Backpacking in South Africa: Soweto Bicycle Tour

Undoubtedly one of the best tours I have ever done was the Soweto Bicycle Tour. I rarely book things far in advance but on my southern hemisphere tour in 2010 – 2011, I knew I was flying into Johannesburg and I looked into staying in the famous township of Soweto. I arrived there and stayed in the amazing Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers hostel in Orlando West. From there they run these bicycle tours of the area. Easily the best way to get around and see the local area.

Soweto Backpackers looks out onto a football pitch and a railway line. It’s a nice location within the township of Soweto.

Signing one of those declarations to say I agree with the tour and am responsible for my own cycling etc.

The funniest thing ever is that EVERYBODY doing the tour is white! And everybody else is black. It made me chuckle. This is how touristy it is. Yet there were only 5 of us on the tour that day. Myself, German Herbert, a Dutch girl, an English guy and a guy from the USA. We choose our bikes and meet our host, Solomon – a great local lad who knows his stuff.

Solomon takes us up to the top of a hill first of all and we stop there and introduce each other. He tells us some of the history of Soweto and where we are heading on the tour. I had already seen Nelson Mandela’s House, Desmond Tutu’s House and the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum so I knew I’d be visiting these places again, but the first part of the tour saw us cycle way out to a poor suburb of Soweto. There is also my top 5 things to do in Soweto post.

Cycling out to the poorer suburbs.

On my bike with my Soweto helmet. I hadn’t shaved in a while.

Crossing a junction to the poorest area in Soweto.

We pull up at this area which is poor and rundown but the people were happy. Here we see some local shops, and one of Solomon’s mates (in the blue helmet) who had joined us for the day.

I have no idea what the area is called and I looked it up on my map. It wasn’t Meadowlands as we headed north so it must have been an area known as Zone 1.

It was here that we saw our first Shebeen – indoor drinking den, or the local pub if you like. This building above is the “bar” or storage section where you get your drinks for consumption in the Shebeen.

The streets looked poor and dirty. The kids played around, buses and cars that had been burnt out waited by the side roads and were used in some way. Everything had a use. Even a lonely trolley could be used by the women and children to move things easier. It was poor and a bit sad. But the people were friendly and seemed happy. The kids all said hello to me. This is the Africa you hear about when you grow up in a first world country. I’m not saying this was third world here in Soweto, as they all had clothes and houses, but it certainly wasn’t Belfast, Sydney or London. You could tell that life here had a different meaning.

We went straight into a Shebeen and sat down beside the locals. I loved the Shebeen experiences in South Africa and wrote highly of them here.

The “oom Gom Bote Ay” beer in the Shebeen. Communal drinking.

Our host Solomon Makgatho gets excited before opening another beer to share. Dig his t-shirt by the way – not just colourful but his t-shirt is basically the South Africa flag.

The locals in the Shebeen.

First beer in the Shebeen. Pink, milky and only 2 or 3 % alcohol. But I loved it.

With the locals on the Shebeen. By the way we all left our bikes outside at this point – we are still on the bicycle tour.

They enjoyed my Northern Ireland flag and one of them grabbed it to say a prayer to us all.

It was a moving moment when this guy said “whoever you are, God bless you all” and just after that we had to leave the Shebeen for a quick snack and look round the area.

The Shebeen itself.

Joburg Beer itself in milk style cartons. Enough supply and cheap. Only thing is, it wasn’t stored cold!

We stayed in the poor area for the next part of the cycle and were pointed out the local schools. We passed a lot of young kids and they all said hello and tried to speak to us.

The end of the street where the estate also ends and meets a main road. Nothing should be throw away. Even burst tyres have a purpose here.

The next area was being redeveloped and a bit richer. You can tell by the buildings on the right above. Solomon tells us they have built those buildings to relocate all the families in the area into them, allowing them better facilities. There is a real family and community culture in Soweto.

There were more vehicles in this area which made it seem more like a richer area and we stopped to chat to the local school children.

This was the local fast food restaurant place, the owner has put their name on the corrugated iron. Nyama Eneloko possibly.

Our snack was cow’s face and maize. It looks more appetising than it was. The brown bits of cow face were very fatty and stringy, the maize was normal but the spice and salt (on the side of the board) made it tasty.

After that we headed through some back lanes and dirt tracks past Meadowlands and into Orlando West again.

We pass one of the richest houses in Soweto. Though oddly this is not owned by Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu, in fact I cannot remember who owns it.

We stopped for more laughs and cultured talks with Solomon on this street.

Loving the Soweto bicycle tour!

We are then back on Pela Street. This is close to where the Soweto Uprising began in 1976. Widespread rioting. The area is where youth Hector Pieterson was shot dead. These market areas above sell goods now overlooking what is now known as Hector Pieterson Square. A Church and a tribute museum act as a sad reminder of the history on these very streets.

This is a Holy Cross Anglican Church, opposite Hector Pieterson Square.

