Johannesburg: Worries, Wearies, Wonders, Wildlife

Johannesburg was the air travel hub of our trip to southern Africa. With our various comings and goings, we spent three nights here.

Johannesburg: Worries, Wearies, Wonders, Wildlife

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by travelswithkids on July 17, 2006

We used Johannesburg as our central hub for a 18 day tour of southern Africa, flying in & out of Jo'burg.

Worries, wearies, wonders, wildlife!

Wearies because it took 2 days to get their (fly overnight Chicago-London, 12 hour layover in London, fly overnight to Johannesburg). The other two days when we wound up in Johannesburg were also after big travel days.

Worries: my wife was the designated worrier for this trip: Will my husband remember to drive on the wrong side of the road? Remember the anti-malaria pills. Will we get car-jacked of mugged? (Johannesburg's reputation for crime, as well as the occasion highway sign warning "Hijack Hotspot" don't exactly fill you with confidence.) Will we arrive at the hotel before dark? Is this a safe place to park the car? These are all genuine concerns, of course, but we managed to have a safe fun trip anyway.

Wildlife: This is the real reason we came to Africa and we saw about every animal we hoped for.

Wonders: We got to see some great sights on our trip. Outside of Johannesburg, we visited the Cullinan diamond mine, where the world's largest rough diamond was found. Further away, after we left Johannesburg, the natural wonders of Victoria Falls and Blyde River Canyon were amazing.${QuickSuggestions} Johannesburg has horrible traffic jams. It's rush hour looked just as bad as the interstates around Chicago. Seriously plan your travels to avoid being caught in rush hour traffic.

For South Africa in general, it is very important to plan ahead, buy a guidebook, and have an idea of where you're going and staying. We saw hardly any tourist information offices for a town or region, and a lot of the lodges and guesthouses etc. are off the main roads, so you wouldn't have any idea what kind of place it was until you'd already driven out of your way to get there. The exception to this rule is the nice tourism bureau in the center of the arrivals hall at Johannesburg airport, providing info for the Johannesburg area and Gauteng province in general. There is plenty of information available on the Internet.

We'd left a couple of our overnights open since we didn't really know how fast and far the driving would go in South Africa, and I was happy that I'd brought along printed lists of hotels, etc. for the areas we might have been going to (and a guidebook).

Read and follow safety tips you can find elsewhere about South Africa. We didn't have any problems, happily, but one Johannesburg couple did tell us about their friends visiting from England who did have their car hijacked, so it does happen.

Shopping malls in South Africa seemed to be very much the place to go out to, probably because they seem pretty safe and secure. Their shopping malls seem to have become the destination of choice that malls in America once aspired to back in the 1970s or so.

${BestWay} Renting a car to tour around South Africa outside of Johannesburg worked out very well for our family of 4. We got to explore at our own pace and see a lot of interesting area. You get used to driving on the wrong side pretty quickly. But like other places where they drive on the opposite side, you really need to remember to look both directions twice when at an intersection (driving or on foot) because the traffic will come from the direction you aren't expecting.

Gas stations are plentiful, and gasoline wasn't that much more expensive than in the USA. And the gas stations are all full service in South Africa still. Most of the roads are in good shape, with 120 kph (when they aren't jammed at rush hour) expressways around Johannesburg and Pretoria and on major routes like Jo'burg to Kruger.

We did an independent trip because we couldn't find an organized safari tour that went to most of the places we were interested in for anything like what we paid. Multiplying things times 4 really makes things get expensive quickly on the set tours. If you were just a couple, you might find it more affordable to work with a good agent to create a custom guided tour of your own.

If you're staying near the airport, a lot of the hotels have shuttle busses to the airport (most seemed to charge 25 rand/person or so). Nearly all the shuttle busses leave from a parking lot in front of the Intercontinental Hotel, which is just outside of the front door of the airport.

If you're renting a car from the Johannesburg airport, many of them include a "free" cell phone with your rental. It wasn't quite free. In addition to paying for the calls you make, as expected, we also had to pay 10 rand/day ($1.50) as an "insurance" fee. Still, it seemed like a pretty good deal.
Per minute rates were not bad. The only confusing part is that the cell phone kiosks are in the main arrivals hall, while the car rental agencies are over in the parking garage(out the front of the airport and to the left). We wound up getting our rental car, then walking all the way back to the cell phone kiosk with our contract. The kiosk agent said we could have just presented our car reservation confirmation printout.

Garden Court Johannesburg International Airport

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by travelswithkids on July 28, 2006

This is one of many hotels run by the Sun International hotel group, and was formerly referred to as the Holiday Inn Garden Court Joburg Airport --- there are other Garden Courts in Jo'burg also.

