It used to be that Johannesburg was thought of as a stopover, a necessary evil to be avoided unless you were en route to a safari. When my flight was delayed two years ago on the way home from Namibia, I got an unexpected 24-hour stay in South Africa’s largest city. I knew about Joburg’s crime-ridden reputation and was surprised to see the makings of a cool urban scene.
And what better place to drive a rainbow of cars than in the Rainbow Nation.
We weren’t supposed to go off-roading, but the Porsche 911 Targa handled the South African terrain well. (Photo by Doug Demuro. Design by Lauren DeLuca for Yahoo Travel)
The stylish Four Seasons Hotel the Westcliff, Johannesburg, was the perfect place to start the adventure. Opened just last year, the hotel is dramatically perched over the city in the posh Westcliff neighborhood. With its gray-on-gray design scheme and zebra accents, my room was the definition of African chic.
About 15 minutes from the hotel is Kyalami, a Grand Prix racetrack built in the 1960s that has been given new life by — fittingly — a former race-car driver and local Porsche importer.
The glamorous poolside setting at the Four Seasons. (Photo: Four Seasons Johannesburg)
The 911 comes with quite a legacy: It has always been about improving on perfection. And Porsche has done it again with the 2017 models. These cars are made for travelers. They come equipped with high-tech features, like Wi-Fi and Google Earth. And the Porsche Communications Management System is something to behold: It has a state-of-the-art touchscreen that recognizes your handwriting and serves up travel advice on the go.
The Porsche 911 Turbo on the Kyalami racetrack. (Photo: Porsche)
The Kyalami racetrack has corners and turns with fierce names like the Cheetah, the Ingwe (Zulu for leopard), and the Crocodiles. It’s the ideal place to push the 911 and its powerful sisters — the 911 Turbo and the Turbo S — to the limit. Well, I can’t say I did just that. But I did get to take a hot lap with a Porsche pro driver who showed me how fast the Turbo S can really go. It was amazing to see how the car handles sharp turns at such a high speed.
The cars also performed well on the gritty streets of Johannesburg, and the Miami Blue Targa was a real attention-getter.
I loved exploring Joburg, a city that is as cool and innovative as Porsche itself. There are tons of young people moving the needle in art and design, fashion, and food. Downtown, the Maboneng Precinct is lined with galleries, boutiques, and cafés. My favorite discovery was Cocobel, a dessert shop in a converted vintage Chevrolet pickup truck. Arts on Main is another must-see, with its artist studios and a restaurant in a leafy courtyard. Main Street Life is a multi-use space in an old warehouse with a hotel, cinema, gallery, and loft apartments. Across town, 44 Stanley has a dazzling collection of fashion and antique shops, restaurants, and bars.
Sitting outside Cocobel, a sweetshop in an old Chevy. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
The entrance to Main Street Life, a sleek arts space in the Maboneng Precinct. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
Other neighborhoods worth checking out include Braamfontein — which is home to Neighbourgoods, a farm-fresh market open on Saturdays — and the residential enclave of Melville. There you’ll find 27Boxes, a fashion-forward shopping complex made from repurposed shipping containers.
Everywhere you look in Joburg, the legend of Nelson Mandela lives on. You can’t come here without visiting Tata’s former home in Soweto, which has displays of the shoes he actually wore and letters sent to Winnie after he passed away. It is a moving but humble tribute to a man who changed the lives of so many.
Nelson Mandela’s home. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
I also took the Targa into the countryside beyond Johannesburg. There’s so much to see, like Die Ou Pastorie, a historic guesthouse where you can have a lovely lunch under lush trees. And don’t miss the Cradle of Humankind, which is home to around 40 percent of the world’s human-ancestor fossils. Some are up to 2.3 million years old.
My biggest advice, though — don’t drive anywhere without some rand in your pocket. My driving companion and I veered off the route, then found ourselves having to bribe our way through two tollbooths. The first one cost us $20 — for a toll that should have been about 40 cents. For the second toll, we bribed the attendant with a pen and a Porsche safety vest that was stored in the glove compartment.
Our guide at Mabula. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
Just one of the many creatures we spotted in the bush. (Photo: Laura Begley Bloom)
And what is a visit to South Africa without going on a game drive? Mabula Game Lodge is not far from Johannesburg, two and a half hours by car or a 30-minute flight in a small safari plane. The game viewing is spectacular: In just a few short hours there, I saw three of the “big five.”
That’s the great thing about exploring the world in a Porsche — you never know where you’ll wind up next.
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