I’ve been invited to be a Gauteng Tourism Authority ambassador. I don’t think I’ve ever been an ambassador for anything before so this is pretty cool. It basically means that I get to do some fun things around Gauteng Province (the province where Joburg is) and tell you about them. So here goes.
The first task of my ambassadorship was to visit Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers and take a cycle tour around Soweto, which is great because I’d been meaning to do this forever anyway. I feel like I don’t go to Soweto enough and this past weekend was the perfect time to go, as Nelson Mandela lived in Soweto and I was keen to see how people were celebrating his life there.
Kids at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers.
The afternoon started with lunch at Lebo’s, which consisted of the most delicious bunny chow I’ve ever eaten. I don’t know exactly what was in it but I wanted to eat about three more. Lebo’s seems like a fun place to stay — worth checking out if you’re visiting Joburg and want to spend a night or two in Soweto.
The most delicious chicken and veggie bunny chow I’ve ever eaten.
Don’t be deceived: this pretty bird is a feathered ball of evil. He kept jumping onto the table while we were eating, occasionally emitting scary chicken-growls. (I guess he wanted our food, although this would make him a chicken cannibal.) All part of the backpacker experience.
After lunch we went outside and met Tshepo, our cycling guide, chose our our bikes, and set off for a tour around the township.
Crystal of the blog Joburg’s Darling (right) and her friend Sarah (left) stop to take photos of kids during the ride. This is the only shot I took of people actually riding bikes during the bike tour. It’s not easy to take pictures and ride a bike at the same time.
I did a pretty comprehensive tour of Soweto a couple of years ago. I’ve also done a cycling tour in Alexandra Township, which was similar to this tour in many ways but also very different, as Soweto and Alex are really nothing the same. (Jeff, the guy who does the cycling tours in Alex, worked at Lebo’s for a while before opening his own business.)
Anyway, you can check out those posts (links above) for some narrative on cycling/township tours. I won’t repeat it all here. Or just look at the pics below.
Soweto on a Sunday.
Passing the time.
Drinking traditional beer in a shebeen (informal bar). I tasted the beer. It wasn’t horrible.
Roasted cow head, served with salt, chilli, and pap (cornmeal porridge). I tasted this too and enjoyed it marginally more than the beer.
I’d like to say a quick few words about “township tourism”. I’ve had several conversations/debates recently about whether or not it’s appropriate for tourists to visit poverty-affected areas — like Soweto, Alexandra, and Hillbrow — on organized tours. Here’s my take: I approach tourism in Soweto or Alex in the same way that I approach tourism in Cape Town, or London, or Washington D.C., or Mumbai, or anywhere else. Soweto is a tourist attraction in the same way that New York City is. It’s an interesting place with interesting stories to tell.
That said, I think it’s important to be culturally sensitive when visiting a place like Soweto as a tourist. When I go on tours like this, I go with the mindset of a visitor or guest, not as an onlooker. I try to experience the culture, rather than just looking at it. I take photos when I feel that it’s culturally appropriate to do so, and when I feel confident that my subjects are okay with being photographed. (Usually this means asking for verbal permission before taking a shot, although not always.) And if at all possible, I choose tours that are run by locals who live in the area I’m visiting.
Okay, back to the cycling tour. After an hour or two of cruising around we headed to Vilakazi Street, where Nelson Mandela once lived. Our experience on Vilakazi Street was obviously nothing like it would have been if we’d taken this tour on a “normal” day. There were hundreds, probably thousands, of people on the street, celebrating Mandela in a thousand different ways. I felt lucky to be there.
Volkswagen Beetle on Vilakazi Street, painted in ANC colors.
The coolest thing happening on Vilakazi Street, at least when I was there, was the group from Umkhonto we Sizwe — the armed wing of the ANC, also referred to as the MK — marching up and down the street. These guys were bad-ass and I was completely in awe.
Bad-ass MK marchers. I didn’t realize that this group still exists.
It seems a little weird that kids were involved in this march, but whatever. They are bad-ass too.
About 15 minutes after we reached Vilakazi Street, the heavens opened. We waited inside a restaurant for a while hoping that the rain would stop. It didn’t. So our little group trudged through the rain, got back on our bikes, and took a very soggy ride back to Lebo’s. I insisted on a group photo before everyone dispersed.
Our damp tour group, left to right: Sarah, Crystal, Tshepo (our guide), Brad, Levon, Savanah, me, and Joleif. (Apologies to the Lebo’s staff member who shot this for me. I forgot to get her name.)
Thanks to Lebo’s and Gauteng Tourism for the fun day. And RIP Mandela.
Glad you had a great experience. Lebo is a childhood friend of mine and I visit the backpackers everytime I’m in South Africa. It’s a place where all classes of society break bread with one another. Lovely post
Ah, that’s so cool that you know Lebo. Unfortunately he wasn’t there when I went on Sunday. The backpackers was great though. Thanks for the comment!
Now that’s a shame:) meeting Lebo would have made your experience even better, he is a very humble guy. Compliments on the blog. Ps your Madiba and me post really touched me… How I miss home. Have a great day
Lovely post Heather! Glad you got to do this at such a special time. So missing Jozi right now. Wish I was there with you all to celebrate Madiba’s life.
