Johannesburg :: Soweto, Apartheid Museum & The Cradle of Human Kind (Maropeng)

“No second Johannesburg is needed upon the earth. One is enough.”
Alan Paton

I was initially planning to stay in Johannesburg only two days and then jump onto a guided tour from there to Mozambique, but after meeting Nathanael, Helen, Florian and the others I decided I would rather go with them on the Soweto tour, allow more time to fix my visa for Mozambique and get to Maputo (via Swaziland) by myself.
We ended our BazBus adventure at the Curiocity Hostel in inner city Johannesburg and I stayed there almost a whole week which gave me the chance to see Nathanael off on his Kruger safari, make some new friends and then welcome him back when he returned. I tried out some of the local eateries in the neighbourhood (which means the street we lived on because going outside of that street at night could get dangerous) and most importantly I managed to squeeze in a tour of both Soweto and Maropeng (one of the many “Cradles of Humankind”). I even stopped by the Johannesburg Zoo while I waited for my Mozambique visa (that was a bit of a depressing experience though).

Curiocity Hostel in Joburg has a full day Soweto-tour which includes a trip to the Apartheid Museum, it’s quite popular and our little Curiocity van was full when we set out in the morning. After our guide, Phiwe, had given us all African names (I can’t really remember mine, it was something like Nyanywinke, or whatever, it’s the name of pretty flower. At least that was his story and I’m sticking to it…)
Also, Phiwi sounded just like Chris Tucker in “The 5th element”… Interesting experience for a full day. I beg my ears’ forgiveness…

We started off with a tour of one of the areas with a local kindergarten. We were told repeatedly that pictures where encouraged and the locals thought it was a fun thing, something many of the locals confirmed, but I still felt a bit awkward walking around staring at people and taking their picture. I was trying to get away from the “white people visiting the zoo”-feeling so we talked a bit with some of the locals including this really old woman (“the oldest mama we have here!”), even though she communicated only with smiles, eye mimicking and head nods. At the kindergarten itself the kids (as usual) ranged between finding our white skin very strange and a bit scary and being overcome with joy to have new playmates. They were (also as usual) absolutely adorable and time flew really quickly. We had to pry one of our tour members off the trampoline, she was jumping around with two kids around her and one on her back.
One of the things I found fascinating (and appealing to my “reuse stuff”-ocd) was the widespread use of old containers as housing, offices, schools, kindergartens, libraries. This is, of course, not only in Soweto, but it was very prevalent at the kindergarten we visited. I love how they paint them either in several bright colours or decorate them with murials. The library at the kindergarten/school impressed me because I saw the front first (where the entrance was) and it just looked like an old containers on top of eachother, then I went in and saw the bright green, the shelves, the books, the TV and the heap of pillows. It was such a friendly and calm atmosphere in there that I wanted to sit down and read. No joke, I actually wanted to tell the others to bugger off and leave me there. We finished the visit with the mandatory “sign the visitors’ book”, a donation and shopping for some souvenirs. The women working there made the coolest earrings our of old espresso caps(!), I bought to pairs and a lovely, blue pouch I can keep random things in. (I didn’t know it at the time, but that pouch would be filled with nuts for a Bawo-game when I reached Malawi).

Second stop was the Hector Pieterson Memorial “commemorating the role of the countrys students in the struggle against apartheid and in particular the role played by the school children who took part in the Soweto protests of 1976, many of whom were shot by the apartheid police while protesting against the sub-standard of education in black schools in South Africa. […] One of the first to be killed by the police was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. Newspaper photographer Sam Nzima was in Soweto on June 16 covering the protests and the riots which followed. His iconic image of Pieterson’s body being carried by high school student Mbuyisa Makhubo, with his sister, Antoinette Sithole, running alongside, is a graphic representation of repression under the apartheid regime and has become an iconic image around the world of the senseless cruelty and brutality of the apartheid state.” (More info)
It was a powerful experience. I knew the history and had seen this picture many times before, but something about being there really drove the point home. Even with all the school children running around laughing it was a bit haunting…

From the memorial we walked on to Nelson Mandela’s house and the little, blue plaque outside Desmond Tutu’s house #Landmarks ;-D We saw several really good local craft markets that I didn’t buy anything from because I’m travelling for two years and every time I have to carry my backpack I swear I’m going to burn all my belongings(!) – then all of a sudden we were treated to an impromptu dance performance by a bunch of guys who looked like they worked in construction and/or road repair, so I decided to tip some of my rands into their bowl instead.

