Most tourists to South Africa will fly into OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg, often necessitating a one or two day stay. Here is a guideline to touring the area when there is only a day or two to spare.
There are several choices for the short term traveler, however, and careful advance planning will make transit tourism effective and pleasing.
South African Political History in a Museum
What would South Africa be without its notorious legacy of Apartheid? The Apartheid Museum, west of Johannesburg, is a must-visit for anyone to the city. An unusual, eclectic, extremely informative museum, it takes the visitor into the heart and soul of the realities of South Africa under this inane racial system which ended in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 and asks questions of every visitor, whatever his or her origin. It is an unexpectedly uplifting experience which places segregation in the place where it belongs (a museum) and gives each visitor hope about our humanness. Most tour operators will offer a trip to the Museum as part of their Johannesburg package. Set aside at least 2 hours for this experience.
Exploring South African Gold Mining History in an Entertaining Way
There is not much of note to eat or drink there, but the Apartheid Museum is perfectly situated a few steps away from Gold Reef City: another excellent venue to explore some of South Africa’s history, culture and day-to-day life and enjoy a variety of dining options. Johannesburg (locally known as Egoli or ‘place of gold’) developed around the gold-mining industry. Gold Reef City is based on the grounds of an historic gold mine and offers the tourist a small peek into the development of this world-dominating industry from a local, historical perspective in an entertaining and informative way.
Having just visited the Apartheid Museum, visitors can gain a clearer perspective of the sociological impact that gold mining had on the country, which makes Gold Reef City that much more interesting. Gold Reef City incorporates a museum, an opportunity to see a gold pour, a magnificent coin display and the opportunity to purchase Kruger rands on site, a casino, a variety of places to dine and some novelty stores. A theme park is part of the set up – and while not offering a challenge to seasoned theme park revelers, it does boast a couple of unique wide knuckle rides as well as tamer fare for the younger traveler. On weekends and public holidays there is the added bonus of cultural buskers like tribal and gum boot dancers.
South African Indigenous Culture at a Glance
Lesedi Cultural village, situated just north of Johannesburg, is another interesting way to spend a day in this area. Based in the beautiful Magaliesburg mountains, the cultural village offers visitors a snapshot view of five local cultures: the Ndebele (renowned for their unique and colorful architectural applications and handicraft), as well as Zulu, Basotho, Pedi and Xhosa.
Although a day visit is an enriching experience, an even more fruitful insight is gained by spending the night in the village. After the cultural tour, visitors enjoy traditional meals, fireside entertainment in the form of dancing and traditional story telling. The Lesedi experience was masterminded by one of Africa’s great modern explores, Kingsley Holgate. This has resulted in an experience which is not only commercial in nature, but underpinned by authenticity and a true respect for African traditions.
Urban South Africa: the Flipside
Several tour operators offer half day and full day visits to the sprawling township of Soweto. The largest township in Gauteng, it started as a segregated settlement for job seekers from rural areas but gained momentum of its own and has grown into a city in its own right. The South Africa which is often seen from the perspective of tour buses and luxury accommodation in urban, tourism-orientated areas, is only a fraction of what the country is all about and a visit to Soweto will afford an insight into modern African culture, living conditions which range from the opulent lifestyles of local dollar millionaires to shack dwelling and improvisation on the poverty line.
Alive with shebeens (traditional restaurant/bars) and markets, the warm and friendly atmosphere is captivating. Most of the tours will visit the homes of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela and various South African Nobel Prize winners. A stop by the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital – the largest hospital in the world – is interesting. With over six thousand staff members and around two thousand patients checking in each day, a look into this operation is an enlightening experience.
If touring is not a feasible option and style and comfort is more acceptable, then head off to the shopping Mecca of Sandton City in the northern suburbs of the city. It is filled with world class restaurants and hotels, theatres, and retail outlets ranging from innovative local clothing and up market jewelry outlets (what better place to purchase one of South Africa’s prime exports: diamonds?), to international fashion stores. By mid 2010, the Gautrain rail system will link Sandton directly with OR Tambo airport.