Author: William (hey...just passing thru...) Robertson

Johannesburg, South Africa May 1999

Generally speaking, Backpackers only stop in Johannesburg because they HAVE to! (It’s a long haul from Harare to Cape Town.)

Fairly recently, a reporter approached one of the Tourist Bureaux, and asked what there was to see. The reply was fairly typical: “Well….there’s Eastgate…” Eastgate is a Shopping Mall.

Johannesburg has got to be one of the weirder cities in the world: it’s built in the middle of nowhere…..with no water. Any other major city (any exceptions, please let me know!), is always built on a river, or on a coast.

Joburg (eGoli in the vernacular), was built on gold, or greed, and not much has changed since 1886. Joburg is the city in a province known as Gauteng. The car registration plates of Gauteng start with GP. Also Known As “Gangsters Paradise”.

The cynic’s definition of Johannesburg: The best thing about Joburg is the roads: There’s one leading North, East and South! (NOBODY goes West: there’s nothing there.)

Hillbrow/Berea area from the South-East.  Chaos Manor is roughly between the 2 tall structures.

Johannesburg, the city, is currently in the throes of massive readjustment. Business is fleeing to the Northern Suburbs, and economic refugees from the north are flooding in to replace them. (Or vice-versa, depending on your POV.)

This results in some curious anomalies. The traffic jams in the suburbs are now worse than the traffic jams in the city. Xenophobia in the city keeps rearing its head: the immigration Gestapo have arrested, AND deported, several people for being “too dark”!!!! (Just in case you’re a namby-pamby tree-loving liberal, please remember that said Gestapo are of a darker hue.)

Hawkers and street venders occasionally get violent, and attack fellow hawkers/vendors who happen to be Nigerian/ Ghanaian/ Zimbabwean/ Malawian.

Sooo…if you’re IN the city with “the highest crime rate in the world”…what can you do? Take ADVANTAGE of the fact, of course! (No, I don’t mean buying AK-47’s for US$20, or a BMW for a $1000.) Suss it out. If you can wander around Joburg, WITHOUT getting mugged, consider yourself ready for ANYWHERE!

There are lots of hostels in and around Joburg, most of which will pick you up from the airport, or wherever you happen to be. The hostels are all pretty good, and have lots of info….mostly about tours, which are a minimum of 50 KM away from Joburg ( I TOLD you it was in the middle of nowhere!).

There is SOWETO, but make sure your guide shows you a REAL cross section of the place, although you might have trouble getting to the wealthier sides: they have electrified fencing and armed response services like their brothers in the northern suburbs.

What to do in Joburg: well….start by planning where you’re going NEXT. Durban, on the East Coast, is a good bet. It’s FAR superior to Cape Town, (Capetonians don’t believe they’re in Africa: it’s very much a pseudo-European city, except with wind and freezing seawater. Also full of Gautengers. )

In Joburg, the only areas of any interest are: Melville (AKA media gulch); the Northern Suburbs (see where the rich hide); and various Flea Markets which are usually held on Sundays. The biggest is at Bruma Lake. Others are at various shopping malls, one of the most popular being Rosebank Mall.

There’s also the Oriental Plaza, where all the Indians were moved to in the Apartheid Years. It’s worth seeing, and there’s some good stuff here. Bargaining is de-rigeur, otherwise you can get ripped off in genuine eastern fashion. If you’re into fringe stuff, try CARFAX, (named after an infamous mental asylum)in the Newtown district.

If you’re the adventurous type, try public transport, particularly the minibus-taxis. The latter tend to be like roller-coasters, except they’re cheaper.

Hitch-hiking….variable….I haven’t seen anyone with a backpack on the side of a freeway for years. It’s generally easier and cheaper to use the Baz bus, Greyhounds or similar.

Johannesburg in the evening, looking east.

If you’re aiming at visiting South Africa, probably the best time in the near future will mean you’ve been in the country for a few days on June 2nd.

That’s the first day of voting in our second democratic elections, so everyone will be fairly hyped by then. What this MEANS is that:

  • the security forces will be out in force (you’ll FEEL safer!);
  • people will be feeling garrulous and generous so it’s a great time to score somewhere to sleep/ transport/ food/ booze (Particularly if you’re hitching!).
  • To search SA sites for what you’re looking for… try one of the better South African search engines.
    “Backpackers” will turn up some good links.

    For newspapers…
    try here, which will turn up interesting headlines like:
    “Police Station Robbed by Armed Gang”
    “Man gets 40 years for shooting gorilla”.

    If you want Urban Legends…well…this is the place to go…

    More South African travel info at,

    Travel in Africa

    Backpack Africa

    Just Backpacking – Southern Africa

    Finally, visit my website which is where this is written.