Johannesburg: That South Africa is not just about wildlife and adventure is stating the obvious. The Rainbow Nation is steeped in heritage and culture. It was here that the world’s human story first began, a staggering four million years ago. Today a UNESCO® World Heritage Site, South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind stands as humbling evidence of the earliest origin of modern humans who lived and evolved here at the tip of the continent before spreading to the rest of the world.
South Africa, a melting pot of culture has evolved into an amazing mix of modern cultures with buzzing urban markets, famous townships such as Soweto, cosmopolitan bars filled with contemporary beats, theatres, jazz clubs and traditional restaurants to mention a few. Travelling there can offer you an immersive experience by meeting and sharing a South African-style handshake and more than a few memories with those who call this place home.
Of course, you can’t leave without an experience of the inspiring story of South Africa’s most iconic hero – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Follow his life journey from the humble beginnings at Mvezo in the Eastern Cape to his former home in Soweto and to the tiny prison cell on Robben Island where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.
In this, his centenary year, you can experience his legacy at 100 destinations across South Africa. Download the Madiba’s Journey app, walk in the footsteps of greatness and find the Nelson Mandela in you.
I was in South Africa on an 11-day tour late last year, courtesy South African Tourism (SAT) and this piece will focus only on the unique cultural experiences I encountered.
We took an hour-long flight to Johannesburg from Durban and checked into Hotel African Pride at Mount Grace. They have many restaurants at the hotel – TWIST (where we had a sumptuous breakfast), Rambling Vine (country-style food), The Spa Café and the lawns with its own menu called ‘Picnics’. The place has many domesticated animals within the compound and two of the very few Tipuana trees (rosewood trees) that remain in the world.
After breakfast we set out to visit The Apartheid Museum (R95). Founded in 2001, the museum illustrates the history of South Africa and consists of an exhibition on Mandela’s life. We were handed out tickets at random as the entry had racial classification to allow visitors to relive the treatment once meted out to people of colour in South Africa. I had a ticket meant for the ‘non-white’ line which had a separate entrance than the folks in ‘whites-only’ line. This was an eye-opening experience. Sadly, photography is not allowed inside.
Here we saw the red Mercedes that was presented to Mandela during his presidency. We also scanned through the many letters that Mandela had written to his family during the 27 years he spent in prison. One unique experience that we had at this exhibition was a bunch of red, white, blue, green and yellow quotes by Mandela that was colour-coordinated where every tourist who visited could select a quote they liked and pick a stick of that particular colour to insert into an illustrative holding on the ground. The result is beautiful.
After Apartheid Museum, we drove across to Soweto for a cycling tour. Soweto (south-western township) is a part of the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality in Gauteng, bordering the city’s mining belt in the south. En route, we saw the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the third largest hospital in the world with 3400 beds and 6760 staff members. We also saw the Orlando Towers which was the source of electricity to the entire Johannesburg region at one time. Now Orlando Towers offers you the first ever bungee and swing between two cooling towers, a whopping 100 m from the ground. These two cooling towers are the largest and most colourful landmark in Soweto, and now one of South Africa’s biggest tourist attractions. The towers were originally built for the now decommissioned Orlando Power Station, the most advanced facility in the southern hemisphere in its day and served Johannesburg for over 50 years.
Once we reached Lebo’s Soweto’s Tuk Tuk and Bicycle Tours, we were handed helmets and other gear to start cycling for the next two hours. Though we were not used to cycles with gears, we got training. We cycled through the north-western townships of Soweto. Some 2.5 million people call Soweto their home and out of the 11 languages spoken in South Africa (Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, SiSwati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu), Zulu is used most commonly here. I also understood during the tour that there are three classifications of homes in Soweto – upper, middle and lower class. The last category consists of hostels that were made many years ago.
We also visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial Site which has a museum we did not go inside to see due to paucity of time. However, cycling through was informative enough. The famous picture of Hector Pieterson after he was shot and killed during the 1976 Student Uprising in Soweto, is displayed explicitly here. The photo also has his sister, Antoinette Sithole (then Antoinette Pieterson) running alongside the body. The best part of this experience was yet to come – at the restaurant where we halted for lunch, seated next to our table was Hector Pieterson’s sister – 22 years after the incident, still very much in Soweto! June 16th is considered ‘Youth Day’ in South Africa in remembrance of Pieterson who went on to become an enduring symbol of youth resistance to the apartheid.
During our cycle tour we also stopped at the house where Mandela and his former wife Winnie used to reside between 1946 and 1962. Here we saw where Mandela slept, where Winnie was arrested, where their children grew up, and also the boxing belt Mandela was presented during his time. After this, we cycled back to the base and the bus transferred us to the Capital Menlyn Maine, where we would stay the night.
