Tuesday, 3 January 2017

What to do Over Christmas Holidays in Johannesburg

Happy New Year! OK, enough pleasantries.

While my goal is to post a new blog more often than one of the Kardashian clan gets a divorce, sometimes life gets in the way. And sometimes I don't feel like it, so I don't. In this case, however, it was definitely the former. With Christmas, the New Year, and trying to explore more of our surrounding area, I just didn't have time. While we live in Pretoria, we went down to Johannesburg several times over the holidays.

So hold onto your butts- here's what we did over the holidays:

Garden of Lights at Emperors Palace in Johannesburg

First, let's get this out of the way. That wasn't a typo. While there absolutely, unequivocally should be an apostrophe in Emperors Palace (either before or after the "s"), they've chosen not to follow any sort of grammatical rules. I spelled it correctly in the heading up there. At least correctly according to their incorrect use of their own bloody name. But this is Africa, and rules be damned.

In my last post I lamented the fact that people here don't really do Christmas lights. In our quest to make it feel like the holidays, on Christmas Eve we headed to the Garden of Lights at Emperors Palace. I admit it felt a little odd to be dressed in shorts and t-shirt at the end of December, but we were excited to have a real Christmas outing. While my expectations were incredibly low, we were all pleasantly surprised by the garden. It had everything you'd expect, including angels, Santa's workshop (see, Emperors Palace, THAT's how you use a freaking possessive apostrophe), and beautiful Christmas trees.

And these. Because nothing says Christmas like a boatload of traditional
Christmas mushrooms.
Surprisingly for South Africa, the Garden of Lights ran very efficiently. Tickets were sold ahead of time for entry on each half hour. Once you were in, you could walk around at your leisure, and it never felt too crowded. As we wandered, I could hear strains of music playing over the loudspeakers hidden throughout the garden.

"At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade. And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy. Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time."

Beautiful. And then, "while you're having fun, there's a world outside your window, and it's a world of dread and fear, where a kiss of love can kill you, where there's death in every tear."

Wait, what? That escalated quickly. OK, so they decided to put "Do They Know it's Christmas" from Band Aid 30 on the playlist. I guess that makes sense. We're in Africa and all. OK, what's next?

"It's Christmas time, and there's no need to be afraid. At Christmas time, we let in light and banish shade..."

Again? Seriously? Whatever. Must have been a glitch. Until the next song came on and, you guessed it, same frickin one. The entire playlist was "Do They Know it's Christmas." I wish I was kidding. No carols. Nothing about Santa. Just the constant reminder that we're living in a giant privilege bubble while people are suffering and dying all around us. Kind of a Christmas buzzkill.

"Are you enjoying these lights? Yes? Good. And just a friendly reminder, everyone
who isn't here right now is literally dying. Merry Christmas!"
As we exited the Garden of Depression Lights, we were forced to walk through a mini carnival. Tickets were crazily expensive, and more time was spent waiting for operators to fix the rides, which kept breaking down (because of course they did) than actually on the rides. The kids still had fun though, and our overall experience was great. We think this may be our Christmas Eve tradition while we're here. While the Garden of Lights didn't really hold up to Canyon Lights at the Capilano Suspension Bridge or the Festival of Lights at VanDusen Botanical Garden back home in Vancouver, it was a perfectly acceptable substitute.

Gold Reef City

We spent Christmas day doing normal Christmas things (lying to our kids about Santa Claus, angrily assembling Christmas presents for the kids, stuffing ourselves with disgusting amounts of food, then feeling incredibly guilty about it because we still had "Do They Know it's Christmas?" stuck on repeat in our heads), but decided to head out on another adventure while we still had time off together. We had heard good things about Gold Reef City, so we thought we'd check it out. We already made the mistake of visiting a touristy-type place on a public holiday a couple of months ago when went to the Valley of the Waves water park and found we could barely move because of the crowds. But because we're complete and utter nincomboobs, we ventured out on another public holiday. The amusement park itself was amazing! Tons of rides, plentiful food, lots of things to see and do, and none of it was overpriced at all. We were actually surprised by how affordable it all was. We bought unlimited ride wristbands for all of us and looked forward to a great day of making ourselves sick.

