Johannesburg: Springing you the Basics
17th Sep 2008
arrivalsPrivate car pickup. Land Rover with leather seats preferred. Your alternative is to hold your head out of a taxi window, gagging for air as you rattle down the expressway while the driver takes the long way into town. Like many things in Johannesburg, you need a fixer; and the driver to get you around is only one of many necessities. You could hire wheels and navigate yourself, but its just easier to have someone who knows where the next petrol station and repaired roads are. Try Hub Culture's affiliated service: Paola Martinez at Personal Africa. She will arrange for pickup and then proceed to handle every waking need you may have while in town. Paula Martinez, +27 83 949 1674.
where to stayBelieve it or not, the burbs! Downtown Johannesburg is slightly deserted, so most people opt for the higher end northern suburbs of Sandton and Rosebank, where business is conducted. Situated right in between those suburbs in Georgia is a small boutique hotel called Ten Bompas, which features a clutch of individually designed suites and a wonderful, charming atmosphere. It's the place.
Want a larger resort feel with a stunning view? Also nice is The Westcliff, which has many more rooms and is situated farther out in the northern suburbs in the hills. Its an Orient Express hotel, so you know what that means. This is a good place to stay if you don't need to be hiking all over town regularly.
If business is the priority, then it should be the Intercontinental Sandton Towers, situated next to a large covered casino with Italianate galleries and enough security to keep a White House senior delegation safe on a walking tour Kabul.
For the more bohemian minded, the clear choice is the district called Melville, a gentrifying suburb situated south of Sandton but north of the city. Nestled between the Johannesburg Country Club and the Randberg Country Club, it offers close proximity to the best nightlife in Johannesburg, as well as golf for the daylight hours. Melville hosts a rapidly expanding number of boutique guest-houses. Tama Rumah is a fun choice and is so much nicer than what you narmally think of when you hear guest house. It features a friendly and personalized environment with spacious rooms and nice smiling ladies who prepare a hearty breakfast to enjoy in bougainvillea-covered gardens. Ask directly when booking to angle for the best rooms, those located in the back garden.
activitiesMost modern people are conditioned to see the world as a user friendly and hopefully convenient place. We like galleries, café culture, Burlesque bars and, hey, even malls, all delivered dynamically on a Google map with a social tracer to shadow our 100 closest friends as we walk down the street. In Johannesburg, however, never mind Google's shopping icons. The shopping malls are just as likely to get torched in a botched robbery as they are in a Hollywood movie on a bad day for Bruce Willis, so it might be wise to have a think about the sources of such discomfort and head for the nearest garden wine bar instead. There are malls at home.
If you're not into mall culture, (Sandton City is the largest mall in the southern hemisphere and a main pursuit of Johannesburg evenings), try having a wander along Melville's main drag to see antique shops and other attractions in a more authentic atmosphere. This is also ground zero for the best bars in the city, but it only takes about one night to feel like you've been there, done that.
Or for some real culture, you might like to spend a day on a walking tour of Soweto with our man Cedric de la Harpe, the "white Zulu", who understands the damage both apartheid and poverty have inflicted on the majority of South Africa's black population. Cedric spent a number of years working on sports development programs to assist youth in the townships and knows Soweto intimately, walking it barefoot daily. He is chums with many of Mandela's old friends, and will show you a side of South Africa few visitors get to see. Being a barefoot Zulu isn't easy, so he can be a bit hard to reach - go through Paula (above) to track him down.
Another worthwhile pursuit is the three-hour drive north of Johannesburg to Pilanesberg, a nicely sized game reserve featuring abundant rhino, elephant, giraffe, zebra, impala and the occasional King of the Jungle. You can do this allé-retour in a day, but that's barely enough to gain credence in saying you went on safari. We recommend you overnight in the tented camps a la Ernest Hemingway to be up at sunrise when the animals are out feeding and go on a game drive and watch the sun lift the mist to reveal the wild expanse of the African plain. All in, this trip is one of the easiest and fastest ways to see the African bush in all its glory. Those not is a rush to get back, stay a while and check into a proper safari lodge, take a puddle jumper over to Botswana or Zambia to Victoria Falls or spend a week navigating down one of the 4 mouths of the Zambesi. The best in the business to kit you out is adventure travel outfitter extraordinaire Mountain Travel-Sobek, for the Indiana Jones in you or Abercrombie & Kent if your taste and pace is more like that of Ava Gardner.
South African epicure is famously delicious, and the wine is equally delectable. Aside from local delicacies such as impala, kudu, ostrich and crocodile, which show up regularly on menus (is that wrong?), there is also a wide selection of good international cuisine. Although Impala, hartebeest, eland and other springy horned relatives are far superior to beef than you can even imagine – unless you've tried, you can always whet your appetite with a good spicy South African barbeque or some locally dried biltong. South African barbeque can almost rival those of Australian national pride.
For meat lovers, check out Steers, the butcher shop at Mandela Square (not Steers the fastfood burger joint!) and the Meat Company in Four Ways, both of which offer a great selection of tender exotic fare. For vegetarians, well, don't dine here. For more traditional African food, try the March restaurant in the Melrose Arch Hotel, Melrose Arch. A beautiful swimming pool and casual chic atmosphere also make this a great spot for a lazy Sunday and a long brunch.
A local favorite is the The Coachman's Inn. Opened by Nick Nicola many years ago, it remains family owned, and a loyal local attraction. An eclectic décor and outstanding food are the hallmarks of the restaurant. The Coachman's Inn is at 29 Peter Place, Johannesburg. Call them for a table or party on +27 11 706 7269.
Johannesburg is a study of contrasts, and as the richest business centre in Southern Africa, deserves its place of honour as a world city. However, its sprawling size, social disparity and lack of world-class entertainment contribute to a fortress style personality, where the prevailing view is "what's mine is mine, and gated", if you are a resident. That said, no city is happier to have a visitor than Johannesburg, and everyone will bend over backwards to make you feel safe, comfortable and welcome. They will drive for miles to show you a good time and whisk you back before midnight for an early start the next day. The sad thing is that the whisking is a have to, because "if you stop at night in the dark, you might get carjacked." they say, laughing, with not as much sarcasm as one would like.
But really, its fine! And it is really quite safe! Unless you're an impala, in which case all bets are off.