Arrival in South Africa and Settling into a New Life in Johannesburg

As Joburg Expat is gaining new readership with new expats exploring options about moving to South Africa, I thought that I’d write a throwback blog post highlighting what those first few weeks in your new home might feel like. As anyone who has moved several times can attest, you can never quite talk as authentically about those early days in a new place as right at that moment. Once you’ve gotten used to it and understand the local customs, you are no longer looking at it with the same wide open eyes.

This blog post is an attempt to give a glimpse of what’s in store for an expat family the first few weeks after their arrival in South Africa, from Babbalas to Yebo.

Our family of six arrived in Johannesburg on March 5, 2010, approximately 3 months before the start of the first Soccer World Cup in Africa.

houses in Dainfern Valley, South Africa
View over Dainfern Valley

We had flown in from Kansas via Washington and Dakar on South African Airways, were greeted at the airport by my husband Noisette’s driver G and a total of three cars, took note of the not-even-close-to-finished construction on the highways around Johannesburg, and duly nodded when G pointed out the exit for Alexandra township with the admonition to never set foot there. (He, himself, lived in Soweto, which he found perfectly safe; I would often encounter an almost comical pointing of fingers between different townships as to which ones were the most dangerous, but this was far into the future from that first wide-eyed ride home from the airport).

Arrived in Dainfern Valley at our beautiful and spacious new home, which I had never seen before, we fell into a blissful sleep. But not for long. Enter my first observations on local wildlife, which not only introduces the haw-de-daw (that is precisely how I spelled it in that first blog post) but also the neighbor’s cats, dogs, and our very own aunt colony. This might also be a good opportunity to mention options for pest control in South Africa.

Our house in Dainfern Valley, above, and on the banks of the Jukskei River, below.

2nd Graders at Dainfern College celebrating the beginning of the 2010 Soccer World Cup


While Noisette was busy at work from dawn to dusk, my first few days were consumed with the first shopping trip, getting the kids settled at Dainfern College, the second shopping trip, exploring the whole new world of school uniforms, understanding what a robot is and when Just Now happens, and learning useful new information about the climate, security and crime, the language(s), the vagaries of electric voltage, and the food. Speaking of climate: It was raining cats and dogs those first days, quite unusual in South Africa even at the end of summer. If you want a dry moving-in experience, your best bet is to do it May through October, when it hardly ever rains at all in Joburg.

It’s funny now looking back, because, as most of my long-term readers know, I absolutely loved South Africa, but there was quite a bit of frustration, and then more frustration, that first week trying to organize our home. See previous link to Just Now to explain a good portion of that frustration. And I am not even going to get into my saga with Eskom, the electric utility, because that would make for an entire book on its own.

But there were also tons of little things. Not enough electric outlets in the rooms. The need for adapter plugs even for appliances bought in South Africa. The unforeseen difficulty of buying a car in South Africa (let alone then registering said car) and opening a bank account, exacerbated by the fact that I was only the spouse. No phone, no doorbell (!), no help from the school when trying to figure out how to get kids into after school sports. As an American, I was used to filling out forms and attaching checks, and here the only instruction I ever got was “the children must come on the first day.” Where? When?

Oh, and our trash can was stolen. Which I learned is called a dustbin. Or maybe it wasn’t stolen as much as it was simply gone one day. It was especially untimely as the trash removal workers were on strike. And then it magically reappeared, not once, but twice.

Nelson Mandela’s former House and Museum in Soweto

When I finally did get a car, I was ecstatic. Until I realized I now had Johannesburg traffic to deal with, the almost round-the-clock rush hour, the minibus taxis, and of course the bribe-extorting traffic police. We also had our first emergency room visit less than a month into our move.

Elephants in Welgevonden Nature Reserve
Hot air balloon over the Cradle of Humankind

But if this sounds incredibly stressful, let’s not forget we also dove right into getting to know the beautiful side of South Africa. I have especially fond memories of our first tour of Soweto, our first safari in the Waterberg, and our hot air balloon ride over the Cradle of Humankind.

World Cup fever at Melrose Arch in Johannesburg in 2010
Melrose Arch, South Africa,  during viewing of Germany-Argentina game
World Cup Fever in South Africa in June 2010

And then there was the 2010 Soccer World Cup in all its glory. Having grown up in Germany, Noisette and I were soccer fans through and through, but had never been to an actual World Cup game. We saw Germany beat Ghana (yay!) and froze our butts off on the shady side of USA vs Slovenia. But our favorite events were the public viewings at Melrose Arch and other central locations. It was there we got the first glimpse of South Africa’s remarkable diversity, with black, white, brown, young, old, Jew, Muslim, and everyone in between cheering and dancing their hearts out with a sense of community I have rarely witnessed since.

Oh what I wouldn’t give to go back to those first weeks in Africa, even with all the headaches and frustrations. They set the stage for the best three years in our family’s life, and we had no regrets when leaving at the end of 2012 to return to America, other than the regret of having to leave it all.

If you’re reading this because you are contemplating a move to South Africa, just know that I am very jealous of you. I hope you embrace everything wholeheartedly, especially the daily inefficiencies of a slower lifestyle than you’re used to, for they are the very essence of living in South Africa.

I can guarantee you that you’ll miss it one day.

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