Arriving in Johannesburg – First Impressions

First Impressions

Guidebooks generally entice with descriptions of stunning views, thought provoking museums, friendly hotels and fabulous food. Fodor’s narrative of Johannesburg, however, reads more like a disclaimer, warning that “Jo’burg is notorious for being a dangerous city – it’s quite common to hear about serious crimes such as robbery and murder.”

More specifically they caution that it is “inadvisable to drive yourself in and around the city, as certain areas are known carjacking spots.” But that kind of language does not promote travel and sell guidebooks, leading to the contradicting advice of renting a car as “it’s virtually impossible to see anything of the Jo’burg area without (one)”. Well, should you or should you not rent a car?

This wasn’t the first time a guidebook has left me confused and nervous. Guidebooks for South America frequently caution against walking alone at night and wearing jewelry on one page while promoting the great night life on another.  I try not to let thoughts of potential crime deter me, focusing instead on the positive while taking reasonable precautions. But you really don’t know how to react until you experience the place for yourself and even then it’s difficult to interpret your new surroundings.

With all these guidebook warnings swirling around in my head I arrived in Jo’burg hesitant and wary.  I had arranged with the hotel for a driver to pick me up at the airport. A nice guy named Darrel who helped me note all the turns, (about ten) between the airport and the B&B. I sat in the front seat jotting down as many details as possible since many streets were not sign posted. I would have to navigate this route again in two days with Don driving.

Driving through the suburbs, Jo’burg looked like a reasonable city, not as scary as the notorious crime ridden metropolis describe in the guidebook. Not as many doors and windows with bars as in the cities of Argentina, but houses are generally enclosed in high walls with an additional course of barbed or electric wire. Cars are parked inside the residence compound rather than on the street. That said, the neighborhood had a well tended feel and I was starting to relax a little as we drove up to the Rosebank B&B.

The next morning I was still uncertain just what I should or shouldn’t do by myself. I had just spent four weeks on my own in China without much concern about my personal safety but here in Jo’burg I didn’t yet have a feel for the place. Warnings from the guidebook kept playing in my head without sufficient positive experiences to quiet my apprehension. Fortunately, at breakfast I met a delightful woman who runs a guesthouse in Zambia and was in town to do some personal and business related shopping. She was headed to the nearby mall that morning and I asked if she wanted some company.

We took the long way to the mall down a tree lined residential street that in a month’s time would be a canopy of lavender jacaranda blossoms. The mall itself looked pretty much like any suburban mall. While store names were mostly unfamiliar the clothes, shoes and house-wares were the same as you would find in any western shopping outlet.

I followed Eunice through the shops, browsed the clothing racks and watched her make inquiries. Jo’burg was feeling more and more like a typical western city. As it approached noon we took a break at one of the many outdoor cafes and restaurants where locals were enjoying Jo’burg’s great weather – cool mornings with afternoon temperatures in the mid seventies. I was just in another new city getting to know a new friend over pizza and a glass of rosé.

Gathering Our Group

Johannesburg’s snazzy new Gautrain system made getting back out to the airport to meet Don’s plane super easy. The Rosebank station was short ten minute walk from the guesthouse.  Nearly empty, the station had plenty of employees around to help you buy the 125 rand card (about $17) to the airport. The train is fast and designed to accommodate passengers with luggage going to the airport, although from Rosebank you do have to change trains in Sandton. The wait for the next train can be up to 20 minutes in off peak hours. From Sandton to OR Tambo airport is about 15 minutes.

The real challenge of the morning was getting back to the guesthouse with the directions I had noted from the drive into town with Darrel. With a long list of at least ten turns what are the chances that we would get every one right? Surface streets are not always well signed and meander through the neighborhoods, but Darrel’s instructions were spot on and we made it back without a false turn.

Dan and Nancy arrived late in the afternoon just as the sun was setting. We swapped stories and caught up over cheese and wine before heading to the mall for dinner. Outside the Hyatt is a courtyard full of restaurants with both outdoor and indoor dining. We chose Doppio Zero a more casual Italian restaurant with a good selection pizzas, pastas and salads. Nothing terribly interesting, but good food at reasonable prices.

Rosebank Lodge

Rosebank Lodge, located on Rutland road in the Rosebank suburb is a lovely guesthouse with simple yet elegant spacious guestrooms. Some of the guest rooms open on to a pretty garden with a small pool. They serve a simple yet good traditional English breakfast with a choice of fruit, cereals and yogurt and eggs, meats, mushrooms and tomatoes cooked to order.

The helpful staff is charming and attentive. There is parking available in the secure front courtyard and free wifi in the rooms. (Although some rooms do not have a good connection.) The guesthouse is also convenient to the Rosebank mall, African Crafts Market and Gautrain Rosebank station, each about a 10 minute walk.

September 15, 2011

For links to all the posts in this series see the South Africa page.

3 thoughts

  1. I have told so many people since returning to SA how safe I felt in China. Never once did I find myself looking over my shoulder walking down a street and the lack of guns (not even on the bank security guards) was a welcome change from the violent crime we see here in South Africa. While there are lots of stories, and you only hear the terrible ones, hopefully your time here remains untainted by crime. Looking forward to reading more.

  2. Thanks Rory. I can happily report that our trip was completely crime free. Although we continued to follow the advice of locals concerning what we should or shouldn’t do, it didn’t deter us from enjoying your beautiful country. I would most definitely recommend a South African road trip as a great way to explore the country.

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