Monica Collins briefed her family, made a list of emergency phone numbers and, after consulting her fellow adventurers, selected a vehicle they figured would be safest for the journey, a rugged SUV.
Yet despite the precautions, Collins said that when she told her work colleagues about her weekend plans, they half-jokingly replied: So we may not see you back on Monday?
The destination chosen by Collins and seven of her friends, all white South Africans, was not some lion-infested game park or a dangerous mountain pass. It was Soweto, one of South Africa's largest and best-known black townships, and, for years, one of the country's most popular tourist spots -- at least for foreign tourists.
Not many white South Africans used to venture into Soweto, which is on the outskirts of Johannesburg, because of fear and unfamiliarity created by generations of legal separation under apartheid. But Collins, a 37-year-old property appraiser, is among a small yet growing number of whites determined to explore this part of their country.
"We can't continue living side by side and not knowing each other at all," said Collins, whose home in a plush northern suburb of Johannesburg is no more than a half-hour drive from Soweto.
About 200,000 white South Africans will visit Soweto this year, according to the Soweto Tourism Association, up from 30,000 five years ago. About 400,000 foreigners visit annually, the association says. The owners of bed-and-breakfasts in Soweto report that white South Africans make up at least one-third of their business -- up from virtually nothing two years ago. And tour bus companies are beginning to market township tours to white South Africans.
The increase is apparent in the guest book kept by Lolo Mabitsela, who runs Lolo's Guest House in one of Soweto's most prosperous neighborhoods, where BMWs and Mercedeses are common and the scrap-metal shacks found in some other parts of the township are not.
When Mabitsela, a retired school administrator, opened her six-bedroom home to tourists in 2001, the guest book was filled with European and U.S. addresses: Dublin, Paris, San Francisco. But last year, a growing number of addresses from Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria began appearing. Mabitsela's new guest book, a gift from a couple from Sandton, a prosperous suburb on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, contains nearly as many South African as international addresses.
Mabitsela relishes the change, not only because it's good for business, she said, but also because it allows her to introduce white South Africans to black South African culture. About 75 percent of South Africans are black, 13 percent are white, and the rest are either mixed race or another minority, such as Indian.
For generations, black workers, including nannies, gardeners and housekeepers commuted by bus or van nearly every day from Soweto and other townships to the white suburbs.
"We worked for them. