It is fitting that young entrepreneur Bheki Dube makes his money out of travelers. He has been on the move all his life. He spent years skateboarding and taking photographs in Johannesburg and Durban. It was on these rides that the backpacking idea was born two years ago.
Back then Dube, a Troyeville resident, in the east of Johannesburg, was a walking tour guide at the Maboneng Precinct, the trendy art and tourism hub of Johannesburg.
“During that period I worked really odd jobs like skate shops as a salesperson and as a cashier. Learning at a young age to cash-up, to manage stock, those are the qualities that I carry out today. I also worked at the Spaza Art Gallery and that exposed me to a lot of artists. I also worked at a call center for a month and I hated it, but I learned so much from it, I was calling people in homelands trying to sell cellphones. Those were skills and qualities that became significant,” he says.
In Maboneng, he met a German tourist who liked what he was doing and advised him to explore.
Soon after this encounter, Dube packed his camera and went backpacking for a week in Durban hostels. Fate led Dube to another German tourist who happened to be a judge and had been touring the world for 35 years. Dube said his acquaintance spoke passionately about Africa’s beauty and opportunities. In his dormitory, Dube met another traveler in the travel and export industry who had been there for over a year because she preferred backpacking to hotels.
Back in Johannesburg, Dube looked to build onto the walking tours. It was the brainchild of Dube and his partner Greg Solik, a businessman he met at Maboneng while they were trying to figure out the next big project. These tours became the foundation of their company, Curiocity Backpackers.
“It was a concept that encouraged people to discover Johannesburg because it was seen as a no go area, especially around our Jeppestown. So walking through the streets of Johannesburg and breaking away from the norms of tourist in buses and engaging with the space like the locals do,” Dube says.
On his return, Dube also met Jonathan Liebmann, the developer of the Maboneng Precinct. The two knew each other from Dube’s old job where he was a general worker at the independent cinema, The Bioscope. Dube sold tickets, set up the projector and swept floors. Liebmann had also been on Dube’s walking tours.
“I met him at the Bioscope while I was working there, Liebmann came in for a drink and one of the first things I said to him was ‘when I am your age, I wanna be greater than you’. He looked at me and laughed,” says Dube as he recalls their first meeting in 2012.
Dube sold his idea of backpacking to Liebmann. That was the birth of a business partnership and mentorship.
It didn’t take much convincing. Liebmann was a traveler himself and he immediately liked the idea of accommodation. So Curiocity Backpackers was formed and Liebmann helped to buy the property.
In early 2012, Dube found a derelict building owned by company called Pacific Press, in Jeppestown, Johannesburg. The premises had a political past, it used to be a place where pamphlets were printed for the Black Sash – a white liberal human rights organization. It was also a hideout for political activists such as Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and Tokyo Sexwale.
Today, Curiocity Backpackers has grown to accommodate over 100 people per day and there are plans to expand to more luxurious and private sections.
“We have a guest by the name of Dwight who is from the USA. He has now invested in property in Maboneng and he was here about a year ago, stayed with us, fell in love with the space, fell in love with the lifestyle, fell in love with the culture,” says Dube
Almost half of Curiocity’s customers are international visitors, mostly from Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Austria, and Sweden. It has also seen a rise in people from South America and Australia. But there are fewer domestic travelers – at just 25% they are mainly students and rugby fans heading for nearby Ellis Park Stadium.
The notion that Jeppestown is crime-ridden has negatively impacted their bookings, says Dube.
Still they come to meet people and sleep soundly in the heart of the city.