SECTIONS

An adventure worth writing home about

The writer skydiving at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.

“There is just something about touching down at the OR Tambo Airport.” I remembered the words my colleague had said as soon as I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, and I couldn’t have agreed more. 

It was my second visit, and if I had thought the first time was amazing (and I did, I could not stop talking about it for a month!), this second trip blew everything out of the water. Everything I had dreamed my whole life that South Africa would be came to life 10 times over.

Johannesburg, classified as a megacity, has an incredible, well-maintained network of roads, so it was a smooth ride to the first hotel we would be staying at in Sandton: The Maslow. It is one of Sandton’s many world-class hotels and gives, ‘Luxurious and ready for business.’

Adventure was already calling so after resting and freshening up, it was time to sample the famous nightlife of Johannesburg (also referred to as Joburg or Jozi).

Our designated ‘minister of fun’, Treyvonne, ensured that we looked the part outfit-wise. If you love dressing up, Joburg is the place to be, as it is certainly a dressy city, but as Treyvonne told us, no one will judge you if you are not dressed up either. The aim is to let loose and have fun, she said.

“Roger that,” we replied, and absolutely let loose at our first stop, the fabulous Rockets Bryanston in Sandton. It is exquisite, with a beautiful interior design and a few rules like no vests or slops (what we call slippers in Kenya). Parties in South Africa are legendary and we could not have had a better introduction to the next eight days.

Johannesburg has famous sightseeing red buses, labelled ‘CitySightseeing Joburg’, which are double-deckers that are open at the top. We were on one of them the next day, and I thought it was an ingenious method of touring that every city should copy.

Johannesburg is the wealthiest city in Africa and the most populated in South Africa. The city has heavily documented its rich history and vibrant culture, so if touring on that bus is all you do while there, it will be worth it.

They give you red earphones with yellow buds, which you plug into the side and listen to an incredibly detailed history and description of the city. The pre-recording is perfectly timed to the various stops and interspersed with a music selection that embodies the spirit of Jozi.

The city of gold has the deepest mine in Africa, the largest flower auction in Africa, and the largest transport museum in Africa among other many other record holders, all of which you can choose to go and see. You will be spoilt for choice.

The place that tugged at my heartstrings that day was Constitution Hill. It is a former prison and military fort that once held renowned people like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Albertina Sisulu, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, alongside numerous everyday people.

We somberly walked through the very places the unfortunate prisoners were held under unimaginably inhumane conditions.

One of the 18 giant ‘Be Kind’ artistic signs by Rabbi David Masinter that are now virtually ubiquitous to Jo’burg now stands right on the edge of the compound.

South Africa’s checkered past is well documented within its walls, and it is aptly now the home of the country’s constitutional court.

There is nothing like a shot of adrenaline to bring you fully back to the present, and it was served in spades at the Soweto Tours, our next spot. Picture this: You are looking up at two of what used to be nuclear cooling towers, 33 stories high.

Guests of South African Tourism outside one of Johannesburg's famous red buses.

You climb up about an eighth of one tower from a vertical ladder on the outside, then once inside, you get harnessed, they place a protective pad on your back, and hoist you up, close to the top, on an open lift. The instructor then unhooks you from the harness and drops you from that high up into a waiting net below.

I did that. Was it scary? Let us just say I changed my mind twice, once when I went back down the ladder, then one of the site attendants passing by spotted me and earnestly implored me to reconsider. “No my sister please, I am asking you, just go back, you won’t regret it, I promise you,” he said. 

I could not let that kind soul down, so I white-knuckled it back up the ladder. Then changed my mind again at the top of the tower, but the instructor there said I would be okay and to just listen to his voice – which, by the way, was the least comforting thing to listen to when he shouted, “Drop!” and dropped me unattached to anything as I screamed all the way to the bottom.

I was so happy I had done it! I had just completed the highest SCAD Freefall in the world. The feeling is something inexplicable that your body has never felt. The drop lasts only three or four seconds and then it is over, but it is extremely exhilarating.

And they send you the footage afterward, alongside an epically worded ‘Certificate of Extreme Valor’, giving you certified bragging rights for the rest of your life.

The attendant who had convinced me to go back up had the biggest ‘I told you so’ grin on his face. “And you wanted to miss that!” he told me.

