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January 9, 2008

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 South Africa

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Goeie More from South Africa! After my long South African Airlines (SAA) flight from New York via Dakar, I spent a much-needed night of rest in a Johannesburg hotel to recharge the ol' batteries. South Africa has not only been a dream destination of mine for a long time now, but it's a destination that I know many people just like you have a curiosity about, too. So I'm going to take my time as I tell you about this incredible place and share everything that I experienced. I will break my story about this trip into four parts; this week, I'll focus on the country in general and the city of Johannesburg in particular. Next week, we'll get to the good stuff and head off into the bush for an unforgettable safari. Looking for a different kind of adventure? This week, you can join Dave Zuchowski as he introduces us to Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana. Or, get a closer look at the Airbus A380 as Marc Meredith tells us about his latest encounter with the historic new aircraft. OK, ready to get started? Here we go!

On the plane to Johannesburg (most locals refer to it as Jo'burg), I had plenty of time to read a couple of guidebooks. One was Frommer's South Africa guidebook, the other Fodor's African Safari . I recommend both and parts of them should definitely be read before leaving home. I mean, a few hours from touchdown is not the best time to learn what to pack. Who knew that my dark-colored clothing would attract mosquitoes? I should have packed light, neutral colors. Mental note for next time.

Check it out: Buy one ticket, get one free from South African Airways*

DID YOU KNOW: I always imagined Africa to be rather desolate but did you know that the actual percentage of African wilderness is 28% while in North America it's 38%?

South Africa is about the same size as the state of Texas.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa: Afrikaans, English, IsiNdebele (Ndebele), IsiXhosa (Xhosa), IsiZulu (Zulu), Northern Sotho (Sepedi), Sesotho (Southern Sotho), Setswana (Tswana), SiSwati (Swati), Tshivenda (Venda), Xitsonga (Tsonga). The most common is Zulu. But don't worry. Unless you really go off the beaten path, everyone you encounter will likely speak English.

Between 1948 and 1994, a legalized racial segregation was in effect called Apartheid. It's an Afrikaans word meaning "apartness".

Over 47-million people live in South Africa. 79.6% are black Africans, 9.1% are white, 8.9 are "colored" and 2.5 are Indian/Asian. The definition of "colored" is people who have some sub-Saharan ancestry but not enough to be considered black Africans under South African law.

We touched down at the OR Tambo International Airport shortly after the Delta plane I had spotted parked next to us when we stopped in Dakar. It turns out that Delta has their own passport control so some SAA passengers who got off the plane first, mistakenly followed the Delta passengers into the wrong building. Somehow, I saw a small sign that pointed SAA passengers in the opposite direction and I acted on instinct. It paid off as I was the first person in line, which took all of 30 seconds to clear.

The first thing I did once I went through customs (besides saying hello to my tour guide), was get some Rand out of the ATM machine. Currently, one South African Rand (ZAR) equals $0.14USD Likewise, $100 USD converts to 701 Rand.

Jo'burg is located in the northeastern part of South Africa and is where the majority of international flights land, making it a springboard for all of southern Africa. I had no idea it was so high up 5,751 feet (1,753 meters) above sea level, to be exact. It's not only the capital but it is the most populous and largest city in South Africa. It's a large, spread-out city like Los Angeles with a population of nearly eight million in the Greater Johannesburg Area.

Though there's not a lot of tourism going on here, many international travelers still spend a night or two in Johannesburg to break up their trip. That's what I did as well. One of Jo'burg's main tourist attractions is Nelson Mandela's former home in Soweto. It's now the Nelson Mandela Museum and any hotel can arrange a tour for you.

JO'BURG WEATHER: Jo'burg has a dry, sunny climate and high temperatures range from 79F (26C) in January to 61F (16C) in June. Since it's situated below the equator, the seasons are the opposite of those in North America. Our winter is the sunniest time of year down there, but it's always best to check out the weather before leaving home. Here's a good local weather website to get the forecast.

When many people think of South Africa, they often think of crime. That's largely because when Apartheid ended, thousands of poor people living in townships moved into the city and crime rates rose. I recently read that in the last year or so, crime rates are starting to drop as the country prepares to host the FIFA World Cup in 2010. This is the country's chance to show the world that South Africa is a wonderful and safe tourist destination. They even hired Rudy Giuliani for his insight and advice on how he cleaned up New York City. But even with the installation of video cameras on street corners, you still have to take precautions. Although I felt safe 100% of the time, I was with local tour guides who knew the city and the places to avoid.

Forewarned is forearmed. Here are six tips for staying safe:

1 Don't wear anything that looks valuable. For that matter, don't even pack expensive things because the chances are high that if you check your baggage, it may get stolen anyways.

2 Don't look lost and don't walk around in desolate places at night.

3 To prevent car jackings, keep your doors locked and windows shut. When stopped at a light, leave enough space between your car and the car in front of you so you can make a quick escape if necessary.

4 Don't pick up hitchhikers and try not to let anyone approach your car, whether they're distributing flyers or are looking for money or directions.

5 If you see a car that has broken down on the side of the road, don't stop. Instead, call a gas station or the police to alert them.

6 I read online that crossing against a red light is allowed if you feel a danger and you do so carefully.

Johannesburg has a long history but here are a few brief details. It was put on the map in 1886 when it became the gold capital of the world. By 1897, more than 100,000 people (mostly Europeans) were living here and they produced 27% of the world's gold. Over time, they brought black immigrant laborers to work the mines. They still mine but the workforce has been dramatically reduced. These days, the top industries are manufacturing, banking and media services.

