We started driving to Johannesburg from the Blyde River Canyon at 2pm, hoping to get there before sunset as we didn’t really want to drive around Johannesburg after dark as it has a reputation as a dangerous city. After about four hours we finally got to the city, but still had to drive through parts of it to get to Melville, the part of Johannesburg we would be staying in. It was already starting to get dark and we were still in a not very nice part of town so we were anxious to move through some crazy traffic toward Melville. In the end we made it to our hostel, Melville Homebase, just before dark and quickly brought our things in the dorm before we headed out again to find some dinner. We were told we could walk from the hostel to 7th street, which was an about 10 minutes away and there would be a lot of bars and restaurants. When we left the hostel we were still a little skeptical about if it was really safe enough, but after a few minutes we calmed down and felt pretty safe. 7th street in Melville seemed like a place in the U.S. and was full of nice restaurants and tons of people that were enjoying the evening out.
We had a quick dinner at a restaurant and then walked back to the hostel where one of David’s local Afrikaans friends he had met the year before would meet up with us. We waited for him at the hostel and then headed back to 7th street together where we went into some bars. It was very interesting talking to an Afrikaans local, especially about the political situation in the country. We walked back to the hostel shorty after midnight and the area still seemed safe enough.
The next morning we woke up early to decide what we wanted to do before driving toward the Drakensberg mountains. We were interested in seeing the township of Soweto, a poor area made famous by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and many more coming from there. We talked to the hostel about how to get there and they offered a bike tour through the township for around $20, so we decided to go there!
We drove about 30 minutes to the hostel Lebo’s Soweto in the township, where the bike tour would start. We could choose between two or four hour bike tours, and as we still had to drive quite a bit in the afternoon we went for the shorter one. After we paid we could choose our bikes and met our guide, Jazz. They had all kinds of bikes, from city cruisers to mountain bikes. The tour would take us through different parts of Soweto, but in total we would only see a very small part of this huge township. Soweto has around 3.5 million inhabitants and stretches over 130 square kilometers. Soweto was founded in 1963 after decades of non white locals being evicted from their homes and resettling there. After a while the township had become so big that its people wanted to name it, so they decided on Soweto – which stands for South Western Townships.
On the first stop we went to a little hill where we had a good view over parts of Soweto, like the football stadium and the two former cooling towers where people can bungee nowadays. The first part of the township that we rode our bikes through didn’t seem as bad as we thought a South African township would be, the houses looked small but relatively well built.
Shortly after we crossed a main road into another part of Soweto, which didn’t have tarred roads and the houses were mostly little metal shacks or very poorly built huts. The houses didn’t have running water, there were only a few public toilets and showers, and the sewage pipes running down the streets were broken in many parts so the dirty water was leaking out on the dirt roads. Right after this very poor area we passed a couple of newer looking big apartment buildings and Jazz told us that the government had built those a few years ago to get the people of Soweto to move there, but even today most of them were still empty. The rents were too high and the locals didn’t want to live in buildings that had multiple floors. For the apartment complex the government had destroyed a public football field, taking one of the most important pass times of the locals.
We rode on to another part of Soweto, which looked completely different again, and stopped at a small house were we parked our bikes. Jazz took us inside into a small patio were he asked us to sit down. We would try a local specialty now, Joberg Beer, which comes in a cardboard container and looks more like milk than beer. It is made out of maize and sorghum and is fermented a few days. It’s typically drank out of a hollowed out gourd and shared among friends. We all had a try of the beer but weren’t immediately won over.
