top of page
  • Shelley Dark

3. welcome to Joburg!

It's so exciting to be starting my first note to you from South Africa. I feel like squealing with delight. Here we are in Johannesburg at our beautiful hotel, and how serendipitous that we will have a day here. We had a great flight without too much sleep, but that's par for the course, isn't it?

Joburg airport was almost deserted when we arrived at 5.30pm yesterday so it was easy to find our carousel and collect our luggage. As we left the aircraft, rows of smiling black faces either side were chorusing 'welcome'. 

Can you see the sign above this area near the carousels, piled high with bags? It's marked 'Irregularity Desk'. Not sure what the irregularities are!  But there are certainly many many of them. It made us laugh out loud. 

Imagine our delight when we walked into arrivals to see not only our driver Tau, but also Insta-buddy Joanne Dallamore, who had come especially just to say hello and welcome us to South Africa.  What a darling. There's an ocean of difference between arriving in a strange place not knowing a soul, to seeing a familiar beaming face. I only know Jo through Instagram - she and I have not met in real life before - so what fun! A wonderful beginning.

photo courtesy Athol Place Hotel - our rooms are the two on the right, bottom floor. Stunning!

It only took half an hour to drive to the hotel with Tau explaining this and that along the way. His long slender fingers waved expressively to accompany his lilting accent. He works for this boutique hotel, the Athol Place, part of the Relais & Châteaux group, in the northern suburb of Sandton. 'Athol Place is my life,' he said.

Even at night the hotel is divine.  We drove through a security check with guard through high gates into a small carpark, golden light streaming from the front doors. Inside bleached wood, taupe and neutral colours, wicker, rough glazed pots, stone, touches of black. Many more beautiful black faces with dazzling white smiles. The welcome was warm and enveloping. Everywhere there are interesting objets, rugs, huge pots, art. We were too tired to take it all in as we walked through manicured garden pathways lit by ground level lights.

Our rooms are huge, and huge bathrooms too, complete with tubs and heated floors - dreamy! Don't you just love heated floors?

There are so many thoughtful touches in the rooms.   Nespresso machines, ginger lemon and honey to make/add to your drink/tea etc, a pastry under a glass cloche, lovely detailing on a throw on a large armchair....  

A complimentary bottle of champagne on the glass topped hall table. Matt black pots filled with the deep green foliage of zamioculcas (Zanzibar gem). A massive oversized full length thick wicker-framed mirror leaning against the wall. Taupe leather desk and table accessories. Putty walls and taupe carpet, a combination of white and blonde timber.

A quick wash and we were in the dining room, cauliflower soup with truffle oil, home-made brown bread, a glass of local Stellenbosch wine each - red for Helen, white for me, and back to the refuge of our rooms, a hot shower, then a glorious comfy bed with big fluffy pillows. Dreamland at 9pm!

I woke at 3am and peered outside.  The hotel is built like a home, and that's exactly how it feels. Lovely light on the bare branches of the tree.  Building excitement to see it in the morning! Try as I might, I couldn't go back to sleep.

I was out in the garden soon after daylight, the sun's rays just lighting bare branches. There's a small gym at the end of the pool.

A vase of proteas inside.

Olive trees are wonderful against white aren't they?

Many of the indigenous plants are ones we've borrowed from South Africa.

I haven't asked about the stacked layered mud statue of a man in the garden. He's facing the door to the dining room.  I think he's waiting for the second breakfast sitting.

We were looked after at breakfast by a darling girl called Beauty. Helen said how much she enjoys other similar names like Harmony and Precious. We decided we will assume African names ourselves.  Henceforth Helen is to be known as Radiance. And me - I modestly chose Elegance. -:)  Of course this gave us a fit of the giggles.  Stifled very quickly by delicious truffle flavoured scrambled eggs and bacon. 

Our local guide Dorothy was waiting for us at reception at 9am. She came on Jo's recommendation and proved to be as enthusiastic, entertaining and knowledgeable as we had expected. She loves her city passionately, tempered by frustration and sadness at the problems it faces: endemic corruption and 27% unemployment.

First stop Nelson Mandela Square, quite near the hotel - it's a modern retail area with a statue of Mandela in the background and Radiance in the foreground. 

We loved this baby-carrying method: a simple blanket wrapped expertly to support her.  

There are cranes everywhere in Sandton, with some remarkable architecture.

We parked many times during our our few hours with Dorothy. Each time we were approached by security wanting to know why we had stopped, or wanting to help, or self-appointed guards looking for tips. It was difficult for Helen and I to tell who were officials and who might be homeless people approaching! Once Dorothy had to fill in a form with her name and business before we could enter the car park. When she asked why, the guard said 'new rule'.  Yet when we left, his post was abandoned. Dorothy wasn't surprised.

