“Shoot me, shoot me!” they cry, grabbing at my Canon as Smarties fly everywhere.

Minutes into the tour, which began in Soweto’s Orlando West area, and I’m already off my bike.

I realise there’s a great chance I’ll spend the rest of my trip around the vibrant township, which stretches out over more than 130 sq km south-west of Johannesburg, lagging behind the other tourists.

That’s the problem with trying to bike around Soweto – there’s too much to see and do, and the locals are too hospitable and chatty, to keep riding continuously.

“I love the atmosphere and nature of Soweto,” says my 20-year-old guide Tshepo Matsile, who was born and raised in the township (Soweto is actually a collection of townships, with its name an abbreviation of SOuth-WEstern TOwnships).

“It’s a place that everybody should see.”

[The tour is] a good experience for the tourists, rather than a bus tour where you’re just taking photos and the locals feel like animals.”

Half-day and full-day tours can be arranged beginning in the morning or afternoon, and highlights include getting a feel for Soweto by stopping at a shebeen (an informal drinking house) in the Mzimthlope Hostel to have a drop of umqomboti.

It’s a strong, fiery home-made brew – the pronunciation involves an impossible clicking noise – drunk from a large bucket.

Visitors can combine this with a kota – a local sandwich of bread, chips and cheese, and a favourite midday meal with students.

But more than getting a taste for the local food and drink, Soweto is the one place tourists must visit if they really want to learn about the South African black community’s long fight against apartheid.

It’s impossible to speak about the segregation without mentioning the world’s most famous township. Soweto was created in the 1930s to house mainly black labourers who worked in mines and other industries in the city, away from Johannesburg.

The township’s Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world that can claim to have been home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both once lived there. Mandela resided at his house, on the corner of Vilakazi and Ngakane Streets, from 1946 to 1962. In 1997 the small dwelling became the Mandela Family Museum.

The tour also includes the notorious spot in Orlando West where hundreds of thousands of students protested on June 16, 1976, against the introduction of Afrikaans as the official educational language.

It sparked riots known as the Soweto Uprising.

The South African government put the official number of deaths from the clashes at 23, but hundreds were believed to have died. Some sources say the death toll was even higher than that.

Student Hector Pieterson, who was just 12-years-old, was fatally shot by police on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi streets on June 16. A memorial and museum dedicated to Hector – featuring the poignant photograph of the dying boy being carried by 17-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu – was built on Khumalo Street in 2002.

The parents of Lebohang Malepa, who runs the bike tours from his hostel, Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, were both students involved in the 1976 violence.

Lebo, who lived with his parents as a young child while they were in exile in Botswana after the riots, says Soweto played a “very important role” in the fight against apartheid, “especially being an urban township”.

“People in Soweto felt the pressure of apartheid more than anybody else in this country,” he points out. “There was a lot of resistance coming out of the township.”

He began running the township’s first hostel in 2003 because he wanted tourists to understand this.

Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers is also South Africa’s first black-owned hostel. The ‘formal matchbox’ house belongs to Lebo’s grandfather. It has seven rooms and can fit 24 beds.

After a “very slow” start, Lebo has accommodated thousands of tourists from all over the world.

The bike tours, introduced in 2005, offer tourists who aren’t staying with Lebo the opportunity to explore Soweto, which has an unofficial population of about two million.

They started with just three mountain bikes, but the trips have become such a hit he now has 20 bikes available for the adventures.

With the Football World Cup looming, Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers is in the process of building a campsite for extra visitors.

“The World Cup is an opportunity for us as a country to showcase what we have so more tourists will come over [to South Africa],” Lebo explains.

Visitors will be able to pitch their own tents and there are plans for an open air-library, a “beautifully painted shack at the park”, where local children can borrow books after school and be taught to read by overseas volunteers.

Lebo says he hopes these developments will inspire more people to visit Soweto.

He hopes to show backpackers that despite the township’s turbulent history and the contemporary challenges it faces – HIV/Aids, unemployment and teenage pregnancy are all “major concerns” he concedes – that Soweto isn’t the crime hotspot people perceive it to be.

“I have seen apartheid,” Lebo says. “I was able to see the resistance and now I live in the post-apartheid era. When people say Soweto is dangerous, we have to educate them about what went on.”


Stadium of dreams

Sowetans love their soccer.

Besides the political, musical and other cultural influences from Soweto that sprang out of the apartheid struggle, the township also gave birth to three big soccer teams – Orlando Pirates, Kaiser Chiefs and Moroka Swallows.

A R280 million (£20 million) reconstruction of Orlando Stadium, to be used as one of the training venues for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, has recently been completed.

The 50-year-old arena now seats 40,000, after the two-year project.

It was opened last November. Visitors to Johannesburg can watch rugby, concerts and other events at the popular stadium.

It has also been the home for the Swallows, Pirates and Chiefs, while Ellis Park and Loftus Versveld stadium in Pretoria have also been undergoing renovations for the World Cup, which gets under way on June 11 and runs until July 11.


Towers of fun 

Once labelled the most efficient power supplier in South Africa, Soweto’s Orlando Power Station is today one of the township’s top tourist attractions.

Work on the facility began in 1939 with the two cooling towers added in 1951 to cool the steam from the landmark’s boilers.

The power station operated until 1998.

In 2007 entrepreneur Bob Woods began using it as an adventure centre to share the amazing view of Soweto from the towers.

The structures were painted colourfully with designs, including a smiling Nelson Mandela, by Soweto community members.

Today Orlando Towers has up to 400 bookings per month. Thrill-seekers can brave the power swing ride, 100m on the lift to the top of the towers, and swing out towards the Orlando Dam between the pair.

The first ever swing inside a cooling tower – aptly called The Abyss – began in March, followed by the abseil and rap jump.

By the end of May adrenaline junkies will also be able to bungee jump between the two towers.