At the Yeoville Dinner Club. Penny Ndlela (far left, in black T-shirt) is the founder of Soul Traveller. Picture: LESLEY STONES
At the Yeoville Dinner Club. Penny Ndlela (far left, in black T-shirt) is the founder of Soul Traveller. Picture: LESLEY STONES

Group tours for holidays around SA usually attract foreign travellers. South Africans, it seems, are not really interested in tours of their country. Which is tough for solo travellers wanting company, or novices unsure of how to arrange a trip.

Soul Traveller aims to fill this gap by offering group tours for locals who want to explore their own land and enjoy entertaining company while they do it.

"Millions of international guests visit SA and we as locals lag behind," says its founder Penny Ndlela, who believes this is the country’s first domestic tour group operator.

"I think it comes from our upbringing. Whether you are Afrikaans, Zulu or Xhosa you’re always told the best crockery is for visitors and you eat off the cheap stuff, and we’ve done that with our tourism. Or we say there’s nothing great, it’s not safe and we go somewhere else."

Colourful character: Sanza Sandile. Picture: LESLEY STONES
Colourful character: Sanza Sandile. Picture: LESLEY STONES

Soul Traveller has operated since 2012, running group tours for churches and other organisations wanting to visit Israel, Egypt, India and Turkey. Ndlela realised she was sending people abroad who had barely seen their home country, so six months ago, she introduced tours around SA.

"It’s like Kontiki but for adults, so it’s not going to be people throwing up outside the bus," she says. "People have felt that it’s very expensive to travel in SA – it’s cheaper to go to Thailand or Bali – but if we can travel together with a group of 20, it’s quite doable. All you need is your shopping money and the beauty is you are shopping in rand, not pounds or dollars."

The company is an offshoot of Thebe Tourism Group, which is supplying the seed capital for this new adventure. It’s not an endless tap of money and it’s in lieu of shares, Ndlela says, which gives her additional motivation to ensure it works.

The government has recognised that domestic travel should be the backbone of a sustainable tourism industry, especially as the weak rand makes South Africans less likely to travel abroad. Yet domestic travel slumped by 12.5% in 2015, with 2.84-million trips recorded and it fell another 0.7% in 2016, according to SA Tourism.

"Domestic tourism is worth R63bn a year and there is real room for growth," says Ndlela.

She has designed six routes, named after the colours of the national flag. Each five-day, four-night trip costs R11,895 per person sharing, including flights between two centres, accommodation and all meals.

Ndlela and her team aim to show locals offbeat sights and quirky eateries they have never heard of before.

A chef they use on a tour that takes in Khayelitsha set up his own business after being retrenched. "When we went through in October, he was so emotional because it was the first time he’d had South African visitors," Ndlela says.

Soul Traveller supports local communities and works with about 20 entrepreneurs for each of its trips. The hotels it uses are places with some history and are owned and managed by South Africans.

The plan is to take 20 or 40 people on each trip, which will determine the size of the bus used. The numbers create economies of scale, but filling the tours may prove challenging in a country in which many people can’t afford to travel or are not accustomed to sharing every meal and mile with strangers.

Ndlela is open to finding out what works and what doesn’t and there could be some flexibility in the numbers as she is keen to avoid letting people down by cancelling a tour if bookings are low. While individuals can join the trips, many of the bookings are expected to come from businesses wanting an incentive trip or team-building event.

The first few tours have shown Ndlela that one of the joys of travelling with fellow South Africans comes from sharing and understanding the experiences of others.

Yeoville Dinner Club is run by Sanza Sandile, who has been in the district for 20 years and talks about its change from an old, safe, white suburb to the current immigrant-packed, edgy or downright dodgy neighbourhood

"In Vilakazi Street, our travellers can say I was there or my aunt was there, and that’s more riveting than what a tour guide has to say," she says. "It’s that ability to exchange stories with each other and learn from the things that have affected us. We have hated each other for long enough. We have carried shame and guilt for long enough — it’s time to travel together."

For a day-long sample of a tour that takes in Johannesburg, we pile into Uber vans and set off for the Yeoville Dinner Club. The drivers thread their way through the overflowing life on Rockey Street and we climb the stairs in a tatty building. We reach a small room filled with a table designed for 18 that holds 20 at a squeeze and is laid with mismatched crockery.

Yeoville Dinner Club is run by Sanza Sandile, who has been in the district for 20 years and talks about its change from an old, safe, white suburb to the current immigrant-packed, edgy or downright dodgy neighbourhood. The cultural mix created by immigrants influences his recipes and he creates dishes that burst with flavour.

Sandile talks even more than he cooks and regales us with the story of his life and eclectic tales of Yeoville. There’s something about him looking fabulous in Speedos until he gets in the water and starts to drown, and something about his experience at a film school.

Like the polite tourists we are, we let the communal dishes of food grow cold in front of us while Sandile performs. Finally we dive into whole fried mackerel, Congolese style cassava, vetkoek, two types of jollof, dishes based on pumpkin seeds and spinach, a bean and peanut melee, a red cabbage salad, and achar made of aubergines.

"That’s got a lot of va-va-voom, it’s very sexy," Sandile says. He calls us all "darling" as he rushes around, pouring drinks, clearing plates and flashing a wide smile. He’s a character — and characters are a large part of what could make these "discover your own backyard" tours succeed.

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