A boy from the suburbs, Phumlani S Langa, heads to Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers to join the tourists for a weekend of kasi sightseeing and a touch of history.
I arrive, a boy from ema kitchen, at Pooe Street in the heart of Orlando at a colourfully painted wall with a long row of mountain and vintage bikes parked in front. To the side, outdoor cooking and eating areas can be found beneath trees and thatch lapas.
Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, an award-winning accommodation and tour operation, has been quietly blossoming in the heart of Orlando for over 10 years, but I’ve only just heard of it.
'Award-winning accommodation and tour operation'
Green shrubbery and bamboo structures form the main chill area. There is a courtyard with couches for you to max out on, as well as “an honesty bar”, which is not manned by a barman – you help yourself to a drink, mark down what you took in a ledger and pay when you check out.
One of the chill spots is upstairs, but there are no stairs – you access it by climbing up a tree.
A train rattles by on the track nearby, passengers hanging out the doors and chilling in between train cars. Kids who are playing soccer on the street greet us warmly. There’s the sound of plastic rolling on tarmac and a youngster zooms by on a skateboard, pops an ollie and chirps, “What up fellas? Welcome to Soweto.”
This got me wondering how the community really feels about Lebo’s and its mostly international guests. I stop at the corner and chat with the women selling amakipkip and the like near the entrance to Lebo’s. They say they get along marvellously with Lebo and his Swedish wife Maria, and that the tourists offer a healthy passing trade.
But a group of older people are sipping on some quarts of beer and I can’t help but overhear them remark, “more foreigners”. They were surprised when we greeted them warmly in isiZulu.
For his part, the community plays a huge role in Lebo’s vision. He caters for weddings and parties, and makes sure they’re not rowdy enough to disturb the peace of his guests and of the community.
“Just the other week, we had YFM use our space for a cookout, where each of the DJ’s cooked and played a set,” says Maria.
The morning brings with it the prospect of a healthy breakfast followed by Lebo’s bicycle tour through the hood. A group of Dutch, German, Canadian and Vietnamese guests gather by the bikes, and Lebo steps out wearing a bright yellow African outfit. The word ‘Soweto’ is tattooed on his arm. He captivates us with a quick talk about what to expect during the tour.
We have to tackle an uphill as soon as we set off.
“Make sure your bike is on the lowest gear!”
Sound advice from Lebo, because that first hill is buck.
We reach a small koppie and stare out over the jagged beauty of Soweto, and our guides, Linda Dlamini and Phillip Malepa, recall the history of Kliptown, the first settlement here, and of Orlando and its famous football team.
We push on, and I feel a bit weird cruising around on a bike through a hood I could come visit whenever I choose.
“F**ken beneficiaries of white supremacy!” two boys yell at the passing, mostly white, tour group. Heads down, the bikes pick up speed.
''F**ck beneficiaries of white supremacy'
At a local eatery, the visitors get a taste of skop and pap, which they really dig.
Back on the road and the children of Orlando run up to the bikes screaming: “The white people are here!”
They follow the tour to each stop, their antics providing the peloton with entertainment. Some of the young ones jokingly pull their hands away just as a tourist extends theirs to shake. One tourist gets a smack on the bottom as she passes.
“Don’t do that,” scolds a mama – it’s clear the community is aware that tours bring money to the hood. Others, though, would prefer their hood not to be a human zoo.
“Go home now; turn around,” the kids are sternly told by our guides.
At a robot, the group is given detailed instructions about how to deal with an African intersection. My photographer and I cross the road without a second thought and wait for the shell-shocked visitors.
We roll by a gutted housing complex and the guides discuss the state of service delivery.
'A pantsula trio treats the group'
“Sewage runs on the surface of the streets,” one comments as the tourists gasp. One or two fight back tears.
Over at Vilakazi Street, where Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela once lived, a pantsula trio treats the group to an incredible display of kasi dance, contortion and illusion with a floating hat trick that even we, the locals, had not seen before. The same can’t be said for the little boys in Zulu regalia, moving curios dancing for tips in the rain.
At the famous Hector Pieterson Memorial a security guard asks the tourists not to sit on the marble slabs because they aren’t benches or spots to take selfies.
Soon, we’re headed back to Lebo’s, where a marimba band welcomes us.
The final treat is a taste of two popular South African beverages – two khambas, one with maheu and the other with umqombothi. After the tour, we have our final meal at Lebo’s and reflect on what was a truly eventful and unusual weekend in the hood.
To book at Lebo’s, visit sowetobackpackers.com. My visit cost R550 for a room, dinner and breakfast, but self-catering is also an option. Tours with lunch range from R470 (two hours cycling) to R620 (four hours in a tuk-tuk)
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