Three days in Johannesburg

This item appears on page 34 of the April 2009 issue.

Prior to a 3-week tour of Botswana, Zambia and South Africa, my husband, Maurice, and I flew in three days early to Johannesburg and met our guides, Gill and Graham Maskell of Africa 2000 Tours (P.O. Box 1204, Hilton, 3245, South Africa; phone +27 33 3433911, fax 33 3431786). We had traveled with them in South Africa the previous year.

To take advantage of our limited time in the city, Nov. 11-13, 2007, we had asked the Maskells to plan these three days to cover our interests in culture, history, archaeology and food.

• Our first day was spent at Mopoche Ndebele Village with Marnie Heim-Stafford of Voluntours (6 Visser St., Vorna Valley, Midrand, Gauteng, South Africa 1685; phone 27 [0] 11 315 4049, fax 315 4050).

Including transfers, our particular tour cost R1,500 (near $154) per person. As Marnie drove us to the village, she explained this practical venture in which the locals are developing their talents to ensure a self-sustaining economy.

Johanna, a local guide in the village, toured us through the colorfully painted homes and explained the symbolism of geometric designs on the walls. We participated in beading and painting lessons taught by local experts. At lunch we were joined by international volunteers whose efforts are focused on helping better the villagers’ lifestyle by teaching them marketable skills.

The villagers were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a shipping container of donated British bicycles, which would change their lifestyle immeasurably. A most useful invention was a unique bicycle trailer made from PVC pipe — lightweight but strong for transporting heavy loads from the market five miles away. Two wheels are much faster than two legs!

• During our stay in Johannesburg we also visited Gold Reef City, a theme park built around the No. 14 shaft of Crown Mine. There are miners’ homes with period furniture, and the underground mine tour takes you 220 meters below the surface to see the conditions that miners encountered while mucking for gold. Mannequins and real miners down in the shafts gave us a very realistic perspective on this hardscrabble way to make a living.

The tour ended by our watching the making of a gold ingot, which glowed white hot as the molten metal was being poured from the crucible. The crowning point was being able to lift the heavy gold bar, worth $400,000 that day! We were wealthy for 25 seconds, as we could not hold the 12.5-kilo weight any longer!

Admission currently costs R120 ($12) per person on the weekends and R90 ($9) on weekdays. We took the “Heritage Tour — Jozi Story of Gold.” It cost R180 ($18) per person, which excluded lunch but included the introductory movie “Rich Beginnings — Our Golden Heritage,” the museum houses, the gold pour demonstration and the underground mine tour.

• Across the road is the impressive, modernist Apartheid Museum. Unfortunately, taking pictures is not permitted, but the dramatic visual displays are graphic enough, leaving the visitor with permanent sobering images concerning the course of African history.

The utter hopelessness of life in townships and communities such as Soweto was reason to spark rebellion. The declaration by F.W. de Klerk, who on Feb.11, 1990, released Mandela from his 27 years of imprisonment, began the change to a better life, and all aspects are documented here.

Despite dire warnings from cautious types who feel Johannesburg is too dangerous to spend time in taking advantage of the various sites, we found our three days to be exceptionally full, thanks to the expert planning of Africa 2000 Tours, whom we highly recommend.

Apache Junction, AZ