kick off your south africa adventures

cycle soweto johannbesburg south africaAre you heading to South Africa to see football’s best battle it out for World Cup glory? Intrepid’s John Warland explains why it’s the perfect chance to kick off your own off-field action with our Cycle Soweto Urban Adventure…

“As a first-timer to South Africa, aware of the high crime rate I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Some friends advised me to fly on to my next destination without leaving the terminal. But I think every city is worth at least 48hrs, so before leaving home I booked my place on a Cycle Soweto tour. An early start and a leg-stretching ride seemed the perfect antidote to an 11hr flight, and the township district of Soweto is synonymous with JoBurg so I decided it was the ideal place to start my African journey.

Leaving the lodge around 8am we made our way through the sprawling suburbs of JoBurg, headed for the CBD. Reminiscent of LA, it takes a long time to get anywhere and not many people choose to reside amongst the high rise blocks of the city. First stop was the ‘Top of Africa’ at the Carlton Centre. Taking the lift to the 50th floor gives you unparalleled views from the highest building in Africa. A few art deco gems can be seen below, Soccer City the centrepiece of the World Cup glimmers in the distance, and mining spoils line the horizon reminding you of the great wealth upon which this city was historically built.

With no other tourists to share the view, we circumnavigated the panorama with our guide Zachary, who covered the issues of safety, suggesting that although not safe to walk alone at night, JoBurg does have strong community values where people do look out for each other. A reassuring start for a group of 9 travellers immersed in the urban decay of downtown JoBurg. Until 1994 the city had prospered on the international scene and was the trading heart of Africa. Overnight transformation occurred with businesses and professionals scurrying to secure suburbs, leaving the city centre to wanton neglect.

With “History forgotten is a future lost” ringing in our ears, next stop was the Apartheid Museum. Opened in 2001, the museum is the first of its kind to document the rise and fall of the Apartheid policy and the legacy it leaves it today. Housed in contemporary architect-designed buildings, it is a remarkable experience for any visitor and a ‘must-do’ for anyone who wishes to understand the continuing difficulties this nation faces. I won’t spoil the surprises here, but the museum is full of experiential tricks, films and interactive displays to prick the mind and help recover the memories of watching Mandela coming to power in the early 90′s. He is, of course, the star attraction with a whole section dedicated to his struggle. As you plot your way around the museum, it sets the scene perfectly for your next stop in Soweto. Watching newsreels of violence in the townships and Mandela at demonstrations brings it back that you are about to enter a living museum.

“Bafana bafana” is screaming everywhere as you drive around Joburg, as it’s the name of the South African Lions that will fight for the World Cup. We stop for a quick photo at the Soccer City stadium on the outskirts of Soweto. Shaped and coloured to look like a traditional kalabash jar on the flames, this where the winners will lift the trophy in July. Hosting 95,000 visitors at any one time from this summer, it is probably best remembered as the location where Nelson Mandela made his first speech upon his release from Robben Island. The fact that it sits at the gateway to Soweto is no mere coincidence.

As we enter Soweto our guide Zachary explains that Soweto has its own class system in situ. Our route passes middle-class houses that would not be out of place in an Australian suburb. We take a diversion to a small shop on the side of the road to buy some snacks, and discuss the merits of Wayne Rooney once more with a local. As South Africa developed under Mandela, so did Soweto with a new middle class emerging. This is soon put into perspective with the views of the male-only worker dormitories, set up to support the huge labour demand of the nearby gold mines.

Now it is time to really hit the road and get on those bikes. Starting in the heart of Soweto our new cycle guide, Charmaine, led us gently through the undulations of Soweto. As a hip-hop DJ for Jozi Radio, she was well-equipped to show us the street scene. Exemplified by a stop at a local shabeen for a drink. Looking no more than a corrugated iron shack, we took our place on benches and sofas alongside the bemused locals. The good times soon rolled, with a stomach lining banana millet shake, followed by the main event of local beer drunken communally from the ancient kalabash. Okay, so it is not going to be on your top 10 list of beers, but the experience of spending a few minutes with the locals was priceless.

Wobbling on our way next, high-fiving any kid that cared to stand in our way, we visited a few different areas varying from the middle-class to the more refugee status. We could leave bikes and belongings unguarded as we strolled the streets with Charmaine, occasionally being invited into local houses to listen to some music and see how they live. Housing conditions in some areas will shock, with up to 8 people living in a small room, but sadly newly-built housing projects stand forlornly empty due to legal rows over corruption and allocation. The classic housing conundrum of people not wanting to live in high-rises exemplified here yet again.

You pass areas of forced removals and student uprisings, coupled with where the intelligentsia used to reside before being dispersed. Women trundle on their way to church, and kids line the street on a Sunday afternoon. Everyone shouts “Sawubona” as you pass, and for a moment you forget the history that clings to the township.

Whizzing downhill we stop at the poignant Hector Pietersen Memorial which commemorates the 1976 student uprisings against the imposition of Afrikaans in education. Hector was 12 when shot, and to this day June 16 is remembered as National Youth Day.

Downhill again takes us to the humble home which Nelson and Winnie shared, and where Winnie lived whilst he was incarcerated for 27 years. A smattering of memorabilia fills the four small rooms, with a glove from Sugar Ray Leonard, honourary doctorates from around the world and a letter requesting an apology from George Bush Snr concerning CIA involvement in Mandela’s arrest. Unsurprisingly, one was never issued. Ironically the house can be viewed from behind bars on the street, making an interesting statement as the Mandelas were often technically held here under house arrest.

Barely a turn of pedal further down the street lies the house of another Nobel Peace Prize winner, making this the only street in the world to have 2 so well-decorated residents. Behind a modernist exterior lies the township home of Desmond Tutu. The man known as “the moral conscience of South Africa” continues to critique the present government, and is a fitting place to end the tour bringing our express history lesson right up to date.

It is time for Charmaine to pedal us to another bar where a few local beers and some Kwaito music make the perfect end to one of the best history lessons on the planet.

So what does Soweto actually mean? Nothing more than SOuth WEstern TOwnships. It really describes an area where transient workforces and refugees have been pushed to over the centuries, thus forcing them to the forefront in many watershed moments in the fight against apartheid. With possibly up to 65% of JoBurg’s population living here, speaking the 11 different national languages, this is the real South Africa. For anyone visiting this country a day spent here affords true insight into the heart of the Rainbow Nation summed up by the quote: “To understand the history of South Africa, one must first understand the history of Soweto.”

Johannesburg Urban Adventures

Want to get off the regular tourist route? Intrepid’s new and unique Urban Adventures share our local knowledge so you enjoy an experience that’s short on time but big on adventure. Check out our ever-expanding range of day tours today!

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll read about Sue's travel experiences, find helpful travel advice and she loves sharing great tales from Intrepid travellers.

2 comments

Christian Friborg / Reply

Responsible travelling. Keep an eye on your things. South Africa has always caught my attention, captivated me with its beauty. I’d like to see the great white sharks right before my eyes though. Sounds fun!

I can’t believe that you left your bicycles unattended outside a shabeen. There must have been a paid person to keep an eye on the equipment. You cannot leave anything lying around and expect it to be there when you get back. South Africa is truly a beautiful place and fantastic holiday destination, but you have to be vigilant.

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