg with power whilst the residents of Soweto had no electricity – are now brightly painted with murals, and a bungee jumping company operates from the top. Elsewhere are gleaming new churches, large shopping malls and international brand name stores. But the biggest symbol of hope and prosperity is one that will be seen by billions in June this year. The Soccer City stadium technically lies just outside Soweto, but in everyone’s eyes it belongs to Soweto rather than Johannesburg.

 

In June, the hugely impressive red and yellow behemoth will host the world’s biggest sporting event – the football World Cup final. The scenes that will shape the world’s view of Soweto in 2010 should be vastly different from those of 1976. And Papa’s family is looking forward to its turn in the spotlight.

 

 

 

 

By David Whitley

Sani Pass


David Whitley makes his way from South Africa to Lesotho along one of the world’s great roads.

 

 

“Welcome to Haemorrhoid Hill,” says Elias as he prepares to shake and shudder us up yet another stretch of brutally dispersed rubble. “If you didn’t have them before, you will have afterwards.” Elias is driving us up the Sani Pass, one of the world’s highest, toughest and most spectacular roads. In just over 22km from the Sani Pass Hotel to Sani Top, the road ascends 1,307m. Almost 1,000m of this climb is in the last 8km stretch, a wild no-man’s land between the border posts of South Africa and Lesotho.

 

 

The road can be tackled by 4WD vehicles only, and inexperienced drivers shouldn’t go near it. As Elias says, “Phase one is reasonably smooth, phase two is bumpy and phase three – yeeee! We call it the African massage.”

 

But this unique form of white-knuckle vehicle wrecking is under threat. Following an agreement between the South Africa and Lesotho governments, the Sani Pass is in the process of being tarred and sealed. The idea was to make the road accessible to all vehicles by the time the football World Cup kicked off in June 2010. The proposals have met with fierce resistance. Locals in Himeville and Underberg rely on tourism, and 4WD tours up the Pass are the big earner. Tar it, and the romance goes, is the theory.

 

“They want to take away our adventure,” says Elias. “And it will become more dangerous as more people try to drive it in unsuitable vehicles.” Not that there aren’t enough of them already. On the way down, we see trucks overloaded with wool and minibus taxis from Lesotho crammed with people. “We call them Two-Mores,” says Elias. “Even when they’re full, there’s always room for two more.”

 

Not far past the South African border post, we meet our first casualty. It’s a broken-down Land Rover Discovery and on board are four hapless passengers. Elias invites the stranded tourists in with us. An unwritten code of mutual assistance applies amongst Sani Pass – refuse to help and you never know when you’ll need bailing out yourself.

 

As we make painful progress upwards, it becomes clear why the Pass is something of a 4WD holy grail. Waterfalls pour down basalt outcrops so grand they look like forts; green hills spread down from the top of the escarpment like they’re the toes on a giant’s foot; mists are entered and cleared within a few metres.

 

The road veers from tough to horrendous, but Elias still has time to point out flora and fauna. We stop to check out baboons, elands and eagles, and learn about the ancient cave art that can be found in the peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains opposite. Finally, we get to the really steep bit. The top of the Sani Pass is a series of terrifying hairpin turns, and all at have names like ‘Ice Corner’, ‘Oh My God Corner’ and ‘Don’t Look Left Corner’.  At times, the back wheel is only inches away from doom. Quite how Elias drives this road in the snow – and he says he does frequently – is hard to comprehend.

 

With a final rev of the long-suffering engine, we reach Sani Top and Lesotho. It’s not called Africa’s Mountain Kingdom by accident, and the change in scenery is staggering. We’re above the tree line, and the ground is a scrubby steppe. Shepherds clad in traditional blankets ride amongst their flocks and a few thatched huts dot the horizon. If feels splendidly isolated, largely because it is.

 

But just on the border is what many come for – Sani Top Chalets is the self-proclaimed highest pub in Africa. And at 2,874m above sea level, no-one is really contesting this. We stop for lunch and a peek down the road just travelled from the outdoor terrace. 

 

But mid-meal, Elias starts getting a little edgy. Peering towards the bottom of the pass, he sees dark clouds. Soon enough, there is a crack of lightning – a fairly common occurrence in the Drakensberg. “Come,” says Elias. “It’s time to go.” He explains that if the rain flows too heavily, the point where the waterfalls create a stream across the road lower down can be impassable. We’d have to wait for four hours after the rain stops before getting across.

 

The lightning cracks and black skies add an extra element of tension to our descent, and it’s clear that the vehicles coming up the other way won’t be getting back to South Africa today. But we eventually make it onto the small section at the bottom where the tarring has started. It’s here that Elias reveals his lack of concern about the road upgrading project. “It was never going to be done by June 2010. It’ll probably never be done by June 2055,” he says.

 

“This bit already needs resurfacing, and they’re just not going to be able to get the machines up there to do the rest.” Hopefully he is right. To tar the Sani Pass would be to tarnish it. May the budget problems , brutal terrain, romance and adventure remain. 

 

More photos here

 

Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of Viator (Viator.com).

 

A Reason to go back to Africa