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Alexandra Township cycling group in front of the Alexandra Heritage Centre

Not Cycling Through Alexandra Township

I recently found myself not cycling on a cycle ride through Alexandra Township.

It was a hard job riding around Alex in a comfortable car, photographing the cyclists as they toiled in the hot sun. But someone had to do it.

I was supposed to cycle, but there weren’t enough bikes and it was blazing hot and when someone suggested I ride in the Jeep that was escorting the riders and take photos through the open top, I gladly accepted.

The bike ride was hosted by Art Affair, a tiny art gallery and studio in Alex’s East Bank that also serves as an events venue/community gathering place. Artist and cycling enthusiast Mxolisi Mbonjwa owns the gallery and organized the ride together with Bicycle Stokvel.

Inside the Art Affair gallery.
A cyclist named Frank inside Art Affair. Mxolisi, I’m sorry I never took a photo of you for some reason.

I’ve visited and blogged about Alex many times. (You can browse all of my Alex posts here.) I don’t want to belabor this point. But if you live in Joburg and have never been to Alex, please go.

Alex is a five-minute drive from Sandton but many Joburgers are afraid to even drive past it due to Alex’s reputation for poverty and crime.

In fact, Alex is quite easy and safe to visit as long as you go with someone who knows their way around. And it’s one of the most important parts of Joburg historically, being the first township in Joburg and the first place Nelson Mandela lived when he moved to the city in 1941.

My friend Asanda, a tour guide in Alex, outside Art Affair. Asanda is born and raised in Alex and knows everything about this place. You can book a tour with her through Tour 2.0.

Also, Alex is fun. With the exception of me and my friends Crystal and Dom, who are new to Joburg and were visiting Alex for the first time, and a group of hard-core cyclists from the East Rand, I think the majority of the people on this bike ride were from Alex. They were super nice and welcoming and just plain fun to hang out with. We all had a great time being tourists in our own city together.

End of lecture. Here are some photos from the ride.

Following the Cyclists Through Alex

Our Jeep brought up the rear of the cycle ride so I have lots of photos of people’s, er…bums. But I like the pictures anyway.

Cycling through Alex
And they’re off.
Winners never quit!
Cyclists riding up a hill in Alexandra Township.
Yoh, I was happy not to be peddling up this hill.
Kids watching the cycle ride in Alex
These kids were chanting “Num-Ber-One! Num-Ber-One!” as the cyclists rode past.
Narrow street in Alexandra Township
Getting photographed while I photograph.
Classic sign-painting on a shop wall in Alexandra Township
Quick drive-by photo of some classic African sign-painting.
Riding through Alexandra's East Bank.
Riding through the East Bank, the newest section of Alexandra Township, at the end of the ride.
Cyclist in front of a funeral home in Alexandra Township
Just a photo I like.

Sight-seeing in Alexandra Township

This ride was mostly cycling for cycling’s sake. But we did make a couple of stops at interesting sites along the way.

Kings Cinema

Kings Cinema is the oldest movie theatre in Alex and a notable community gathering place — it was bombed by apartheid forces in 1984. I visited Kings Cinema once before a few years ago and was happy to see it’s had a new paint job since then.

Kings Cinema in Alexandra Township
Kings Cinema.

Alexandra Heritage Centre

This was the most exciting discovery of the ride. The Alexandra Heritage Centre, which was built about a decade ago but remained closed for many years due to various political/logistical/financial difficulties, is finally open and it is spectacular.

Outside the Alexandra Heritage Centre
Outside the Alexandra Heritage Centre.
Stained glass windows inside the Alexandra Heritage Centre.
Beautiful stained glass windows inside the centre.
Music section in the Alexandra Heritage Centre.
This section of the museum is all about the history of music in Alex. These guys are recording the music on their phones.

We only had about 10 or 15 minutes to walk through the centre, but from what I saw the exhibits are fantastic. It’s my kind of museum — great design, great light, and engaging, interactive displays without too much heavy text to read. I will be back.

Wall of heroes in the Alexandra Heritage Centre.
A family poses in front of a wall of heroes in the Alexandra Heritage Centre.
View from a balcony in the Alexandra Heritage Centre
View from one of many beautifully designed balconies in the centre.

