The best way to truly experience a culture or area that you aren’t from is to get right into the thick of the community.
To mix with the locals, walk through the streets, taste the local food and drink and listen to the stories of daily life.
You won’t only learn a great deal more about the community that you are visiting, but you will walk away with memories that will forever stay in your heart.
Soweto, in Johannesburg South Africa, is one of those communities that outsiders are often fearful of entering. However, it’s also one of those communities that hold so much life, so much character and such an important history that shouldn’t be forgotten about.
Every visitor to Johannesburg should put the warnings of danger aside and schedule a trip into Soweto during their stay.
There are many tours that will take you into the township, show you the sights and take you out again once you are done. But if you want to really experience Soweto, and get into the thick of the community then you should try out a bicycle tour through the township.
Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers in Orlando West (an area of Soweto) offer 2 hour, 4 hour and half a day bicycle tours through Soweto. You start off at the backpackers where you choose your bicycle, put on your helmet (not compulsory – you need to keep your street cred) and join your tour guide on a cycling tour through the various parts of the township.
All of the tours include the Meadowlands, the sight of the 1976 student uprising, the Hector Pieterson Memorial, Mandela’s former home and a pit stop for some local traditional beer at a shebeen. The 4 hour and full day tour then includes a township lunch at a restaurant. The full day tour also includes the home of the former ANC Women’s League’s Chair.
Throughout the tour you are cycling through the streets of Soweto, past the locals standing outside spaza shops, kids playing in the street, commuters to and from work and (at some points) along with the taxi’s. You really can’t get any more ‘in’ the community – besides from walking into the local’s houses (which I’m sure many would welcome you into, they are very friendly).
There are a few points in the tour where you stop and get the opportunity to chat to the locals, take photographs and take in the experience. This is the time where you can make your experience worthwhile. Spark up a conversation with someone or just spend some time taking photographs of the kids. They love having their photos taken, and all they ask for is for you to show them the picture.
Another highlight of the tour is stopping at a local shebeen and tasting the traditional beer, called Umqombothi. The shebeen is small, dark, grungy and has a miffy smell about it – but it’s real and it’s not an experience you get every day. While in the shebeen you get to dress up in some of the traditional Zulu clothes and then each take turns in taking a sip of the beer. Umqombothi is made from maize, maize malt, sorghum malt, yeast and water. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but again a great experience and something to tick off your bucket list.
Further along the tour you get to learn about the history of Soweto, including how the township started, what happened during the student uprising and get to see Nelson Mandela’s former home. The tour doesn’t include going into Mandela’s house, you will have to go back after the tour if you want to go inside. It is R60 (about €5) to go inside, and is the only museum in Soweto where you are allowed to take photographs.
If you want to further your Soweto experience spend the night at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers. The backpackers is situated in the middle class area of Soweto and offers a comfortable and fun experience. They cook local dishes for breakfasts and dinners and have an amazing bar/entertainment area outside – decked out with a rasta bar, pool table, tata box (local name for a foosball table), darts and camp fire area. An awesome place to cool down in on a hot afternoon or party the night away with new travel friends.
So don’t be afraid to visit Soweto, it’s a place of history, heartache, suffering and poverty but it’s also a place of joy, fun, and touching experiences.
It will be a visit you will remember for a long time!
Travel tip shared by Bridget Williamson for Travel Dudes.