Johannesburg Stories and Tips

Johannesburg: Worries, Wearies, Wonders, Wildlife

Lion at Lion Park Photo, Johannesburg, South Africa

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.

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