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Beer and Biryani :: The Travelling Adventures of Matt & Donna  
Sowete - Vilakazi St, Home of Nelson Mandella and Desmond Tutu
April 16, 2007


After enjoying the relative serenity of Lesotho and the Basotho people, we decided that no visit to South Africa would be complete without taking in the sights of Johannesburg and Soweto (Donna could quite happily have skipped straight on to Kruger however).

For those who don't know anything about Soweto, it is essentially the world's most infamous township/ghetto, home to somewhere between 3.5 and 4 million people. During the last 50 years it has played a central role in the fight against Apartheid, from the student uprisings in 1976, through to South Africa's first truly democratic elections in 1994. The wounds are still fresh.

When we first started discussing the trip north to Jo'burg, we asked around for advice from fellow travelers, and the consensus seemed to be that everyone who had been through Park Station in Johannesburg had been mugged. Great - our Intercape bus was heading there direct from Pietermaritzburg. At least it would land us at the station at 4 in the afternoon rather than at midnight...

Once again our luck with the busses in South Africa ran out, this time, 15 minutes out of Pietermaritzburg we broke down in the middle lane of the freeway, after 15 minutes we were slowly moving again, only to drive around the outskirts looking for a garage. After one and a half hours we were fixed and back on the road. When we stopped at Montrose for a break we were back on track and looking at arriving at 6pm, however after we re-boarded we were informed that the bus would not be taking us any further, and a replacement would arrive in two hours from Pretoria - long story short, we finally pulled into Park Station at around 8:30pm.

Park Station is not at all what we expected, especially after traveling through Cape Town Station. It was clean, new and strangely it felt safe, with police and security patrolling regularly. Thankfully we didn't have long to wait until we were collected by 'Chopper', and driven straight out to Soweto Backpackers.

We were not expecting a lot from Soweto - this was a cultural experience rather than a good time. I was looking forward to seeing shanty housing, with sewage running down the street, and while we did see this, most of soweto consisted of solid brick homes, from the basic, all the way up to the mansions of the new black millionaires.

Lebo's Soweto Backpackers was a revelation in customer service and hospitality, and quite possibly one of the best places we have stayed in all of South Africa. It wasn't fancy, but the people running the place took such pride in what they did, that it really stood out. From the moment they welcomed us into their home, till the time we walked out the front door we felt welcome.

On our first morning in Soweto, Donna and I hit the streets for a walk, I have to say, at first I was a little nervous, I'm sure they don't 'necklace' these days, but after reading everything about Johannesburg, and speaking to white South Africans, you start to become a little paranoid. As it was, aside from one old man giving us the "What are you to doing here", everyone was friendly, if not a little curious to see two white folk walking around.

One of the benefits of staying in "black" areas is the cheaper cost of everything. I managed to drop into a local barber for a haircut and beard trim that set me back $2 - an absolute bargain in my eyes (I was later informed by the guys at Lebo's that I could have got it for half the price from a street barber, however getting your hair cut by a guy on the side of the road using clippers powered from a car battery seems a little risky). It was great to be in an old school barbershop, with old fashioned chairs, and locals dropping in for the morning shave and a drink.

We took a tour of the townships while in Cape Town, however sitting behind the windows of a bus you really don't get into the feel of the place. To see Soweto, we opted instead for an afternoon bike ride with Tandia and Phillip, two young local lads. As well as doing all the standard touristy things like dropping in at a couple of local bars (Shabeens), seeing Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela and Desmond Tutu's houses, and spending an hour or so at some of the Museums, by riding the streets we were able to interact with the people and really see soweto. The lads were also able to show us some of the more obscure Soweto sights, for example we rode past the 'Elephant houses', with bright red roofs shaped like the back of an elephant, (as children they were told it was so if bombs were thrown on their roofs they would just role off); and Soweto's own version Wall street (think BIG fences).

Lebo's Soweto Backpackers

We easily could have spent a few more days at Lebo's, it had such a friendly relaxed vibe that it truly was disappointing to leave - especially when we knew we were going to Johannesburg. After spending a morning at the Apartheid museum (The Apartheid Museum gets a lot of hype: we were dissapointed), and a couple of days wandering around the town, we decided we had had enough of city life and it was time to get the hell out of South Africa. With Kruger National Park left on our SA things to do, its East to Nelspruit.

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