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We’ve started a new expat life in Africa in last October, which has been nothing like we expected: historic highs and lows, struggles with bureaucracy, amazing wildlife sightings spiced with health issues, and getting used to the rhythm of Africa. Thus, we decided to share our (mis)adventures and lessons learned with a recap series from South Africa and Namibia.
From a Bitter Start in Johannesburg to Happy Safari Days in Kruger
Warning: this will be a rant. We’re positive people and consciously practice gratitude. Still, we can’t escape the fact that our first weeks in South Africa were an honest struggle. We didn’t like Johannesburg, at all. It wasn’t the South African expat life that we had dreamed about for so long.
It took me three weeks to learn to love Johannesburg, and Piritta hasn’t still warmed up a bit. It has never taken more than a week to like a destination. But more about that later.
A promise: this rant has still a happy ending. Our 16-day safari in Kruger was filled with fantastic animal sightings, and we scored some rare species that we’ve always wanted to see, like a honey badger and an aardvark!
Our 2,5-month stay in South Africa was closed with spending Christmas with an adorable Alaskan Malamute in Simon’s Town: it included a housesitting disaster, as well, but was generally sweet time walking in the mountains and watching penguins.
To balance our twisted relationship with Johannesburg, we loved Cape Town from the moment we saw Table Mountain. We spent a couple of happy days in Cape Town before and after our house-sitting gig in December. While we wouldn’t be excited to live as expats in Johannesburg, we would love to spend more time in the Cape Area next fall!
Handsome lion in Kruger National Park, South Africa
South African Visa Problems and Change of Plans
We were supposed to stay in South Africa for 4-6 months but realized that we couldn’t renew our tourist visas. We had also planned to get our driving licenses in South Africa, but it wasn’t possible with a tourist visa. So we had to change plans.
How I Get Tourist Visa Extension in South Africa?
Nowadays, South Africa gives only one-time 90-day tourist visas as a default, and there’s no way that you could prolong that tourist visa at the spot. The only option would be to return to your to home country and apply for a new tourist visa, but even then you might be turned down. People tell different stories about tourist visa extension processes, and the decision is always down to the individual border officer.’
However, there are some companies who can assist you with applying for a visa extension when you’re already in the country, but we’ve heard that even then it’s not guaranteed that you’ll get the extension. And the companies’ services are pretty expensive.
Can Digital Nomads Get a Work Visa in South Africa?
In case you’re wondering the other options for digital nomads, you cannot apply for a work visa without a South African employer, who would need to send you an invitation letter. Thus, South Africa is not a good option for self-employed digital nomads, who cannot get work visas.
As a tourist, you can generally enter South Africa only for those 90 days within one year. How strict! So we’re planning to return in October/November 2019 for an epic 1-2-month road trip. We just have to get driver’s licenses first here in Namibia – and buy a car!
Travel Disappointments in Maboneng, Johannesburg
We landed in Johannesburg in mid-October with an Airbnb-booking for two weeks. We had read about the hip inner-city suburb called Maboneng, which is also safe for tourists, so we decided to make it our first base in South Africa.
I had heard great things about Maboneng and was slightly disappointed with what we saw. These travel disappointments are a rare thing for me, as I usually like every destination already at the arrival.
Don’t get me wrong: Maboneng is a perfect sample of urban renewal and filled with great restaurants and nightclubs, world-class street art scene, fashion boutiques, and weekend markets. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll write another article about all the cool things you can do in Maboneng and surrounding Johannesburg.
Getting back to my rant: Maboneng is also an extremely tiny area and cramped with tourists, beggars, opportunistic pickpockets, noisy and drunken crowds, and pushy street vendors. I mean, the whole area is like 200 meters point 400 meters. Inside that area, you can walk rather safely as a tourist (even when talking on the phone or carrying a camera, although that’s not really recommended by the restaurant owners and locals).
Maboneng is a cool urban slice if you’re just spending one afternoon in Johannesburg. But after two days, we felt like prisoners. Maboneng was a way too small for us to live in for even two weeks – and we had planned to stay there for almost three months! It isn’t safe to walk outside the heavily patrolled Maboneng area (remember that tiny swatch), but I’ll get back to that later.
Black rhino male in Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa
Weather in Johannesburg October to November: From Cold Nights to Perfect Summer Vibes
We were waiting for sunny summer days in Johannesburg, but in 2018 summer was late, and the whole October was chilly in South Africa. Usually, in October Johannesburg sees pleasant day temperatures from 18 to 24 C (64-75F), although night temperatures can fall near 10C (52F).
When we arrived, night temps were hovering around 4C and days were well below the twenties, although mostly sunny. Nothing to complain when you come from Finland other than our Airbnb apartment was freezing during the nights, which brought a persistent 2-week flu for both of us.
Imagine old factory building with leaking, single-glazed windows and balcony doors with 5 cm gaps between them and the floor. Nice natural ventilation system, but not very practical for freezing winter nights (temps were around winter averages for the first days of our stay). Old brick walls and cement floors are perfect for keeping hot summer weather out, but leave the apartments cold in winter.