Jo'burg does not have good public transport so if you don't have a guide meeting you and you're looking for cheaper transport than a taxi, try the Magic Bus Shuttle. Transfers to Sandton (an upscale suburb where I was staying) take place every 30 minutes and cost R115 ($17USD) per person. For door-to-door service, it's a little extra.

The trip to Sandton from the airport was 35 minutes. It's a 20-mile (33-kilometer) drive. The five-star Michelangelo Hotel is one of the city's nicest lodgings. It's 11 miles (18 kilometers) from downtown Johannesburg and is located next to the Sandton Convention Center. It's part of the Michelangelo Towers, a small, high-end shopping center and is adjacent to the Nelson Mandela Square, where you'll find outdoor restaurants. The lobby is impressive with marble and roman columns so any Italians who show up won't be disappointed. The hotel makes good on its Italian name.

The hotel is a member of the Leading Hotels of The World group and has 194 rooms. All rooms are the size of small suites with a couch, armoire and a mahogany desk. Free wireless Internet was only available in the lobby but in the rooms there's broadband access and it's not cheap; $15 for two hours of stop and go service. The bed was comfortable but not outrageously so, maybe because it had a bedspread and not a duvet. My room was close to the elevator and I could hear the din of its dings as it stopped on my floor and the shuffle of traffic outside my door. I have dog ears so I could hear the lights buzzing in my room so be sure to bring earplugs if you're a light sleeper. My favorite part of the room was definitely the colonial-style marble bathroom with separate tub and shower. Now this place was plush. Like a bad boy, I didn't hit the gym or the indoor/outdoor pools. But I did gorge myself at the elaborate but civilized breakfast buffet in the Piccolo Mondo Mediterranean-style restaurant. Everyone in there was wearing a suit but me. Room rates begin at $290. The Michelangelo Hotel, tel.: +27 11 282 7800.

What's nice about staying at the Michelangelo is that right next-door in the Nelson Mandela Square are a variety of restaurants. I spotted seafood, Italian and African restaurants. Of course I dined at the latter, a restaurant called Lekgotla, which translates to 'meeting place' in Tswana. The restaurant was a melting pot of cuisines from the four corners of Africa. It was kind of like Disneyland because everything was so new and clean. The servers wore traditional garb and came around mixing local drink concoctions. The waiters played with the Metwalle African Jazz Band, face painters came around the table and a beautiful Ethiopian woman served a strong Ethiopian coffee. The seafood is flown in daily from nearby Mozambique. I had the Zanzibar chicken (chicken breasts braised in a tomato and chili sauce on fragrant couscous, served with a banana and cucumber riatta). The others in my group feasted on springbok (antelope), crocodile carpaccio, elk spring rolls and the grilled Mozambican prawns. Lekgotla Restaurant, tel.: +27 11 884 9555.

At dinner I remembered that I needed to take a dose of my malaria medication since I would be heading to the bush in the morning. Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite that can infect your red blood cells. Infected mosquitoes spread the parasite. My doctor back in the U.S. recommended I take Malarone but the CVS pharmacist who filled the expensive prescription (use your AAA card for a huge discount), just happened to be from South Africa and said that based on where I was going, I wouldn't need to take the prescribed malaria or typhoid pills. That was music to my ears because I took so much asthma medication growing up that I don't like taking anything these days. So before I popped the pill, I asked the others in my group what they were doing.

BTW: There are two main types of malaria medication that doctors prescribe: Larium is a weekly dose that is inexpensive and needs to be taken one to two weeks before going into the infected area and then for four weeks afterwards. However, this drug, which was created by the U.S. Army to give to soldiers deployed overseas, is apparently really bad for you and can mess you up pretty good. It has the most side effects and practically everyone who takes it reports horrendous nightmares. Malarone is the newer, more expensive medication that has few side effects as well. It only needs to be taken one to two days before going into the infected area, then daily until you have been out for seven days.

I polled my group, which included veteran travel writers and local South African tourism officials, asking if the medication was really needed or not. Obviously, I don't want to get malaria. But after going around the table, my head was spinning. There were so many different opinions and both sides of the argument presented strong cases, so much so that when I get back to my room I didn't know what to do. Since this is more relevant to next week's story, I will continue with my dilemma then and let you know which choice I made.

Sorry, no Johnny Jet video this week but I promise I will share an awesome South African safari video next week. But in the meantime, you can always check out some of my past videos.

Next week get ready to explore the South African bush!

Happy Travels,
Johnny Jet

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All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.

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Note: This trip was sponsored by the South Africa Tourism board.

Copyright 2007 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Highlights From







15 A & B




OR Tambo International Airport






Drive To Hotel


Michelangelo Hotel


Friendly Doormen


Hotel Lobby


Hotel Foyer


Italian Decor


Michelangelo Towers


Expensive Shops


Nelson Mandela Square


Nelson Mandela Statue


Large Rooms


My Bed


My Bathroom


Don't Forget Your Adaptor


Walking To The Restaurant




Inside Lekgotla


Traditional Garb


Din Din


Ethiopian Coffee


Zanzibar Chicken



  • I am glad '07 was so successful for you, as you noted in today's newsletter. Happy New Year -- here's wishing you a happy, healthy and great 2008. Dan W. Westport, CT

  • It was nice to see your highlights from 2007. I'm very jealous! Richard F Los Angeles, CA

  • I love what you wrote in your year in review, by the way, especially what you wrote in the Dream Job section. Carly B - NYC

  • I really liked what Frankie & Cricket had to share. Boy nothing short of good writers in your family! Happy New Year

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