There is almost no information online about the Alexandra Heritage Centre but it’s at 4694 Hofmeyr Street, on what is called “Heritage Corner”. The centre is one street over from the historic Mandela house at 46 7th Avenue.

At the end of the ride there was a party set up in the yard surrounding Art Affair, with DJs and good food and beer. Crystal and Dom and I left after an hour or two but I suspect the party ran well into the night. It was a great way to spend a Saturday.

Follow Art Affair on Facebook for announcements about future events. Or contact one of these companies — all locally run — to book a tour in Alex.

Tour 2.0
The Hub Presents
Buvhi Tours (Alexandra Bicycle Tours)

Alexandra Township cycling group in front of the Alexandra Heritage Centre
The cycling group in front of the centre.
Joburg cycling tour with Kennedy

Cycle Joburg With Kennedy

Over the past couple of months I’ve participated in two Joburg tours with Kennedy Tembo of Micro-adventure Tours. Kennedy offers all kinds of innovative, outdoorsy tours in Joburg and surrounding areas — from Gauteng all the way to the Drakensberg. I am so excited to try them all.

I was planning to write about both the tours I’ve done with Kennedy in this post, but actually there is too much to say so I’m taking them one at a time. First up: Kennedy’s coffee and cycling tour through downtown Joburg.

Kennedy with his bike in front of a public art piece by R1 on Fox Street.

I’ve explored downtown Joburg countless times by car, on foot, on a bus, and even on a skateboard. I’ve done cycling tours in Soweto, Alexandra, and Diepsloot. But I’d never done a cycling tour though the middle of the city before, much less a cycling tour focused on coffee.

Cycling Downtown Joburg

I know what you might be thinking: Riding a bicycle through the frenetic Joburg central business district (what locals call the CBD) is only for cyclists with a death wish. Trust me though — it works.

Kennedy and Marie-Lais in front of the Standard Bank Building on Commissioner Street.

First of all, Kennedy is a great cycling guide. He is calm (in fact he has nerves of steel), navigates the streets with ease, and makes sure each intersection is clear before his cyclists ride through.

Second, traffic tends to move quite slowly downtown and Joburg’s infamous taxi drivers are surprisingly accommodating to cyclists. Also the CBD is mercifully flat.

Third, the city looks totally different from a bicycle than it does on foot or from a vehicle. I recommend every Joburg enthusiast give it a try, even if you’re a little scared. (You do have to be comfortable riding a bicycle.)

Joburg cycling tour with Kennedy
Kennedy and Marie-Lais cycle through Gandhi Square.

Our tour started and ended in Maboneng in front of Uncle Merv’s coffee shop. We cycled straight through the heart of the city, from east to west and back again, stopping at four coffee shops in the western/central CBD and Newtown.

Goat Coffee on Simmonds Street, near the Standard Bank building on the west side of the CBD. It was my first time visiting this fun coffee shop.
Ornate Coffee, formerly Capital Cafe, in Corner House on Commissioner Street. This is one of my favorite secret coffee shops in town, mainly because of the stunning stained glass ceiling.
Craft Coffee in Newtown — another one of my favorites.

My tour with Kennedy took place just before Christmas, when several of his normal coffee stops were closed. Expect even more interesting and secret coffee shops if you do the tour now.

My favorite part of the tour was cycling for a long stretch down Henry Nxumalo Street, which runs directly under the M1 Highway. It was cool and shady under the highway as we peddled slightly downhill. I loved watching the cement bridge stretch out above me, narrowing to a point in the distance.

At the end of the bridge, a perfect Craft Coffee flat white awaited.

Under the M1 Highway.
Newtown sights.
Photo by Kennedy Tembo.

Exciting Announcement About Kennedy (and Me)

Next Thursday, 21 February, I’m holding a second launch event for the 2Summers #Gauteng52 Challenge book. The launch will take place at the Jesuit Institute in Auckland Park, which I’m super excited about, and Kennedy has agreed to co-host the event with me. Yay!

