Cycling is one of the best ways to see the township because you’re out there and there are no barricades between you and the people…
Cycling is one of the best ways to see the township. You’re out there and there are no barricades between you and the people. When we as Sowetans were first exposed to tourism, it was always these big coaches and they would just drive through the township and leave – it almost felt like a safari. It’s one thing to see buildings and houses, but it’s another to meet the people and get to shake their hands. So when Lebo, the owner of Soweto Backpackers, started his business, he emphasised the human experience: being able to touch, feel, smell and taste what the place is all about and giving its people an opportunity to showcase their culture and history firsthand.
On the four-hour tour, we cycle first to a place where we have a 360-degree bird’s-eye view of Soweto, where we introduce what the township is about, and touch on the history and current affairs. Then we will head over to Mzimhlophe, Zone 11, which started as a community for the men brought in to work the Johannesburg gold mines. When good things happen in Soweto, they don’t always trickle down to this area, so we stop at street stalls or local shops to taste some typical snacks, such as beef cheek or heart, and that gives us an opportunity to leave a little bit of money when we go through. After that, we cycle to Meadowlands, which is somewhat middle class by Soweto standards. It’s where those who were forcibly removed in the 1950s from mixed communities such as Sophiatown were resettled.
From here, we move on towards the Hector Pieterson Memorial. On a cold day, we stop first for another township delicacy called amagwinya; they’re like warm deep-fried bread and you have them with atchar, a type of mango chutney. The Memorial marks the events of 16 June 1976 when student protestors were shot at by police, and many died. I often experience goosebumps when I get there. From here we travel along the famous Vilakazi Street, where two Nobel Peace Prize winners used to live. We see Nelson Mandela’s house and speak about his contribution and then Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house. That’s our last stop before arriving back at the backpackers for a taste of some traditional sorghum beer.
To me, the beauty of the whole experience is that people come in with a little bit of fear, but by the end of the tour they’re comfortable and they leave with a totally different mindset. Even something like a greeting does so much. We teach the guests ‘Salibonani’ and the response ‘Yebo’, and they start using it on the trip and their confidence grows and they start saying it louder. And that’s so heartwarming. It’s made me very popular in my home because people say ‘Ok, they are teaching them the right things.’
Your journey will start with one of our UK team – someone like Laura, who's travelled extensively in South Africa. They’ll shape your ideas into the trip of a lifetime. But they won't do it alone. They'll draw on the expertise of our contacts on the ground, connecting you to the people who'll make your holiday one you'll always remember - ex banker who can show you the hottest foodie spots in Cape Town, the award-winning young sommelier who can introduce you to Stellenbosch's finest wines and the walking safari ranger who can guide you to the best game.
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