8 reasons Soweto is the best thing to do in Johannesburg
It’s no longer just ‘that’ township; but a place full of hopes, dreams, poverty and contradictions. Here’s the what and the where of modern Soweto, writes Steve Madgwick.
Soweto was once the centre of a human rights struggle that the world watched live on television. It was a place that tourists and white South Africans would not only not want to go to, but were indeed not allowed to go to, by law. Today, regardless of your colour or creed, Soweto is the best thing you can do on a visit to Johannesburg.
As part of the post-apartheid ‘Rainbow Nation’, it is still a split metaphor; a symbol of poverty but also, increasingly, hope – a poster child for the new South Africa. It’s a cultural lesson with a vibrant polarity: you can bungee jump or see how the other more-than-half really live.
A bicycle, walking, bus or even tuk tuk tour of Soweto gives you a small, safe and rewarding taste of the way a huge percentage of South Africans live: in townships.
1. Vilakazi Street: the Peace Prize parade
The main reason you’ll want to head to Vilakazi Street is to see House 8115 in Orlando West, the former home, now museum, of mega-hero Nelson Mandela. The unassuming dwelling was Mandela’s base until he was forced underground, as the struggle against apartheid intensified.
Just up the road you can stand outside the house of another apartheid-era hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This makes Vilakazi the only street in the world where two Nobel laureates lived at the same time (for a period of just 11 days, the time it took for Mandela to move out after being released from prison in 1990). Did you know? Mandela actually had two houses in Soweto, the little-visited second one is in Orlando East.
While you're in Vilakazi Street, don't miss the Hector Pieterson Museum for some context into just how bad the darkest years of Apartheid were in Soweto.
2. Orlando Towers: a bungee-jump solution
What do you do with two monstrous decommissioned power station cooling towers? Orlando Towers has always been a Soweto landmark, but now for a different reason. You can bungee jump (100 metres) from a bridge suspended between the two towers (colourfully muralled with heroes such as the Soweto String Quartet); do a ‘leap of faith’ inside them or forward rappel down their exterior.
Afterwards (not before), order a traditional shisa nyama (Zulu for ‘burn the meat’) or braai at on-site restaurant Chaf-Pozi. Select your meat (chicken wings, local sausage, beef and pork) by weight for the barbecue, then add traditional accompaniments such as pap (maize porridge), spinach and chakalaka (spicy vegetable relish).
Eat with your hands for absolute authenticity. There’s also a bar here that pumps later in the evening and you can book tours here too.
3. Shanty life: the squatter’s perspective
Despite the Soweto success stories, this place is still home to some of South Africa’s most deprived communities. Walking, bus and cycle tours of Soweto usually include a guided walk through shanty towns like Nomzamo Park (AKA: Winnie Mandela squatter park, established 1991).
The local guide will show you around a tightly-packed rabbit warren of tiny wood and tin shacks (that in Nomzamo’s case house between 7000 and 10,000 people), which have running water but few other government services. The average child here walks 45 minutes to school.
The tours at first feel a little zoo-like and obtrusive, but nothing gives you more perspective on just how stratified South African society still is. Expect to see six or seven people living in a small, dirt-floor shack.
The tiny spaza shops lie at the heart of community’s commerce, selling the basics: paraffin for stoves, eggs, fish, beans and single cigarettes. And if you’re peckish, women walk around selling sheep heads ($2.50 for a half). The crime in these neighbourhoods can be surprisingly low because of the close proximity of the houses and the shared spirit.
4. Umqombothi: drinking the local culture
On a tour, inevitably, you will end up partaking in an umqombothi or two (a traditional beer made of sorghum and maize meal) in a shebeen (formerly illegal local pub, which brings a new meaning to the word ‘rustic’ – check out The Shack on Vilakazi Street).
You just don’t drink the beer, you must get on your knees and ceremonially swig it from a drinking vessel known as a calabash. Traditionally, the women of the township would brew the concoction and serve it on their knees, making sure not to make eye contact with the drinker.
