Adventures in Layover Land: Johannesburg

The single busiest airport on the African continent is O.R. Tambo International Airport (code: JNB) near Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s a stopping point for many Southern and Eastern African safari itineraries, as well as many North American flights to Australia and Asia.

In other words, if you’re blazing a big ol’ vacation trail across the globe, you have a pretty good shot at a layover here. Which is good news, because there’s some fun stuff to do, both in and out of the airport.

Sure, you could have our initial experience at O.R. Tambo, which I like to call: Run, Forrest, Run for Your Connecting Flight! This involves hoofing it like half-crazy people through at least one terminal while balancing at least one bag apiece, hoping to make it to your next plane in advance of your first joint heart attack.

Or, you could have an overnight layover in Joburg, in which case there’s no need to wander far from the airport for lodgings. About 500 meters across a pedestrian path from Terminal A, you’ll find the swanky InterContinental O.R. Tambo, and not much farther on, the Southern Sun. Rest easy before your next flight.

Or, you could have your garden variety long-ass layover. Our second Tambo experience found us with a whopping 10 hours to kill. We had flown back to Johannesburg from Botswana to catch Kenya Airways’ midnight flight to the Tanzanian city of  Arusha, gateway to Mount Kilimanjaro and the country’s northwest.

With so much time on our hands, we wanted to leave the airport to go exploring. But where? Joburg, notorious for its high crime rate and slow post-apartheid recovery, hasn’t historically been a tourist mecca.

However, the 2010 World Cup brought many new developments, including the fancy Gautrain, connecting the airport to several of the city’s most populated areas. One of these, the newly-revamped Sandton City, is known locally as the Beverly Hills of Johannesburg. When a woman we’d befriended in Botswana heard that we had a long layover at Tambo and were looking for an exciting African meal, she recalled a dinner with her local friends in Joburg and suggested Sandton as the perfect destination.

Storing your carry-on luggage and taking the Gautrain from O.R. Tambo could hardly be easier.

From the first floor of Terminal A:
– Luggage storage (approximately $5US per small piece of baggage) is one floor down in the basement
– Several bright, clear signs steer you to the second-floor Gautrain terminal

Once through the doors of the shiny, clean Gautrain terminal, directly bypass the confusing (well, to us, anyway) electronic kiosks and approach the windows containing actual human beings. Ask to purchase two Gautrain Gold cards, which will allow you round-trips to and from Sandton City (depending on the time of day, about $20 US apiece). Hold up your cards to the big circle on any electronic pass-through gate, and go wait on the platform for the train towards Sandton.

Traveling at 160 km/hr, this bullet train will get you to Sandton City in about 15 minutes. It stops at several seemingly suburban outposts along the way, passing low, jewel-green hills and townships crowded with blocky public housing estates, all-but-cardboard shacks and radio towers. The journey gives the impression that 1) a lot of people live here and 2) it’s not the loveliest place that has ever been glimpsed from a train.

The Gautrain itself looks like the official choo-choo of a police state. It’s so absurdly clean that you could eat right off the seats, were you so (oddly) inclined. And the list of don’ts and shouldn’ts and not-the-hell-alloweds on posters plastered all over every car make it searingly clear that Gautrains are for purely shenanigans-free transportation: Take off your motorcycle helmet, put on a shirt and shoes, keep your gum on lockdown, don’t make any sudden movements, etc.

From the time we stepped onto the Sandton exit platform, up the network of escalators and into the fading light of day, we’d already seen about 25 police officers — men, women, black and white — in acid-yellow vests. It made us feel simultaneously safe and uneasy.

Turning left away from the station, we were surprised to discover that Sandton City does indeed have fancy shopping just like Beverly Hills, but also vibes like the bustling downtown of any second-tier American city. The tallest landmark in the area is the neo-rococco Michelangelo Hotel, which soars upward beside the state-of-the-art Sandton Convention Centre and an enormous mall called Nelson Mandela Square. At the Square you’ll find  both a huge statue of South Africa’s political hero and some of the area’s best shopping and dining opportunities.