We had early dinner at their Koi restaurant offering Sushi, Asian, contemporary, vegetarian-friendly and vegan options, and then began to explore the property. Menlyn is a great choice for travellers interested in family-friendly trips, food and entertainment.
On the previous leg of this trip, we drove down 88 km from Durban to Howick in KwaZulu-Natal Province to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site. When we reached there the sun was smouldering over our heads. The site access was then on donation basis but we were informed that in 2019, approximately R25 would be set as admission fee.
The Nelson Mandela Capture Site is a cultural and historical exhibition that is situated at the site at which Nelson Mandela was apprehended for his anti-apartheid activism in August 1952.
Here we walked through a tiny room which had standees and large format photographs of Mandela detailing his life, famous words and achievements. After a quick walk around, we continued to the main site which was about half a kilometre away. This site was incorporated by then President Jacob Zuma on the 50th anniversary of the day Mandela was imprisoned.
The sculpture at the Nelson Mandela Capture Site comprises 50 steel columns that are between 6 and 9.5 m in height and cover a width of almost 30 m. These have been cut by laser to form an image of the former president when viewed at the correct angle. The columns line up so that, at a specific angle, they create what seems to be a two-dimensional image of Mandela himself. So dramatic is the effect that it can be seen from 30 m away. This monument is situated at the end of a winding path surrounded by greenery, which represents the long walk to freedom that he took towards his goal of social and political equality. This is a perfect spot for taking pictures, and of course I did take one too!
As the sun changes its position above the monument, the effect of the tall beams on the ground also changes. This is the largest artwork using this methodology of laser-cut metal beams in the country. The Municipality is building an air-conditioned amphitheatre, museum and arts and crafts centre at the Nelson Mandela Capture Site and they will be ready by April 2019.
While in Johannesburg, we visited the Cradle of Humankind which is about 50 km northwest. It is a UNESCO® World Heritage Site spread across 47,000 hectares. Here we also checked out The Sterkfontein Caves, where we walked down 400 steps to the deepest point which is 60 m underground and has a lake which is 10 m deep and 800 m long. We wore helmets and had a guide to accompany us. The cave consists of 21 sinkholes where in 1997, they found the complete remains including 32 teeth of a near-complete Australopithecus skeleton ‘Little Foot’ dating back 3.3 million years ago. The temperature underground is a constant 18 degrees. For those who have claustrophobia, this adventure is not for you. The rock formations are made of limestone and dolomite. Miners have destroyed a lot of evidence of fossils here over the years. Nearby the site, but not in the site, the Rising Star Cave system contains the Dinaledi Chamber (Chamber of Stars), in which were discovered fifteen fossil skeletons of an extinct species of hominin, provisionally named Homo naledi. Sterkfontein alone has produced more than a third of early hominin fossils ever found prior to 2010. The Dinaledi Chamber contains over 1500 Homo naledi fossils, the most extensive discovery of a single hominin species ever found in Africa.
The Exhibition Centre opened in 2005 and it is a manmade mountain which has its own restaurant and a playground for kids at the back. The boatride to experience the feeling of being in a cave during the ice age and after fire was discovered costs R190 and includes the cave tour and the Exhibition Centre. This is worth every cent.
After learning all about how the world was formed and then humankind, we drove to a boutique hotel called The Cradle. This property has no connection with the Exhibition Centre. However, since it’s on the same land, it is named so. We had a chef’s special set menu to choose from. I had the oxtail and truffle butter soup with quinoa risotto and basil cream chicken, creame brule with ice cream and a strawberry daiquiri. This is one of the best meals any of us had on our visit here, to such an extent that we asked to see the chef and when he came out to our table all 19 of us applauded and could not stop discussing the meal on our way back home! This place is a must visit!
The local market we planned to go to had already shut by the time lunch was done at 6 pm and we were running behind schedule, so it seemed best to head back to the hotel which was another 2 hours away after which we retired to our rooms to prep for dinner.
The next day we set out for the Cullinan Diamond Tour (R130). The duration is an hour and a half for the overground tour and 4 hours if you opt for the underground tour (R550). Children below 10 years of age are not permitted on this tour.
Sir Thomas Cullinan started mining here in 1903 when his staff member found the Cullinan diamond which at 3106 carats, is the largest gem-quality diamond ever found. In 1905, it was gifted to King Edward VII on his 66th birthday. Since it was too large to fit on a single piece of jewellery, the British royal family had it cut into 9 major pieces and 96 smaller ones. The biggest one is called the Great Star of Africa, weighs 530.20 carats and is now in The British Royal Sceptre. All other pieces still remain with the royal family.
