Thursday, March 3, 2016

Johannesburg, South Africa: Last Stop in Africa!

Johannesburg was the last stop of our South African road trip extravaganza adventure. *cries*

Prior to arriving, we'd heard a lot about the city - more notably, people warned us that it was dangerous, and that there was a lot of crime and not so much to do. All I can say is, Jo'burg (everything in SA has an abbreviated form) really took us pleasantly by surprise. We spent 5 days in the city, which is incredibly long, but we chose to spend some extra days recharging - especially since Jesse was heading back home to Australia afterwards, and I still had no idea where I was headed next.

What It's All About:
Johannesburg is South Africa's largest city - located on the east side of the country, it's South Africa's financial and entertainment capital.  The city was originally founded due to discovery of gold in the area, but grew from there despite the fact that it's not located anywhere near a water source or anywhere that makes sense geographically.

View over Johannesburg at sunset

The city is known for being sketchy, yes - there is still high crime and the city suffered a lot from decay and decline over the past decades. However, it is slowly emerging from this and a lot of the neighborhoods have experienced a resurgence - there are areas that are super cute and trendy that you would swear were right out of SoCal or NYC.  Some parts of the city are still a no-go, but knowing that, some other parts are positively charming, with interesting things to see.  We actually really loved our time in Johannesburg.  We stayed in an upscale-ish neighborhood called Melrose, in Rosebank.

Our little home away from home for the week, a B&B called Blackheath Manor House. It was the BEST PLACE EVER, and we loved coming back to it.

I'm going to do my best to summarize our five days in Johannesburg in one efficient swoop - we truly took things easy and spent equal times relaxing at our amazing hotel (and watching late night movies) with some sightseeing, side trips, and local activities. You truly need these times when you travel.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Took a hop-on, hop-off red city bus tour of downtown Johannesburg and some of its neighborhoods.

View of Jo'burg from the Red Bus Tour!
Vibrant streets of the Inner City
A terrible shot of Downtown
You still see a lot of this - abandoned buildings with the doors/windows bricked up. As business moved out of downtown Jo'burg, squatters moved into the empty buildings and created gangs demanding money from tenants. So landlords had to brick up their buildings, and wait it out for better times.

Jess and I got off at a stop called Gold Reef City with the intention of visiting a former gold mine - it's a megacomplex that's made up of a fancy hotel/casino/theme park.

Inside the casino, it's just like Vegas!  We may have promptly lost $7 on the slots and then spent an hour in the arcade playing Skee-ball and Whack-a-mole.

Back on track, we then headed to the famous Apartheid Museum.

The museum was crazy. It's crazy to think how recent apartheid was, how long it went on even when it clearly wasn't working, and all the things that were happening at a time when most of us were alive. Apartheid was basically started because the white minority in power feared being taken over by the black majority.

People were forced to carry around documents that stated their race 24/7 - this would allow them into certain places or not. All the blacks were moved out of the city center of Johannesburg and into their own suburbs far away.

Even when apartheid was clearly tearing the country apart and was being condemned by other countries, the South African leaders refused to give it up - instead they jailed, tortured, or killed protestors.

  • As a quick personal side tangent, the thing that is the craziest to me is that the effects of apartheid are still very evident today, even though it ended in the 90's.  Even when apartheid ended, it wasn't like people just picked up and moved from their segregated neighborhoods - they stayed in their neighborhoods and communities.  This means that today, white people still grow up with other white people, and black people still grow up with other black people.  The groups don't really ever interact with each other until they reach the workplace - by which time, their upbringing and who they're used to hanging out with is pretty ingrained. So you rarely, rarely ever see mixed groups of people, or people of different races hanging out. Groups of people are so homogenous that you can't help but notice how they don't mingle with each other, really ever.  It's insane to see.

After the Apartheid Museum, we took the Red Bus to the artsy, cool neighborhood of Braamfontein for a drink (and to wait out a rainstorm).

And capped off the night at a steakhouse our B&B host recommended near home. It was so delicious, and the huge plates of delicious steaks, fries, etc. were less than $10. 

  • Watched the sunset from a nearby hilltop in our neighborhood. Our guesthouse sits in a beautiful neighborhood at the foot of a hill - we literally ordered an Uber, and pointed to the top of the hill and said "We want to go there, please."