For dinner, I was eager to try African cuisine, so we chose Lekgotla (Note: This restaurant closed in August 2013). The splashy mood lighting, animal-skin decor, unique pan-African menu and turbaned waitresses who offer to paint you with henna make the restaurant feel a bit like the Dark Continent by way of Vegas. Personally, we’re not huge fans of Vegas, but we still had a good time here.

Far from a vegetarian’s dream, this is your chance to try crocodile, steenbok, giant tiger prawns from Mozambique, ostrich sausage and more. With some regret, we veered towards less exotically-described dishes; most of our African mezze platter was starchy and fried, the vegetable curry oddly bland. We wished we’d asked for more heat and spice, but we did enjoy the sexy, global soundtrack, our glasses of smoky South African pinotage, and being surrounded by conventioneers, couples and extended families from, seemingly, all over the world.

After a leisurely stroll through the mall, we wandered past jacaranda trees in full lavender bloom, back toward the station. Catty-corner across the street, our heads were turned by the blue lights of a swanky bar high above the street at a Radisson Blu, but we were afraid to lose track of time. Good thing we passed it up, as this allowed us to unwittingly catch the last Gautrain from Sandton to Tambo at about 8pm. (We’d incorrectly read the schedule, thinking we still had another hour with which to play. Brilliant.)

Returning to Tambo was a cinch — with only a short line at security — and we reclaimed our stored luggage in under five minutes’ time. Checking our bags at Terminal A’s desk for Kenya Airways proved a new experience for us, as in a (successful) effort to deter handler theft, they wrap each piece of checked luggage in stem-to-stern plastic wrap.

With only our carry-ons to schlep, we headed to the duty free mall at Terminal A, which is full of fun stuff to do:

-Have an African meal at African Place
-Try an excellent espresso drink at Caffé Ritazza
-Browse uniquely African music at CNA
-Shop for homewares at Indaba Lifestyle
-Find safari wear and souvenirs at Out of Africa
-Explore a slew of tomes at Exclusive Books (including some that have only been published in Africa)
-While seated in a forward-facing ergonomic chair, get vigorous massages from the no-nonsense young South African women at Letsema

We did the latter to prepare for our five-hour midnight flight to Tanzania, and wow…was this a beautiful idea.


See also
TWT Travel Binder: South Africa


  1. You did a great job on this post. I have been through Joburg a few times – and love the Caffee you mention & browsing the shops – and this from someone who doesn’t usually shop.

    That’s a very cool looking train. I have never had the energy so far to leave the airport though I’m sure I’ll be in it again one day.

  2. Your article that Johannesburg has a high crime rate is pure speculation. Johannesburg like all big metros has no go areas for anyone. You just have to use your mind. According to Gavin S “Questions about safety in Johannesburg are always coming up. Rest assured, no tourist guide would ever take his/her clients to an unsafe area.

    Just like any big city (Johannesburg is sprawling, with a bigger footprint than London, or New York , pop. 8 million), there are safe and unsafe areas.

    Would you consider visitng Baltimore , or Detroit, St. Louis, Cape Town , or New Orleans ? All according to statistics, less safe than Johannesburg….. look at this link:…

  3. Nathan, I’m certainly not suggesting that a traveler shouldn’t visit Johannesburg because of its crime rate. I appreciate your thoughts, but please know that my assessment that Johannesburg has a high crime rate is based on having spoken to people that were living in Johannesburg at the time of my visit. Personally, I travel to all sorts of cities that have notoriously high crime rates — heck, I was raised in D.C., which was once known as the Murder Capital of America, and went to university in pre-Giuliani New York City — and find, exactly as you say, that all cities have their safe and unsafe areas. Every time we leave our homes, we take a risk that something good or bad can happen to us. It’s no reason to discount traveling, and it’s no reason to discount an entire city — like, say, Johannesburg.

    I just like to present facts when they’re given to me — I’m a rebel that way.

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