You know Heather I just got lost in this post!!! Last year I visited Hillbrow and Yeoville with a friend off mine, he owns Taste of Africa. When I got to the hiden corners of hillbrow and yeoville that’s when I actually relised that I’m not living. Cause I felt like I was in another country but yet in South Africa and I felt so embarrased as a South African that I didn’t know that there were such beautiful and warm people & places in my country. You see this post right here I very much relate to
Hi Eric, that’s very cool. I know Cedric from Taste of Africa — is he the friend you mean? My first tour of Soweto was through Taste of Africa. I also love Hillbrow and Yeoville.
Yes his a great friend of mine Cedric de la Harpe. He taught me a lot of things and showed me corners of Jozi that I never knew existed.
Yes, he’s quite a character too!
What an amazing post. It looks like a great way to experience Soweto!
Thanks, it is.
Gorgeous pics…and overall nice post. You’ve given me something to think about, as far as touring particular cities or places like Soweto. I don’t like the idea of – say visiting a hill tribe in Northern Thailand – and taking pics. It has a human zoo quality to it. I suppose these township cities are different. But asking to take pictures of people can go a long way towards treating people – well, like people. Thanks again 🙂
Yes, it’s a tricky dilemma. I think cultural exchange and learning should happen as often as possible and in every possible circumstance, but lots of people go into “tourism” situations like this with the wrong attitude. It’s really all about attitudes and intentions.
I agree, well said. Thanks for posting 🙂
Awesome! Very cool!
Sent from Erin’s iPhone
Thank you for the story. The pictures were amazing.
Looks like it was an interesting day. Congrats on your “ambassador” gig! I think that’s pretty damn cool!
Hugs from Ecuador,
Thanks, Kathy. It was an interesting day. And…I got an email last night saying this post is going to be Freshly Pressed! First time in 2.5 years 🙂
Really enjoyed reading through your site today.. Thanks for sharing, I will be back!
Thanks Nick, I appreciate that.
Well done. Quite interesting. Thank you.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
I got to your blog from Freshly Pressed and I really enjoyed reading it and looking at you photos. That chicken and veggie bunny chow looks amazingly good by the way 🙂
Thanks very much. The bunny chow was one of the many highlights of the day.
I would tend to agree that to reduce the impression of “township tourism”, is to make an effort to buy local, greet people when appropriate and ask for permission if you really want that photo of that memorable person/group of people.
Being white and from outside of S.A., makes it more dicey. Also for the tourist to dress ordinary. And yes, cycling makes a person more “grassroots” in reality.
If people reading this post, could consider this: it’s no different than being a tourist in any North American city. However I ask myself would I want a stranger pointing their camera…at my parents shopping there? If they were part of the whole scene, not a bad thing. If it’s to catch them unguarded, yelling at someone…hm….
From a Canadian-born cyclist, who had relatives living in the poorest areas of Toronto Chinatown.
This kind of tourism definitely requires a specific sensitivity. However, I’ve done quite a bit of it and my experience has been that 99%of the people I encounter along the way are very happy to have outsiders visiting their communities, want to be photographed, want to engage, etc. As I said in an earlier comment, it’s all in the attitude. Anyway, thanks so much for reading and commenting.
What a privilege to be able to do that, especially at this time. I enjoyed this post and appreciate the photos too.
Thanks! Yes, it was very fortunate that this tour was scheduled for this particular weekend.
What a fun and awesome adventure! Thank you for sharing.
Great read….I have been living in SA for 7years now and loving it, it is a beautiful country with awesome people. I am new to blogging as well so it’s brilliant to follow some well established posts.
Thanks so much. I’m glad you’re also enjoying life in SA. This is a special time to be here.
Thank you, and thanks for reading.
Reblogged this on Homie Williams. and commented:
Excellent stuff. — J.W.
Reblogged this on I'm LissaBreen – Welcome To My World (My Life, My Way&My Destiny).
Thanks for the reblog.
Not a problem. It was a very nice article from you.
This is pretty awesome. I’m sad to say that I’ve never been to Soweto even though I’ve lived in SA for 23 years. I need to get braver travel buddies. Didn’t realise MK was still around too… anywho, thanks for some great pictures.
Thanks! Well, I suppose you could get braver travel buddies. Or you could just come without them. Soweto is actually not scary at all 🙂
Soweto…great natural pix. I should visit this place someday.
Thank you, glad you liked them.
Congratulations on the new role! They made a good choice 🙂
Thanks Rebecca. I’ve been enjoying your trek posts!
Beer in a carton? Now that’s interesting.
I know, right? Very practical.
I hope to visit Soweto someday. Good post!
Great stuff 2summers. I am a south african, durban-born who’s relocated to Joburg. I’ve been to Soweto many times and I appreciated your sensitivity and attitude comments. Your pics retained the people’s dignity.
Thank you! That’s a really nice comment.
Nice post. Really refreshing to see.
Thanks very much.
I think you are a wack-job and also I think it’s rude to post a link to your blog in my comment section without providing any comment with it. But I’m approving it anyway because others might find it interesting.
as Soweto and Alex are really nothing the same. (Jeff, the guy who does the cycling tours in Alex, worked at Lebo’s for a while before opening his own business.)
Hi Heather, my fiancee and I, who are living in London, are planning a weekend in Johannesburg. I just want to thank you for your posts of which I have been “binge-reading”. In particular, your enlightening and informative posts on Maboneng and Soweto.
Thanks so much, Bryon, that’s fantastic to hear. Best of luck on your trip and please let me know if you need any more recommendations.
Hello, We will be in JNB for a few days after our kruger safari and was thinking of taking one of these cycling tours through a township. I have not researched enough but would like to ask Soweto or Alexandra? Do you recommend one over the other?