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Adrenaline rush with a township view at Soweto's towers
by Staff Writers
Soweto, South Africa (AFP) Jan 9, 2012

Poupienah Makgatho drove 100 kilometres (65 miles) from Pretoria to help his terrified wife to overcome her fear of heights -- by bungee jumping off the iconic cooling towers that dominate Soweto's skyline.

"She is afraid of heights, but she wanted to try it, to see how it feels", he said, camera around the neck, waiting for her to appear on the footbridge stretching between the two towers, 100 metres (330 feet) above the ground.

The power station built in 1942 once hosted a tiny, fortified white enclave in the black township, with homes, tennis courts and a pool for employees at the plant.

The electricity they generated went to Johannesburg rather than the black township of Soweto on their doorstep.

Blacks moved into the housing there after the plant was decommissioned in 1998, but it was another decade before the complex was reinvented as the Vertical Adventure Centre.

The aim was to draw visitors to the historic township, a focal point of the anti-Apartheid struggle, as it tried to redefine itself after the end of white rule.

The extreme sports centre "introduces Soweto to a lot of people who didn't dare" to venture into Johannesburg's most famous township, said site supervisor Lawrence Sithole.

"The towers are at the edge and not deep in Soweto, near the highway. From the top, they see what's possible. They see the beautiful view, and they want to experience more."

Adrenaline junkies can bungee jump between the twin Orlando Towers or even inside them. Others prefer abseiling to the bottom, scrambling up the climbing wall on the side -- or shooting it out in paintball battles on the ground below.

As the tallest structures in Soweto, the brightly painted towers are a landmark for the township.

Originally painted in the 1990s as a marketing gimmick for a South African bank, they now feature images of Nelson Mandela, a black Madonna, footballers, a commuter train and jazz musicians. At their foot a small restaurant entertains both locals and visitors.

Bungee jumping was the "crazy idea" of the person in charge of the scaffolding during painting operations, Sithole said.

"He had to wait almost 10 years for approval. Then it was a foreign thing -- bungee jumping in Soweto," he said.

Tour operators daily bring tourists who rise to the top of the towers in an external elevator, giving them a panorama of the city and the gold mines it was founded on.

Not everyone jumps. Some, especially the olders ones, travel back down with the lift and are then whisked off to Mandela's former home, now a small museum, and a major tourist attraction.

Up to 100 people jump from the towers on busy Saturdays: South Africans from all walks of life as well as tourists attracted by the exotic area and the relatively low price tag -- 480 rands ($60, 45 euros) for a jump.

Accountant Shaun Naidoo from the nearby Indian neighbourhood of Lenasia brought a group of friends for his 26th birthday.

"It's amazing, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Looking down before you jump is very scary," he said breathlessly after his plunge.

"You think you are going to die, and then it goes up again. At least it's something you can say you did."

The gang's next big challenge is an even higher jump, off the Bloukrans Bridge that spans the river of the same name 216 metres below in the Western Cape province.

Meanwhile, in Soweto, a Greenpeace ad is taped against the Orlando Towers reception office. The environmental campaigners are recruiting climbers and daredevils for their direct action.

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