Johannesburg, South Africa is not a vacation destination that immediately pops up when people talk about traveling abroad. Paris? Yes. London? Yes. Hong Kong? Bangkok? Yes and Yes. And if one actually does think about trekking to South Africa, it is generally Cape Town that does the honors (and believe me, it totally deserves that).
Johannesburg really should not be overlooked, though. And if you’re going to Cape Town or Kruger National Park you’ll be flying through JoBurg’s OR Tambo airport anyway – why not give it a quick stop?
I was traveling through JoBurg with kids. Because I’m ALWAYS traveling with kids. Because, you know. Kids. And most travelers know two things about Johannesburg: car-jackings and an awful past with apartheid.
Well, maybe now there’s some Oscar Pistorius thrown in as well. So three things. And none of them sound particularly appetizing.
Unfortunately JoBurg suffers from a rather substandard press secretary, because it is absolutely fantastic. Like any large city, it has issues. But unlike many other large cities with image problems it has a strong character and sense of its place in history. Those two things make for quite a few fascinating diversions.
Stop number one for us: The Apartheid Museum.
I love a good museum, and we visit museums in every city we go to, no matter how small (for instance – the Esperanto Museum in Vienna. Yes, that really exists. Also – been there.).
But there are a few museums which are incredibly powerful because of the amount of thought put into them and the place in which they exist. The Apartheid Museum is definitely in this category.
You already have an idea of what South Africa went through politically before 1994 – and it was quite awful. But hearing about how awful it was is a vastly different proposition than seeing, in person, the stories and remnants of that time in history.
Upon purchasing your ticket, you are given one of two racial designations – white or non-white. This determines which entrance to the museum you will use. It is a vast simplification on the actual racial categorizations, but the effect it had on my children was astounding.
We could not all use the same entrance. The pictures we saw, the things we read – there were a few things in common, but quite a few were different. We could see each other, but we were not in the same place.
It sets the mood for the rest of the museum visit, and it does it in a powerful way.
After exiting the initial separate entrances, we were able to tour the rest of the museum together, and we happened upon this, which really speaks volumes:
The profound nature of this statement was not lost on my children – even the eleven-year-old boy, who tends to get a little caught up in the LEGO side of life.
There is simply no other place on earth that offers the experience that The Apartheid Museum in JoBurg offers, and it was an experience that I’m grateful my children were able to have.
The remainder of the Apartheid Museum is just as powerful – there is a room full of nooses, hanging from the ceiling. Each noose represents a person who died fighting apartheid, news reporters featured prominently. Weapons seized during the end of apartheid are displayed, as are current racial separatist movements – black and white.
And while the Apartheid Museum was the most powerful thing we saw in JoBurg, it is most certainly not the only thing to see. In the same parking lot, seeming somewhat discordant, is an amusement park called Gold Reef City. This was actually built with a requirement for the Apartheid Museum to have a place included.
It’s fun, but perhaps better done before the sobering experience of the Apartheid Museum? I’m not sure my kids would have been in a roller coaster kind of mood after.
Another great day trip was our trip to the South African National Museum of Military History. It’s a lot bigger than it looks from the outside, and it almost seems like every single plane ever flown by the South African Air Force and every tank the South African Defense Force ever used is represented.
My husband and son were beyond entranced. FOR HOURS.
Luckily there is a nice cafe with good coffee and decent food inside for those of us that weren’t four -hours-worth fascinated. Unluckily, you can’t take pictures inside. And that truly is a shame, because the history of the SADF is truly rich with more stories than most of us are aware of. Even if you can’t make it to the museum, it makes fascinating reading.
A word to the wise, however – you might want to try and avoid the gift shop if you value your savings account. My husband had a heck of a time tearing himself away without buying one of everything.
And if you are interested in history – The Origins Museum on the Witwatersrand campus is fascinating as well. There are a huge amount of pre-human and early human fossil remains discovered in South Africa, and Wits (pronounced VITS, which I was painstakingly corrected on) is a world-renowned university in JoBurg that has put great pains into displaying this part of our human past.
Word to the wise – parking at Wits is ridiculous and you will have to get a pass at the entrance gate. But it is absolutely worth it.
We were only in JoBurg for four days and quite a bit was taken up shopping in Sandton City (holy HUGE mall!), so although the JoBurg list is long, I don’t have personal experience with much else.
I should probably mention the hotel side, though. We adored our hotel – the Protea Balalaika in Sandton. Two bedrooms and breakfast included in the most gorgeous setting you can imagine at a price that is less than quite a few single room hotels and within walking distance of the Sandton City mall area and Nelson Mandela Square.
I mean, you don’t have to listen to me, but if you’re traveling with kids and you stay somewhere else I’d probably raise an eyebrow at you. Need something to push you over the edge? We visited in December, and then were back through in March. Despite a HUGE volume of customers, both the lady at the check-in and the lady serving breakfast remembered our family (I hope they remember us fondly, I’m just sayin’. I really do try not to be THAT family). Customer service for the win!
My kids were particularly enchanted by the swimming pool, which is lit up with blue lights at night. They kept pretending to be mermaids. My son may have actually been pretending to be a shark, but mermaids sounds better, more romantic.
Finally – one more picture:
The Covenant by James Mitchner
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Diamonds, Gold, and War by Martin Meredith
Journey to Jo’Burg by Beverly Naidoo (Children)