It is only usually served on ‘special occasions’ and drunk ‘for the ancestors’. Welcoming tourists now seems to be included in these occasions. 'Don't drink and walk on the road, you may be killed' is the warning splashed across the legally produced version (yes, Soweto is awash with home brew). But don’t worry, umqombothi is comparatively low in alcohol – one or two per cent.
5. Check out ‘Beverly Hills’
Once considered one of the most deprived areas in all of South Africa, there is money flowing into Soweto from the new waves of prosperous South African businessmen and women. Over the past two decades, successful Sowetons have been moving to neighbourhoods such as the Diepkloof Extension and building two-storey, double-garaged homes like the rest of wealthy South Africa.
Soweto’s ‘Beverly Hills’ houses success stories from the soccer club chairman to local business owners. But instead of resenting the elite, many Sowetons look up to and try to emulate their successes. Soweto facilities are slowly catching up with waves of rand and include, so far, a (public) golf course and country club.
6. Sleepover: Yes, you can stay in Soweto
You don’t have to dip in and dip out of the township if you want a more personal experience. There are no five-star stays in Soweto just yet but there are a couple of hotels already, plenty of B&B and guesthouse options (especially around Vilakazi Street), plus a well-resourced and comfy backpackers. And, yes, you can even get wi-fi in some.
7. Chiefs v Pirates: when the country still watches Soweto
There are 16 teams in South Africa’s elite PSL (Premier Soccer League), but a huge percentage of the country supports just two teams, both of them in Soweto. Forget rugby and cricket, nothing makes South Africa stand (noisily) still like a local derby between superstars the Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates.
The design of the Kaizer Chiefs’ home ground, FNB Stadium (AKA Soccer City), which hosted the 2010 World Cup final, was based on the traditional drinking vessel known as the calabash. The capacity of the ground is 95,000.
8. Is it a town(ship) or city?
Although Soweto is part of Johannesburg, it has truly sprawled into almost a city in itself – now about 150 kilometres squared. The official population is around 1.3 million, but estimates seem to start at about double that, especially if you take into account the sprawling shanty towns, which indeed you should.
To put the township in perspective, Soweto is home to the 170-acre, 3400-bed, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the largest in the southern hemisphere and the third largest hospital in the world.
More details: For Soweto tours, check out Buju Tours and Cycle in Soweto
7 must-see sights of Manu National Park
How to see the world’s most remarkable protected places and the unique wildlife they harbour.
There’s a remote, mostly inaccessible corner of Peru bordered by mighty rivers and mountains that has been largely left untouched by modern man.
From the high-altitude grasslands of the Andes down to cloud forests and thick Amazon jungle, Manú National Park encompasses a unique wilderness that UNESCO recognised as a Biosphere Reserve before declaring it a World Heritage Site in 1987.
Its diverse range of habitats, which cover an area nearly half the size of Switzerland, means the park is host to an abundance of life – so much so that late last year it was found to have the highest terrestrial biodiversity of any protected area on Earth.
Access to much of the Manú National Park is restricted, such is the desire to keep it completely untouched.
However, make your way up the adjoining Cultural Zone, a buffer area where communities live and work, and you can enter the park to explore the ancient rock art of the Amazonians at Pusharo and take a boat up the Manú River to spot jaguars, caimans and hundreds of bird species.
So, descend from the Andes into the rich broth of life that is Manú.
Manú has much for you to grapple with: start with these stunning stops:
1. Lake Otorongo lookout
With an 18-metre-high lookout tower on its shore, Lake Otorongo is a great place to spot black caiman crocs and the jaguar deep in the rainforest up the Manú River.
And because of the high vantage point and the chance you get to see some of Manú’s many birds, you’ll be kicking yourself if you don’t have a zoom lens.
2. Tres Cruces Lookout
Dip into the southern tip of the park on a side road off the Carretera a Manú to find the Mirador Tres Cruces.