Kennedy, like me, is a Joburg transplant — he is originally from Malawi, one of my favorite countries — who has made a living out of exploring this city and its surrounds. He’s also just a really fun guy. I’m looking forward to chatting with him about all things Joburg and Gauteng. Please join us for the launch.

My Micro-adventure cycling and coffee tour was complimentary. Opinions expressed are mine. Follow Micro-adventure Tours on Facebook for more information about upcoming tours.

Marie-Lais and Lucky cycling through Diepsloot

Cycling Tour Through Diepsloot

Diepsloot is one of those places, like a lot of other Joburg places, where people are afraid to go.

Diepsloot streetA Diepsloot street.

Diepsloot, which means “deep ditch” in Afrikaans, is a huge informal settlement in the far northern outskirts of Joburg; in fact, it is so far north that it’s just as close to Pretoria as it is to Joburg. It emerged from nothing on an abandoned farm in the 1990s, as migrants poured into Joburg from rural South Africa and the rest of Africa and had nowhere else to go.

Hundreds of corrugated iron shacks sprouted up, then thousands. There were no public services, no police stations or hospitals or shopping centers. Diepsloot was a wild, post-apartheid frontier — one of those places that can only exist in South Africa.

Diepsloot shopJust another day in Diepsloot.

Today, hundreds of thousands of people live in Diepsloot and the number continues to grow. The area has more infrastructure than it did a couple of decades ago, but it still has an anything-goes kind of feeling about it.

Diepsloot has kota stands, open sewers, vibrant community centers, secret gardens, fashion designers, herds of goats, Rastafarian hair-braiding shops, colorfully painted general dealers, and salons with eye-catching names. Diepsloot is a good place to ride a bicycle.

Cycling in Diepsloot

Lucky Nkali has lived in Diepsloot all his life. I met him there several years ago during a photography project with the Joburg Photowalkers, and seven years later Lucky is still working to promote culture and tourism in Diepsloot.

Lucky has started a cycling tour business and will be conducting a tour during the upcoming Jozi Walks weekend. In advance of the Jozi Walks event, which happens on May 19th and 20th, Marie-Lais and I decided to give Lucky’s tour a test ride.

Lucky Nkali in DiepslootThe oh-so-stylish Lucky Nkali.

Getting bikes ready for Diepsloot cycling tourGetting our bikes ready to ride through Diepsloot.

Marie-Lais and Lucky cycling through DiepslootOn the road.

I’ve written about bike rides and tours all over Joburg — Soweto, Alexandra, the Joburg CBD. The Diepsloot tour is much like all of these; just a fun, different way to see an interesting part of town that I might not otherwise go to. Lucky was a great host, leading us on our rickety bicycles through Diepsloot’s various extensions.

Some of Diepsloot’s extensions, which are numbered according to the order in which they were built, have wide, paved streets with bus shelters and bike lanes. Others are densely packed with shacks, on streets so narrow we had to walk our bikes through.

I saw many cool things on this tour, but it’s really difficult to ride a bike (especially a rickety one) and take photos simultaneously. I did manage a few shots, but generally I just had to stop being a photographer for most of the morning and take in the scenery with my actual eyes.

DiepslootExtension 1.

Diepsloot streetOne of the newer extensions.

Diepsloot gardenA secret garden on a quiet, unpaved street.

Hair salon in DiepslootMy favorite sign of the day: The Lil-Psyfo Hair-Studio.

How to Prepare for a Diepsloot Cycling Tour

Wear closed shoes, lots of sunscreen, a hat, and pants/shorts that you don’t like very much because they might get splattered with mud/sewage. Bring some spending money and a backpack because Lucky makes shopping stops along the way. Be prepared to ride a rickety bike — the bikes Lucky uses are refurbished by local mechanics in Diepsloot.

Do not worry about safety. You are perfectly safe in Lucky’s hands.

The Diepsloot tour during the Jozi Walks weekend is already fully booked. But follow Blackbite Productions on Facebook for updates on future bike tours and other events.

One big family in DiepslootOne Big Family in Diepsloot.

