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Welcome to Johannesburg

It’s 25 years since apartheid ended in South Africa and the last ten years have seen a cultural awakening in the city of Johannesburg.MEGAN WALSH explores the once-dangerous no-go destination to discover a welcoming metropolis before heading out on safari…

When people think of visiting South Africa, it’s no surprise that Cape Town is high on most people’s list of places to see. For so long, Johannesburg has been considered dangerous following years of unrest and decline. But the last few years have seen a change in fortunes and the largest city in South Africa – though not the capital – is now seeing a huge rise in popularity. The shores may be balmy in the country’s south but this buzzing city has so much to offer explorers.

The neighbourhood of Maboneng is South Africa’s answer to New York’s Brooklyn or London’s Shoreditch. This trendy area is considered to be one of the most successful urban-renewal projects in the world. Meaning ‘place of light’ in the South African language of Sesotho, this once-derelict area is now a bustling mix of fashionable boutiques, coffee shops, art galleries and restaurants, drawing in Johannesburg’s most talented creatives and enticing tourists from all over the world.

Market on Main, a huge emporium of food stalls and crafts, which offers everything from traditional African ceramics, vintage clothing and artisan creations, takes over Maboneng’s Arts on Main complex on Sundays and the first Thursday evening of the month. But whether it is market day or not, there is much to see and do in this promising new space.

Up, up and away

On the outskirts of sprawling Johannesburg, if you’re prepared to get up early, you can experience the stillness of the African savannah at sunrise in one of Bill Harrop’s hot air balloons. You’ll arrive before dawn to enjoy a preflight snack of freshly baked muffins and steaming hot coffee in the Pavilion, before heading out on an hour-long balloon ride above the majestic Magalies River Valley. Once back on terra firma, you’ll be treated to a delicious breakfast including Champagne. Prices start from R1,940 (£107) per person. A minibus from Johannesburg takes 1 hour, 15 minutes and costs extra.

A day in Soweto

If you’ve come to South Africa looking for something a little more than sun and safari, allow some time to visit the township of Soweto. An acronym for ‘South Western Townships’, Soweto was developed as a place where black people were forced to live under white rule and has played a huge part in South Africa’s turbulent and compelling history.

As the largest black urban settlement in Africa, Soweto became the centre of political campaigning in the fight against the apartheid state. To get the most out of your township visit, a bicycle or tuk-tuk tour is a must (sowetobackpackers.com). A home-grown initiative which strives to create jobs for people of the community, these carefully curated tours take you through the streets of Soweto. During the tour, you’ll visit the former home of Nelson Mandela on the famous Vilakazi Street and stop by the Hector Pieterson Museum, a memorial centre named after the 12-year-old boy who was shot dead during the uprising of 1976 – an event that changed the course of South Africa’s history and in which 176 people were killed by white police. Prices start from R570 (£32) per person for a two-hour tour.

Game for adventure?

After spending a couple of days sampling the city life, it’s usual to head out on an African safari when in this part of the world. For years, safari-goers have opted for north-eastern destinations such as Kruger National Park, but South Africa’s North West province offers plenty of equally amazing game- spotting opportunities.
A short three-hour drive from Johannesburg, Pilanesberg Game Reserve is home to Africa’s famous Big Five – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo – among many other wildlife species roaming free in their natural habitats. The park itself is situated in the middle of a huge volcanic basin, one of the largest of its type in the world.

The park’s proximity to Johannesburg means you do have the option of visiting for just one day, but if you want to up your chances of spotting all members of the Big Five, as well as other animals such as zebras giraffes and antelope, we’d recommend a four-day stay.

The most popular way to see the nature reserve is on a classic game drive. You’ll hop into an open-sided four-by-four, binoculars in hand, and spend a few hours cruising around the park in the hope of spotting one of the majestic animals which roam the plains. Don’t be put off by the openness of the vehicle – the animals can’t see you. They see only the outline of the jeep and think it’s merely another coexisting species in the reserve.

