Lebo’s Backpackers delivers a must-do day of locals, history and culture in Johannesburg’s world-changing township.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
When traveling, the people “make” – or break – a destination. No matter how incredible the landscape or how wild the animals, person-to-person encounters with locals are what creates a true experience – especially when traveling with kids.
But meeting locals in developing countries can be difficult. Tour companies like to package “authentic” encounters with villagers or provide cultural entertainment but these shows end up ringing hollow.
Tours in Africa are notorious for this packaging. So when we booked our family trip, we specifically opted to focus on wildlife encounters on safari, my husband being allergic to faux tribal dances and hunts.
The good news is that Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers in Johannesburg delivers families a glimpse of life in the famous township. Situated in West Orlando, the ever-growing establishment books rooms, cooks authentic meals, and enables guests to play soccer with locals in the adjacent park.
We only had one free day in town but spent it entirely at Lebo’s. Our afternoon bike ride through the township was just incredible. We lunched on “bunny chow,” learned about the colonial history of the area, met kids walking home from school, saw a variety of homes, and attempted to grasp an entire lesson on apartheid. Incredible.
A stop in front of the Mandela House met lots of tourists disembarking tour buses who came to see its apartheid exhibits. We felt like locals as we walked around Vilakazi Street – the only one in the world that is home to three Nobel Peace Prize laureates: Desmond Tutu, Nelson and Winnie Mandela.
At the end of the afternoon as kids played the park, Lebo’s lit a bonfire and guests and locals talked over drinks.
At the time we visited in 2016, our guesthouse was surprised that we wanted to visit Soweto – and indeed, it is a sprawling place, which would be tough to visit independently. Now that Lebo’s is more popular, I’m sure it won’t be as surprising that you’ll ask to go.
We decided to book directly with Lebo’s when a tour operator quoted a quadrupled price to us. And we had to book a taxi to get us there and back. But it was worth every penny: Of our three weeks in South Africa and Botswana, the bike ride with Lebo’s was absolutely our most important and culturally interesting experience. Definitely leave a full day in your South African itinerary to get on the ground – NOT in a tour bus – in Soweto while in Johannesburg and hear its story from the people who are living it.
Maryann Jones Thompson – June 2018
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
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