A Quirky Journey Across the Cape Winelands

I recently spent a few days in the Cape Winelands as part of the #MeetSouthAfrica local blogger trip. We ate a lot (you already know this) and drank a lot. We also rode bicycles, watched epic sunsets, and met a cute, aggressive, cork-nibbling parrot. I took many photos.

I had never been to the Cape Winelands before and it didn’t take me long to discover that this is one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa. After an insane day of traveling from the Drakensburg to Durban to Cape Town, we arrived in Franschhoek just in time for a stunning sunset. We forced our hapless shuttle driver to pull over so we could run across the highway and take pictures.

Dane on tracks

Sunset, mountains, and train tracks: The Instagram trifecta. Just ask Dane Forman, our resident #MeetSouthAfrica Instagrammer.

Gramming on tracks

Di Brown of the Roaming Giraffe will probably never forgive me for posting this. Di, you’re a serious sunset photography die-hard and the world needs to know this.

The next morning, our first stop in Franschhoek (note the crazy spelling of Franschhoek — it took me a few days to get this right) was the Haut Espoir boutique wine estate. Haut Espoir is run by a very interesting guy named Rob Armstrong who, besides being larger than an average giant, is a former archeologist and champion of biodynamic farming.

Rob Haut Espoire

Rob, the biodynamic-farming giant, on his jaw-droppingly beautiful wine farm.

Haut Espoire Vineyard

Grape vines at Haut Espoir.

Rob took us for a walk around the farm and explained his family’s efforts to remove all alien plant species from the land and grow their grapes free of pesticides. He also gave us a quick botany lesson and introduced us to several species of fynbos. (More on fynbos in a future post.) Then we went inside and sampled some wine.

Haut Espoir glass

The wine we tasted was fittingly named “Gentle Giant”.

After Haut Espoir, we drove about 40 minutes from Franschhoek to Stellenbosch, had lunch, then did a cycling tour of the winelands with Bikes-n-Wines.

I’m always up for a bit of exercise after a big meal (or a dozen big meals in a row, in this case) so the bike ride sounded great. However, cycling straight uphill for 40 minutes, in the sun, at 1:00 p.m. on a blazing-hot day, after eating heavy food and drinking wine, was a bit insane. There was nearly a blogger mutiny about halfway up the hill (which felt like Mt. Everest). But we all made it up and laughed about it later.

Walking bikes

I shot this just before the near-mutiny. I’m proud to say that I made it the whole way up on my bike (with a few stops to gasp for breath), but that’s only because I’m stubborn.

Vineyard cycling

Kat makes it look easy as she reaches the crest of the mountain-hill. Trust me though: It wasn’t. The scenery, however, was beautiful.

Our first vineyard stop was at the top of the mountain, but we were all way too tired to drink wine at that point. I can’t even remember what that first vineyard was called. But after a few minutes of coasting downhill we reached Lovane, our second vineyard of the tour. Everyone was in a better mood by then and we really enjoyed our tasting. After Lovane, we coasted downhill to the Bikes-n-Wines office and called it a day.


I love taking photos of wine being poured, although I hated lugging my camera bag on that blasted bike. Lovane’s wine was great.

That evening, after an hour or two of recovery time in our hotel rooms, we drove to the top of the Franschhoek Pass and watched another amazing sunset.

Kat gramming

Kat keeps showing up in my photos.

Franschhoek sunset

The Franschhoek Pass is rather pretty at sunset.

The next morning we took a quick break from wine-drinking and drank some coffee. We visited Terbodore Coffee Roasters in Franschhoek and received a fantastic coffee lesson from Jomo, Terbodore’s master roaster. I learned that light-roast coffee actually has more caffeine than dark roast coffee. Who knew?

Jomo coffee

Jomo and his coffee-roasting machine. 

Beans roasting

Roasting beans.

 All coffeed up, just shy of 11:00 a.m., we headed to our last wine-tasting at Black Elephant Vintners. I was feeling pretty tired of wine at this point, in fact I was feeling pretty tired, period.

But, wow. Black Elephant turned out to be my favorite experience of this entire crazy trip. Largely because of the parrot.

Kevin and Kulula

Kevin Swart, proprietor of Black Elephant Vintners, and his parrot Kulula. “Is he friendly?” we asked Kevin. “Not really,” Kevin said. We took his word for it.

