Feeling a new urban vibe in South Africa
THEY come out of their houses and wait on the street in anticipation of our arrival.
Mothers carry babes in arms as their toddlers hold on to skirt hems. Fathers and neighbours keep a watchful eye as older children get ready to "high-five" us as our four-wheelers slowly chug by.
This is the closest thing to a "rock star" welcome we'll probably ever experience. And it's a little unnerving. The smiling faces and easy acceptance of strangers in their midst is not what I was expecting from Soweto, South Africa. The sprawling urban development of 1.3 million people, bordering Johannesburg's mining belt in Gauteng, still houses some of the poorest of the world's poor.
The first residents were relocated there from the centre of Johannesburg after a bubonic plague outbreak in 1905. The town within a town was created in the 1930s under the Urban Areas Act 1923 that allowed the then white government to separate black South Africans from the whites. Soweto became the largest black city in South Africa and was known the world over for being at the heart of the political resistance during the apartheid era. The civil unrest and subsequent violent government suppression - especially during riots in 1976 and 1985 - ended in many deaths and injuries.
But the town also gave birth to the Freedom Charter - a statement of core principles for equal rights in South Africa. When the first multiracial elections were held in April 1994, South Africa was given its first black South African president in Nelson Mandela, leading a Coalition Government. The new Constitution included many of the demands of the Freedom Charter.
Much has changed in the years since, but progress remains slow and steady. The "remaking" of Soweto has come with a host of government reforms and housing projects that have begun to deliver a better quality of life for many of its residents. But like greater Johannesburg, Soweto's image remains caught between two worlds: shanty-town squalor with scars still visible from the apartheid regime; and vibrant, cosmopolitan city that is throwing off the shackles of its turbulent past and striding forth into a brave new world of tourism.
The gaze of a billion soccer spectators from all over the world was focused on Soweto for the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup final. But today, the eyes of a large contingent of Australian travel writers are upon it.
Our journey of discovery begins in Orlando where the quad biking is hosted by Soweto Outdoor Adventures, based in the grounds of the decommissioned coal-fired Orlando Power Station and in the shadow of dual hyperbolic towers now used for bungee jumping. The unique quad-biking tours travel through Soweto several times a day, depending on demand, but the adventure is only one of the diverse, adrenaline-filled activities on offer.
The quad-bike tour takes us into the back streets of this world-famous township to see Soweto's grassroots people in a warts-and-all look at their neighbourhoods and lives. We feel the new urban vibe for ourselves as we power through major road intersections and meander past markets.
Our quadbike motorcade causes somewhat of a traffic jam before we park the vehicles to stretch our legs outside the well-kept houses in Vilakazi Street - the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners grew up: late former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
We roll back up along main roads, past Orlando Stadium, back into the ruins of the power station for a hearty lunch at Chaf-Pozi (a large, lively African braai/barbecue restaurant).
Our eye-opening Soweto tour is just one of the surprises we encounter in "the new" Johannesburg. We strain to count the number of cranes putting up new developments among the who's who of hotel chains at breakfast in the Radisson Blu Hotel Sandton. We have to time our run to get a shot alone with the larger-than-life statue in nearby Nelson Mandela Square where we are in awe of the high-end label shopping in the mall and "people watch" from our table at the Hard Rock Cafe.
We are wined and dined on an array of classic African cuisine with a modern twist at Moyo Melrose Arch near our accommodation at exquisite Protea Hotel Fire and Ice. At Punchinello's Venice-inspired Italian restaurant in Southern Sun in the Fourways Montecasino entertainment complex, we meet and chat with chef Benny Masekwameng - a familiar face on TV as a MasterChef South Africa judge - and are introduced to some of South Africa's finest fresh ingredients.
At Braamfontein's ever-popular Neighbourgoods Market, we rue the fact we've already had breakfast once we see, smell and taste-test some of the delights. The creative hub is as much a meeting place as a marketplace selling Polish meat to paella, soft tacos to oysters, churros to cupcakes, African crafts to handmade jewellery.
A walk through nearby streets in the transformed urban area of the Maboneng Precinct uncovers an exciting regeneration of former abandoned and derelict warehouses into the eclectic studios, galleries, upmarket boutiques, creative offices and funky cafes and restaurants of Arts on Main.
The leisurely walking tour, above all else, shows us what is possible with co-operation and a sense of community as many varied cultures come together in the new South Africa.
The writer paid her own way through South Africa.