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We spent almost a month driving around in South Africa and sampled a lot of what it has to offer – bungee jumping, beach bumming, sampling wines, playing with lions, spotting cheetahs, devouring sea-food (Ocean’s Basket we miss you!). No wonder the country has firmly implanted itself in our minds as one of our favourite countries in the world.
The most memorable part of the trip? The township tour of Soweto in Johannesburg.
In retrospect, it seems extremely ironic that we almost did not go for the tour. Our interest in the tour was met with two kinds of reactions- either people warned us against it because it would be ‘too unsafe’ or looked at us in disdain for indulging in ‘poverty porn’. What did we do? Threw caution to the winds and went for it anyway (We do that a lot and it lands us in the most bizarre situations sometimes :-)). Having been on the tour, we can safely say that none of the people who warned us were speaking from experience. Both assumptions stem from hearsay, ill-informed hearsay at that!
Read on to find out why we had the best time in Soweto and came back with a bunch of happy memories:
#1 Rasta Bars and Shebeens
We opted for the biking tour and were told to congregate in a Rasta Bar, hidden in a small alley. We met our guide who handed us our bikes and introduced ourselves to the other members of the group. To our surprise, a number of locals had booked the same tour as us. We knew we’d made the right decision when we offered a drink at 10 a.m The bar had a laid-back atmosphere, like most bars in the area.
We stopped at two other bars on our trip, but our favourite pit-stop was a local shebeen (brewery), deep inside Soweto. We were introduced to Umqombothi, a beer made from maize, yeast and water. We stayed there for over an hour and interacted with the locals, which was such fun. After an elaborate song and dance sequence it was time to have Umqombothi from a communal bowl. The air was rife with laughter and music as everyone took sips from the huge wooden bowl
Rasta art everywhere
Savi sipping Umqombothi at a local shebeen
Vid’s turn to have Umqombothi at a local shebeen
#2 The Food
South Africa has the tastiest street food (It’s the birthplace of Nandos, what do you expect?). While the bunny-chow has become somewhat of an institution in Durban, we had its meatier cousin- the Kota- in Soweto. If there is a snack laden with carbs and calories, it is this. Imagine a hollowed loaf of white bread stuffed to the brim with meat, cheese, and chips-fancy a dekko?
Kota, the local burger
#3 Music and Dance
Soon it was time to work off that Kota and Umqombothi. As we biked around Soweto and went from one lane to the other, we saw people chatting, dancing, singing. It was almost as if there was music and dance in the air. In fact, at one point our tour guide stopped to tell us a bit more about the history of the area and started humming a local song – 2 women who were attending to household chores in their verandahs came out and started dancing with him. Eventually a portable radio appeared from somewhere and all of us joined in. It’s a moment we will remember for a long time.
Music and dance everywhere
Our tour group
Far from being ‘poverty porn’, the Soweto tour is full of historical inspiration. We visited Nelson Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s houses on Vilakazi Street. It is tremendously inspiring to see the houses of two nobel prize winners on a small lane in a township- it forces one to dwell on the connection between achievement and material possessions (or the lack thereof). Our tour guide took every opportunity to dole out nuggets about apartheid and women’s rights and even took us to the plaque dedicated to the 1976 student uprising. We came away richer for it.
Plaque dedicated to the Student Uprising of 1976
Nelson Mandela’s house on Vilakazi Street
#5 The People
We saved the best for the last. In Soweto we met the friendliest people and the cutest kids (so cute Savi wanted to kidnap ’em ;-)). The kids were fascinated with my camera, and one of them even sat down and patiently learnt the controls from me.
Our tour guide, NK, made us feel at home in Soweto. We took a few pictures with him and mailed them to him on getting back to UK. We still send each other the occasional e-mail, and will definitely look him up the next time we’re there
Kids in Soweto
Kids in Soweto
Savi with NK at a jazz bar
There you have it- our Soweto experience, which was all about community spirit, unique experiences, warm hugs, and jazz. We don’t opt for too many tours (we don’t enjoy them, we like travelling independently) but we’re glad we went for the Soweto Tour in Johannesburg. It was good to have someone to guide us around the tiny lanes and localities of Soweto.