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10 New Discoveries in Soweto

As mentioned previously, I spent 72 hours in Soweto as part of a campaign promoting the Soweto Wine Festival. It was an epic journey.

Before this trip I thought I knew Soweto, kind of. I’d been there a lot, doing a lot of different things. But #72HrsSoweto held many surprises. Almost everything we did over the course of the weekend was new (or at least partially new) to me.

Here are ten new things I did during our #72hrsSoweto weekend.

1) The Soweto Hotel

The Soweto Hotel, the only 4-star hotel in Soweto, is on Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown. If this hotel were anywhere else it would feel like any Holiday Inn. But the Soweto Hotel’s location makes it special.

Kliptown is the oldest and most historic township in Soweto, and still one of the most disadvantaged. There’s a bustling market right below the hotel that provides excellent people-watching, as well as a monument and museum honoring the Freedom Charter. Staying there is an experience.

03 Soweto-Hotel-room

My room at the Soweto Hotel.

02a Kliptown-sunset

Sunset over Kliptown, from my balcony at the Soweto Hotel.

2) The Soweto Wine Festival

I’d been hearing about the Soweto Wine Festival for years, but it had never occurred to me to go because I didn’t associate Soweto with wine. But this was a super-fun event and there was a lot more to it than wine.

The festival was packed with people and there was great local music, food, and crafts in addition to top-notch South African wine. I’ll be back next year.

22 Cape-Point-pour

Pouring Chardonnay.

27 Urban-Village-Lerato

The Urban Village, one of the great bands that played at the festival.

37 Kofifi-blue-car

These classic car enthusiasts, part of a group called the Kofifi Movement, were the coolest people at the festival. 

38 Kofifi

One more Kofifi shot.

3) Dinner at Soweto Backpackers

I’d been to Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers once before when I did their Soweto cycling tour. But I’d never hung out there in the evening. We had dinner at the backpackers and there was such a lively, welcoming vibe there, even on a rainy Thursday night.

04 Lebos-music

Impromptu live music at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers.

05 Lebos-Black-Label

The entertaining singer/guitarist, whose name I didn’t get.

4) Regina Mundi Church

Regina Mundi, which means “Queen of the World” in Latin, is the largest Roman Catholic Church in South Africa. It’s awe-inspiring. I’ve been meaning to visit the church for years and I’m so happy that I finally got the chance on this trip. (Thanks to Nokuthula and her team at So We Too for taking us there.)

10 Regina-Mundi-outside

Regina Mundi.

12 Regina-Mundi-inside

The church seats 2000 people comfortably but has been known to fit up to 5000.

11 Regina-Mundi-Danny

Danny, our tour guide at Regina Mundi.

5) June 16 Memorial Acre

The June 16 Memorial Acre is a new memorial to the 1976 Soweto Uprising, located adjacent to Morris Isaacson High School in White City. We only visited the memorial briefly, and we were all so cold (it was truly frigid that day) that it was difficult to take in all the historical placards and public art. But the Memorial Acre tells a fascinating story and I don’t think many people know about it. It’s at the corner of Mputhi and Pula Streets.

13 June-16-Memorial-Acre

The June 16 Memorial Acre, which houses the June 16 Memorial and Youth Institute.

15 June-16-display

There were many beautiful murals and things to read but I was too cold stay outside for long.

6) Magwinya

According to Google:

Magwinya are the township version of vetkoek. Vetkoek (pronounce ‘Fet-cook’ and literally means ‘fat cake’) is a uniquely South African deep fried bread.

[SIDE NOTE: I was mercilessly teased on Twitter for referring to magwinya as “fried bread”. Now I see that Google agrees with me! Ha.]

I’ve had vetkoek many times but never magwinya. It’s served at roadside eateries in Soweto, with processed cheese and fried polony (the South African version of bologna). Delicious.

16a Fat-Cakes


7) The Soweto Theatre

I still haven’t been to a performance at the massive Soweto Theatre, a beautiful venue with avant-garde architecture. But we did make a brief stop there for a photoshoot.

16b Soweto-Theatre-jump

Natalie and Keenan, jumping in front of an artsy wall inside the Soweto Theatre.

 8) Orlando Towers

I did not bungee-jump from the top of the iconic Orlando Towers; it was too cold and there wasn’t enough time. But we rode the elevator to the top and took pictures, which was awesome.

19 Orlando-Towers-from-above

View from the top of Orlando Towers.

