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
5 surprising Garden Route stays that’ll blow your mind
In the trees, on the hills, with the vines or at the beating heart of a township; these hotels and homestays along the glorious Garden Route will show you South Africa at its finest, writes Steve Madgwick.
Quaint seaside towns surrounded by impenetrable bush, dotted along the contours of the hills and valleys of a coast-hugging road that meanders over low-lying bridges which span large lazy lagoons… welcome to the Garden Route, where South Africa’s barren Cape gets a luxurious perm.
The Garden Route technically spans all the way from just outside Cape Town eastwards towards Port Elizabeth, but its sweet spot is the couple-of-hundred-kilometre stretch where it meets the coast, from Mossel Bay to just past Plettenberg Bay.
Hidden away from the towns here, in the hills and hinterland, perched on the cliffs, are some of the most luxurious, curious, unique and decadent stays on the whole of the African continent.
These five will blow your mind (and maybe your budget) – but they’re all worth it.
1. Tsala Treetop Lodge – not your average treehouse
At first sound, a ‘treetop lodge’ sounds like a euphemism for a tacky family holiday resort, but be assured that five-star Tsala is the furthest thing imaginable from that. Its 10 treetop suites and 6 treetop villas sit (on stilts) on top of a valley strewn with some of the oldest indigenous forests in South Africa; 50-metre-tall yellowwoods, ironwoods and stinkwoods (no they don’t really smell).
The stacked-stone, wood (rough and finished) and glass structures are full of distinct, character-filled spaces that allow you to appreciate the woods from a plethora of tranquil angles. The ‘afro-baroque’ décor inside is very ‘busy’ but ultimately works, thanks to the mix of harmonising earthy natural tones and bold local crafts thrown in here and there.
The (Charlotte Rhys stocked) bathroom is more like a bath precinct with a copper-tapped stand-alone bath and both outdoor and indoor showers (if you don’t like the monkeys watching). Even the loos have a valley view. A forest-facing private infinity pool on the deck outside and large ceramic combustion stove in the sitting room help to basically season-proof Tsala.
For dinner, it’s a tranquil (but fairly long) forest walk along the low-lit boardwalk to Zinzi restaurant, for a mix of tapas and modern African fine dining fusion. Except for the not-quite-lightning-quick complimentary wi-fi and the bafflingly complicated light switches, there are very few reasons to come down from the trees.
2. Madison Manor Boutique Hotel - the new Old World
Madison Manor markets itself as ‘Old World’ and pretty much lives up to that hype. Which is quite the achievement, considering the five-star property in its current incarnation is only two years old. The grand hilltop building’s Cape Dutch exterior is skirted by generous wooden decks, a nod to the local wood chopping industry of times past, plus sprawling manicured lawns.
Inside, Madison is like a museum of South African antiques that you’re not afraid to use and touch; plop down on your room’s vintage chaise longue, and wander around admiring a trunk collection to behold and the serving dish lids turned corridor installation.
Have a chat with ultra-friendly chef Leonard as he cooks your breakfast to order while you marvel at the brass kitchen scale collection on the dining hall’s buffet.
Although it falls short in a few details, such as the mid-quality own-branded combined shampoo and soap, there is plenty to keep you here. If the pool (complete with wooden sun lounges) with a 180-degree aspect of Knysna’s estuary in the distance isn’t enough, then maybe Narla (the hotel’s bouncy black Labrador) will steal your heart. (No children under 16.)
3. Wandu – much more than a township homestay
You may think that a $20-per-night room without an ocean view will struggle to compete with these heady five-star stars. But, in this case, you would be wrong.
Of course, the accommodation at Wandu in the township of Khayalethu (population 35,000) does not come with just about any of the five-star bells and whistles (although it’s perfectly charming, clean and comfortable). But as a cultural experience this is six-star.
Host Mawande and his delightful family invite you into the home (bedrooms are separate from their converted government house) with open arms. Try some Xhosa fare (pap and chakalaka), sample some umqombothi (local beer), and take a tour through the town’s (12 metre by 12 metre) ‘Mandela homes’.
The reality is that this is exactly how the majority of black South Africans live, yet very few tourists get to experience it. As Mawande says, “it's not perfect yet, but this is the next generation of South Africans” and most locals are happy that tourists get to see their way of life “with [their] own eyes”.
Keep an eye out for the ‘Township Big 5’ (goat, chicken, pig, cow and dog). All this for about $20 a night, including breakfast.
4. The Mount Knysna Boutique Hotel – just like home, sort of
The Mount Knysna does boutique to the letter: personal, small, thought-through quiet spaces. Perched high up on Knysna Heads, from the heated infinity pool, you can reflect on the shipwrecks lying in Davy Jones’ Locker of the beautiful yet treacherous waters far below the cliffs.
This place feels homely because it once was one (a luxury home), which means the setting feels a little ‘suburban’, the neighbours a little closer than usual; plus it’s a little isolated from the nearest town (Knysna, seven kilometres away).
But if you are happy in clifftop solitude, the Mount Knysna is your niche. The bar is so cosy you’ll end up talking tête-à-tête with anyone in there like an old friend and the cellar has plenty of distinctive South African wines hiding away; genuine triumphs such as the Meerlust Rubicon 1998, a bargain when you’re splashing out in rand.
Mount Knysna’s pièce de résistance, however, is its private 12-seat cinema with business-class-comfy recliners to melt into. Movie marathon?
5. Packwood Wine Estate – the alternate wine route
South Africa’s Cape is renowned for wine regions like Stellenbosch, but the Plettenberg Bay wine route is not one of them – just yet. At Harkerville about 20 minutes’ drive west of Plettenberg Bay, Packwood Wine Estate is a small-scale example of a burgeoning, diversifying region which boasts 18 producers; only a few of which offer accommodation at the moment.
The quaint ‘little’ 500-hectare property was (and still is) a dairy farm, but co-owner Vicky has put a lot of effort into Packwood’s cool climate wines; obvious, once you indulge in a glass of the pinot noir.
The self-contained thatched-roofed cottage (for two) or house (maximum six) are ideal not just for peace and quiet but also as a home base for cyclists and walkers, as there is plenty of forest to play in nearby. You’ll mostly have to self-cater, but there are creamy cheese platters and light lunches available.
The views across the jersey-cow-dotted fields to the Tsitsikamma mountains sell Packwood as much as anything. If you are lucky, you may spot a troupe of baboons (who think the vineyard is like a “sweetie shop”) or, less likely, one of the leopards that sometimes lick their lips over the plump cows.
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