As you may or may not know, Soweto is a township in Johannesburg and is an acronym for SOuth WEstern TOwnships. During apartheid non-whites were forcefully removed from whites-only areas and townships were created in order to house those who had been evicted. Even though apartheid was abolished more than 20 years ago, the townships live on. In many cases, townships aren’t really places that most non-residents will venture into, however Soweto is one very notable exception. For the past several years, Soweto has been a stop on the typical sightseeing tours of Joburg due to its many historical attractions.
We had been wanting to visit Soweto for some time and when I read about the Bicycle Tours being offered by Lebo’s Backpackers, it sounded like a really fun and non-typical way to explore Soweto. There are tours of 2 hours, 4 hours or an all day outing offered, you can check their website for thorough descriptions. We chose the 4 hour tour for a compromise as 2 hours seemed a bit quick but we also weren’t ready to commit our-out- of-shape-selves to a full day ride.
We met just before 10am at Lebo’s and were warmly welcomed and invited to have a cup of coffee while waiting for our fellow riders to arrive. Lebo’s Backpackers has been opened for over 10 years and it has the distinction of being the only backpackers in Soweto. I had a look around and it looks like a really cool place to stay and even though we live in Jozi, I would like to get back here for a weekend sometime.
This chicken seems to be checking if he is on the dinner menu for tonight
You can also tour Soweto by Tuk-Tuk if you prefer
Once everyone arrived, we picked out our bikes and off we pedaled into Soweto. Our guide was a wonderful and fun young lady named Love (I have unfortunately forgotten her Zulu name but she told us it means Love) who was also highly knowledgeable about the history of Soweto. As a life-long resident, Love was able to share her own personal perspective of life in the township and we found her truly fascinating.
Off we go
Orlando Stadium – home of the Orlando Pirates soccer team
Love explained that Soweto is divided into various class structures ranging from low to middle to high class (or Beverly Hills class as she dubbed it) and that we would be visiting a section of each of these.
As you might imagine, the lower class area we visited was quite disheartening. Here people are living in tin shacks, sharing portable toilets and have no electricity. Garbage is piled high out in the open as the pickup service is sorely inadequate for the needs here. It is sad to see but also an important reminder as to the enormous level of disparity that still exists here in South Africa. On a brighter note, almost everyone we came across was smiling, waving and calling out greetings to us. Little kids would hold out their hands for a high 5 or sometimes try and jump aboard for a short ride.
We stopped in a restaurant here to try 2 local specialties: locally brewed beer and cow cheek with pap. The local brew is served up in a bowl and passed around for all to share. I don’t remember the exact cost but it is really cheap. While I don’t plan on switching from my usual Windhoek beer it wasn’t thaaaaat bad. The cow cheek on the other hand was left to the carnivores though I nibbled a bit on the pap (made from ground corn, somewhat like polenta, but not).
Local Beer – Before…
Local Beer – After… (actually it wasn’t too bad)
Roll the pap into a ball and add some cow cheek
Next we biked into a very middle class neighborhood. The houses here appeared to be in mostly good shape and had electricity and running water. We passed some newly built buildings that have been standing vacant for several years now. There does not seem to be a concrete known answer as to why no one has moved in.
Newly built but vacant buildings
Riding through Soweto
We soon came across a “Beverly Hills” class home. This place pictured below belongs to a famous singer (have I mentioned I am terrible with names ?).
Famous Singer’s Home
As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, Soweto is well known for several historical sites. One of these is the Hector Pieterson Memorial (there is also a museum which we did not visit). On June 16 1976 students from Soweto began a series of protests (now known as the Soweto Uprising) against the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. Hector Pieterson was one of the students killed as police opened fire on the students. The photo of a dying Hector being carried in the arms of another student while Hector’s sister ran alongside was published worldwide and became an iconic symbol of the uprising. June 16 is now a public holiday known as National Youth Day.
Hector Pieterson Memorial
Hector Pieterson Memorial
Orlando Towers in the distance. You (not me) can bungee jump from them.
Bright and beautiful African crafts for sale
Our next stop was the famous Vilakazi Street, the only street where 2 Nobel Peace Prize recipients have lived. Both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu once called Vilakazi Street home. Mandela’s small house is now a museum and open to the public (we did not visit but I will be back). Vilakazi Street is extremely touristy with many bars, restaurants and items to buy lining the street.
Thrive Cafe on Vilakazi Street
We stopped at a shebeen (local bar) and found this
From Vilakazi Street we made our way back to Lebo’s for lunch. As there were 3 veggies in the group, a tasty vegetarian bunny chow was served (sorry carnivores) as fellow riders shared stories of their adventures in South Africa.
Vegetarian Bunny Chow
We really had a fun time on our bike tour and learned a lot about Soweto as well. I have been on a small group townships tour before in Cape Town and while also interesting, I thought the bike tour was a much better way to get a real feeling of the township, with an added bonus of a bit of exercise thrown in for good measure. Everyone we met was really friendly and seemed genuinely happy that we wanted to spend some time in Soweto, so if you have any reservations about it being too voyeuristic or something of this nature, in my opinion, this tour is not like that at all. I highly recommend that you go and experience it for yourself. We loved Soweto and plan to visit again soon.