I could not avoid Johannesburg. I could not on my first trip to South Africa seven years ago, and this time either, even though my main destination both times was Cape Town. And I still do not like Johannesburg.
To get the cheapest airfare to South Africa from North America, which usually costs close to $2,000.00, I figured out a thrifty, but complex way. I used my mileage to exchange a free ticket to Europe. Then I purchased an open-jawed ticket (my journey started in South Africa and ended in Uganda) to Africa from Frankfurt, Germany. The cheapest one happened to be Emirates (which allowed me a free stopover to Dubai, the fastest growing city in the world). From the United Emirates, Emirates flies only to Johannesburg, not Cape Town.
I had to start a grand trip in a place I didn't want to go to. Before taking my day train ride to Cape Town, I had to stay in Johannesburg for a day. Maybe I could finally see Soweto and the recently opened Apartheid Museum. Johannesburg is one of the most dangerous cities in the world; crime is rampant. With more than $1,000.00 in my money belt, I was wary, even before leaving home. I heard it had improved since the last time I was there. As a result, I was eager to give it another try.
Seven Years Ago
I was a 10-day, everything included package tour that originated in Taiwan. Arriving from Asia, Johannesburg was our first stop before continuing to Cape Town and the southern coast. Upon arrival, we were taken on a tour of Gold Reef City, a place that Lonely Planet Travel described as "cannot make up its mind whether it's a Disney clone or a serious historical reconstruction of old Johannesburg."
The most interesting part of Gold Reef City is going down a shaft to see the old gold mine. It was dark and a little slippery (it is no longer in operation, more of a "museum"). We would have gotten lost if we hadn't had a guide. The mine was definitely not a comfortable place to stay long. South African miners had worked in such conditions for years, with little pay. Ironically, exploitation was what made this country the richest one in Africa, and the largest gold producer in the world. Later, we headed up to the town square, where we saw dancers performing a "miners' dance". The dance was supposed to tell stories of the miners' harsh life, but the performers seemed overjoyed – too cheesy.
A few days later, we returned from beautiful and more memorable Western Cape. We checked into a nice suburban inn, far from downtown Johannesburg. Later I found out that most visitors to Johannesburg now stay in the suburbs because the downtown area became too dangerous, even to walk around during the day. Although we were not close to downtown, the front desk staff still discouraged me from walking around. Shuttles transport you to the shopping mall down the street. As a person who enjoys city life, wandering and discovering a new place on my own, Johannesburg made me feel restricted and at a loss. Our local drivers did eventually drive us to the centre of town, but we had to stay on the bus. At least I saw the area with my own eyes.
From a distance Johannesburg looks similar to any typical North American city. It has skyscrapers, elevated roadways and rail tracks. I saw a lot of people on the streets. There were some graffiti and litter, but not that much. A few buildings had broken windows. We didn't notice panhandlers. My fellow Taiwanese travelers were shocked to see the dirt and mess in the downtown area. My experience living near tough neighborhoods in Baltimore had probably altered my perception. Maybe I would have had a different feeling if we had gone when it was dark. Then again, our drivers would not have taken us out after dark.
There wasn't much to see downtown. A tall, grand neo-classical building, formerly the location of the Stock Exchange, had been moved to a northern suburb. The train station was still there. It is where you can catch a commuter train to the nearby capital, Pretoria. Then the guide told us that few people take that train because robbing at gun point is common. The police force cannot provide security. Their pay is low and robbers carry more weapons than the police. As a result, the police force has been shrinking. The police can't protect themselves, let alone civilians.
Seven years later, 2007
I returned to Johannesburg to start my 10-week African overland trip. Unfortunately, a misconnection at Newark cost me a whole day (problems resulted from too many plane changes). I arrived in Johannesburg one day late; I had to rush to the Park Station. The train to Cape Town was leaving in four hours; no Soweto or Apartheid Museum again.
Seven years have made me a savvier backpacker. I trained myself to get around as locals do when I'm in a new location (no taxi). Because there was enough time, I thought about taking local transportation from the airport to the downtown train station. However, when I inquired at the Information Center about buses, I was dissuaded.
"Well, it is not very safe," one lady rolled her eyes. "Especially you look different. People would know you are not from here, then you become an easy target." Another lady looked worried for me.
So I had to take a taxi. To my surprise, this trip was less than 15 miles (25 kilometers), and would cost me 250 Rand, almost $40.00! I guess the price was set so high because drivers knew that tourists did not have choices that would ensure safety. Taxi drivers can easily monopolize the market.
I really can't tell if things have improved in this city. Regardless, there are other cities to visit.
Read more of Saricie Kuo's travels at his website.