I wrote a travel to-do list in my notebook and reviewed it before the plane landed. For my trip to Johannesburg, the biggest and most densely populated city in Africa, I spared an additional page for surprises.
Believing that it will be the right city to experience the African continent, Johannesburg welcomes me with its impressive airport. Named after South African politician Oliver Reginald Tambo, the airport seems to be the first surprise the city has to offer, and is designed to make you feel South African and to familiarize you with the local. The renovations carried out for the 2010 World Cup didn’t damage its colorful African spirit. As I leave the airport with my baggage, I start to feel the idiosyncratic atmosphere of the continent, which manifests itself in the colorful flower necklace I have around my neck, as taxi drives amicably race one another to have me as their customer.
I check into my room and hit the streets, feeling my bones warming under the African sun. Slowing down my steps, the sun hides from me for a while as I reach one of the best cafés in Johannesburg. 44 Stanley, where the rustling of leaves blends with the crinkling of newspaper pages under the shade of trees, used to be an industrial building in the 1930s but now is a peaceful place to start the day. I refill my batteries with a cup of strong Arabica coffee, and head towards the Apartheid Museum, one of the most prominent museums in the city and the continent.
I mingle with the street bands who prepare for their afternoon concerts in the streets despite the scorching sun. I ask them what “apartheid” means to them, and they reply “segregation.” Taking a closer look at its meaning, I better understand the apartheid regime which took hold of South Africa until the 1990s. The black Africans, who once couldn't go to the same school, ride the same bus or sit at the same cafés as white people, buried this regime into the past under the leadership of Mandela.
Built on a non-functional goldmine near Gold Reef City in 2002, the museum stands as an asset more valuable than a goldmine for the locals. The museum takes me on a journey into the book of history, at the end of which I repeat the seven concepts the pillars represent: freedom, respect, equality, diversity, democracy, responsibility, and reconciliation. Then, the square that is home to a monument to Nelson Mandela, who reminds the continent of these values, invites me to a delicious meal accompanied by music. The 7-meter statue smiles and greets me and other visitors. Named after the prominent leader, the square is a gourmet destination where you can try the famous South African snack biltong which leaves a lasting taste on one’s palate. Bringing the city together with music, the square offers both traditional South African dishes and global cuisines. One of the most popular eateries – and my favorite - is Butcher Shop Grill.
As I walk toward the meat counter to give an order, I realize why this place is so popular. The ingredients are cultivated in a wide area including Japan, Argentina, South Africa and the Netherlands. I choose veal entrecôte aged for at least 21 days, and start waiting at my table impatiently and smiling. After savoring this tasty meal, I head towards a district that fought against racism and set an example for the rest of the world. Soweto is the township where Nelson Mandela’s house is located. Surrounded by the young locals singing “Welcome to Soweto,” I walk towards Hector Pieterson Museum and Nelson Mandela’s house. Open until 4.45 pm every day, Mandela’s house served as the headquarters where critical decisions were made that changed the destiny of the continent. Having received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and the first black Africanleader of South Africa, Mandela said, “What matters is not the color of one’s skin, but the color of his/her values,” turning the eyes of the whole world to this country. I try to imagine these memorable moments in my head as I leave his house.
Walking down the street towards the souvenir stalls, I see two towers rising up in the sky. Built in 1935, Orlando Towers served the South African industry for 56 years. After a retirement period of 10 years, the towers were reopened to serve in the entertainment and adventure industries. I decide to climb the hill and to increase my adrenaline by bungee jumping, but first find myself gazing at the city from 100 meters above. Listening to Nico, a devotee of extreme sports for 20 years, who advised me to “let myself go,” I feel that where I’m from or who I am doesn’t matter anymore as I float in the sky.
I plan to end the day at Lesedi Cultural Village and meet the locals there. I reach the village after a 45-minute car ride from the towers, and am welcomed by the village chief. Though I feel special for a moment, I immediately learn that this hospitality is not exclusive to me and that it’s a tribal tradition – the chief would look at the stranger at the gate and decide whether to welcome him/her. I watch a local dance performance (which takes place every hour), and learn about the tribal cultures of Zulu and Pedi.
On the way back, I drive by FNB Stadium (or formerly known as Soccer City) which hosted the final game of the 2010 World Cup in which Spain won the cup with Andres Iniesta’s goal in the 116th minute. Football fans can attend culture tours around the stadium and take a souvenir photo; it’s open until 5 pm. I arrive at the hotel to rest for a few hours. I feel that Joburg, as locals call it, is a city where time is never enough. Nico recommended the Menville district for a lovely dinner. Once more, I listen to his suggestion and head towards this vivacious district where you can find live music and a variety of local food and beverages. I immediately feel that this place is designed to relieve the day’s fatigue.
Next morning, I believe that I wake up early – only to be proved wrong by the view I see on the other side of the window curtains. The locals have already begun their day: some are jogging while others are rushing to work. Today’s plan for me is to go on a safari. With my Safari and Lion Park tickets I’ve purchased in the city center, I start waiting for the shuttle at the designated point. It’s hard to put into words the joy I felt at seeing zebras, lions, cheetahs, giraffes and wild dogs. I will never forget the moments when I held a lion and cheetah cub in my arms. The paleoanthropological site named the “Cradle of Humankind” by UNESCO is my next stop. About 50 kilometers from the city center, the site was discovered in 1947. Seeing the 3.5-million-year-old fossils here helped me understand the importance of this continent and the footprints of humankind. I feel that Johannesburg has taught me all about Africa.