A visit to the Dark Continent is a must-do for any travel lover. One gets to ‘see’ the history that changed the view-point of the world, topped with the unsurpassed beauty of nature, making your trip totally worthwhile. We booked with SOTC (an online tour site), since there is so much to see in South Africa and we hoped they would organise the time better for us.
Johannesburg – Biggest city of South Africa
Soon we were flying to Johannesburg, which is the biggest city of South Africa and the capital of Gauteng Province. Its famous for the discovery of large gold deposits along the Witwatersrand (The Reef). An interesting piece of information we gathered was that the currency ‘Rand’ of South Africa, owes its name to this reef.
The clean, well-laid out and planned city is a delight to travel through. Tall buildings that house some of the international companies, proudly stand amongst beautifully kept parks and gardens. On the way to our hotel, The Emperor’s Palace, we could see the mountains in the distance where the actual mining of metals takes place.
We were handed out entry tickets to spend the whole day at the biggest amusement park in South Africa, the Gold Reef City Theme park. This is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays except on Gauteng public school holidays.It’s a huge place with Africa’s tallest, biggest and fastest rides, catering to every age group. They even have provision for the disabled. We could hear excited and delighted screams from riders. Typically, there are long queues in most places and one should be prepared to wait for a minimum for half hour for any entry.
We were most keen on the tour of ‘Jozi’s Story of Gold’. This is themed on the gold rush of the Witwatersrand (late 1800), which had led to the establishment of the city of Johannesburg.
You are immediately transported back to those times, when you enter the replica of the town square (albeit I am sure, in a much cleaner environment) and can just imagine how the workers would dress, move from the station to the mines and how they travelled deep inside the earth daily to earn their livelihood. When the mines were first made functional, there was no electricity and miners would use lamps to help see. A module of how the mines function, was on display.
For safety purposes, children below 8, those with a heart problem, blood pressure problem and those suffering from claustrophobia are not allowed inside the mines.
It is mandatory to wear the helmets supported with light when you enter because even now rocks can suddenly fall at some places. Around 20 of us got into a narrow lift (claustrophobia starts right from there) and were taken five floors down.The ride may not have been more than a few minutes but the worst fear of being trapped in a broken lift had me on my tenterhooks. I recalled, some miners being stuck for almost 40 days in a miners lift in Argentina!
While I was still praying, the lift stopped and opened in a tunnel with rocks on both sides (obviously)-out of the frying pan into the fire? The tunnel was dark and narrow and if I was not in a crowd that encouraged me on, I would have burst out crying. I swore then and there never to buy any gold after this-if this is how the poor workers get it for us. We walked in a horizontal mine for almost an hour! One can see gold dust embedded in the rocky sides. There is a fluorescent line marked on the roof and sides of the cave so that people are careful about the height and don’t bump their heads.
The whole tour took about 2 hours and boy! was I glad when we came out in the open again. We were then taken on a tour to show how gold dust is converted into foil, nougats and bullions.
This ‘Story of Gold’ was such an eye-opener-a ‘must’ for people to experience and understand.
Those interested in ‘flora’ can visit the largest Botanical garden and can go gaga over the vast variety of flowers, specially roses and other plants. This is a huge place and one can easily spend 2 hours here.
Back at our Peermont D’Orealle Grande, Emperors Palace we relaxed in its luxurious environment and spent some time in marvelling its victorian interiors and Roman artefacts. I read somewhere, the nick name of Johannesburg is ‘Jwanesbeg’-‘Where I was’ and I loved ‘where I was’.
Cape Town – The Legislative capital of South Africa
After a most elaborate breakfast, we took a flight to the port city, Cape Town, the Legislative capital of South Africa. Cape Town is a 2 hour flight from Johannesburg. It is famed for its harbour, the table top mountain and proximity to Robben Island, the prison that once held the Apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela. We reached Cape Town by evening.