This lookout gives you a spectacular view out to the valleys where the Andes meet the Amazon.
On a clear day you’ll be able to see from the snow-covered peak of Mount Ausangate all the way down into the depths of the Manú jungle basin.
3. Clay licks
We’re spoilt when it comes to dazzling, colourful birds in Australia, but Manú National Park has its fair share too, including the iconic macaw.
The parrots flock to exposed faces of clay in the forest and lick them – perhaps for the minerals needed to counter the effects of certain toxic plant material, or to compensate for a low-sodium diet: the science is still being investigated.
Watching a flock of rainbow-hued scarlet macaws descend on a ‘clay lick’ is one of nature’s great spectacles.
4. Pusharo Petroglyphs
One of the largest examples of indigenous rock art in the Amazon can be found within Manú National Park.
The intricate carvings in a limestone cliff face at Pusharo could be the vestiges of a lost, Amazonian people, although some think they have an Incan origin.
You’ll need a special permit to see the rock art: obtain one by joining a dedicated tour to Pusharo, during which you’ll stay at a Matsigenka-community run lodge (see manulodges.com).
5. Walk Lake Salvador
This oxbow lake, or cocha as the locals call them, can be found deep in the national park and constitutes pristine Amazon habitat ripe for bird-watching.
It’s home to giant otters and the largest rodent on the planet: the capybara.
6. Find the ‘cock of the rock’
Stay at the Cock of the Rock Lodge to spot the national bird of Peru, the ‘cock of the rock’, with its striking red head and back.
You’ll find the lodge as you travel through Kosñipata Valley and its cloud forests. inkanatura.com
7. Cruise the Amazon
To journey deep into Manú National Park you’ll first need to take a boat along the Alto Madre de Dios River in the Cultural Zone.
It’s a picture of life on the cusp of the wild heart of the Amazon as you pass plantations and villages on the river’s banks.
Discover Manu National Park's unique fauna. Visit Manu's Marvelous Animals for more!
Yellowstone’s ‘Big 5’ wildlife-spotting guide
Yellowstone is perhaps most renown for its grand landscapes, but its the animals here which makes it one of (if not the) premier North American national parks. Here is your Yellowstone 'Big 5' wildlife list to tick off.
1. The Grey Wolf
European settlers had eradicated wolves from Yellowstone by the 1930s, and for the rest of the century the strange side effects of removing the predator started to appear.
Tree species like willow declined; without wolves to keep elk numbers in check, too much flora was being consumed. This reduction in plant life then meant that beaver numbers declined, willow being a food source, as well as various insect and bird species.
Following a reintroduction of wolves in 1995 and an ongoing effort to establish packs, the sound of a beaver slapping its tail on the water to warn of an approaching wolf pack has made a welcome return to the park.
The largest herd in the States can be found in the park, an icon of North America, and its biggest land animal. They migrate to Yellowstone’s lower ground in winter and are fed upon by wolves and grizzlies. If disturbed they can be aggressive and weighing up to 900 kilograms, you don’t want to get in their way.
3. Grizzly bear
A threatened species, Yellowstone is one of the best places to see this fearsome predator, the males of which can weigh up to 317 kilograms and easily outrun Usain Bolt. So there’s no point in making a run for it if one approaches. If you’re going for a hike in the park you’ll need bear spray for protection, but you may also be lucky enough to see one from the road at places like Hayden Valley.
There are about 800 of these unusual-looking animals ranging between Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The largest member of the deer family lives in the marshy land near lakes and rivers, with specially adapted legs and feet to help bear its weight on unstable ground.
5. Bald Eagle
The USA’s national animal flies here. The birds can stand 114 centimetres tall with a wingspan of up to 2.3 metres and hunt small animals and scavenge on elk and bison carcasses. Successful nationwide conservation saw the bird taken off the federal endangered list in 2007.
MORE... If you could do just 7 things in Yellowstone
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