View from the top of the hill

We maybe also brought a bottle of wine to enjoy the sunset with

Gorgeous. This neighborhood is incredibly ritzy and the people up here literally look down on all the others.  Another thing to get used to in Jo'burg - all the houses have HUGE fences/gates that obscure the entire house (you seriously can't see any of the houses because the concrete walls are so high around them), and ridiculous security systems. It's just what you have to do when you live in this city.

Sunset colors

The view at dark

  • Visited the Cradle of Humankind, which is about an hour's drive outside of Jo'burg.  This means we rented another adorable car for a couple days. The Cradle of Humankind is a series of limestone caves/sites where 40% of all hominid fossils in the world have been discovered (super important, given it helps explain the origin of humans and how we evolved). The fossils discovered here date back millions of years. MILLIONS.  It is obvi a World Heritage Site.

First, we went to the Sterkfontein Caves, where some of the most famous fossils from the Cradle of Humankind were discovered. Jesse is too tall for the caves.

Here at Sterkfontein, they discovered "Little Foot," an almost-complete skeleton of a super-early human ape-man called Australopithecus. He accidentally fell into the cave and died instantly, but it preserved his skeleton below ground for over 3 million years. Again, MILLION.

Evolution of the Australopithecus

The caves were dark

They are below ground with little hole openings. A hole like this is how Little Foot probably accidentally fell into the cave in the first place, preserving him forever.

Some parts involved crawling.

And there were crazy formations of dolomite that were again, millions of years old. 

Outside the caves is a statue of Dr. Robert Broom, the paleontologist who responsible for a lot of the discoveries in the Cradle of Humankind, most notably a skull from a hominid named Ms. Ples. You are supposed to rub the skull he's holding for wisdom

And you rub his nose for good luck. You can only choose one to rub. Jesse and I obviously chose opposite ones.

After the caves, we went to Maropeng, where they have a super-amazing, awesome state-of-the-art museum you can visit about the Cradle of Humankind.  I've seriously never loved a museum so much before.

The museum started with a timeline from the beginning of how humans developed from nothing.


Floating through the ice age

AND THEN THE FIRE AGE. Yes, I'm sure that's what it was called.

There were all kinds of amazing, interactive exhibits at the museum.  I think the point of this was to marvel at how humans developed over so many billions of years of evolution, but I liked the tripp-y mirror effect.

  • And more additional miscellaneous activities we did over our time in Jo'burg:

Went and had lunch in another super-trendy, successful urban renewal neighborhood project called Maponeng

Went shopping at the insane Rosebank African Craft Market, a series of shops and stalls under the ridiculously fancy and huge Rosebank Mall complex.

Adventure Golf!  
  • And with that, five days were over in the blink of an eye, and thus came the end of my African adventures.  It was a lot of sad events together: saying goodbye to Africa (I spent 3 months in Africa in total, which is so much longer than I thought I'd be there - and I loved so, so many things about this leg), saying goodbye to Jesse (who is now back home in Australia, but was an amazing travel partner), and having to make my next move (I was crippled with indecision at the location).  I am still very sad to not be in Africa anymore, but it was one of the best adventures of my life.  Bye, Africa!  I will be back.  I say that every time but I don't care. 

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • South Africans love their song covers - we kept listening to the Top 40 station in the car (Ok, ok I maybe insisted on this), and a lot of their Top 40 are new, hip young people covering old school songs. Super old-school songs, like Sting and Simon + Garfunkel and such.
  • Stores close super super early in South Africa (and really, all of Southern Africa). The mall stores/grocery stores don't really stay open later than 6 or 7pm - it becomes a ghost town after then. It's so weird. How do working people do their shopping?  Many establishments are also closed on Mondays.  It was impossible finding a restaurant to eat at on a Monday.
  • In SA, tons of people act as unofficial parking attendants - it's pretty regular when you park on the side of a road (especially downtown), or in a parking lot, for a civilian in a beat-up fluorescent vest to approach you after you get back to your car. Their claim is that they've watched your car the whole time you were gone, or they'll try and help you navigate out of the space - and hope for tips. However, we heard from Jesse's friend Johan that a friends of his once they got back to his car, and the car had been broken into, but the parking guy still asked for a tip. Also, these people are insane. I don't know how they have such ridiculous hawk vision, but no matter how stealthy you are going back to your car, they will spot you and they will run over within seconds. 

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