Round-the-world: Long layover in Johannesburg

A journey from Melbourne to Mauritius on Qantas and its oneworld partners is no straight shot. It requires a very early morning flight to Sydney, a long 14-hour jaunt to Johannesburg, and then a flight on to Mauritius. It’s over 11,000 kilometers (almost 7000 miles) from Sydney to Johannesburg, 14 long hours by plane. During the very long haul flight, cloud cover limits views of the polar regions, though about six hours in the captain mentions that subantarctic ice formations can be seen from the left side of the plane. See above.

We overnight in Johannesburg. We did cursory research and booked a guest house in Sandton, described somewhere as a good place to stay. Further research revealed that Sandton is the richest area in Johannesburg.

The strange thing is that I don’t remember a thing about the research process, how I came up with our $185/night guest house (the priciest of our trip) surrounded by a sweet-smelling garden, morning birdsong, and high walls. Our guest house is quite luxurious, a roomy suite with a fruit plate for breakfast and plush beds.

On the ground, Sandton is sort of shocking. Every abode is hidden behind walls topped with electrified wires. There is security company signage on the walls, some of which promise armed response. Our guest house, the aforementioned and lovely but deserted 6 on Westbrooke, sits in a neighborhood guarded by a security booth. In addition, it has its very own gate and security booth. The guard takes our keys from us when we walk out of the guarded neighborhood for dinner at a friendly if not particularly good restaurant and returns them to us when we get back. We walk along dark roads. Cars race by. There are very few pedestrians.

It’s difficult to square the extreme security measures in Sandtwon with the information we’ve received from locals and frequent visitors to Johannesburg, who claim that the city is actually quite safe. The security apparatus makes me feel terribly unsafe, far more than general precautions or guidebook warnings might. I ask our very friendly cab driver about the security measures. Are they necessary? He tells me that they are, given Sandton’s wealth.

Sometimes long layovers are unavoidable. This was one of those times. But the situation we found ourselves in was not the automatic consequence of a long layover. Frankly, we did not plan well. What we should have done is locate a funkier area with an immediate restaurant district. My one contact in Johannesburg, a journalist, happened to be away during our visit, though this is no excuse.

Even travel writers plan badly. I won’t dwell on this planning mistake, though I will hope that, years from now, after having visited South Africa a few times, I’ll marvel at how easy it is to navigate one’s way around the country.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.