Johannesburg - I wouldn’t normally associate Soweto with quad biking. To me, quad biking seems to belong with bundu bashing and the great outdoors. As for it taking place in Soweto, for starters, it’s hardly the great outdoors and as for bundu bashing, well, dirt roads maybe.
In my mind, Soweto for tourists and other “outsiders” is about the Hector Peterson Memorial, Vilakazi Street where Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela once lived, Regina Mundi Church, which was the site of many a protest during the apartheid years, and the FNB Towers.
But quad biking? I’m not even sure I’ve ever really liked the idea of quad biking anywhere, let alone doing it in Soweto.
As it turns out, Soweto and quad biking make more sense than you would think, and following one crazy afternoon whizzing around the township, I have added it to “the list”.
When asked, which I often am, what I recommend every South African should do if they really want to understand the country, I refer to my “list”.
It includes Robben Island, The Origins Centre, The Apartheid Museum and touring the Constitutional Court. The Soweto Quad Bike tour is now firmly on that list and I hasten to add is something every South African could happily recommend to foreign visitors.
There is something hilariously quirky and peculiarly “South African” about quad biking around this densely populated township. After all, Soweto is the symbol of the black struggle in South Africa and not too long ago was a place many viewed as dangerous and to be avoided at all costs.
However, in recent years, perhaps following the success of the World Cup in 2010, Soweto has reinvented itself and is now a place foreign visitors and South Africans pop into at the drop of a hat for a township tour, a bachelor’s party around the shebeens and to bungee jump off the FNB Towers.
There is a massive billboard near Baragwanath Hospital stating triumphantly: “Soweto, you’ve come a long way. Now let’s go even further”.
Apparently the townships are where it’s all happening these days.
At the start of our tour, a taxi collected us in Maboneng, Joburg’s new and trendy inner city redevelopment area where we were staying, and in what felt like no time we were disembarking at the FNB towers in the “South Western Township”, which is what Soweto is short for.
The quad biking tours start at the Soweto Outdoor Adventure Centre at the base of the FNB towers. It is here that the now-famous bungee jumping takes place, as well as rock-climbing, boot camp, an Amazing Race, paintball and go-karting.
The centre is kept busy with groups of foreign tourists and companies bringing staff for team-building, year-end functions and what could be considered “cultural immersions”.
Everyone was fitted with a helmet and told to select a quad bike. Some of our group had never even driven a car, so I was mildly anxious to say the least, especially considering not five minutes from the towers are the hectic roads of Soweto that we would no doubt have to cross.
I need not have worried. The team running the tours were professional and knew exactly what they were doing.
They gave a fantastic safety briefing, settled everyone on to their quads, went around and made sure those who knew how to change gear were able to do so, reset the bikes of those who needed “automatic” and we were off.
We were ably guided and felt protected by what looked like a 4x4 golf cart and three guides on motorcycles who, whenever we approached a busy intersection, whizzed ahead and blocked the traffic for the time it took us to cross.
One would close each lane of oncoming traffic while one remained at the back to ensure nobody was left behind. People honked their horns and waved as we scooted by.
The route was fascinating. Part of the time we were in the veld, some of us had to be rescued from the boggy bits after miscalculating a muddy crossing. At other times we were in the dense shacklands.
We stopped at a spaza and were encouraged to buy skopas, a rainbow-coloured corn snack which most people promptly donated to the small children who had stopped to stare at the curiosity.
We crossed rivers – in one spot a guy was fishing for “cat-fish” (who would have thought in the middle of this built-up urban area?) – and we stopped for a delicious snack at a roadside “diner” where many of us tasted skobho or cow’s head stew for the first time.
We stopped to inspect a small, artisanal charcoal-making business run by an elderly woman who collects the old coal left in the area after the Eskom towers closed.
Incongruently, we navigated through all the traffic and pulled up for a comfort break outside the magnificently opulent Maponya Mall with its fountains and massive elephant sculpture before heading back towards the Adventure Centre.
We, well perhaps not we, but rather Kgomotso, the main man at Soweto Outdoor Adventures, caused a minor, actually no, a major dust storm when he leapt from his 4x4 golf cart, commandeered a quad from one of the guides and proceeded to do a series of “donuts”, thrilling the cheering crowd who had gathered to watch.
Everywhere we went, because we were in “open vehicles” at street level, we were able to interact with locals. I have no hesitation in saying this is possibly one of the best parts about quad biking through this area.
As we bumped back home towards the towers along a dusty “short cut”, we passed a group of women doing aerobics in a field with a well-built instructor and then passed a group of young men carrying their canoes who were off to train in the nearby dam.
Apparently the Soweto Canoe Club is active and canoeing is popular among young locals.
Soweto has come a long way and its residents should be proud. They really are going “even further” – some of them on quad bikes.
Soweto Outdoor Adventures: Kgomotsho 072 692 8159
Soweto Style Experiences: Andy 082 547 5554