For a truly memorable experience our guide decided to bring us to “The Shack”, a small pub of sorts that looked like a hole in the wall, where we would be so enormously lucky that we would taste some of the local beer. I’m struggling to contain my sarcasm here. I hate the stuff with a vengeance so I only had the tiniest of sips before devouring most of my Joburg “Bunny Chow” (they love their carbs on this continent). I was hungry. It was good. I’d gotten away with almost not drinking the “beer”. All was right in the world.
We stopped by the FNB Stadium on the way to the Apartheid Museum, but it was rather forgettable for me as I’m not really interested in football… 😉

Now the Apartheid Museum was a highlight. A truly comprehensive, (if a bit “text-laden”), museum. The entrance is separated into “whites” and “non-whites” and depending on your ticket you use the entrance designated to you. A small, but apt example of the way things were. I walked in there and started off to the left (where the story of apartheid started), but the lady behind the counter popped up smiling and directed me from there and over to the Nelson Mandela-section saying: “We start here.” Thinking back now I don’t really understand why since you can pretty much choose which direction you want to go and the experience isn’t diminished if you choose one over the other. The only thing I can think of is that people maybe might get confused by the sign immediately after the story-section, which is a nice closure text… But my problem was I ended up spending so much time in the Mandela-section I almost missed out on the whole history-section, so I ran back in and rather quickly tried to consume as much of it as I could. It felt exactly like when I had exams coming up in high school that I felt I hadn’t studied enough for. (“Cram! Cram! Cram!”) Also, for some reason, you are not allowed to take pictures inside the museum, and I didn’t think to bring a notebook with me, so some of the quotes and text would like take with me for later reading, I couldn’t. But apart from that I have to say it’s one of the better museums I’ve ever been to and I will enthusiastically recommend you visit if you ever go to Johannesburg.

I feel I have to mention in particular a video I saw at the museum that sticks with me. Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd was the 6th prime minister of South Africa and the man regarded as the architect/mastermind behind apartheid. In the museum they show a video of him defining apartheid in the most jovial way using phrases like “good neighbourliness”… It was deeply disturbing to see and I wish I could’ve taped it. Luckily, I managed to find at least part of it on YouTube, it’s only 1 minute long, please watch it.

I really loved the way our driver, Bosso, got our tickets, handed them out and then told us to “read the history so we can learn and not forget, but not feel bad or guilty about it”. He was basically telling us it wasn’t our fault it happened and no blame was to be placed on future generations for the mistakes in the past, which is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. It’s going to be pretty hard to get past grievances and differences if we keep blaming new generations for the actions of their parents and grand-parents.

I had made up my mind to fix my visa for Mozambique in Joburg rather than try for the border because I’d heard they were getting much stricter and might not allow me in if I just showed up flashing my Norwegian passport and brilliant smile. So I went to the Mozambique consulate instead, and flashed my Norwegian passport and brilliant smile. The lady was very helpful and told me to come back around three o’clock to fetch my passport with my shiny new visa in it. I didn’t really want to Uber back and forth two extra times so I googled what to do in the vicinity of the consulate and discovered that it was a “15 minute walk from the Johannesburg Zoo”. After asking if it was safe for me to walk there alone and faffing about for about 40 minutes I finally found the elusive entrance to the zoo and went in.
Zoos are always a bit of a depressing experience in my book so I have no idea why I thought this one would be different… I guess it was shear desperation for something to do close by that made me go there… As zoos go it wasn’t horrible, but it’s always sad to see animals in small enclosures and cages like that. My heart actually broke a little when I saw the tiny cage they had the vultures and other birds in. I might be wrong since I know very little of these birds and their needs, but I felt wrong that they didn’t have more roaming space…
The reptile bit was interesting and the zoo has a nice layout and some cool (and more roomy) cages for the primates, but all in all it didn’t make me particularly happy walking around in there…

