As a consequence of South Africans’ lock down to curb the corona pandemic, the tourism industry has been brought to a grinding halt. But whilst tourism is indeed quiet, our work relationships carry on. I am optimistic of a future as least as fulfilling as the past. Speaking of which, I made this video to reminisce about the incredible AWOL Bicycle Township tour we created in Masiphumelele Township in Cape Town.

The idea of a bicycle township tour was born two decades ago whilst I was on a Trans African cycling journey. On my return to Cape Town, I decided to work with the Masiphumelele community to recreate the experience for travelers and to give back to a community in honour of the amazing generosity we experienced on our travels.

Back in 2002, when  we began , many were skeptical of the viability of doing a township tour by bicycle.  I was even asked if it would be some sort of survival adventure race! Fortunately I have never been very good at taking sensible advice!

Sometimes in life, when the ingredients are just right, the outcome can be amazing.  With the right mindset and best intentions, AWOL Tours created a tour experience that is truly socially responsible – benefiting both the visitor and the host community, contributes to the financial sustainability of a wide range of participants and is also environmentally sensible.

The AWOL Bicycle township tour originally partnered with the non-profit Bicycling Empowerment Network, and have since given its support to the Masicorp seedlings programme and supports the Songezo cycling academy. Both of which are located in Masiphumelele.

On the 3 hour tour we visit the the Library, Ndileka who makes Shweshwe clothing, the pink house, Masivelani Creche, traditional healers and local musicians; and of course Nonnie our favourite chef who invites guests into her home for lunch.

Whilst exploring Masiphumelele informal settlement by bicycle and weaving through the shacks on the wetlands challenges many middle class visitors, we get so much positive feedback from guests saying how welcoming and how inspirational the tour experience was especially on reflective when returning home.

Even I feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness at the poverty of every time I revisit the community with guests. But I also feel a deep sense of satisfaction that we got something right and how tourism contributes to the economic upliftment of the community. Over the years we have had many good moments – like when we hosted the Adventure Race team and watched them struggling to eat the “smileys” (sheep head) as one of the challenges, or performances of the Sotho dances or when the Sangomas “graduated” my husband when he finished his PHD. Of course like many projects in South Africa we have many challenges, but mostly the personal growth of individuals who have dignified employment and personal prospects in ways imagined. (read more)

For now our AWOL tour guides are supported, but I really do worry about economic consequences of the organisations and the entrepreneurs like Nonnie who we normally support on the tour. If you would like to make a donation during these challenging times please click on this link.

For those who have been on the tour I hope the video brings back fond memories. And for those who had to cancel their holidays we forward to inviting you back on our Bicycle Township Tour once the world finds a way to cope with this pandemic.

Written by Sally Petersen, AWOL Tours Founding Director