Spring Time in Soweto

Soweto… short for Southwestern Townships… is the second largest township in South Africa and home to 1.3 million people, or 1/3 of the population of Johannesburg, who live in an area of 200 sq km. Created as an offshoot of the apartheid system, blacks were forcibly moved to townships surrounding Johannesburg proper in order to separate the races.


Soweto has a long and complex history of political resistance and was home to not one but two Nobel Prize recipients – Nelson Mandela (his former wife Winnie maintains a home there) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Freedom Square


Once an area that was both off limits to outsiders and incredibly dangerous, since the early 1990s, Soweto has undergone (and continues to undergo) a renaissance and revitalization with neighborhoods that range from affluent to middle class to traditional match box style houses (4 rooms, very square and small) to public housing to barely held-together tin shanties.


The township is also embracing cultural, historical and adventure tourism and encouraging travelers to get the Soweto experience. I mean, you know some invisible barrier has been crossed when a former coal generation plant is now a popular bungee jumping attraction.


We hired a private guide, once a resident himself of Soweto, to take us through the township and give us the Insider’s viewpoint of life in this densely populated, evolving neighborhood. In the presence of our guide, we were able to wander the streets, markets and squares of Soweto and dive into the history of the place. I’m fairly certain, however that it’s still not a place where independent travel is encouraged.



Johannesburg itself is a city of about 4 million, and after just two days there, I know for sure it’s not one I need to return to. It’s not particularly beautiful, the architecture isn’t compelling or very interesting and it’s gritty reputation for petty, and not so petty crime and violence well deserved.

Home of the FIFA 2010 World Cup

Downtown, or at least the City Centre/Financial District we stayed in, is not a place for wandering freely. And I hate that in a city. I want to be able to get out and explore, not feel hemmed in by fear and threat of safety. Throughout our time in Johannesburg we are warned to keep our valuables in the room safe, we are given a guide to go three blocks to nearby Gandhi Square when all we want to do is find a corner store and purchase waters and cokes. Walking anywhere at night is out of the question. When we go out we hire an Uber or ask the establishment to call a taxi for us. This of course makes Johannesburg an unnecessarily expensive city.

Jo’ burg skyline

Also, in fair warning, Johannesburg in August is cold. Toronto is currently 35 degrees, Johannesburg is 13 degrees and windy. Central heating is non-existent. People where their outerwear everywhere — in restaurants and in bars –and layering is a necessity. I am more than a little grateful for my pashmina scarf.

On the upside, the water in the city is completely safe to drink. In fact, Johannesburg prides itself on the quality and cleanliness of its water.

Overall, Johannesburg is a good place to start an African adventure, but there is little reason to stay.




Z is for Zebra

Swaziland is a tiny Kingdom surrounded on all sides by South Africa. Ostensibly independent from South Africa, it relies heavily on its neighbor for tourism, interchangeably uses the Rand as its currency and, last week when it ran out of money (after the King purchased himself a new airplane of course), government loans. Last week’s cash infusion from South Africa totaled $21,000,000 Rand

The Kingdom is ruled by absolute authority by the King, depicted in art and sculpture as the Lion, and his Mother, depicted as the Elephant. The current King of Swaziland has 8 wives, all of whom have their own royal residences, so it makes perfect sense that rather than having to choose between 8 wives, he rules with his mother. The ultimate mama’s boy, really. Think Cersi from Game of Thrones.

We only spend one night in Swaziland, and spend it at the Mlilwane Wildlife Reserve. The first reserve to be established in the county (there are now several), we are led on a bird and wildlife walk by Sonnyboy. Yes, that’s his name and not a mistake.

Our Swazi Accommodations

Turns out birding is not my thing. Especially difficult without binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens, Sonnyboy spots birds at every turn, encouraging us to identify the colours of their heads, backs, throat and eyes (!), as well as the shape of the beak or tail until he identifies them by name and then shows us the photo in his well-worn ornithology book. The first 30 minutes of the walk covers less than 400 meters. I begin to think this will be a very long 3 hours indeed.

Male Waver bird preparing his nest. Building to impress his future mate.

It shortly becomes clear to Sonnyboy that our group is not made up of keen birders – he just doesn’t get the enthusiasm from us that he’s expecting – and he begins to veer off into identifying trees and large animals.


Clearly we’re all here for the zebras because when we finally spot a harem of zebra, we begin to show the enthusiasm Sonnyboy has been searching for all along. Our group of 3 Brits, 2 Germans, 2 New Zealanders and we 2 Canadians take about a million photographs between us.


Crocodiles lazing in the sun, impala (identifiable by the “M” shaped markings on their bottoms – Lion McDonalds, says Sonnyboy and laughs), springboks, and warthogs are amazingly all around us. In fact, a family of warthogs joins us later by the fire and bury in close to the glowing embers. This is no typical Canadian campsite where the biggest invader is a chipmunk. Chipmunks steal your snacks but they rarely sink a tusk into your leg…

DSCN1723Termite mound. 1/3 of the mound is above ground, 2/3 of the mound is below.

As a result of the warthog invasion, the evening’s entertainment is moved to a spot farther away from the fire. It’s a traditional dance of some sort, but the performers don’t really seem into it…perhaps it’s because their costumes are sparse (one poor guy has only a springbok hide around his waist) and it’s really, really cold. We watch politely for a while, but when it becomes obvious they basically have one signature move – a clap behind a raised, outstretched leg, we drift away from the dancing and back to the fire and the sleeping warthog family, who are infinitely more interesting. It’s not a terribly good review of the performance.

All the fresh air and walking has made us tired so we return to our accommodations and turn in for the night. Because there are no windows in our hut, it is surprisingly, and welcomingly warm inside.


And although we don’t actually see them from our cozy Swazi hut, we fall asleep to the sounds of hippos snuffling outside our door.