Maropeng is home to “Little Foot” a nearly complete skeleton discovered in one of the many caves of the area. The excavations are many and the people are enthusiastic about it. No one really puts up a house in the near vicinity because there’s no guarantee it wont sink into the ground within a few year (or indeed next month!) – There’s a plethora of sinkholes and natural traps in the area leading down to a massive array of caves, which is also the reason “Little Foot” was trapped there, died there and subsequently discovered around 3 million years later(!)
“In 1994, palaeoanthropologist Professor Ron Clarke was in the workroom at Sterkfontein, sorting through a box of animal bones from the Silberberg Grotto in the caves, when he came across four foot bones which he realized belonged to an Australopithecus. The following year, he and Professor Phillip Tobias announced the discovery of the fossil StW 573, nicknamed “Little Foot”, consisting of four articulating foot bones. The bones had actually been cleaned out of breccia in 1980, but had not been recognized as hominid at that time. The discovery of the foot bones in itself was important, since comparatively few foot bone fossils of Australopithecus have been found.” (More info)

You can go to the visitors’ center at the Maropeng excavation site where you’ll receive a super sexy hardhat with hairnet and all, (that modeling contract, I’m telling you, it’s gonna be here any day now), then you’ll be given a guide and a group and you will all head towards the cave. On the way there are several plaques and monuments depicting the excavation, our guide was incredibly informative channeling his inner anthropology geek to everyone’s pleasure. Once in the caves the hardhats do come in handy as we had to crawl through some tight spaces (not for people with arthritis, I tell you). The guide told us some horror stories about people getting lost in the caves and drowning (trying to swim through the lower, flooded chambers to chart the underground “lakes” and not finding their way out again when their torches went out), it was not a pleasant story, but at least steps were taken. It’s strictly forbidden to undergo any such “adventures” now.
After resurfacing and getting used to the intense sun again we went along a walkway to see the actual excavation site. Naturally, it was fenced in, but with the amount of warnings to “watch your kids” and “don’t climb the fence and into the site” I can’t help but think people have not been as careful in the past… Wouldn’t be the first time someone “just wanted to [insert stupid idea here]”, I’m still remembering the cage dive guide who adamantly told us not to touch the shark…
After the excavation site you drive for about 15 more minutes to the Maropeng Museum, host to a huge exhibition of human history complete with the skeleton of “Homo Naledi” said to be “one of 2015’s scientific milestones”.
In 2013 a pair of cave explorers stumbled across a collection of bones in a cavern deep inside the Rising Star cave system in Gauteng’s Cradle of Humankind, which turned out to be one of the greatest fossil finds ever made on the African continent. The collection of 15 partial skeletons belonging to a new hominid species were christened homo naledi and revealed to the world with much fanfare in 2015. During the last two years more bones have been discovered in the Rising Star caves and extensive studies have dated the fossil remains to between 335 000 and 236 000 years old, putting the homo naledi species as living in the same time period as homo spaiens.” (More info)

Family resemblance...

Family resemblance…

They also have some more “hands-on” parts where you can try to crawl through a replica of the narrowest part of the cave the “underground astronauts” had to use to get to the bones (of course, me being a child I had to give it a go and I’m thinking if I could get through there it can’t have been that tight to be honest *lol*) as well as a little floaty-boaty you go down an indoor river in. The river flows through an exhibition of the four elements. Again, probably real popular with the kids, but I found myself on a boat with four other grown-ups who took even more videos and pictures than me. My kind of people 😉
OH! And they have a vortex tunnel. Haha! Only takes you a few seconds to go through… And then the rest of the day to get your head back on straight. I thought I was crashing to the left there… (Might be the reason I crashed out of that taxi and sprained my ankle almost two months later. Yeah. I’m going with that. Injury by vortex tunnel).
I undertook my Maropeng trip on my own (with the exception of the hostel’s driver, Bosso) so it was expensive, but to me it was definitely worth it. Especially since Bosso took the long way home and gave me a small inner city tour of my own.

For spending almost a week in Johannesburg I didn’t really explore too much of it. WhatI’d heard of the city, the warnings we got from the staff (they greet you with a map detailing where to go and where to NOT go, which is pretty much everywhere) and the stories from the other hostel guests deterred any expeditions from the start, so I ended up Ubering and getting the organized tours, but I feel like I got a lot out of my stay. The best thing was getting to spend a few more days with my BazBus-family though. I still miss you, guys ❤

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