We had a communication breakdown with our Airbnb host, who wasn’t willing to offer us a heater or wouldn’t allow us to buy a heater for keeping ourselves warm (electricity is expensive in South Africa). So, for the first night, we booked a hotel. Second night brought that terrible flu. On the fourth day, the host luckily lent us his gas heater, which solved the problem.
Weather in Johannesburg changed rapidly in November. We embraced the sun and hot days nearing 35C and were entertained by beautiful afternoon thunderstorms. It was the perfect African summer weather that we had been waiting for! Let’s open the next challenge.
Living Like Locals in Maboneng’s Rocket Factory
We were staying in the old rocket factory of Maboneng. The whole building is renovated into urban cool industrial flats. The location is perfect for a short holiday in Johannesburg, as the center of Maboneng (Main Street) is just a 2-min walk away.
Still, Rocket Factory lies slightly further from the noisiest night clubs and crowds partying at the streets of Maboneng every weekend. We needed earplugs only when the adjacent night club had bigger party nights.
After getting that gas heater, we liked the place. Our apartment had decent wifi, complimentary Netflix, ergonomic bed, working table and bar table (I always prefer the latter), espresso machine, plenty of hot water, and a balcony. Amazing health juice joint and the best sushi bar in Johannesburg were just 2-3-minute walk away, several nice lunch spots and the best café in Maboneng took 5 minutes to reach (I’ll list all those places in our upcoming article). What else could a digital nomad wish for!
Well, the balance to last. After one week’s stay, we got an early reminder of Africa. Rocket Factory lost all electricity and running water for a couple of days. Suddenly, we didn’t have wifi, lights, flushing toilet, or even water to wash our hands. The smell got soon disgusting, as it was summer already. We were lucky to check-in a nice hotel again but felt sorry for the locals.
Although the communication with our Airbnb hosts was terrible, after a couple of days we managed to get a refund, as we ended our stay due to the electricity and water shortage. Of course, it wasn’t their fault. The whole building was off the grid. We’re still grateful that they let us go.
Load Sheddings in South Africa
This accidental electricity shortage introduced us to the South African load sheddings, which are a completely different thing but equally annoying.
Load sheddings are scheduled electricity downtimes, which are driving South Africans mad. Country’s biggest electricity supplier Escom has a monopoly status, which it uses to save resources (money) to bribe regional officers, especially before Christmas time. In November and December, load sheddings (electricity blackouts) were almost daily and some times there were even several (and long) downtimes within one day.
Escom states that load sheddings secure the electricity supply and protect the power system from a total blackout. Locals disagree. You can read more about load sheddings here.
Where to Stay in Maboneng: Hallmark House Hotel and Apartments
In November, we rented Airbnb studio from Hallmark House. It’s a flagship hotel and residential building in Maboneng – and the only real 4-star hotel in Maboneng. For luxurious standard and deluxe rooms, we ended up paying just $30-60 per night through amazing deals on booking.com: check the current deals for your travel dates here!
We stayed in three different rooms in Hallmark House before renting a flat and loved them all! Most rooms have huge balconies overlooking the skyscrapers of Johannesburg, decorated with swinging chairs. Rooms are stylish, the beds are amazing, wifi is strong, breakfast is varied, and prices are super affordable compared to the other 4-star hotels in Johannesburg CBD. We’d definitely stay in Hallmark House every time we’ll visit Johannesburg.
The best thing: the rooftop terrace of Hallmark House has terrific views of the Johannesburg CBD area. We loved the rooftop gym (free for hotel guests and residents of Hallmark House) and used to do our Krav Maga trainings there. There’s enough space for training martial arts, yoga, or anything else on top of using the gym equipment. There’s also a rooftop spa, and they’re building a rooftop restaurant.
Is It Safe to Stay in Hallmark House, Maboneng?
Hallmark House is slightly further north from Maboneng, where its owner, property development company Propertuity, initially started to renovate old industrial buildings. Thus, the area surrounding Hallmark House is still not safe, although it’s merely 500 meters to the center of Maboneng.
Hallmark House Hotel offers a free shuttle service to Maboneng. The hotel itself feels extremely safe with 24/7 security. Apartments have a biometric fingerprint security system.
Propertuity is slowly taking over more buildings between Hallmark House and Maboneng, so in future also these streets will be patrolled and it would be possible to walk around freely. Luckily, Uber is affordable and easy to use, so we shuttled between the malls, sights, Maboneng, and Hallmark House almost daily with Uber drivers. We’ll list the best malls and sights in our upcoming Johannesburg article.
Jackal pup in Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa
Healing Pneumonia in South Africa With Herbs, Mushrooms, and (Il)Legal Drugs
My condition was pretty bad for our first month in Johannesburg. I had pneumonia and declined to use corticosteroids to heal it, as I hate them. I tried to biohack my pneumonia away with my usual supplements, but they were not helping this time.
