Well it's been a long two days but I'm finally here: Johannesburg in South Africa - the first stop in my 'South Africa Explorer' trip. My itinerary over the next two weeks will be comprehensive and busy and will take me from Jo-Burg to Cape Town, with a significant number of stops in between.
Why South Africa? Well one of the key drivers for me was fulfilling a lifelong dream of going on safari. This trip will take me to the Kruger National Park where I hope to get some fabulous opportunities to put my wildlife photography skills to the test. Not only that though, it will immerse me in the South African culture and all that it has to offer in its eleven different languages. Over the two weeks I will experience everything from tribal foot stomping warrior displays, to visiting a South African school - just writing about it makes me want to get going!
However, for the moment I am in Jo'Burg, recovering from a 24 hour journey from Edinburgh. Jo'Burg is not a place to get excited about - it is a place that scares me. I'm well aware, from doing research before my trip, of the reputation that Jo'Burg holds - a densely populated South African city with sprawling townships and very high crime rates.
When I stepped off the plane early this morning I actually wondered whether the pilot had inadvertently taken us back to Scotland, it was so cold! Seven degrees celsius, overcast and wet was not what I expected for a South African spring morning! Our driver met me and the rest of the Group at the airport arrivals, whereupon we were shepherded down into a basement car park, suitcases put onto a trailer, and then onto the minibus we went for the transfer to the hotel.
It was at this point that I got my first insight into Jo'Burg hospitality and expectations..........
A South African gentleman appeared from nowhere in the basement car park and started helping the driver load the suitcases onto the trailer. Once all of the Group were seated inside, the helper appeared at the side door of the mini bus and demanded of one of the men in our Group, "You got something for me?" All of us in the Group were taken a little by surprise - we had barely had the chance to get our bearings, let alone sort out South African Rand for tipping. The man who had been asked for money pulled out ten Rand (slightly less than £1) which was promptly taken before he was then accused of being 'a very selfish man'. At that, Mr Demanding turned on his heels and left. Not the best first impression did we make on Jo'Burg then, nor Jo'Burg us!
The hotel we are spending the night in is in the Sandton area of Jo'Burg, an affluent district situated ten miles from the city centre. As we make our way there I can see why the holiday company has had to base us there, with tourists no longer being booked to stay in Jo'Burg centre by any organisations. Jo'Burg is the largest and most populous city in South Africa and is considered the financial capital. It is also the source of large scale gold and diamond trade, due to its location on the mineral rich Witwatersrand range of hills. But the city itself is bleak, or certainly what I saw of it from the minibus. Most commercial units in the centre are vacant and can only be filled with government organisations. There is much illegal activity - drug trafficking, prostitution, over-crowding in condemned buildings, corruption etc.
As I mentioned earlier it is Spring time here, but it looks more like autumn . The city is sprawled with industrial units and unkept ground, the 'green' of the trees and grass fighting a hard battle to overcome the 'brown'. If we think we have grounds to complain about the condition of our roads in the UK, we don't! Piles of rubble, black bags of rubbish sporadically litter the side of the roads, and the townships - well I got a good look at one of those on our drive to the hotel and it was frightening. Each dwelling 'house' looks like nothing more than a well used garden shed, with a corrugated iron roof on which sits a solar power generator. In South Africa these are known as shacks and they are so tightly packed together, there is no space to swing the proverbial cat. I've seen townships before on the TV, and I don't think this one here is the worst there is, but it's bad enough.
Ten more minutes of driving and we arrive at the Holiday Inn Sandton - a beautiful hotel that looks oddly out of place with all I have seen thus far. The hotel is surrounded by high security gates (a way of life in South Africa) and manned by a security guard. We appear to be in the business district and it seems nice, although the presence of security guards on nearly every street corner does not go unnoticed.
Relieved to get to my beautifully spacious room, I spend the rest of the day sleeping and recharging the batteries. I'm itching to get my camera out but I'm not going out wandering alone! So I take one shot only from the relative safety of my hotel room, and look forward to taking many hundreds more once we get out of here!
Thank you for reading - lots more images and stories still to come!