9) The Eyethu Cinema

This historic movie theatre is next to the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre. I love exploring old buildings so the cinema was a highlight. Unfortunately the theatre has fallen into disrepair but it could be turned into something amazing. I have high hopes.

23a Eyethu-Theatre

The Eyethu Cinema. Here’s an interesting blog post about the building’s history.

24 Andy-in-theatre

Inside the theatre. 

10) Cycling without gears: Fixin Diaries

Gear-less bicycles — or “fixies” — are uber-fashionable right now, especially in Soweto. As an old-fashioned cyclist accustomed to 24 gears at my disposal, I always thought fixies were a bit silly.

Then I took a ride through Soweto with Fixin Diaries, a company in Pimville that builds customized bikes and organizes group rides. I loved my super-light, single-gear bike and had the most amazing time riding it through the townships. (Fortunately we didn’t have to ride up any hills.)

The ride was my favorite part of the weekend after our incredible night at Trackside.

29 Cycling-Heather

Me and my single-gear bike (technically not a fixie because it has brakes).

32 Cycling-Andy

Andy. (Don’t worry Mom, I didn’t ride like this.)

34 Cycling-Natalie

Natalie. We all loved this ride so much.

I’m always amazed by how many Joburgers I meet who have never been to Soweto. I don’t want to sound preachy, but…Please, people. There is a whole world to explore in Soweto and it’s right here. Choose one of the things on this list and go do it. Or just drive to Vilakazi Street (Soweto’s biggest tourist attraction, which I haven’t even mentioned in this post) and walk around. You’re missing out.

For a few more photos from the weekend, check out this little video I put together (with Ray‘s help) about #72hrsSoweto. I recorded the music during the Urban Village performance at the festival:

My stay in Soweto was courtesy of Gauteng Tourism, in association with the Soweto Wine Festival and Destinate. Opinions expressed are my own.

The Best Night Ever in Soweto

It was the first night of the #72hrsSoweto campaign, the day before the start of the Soweto Wine Festival. It was freezing cold, raining, and I was ridiculously underdressed.

We had just finished a home-cooked meal — lamb stew, pap, spicy chakalaka, steak, and vegetarian curry — at the legendary Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, followed by live music and poetry around the fire. Our group was preparing to leave. I shivered, thinking about burrowing under the covers back in my room at the Soweto Hotel.

“We’re going somewhere else now,” one of the other bloggers told me. I sighed. Maybe I’m too old for this campaign, I thought. It was already past my bedtime. But I dutifully climbed into the van with the rest of the group.

A few minutes later, the van stopped. We piled out into the drizzle and I followed the feet of the person in front of me, picking my way around mud puddles in the darkness. We walked inside a gate, into a haze of herby smoke, and through a doorway into a bright yellow room. The room was warm and filled with music.


The emcee and the DJ, Kuttin’ Keith (otherwise known as the healer).

It was hard to take it all in at first. The room was small and the walls were lined with people and bookshelves. There was a DJ in the corner and an amplifier in the middle of the floor. A guy held a wireless microphone and rapped. It was the prettiest rap music I’d ever heard.

A woman dangled her baby to the beat. Others held up cell phones to record the music. No one blinked an eye at the arrival of a large (mostly white) group of bloggers and photographers. A lot of people smiled at us.

“It just got a whole lot brighter in here,” said the emcee into the microphone. We laughed.


We were mesmerized from the moment we arrived.

A metal tray appeared, stacked with tin cups. Natalie, one of our campaign’s organizers, poured wine into the cups and distributed them. (We were here to promote a wine festival, after all.) I took a couple of sips and abandoned my cup behind a loudspeaker. I was too excited to drink and needed both hands to take photos.


I didn’t get the names of all the performers. But this guy was one of my favorites.

The sound system was perfect, just loud enough to reverberate through my bones but not loud enough to make me feel like I needed earplugs. One guy rapped for a while, then another guy sidled up and took the mic. The DJ held it all together.

The music was perfect. The atmosphere was perfect. I forgot about being tired and cold. I stood on a crate for a while, trying to get a good shot of the whole room by holding my camera above my head. I gave up and plunged into the crowd.


The Zookeeper.


It was all perfect. All of it.

“Where ARE we?” I yelled into the ear of someone next to me.

“In DU-bay!” he yelled back. (Dube is a township in Soweto. Although I actually think we were in Orlando West.)

“Ok, but what’s the name of this PLACE?”


The venue is called Trackside. (Here’s the Trackside website, although there’s not much on it. I think the best way to follow Trackside is on Twitter and Instagram.) I believe there are railroad tracks outside the venue but I never saw them. Anyway, I love Trackside. I love it so much.


