As someone who travels to Southern Africa several times a year, technically I have ‘visited’ Johannesburg more times than I can remember. However, when I say ‘visit’ what I mean is that I have flown in and out of O.R. Tambo more than any other non-UK airport in the world because almost every flight I take in Southern Africa involves going via JHB! Despite sometimes going via Johannesburg several times in one trip, I had never stepped outside of the airport.
When I tell people this, most people assume this is because I didn’t believe it was safe. This is absolutely not the case. So this year I decided that it was time to find out for myself whether I should start recommending Johannesburg as a genuine stopover destination and I decided to stay for 3 nights at Courtyard Hotel Rosebank before my connection into Namibia. I am really glad that I did. What I found was a truly diverse city with a fascinating history mixed with modern culture, a fantastic art scene and amazing gourmet restaurants. However, the one thing that really stood out for me, the reason for this blog and why I now think Johannesburg is a must do ‘stopover’ destination, is the incredible museums.
Now before some of you switch off, I should probably say at this point – I am definitely not a museum person. I know some people love visiting museums to absorb vast amounts of information, and to spend hours browsing all that is on offer. I am not one of those people. I am more of a ‘summary’ kind of girl that likes to understand the key information, but doesn’t want too much detail. My attention span is usually a maximum of 45 minutes to an hour! However, in Johannesburg I visited three museums during my stay, and without even noticing when I was there spent around 3-4 hours in each. This is a testament to how interactive and interesting each of these museums are.
So, where did I visit?
I visited here straight after landing from my overnight flight into Johannesburg. I figured that as I was unlikely to be able to check-in to my hotel, that I would do something to keep myself awake! Initially I was just planning to go to the Maropeng Visitor Centre, however my friendly guide advised that I really should visit the Sterkfontein Caves first, to get a true understanding of the area and its importance. So we set off on the hour journey to the caves, and within a couple of hours of landing into Johannesburg I found myself crawling on my knees in beautiful caves in an impractical outfit of a dress and leggings! Despite the hilarity of the situation it was really enjoyable. Although if you decide to do the same – remember to dress for the flight in comfortable ‘caving’ clothes or have some ready to change into upon landing!
Before starting the guided tour of the cave I spent some time in the small exhibition area that gives an introduction to cave formations and geology, early life forms, mammals and hominid fossils. From there it was time to put on a hairnet and hardhat and head on down into the cave area. The caves were formed in dolomitic limestone over millions of years, and there are some beautiful wide chambers to visit once inside. Sterkfontein caves are world renowned for their unique fossil finds over many years with the most notable being Mrs Ples (a 2.1-million-year-old Australopithecus skull) and Little Foot (an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton dating back more than three million years). Our knowledgeable guide offered a fantastic overview of the work done in this area, and there were some lovely stalactite and stalagmite formations to see. There are a lot of steps in the cave, and there is a little bit of crouching/crawling required towards the end of the tour. Therefore, this trip certainly isn’t for everyone. I didn’t really have time to even think about it, as I think I was still only just waking up after the overnight flight! However, I would certainly recommend as long as you are not claustrophobic and are okay with steps and uneven ground. If you are interested in the area but a bit uncertain about going into the actual caves then you can still visit the exhibition, and then comfortably wait at the newly renovated cafe, with a great menu if other members of your group want to head on into the caves.
After the caves I was driven the short distance over to the award-winning Maropeng Visitor Centre that focuses on the development of humans and our ancestors over the past few million years. The tour starts with a short ‘boat’ ride (4 people max) that explores the formation of the planet about 4.6 billion years ago before moving all the way through the evolutionary processes that culminate in the world as we know it today. In the main exhibition areas there is the opportunity to see fossils and learn all about how humankind was born and has evolved. There are even stone tools on display that are up to a million years old. What I loved about this museum was how interactive it was. As I mentioned at the start, I am not someone who likes to read reams of information, and it is like this museum is designed for people like me! Don’t worry there is lots of information available for those that require it. However, the uniqueness of the museum is that it uses fun bright displays and interactive games to give a real understanding of how humans have evolved. It made learning about science/science history fun and I came away feeling I had a much better understanding of the importance of this area, not just to South Africa but to the whole of humankind.
South Africa is a country with a fascinating and unique history, and a key part of this is Apartheid. The museum dedicated to this era is powerful and informative, and absolutely vital in ensuring a continued education about the events that took place. On entering the museum you essentially take a journey through the rise and fall of Apartheid, through Mandela’s presidency and right up to the current day. The museum is filled with Newspaper articles, propaganda, artefacts, videos from the time and in retrospect, personal accounts from those impacted, books and many many remarkable photographs.
Understandably there is a lot of information to take in throughout this museum, however I believe that they have really got the balance right. There is a lot of visual information in the form of videos and photos, but there is also a lot of written information providing emotional and informative accounts of events throughout apartheid. What made this museum so compelling for me was the focus on the personal aspect, as you got so many true accounts of the terrible things that occurred to individuals. The way that the museum is laid out means that you essentially walk slowly through different periods and events, and there is always something fascinating to read during each section. The museum does rightly include a lot of information about Nelson Mandela and his role and there is a Nelson Mandela exhibition. However, this is only part of the overall story and the museum is true to this, as you get to hear the life stories of many other campaigners for change who put their lives at risk in the name of humanity and equality.
Overall I spent nearly 4 hours in the museum. The visit was very emotional, and it is shocking to think that these inhumane and cruel events occurred during my lifetime, in such recent history. However, at the end of the visit I did come away with a feeling of hope. Due to its history South Africa now has a constitution that contains guarantees of equality that are more extensive than anywhere else in the world! At the heart of the constitution agreed between 1994-96 are seven fundamental values: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom. South Africa does still have a way to go in terms of ensuring true equality for all, but a visit to this museum highlights exactly how far the country has already come.
Constitution Hill is a former prison that now operates as a living museum detailing South Africa’s journey to democracy. The site is also the home of the countries constitutional court. The hop on Hop off tour stops here, and I completely recommend getting off. You are free to do your own self-guided tour around the various former prison sections, and the current constitutional court. However, I highly recommend joining a small tour, which depart a couple of times during the day. Our guide was spectacular and really brought the buildings to life. We got to understand not only the prison and its architecture, but all about the daily routines and the unbelievable stories of some of the residents.
Aside from the current Constitutional Court the key areas to visit are the Old Fort (built in 1893), the women’s prison and Number Four, that housed black males for over 80 years. As you tour the prison the walls have multiple brief stories about the inmates and their ‘crimes’, as well as how they were treated whilst inside. Even if you have a strong grasp of South African history it is still shocking to be inside the cells where numerous unjustifiable human rights violations took place over many years.
As well as being an important site of South African history, Constitution Hill also holds regular public engagement events that are curated to embrace current issues, celebrate days of national significance, address matters of public interest and create a forum for public debate. It is always worth checking the website to see what is on, if you have any free time whilst in Johannesburg.
One final note – for Geocaching geeks like myself! There is one hidden on site and it is a pretty easy find so definitely worth taking a quick detour…….
After visiting Johannesburg I strongly urge anyone travelling to Southern Africa via O.R.Tambo to spend a couple of days visiting this vibrant and fascinating city. I am already planning where to go on my next visit…..