Johannesburg in a Day

Another article in our OBT series (not the last). In life and roving retirement, you have to be flexible. After Diana got discharged from the hospital in Johannesburg, we spent another six days waiting for her to be “Fit-to-Fly” before returning to the US. Either from guilt or a desire to have a little alone time, she pushed me out of our hotel for a day, saying “go see something”. So, I took a ride on a Sightseeing Bus.

The Bus

The City Sightseeing (Big Red Bus) hop on/off bus does two circuits of Johannesburg, north, and south, with a transfer point in the middle. I started near the top of the north loop. A one day ticket is roughly $17 online while two days is $21. An extension to Soweto (the most famous township) is $38 or $43, respectively. I agree with the Big Red Bus people, it is difficult to see the main attractions fully in 1 day, let alone tour Soweto. We used the same company in Sydney and they do a decent job with audio commentary including background information and highlights via headphones as you traverse the routes.

The Military Museum

My first stop on the north loop was at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History. The place is brimming with hardware dating from about 1900 when South Africa came together as a nation. Among the highlights was a bevy of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery used in Africa, and a Messerschmidt ME 262, which any aviation geek knows was the first jet plane produced. I was hoping for more info on military campaigns within and involving South Africa, but I didn’t see as much as I wanted. Still, there was a lot of eye candy here and the 2 hours I spent was not nearly enough.

The Apartheid Museum

At the bottom of the south loop, ironically next to a casino and an amusement park, is the Apartheid Museum. Even though I had almost 2 hours for a visit, I had to rush through, before it closed. This museum really deserves a day (my son had warned me about this, but one does what one can). Aside from the many moving and poignant personal photos, artifacts, and stories, the exhibits do a fantastic job tracing the history of discrimination and persecution from the beginning of South Africa as a country to the present day. It is from the exhibits that much work still needs to be done.

A couple of key points stood out to me. First, South Africa nearly aligned with Germany in WW2, instead of the Allies. Strikingly, the fascist and segregation factions gained power in the aftermath of the war, leading to the full-scale apartheid regime from 1948 to 1991. There is much more to say, but I don’t feel I can do it justice. The whole history falls into the “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” category, IMHO.

Stops I didn’t make due to time constraints

  • The Zoo – Since I had just come from a safari in Kenya and Zimbabwe, I chose not to visit the zoo. But, if you can’t go on safari, the zoo brings the safari to you.
  • The Central Business District or CBD, was relatively quiet because my tour was on a weekend. I had originally booked my hotel there, but several folks at the hospital advised against it as being unsafe. I could see where night travel would be “a bit dodge”, as Diana’s doctor put it. As such, I am glad we stayed in the burbs.
  • Constitution Hill – Where you transfer between loops has the Women’s Gaol Museum and the original town fort.
  • The Mining District – Almost all of Joburg is resting on top of gold mines, so a visit to the Mining District will likely be on the itinerary when we return.
  • Carlton Centre – A vibrant but blighted area shows you how much has changed in this area since the end of Apartheid. There are many people and shops here, but it is definitely dodgy. For example, I saw a guy selling license plates to passing drivers.


For first-world inhabitants, travel costs within South Africa are quite low. Good meals can be had for under $10, good bottles of wine for $5 or less. Nice hotel rooms in this major city are available for $60/nt or less. What makes South Africa cheap to US citizens is a great conversion rate from dollars to the Rand. But the conversion rate also makes it difficult for natives to get enough hard currency to get out.

Due in part to apartheid-related sanctions, South Africa lost about 4 decades of development. In the 25+ years since the end of apartheid, conditions seem to be improving in fits and starts. For example, unevenly distributed access to education is a clear problem, but you can say that about much of the world.  The whole country is a work in progress and a fascinating place to visit. We will go back.

Which of these places interest you?

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