After this short break we moved on toward Hector-Pieterson square, where the namesake memorial is situated as well as the Hector-Pieterson Museum. We had a walk around the memorial and learned more about the massacre that occurred there 40 years earlier. It happened during the student protests of 1976, during the Apartheid years, after the passing of a new law which would only allow lessons to be taught in the language Afrikaans, and not in English anymore. Afrikaans was the language of the white minority and black people did not speak it, so this law basically meant their exclusion from education. On the 16th of June 1976 almost 20,000 students of all ages went to the streets in Orlando to peacefully protest against the new law. The situation escalated and the police started using force and firing upon the protesters. One of the victims was a 12 year old boy, Hector Pieterson, who got shot in the back. The photographer Sam Nzima took a picture of his body being carried home, which soon moved people around the world. After his death Hector became a symbol of the ongoing uprisings during the Apartheid Regime.
Our last two stops on the bike tour were the houses of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, which we only saw from outside but was still very interesting. The whole area where the houses are didn’t resemble a township at all anymore, with a few nice looking bars and restaurants along the streets.
After the stops we rode back to the hostel where we dropped our bikes and got served a local dish called bunny chow as lunch. Its a sort of chicken or vegetable stew served in a hollowed out white bread! The food tasted amazing, especially after riding our bikes for two hours in the heat. When we finished lunch we got back into our rental car to drive on to our stop for the next two nights – the Drakensberg Mountains!
After a four hour drive from Soweto we got to our hostel in the beautiful northern Drakensberg area, next to Royal Natal National Park, the Amphitheater Backpackers. The hostel had a really nice view over the mountains and a great atmosphere. Our dorm was in an old converted grain silo and there was a pool, jacuzzi, and sauna for free. After we brought our bags in we went to talk to their activity desk about some hikes in the area. We knew we wanted to do the Amphitheater hike but didn’t know too much about it yet. The hostel offered us a guided hike for the next day, which sounded nice at first but then the drawback soon emerged: it would cost us about $45 each. We really wanted to do the hike, but not at this cost, so we started to read about ways to do it on our own. We figured out that it would be a two hour drive to get to the starting point, the Sentinel Car park in the Royal Natal National Park and then it would be easy enough to find the way up to the Tugela waterfall, which was the end of the hike. The only problem that might come up would be the partially gravel road, but a lot of people online said a two wheel drive car would be fine as long as there is no rain. We decided to take the risk and do the hike on our own.
We started early the next morning and drove for 1.5 hrs till we got to the entrance of the National Park, where we paid a small entrance fee per person (about $3) from there we drove on toward the parking lot where the hike would start. Most of the road was fine but about five kilometers of it was gravel road, which brought our small Toyota to its limits in some parts, so when it is raining the road is probably only accessible by a 4×4. We finally got to the parking lot, where we had to pay another fee to be allowed on the hike and sign up with some rangers (around $3 each) and then got ready to start the hike. The path was very clearly marked for most of the way and there were quite a few other people doing the hike. The path led us along the side of the mountains with amazing views over parts of the northern Drakensberg.
We hiked on an easy enough uphill for 2.5 hours until we reached the part of the trail where we would have to climb up two chain ladders in order to get to the top of the mountain plateau where we would cross over to the Tugela Falls. The chain ladders went straight up the rocks and both were over ten meters long and didn’t look too safe, but we decided to go up anyway. Apparently there is another way up to the plateau, scrambling up a steep and rocky path, but we couldn’t find it. The climb up the ladders was really scary, at least for me, as the wind was blowing super hard and I don’t particularly like heights.
We reached the top of the mountain plateau shortly after climbing up the ladders and walked toward Tugela Falls. Unfortunately there hadn’t been any rain in quite a while, so the falls were almost completely dry except for some small pools. Normally when there is water the falls look really impressive as they fall from a very high 948 meters, and people can go sit and swim in its pools. Nevertheless the views from up there were really impressive. After a short break we headed back down the ladders and started the hike back toward the parking lot.
After a fairly long drive back we got back to the hostel and decided to jump in the pool, when we suddenly saw another couple from our overland trip! They had also left the tour and were traveling in a rental car like us! We spent the evening together, cooking, drinking and catching up. The next morning we had to say goodbye to them again, because we had to get to Durban, where we would pick up my friend Miriam, who would be joining us for the rest of our time in South Africa!