WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT SOWETO?
This was the first question that my husband asked me when I mentioned that we must go and explore Soweto. And then there were many more. I really had to convince him and his friends to accompany me to Soweto township during my trip to Johannesburg, South Africa but thankfully it was worth all the effort. Soweto is an acronym for South Western Townships of Joburg and it has lots to offer if one is keenly interested in discovering South African history. What fascinated me about Soweto was its rich legacy of being the largest town of black people in South Africa during the Apartheid regime. This is the part of the world where Nelson Mandela lived from 1946 to 1962 and today his house is known as Nelson Mandela Museum. Not to forget Soweto proudly owns the famous Orlando towers which boast of amazing artwork and adventure activities, the Hector Petersen Memorial site which reminds us of the riots. I wouldn’t forget to add that it also has the unique Vilakazi street which is the only street in the world where two Nobel laureates lived as neighbours. Last but not the least, there is Soweto’s Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital which competes to be the third biggest hospital in the world. Do you need more reasons?
HOW TO REACH SOWETO?
There are tour facilities, ‘hop on and hop off’ bus services too but you can always do a self-drive. We drove from our hotel apartment and it took us only 40 minutes to cover the distance of 35 kilometres to reach Soweto. After researching on the internet, I had my notes intact and I knew what all I wanted to touch upon. While my husband drove, I helped him with the navigation. His friend and his family followed us in another car. They were a cool bunch and I loved hanging around with them. The first destination had to be the Orlando Towers which were easy to spot from a distance, one of the most prominent landmarks in Soweto. In fact, one can spot these colourful cooling towers from the flight too. The main attraction for me was to see the artwork on the towers and appreciate it closely. One of the towers carried murals showcasing the local life of Soweto while the other was half covered with a commercial name.
ORLANDO TOWERS – These towers are also famous for being the only one in the world where bungee jumping takes place between two 33-storey cooling towers. It is very popular with adventure enthusiasts. I couldn’t muster the courage to go for the bungee or the freefall but I did take the ride to the top which isn’t for the faint-hearted too.
This was my first experience with a vertical lift. At the top, it is a great feeling to see the view of the whole township. Other activities which one can enjoy there at the Soweto Towers are abseiling, zip-lining, paintballing, rock climbing, pendulum swinging, SCAD falling and occasionally, rap jumping.
These towers were part of the coal station and were used to generate power but I really loved the fact that now they have been repurposed and are used in a very constructive way. After the ride to the top, we checked out the cafe, restaurants and knick-knack shops around the premises. Next, we googled our way for the next happening destination known as VILAKAZI STREET.
Not many people knew about Soweto until it hosted Soweto–2010 FIFA World Cup and won attention from the soccer lovers across the globe.Whenever you are in Johannesburg, a visit to Soweto is important because it has witnessed Africa’s turbulent political history more closely and safeguards many historical milestones. Some people might not feel very comfortable in visiting Soweto but I must tell you we faced no problem and it a tourist friendly place. Check the map and plan a day trip. In fact, when it comes to moving around in Johannesburg, one has to be vigilant always. Personally, I did not face any problem for all those 43 days that I stayed there but it did get scary at times when we lost our way during the long road drives. So I would advise only day trips.
VILIKAZI STREET – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu houses had their houses on the same street
We reached our destination after driving for another 5 kilometres. Vilakazi street is a vibrant place and it is known by all so you can ask for directions too. Nelson Mandela is revered figure in South Africa and his house (No. 8115) at the Vilakazi Street has been converted into a museum which is visited by tourists from all over the world. Every corner of his two rooms house speaks of his great thoughts and work that he did for his country. In his words, his house was ‘the centre point of his world’. It is a heritage site for the locals and tourists spend a good amount of time looking through his books, his belongings and his pictures.
Once we were done with exploring the house, we explored the rest of the street. The whole pathway till Mr. Tutu’s house is a perfect place to walk around and indulge in the local art and culture. The restaurants and cafes around this area buzz with enough activity to give you a perfect getaway. I peeked into the art shops, bargained for earrings, picked some jewellery and at last got to see some local Zulu dance too. The area is also popular for indulging in South African food. Also, a lot of cycling tours take place in Soweto. If you do not have your own convenience, you can always opt for a bicycle ride. But there is nothing like walking around. One definitely gets to look around, absorb and smell more.
Zulus are an ethnic group of Southern Africa. They have many rituals and dances in their community. Just when we were walking towards our car and looking forward to driving back towards the main city in Joburg, some Zulu dancers came up on the street and started to perform. We couldn’t let go of this opportunity to see some of their moves. Their attire was very interesting too. A small kid with them impressed us all with his antics.
When you travel, you see some, you miss some. This happens with me quite often. Well, it was on my notepad but somehow I got so engrossed in other things that I forgot to take a turn and walk to the neighbouring street to visit the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, where the famous Soweto uprising had taken place. It gets it mention everywhere whenever the fight of the blacks against the white is referred in South Africa.
Overall, we had a great day in Soweto and I got a chance to learn a lot of new things about South Africa!! So whenever you are visiting Johannesburg, you know where to go for at least half a day.