We spotted the Lion’s Head Mountain and the famous Table Top Mountain, which forms a prominent landmark overlooking the city of Cape Town, on our way from the airport to our hotel, The Westin. Although we were itching to take the cableway straight to the top of the Table top Mountain, we were discouraged because of the weather.
The evening was spent at the most lively, colourful and entertaining Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. You get a beautiful view of the Table Top Mountain as it forms a dramatic backdrop, while you relax in one of the numerous restaurants that dot the pier. You can catch a boat from here if you want to do some dolphin and whale watching in the ocean. But typically, as with animals, it is not always that you get to sight a whale.
You can also book (sensible if done in advance), a visit to Robben Island by ferry, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life. The 30 minute ride costs R300 (approx 22 USD) and is a ‘must-visit’ to understand the history of the Continent. This prison is now converted into a museum and is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. When we questioned our guide why prisoners did not escape by swimming the ‘under 8 kms’ distance to the main land, he said the water in the ocean is so cold that without the correct body coverage, one would just freeze in the waters.
Fortunately the weather cleared the next day. We were told that if the weather is even slightly bad, if there is even a little drizzle, it becomes misty at the top and very windy. This Is highly dangerous for the functioning of the cableway.
There are many city buses that run frequently from different points in the city to the Lower Cable Station. Do remember to pre-book the cable ride online, to save time. The more enterprising; hike up the mountain.
The Table Mountain is flanked by the Devil’s Peak on one end and The Lion’s Head on the other and forms part of the Table Mountain National Park. At the top, the plateau extends almost 3 kms from side to side and is 1000 metres above sea level. Needless to say, the view from the top is breathtaking. One can see the Lion’s Head, the Signal Hill, Robben Island, The Cape Town City Centre, Table Bay and the Devil’s Peak. One can spend the whole day here exploring the terrain by joining some short trek group, or just enjoy the flora and fauna of the place. There are enough eateries here and wash rooms for convenience. It gets very windy at the top and very cold, so please take the necessary precautions. You will feel that you could get blown away by the wind if you are not careful.
Our next stop was an exhilarating cruise to the Seal Island, Calypso. The added bonus to the trip was we get to see the homes of quite a few Hollywood celebrities such as Brad Pitt’s. Okay, it was half a km away, but…
The cruise was just for half an hour and although the sea was not rough, every once in a while, huge waves would engulf our boat and completely drench us. We had to hold on tightly to the rails to not get swept into the sea. We faced a bad moment when a lady fell (thankfully, not into the sea) getting caught by an unexpected huge wave.
Although the wind was cold, the day was sunny and we were delighted to see the seals sun bathing on the rocks. How noisy they were! And so smelly! Their loud honking could be heard above the noise of the crashing waves on the rocks. They were an absolute delight to watch and we just didn’t want the cruise to turn back.
The Flying Dutchman Funicular at Cape Point (Named after the legendary Flying Dutchman Ghost Ship) is one of the world’s most unique because it is set at the ocean side. A ride in a Funicular has its own charm and when you get to see one of the most dramatic panoramic view from the light house at the top, it’s the icing on the cake. And I felt so nice when I saw New Delhi marked ‘just’ 9296 kms away ! If you are visiting between May and November, you may even get a chance to see migrating whales!
Although to attract tourist attention, guides claim that the two oceans, Atlantic and Indian, meet here; one blue the other green; but the official geographic divide between the two is Cape Agulhas (170 kms to the South East). Incidentally, that is also the southern-most point of the African Continent and not the Cape Point.
We couldn’t leave Cape Town without a look-see at the only penguins found on the Continent-The African Penguins (earlier known as Jackass Penguins because of the braying sound they use to call out). They were swarming on the warm, clean sand and we were told that if one visits in January, one gets to even see the rare sight of juvenile birds moulting on the beach!
At the end of the day, we were a very satisfied lot that came back to the hotel. We were envying those who were leaving for Nysna the next day to join the animal safari. We were unfortunately heading home.
Also read: Geneva – A Walking Holiday