We landed at 10am, and immigration was quick without bags, and we were spared the odd questions about why we’d come to Johannesburg for just 33 hours. Fortunate.
I’ve been to South Africa dozens of times, but haven’t actually visited Johannesburg in over 15 years. I flew into JNB two years ago during my round the world 40th birthday trip, but immediately got in a rental car and headed to Lesotho, so I hadn’t properly visited the city in a long time. I was excited to get a small preview of how things had changed.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did do a similar milage run about 5 years ago, when Lufthansa published a DC to Helsinki fare that allowed Johannesburg in the routing rules. So, yes, I did go DC – Frankfurt – Johannesburg – Frankfurt – Helsinki. It was legal, and only like an extra $10 in taxes, but as it was a connection I only had about 8 hours in Johannesburg. I did manage to get down to Sandton for lunch, but had to take a giant share taxi which was a bit of a pain in the butt.
Why am I going on about this? Because everyone I knew from there had told me how nice the Gautrain was. JNB to Sandton and Rosebank in about 15 minutes. Clean, fast, efficient, and relatively affordable. I was sold! We only had to wait about 10 minutes for a train, and it was actually rather nice!
Short train ride later, we were at the Sandton station, which was located conveniently across the street from our hotel, the Radisson Blu Sandton Gautrain. Check-in was quick and pleasant, and we were “upgraded” to a business floor room. Nothing special about the room, except that Radisson Blu’s business class rooms seem to all have Nespresso machines in them. I was a happy caffeine addict. Perhaps the strangest part was the picture on the wall outside our room:
Yes, that’s the Farragut West metro station in Washington, DC, the same station I get out at most every day to go to the office. Halfway around the world. Go figure. It was if the hotel was taunting us! We took advantage of the Nespresso machine in the room to refuel, and since it was almost noon at this point we headed across the street to Nelson Mandela Square to get some lunch.
We settled on Baglios, mainly because they had a table on the lanai where I could sit and enjoy the 23C sun since it was still cold back in DC. But first, to start lunch off on the right note, I introduced Phil to Savanna Dry cider!
You’ll note the tent set up in the background. It was Easter, and there was a concert getting ready to begin. But we were hungry, and it was time for lunch…and perhaps the most interesting “club sandwich” I’ve ever had. Yes, those are chicken breasts and full-size hard boiled eggs. Go figure. But yes, at least it was super tasty!
After lunch we were starting to fade once again, so we headed inside to Vida e Caffe to get a few espressos to fuel us. I seriously have never seen Easter taken so seriously. First Lufthansa gave us chocolate bunnies, and now the coffeeshop was giving them out. Perhaps the US has taken political correctness a bit too far and has stopped putting bunnies at every corner.
Come on, seriously, Easter IS all about the bunny right? Just like Christmas is about Santa Claus? Don’t try and tell me there’s some other dude that the holiday is supposed to be all about….is there?
Oh, where were we….ah yes. Sufficiently caffeinated and having avoided being struck by lightening we hopped back on the Gautrain to go one stop further to Rosebank to shop at the Rosebank Sunday market. I hadn’t been there since my very first trip to South Africa over 15 years ago, but remember it being full of lots of authentic arts and crafts, and a great place to buy souvenirs to take home. On the way, I should have began to doubt how authentic it remained when at the entrance we were greeted by “native dancers:”
Yeah, so maybe not so authentic. The market was actually rather empty (Easter maybe?) but it was pretty sad the quality of stuff they had for sale. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been to Africa dozens of times since, including some much less safe parts of Africa, but the market seemed way less cool to me, and even Phil on his first trip to Africa was completely unimpressed. It was late afternoon at this point, and we had a bit of time to kill, and I remembered on my first trip to South Africa staying at the Hyatt in Rosebank and enjoying many a Savanna Dry on the lanai. I couldn’t resist a repeat…
By this time, the sun was long down, and we’d bonded with our Lufthansa crew from that morning over a Savanna Dry or…many…and it was time to head back to our hotel to change and try and hunt down some dinner. Hunt down being the operative word, because I was determined to find some game meat for Phil. We didn’t have to go any further than across the street to Mandela Square (hey, it’s Easter, give me a break…) for the Butcher Shop & Grill Restaurant.
They had no trouble seating us outside without a reservation, and it was time to bring on the meat! Even the menu advertised the cholesterol-laden goodness that awaited us:
See, I wasn’t kidding! All steaks can not only be cut bigger, but are also ‘taking the cholesterol to a new level.” How can you argue with that!
First though, it was time to start off with some Springbok Carpaccio:
Next up were the main courses. I had a delicious Kudu steak with Boerewors, and it came with a half of a roast sweet potato and some monkeygland sauce. Delicious!
Despite being absolutely stuffed at this point, it was Easter, and we couldn’t resist some sweets. A bit of Malva Pudding with some local grappa seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.
Absolutely stuffed at this point, we rolled across the street back to the Radisson Blu.
…where I immediately collapsed in bed after sleeping two nights in a row on planes.
I suppose this is as good of a place as any to chat about the hotel a bit. Loved the room and the Nespresso machine as I mentioned above, with one big exception. The bathroom. The bathroom had a wonderful rain shower like other Radisson Blus I’ve stayed in, but it also had a glass wall between the shower and the bedroom, meaning anyone in the bedroom got the treat of watching you not only shower…but use the toilet. I mean seriously, who the hell thought that was a good idea?! Really?
Ok, I’m over it. I slept like a rock for over eight hours, and got up early enough to enjoy the fantastic buffet breakfast (which they included with the room on an award stay, don’t ask me why) and be ready to be picked up by our driver at 9am for a Soweto tour. Now, I thought they’d actually called a tour company. Oh no, it was a hotel car (a Mercedes…nice) which for only about $50 each took us on a 4 hour tour of Soweto. Highly recommended, and the driver was very knowledgeable. As for Soweto…wow this place has changed since I was last there in the late 90s. I didn’t recognize anything. Back then it was edgy still, had a cool urban african feel and now…felt like a bit of a spruced up tourist attraction.
First stop was Mandela’s house where he returned after being released from prison. Even it had undergone a serious facelift with a nice ticket booth, courtyard, and museum:
We had a nice tour with a large group of South African schoolgoers, and then headed down the street to the Hector Pietersen museum. I’m not going to tell the whole story of Hector Pietersen here, but you can click the link on his name to learn a bit more about him and the role he played in the struggle against apartheid. The museum was actually quite interesting and told the story well, and was definitely a nice addition…except for all the touts set up across the street selling miscellaneous “crafts” from all over Africa. A few artsy shots of the outside of the museum – no photos allowed inside:
We drove around Soweto a bit more, where the stadium was pointed out…and what remained of the Baragwanath taxi rank. I remember this being a giant chaotic open space with minibus taxis everywhere, but now it looked like just another bus station. Oh well, plus que ça change and all that jazz. It was interesting to see more how it had changed, but wasn’t all that interesting in its own right any longer.
Back to the hotel for a late lunch before heading to the airport. We headed back to Nelson Mandela Square and found seats on the second floor outdoors at Pappas on the Square – which we finally figured out was a Greek-style place. It was pretty tasty! Of course, what better to start out our last meal in Johannesburg than another Savanna Dry!
You can see the giant Nelson Mandela statue in the background behind me. Went with a couple of lighter appetizers for lunch, some grilled octopus and some stuffed grape leaves.
It was super tasty and a nice light lunch before heading back to the hotel, packing up our few things we’d brought with, and heading to the airport for the long series of flights back!