The mine is now owned by Petra Diamonds and is the biggest in Africa at 285 hectares. 4000 people are employed here and the mine operates 24/7, in three shifts. They extract 4500 carats a day out of which 20 per cent is gem quality and 80 per cent industrial diamonds. The Township around has a population of 50,000 with many restaurants, jewellery stores, artefacts and even charity stores. After we were done with the tour which teaches you all that you need to know about diamond mining, we had burgers for lunch at one of the many restaurants there called Whispering Oak.
A significant element of this trip and one of the most awaited by our group of travel writers was the Panorama Route. The Panorama Route is a scenic road connecting several cultural and natural points of interest. This route, steeped in the history of South Africa, is situated in the Mpumalanga province. The route is centred around the Blyde River Canyon, the world’s third largest canyon, and features numerous waterfalls, one of the largest afforested areas in South Africa and several natural landmarks. The route starts at the foot of the Long Tom Pass just outside Lydenburg, following the natural descent from the Great Escarpment to the Lowveld, and ends at the border of the Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces near the Echo Caves.
On the Panorama route, we had a chance to visit The Sudwala Caves which are the oldest in the world, made of Precambrian dolomite rock laid down about 2800 million years ago. However, the caves themselves were formed about 240 million years ago. Sudwala means a grass skirt of a married woman and these caves were used as shelter in prehistoric times (a 45 minute tour costs R95 adult; R50 child). Other activities like fish spa (R60 for 30 minutes) and dinosaur park are also available here.
We saw various types of rock formations like the ‘Screaming Monster’ (160 million-year-old formation; the famous ‘Race of the Screaming Monster’ is held inside this cave every year), ‘Samson’s Pillar’, ‘Praying Nuns’, ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’ and ‘Lowveld Rocket’. They also have an amphitheatre inside the cave where singing performances and orchestra are held. At a height of 37 m and 70 m in diameter, it can hold up to 360 people. It is the largest dolomite theatre in the southern hemisphere.
They say Mpumalanga is a place that has multiple natural attractions. We visited the Three Rondavels (R30) in Graskop which is a natural creation. Exactly as they sound, the Three Rondavels are three round mountains with slightly pointed tops, very similar to the traditional round or oval homes found in rural areas of South Africa that are thatched on the top. Locals believe that this is where they originated from.
We then went to Bourke’s Luck Potholes (R68). This geological feature and day visitors’ attraction, is situated at the confluence of the Treur and Blyde rivers. It was named after a local prospector, Tom Bourke, who predicted the presence of gold, though he found none himself. The pedestrian bridges connect the various overlooks of the potholes and the gorge downstream. Here we have many photo opportunities and also saw a few baboons troubling tourists. There is also an interpretation centre and the Blyde Museum.
Our next stop over was God’s Window. The climax of the famous 1980 movie ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’ was shot here. They have a lot of theories connected to this place: some say it has no gravitational pull and what you throw inside, comes back to you. They also say if you make a wish here, it will come true. Some say that it is ‘the tip of the world’. It was truly beautiful and we could see the lightning as we were here on a rainy day.
Next, we drove across to Sabi River Sun Resort to check in. As it was already December, the Christmas decorations were up and the place looked very lively. They have a bar called The Water Hole Bar where I noticed the bartender preparing a drink of Pimm’s. They also have a restaurant called Sesonke which has live counters and a buffet. We headed out to Kuka Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge in Hazyview for dinner.
To be in South Africa is to feel part of a story that goes back to the start of our shared humanity, the first chapter of our story and everyone else’s, and to be welcomed back ‘home’ not as a traveller, but as a friend.
Top Indian Restaurants in Durban
The Oyster Box Hotel
Aromatic tandoori is served up in scenic surroundings on The Ocean Terrace, where the hotel’s popular curry buffet is also held.
The Little India
Live South Indian music adds a unique flair to its fragrant aromatic spiced dishes.
Top Indian Restaurants in Johannesburg
With both North and South Indian cuisines, it is one of the most recommended restaurants in the city. Spice lovers flock here. They also offer a large variety of meals suitable for vegetarians.
Serves authentic dishes with flavours derived from Kashmir to Kerala and everywhere in between.
Where to Shop
Most of the places we visited have a curio market and all the items on sale here represent an initiative by people from local communities to earn a living. Bargaining is possible all through the Panorama Route and flea markets. Durban and Johannesburg have many malls one can look at for local and international brands.