I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Jozi does it

The sun just came up. I'm staring at a visibly lightening sky out of the window from seat 27a on a soon-to-depart flight from London to Madrid, having just changed from my flight back from Johannesburg. Getting quite tired now.

I of course knew what I was going to do in Joburg yesterday. I'd booked a sightseeing bus tour in advance, and knew how to get there. Research, I had it. What I hadn't realised is that the Joburg Gautrain system would be so ... I dunno. The train was nice, and there were guards (though with no arms, unlike the hordes of scowling machine gun toting folk in Paris. Why look so miserable if you have a gun?). The scrolling display seemed to be saying stuff in 4 languages and it was a short 12 minute ride to Sandton, where it terminated and a slow moving mass of people made getting up the escalator hard work.

I was changing onto the service to Park, only another two or three stops. Each line only has half hourly services and they aren't timetabled to meet one another, so I had another 20 minute wait. Picked a spot with one of those half-bench things and spent most of the 20 minutes constantly adjusting my stance as the platform surface was so shiny and slippery that my feet kept moving forward involuntarily.

I was really starting to feel it now. I hadn't had a diet coke (no drinks on the Gautrain) and I'm on the verge of passing out from tiredness. A few of my blinks on the train to Park lasted at least a minute. So when I emerged, I spotted the bus tour office but went straight past it, looking for an ATM. I found hundreds. Drew out, er, I forget how many rand. A few hundred. And then went back to the office, exchanging my print out for a proper ticket, headphones for the audio guide, and a timetable and map. They said a colleague would collect all the tourists from just outside the office, and I nipped into the little shop next door to get a diet coke.

When I emerged, they'd all fucked off without me. Bastards. I spotted them and power walked to catch them up, and plonked my dishevelled arse on the concrete at the stop. The bus arrived within 5 minutes and on I got.

I'd already examined the route beforehand and kinda knew what I wanted to do, though as usual plans changed once reality bit. For a start, I was much later than expected - on the 1130 bus when I'd hoped to be on the 1030 or even 1000. Plus I was way way more tired than I thought I would be. But, most importantly, the guide told me that one of the attractions was not open on Sundays. Yesterday was Saturday, and my next trip is on a Sunday. So, am I interested in the thing I can only do today?

That thing was called SAB World of Beer. What do you think?

The tour is very good. The audio is clear and loud and explains things at perfect times. Joburg city centre is not pretty but it is very interesting. We drive around the main shopping and business districts first, going past masses of hawkers and shops and some giant mass of people shouting at each other about something. On every corner the bins, lamp posts, and newspaper holders are plastered with stickers advertising penis enlargement or "safe and 30 minutes" or "safe and pain free" abortions, with no other information save for a mobile number. Yeesh.
Gold Reef City

There are government buildings and our first stop is Gandhi Square, a big bus terminal with some restaurants and a statue of Gandhi. He lived in Siffrica for years and developed his philosophy of peaceful resistance after being subjected to shitloads of racism in the first 14 years of the 1900s. I'm learning stuff. Lots of stuff. I didn't realise the city was less than 130 years old, founded entirely on the discovery of gold which caused a rush everyone expected to be temporary.

They are very proud of their new bus lanes.

We go past the faded glory of some old private members club with, apparently, the longest bar in Africa? I think. I dunno. I've just written down "longest bar". Then, some bricked up buildings which until recently were hijacked by gangsters and scenes of mad violence and shit. We are still in the middle of the city yet these look like the places Louis Theroux made his documentary on.

The whole tour does nothing to hide anything unsavoury about Joburg's present or past, nor is it excessively contrite. Dispassionate and factual but enthusiastic about the good shit, like our next stop, the tallest building in Africa. It's 50 storeys tall and, y'know what, I got over altitude tourism back in 2006.

Good god, I still felt so tired. The diet coke was having some effect but I was still thinking that maybe next time I'll just get a day room in an airport hotel.