Kulula on leg

Friendly or not, Kulula is the cutest bird I’ve ever seen.

I loved everything about Black Elephant, which incidentally is not a vineyard: Black Elephant buys its grapes from other vineyards around Franschhoek and makes interesting wine out of it. But anyway. I loved Black Elephant’s quirkiness, I loved Kevin’s attitude and the way he explained his business, I loved all of the animals underfoot, and I loved the wine. I bought four bottles and I’m not even a big drinker.

Black Elephant

Black Elephant champagne, in a black bottle with black-on-black labelling. So pretty. Each of Black Elephant’s wines has a uniquely designed label and name, all totally different from one another.

Did I mention I loved the parrot?

Kulula cork

I mean, really.

A tasting at Black Elephant is my number-one recommendation for Franschhoek. If you like wine and quirkiness and parrots, and if you like to laugh a lot, then do it.

Curtain call

The end. Curtain call courtesy of Dane and Kate.

More #MeetSouthAfrica posts to come.

Cycling Jozi’s Streets, at Night

I have a love-hate relationship with cycling in Joburg.

A couple of years ago, before I had a car, I bought a bike and planned to use it to get around. (Read the post about my bike purchase.) I liked the idea of riding a bike around town, but it turns out I didn’t actually like doing it. I used the bike about five times before deciding that cycling in Joburg is too hard (hills, traffic, minibus taxis, etc.).

Perhaps this is why I resisted Critical Mass for so long. Critical Mass is a worldwide phenomenon — an event on the last Friday of every month when hoards of cyclists get together and ride through big cities as a way of “reclaiming” the streets from cars and trucks. Critical Mass has been happening in Joburg for a couple of years, and a few of my friends have been trying to convince me to ride with them for months.

I finally caved last Friday.

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Township Sunday. On a Bike.

Michelle and I arrived at the Marlboro Gautrain Station, on the edge of Alexandra Township, at 10:30 Sunday morning. Jeffrey, our guide, was waiting for us on the curb.

“Who wants to get the taxi?” Jeffrey asked. I volunteered Michelle. Michelle stepped to the edge of the street and pointed downward, as Jeffrey demonstrated.

taxi signal

Michelle hails a taxi.

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We interrupt this regularly scheduled program…

For the next couple of weeks I’ll be holed up in an office in Joburg’s northern suburbs, pursuing professional goals that do not involve blogging. And I was just hitting my blogging stride! But hey, one must eat.

I’ll still be moonlighting as a blogger during this period. I’ve got a post or two in reserve and my weekends are still free. And if I come across anything interesting to write about in Bryanston I’ll let you know. (Bryanston is to Joburg what Potomac is to Washington D.C.). Probably not though, as I’ll be spending 99% of my time in an airless conference room.

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Cycling in a Town Where Car is King

Transportation is an issue for me here. I don’t have a car and there’s little chance that I’ll get one any time soon.

I moved to Joburg from Washington, D.C., where one can live quite comfortably without an automobile. I had a car while I lived there but I barely used it. I felt so free and happy when I sold it.

But Joburg is a more like Los Angeles than D.C. This city is built for driving — sidewalks are scarce, public transport is unreliable and unsafe, and everything is spread out. Fortunately I live in Melville, one of the few walkable neighborhoods in town. But if I need to get somewhere outside Melville and Joe isn’t around to take me, I’m pretty much stuck.

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Daytripping Around the Cape

Mom and I were in Cape Town for three days — we had lots to see and no car. I’m usually not a fan of group bus tours, but when Mom suggested a tour of the Cape Peninsula with a company called Daytrippers, it seemed like a good plan under the circumstances.

Alexi, our charming Daytrippers guide, fetched us from the guest house at 8:45 a.m. To my relief, our touring vehicle was not a bus, but a cute van towing a bike trailer. (For some reason I did not take any photos of the cute van or the cute tour guide. Apologies.)

We headed south out of Cape Town and marveled at the crystal blue sea and lovely beachfront suburbs.

Clifton, a spectacular Cape Town suburb along the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula.

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