Watching the sunrise over the foothills of the valley in South Africa in a hot air balloon should have always been on my bucket list. Who knew what an amazing and awe inspiring experience that would be. All I could do was look around at the land and the sky and my good friends and count my blessings in life.
It all began last year when my book club went to the dinner portion of an golf outing fund raiser and I ended up “winning” the African Safari auction. One of the women in the club and I thought it sounded like a great adventure and the next week 2 other women in our book club, that has been together for 21 years, joined us. We spent the past year making plans to extend the safari week to include a few days in both Johannesburg and Capetown.
As you can imagine the flight is expensive. And we booked 2 additional flights within Africa to insure that we made the most of our stay. To keep costs reasonable we opted to fly coach. Ouch.
British Airways has the smallest seats and not the best food in the coach cabin. Having just flow. Business class with them from Greece on my honeymoon I was definitely a bit disappointed in the flight.
In addition it was 2 long flights: New York to London is 6 hours, London to Johannesburg is 10 hours. Some wine, a Melatonin and a soft tush cushion did enable me to get some sleep on the longer flight.
The airport In Johannesburg was not too big but our transfer was late in arriving which always makes you a little nervous. He eventually got there and was most apologetic- it seems there was confusion on which flight they thought we had.
Once we arrived at the Winston Hotel in The Melrose area of Johannesburg we were pleasantly surprised and relieved to have such a lovely intimate boutique hotel with attentive and friendly staff. As a business hotel it was relatively empty on the weekend so it seemed we had the place to ourselves.
Since it was early our rooms weren’t ready. We sat on the veranda in the garden and ordered lunch. It was delicious.
We discussed whether we should wait for the rooms and nap or go out and see something. We agreed to go somewhere. I had imagined that like most cities we would wander out of the hotel and walk around.
Not advisable to do in Johannesburg. We were in a good section as noted by the walled apartment complexes with barbed wire on top. We had driven past the Alexandra slum nearby on our way to our hotel. The cab driver told us that when people in there call the police it can take 2 hours for someone to come. Definitely not safe.
And he mentioned some other areas that are not safe. Don’t wear jewelry. Don’t show your cell phone.
So we decided not to walk anywhere. While there was a mall nearby we didn’t travel all this way to shop in a mall. We opted for the Apartheid Museum.
Having not been taught much history about Africa in the United States it was interesting and a bit scary how societies can repeatedly make the same mistakes. One group of people decides they are better than the other and makes serious efforts to take away basic rights, imprison, humiliate or even exterminate an entire group of people.
In Africa, Apartheid separated groups of people into whites, blacks, colored (mix of white and black) or Asian. If you were labeled black you had no rights to vote. It was illegal for you to marry whites. The school system was terrible with hundreds of children being taught by few teachers with no books, thus keeping illiteracy rates high and job opportunities limited.
The museum was interesting and worth the time to learn more about the country. Once we left the museum we were at a loss as to how to get from one place to the next.
At our hotel we had WiFi so one of our tech savy friends with the Uber app was able to get us a ride. Outside the museum we didn’t have WiFi.
We asked a security guard for assistance and he called a friend with a car to take us. This worried us a bit. We didn’t know these people. It turns out the driver was also an Uber driver. In fact I’ll bet there are tons of Uber drivers in Johannesburg looking to take tourists around so that is the way to go.
Our driver brought us to the Maboneng area upon our request. When he dropped us off, we were a bit concerned about where we were but he assured us it was safe. We were still skeptical but soon met some local artists selling crafts on the street and a sweet woman in a shop who were all friendly and eager to have us visiting.
We didn’t wander far but after looking around a bit we chose to have dinner at the restaurant Pata Pata and listen to some live jazz music.
After dinner the owner of the restaurant helped us get our next Uber and we happily showered and fell asleep early to be ready for our next adventure.
The alarm woke us at 4:00 am which was 10 pm the day before back home. Our driver for the day picked us up with our breakfast that the hotel packed for us to go. We arrived at Bill Harrop’s original Hot Air Balloon field in the dark. We were greeted with a choice of hot cocoa, coffee or tea and muffins. Heat lamps and a small bonfire warmed us up as the morning temperature was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once the 3 large balloons were inflated, we were invited to climb into a sturdy basket built for 12 passengers and a pilot. We lifted as the sky began to lighten up and rose to an altitude of 1000 feet where we saw the sun peek over the nearby mountain range.
We took photos and were awed by the beauty and quiet in the sky interrupted occasionally by sudden bursts of flames heating the air in the balloon.
When I saw the zebras walking below I pinched myself because I realized I was in Africa. How awesome!
A truck was waiting for us when we landed after our one hour flight. We celebrated our bravery with champagne and a toast and a story from our pilot named Flip. Once transported back to where we started a delicious breakfast buffet was available as we dined under the now warm sun.
Still glowing with joy we hopped back in the van with our driver for the day and drove a short distance to the Museum of Humankind. In an effort to make the experience more entertaining the museum begins with a swirling boat ride through a dark tunnel with snow blizzards and volcanic activity. How earth began after the Big Bang. Next was the exhibition with lots of information and skeletons of humans and human ancestors.
After visiting and reading about the artifacts, we drove over to the Sterkfontein caves. Our guide took a group of us wearing hard hats underground and we hiked for a bit seeing an underground lake, sliding and crouching through a narrow section and seeing the spot where Mrs Ples was discovered, a skeleton determined to be 3.2 million years old.
Returning to our hotel we rested by the pool with a glass or two of wine and spent some much needed girl time discussing all the issues in life that needed to be solved.
Dinner at the hotel was delicious and again the service outstanding. They arranged for us an airport transfer for the morning and we headed off to Zulu Nyala for our week on Safari. Stay tuned for (hopefully) some cool pictures of animals in Africa in the next few days! Thanks for reading.