Alexandra Township Bike Tour

One of our favorite experiences of our time in South Africa was this educational and inspirational Alexandra Township bike tour from Alexandra Tours. I learned about the opportunity to cycle through one of Johannesburg’s original townships from a web search and was drawn by the fact it was owned and led by locals. At the very least, it sounded better than the “Hop on- Hop off” bus tour of Soweto. Well, it exceeded our expectations and we can’t stop talking about it!

We were picked up and delivered to the bike tours HQ where we met the founder of the operation, Jeffrey, and his right hand man, Papi. These two twenty-somethings have been running tours of their neighborhood since 2010. And they do a great job! We bicycled around with Papi on the 4 hour tour and enjoyed every minute. We learned a lot and were inspired by the people we met.

Alexandra Township Bike Tour
Brian with our tour guide, Papi from Alexandra Bicycle Tours

Papi took us through this crowded township of 6.9 km square, in which, they tell us, over a million people reside. We biked around different sections of the township, stopping to visit people, see historic sites and try the local food.


Alexandra Township, besides being home to over a million people, has a history in Johannesburg. Located north of the city centre, it is surrounded by nice suburbs. It was originally owned by a farmer, who sold parcels of the land to whomever wanted it, which meant blacks and other non-whites were moved into an area previously the sole property of whites. As a result, when apartheid started, the township was unwanted. Apparently, the government tried to get residents to move to Soweto when it was built as almost a concentration camp to keep blacks separate, but residents refused to leave and the population in this very poor neighborhood has been booming ever since. It is still all black, and very poor, but we saw a lot of signs of growth and development on our tour.

Walk Clean

Walk Clean Alexandra
Signage outside Walk Clean, an Alexandra business that cleans sneakers so they look brand new!

A company that washes sneakers, Walk Clean was started by a young man who told us his mom always complimented him on how clean his sneakers were, and a business was born! Who knows if it’s true, but he’s definitely got the marketing and the customers. He has his own special formulas for sneakers made of different materials and has built his own equipment, like rooftop drying stands that don’t reshape the sneakers. Papi took us here to further demonstrate the entrepreneurship and inventiveness of the residents of Alexandra.

Walk Clean Alexandra
Shoes drying on the roof at Walk Clean

First school in Alexandra

Alexandra school
Alexandra Township’s first school

We visited the site of the first school in the township. The government actually barred the residents from setting up a school, but they did it anyway. It is now a heritage site,

Alexandra Township
The first school in Alexandra is now a heritage site

and is adjacent to one of the early local churches, which needs a bit of work.

Alex Township church
Church in Alexandra Township

Nelson Mandela’s House

Yes, the South African leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner lived in Alexandra for a short time, beginning in 1941. His house was small, and is currently someone’s home, but you can visit the yard where there is a plaque marking the building.

Mandela House
Where Nelson Mandela lived in Alexandra

Right across the street from Mandela’s old home is the future site of the Alexandra Heritage Centre, which is going to do what Papi and Jeffrey are already doing: celebrate the rich history of this township.

Alexandra Heritage Centre
Future Site of the Alexandra Heritage Centre

Alexandra Market

We biked up a hill and made it to the bustling marketplace of Alexandra. This included outdoor stands and plenty of big stores, just like in any town or city. We thought it was very crowded there but apparently we cycled through at a low time, so can’t imagine the after work crowd!

Alexandra Market Johannesburg
The market in Alexandra

Home of weightlifting legend and gym owner Tumi Masite

Tumi Masite
At Ikasi Gym with Tumi Masite

A world bodybuilding champion who once trained with Schwarzenegger’s trainer, Tumi Masite grew up in Alexandra and hasn’t abandoned his roots. He founded and runs the first – and only – gym in the township, Ikasi Gym. It is a bare bones operation and he is constantly looking for funding. This is partly because he donates his own time to training people with injuries and disabilities. A true inspiration!

Visit to a day care

One of the fun stops on the Alexandra Township bike tour is a busy day care where the adorable little kids show off their memorization skills and sing.

alexandra Township day care
Day Care

One of the cooler aspects of the tour was how friendly and welcoming all the residents were. First off, they all knew Papi and that he was giving a tour. Second, we stood out because of our skin color. Everyone was friendly, especially the children. Because we visited during the New Year and summer holidays, school was out of session so there were a lot of kids around to greet us. They wanted high fives and some even hopped on our bikes for short rides. It was fun!

Alexandra Township
Some of the children we met on our tour of Alexandra Township

A typical house

Papi very kindly invited us into his home. He told us he lives in a middle-class home in Alexandra. It wasn’t that much smaller than a studio apartment in Manhattan, with one big exception. Thus, it is standard to have no running water, shower, or toilet within your home. There was a tap outside of his front door that he uses to wash. The toilets are shared between the houses on his block and are port-a-potties. He is lucky in that he only shares the toilets with maybe 10-20 households. In some sections of the township, people are sharing with thousands. And we have no idea how often those are emptied and cleaned.

Alexandra Township
A row of toilets in Alexandra Township

Read about what it’s like to live in a barrio in Cartagena, Colombia or a homestay in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

Street food lunch

At the end of the 4 hour tour, we got to taste a local favorite, the kota. This street food involves a hollowed out piece of white bread (like Wonder Bread only with really thick slices) stuffed with fries, curry sauce, hot dogs, ketchup, and who knows what else? It was a big sandwich and I could barely have a couple of bites. It is very popular! The restaurant was busy the whole time we were there and people were lining up for their lunchtime kotas.

Kota Alexandra Township
Papi with his Kota

Conclusion of An Alexandra Township Bike Tour

Brian and I were both deeply moved by how warmly we were welcomed on the Alexandra Township Bike Tour. We wanted something more personal than a bus tour with hundreds of other people and this was so personal. We met local people, learned their stories, and participated in their dreams of success. What a great day!

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Author: Mel

Living aboard a sailboat, blogging about the places we visit and the adventures we have. Love hiking, cycling, scuba, animals and adventure.

4 thoughts on “Alexandra Township Bike Tour”

  1. This may be the most awesome experience ever. What a great way to learn about the culture up close and personal while learning so many lessons in humility. We had similar experiences in many small villages in India. I loved Papi and how he took you to all of his local haunts. Can you imagine sharing a toilet with just 10-20 households and having that be a luxury? Wow! So I had never heard of Tumi Masite before but I know that Terminator so when I researched him that is awesome for sure. And to think Nelson Mandela lived right around the corner from Tumi’s gym too. This whole experience from seeing a real ground floor (or roof level) business like the Walk Clean to just cruising around famous haunts. Amazing.

  2. What a cool experience! I love when you get the chance to meet local people and it sounds like exploring with Papi sounds like a blast! Also, I’m not going to lie, after a day out on a bike, I sort of love the sound of kota! That sounds like some perfect comfort food!

  3. It’s really interesting to see your photos of Alexandra Township. It feels like you really captured the essence of daily life in the area. It must’ve cool to see local businesses and learn about places like the Ikasi Gym and Walk Clean. It definitely looks like the bike tour is much more memorable and personal than a bus tour!

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