Just before Covid struck in March, through a series of unforeseen circumstances I found myself alone in Johannesburg. And I really didn’t like it.
During the three months I’d been there, there had obviously been plenty of nice moments, but I hated not being able to go for a walk when I wanted, I hated taking Ubers everywhere because I didn’t have a car, I hated that everyone kept telling me to be careful all the time.
In the few weeks immediately before the lockdown, I was starting to dread being locked in a flat in a city I didn’t like 15,000km away from anyone I knew. But in yet another beautiful life lesson for me, Johannesburg found a way of redeeming itself last minute.
Redemption came in the shape of Franck and his awesome team at Honest Travel Experience, who organise trips, activities, and experiences in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and soon, hopefully, further afield in South Africa and the continent at large.
Through them, I was able to discover areas and stories I had no idea existed: from the African microcosm that lies hidden in the backstreets and bars of Yeoville, to the entrepreneurial spirit of Maker’s Valley, to the magic of Ponte and the history permeating the corridors of the Windybrow Centre.
“The issue is how the story has been told so far, which dictates how people behave through these spaces. We go beyond poverty-porn and touristic standards, to tell different stories that make people proud and give them a sense of ownership of the space they inhabit.” (Franck, CEO, Honest Travel Experience)
Born from the ever-racing mind of Franck, a Congolese 29-year old with dust from the road running through his veins rather than blood, and his business partner Ty, HTE has a simple mission: giving people, locals and internationals alike, a chance at discovering what lies behind the apparently chaotic, unkempt nature of a city too often disregarded and misunderstood by the very people who live in it, and certainly by the ones who, like me, approach it without the necessary knowledge to appreciate its multiform nature.
Everything they do is aimed at subverting perceptions, challenging stereotypes, and opening eyes. Their experiences are created first and foremost for themselves and the residents of the areas they visit, encouraging local tourism as much as, if not more than, international one.
Far from just showing the landmarks, the team at HTE actually tells stories from the very point of view of the people who live in the place you’re discovering. Through local guides, food tours, and cultural experiences, they will change your outlook on a place, or at the very least free you from all the preconceptions you might have had up until then.
“We never tell people Johannesburg is safe or dangerous. We just provide them with the opportunity to come and see for themselves.” (Franck, CEO, Honest Travel Experience)
Just before lockdown struck the Cape Town experiences were ready to go, and the team was gearing up to expand into Durban and the rest of the country. Like many small businesses, they’ve just about managed to stay afloat but had to let some of the team go and are now concentrating on how to make the best of the terrible hand we’ve all been dealt this year, by developing a package of assisted remote working catering to international companies whose employees might like to work from sunny lands rather than northern hemisphere winters.
On one of the last evenings before lockdown, I ended up on the top of Ponte City with Franck. I stood on the 54th floor of a building that went from brutalist luxury flats to being called the “biggest vertical slum in Africa” in the space of a couple of decades. I had just spent an afternoon walking around a place I was very close to hating until the day before.
I felt on top of the world and in the middle of it. The twinkling lights were breathing in time with the beating heart of the immense humanity stretching around it. I could feel the whole of life unfurling at my feet with its miseries, joys, dramas, and love.
I went from wanting to leave to wanting to know more about this indescribable place and its people, from a guarded diffidence to the start of a possible friendship.
That for me is the essence of travel, and I hope Honest Travel Experience will soon have to chance to make more people feel like I did on top of that building, with the sun setting slowly and the city brimming with life.