This Khayelitsha kayak tour is fighting both Covid-19 and the tide of rubbish it brought

Business Insider SA
Photo Jay Caboz
Siyanda Sopangisa paddles through the Kuils River, where he operates a unique kayaking tour past Khayelitsha. Photo Jay Caboz
  • Siyanda Sopangisa operates a unique township tour in Cape Town: 1.5 kilometres, in a kayak, on the border of Khayelitsha.
  • Thanks to Covid-19 restrictions, money from international tourists is drying up.
  • He is also fighting mountains of waste left by new residents, while trying to keep a small business afloat.
  • For more stories go to

It’s a beautiful warm sunny Saturday in Cape Town, with just a gentle breeze rustling through the reeds at the Khayelitsha Wetland Park. It's the kind of day that would be perfect for Siyanda Sopangisa to operate his unique township tour: 1.5 kilometres on a kayak along the Kuils River, on the border of the Makhaza section in Khayelitsha he calls home.

Photo Jay Caboz
Siyanda Sopangisa. Photo Jay Caboz

“The idea of taking kayaking trips in Khayelitsha started in 2016," says Sopangisa. "The main idea was to try something unique that would attract more tourists into the neighbourhood and the hopes of creating jobs and cleaning the wetlands."

It helps that the 360-degree views are unique in Khayelitsha.

But instead of spending time out on the water and teaching others about his hometown, he and three friends are fighting back a swamp of refuse.

“On average we pick up 40 bags. Nappies and all those disgusting things, you name them.”

Photo Jay Caboz
Since the Covid-19 lockdown the crew has been battling to keep waste out of the wetlands. Photo Jay Caboz

With lockdown came new neighbours who moved into the open spaces around the wetland on which he operates the Khayelitsha Canoe Club. And with them came mountains of waste. 

When lockdown began everything turned upside down," says Sopangisa, referring to "land invaders".

"People wanted houses they are littering all over the place and demolishing the park in places," he says.

Sopangisa lives and grew up a few blocks away, and started the canoe club in 2013. Back then the wetland was an overgrown dense thicket, and a magnet for crime. He left his job as a shelf packer at the Khayelitsha Super Spar with the hopes of creating a safe space for children, including his own, to play.

Photo Jay Caboz
The crew has found out that paddles make good cleaning spades too. Photo Jay Caboz

“Most of the kids don’t have anything to do in the neighbourhood. Not everybody wants to play soccer or rugby. We saw there was a gap and started the canoe club.”

Photo Jay Caboz
The team collect as many as 40 bags of waste discarded at the entry point where they begin their tours every Saturday. Photo Jay Caboz

It took two years to clean up the river and transform it from a polluted waste into a wetland oasis where kids could learn to paddle for free, in a first of its kind in a South African township.

2020 was set to be their best year yet. A steady stream of international tourists were coming to take part in the tour through a travel partner called Amazing Africa. But when Covid-19 hit, business dried up, and Sopangisa feared a super-spreader event among local children if they kept gathering.

Photo Jay Caboz
Discarded waste lies strewn across a road used by the club at the end of the tour of the river. Photo Jay Caboz

Sopangisa and his crew are not giving up yet. For three hours every Saturday you can find them cleaning up rubbish – and not winning.

“The plan [has been] to clean up the whole stretch of river we work on, but every Saturday when we come here there is more litter. It’s as if the residents see this as an opportunity to come and dump here, because they know every Saturday we will be coming to clean here.”

Photo Jay Caboz
Siyanda Sopangisa kayaks along Kuils River, part of the tour route he operates from. Photo Jay Caboz

The heart of the problem is changing human behaviour where little thought is given to the consequences of litter and other waste.

With the help from NGO Help Up, the group is now trying to change behaviour, and they've made special arrangements with the City of Cape Town to help collect the refuse they pick up every Saturday. 

Photo Jay Caboz
Little thought is given to the consequences of litter and other waste and so it ends up being thrown into rivers. You can find all manner of waste from dead pigs to nappies. Photo Jay Caboz

Refuse that ends up in streams can cost the City of Cape Town millions. Abdulla Parker, the City of Cape Town's head of catchment planning, told Business Insider South Africa that cleaning up the waste in rivers, and then removing that waste, can be as much as 10 times more expensive than if it had been disposed of properly in the first place.

Photo Jay Caboz
Siyanda Sopangisa and Punch bump fists at the top of the viewpoint overlooking the township. Photo Jay Caboz

The water is far from pristine and all manner of waste can be seen, from nappies to abandoned mattresses. But if you look past it you'll catch glimpses of wildlife thriving nonetheless. Fish swim in the water, birds make nests along the banks, and cattle roam nearby contentedly munching on grass. 

The view is unique, and well worth seeing. The river gently winds around the quiet outskirts of the suburb of Makhaza. About halfway through the ride you will stop at a small grassy embankment and climb a hill to see a rare panorama of the wetland and the bordering township. 

Photo Jay Caboz
The view on the tour is totally unique and well worth coming to see. Photo Jay Caboz
Photo Jay Caboz
Cattle along the Kuils River, Khayelitsha. Photo Jay Caboz.

Being tucked away from main roads, this isolated part of the township is rarely seen by outsiders. Here one can sit down and get a sense of slower township life where colourfully-painted homes line the river, with washing hanging on lines and kids playing on the river banks.  

"It's something different to do to experience the township. The people here are always lively and there is not as much crime in Makhasa which makes it a safe space to experience township life. Its quiet and a nice place to raise kids," says Sopangisa.

Photo Jay Caboz
Siyanda Sopangisa drags a kayak at the Khayelitsha Wetland Park. Photo Jay Caboz

Sopangisa hopes that more South Africans will take an interest in the tour once lockdown restrictions ease off.

A one hour and 30-minute trip costs R350 per person, and can accommodate six people at a time. For kids under the age of 15 the paddle is free.  

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