My objectively best experience in South Africa?
But my favorite experience?
That was quite possibly on the last day of my trip, when I was in the sprawling capital of Johannesburg just as the power went out all across the city.
Suddenly it’s dark everywhere. Suddenly, seemingly all you hear is the distant barking of dogs.
Joburg doesn’t have the best reputation for safety, so it’s slightly creepy to be there when the lights go out. Maybe I would have just stayed in my hostel for the rest of the evening, safe and comfortable within its walled garden. But I simply got too hungry, there was no food at the hostel, and so I went on an expedition to find some.
The hostel owner gave me instructions on how to reach a bar that could maybe make me a pizza in a wood-fired oven. I went out into the un-lit streets and wandered for a while, before finding the bar hidden in an alley among a small roadside cluster of shops behind a gas station. (Yeah, not an Instagram kind of place.)
Stepping into the barely lit bar was like stepping into a Wild West saloon. For a moment all eyes turned on me. A man gave me a skeptical “who goes there?”, but when it was clear I was just a hungry traveler sent here by a friend, I was given a very warm welcome.
A few customers were huddled around candles placed along the bar—mostly biker types and blue collar folk. A waitress with far too many piercings and tattoos and a part-shaven head like that girl from Die Antwoord ran me through the pizza menu.
The person sitting on the bar stool next to me began chatting. When I asked him what he does he told me he’s a miner, which made me immediately realize that I had never actually spoken to a miner before.
(How nice it is to speak to someone who isn’t another social media manager…)
While I munched on my pizza, the man described in delightful detail how he and his mates go about drilling and crushing through the Earth to find gold. He told me how they blast pure cyanide into the ore to make the gold seep out. He spoke of the gold rush that once put Joburg literally on the map… and how the mining industry is still hanging on to this day.
The bar was actually pretty cosy with just the candles for light, but after a while a generator kicked in, giving us a single light over the pool table plus the multi-coloured glow from a neon BEER sign, just to liven things up.
I stuck around for much longer than planned, chatting with the patrons and staff, and getting a true local’s perspective on the city. I played some pool with some guys who were chuffed to find some random traveller from Holland in their local dive.
Of course, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this evening in Johannesburg. As I write this retelling, it’s an obvious “you-had-to-be-there”. What happened really? If you want to break it down… well, I had some food in a bar.
Still, it was one of those little unexpected experiences, and these are what I secretly love most about travelling. I’ve collected hundreds of these little travel vignettes, most of which I’ve never told or even referenced on this blog (because you-had-to-be-there), but they always become firmly lodged in my memory.
I had only one brief day in Johannesburg and due to the blackout I didn’t do much sightseeing at all, and that was kind of a bummer.
But I did have candlelight pizza in some dingy roadside bar with a miner, served by that chick from Die Antwoord, so maybe that’s okay.