Once you set off, your eyes are glued to the horizon, scanning for any movements that might mean a lion cub, leopard or deer is moving carefully across the terrain. The knowledgeable guides look for clues in the dirt – a paw print or some freshly broken bark – to steer the vehicle on to the same route as the wildlife. When another guide in another spot radioes in with an animal sighting, the excitement intensifies. At this point, your driver makes a U-turn, following the directions coming from the walkie-talkie, and you’re off at a tearing pace in order not to miss anything. You scan the savannah relentlessly until the jeep slows down and suddenly, through the tall grass, an elephant emerges. The sight is truly awe-inspiring. The huge scale of the animal in the wild, effortlessly devouring tree branches with its twirling trunk, and unthreatened by your presence, is humbling. Then, just when you think your luck couldn’t get any better, out scramble two little ones, desperately trying to catch up to their elder. With them follow three more adults and here you are, less than ten metres away from a family of elephants who are blissfully oblivious to your fascinated eyes.

African safaris offer the ultimate in chance encounters. You might strike it lucky and see every member of the Big Five, with a few giraffes and zebras to boot, or you might see nothing more than a few cheeky warthogs and a timid impala.Expect to see nothing and treat each animal sighting as a bonus to a fabulous trip.

Walking with wildlife

If you’re reasonably fit and feeling brave, sign up for a walking safari. Photographers will relish the opportunity to take close-up shots of an unfazed herd of zebras that for a brief moment allow you to walk among them as they seek out greener pastures. You’ll learn an immense amount from the Pilanesberg Game Reserve rangers. Their passion for the land, and the animals that inhabit it, is truly remarkable. They carry rifles as a precaution with your safety as paramount so you can relax and take in the view. Coming across lion, elephant and leopard tracks is fascinating and glimpsing rare white rhinos through the vegetation is a real possibility. You may spot the remains of a kill, or if you’re very lucky, a lion hunt in progress with the flight of a deer as it tries to outrun the pride. Whatever you see, though, will stay with you for ever.

Where to stay

The luxurious four-star BAKUBUNG BUSH LODGE is located inside the grounds of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, bringing the Big Five right to your doorstep. Sit back and relax in the comfort of your hotel room with all its amenities as you watch elephants, zebras, giraffes and more roaming past your window to drink from the nearby watering hole. There’s an outdoor pool and an award- winning spa on-site, and some truly delicious food to enjoy.

At the Marula Restaurant, ingredients of the highest quality make up a huge buffet of local and international cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner, while Wednesdays and Saturdays offer you the chance to dine under the stars at the Bush Boma. Here you’ll enjoy a traditional braai – a South African barbecue – and as you tuck in to your feast, you’ll be treated to a show of traditional South African entertainment. Enjoy it with a glass of the finest South African wine and you’ve ticked all the boxes for a perfect evening. Hayes & Jarvis offers bespoke trips including seven-night packages to Johannesburg. A sample itinerary of three nights at the Garden Court in Sandton City, then four nights at the Bakubung Bush Lodge in Pilanesberg on a full-board basis with car hire starts from £1,758 per person including return flights from London Heathrow to OR Tambo International Airport with South African Airways. hayesandjarvis.co.uk, legacyhotels.co.za

Factfile

GETTING THERE:

Fly direct to OR Tambo International Airport from Heathrow with South African Airways.

CURRENCY:

South African Rand (ZAR)

TIME DIFFERENCE:

GMT +2

CLIMATE: The climate in Johannesburg is subtropical. Winters are mild and sunny by day with cold nights. Summers are warm and sunny, with some afternoon thunderstorms. Winter days average around 20°C (68°F), while summer temperatures soar to up to 30°C (86°F).

HEALTHCARE:

Pilanesberg Game Reserve is a malaria-free zone, so no anti-malaria medication is needed.

GETTING AROUND:

Transfers and shuttle buses are widely available from hotels to the main city attractions and for onward travel to national parks and airports.

VISA: Not required for stays under 90 days.

TO FIND OUT MORE:

Visit southafrica.net

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