There's no stop #4 on the tour. Not that we miss it out, it just doesn't exist, on the map or anywhere. Uh. So we head out if the centre to the next place, changing within one block to shanty shacks and industrial units. We're told that no one knows which of three Johans the city is named after, and a lot more about gold. Hills rise up and these are mine dumps, land made out of stuff extracted from the mines further out and also used in apartheid years as a boundary between white and black areas. They only recently added grass and trees, prior to that the city was constantly subject to dust storms from these things.

It's quite a drive to the next stop, the transport museum - past "Santarama miniland" which has nothing to do with Christmas. Also musical fountains and a lovely lake and park. The transport museum is on my list, for next time.

Soweto is a big place. 4 million people live there. At stop #6 there is the chance to get on a separate tour to go there, but I'd chosen not to. It's at a gaudy casino complex (winners know when to stop) called Gold Reef City where there is also a bona fide mine shaft you can go down. I stretched my legs as the bus takes a break, took a couple of photos but couldn't be bothered actually going inside because the security was stricter than at the airport, and my pockets were full of all kinds of crap. Joburg loves gambling - in the city I'd seen a preposterously large bookmaker, and we also drove past a race track. On the road just outside the entrance to the casino was a 24 hour pawnbroker and loan shark. Oh dear.

Back on the bus and to the Apartheid museum. This is the tour's big gun, but you need 2 hours and I don't have it. Also, World of Beer. So we drive back to the city via some more knowledge - the whole Joburg metropolitan area is 4 times the size of greater London, it's the world's biggest non-waterside city, and is 1700m above sea level.

Wait, what? Honestly I'd never looked that up and had no idea. No wonder I'm feeling so fucked.
the old Park station platforms

The drive back to the city was not visually appealing, except for Soccer City being a camouflaged stadium. But soon we are back in the thick of things, touring the mining district and then Newtown, home to World of Beer.

I didn't get off. Bleurgh. We went past the entrance and stopped around two corners and were already a few minutes late. No one else was getting off, and anyway the tour was 75 minutes and started on the hour - and it was now 1310. So, bollocks, I'll do almost the full circuit and get off at stop 12.

First, we cross a bridge named after some Mandela bloke and over top of about 100 trains in a yard, plus a wrought iron platform structure moved from the old Park station when it was redeveloped into the non-segregated fancy terminus it now is. On the other side we drive around the university district and past the origin centre, a museum of humanity's history - in tandem with the Cradle of Humankind a few miles outside the city, where the earliest hominid fossils have been found.
Local lager for visiting people

And then, Braamfontein. The map said this had Joburg's oldest pub but the audio guide said it was the second oldest. That'd do. It was a hipster and student district and really there was a lot going on, Kitchener's, the aforementioned pub, was busy but not so bad that I couldn't get a stool at the bar. Three attempts at getting them to understand the word "lager" failed, but "Castle" worked. This used to be my favourite lager in the world, and I had shitloads of it at £1/bottle back in uni days.

There was rugby on the TV, then premiership football, then rugby, then football, as different people kept asking (by shouting at the staff) for it to be switched over. Eventually rugby won out until the match finished and was replaced by Arsenal vs Man City. In the second room, to my left, there was a breathy female singer songwriter belting out her tunes and she was really very good. Not sure about her cover of Don't Worry, Be Happy, but the other clientele loved it and sang along. Also, people were smoking indoors and I'd forgotten how weird a thing that is nowadays. On the walls are bank notes from around the world and I spot a fantastic Zimbabwean $50,000,000 bill.

I observed the tipping regime as numerous rounds of "black label" were ordered over my shoulder. Carling, not Johnnie Walker. Do we even still call it Carling Black Label in the UK? My second beer was ordered just by pointing and the bar is getting ever rowdier - it's about 2pm and people are having chasers, double sized tequila slammers, and endless lager. I feel at home despite the lack of Guinness. A huge smile comes out as I am absurdly proud of myself for coming up with "don't hemisphere the reaper".