You could also choose to bungee jump between the two nuclear towers, so I watched some of the amazing people we were with bungee jump while the rest of us enjoyed a sumptuous meal over drinks and watched the final dance-off between the winners of the Xibelani moves challenge – all at the same time.

When the sun went down, it was time to unwind at the Maboneng Precinct, definitely the trendiest and most creative neighbourhood in Johannesburg, an absolute must-visit if you find yourself in Joburg. It was an evening of South African Jazz at the Bertrand Café, with standup comedian Bongani Dube cracking us up.

I watched Burna Boy light up the stage the next day at the main event of our trip, the DSTV Delicious International Food, and Music Festival, and felt a tiny twinge of envy when he told the 100,000-strong crowd that he loved South Africa like his own blood.

Babyface did not disappoint the next day at the festival either – neither did all the other megastars and numerous food vendors showcasing South Africa’s tantalising cuisine – everyone saw to it that the festival lived up to its billing of “the music festival for food lovers and food festival for music lovers”.

After a day of rest, it was time to fly to another location – the Eastern Cape. Our stop would be Gqeberha, which used to be known as Port Elizabeth, and if you want to say it like a local, first learn how to click because ‘Gq’ in Gqeberha is a click sound. You could also call it P.E. as the locals do.

We checked into Southern Sun The Marine, a hotel with a vintage ambiance that is within walking distance of the beach. Waves crashing on the beach (the place is a surfers’ paradise) provided the perfect backdrop for our walk to lunch at the Something Good Roadhouse the next day.

Everyone loved what they ordered, which was great for our next adventure, the Addo Elephant National Park. The name might have clued you in on what animals to expect, but I thought it could also have easily been named the Addo Kudu National Park. We saw so many kudus!

The park has a diverse collection of animals, though, being the third largest national park in South Africa, out of 20 parks.

As the only Big Seven national park in the world, it is home to the Big Five animals, namely the leopard, lion, Cape buffalo, rhino, and elephant, and two more in its marines – the great white shark and the southern right whale.

It was also the funniest safari I had ever been on, thanks to the humorous descriptions and explanations of everything by our guide, a hilarious man who told us his name was Head Man. I am still not sure if him telling us that the dung beetle is one of Addo’s Big Five animals was a joke or not.

We lived it up that evening at The Gallery on Produce, which I thought was very reminiscent of Nairobi Street Kitchen.

And then the next day, the crowning jewel. Skydiving at Jeffrey’s Bay! I had heard this statement before: “To those who jump, no explanation is necessary, to those who do not jump, no explanation is possible.”

I have never understood a statement as clearly as I did when I flew up in a plane with no doors at the back where four of us were, watching the breathtakingly beautiful landscape and ocean from the open space, and then jumped out of it from 7,500 feet in the sky.

It is the definition of indescribable. The first drop before the parachute opens will have your heart in your mouth, but you are allowed and even encouraged to scream, which you almost certainly will. It is the SCAD freefall feeling on steroids. And then the parachute thankfully opens after 20 seconds, and suddenly you feel like you are floating in the air.

In the interest of not dying, my first-ever skydive was not alone. It was a tandem skydive, meaning I was tightly harnessed to someone who knew what he was doing, a professional skydiver. He had told me he would tap my shoulder when the parachute was open, and I could spread my arms and fly, so that is what we did

For at least five minutes, I was a bird, one who was shouting the whole time about how amazing it was to fly.

And then he asked me if I was ready for a little rollercoaster and started doing stunts in the air – my goodness, what a feeling!

I was ‘on’ for a good while after that, waiting for my very excited brain and body to go back to normal programming. It is just such a life-changing experience. The instructor recorded it all on a GoPro, so I have the pictures and footage to remember it by and I smile every time I see them, even just thinking about it right now.

After dinner at the popular Bridge Street Brewery, we flew back to Joburg the next day and lunched at Maboneng one more time. Then we partied at our last hotel, the trendy, modern, and fun Radisson Red, with Sho Madjozi that last night. She is the culture ambassador of South African Tourism, the people who made all this happen.

Which of these activities would I never do again? Absolutely none. I wouldn’t classify myself as an adrenaline junkie, yet I hope I get to do it all again and more.