First Impressions: Johannesburg

It is a bit colder than I expected, but it is only nine in the morning. We wait at Carousel 3 for our luggage and discuss the options of leaving Africa a bit earlier than we intended – with our Canadian entry permit only valid for 90 days, we’re not exactly sure what will happen when we attempt to re-enter from Mozambique after November 23rd has passed.

Hills of Jo'burg from street
Hills of Jo’burg

Missing in Action

Unlike Berlin, the luggage trolleys here are free and we happily throw our four carry on bags on. Moreno finds his backpack, then my backpack, and then we wait for our giant duffel of camping equipment. It doesn’t show. It is not in the Fragile Baggage Pickup, or doing the rounds on any other carrousel; we cannot see it mistakenly taken on someone else’s cart. It is missing.

These things happen of course, and our Lufthansa representative is calm and kind and is quickly able to tell us that the bag simply didn’t make the flight from Frankfurt, which makes some sense seeing how our connecting flights were pretty tight. It will be delivered to our South African address the next day.

Tour of Jo’burg

We are picked up by the seller of the Land Rover we are purchasing and he takes us on a scenic route back to his house so we can get a tour of Johannesburg. The city is 7,000 feet above sea level, which explains the cold. It is extremely dry here. Very arid. There hasn’t been rain since April and humidity is only at 18%.

Johannesburg road from the back of the Landy
Johannesburg road from the back of the Landy

Jo’burg is huge. From the airport, the city spans from 25 to 50 kilometers out in every direction in a thick consistency of houses and shacks. The highways have four lanes, and the majority of cars are white or light colored, in an effort by the citizens to evade the heat however they can.

We pass under a white structure – toll readers, newly constructed, but the people of South Africa have banded together in annoyance and everyone refuses to purchase the vignettes – why should they have to pay for the highways when as tax payers, so many of them already do?

And there’s almost no way to enforce it, either: not paying the toll would be a civil, but not a criminal, offense, and there are loads of the best South African and international lawyers standing by ready to fight for the first person that gets tried in the courts. It is the first time that South Africa has come together in 20 years: together, they refuse to pay the toll.

Depleted hills of gold, Johannesburg, South Africa
Fun fact: Johannesburg sits on mountains of gold, and all the powdered yellow hills around are its depleted honeycombs

A Violent Reality Check

The people get more condensed the closer into town we get. James takes us right through Hillbrow, the worst part of the city, so that we never want to go through there again. It is barely two kilometers long, but it is packed. The population is overwhelmingly black. Everything is some muted colour of beige; the dry landscape, the dusty roads, the faded buildings. Crime is mostly individual but there is some gangsterism in this area.

Violence is rampant and James gives us advice on things like how much to keep the windows open: in the rural areas outside of the city, they’re fine all the way down, but in town, you might want them up just less than an arm’s width; as James’s experience tells us, more than an arm width and you could find yourself mid-hijacking with a gun to your temple.

View of street stretching ahead in Johannesburg
Driving in Jo’burg

An Uncomfortable First Impression

We were told Johannesburg is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and to avoid it if at all possible. We couldn’t. Now being here as a tourist, experiencing it from the safety of an electrically fenced-in house, I’m both more frightened than I should be, and yet too naive to really know what’s good for me. That said, I can tell there is tension, and it makes me uncomfortable. And I don’t want to be around when it explodes.