There's a convenient train that winds itself through the park, making it unnecessary to walk insane distances to get around. We first went to the kiddies' area, where the Potato and the Pinecone got to enjoy several rides. There's even an indoor area with a pile of inflatable bouncy-type thingies and some small boats for them to ride. The lines were minimal at worst, and the kids would have stayed there all day if they could. But there was still a lot of the park to see. Lunch was quick and good, and there was a chocolate shop nearby where you could fill your own waffle cone with chocolate from a fountain, which I did, because I'm a fat piece of crap.

Pictured: not fat pieces of crap.
It was time to check out the EXCITING rides. Or so we thought. We thought the park wasn't very busy, but that was just because everybody was at the main part of the park where the good rides are. We braved lines for two of the rides the kids could go on, and each line was more than an hour. While the rides were great, it was hot, and we were all getting grumpy from standing stationary in closer proximity to strangers than I'd ever care to be. Either I smelled particularly pleasant that day, or South Africans have a much smaller vision of what personal space should be than North Americans. We decided not to attempt any more rides and wandered around the park for the rest of day taking note of things we'd like to do when we come back on NOT a public holiday. Because we WILL be back. 

I won't rest until I've puked from the top of this.

The Great Moscow Circus at Montecasino

Because we don't yet have a large social circle here, and because we have young kids, and because having kids ruins every part of your life, we didn't have any huge plans to ring in the New Year. Luckily, Vicki saw an ad for The Great Moscow Circus shortly after we moved here in September and had the foresight to buy tickets for December 31. Boom. New Year's plans sorted. The show was at Montecasino in Johannesburg, and we saw the casino has a bird garden attached to it, so we headed down early to check that out before the circus. If you ever visit us here, I promise we'll drag you to the bird garden at some point. We were thoroughly impressed. The bird show we watched had everything from raptors to pelicans to hornbills and South Africa's national bird, the blue crane. After that, we wandered through the rest of gardens to see frogs, snakes, birds (of course), and other animals. There's an enclosed atrium you can enter, and because nobody in South Africa seems to give any sort of crap about safety, there are lemurs, birds, and small antelope just wandering around. And they come right up to you. While we were careful not to touch anything, I'm sure it happens often. We've never been that close to these animals before, and it was definitely a highlight. 

Whoever called it a ring-tailed lemur instead of a kangaraccoon is an idiot.
 The circus started at 1pm, so we cut our visit short and made our way over to the tent. The whole thing reminded us of Cirque du Soleil lite, but we had front row tickets and settled in for a fun little show. What commenced blew us away. The Catwall Acrobats started the show off and set the bar high. Bouncing and flipping like a bunch of acrobats bouncing and flipping all over the place (I know, I know, I'll work on my analogies), they put on a high energy show that immedietely showed us we were watching a world-class circus.

Nothing like watching a bunch of chiselled, high-performance athletes right after
eating like a moron the entire holiday season to make you feel like a bloated whale.
We continued to watch jugglers, trapeze artists, clowns, tumblers, and all the stuff you'd expect at an event like this. And every act was top notch. In fact, we were so impressed that Vicki bought tickets for her and her mom to see the circus again when it goes through Cape Town in February. I took a ton of video hoping for one of those crazy accidents to happen (don't judge me- you all think the same thing), but the performers were all consummate professionals and managed to blow our minds without even killing themselves.

I hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year. Vicki's mom arrives in 2 more days, and we'll be spending a week with her and the kids in Kruger National Park, which we're all super excited for! Expect a butt-ton of animal pictures in an upcoming blog. For now, enjoy these videos of The Great Moscow Circus.


  1. LOL. And I love how you list things to do in Joburg from one who lives in Pretoria. It's often the other way around with us expats. Thanks for another informative post, will share with Joburg Expat readers on Facebook...

    1. I'll definitely be posting about Pretoria too, but we just happened to do a bunch of stuff around here before I started the blog, and we spent a ton of time in Joburg over the holidays so it was fresh in my mind. I'm actually really stoked to go back to Gold Reef City when it's not so busy. I loved the potential. I didn't particularly love being packed so close to other people that I could smell their thoughts. It reminded me of riding the bus when I was going to university back home. I've always been a fan of at LEAST an inch of personal space. Lesson learned- stay home on public holidays!

      And thanks for sharing- I appreciate it!