We arrived at Constitution Hill in time for a guided tour: a prison during the apartheid period, it held mainly coloureds and blacks in horrifying conditions, for crimes from really serious to those as minor as being on the street without a pass. Political prisoners too.

We saw cells only as big as a living room which held 60 people at a time, with gang bosses holding sway over the weaker inmates. Food rations were officially allocated according to skin colour. Water for showering was scarce, solitary confinement was common with lights being left on day and night as punishment and only rice water as food.

Our guide with the fabulous hairdo!

We were pleased to leave the prison for the constitutional court built on the site using bricks from the old awaiting-trial building. Eleven justices sit with their heads below ground level, black and white cowhides behind them representing the immense variation in human kind. Horizontal panes of glass at ground level allow people inside the court to look only at the legs and feet of passersby, a reminder that judges are there to serve the people. The court is a symbol of hope for the future, where every man is equal, and every man is defended by law. 

To quote Nelson Mandela: 'The last time I appeared in court was to hear whether or not I was going to be sentenced to death. Fortunately for myself and my colleagues we were not. Today I rise not as an accused, but on behalf of the people of South Africa, to inaugurate a court South Africa has never had, a court on which hinges the future of our democracy.' 

Johannesburg was originally built on savannah, with only low trees. Dorothy took us through the affluent suburb of Houghton, up the Munro Drive where we could see the extent of the tree planting which has given the city the largest man-made forest in the world. We drove past the home where Nelson Mandela lived before his final hospitalisation.

Closer to the centre of the city, this bank of silos has been turned into student accommodation.

At the Artists Proof Studio we met Mario Soares, an artist, print-maker and etcher from Mozambique. He takes his inspiration from Africa’s people and their perspectives on the world.

This is the marvellous etching he was working on. He invited us to his exhibition in November!

There's some wonderful graffiti like this herd of zebras galloping into the streetscape.

Maboneng is a hip arts quarter, with regenerated abandoned buildings painted in bright colours and murals. Cafés, restaurants and fashion shops are popping up everywhere. The green building on the left is made from recycled containers.

Lovely old buildings sadly are suffering from neglect.

This corner café is also made from containers.

An old Chevrolet truck with a container on the back is permanently parked on a street corner, selling frozen yoghurt.

Arts on Main was the first of the buildings to be repurposed. 

It's a green space in the middle of a dusty city, café tables under olive trees.  By the way, Jo told us yesterday that although it's a little dusty at the moment, we should remember it's gold dust. Nice thought!

I need this one on my office door.

A clever artwork made from that strong packing tape you see around cardboard boxes!

an old mine in the city

What did I think of Johannesburg? I'm filled with admiration for its people. There are many problems to overcome, and yet today we saw nothing but busy people getting things done, and smiling as they did it. Artists creating amazing things. Hustlers trying to earn a living. Developers rejuvenating decaying buildings. Hard-working vendors with what Dorothy called BDB's - bend-down-boutiques, ie wares spread out on the footpath. Buskers. Wonderful people. Apartheid is over. It's a triumph really of humans over adversity. And I can't help thinking that somehow, in some way, with good men speaking out, eventually this crippling corruption must come to an end. 

Later: What an evening. We had dinner at Jo and Steve's home, along with six of their friends. Jo collected us from our hotel which is very close to where they live. Aren't they just the most generous people? We took a gift for them, only to be given one in return! For each of us, a locally hand-made pottery jug by a girl called 'storm in a teacup', and locally made chocolate covered nougat. I'll try to remember to take a photo tomorrow!

Jo's kitchen 

Gin and tonics in the sitting room with skop dip (made from a South African fish) were followed by the ten of us trooping into the kitchen to meet Oscar, Jo and Steve's live-in cook and helper, and Gift, another of their staff.

We sat at a long dining table to eat a most delicious three course meal which Jo had planned to showcase typical Cape Malay cuisine. She's promised me that she'll send the menu so that I can tell you exactly what we ate. Steve's hospitality extended to superb wines and his guests made every effort to make a dint in his cellar. 

We tried the South African equivalent of Baileys which is made from an indigenous berry. It was agreed around that table that we should ask for three nips in our coffee before the game drive at Mashatu, and then we won't know or care what we see. Many silly jokes were told and I wish I could remember one to tell you!

And so to bed, feeling very grateful for the warmth of our welcome to South Africa. 

My next post will be from the southern tip of Botswana - I don't know what the wifi will be like so if I go into blackout mode, you'll know why! But I'll post again as soon as I can.

I'll leave you with something Helen said to the steward on our flight when he asked why we were going to South Africa.  I think it was Radiance who answered, 'We're going to have an adventure.' And we are.

Until tomorrow friends,

Ps Thurs on way to airport: I've just discovered that our dip last night was snoek fish, not skop which is a figment of my imagination. We are in a car on the way to Lanseria light aircraft field, and our driver is choking with laughter! 

shelley dark, writer 

bottom of page