Township on two wheels – Exploring Khayelitsha by bicycle
Exploring a new place, particularly one as bustling and eclectic as one of Cape Town’s biggest townships, is always more rewarding from the seat of a bicycle, as Andrew Thompson recently discovered.
Skeezo Vicani cuts a tall, slim figure in the icy winter wind, which is whipping aggressively across the Flats from distant Table Bay. Behind him, a series of sandy jumps and banked curves lie intriguingly deserted, but as he opens his mouth to speak, the course comes alive in my mind. I hear the starting pistol and the cheers and screams from the crowd, and try to imagine how the small, spotless BMXs lined up alongside the track could possibly navigate the challenging course and its dips, bends and impossibly steep ramps.
“Welcome to Velokhaya,” says Skeezo. “Velo means ‘cycle’ in French and khaya means ‘home’ in Xhosa. It’s our home of cycling, in Khayelitsha,” he emphasises proudly, motioning towards the modest building on the small hill to his right, the bicycles alongside, and the track behind.
As he talks, we look around, absorbing this simple but impressive setup, foreign in its township surrounds. Anticipating our questions, Skeezo tells us that while cycling is a popular activity in the community, competitive cycling is almost non-existent in townships such as Khayelitsha, due largely to the high costs involved in the purchasing and maintenance of high-end cycling equipment.
“For this reason,” he continues, “we don’t expect the guys to purchase the bicycles, or pay anything towards the programme. We provide them with all the necessary equipment, which is housed on the premises.” In return, the young people involved in the programme must show the necessary commitment, maturity and care for the equipment. And it’s clear that the concept is reaping its rewards and turning out a raft of talented, committed young boys and girls. In 2012, over 100 Velokhaya riders participated in the Cape Argus Cycle and Junior Tours.
And with that, we were guided to a row of mountain bikes waiting for us near the gate. For a number of years now, Bike & Saddle has been working with Velokhaya to offer outsiders the chance to view the township by bike.
15 km per hour is the perfect speed to travel. It is faster than walking, but slow enough to engage with your surroundings, to take in the smells, sights and sounds. With no electric windows or steel frames to separate you from the elements, no noisy air-conditioning or car radio competing with the real world outside, you are that little bit closer to your surroundings.
On a bicycle you have the sound of the wind floating past your ears, the occasional honk of a nearby motorist, and enough time to ride alongside fellow cyclists to chat in brief mid-pedal bursts. And, at the end of it all, you feel a sense of accomplishment that you are engaging with so many different sights, people and places, all under your own steam.
As it turns out, Khayelitsha serves as the perfect cycling ground. It is flat, with large pavements and safe shoulders, as well as a surprising number of cycling lanes. But apart from that, even on a quiet Thursday morning, a certain unique energy and activity flows out onto the streets.
Under the guidance of our local cycling guides from Velokhaya, we navigate our way with ease between bustling neighbourhoods, impoverished informal settlements, and among numerous neatly aligned formal houses. Past backyard stores, shebeens (bars), mechanics, hairdressers, and eventually a large shopping mall and a shiny new hospital.
We soon reach Lookout Hill Tourism Facility, where a dozen sewing machines are operated by a talented group of ladies. Together they craft an array of goods that will go for triple the price at Cape Town’s most popular tourist malls, just 15 minutes away. The nearby sand dune – the largest on the Cape Flats – is what Lookout Hill is named after, and a large wooden crow’s nest serves as the perfect vantage point from which to gain some panoramic perspective over the township.
To the south, the waters of False Bay glisten deep blue, to the west we can just make out the profile of Table Mountain. And all around us, an infinite number of houses and shacks are packed together tightly on the flat, sandy earth, occupying all inhabitable terrain.
Back on the bicycles, we cycle to a traditional doctor and are warmly welcomed into his house. We visit parts of Khayelitsha long neglected by government officials, and are accosted by smiling and laughing children thrilled, and slightly intimidated, by the sight of eight outsiders and their bicycles. For a few metres the youngsters run alongside the bikes, cheering and shouting wildly until they can no longer keep up, at which point they stand excitedly on the pavement and watch us disappear into the distance. And once again we are reminded just how much more engaging touring by bicycle is.
We eventually return to the Velokhaya premises with wide eyes and a brand new perspective on another unique part of the Mother City. And while it is impossible to explore a new or foreign part of town, anywhere in the world, without casting a somewhat misguided or romanticised gaze upon it, the starting and ending point at this unique sporting oasis in the heart of Khayelitsha left me with a feeling of optimism, and a strong yearning to return.
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Source- abouTime magazine