Due to multiple repeat house sits in Europe, in January of 2017, we (Vanessa) were in need of some time out of the Schengen zone. EU rules only allow Vanessa to stay 90 days every six months on her Brazilian passport. Therefore we were looking for somewhere else to go, somewhere warm preferably. An opportunity for house sitting in Johannesburg popped up on Trustedhousesitters with almost perfect dates for us.
After looking at flights I was amazed how cheap they were. Malaga to Capetown and returning from Jo’burg to Paris for less than $600, or 30,000 Us Bank Flexperks points! We applied for the sit and received a Skype call from the homeowners while enjoying our churros and hot chocolate at the beach in Almunecar, Spain. They kindly agreed to change their travel dates a little to work around our schedule. Before you know it, we were on our way to South Africa for the first time.
We spent our first five nights in Capetown before heading to our house sit in Jo’burg. We cashed in some Marriott points to stay at a rather luxurious hotel (by our standards), the African Pride 15 on Orange. It was a beautiful hotel, but with so much to see in Capetown, we really didn’t spend much time there. We did come home for a break one afternoon and found about a dozen large security guards and two airport-style metal detectors in the hallway outside our room. What was going on? The then-president, Jacob Zuma, was having a meeting in the room next door!
After 5 fun filled and exhausting days in Capetown, we knew we had to come back to this amazing city and explore it more. More about that, and Capetown, in future posts. It was now time to head to Jo’burg for what was to be our first, but definitely not our last, house sit in South Africa
After a quick and inexpensive Uber ride to the airport, we settled into the lounge for a quick breakfast. Soon it came time to board our short flight on the budget airline, Mango, Barbara and Graham, our hosts, greeted us at the airport in Jo’burg. Their house was just a thirty-minute drive in the upscale neighborhood of Hyde Park. During that thirty minute drive, we learned some of the “rules” of driving in Jo’burg. Always keep all doors and windows locked. Never leave your purse or anything valuable in view. And always check in your rearview mirror to make sure nobody is following you.
Following all the rules we arrived safely to Hyde park. Hyde Park is in the Sandton district, the new and booming suburb of Jo’berg. A quick stop was made at the security gate of the neighborhood for a quick introduction to the security guards who would be keeping us safe during our three weeks stay. After two more electric gates in the driveway, we finally arrived at our “home” for the next three weeks. Our Mercedes, their second car, was waiting for us in the driveway, and was ours to drive for our stay.
We were shown to our room, which was bigger than many people’s whole houses. Next, we were introduced to our two new furry friends, Tom and Tandy, who we would be caring for. This was followed by a wonderful lunch prepared by Barbara, along with some great local wine from their second home in the Cape. We soon came to realize that Barbara and Graham were some of the most generous hosts you are likely to meet in the house sitting world.
That evening was spent at the movies and out for dinner, with plenty more wine and whiskey. We spent the next two days with our hosts. We would get to know the house, the security systems, where the panic buttons where so armed guards would show up in minutes if we had a problem. After a quick tour of the local area a little. we felt pretty comfortable about our stay by the time our hosts left for Hermanus.
This was not a small house by most people’s standards. There was the main house where we would be staying, the guest house by the pool, and the employee quarters behind. Yes, this house sit came with an employee, a first for us. James, from Malawi, was primarily their full-time gardener but also did cleaning duties around the house. The garden was lush and full of colorful flowers and really did need a lot of work. But I guess nothing compared to the house down the street that employed 30 gardeners!!
James was a great guy. It was fun to chat with and learn about his life here in Joburg and also back in Malawi. Although we became good friends with him, I think he always still thought of us as his boss. On Wednesdays, Jame’s nephew Aaron would come help for the day to get bigger two-man projects done. It was my duty that day to make them breakfast and lunch. Eggs and peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. Pap with sausage for lunch, both accompanied by fresh fruit and some seriously sugary instant coffee. It was a shame that they would never join us for lunch but always go and eat at their own separate table down the garden.
Besides feeding the cats every day, and feeding the employees once a week, our time was our own to explore the sights of Joburg. Most tourists seem to pass straight through Joburg in favor of Capetown or Kruger National Park. And you can’t really blame them. But Joburg had plenty to keep us busy and was a great introduction to the life and the history of South Africa.
Our neighborhood itself was fairly sterile, mostly big (huge) homes hidden behind even bigger walls, gates, and electric fences. There are very few you can actually see. But the ones that you can were built to be seen, although I did not really feel comfortable standing outside taking pictures. We would walk around the neighborhood occasionally and down to the supermarket at the nearby mall to go shopping or to the movies. It was rare to see another white person on our walks. It was mostly just black people who worked in the huge houses owned by white people. But they were all so friendly and would always smile and say hello. We always felt safe. Rarely a minute would go by without an armed security truck passing by patrolling the neighborhood.
In South Africa, there are three official races, black, white, and colored(mixed race). This is passed down from the apartheid era, and everybody seems to be okay with it. Nobody gets offended and accuses you of being politically incorrect if you refer to someone as black or colored. That’s just how it is. There is a huge wealth gap in this country like I have never really seen anywhere else. And it is quite obvious which race has all the money and which doesn’t.
It seemed rare for us as tourists to meet other white people. Shops, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, etc were generally staffed by blacks. Not all of them were South African. Many were immigrants from neighboring African countries whose economies are in even worse shape than South Africa’s. No matter how hard these people work, or how little they get paid, you can always guarantee them to be happy and smiling. In fact, the people will always be my biggest memory of our trip here, and one thing that will keep me coming back.
