Where the Streets are Paved in Gold

Johannesburg. Founded in 1886 when gold was struck and the mines were dug. Its an ironic beginning for this major African city when you look at it now and how its developed over the past 130+ years. It is now a city of barbed wire and electric fences. Regardless, its Monsieur’s hometown and we couldn’t come all the way to South Africa and not stop by for a visit. Most importantly we needed to spend some time with Granny D, Monsieur’s grandmother and our kids’ great grandmother.

Four Generations in Jo’Burg

We routed ourselves from Cape Town to Jo’Burg. It was a social visit and not a tourist stop, so our stay was just 3 quick nights on our way to the Timbavati and our safari. Our plan was to visit Granny D as well as some of the remaining friends and family still living in town. Monsieur also wanted to take the kids on a tour of the city so that they could see his hometown.

Johannesburg is the scariest city I’ve ever visited. The crime rate here is extremely high. Not just robberies, but violent crime is rampant. People live behind walls and fences with electrified barbed wire across the tops. Red lights are approached with the most caution as you never know when one of the many poor folks begging on the corners will be a carjacker. Cellphones stay out of sight and handbags tucked under the seats. You are always on guard here and as a Canadian we are truly fish out of water in a place where you’re constantly on edge. So our visit here was jam packed and compact so we could get in and out with our (ok MY) nerves still intact.

On the move in Jo’Burg, security measures for a neighbourhood. Not an uncommon sight.

Day one, we headed out with a driver (feeling this was the safest way to approach our transport around the city) to tour around the neighbourhoods and schools Monsieur frequented as a kid. We managed to wind our way into his old neighbourhood in Orange Grove and found his childhood home. He was surprised at how little had changed, although the fence was higher. He rang the bell at the gate and the sweet woman inside answered. He explained why we were there and if you can believe it in this crime ridden city, she let us in to have a look! It was lovely and Monsieur was very touched.

We eventually found our way to the home of Monsieur’s old classmate W and his lovely wife S. They hosted us for lunch in the sunny garden and our kids all had a ball getting to know each other. It was a fun afternoon while the boys reminisced about their childhood and adolescent adventures. They also filled us in on how life in South Africa was changing.

Day two was devoted to visiting Granny D who is now living in a Senior’s Home in Jo’Burg. We met up with her in the snack bar at the home where she had invited a few of her neighbours to join us. It was clear that Covid has been hard on this community between lockdowns and visitor restrictions. They all seemed very happy for the chance to meet some new faces and chat about all the things happening in the world.

After the tea break, we took everyone out for lunch. In Jo’Burg, people spend their spare time out and about in gated shopping malls with plenty of security. So we followed suit and took them all to a strip mall with a collection of restaurants called “The Neighbourhood”. They all agreed that they were glad for a break from the meals served in the cafeteria at the home and were happy for a good South African grilled meat meal!

After lunch, Granny D was worn out so we brought her back to the home for a rest and bid her farewell, promising we would visit after our Safari before we flew home. Monsieur’s Mom (aka Granny B) was with us so we headed back to her hotel and a nose around the gated community she was staying in. Melrose Arch is a secure CBD area with plenty of security so its safe to walk around and visit the shops and restaurants.

Drake spotting in Jo’Burg

Following our stay in the Timbavati, we had to return to Johannesburg for one night before we flew home and ended our trip. During that stay, we spent more time visiting Granny D. We also took the kids to Sandton – essentially the new downtown area of Johannesburg. We stopped for lunch in Sandton Square to see the massive statue of Nelson Mandela which interestingly enough is out of proportion, unless Mandela had such short legs.

Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton City

We were grateful that the most heart-pumping moments we faced in Jo’Burg were on the way out. As we were headed to the airport we watched a car beside us, driving in the fast lane with a driver busily texting away not watching the road. In true South African fashion, the road works were set up in the lane with little to no warning. She luckily looked up at the last second, avoided swerving into us, slammed on the breaks and only took out the traffic cones and fortunately none of the workers.

A few minutes later, with elevated heart rates we arrived at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg. The driver was busy unloading our luggage when all of a sudden tires screeched and people were yelling. A small white pick-up truck had backed out of the drop-off area at high speed and was now being chased by security on foot. Doors of the truck were open and luggage flying out and falling under the tires. I guess some person saw the car running, took the opportunity and stole it. It all happened so fast it was hard to piece together what had taken place.

Hearts really pumping, we hightailed it into the airport to get ourselves checked in and to the safety of airside. At the check in counter, we were checking all the bags and one box. An airline employee came to me and said that the box needed to be brought to a special baggage check in area and offered to take it once it was tagged. I’m Canadian so I unquestioningly follow instructions of people that seem to be in authority. I handed him the box and off he went. He came back minutes later and offered to escort us through the security line up so we didn’t have to wait in the long line. He would do this for a tip. Ok sure, I guess. We were out of rands but cobbled together a few US dollars and British pounds. He agreed and told us to wait while he went to find a wheelchair. “Wait, what?” Hang on a second. This fast track operation would require a fat tip AND a need for us to lie about our mobility ability. Ummm, no. I don’t think so. So we told him “it was fine, we don’t mind the lines.” As we approached the lengthy line up at security, I started to piece things together. Had I just handed my box of South African souvenirs to some random guy? Was he even an airline employee? What have I done? This is Africa, filthy lucre rules and many people are open to earning in all sorts of ways. Luckily, it seems that he was just a guy looking to make a buck in a society that’s so riddled with corruption that lying that you need a wheelchair to skip a line is no big deal. Much to my pleasant surprise, when we landed in Vancouver the box was with us and nothing was amiss.

The view from the Northern suburbs towards downtown with Hillbrow Tower in the distance

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