We had time here to our leisure and I decided to walk all the way round the church. It was closed so I couldn’t go in. But I got into the hall round the back. All very proud, religious and organised. Indeed South African Gospel Choirs are some of the best in the world.

My hat for the bicycle tour. Nice – not just the South African flag but it says Soweto Bicycle Tours on it.

Hector Pieterson Memorial at the square.

The sad picture of Hector Pieterson being carried through Soweto just after he has been shot. He was killed on the 16th June 1976, aged just 13. The lady on the left is his sister, Antoinette Sitole now works in the Hector Pieterson Museum. You can read up on it here: I’ll cover my visit to the museum separately.

It was time for a local lunch and we head to B and M Palace Restaurant.

We all go for the local food known as Kota. The range of Kotas is on the left of the menu. Food and one drink is included in the tour price and therefore subsided slightly as we are with a group.

The front garden of the restaurant.

My Kota – thick bread, butter, cheese, egg, salami. Very tasty!

We had a choice of two drinks with it. Coke or Lemon Twist. I’d had Coke before so…

Lemon Twist it was.

A different menu. You must try Kota’s if you are in South Africa.

Front of the restaurant, which really just looks like someone’s house. That, it was.

An artistic impression of the Soweto uprising. These are local youths with their hands up screaming “don’t shoot!” at the police.

All along Pela Street and Moema Street are tributes and historic information boards about the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

Solomon then takes us to Nelson Mandela’s House. I had already been in, and have written about it here: Nelson Mandela’s House. I also realised that Herbert and I were the only ones from our bicycle tour actually staying at Soweto Backpackers. That gave us a slight advantage I thought. As we had already been inside Mandela’s House and the Hector Pieterson Memorial. The other guys simply were outside both places, on the whirlwind bicycle tour there is no time to actually go into museums, so I feel they have missed out. To really see Soweto, make sure you STAY a few days or nights in Soweto itself. On arrival at Nelson Mandela’s House, Solomon asks us each for three things we know about Nelson. I mention his imprisonment, his gaining presidency and his 2007 retirement. We learn a lot more about Nelson Mandela. Poor kids come up at this point and ask for our bikes. I can sympathise with them, but if I lose my bike, then I will have to pay money to the backpackers so we all sadly decline. Maybe the kids just wanted a short ride and to give them back to us.

We’re off to Desmond Tutu’s House next, again I had already seen it.

Around 5pm is the final stop “Anyone thirsty?” says Solomon and we arrive at a class wee local pub called “The Shack”.

We park our bikes outside and walk on in.

You go to the fridge and choose your beer then pay for it at the counter. If it does get busy on nights, they can bring them to your table as well. I chose a Castle Milk Stout, first time I’d had one.

This bar shows live football and is very local, however it is not a Shebeen as it is a bit more legal and organised.

Out the back – saving the empty bottles.

The place where you order your beer. This is the German guy Herbert ordering a Windhoek.

In the back of “The Shack” they also have a pool table and a TV. Plus they seem to support the Kaiser Chiefs football team going by the yellow and black flag. To even things up though, an Orlando Pirates flag is also there – the local team who play at nearby Orlando Stadium.

The foreigners having a beer in The Shack. This was our entire bicycle team from that day.

Welcome sign. Solomon talked away to us at The Shack talking all about the 2010 World Cup.

My beer – a Castle Milk Stout. These were top notch actually and I really got into them when travelling in South Africa. The price was 12 Rand. That’s about 1 pound 20 pence. Very decent.

You can put a logo on the wall here too. The website doesn’t seem to be still in use however.

Entrance to The Shack. Again this local pub just looks like someone’s house. That’s exactly what it is.

Don’t forget to leave your gun at home. Guns are not a shy weapon in South Africa, as a glance at their history will prove.

We also had the option of getting some cheap drink from a local liquor store (an offy) on the way back, but on a budget of course I declined. This basically brought the excellent bicycle tour of Soweto to a close.

Time for one last photo with Solomon, the colourful tour guide on my right and his mate on my left. This is a highly recommended tour. If you are in Johannesburg or Soweto, don’t miss it!!

What – Soweto Bicycle Tours 

Where – Organised and Leaving from Soweto Backpackers, 10823 A Pooe Street, Orlando West, Soweto, Gauteng, SOUTH AFRICA

People On My Tour – 5 tourists, 1 guide, 1 friend of guide

Nationalities Met – South African, US, German, English, Dutch

Places Visited – Poor, middle and rich housing areas; a Shebeen; a Church; Hector Pieterson Memorial Square and Museum; Pela Street; Vilakazi Street; A Local Restaurant (B and M Palace Restaurant); A Local Fast Food Place; Nelson Mandela’s House; Desmond Tutu’s House; A Local Bar (The Shack)

Tour Guide – Solomon Makgatho

Why – Because it’s great!

When – I was there in January 2011

Websites – 

Key Songs –



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