It was a nice clean hotel, for about $120/night for a standard two double-bed hotel room. (We had two adults and two kids). The Garden Court was also quiet. They allowed us early check-in (about 10am) and we slept midday for a couple hours, having just arrived after a long journey from the US. I recommend it. But its not really near any "attractions" other than the airport.

They have a shuttle bus (R25/person) that leaves the airport from outside the Intercontinental Hotel (like all the other shuttles do).

The Garden Court had nice, casual, inexpensive restaurant options on-site.

Garden Court Hotel
2 Hulley Road
Johannesburg, South Africa
011 392 1062

Hilton Sandton Hotel

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by travelswithkids on July 28, 2006

The Hilton is in the upscale suburb of Sandton. It's in an area with a lot of other hotels with plenty of nice shopping centers close by. Just across the street is a small shopping plaze with a smallish craft market, and the Hilton has a complimentary shuttle to the Sandton City shopping center, only a half kilometer away or so. Sandton City is a huge shopping mall adjacent to Nelson Mandela square which is lined with several nice restaurants.

The Hilton is a very nice executive style Hilton hotel with full amenities such as spa, pool, concierge desk, parking garage (35 rand/day), executive lounge, and full-service restaurants.

The service was very accomodating, and the room and bathroom were very nice. The housekeeping staff moved in two portable beds for our daughters, which took up most of the floor space, but there was a little left in these nicely sized rooms. We really felt a little out-of-place after spending the last week in various national parks.

We had a grand buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant, with plenty of fresh fruits and fruit juices.
Hilton Sandton
138 Rivonia Road
Sandton, South Africa, 2146
+27 (11) 3221888

The Airport Grand Hotel

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by travelswithkids on July 28, 2006

The Airport Grand Hotel Johannesburg is a pretty nice clean hotel, sort of the same order as a Hampton Inn in the USA, maybe a little bigger. We got a room for about $90/night (2 double beds for 2 adults and 2 kids), including breakfast for adults, so we thought it was a pretty good value for the money. BUT BEWARE! It is directly under a runway approach. The planes fly over the hotel only about 50 meters up and it is very LOUD! Standard foam earplugs will not keep this noise out of your head even inside the hotel rooms. There isn't any air traffic all night long, so we did get a good night's sleep (as long as you're ready to get up by 6:30 or so when planes start landing), but I'm very glad we didn't book it for the day we arrived and wanted to sleep during the day.

The rooms were a little on the small side for 4 people, but were OK.

I think they have an airport shuttle, but we had a car here. It wasn't too hard to find from the airport, only a 5-10 minute drive away.

The Grand only had a buffet dinner in their restaurant at night, but if you don't want that, you can order room service off the menu.
The buffet breakfast was a very nice spread.

All the staff that we interacted with were polite and helpful.

There's a shopping center across the main road from the hotel, including a big grocery supermarket. The front desk staff sort of discouraged us from going there at night for dinner on safety reasons.
The Airport Grand Hotel
Johannesburg, South Africa

Cullinan Diamond Mine

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by travelswithkids on July 21, 2006

Cullinan diamond mine is a working diamond mine where, in 1906, they found the Cullinan diamond, still the largest uncut diamond ever found. It's on the edge of the town of Cullinan, a little ways northeast of Pretoria.

We booked our tour through Premier Diamond Tours, whose name and number we found in a Gauteng province tourism guide. They provided a great tour roughly 2 hours long, led by a retired diamond mining engineer. He was the best part of the tour, since in his many years in the industry, he'd had enough experiences to fill a book, and he sprinkled anecdotes throughout the tour.

You don't get to go underground on the tour, but they have some good displays explaining the geology of the Cullinan mine, and of course, replicas of the Cullinan diamond and all the sparkling gems that it was cut into. It was also interesting to see the tiny pile of diamonds which results from a day's working in the mine.

You get to walk around some of the equipment, and the process of crushing the kimberlite to separate out the diamonds is explained. Cullinan is unique among diamond mines in that it actually has cutting and polishing facilities onsite, staffed by local workers (as opposed to sending all the rough stones away to India or somewhere to be cut), and we saw these areas in operation.

One of the highlights is seeing the "big hole", about the 4th largest man-made hole in the world, from the time the diamond-bearing kimberlite was mined from the surface.
These surface deposits were undercut geologically by a thick layer of non-diamond bearing rock, and so now the mining is all done in tunnels beneath the surface.

At the end of the tour, you go to the diamond jewelry shop on the premises, where you have the opportunity to spend tens of thousands of dollars on diamonds. (Sadly, we had to decline the opportunity to purchase, but it was fun to look.)