Luckily, I found a great herbalist in Johannesburg, who recommended me some traditional African herbs: Sutherlandia and Pelargonium. The latter is an African version of Pelargonium flower. I took them every two or three hours together with licorice root to heal my collapsed cortisol levels. I also took oxygen supplement many times a day and dropped my morning coffee to soothe my body with slight diet changes, as well (I had dropped also alcohol earlier, as it made me cough more). Within a couple of days, I felt slightly better already.
After four weeks, the symptoms got back, as my body got too used to these herbal supplements. I had to do some radical changes recommended by my herbalist. I changed the herbs to cordyceps, a weird Chinese medicinal mushroom, which I usually carry in powder format while traveling. I also started taking a couple of drops of FECO oil before going to sleep.
FECO translates into full extract cannabis oil. It was my first time using any cannabis oil, and I thought about it long and hard. I saw it as my last resort before giving up and starting corticosteroids.
Using FECO oil is legal in South Africa, but I still had to bought it under the counter. Due to high THC content, FECO oil is illegal in my home country, Finland, and in Namibia, where we were supposed to continue later. That made me anxious, but I’m happy that I had the courage to give it a try.
The new combination calmed my system so that I could sleep well again, which made the biggest difference in healing. Within one month, I felt almost normal, although breathing was still a bit difficult. Within two months, just before Christmas, I was completely healthy again and able to drop both FECO and that weird Chinese mushroom, cordyceps.
Many people have asked how cannabis oil feels. I never got high or felt intoxicated (what a disappointment) and just stopped using it when I felt healthy again. It made me a little bit drowsy sometimes, so falling to sleep was easier. When I woke up, I felt energized.
Long story short: I’ve biohacked harsh pneumonia before and use a lot of herbal remedies, so with a skilled herbalist I felt safe. I cannot recommend this to others, though. Please do not try this at home (or in Africa).
16-Day Safari in Greater Kruger National Park
The highlight of our time in South Africa – and the whole year – was an epic 16-day safari in the Greater Kruger National Park. I’ll keep it short here, as we will pour many articles about Kruger National Park shortly.
We were extremely fortunate to see honey badgers, an aardvark, and African wild dogs for the first time in our lives. All those elusive species had been on our wish list for many years, and we had traveled through five African countries without seeing a glimpse of them.
We did a 6-day safari with one tour company, staying at a beautiful tented camp with a private plunge pool and touring Kruger National Park, Greater Kruger, and a couple of nearby private reserves. That was when we saw two honey badgers and an aardvark within half an hour on one evening game drive. Aardvarks are so rare that even many rangers have never seen one.
Then we explored Balule Nature Reserve for six days staying in two separate camps at the different sides of the reserve. We photographed herds of elephants, witnessed lions mating, and observed many rhinos up-close: one male came so close to the back of our car that the people sitting at the back could have touched it (luckily no-one was sitting there, as that particular rhino was known for his temper).
We managed to see the wild dogs in Klaserie Private Reserve, where we stayed for two nights before exploring Kruger National Park again on a full-day safari. We finished off with Panorama tour: a gorgeous sightseeing route, which visits Blyde River Canyon, world’s third largest canyon, together with several breathtaking viewpoints and waterfalls.
A promise: All these destinations will be covered in separate articles very soon!
Christmas Time in Simon’s Town and Cape Town: Sightseeing and House-Sitting
To keep up the good flow, we spent a couple of lovely days in Cape Town visiting Table Mountain, Robben Island, and other famous sights – it was our first visit in the Cape Area. We feasted with amazing vegetarian food, hung out in cool cafes, and gulped down craft gin cocktails and craft beers (I was healthy – I could drink alcohol again!). We’ll list all our favorite spots in a separate article.
We had been waiting for our Christmas house-sitting gig for many months; it was one of the reasons that had brought us to South Africa. Just two days before the start, we heard that our host had messed up and double-booked us and another couple.
I don’t want to go into details here, but maybe I’ll write more about our house-sitting experiences later; we’ve also had amazing stays. In the end, this case turned out just fine and we were the only ones staying with the beautiful Alaskan Malamute girl.
We spent eight happy days walking in the mountains and beaches with our new furry friend – and watching penguins together. Oh yes, she was totally blasé about the penguins. Our favorite evening walk went through (free!) penguin beach (we’ll list our favorite spots in Simonstown in a separate article).
New Adventures in Namibia: 2-Week Road Trip, Driving School, and Volunteering
We left South Africa behind at the end of December to spend New Year in Namibia, where we are currently. A lot has happened since, but I’ll wrap our (mis)adventures in Namibia into another recap. We’ve just returned from a mindblowing 2-week road trip to craft another happy ending. Tomorrow we’ll embark on another adventure, volunteering in the wildlife rehabilitation center and taking care of pangolins!
Stay tuned for more African expat life hits and misses, driving school mishaps, lovely dogs and a kitty cat doppelganger, bureaucracy, wildlife, and chasing the dreams! Follow us on Facebook for real-time updates and Instagram for Piritta’s gorgeous wildlife pics. See you in the wild!
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