Apart from all the malls in the Sandton and Rosebank area, there is actually another side to Jo’burg, downtown! Downtown Jo’burg was pretty much abandoned at the end of apartheid in 1994. All the white-owned businesses moved out to the newer and safer suburbs around Sandton. They were afraid of what would happen when black people were allowed back in their neighborhood. Today many of the buildings are still abandoned. The lower levels are just sealed up with concrete to keep unwanted inhabitants out. They are commonly referred to as the ghost buildings. I think it is fair to say that downtown Jo’burg is one of the ugliest places I have ever visited.
It was not recommended to visit there by ourselves. And definitely not to drive our loaner Mercedes down there. We parked the car at the mall and took the Gautrain into Park Station. It was here where we met our guide for our free walking tour. After leaving everyone’s belongings behind at their office, a dozen of us headed into the scary looking streets of downtown. Nobody, including our guide, was allowed to carry anything with them. Not even a bottle of water as somebody was sure to try and take it from you and probably hurt you in the process. Cell phones were allowed for pictures, but not real cameras. We were only allowed to be used when the guide felt it was safe to do so. We explored many of the historical sights, the abandoned buildings, the market streets, and of course, Nelson Mandela’s former office.
It was a fascinating tour and we were so glad we took it. But it is not really the kind of place you would go back to, especially by yourself.
Back at Park Station, after giving our wonderful guide a nice tip, we had about thirty minutes to wait for our train back to Rosebank. I was in desperate need of a haircut and there was a hairdressing salon at the station. Half an hour should be plenty of time to cut my hair, or so I thought. Several friendly ladies greeted me and put me in the seat, and also made sure Vanessa was comfortable while waiting.
They quoted 80 rand (6 USD) for the cut, and the two sisters from Zimbabwe got to work on me. I really didn’t understand half of what they were saying to each other, but they seemed to be having so much fun cutting a white guy’s hair. Many barbershops will turn white people away. It’s not because they are being rude or don’t want your business. They just don’t know how to cut white people’s hair! I’m not sure that these girls did either but they were sure having fun trying. I got cut, washed, dried, massaged, and three missed trains later, they were done.
The older sister rang me up at the register. ” I thought you told me 80 rand ” I said. ” Yes I did, but yours was easy” she replied and handed me my bill for 40 rand! It was the funnest haircut I can ever remember. I handed her a 100 rand bill and tried to leave to catch the train. But it wasn’t that simple. We had to wait for the other sister to return.
She had disappeared in the back and finally returned with a bunch of fresh roses for Vanessa. She told us that they were leftover from Valentine’s Day and insisted on giving them to Vanessa ( probably the first and last roses she has ever gotten for Valentine’s Day!!). Almost two hours later and the 4 pm train was long gone. We just managed to catch the 5.30 pm train home after a wonderful day downtown.
We did head back downtown another day after all, this time on the Big Red Bus Tour, the hop on hop off tourist sightseeing bus trip. I have never been much of a fan of these types of tours. After such a good experience with them in Cape Town, we decided to give it another try.
The bus conveniently leaves from Rosebank Mall which was close to our house and has cheap parking for the Mercedes. We sat on the upper deck. This gives you a great view over the huge concrete walls surrounding all the rich people’s homes and gives you a quick glance as to what is on the inside. We made our first stop at Constitution Hill and took the tour through the former apartheid-era prison. A very interesting but a very sad place.
After a birds-eye view winding through some of the nicer downtown streets, we ended up at the Apartheid Museum. Wow! This place will blow your mind with vivid descriptions and photos of all the atrocities that took place during that awful time. But I think it really hits home is when you realize that this happened not that long ago during our lifetimes. It is an incredible exhibit with so much to take in. After a while, I found it hard to read anymore and look at any more sad photos. It is not a happy place by any means. This place did take up most of our day. After one more quick stop for a much needed beer in the cooler part of downtown, Braamfontein, our red bus tour would be over.
Did we enjoy it? Yes, but if we were to do it all over again I would have saved some money and just driven or taken Uber to the Apartheid Museum. This really was the bulk of our day. On the other hand, we did get to see Braamfontein and realize there were some nice parts to downtown after all. We would revisit it again on the weekend for the famous Neighborgoods Market,
While we did get to many other parts of Jo’burg during our stay, we never actually made it to the famous and much-hyped neighborhood of Soweto. Soweto is famous for the uprisings that eventually bought down the apartheid government. It is also the home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. They both lived on the same street. We tried and planned but the weather just never cooperated. We thought we would have to save it for another trip.
Well, that all changed when Barbara and Graham returned from their trip. After several whiskeys and bottles of wine, Graham offered to give us a personal tour of Soweto the following morning before we caught our late afternoon flight. Graham was personally involved in the redevelopment of Soweto after the end of apartheid. He worked in collaboration with the government and knew the area and it’s history very well. Soweto seems like the “in place” to visit in Jo’burg these days but Barbara insisted on staying home to prepare lunch as she couldn’t see any reason to visit there.
We spent a few hours driving and walking around there. After learning some of its history, checking out Nelson Mandela’s house, I have to admit I failed to see what all the hype was about. I’m so glad we went but probably wouldn’t feel the need to go again if we return to Jo’burg.
After another great meal from the braai (BBQ) with our hosts, it was time to say our goodbyes to Tom and Tandy and head to the airport for our overnight flight to Paris.
It had been a great stay and we already knew it would not be our last. There are many reasons to visit South Africa. The beautiful scenery, the amazing food and wine, the low cost of living. But more than anything it is the friendly, smiling, happy people that I will always remember. And this alone is a reason to keep coming back for!
Please join us on our future adventures in this wonderful country.