Fifteen years after South Africa ushered in democracy, nothing embodies the promise, excitement, and contradictions of the country quite like Johannesburg. Most travelers, however, barely scratch the surface of the city. Passing through on their way to safari lodges and game reserves elsewhere in the country, they find time for a trip to the Apartheid Museum, a tour of Soweto, dinner in one of the lovely northern suburbs, and then they’re back at the airport to catch a flight out.
I’ll spare you the proselytizing that I’ve been delivering to friends ever since returning from a four-day trip there in March (“You must stay longer than just one night!”), and cut to the chase: if you want a deeper understanding of this complicated, fascinating city, you must call Robin Binckes, tour guide extraordinaire.
A first-class storyteller, Binckes has a knack for finding the off-the-tourism-radar sites that bring alive the country’s history and put it in context. He’ll walk you through Pretoria’s imposing Voortrekker Monument, built to honor the Boers who left the Cape Colony for the interior in the mid-19th century, and explore how the Great Trek became the foundational mythos for Afrikaner nationalism. He’ll take you to Liliesleaf Farm, the hideout where Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and their ANC cohorts turned their thoughts from peaceful struggle to armed rebellion, and where they were ultimately arrested in 1963. And he’ll take you, most memorably, to lunch in the Alexandra Township. Though the 470,000-person township is one of South Africa’s most impoverished urban areas, slum tourism, this is not: Binckes has no time for that kind of superficial voyeurism and instead uses the township to demonstrate how far the country’s come in a short 15 years. This is a man, after all, who had dedicated his life to making a difference, through his consciousness-raising tours and his Friends of Alexandra foundation, which helps provide local children with education, healthcare, and after-school activities.
A trip through Johannesburg with him at your side is, to put it simply, unforgettable. It’s worth tacking on an extra day just to see the city through his eyes.
Amy Farley is a senior editor at Travel + Leisure.