Immediately outside the mine gates in the town of Cullinan are several quaint shops in the stone-walled former housing for miners.
Premier Mine/Cullinan Diamond Mine
Cullinan, South Africa

Lion Park

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by travelswithkids on July 21, 2006

After being out in the expansive game reserves like Kruger Park, it was a little odd coming to Lion Park, just outside of Johannesburg, relatively close to the posh suburb of Sandton. Lion Park is more like a zoo or smallish (200 hectare) game farm. It has two main parts: The game camps that you drive through and Cub World, where you get to have close encounters with a few animals. Cub World is what makes Lion Park a unique experience--you get to go in a small fenced area and actually pet lion cubs, including white lion cubs. They also have other animals and cubs such as cheetah, hyena, and jackals in penned areas. There was a pen for a leopard cub, but we were told he gets moved to a different, unseen area on weekends because the crowds prove too stressful for it. Also within Cub World is an platform where you can feed giraffe (they sell bowls of giraffe food for a few rand).

In the game park part of Lion Park, you drive through fenced fields containing assorted antelope, zebra, and a couple ostrich. Then you drive past some smaller (zoo sized) fenced in areas which are their hyena and cheetah camps. The highlight of the game drive area are their lion camps. They have four different prides of lions in separate areas that you get to drive into. You drive into each pride's field, and get to observe the lions very close up (as in walking right up to the cars). They have some very handsome lions, including black-maned ones and white lions. We got to see a couple of the lionesses climbing a tree.

We visited Lion Park on our last day, when we still had our rental car, before we had to head to the airport for our end of the day flight home. It was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, and the experience of petting the lion cubs was unforgettable.

Still, we did feel a little hypocritical visiting the animals in such a zoo-like setting after seeing their freedom in the wild in the big game preserves.

Admission was 70 rand/person (about $10-11), including Cub World and the self-driving part. There was also a small restaurant and picnic area on the grounds.

There is another Rhino and Lion Park a little further west and south of this Lion Park. It sounded interesting and a little bigger with a few more things to do (caves, etc.). We initially started towards it, but decided to go to Lion Park when it seemed it was going to take too long to get to Rhino and Lion Park.
Lion Park
Muldersdrift Road
Johannesburg, South Africa, 2194
+27 (11) 460 1814

Driving in South Africa and Swaziland

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by travelswithkids on July 28, 2006

We rented a car for 9 days in South Africa, and driving ourselves around worked pretty smoothly. The main roads are very good, with mostly clear signs. There's a good expressway toll road between Johannesburg and the Kruger area. The tolls come out to about $3 to $4 for an hour's driving.

We picked up our car from Europcar at the Johannesburg airport. We paid about $34/day for a Toyota Corolla, including coverage, taxes, etc. That seemed to be a pretty standard rate for that size car (manual) at various places on the Internet, although you can easily pay more if you just go straight to someplace like Hertz. With a rental car, you can also get a "free" rental cell phone from the airport. Not quite free in that you have to pay 10 rand(about $1.50)/day in insurance, and, of course, you pay for the calls you make (reasonable charges). That worked well for us.

Most drivers are pretty courteous outside of the Johannesburg-Pretoria congestion, for example, pulling way to the right to let you pass on a narrow road. But the Johannesburg area has very bad traffic jams at rush hour, just as bad as those in any American city, such as my home area of Chicago. We were coming into Johannesburg on a Friday afternoon, and the outbound lanes of the expressways were totally jammed, turned into a parking lot. (Coming against the main flow of traffic, it wasn't bad at all, though.) So definitely do not plan to drive around Johannesburg at rush hours. The freeways around Jo'burg (and elsewhere) have a 120 kph limit when they aren't jammed up, and on Saturday, it was no problem going that fast (people in Chicago drive just as fast on the freeway, but the limit is only 55mph/80kpm).

Thankfully, we didn't have any problems with safety. Car-jacking is a problem in South Africa, apparently, and we even saw a few signs at selected points on the highway saying "Hijack Hot Spot", which is a little scary. So pay attention to safety warnings you can read elsewhere. We tried to avoid all driving at night, both in cities and out.

There are "squeegee guys" at some stoplights in Jo'burg, just like you'd find in American cities, offering to wash your windshield for tips. It wasn't a big deal when one cleaned ours before we waved him off and we paid a couple rand, but with all the safety warnings and the city's reputation for crime, it is a little uncomfortable.

There are plenty of gasoline (petrol) stations, and the price of gas was just a little bit higher than in the US, not a budget breaker. Gas stations are still full service, and they take cash, not credit cards. We saw ATM machines at some of them. They are also a good place to stop to ask directions after your tank is filled.

Since I'm from America, I had to adjust to driving on the wrong side of the road. You do get used to it pretty quickly, but it is worthwhile to have someone remind you out loud "stay left" when starting out or occasionally. (I never did get used to the turn signal being on the right of the steering column and probably inadvertently turned on my windshield wipers 50 times.)

Having our own car certainly gave us the freedom to explore wherever we wanted to, and with four people, it was an economical way of touring around. We didn't have 4WD and didn't really need it, even in Kruger or game parks in Swaziland.

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