Actually, I feel a bit drunk, certainly after the third beer. These are 340ml bottles - I have had less to drink the whole trip so far than on pretty much any single flight of my last holiday - but the tiredness, altitude, and lack of food are all conspiring like a posse of illuminati IMF Bilderbergers to weaken my mind and body. I decide to forego a fourth, and also that it's too late to order food in the bar, and walk back to stop 12. While waiting for the late bus I watch a team of breakdancers breakdancing without music.

The last stop between Braamfontein and Park is Constitution Hill, full of prisons and brutalist architecture, and an eternal flame of democracy.

At Park, I'd spotted in the morning "King of Pies" and since I was so hungry, resolved to go there. But then I remembered the Gautrain being a bit shit, timewise, and that you can't eat or drink on it. So fuck it, down i went and sure enough, a ten minute wait there followed by a 15 minute wait at Sandton.

This whole time, I've been without communication. In most countries I've been to this year I could find wifi, or even use free data roaming. In South Africa I couldn't even send text messages. I could receive them, but not reply. And as I arrived back at OR Tambo airport I got one from Ian, asking if I'd made it safely to SA.

As it happens, I got back to the airport exactly 3 hours before my flight, which was exactly what I wanted. I was yet to checkin - more code share grief - so set off to find the desks. Now, in the morning I had arrived at terminal B, so that's where I headed. The BA desks were easy to find, and they turned me away. Apparently these were for BA's domestic South African flights only, and for London I had to return to terminal A. Groundhog Day from Orly. Sigh.

At the proper BA desk I'm shunted for no reason to the business class desk despite not wielding my card. I ask if it's possible to buy an upgrade, because I quite fancied a bit more space and I know someone else on this ticket got offered premium economy for £125, business class for £749. She says, yes, upgrades are available - for 9999 rand, I've no currency converter but some arithmetic using the figure Chris had told me in the morning led me to believe this was about £560-600. And that's just for upgrading to premium economy? Yes. Right, well bollocks to that then.

I'm given my boarding passes all the way to Madrid, reminding me that my connection at Heathrow is tight as fuck. Immigration and security are a chaotic mess and boarding for my 1905 flight starts at 1805 - it is, after all, an A380 - so I eventually make it into the BA lounge at about 1720, way later than I wanted. I'd noted that somehow my BA Executive Club number had disappeared from the booking so once again played the "this card gets me in, that card earns me miles" game at reception.

Oh, a shower and change of clothes. How great did that feel. I was surprisingly not smelling that much anyway, but nonetheless felt so so much better after using the facilities.  The shower unit itself was great, with about 8 nozzles at various places as well as the main head. I felt pretty invigorated afterwards and realised that my earlier feeling of dread towards this flight - for fucks sake, back to back overnights in economy! - had been replaced by anticipation. I was looking forwards to it!

The good mood was temporary as I stressed myself out in the lounge. Found a seat and grabbed a plate full of food, and a beer, and set to work blogging. The wifi was frustratingly unreliable, booting me off every 30 seconds or so on both iPhone and iPad. I'd spent the whole day offline and incommunicado and wanted to at least reply to Ian, as well as post to here, and I just about fitted it in (between extra trips to the free buffet and fridge) - plus the stupid AFC Wimbledon result came through - before boarding was announced.

The gate was very close and boarding was already in full swing. I walked on and was a bit disappointed that you board directly to the correct deck. It's a beatiful double decker beast, the A380, though won't ever be as pretty as the 747, but you don't go upstairs (or downstairs). In fact, I didn't even see a stairwell.

Again I'd picked a seat in a double rather than triple section, back in row 82. A window seat with extra storage cabinets at my side, I plonked in, my seatmate this time being a young lad with no mobility problems. Maybe I'd be able to have a piss on this flight?

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