Trackside joy.

The rappers finished up and made way for the headline band, Radio 123. I’m no music critic so I won’t try to describe Radio 123’s sound, other than to say it was rock, funk, jazz, and hiphop all mixed together. They had great vocals and bass and a guy who played trumpet.


Radio 123.

I squatted in the middle of the floor to take photos. A guy tapped me on the shoulder. I thought he was going to ask me to get out of his way, but instead he pointed to the ceiling. The roof was leaking and he didn’t want my camera to get wet.


I risked the leaky roof to shoot this.

I was sad when Radio 123 finished their set, and I was sad to learn that the evening was coming to an end. It was only midnight! I could do this for at least a few more hours.

Then Andy Carrie took the stage.


Andy Carrie (right) and a guy whose name I never got.

Up until now I had known Andy Carrie only as an Instagrammer, @andycarrie_on. Andy was part of our group, not a booked musician at Trackside.

It turns out that Andy Carrie is an incredibly badass drummer.

As soon as Andy started, the rappers flocked to jam with him. They all improvised together, syncing perfectly with the DJ, for about 30 minutes. It was magical.


Magical, I tell you. Pure magic.

Eventually we left, drove back to the hotel, and I really did burrow under the covers in my room. Thus ended the best night that I’ve ever had or ever will have in Soweto.

I’ll have a lot more to say about the Soweto Wine Festival and the #72hrsSoweto campaign in a future post. For now, that is all.

Trackside is at 8365 Twala Street, Soweto. My stay in Soweto was courtesy of Gauteng Tourism, in association with the Soweto Wine Festival and Destinate. Opinions expressed are my own.

72 Hours in Soweto

Like many newcomers, Vilakazi Street in Soweto was the first real tourist attraction I visited upon moving to Joburg. Here is the blog post I wrote about that visit, just a week after I arrived. (I’m a little embarrassed by the pictures and the words — I’ve come a long way since then.)

Soweto — which is technically part of Joburg but really a city-state unto itself — is a legendary place, with a population larger than many small countries and a larger-then-life history to match. I live 20 minutes from Soweto and have been there many times over the years. I’ve done walking and cycling tours in Soweto. I’ve gone to concerts and art exhibitions in Soweto. I’ve participated in numerous instawalks in Soweto. I’ve done photography jobs and charity events, run races, and visited doll factories in Soweto. But I’ve never spent the night.

So when I received an invite to be part of a social media campaign for the Soweto Wine Festival, I jumped on board. The festival is this weekend and I’ll be spending three full days sipping wine and participating in all kinds of exciting Soweto-based activities.

The best thing about this weekend is that I get to stay at the Soweto Hotel in Walter Sisulu Square, which is one of the most historical sites in Soweto and also where the wine festival is taking place. I stopped briefly in Walter Sisulu Square a few weeks ago and noticed that it has recently undergone a major upgrade, with new plantings and beautiful new public art. I’m looking forward to staying there and exploring in more depth.


Back in July I met Sipho (left) selling memorabilia in Walter Sisulu Square outside the monument to the 1955 Freedom Charter. Sipho asked me to take his photo next to this statue of Walter Sisulu.

I’ll be blogging about the Soweto Wine Festival next week and also posting on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter during the weekend itself. Follow along on the hashtags #72hrsSoweto and #SowetoWineFest.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Soweto pictures that I’ve taken over the years.

MK marching

Soldiers march down Vilakazi Street, honoring Nelson Mandela the weekend after he died. Orlando West, 2013.


Ladies in a taxi. Somewhere in Soweto, 2011.

Girl and grannie

A girl and her grannie. Kliptown, 2013.


Omphile, aka @omphibear, one of my favorite instagrammers and an all-around fabulous woman. Kliptown, 2014.

Peaking kids

Little spies. Somewhere in Soweto, 2013.


Friends. Left to right: Kabelo, Zandi, Carvela, and Phili. Kliptown, 2013.


School boys, too cool for school. Baragwanath Taxi Rank, Diepkloof, 2014.

People outside shebeen

Passing the time. Somewhere in Soweto, 2013.


Cute kid. Kliptown, 2014.

As I gathered these pictures, I noticed that every one of them depicts a person or people. This says something about what makes Soweto a wonderful place to visit. Soweto is all about the history, the culture, the people, and the attitude. This weekend it will also be about the wine.

I can’t wait for 72 straight hours of Soweto.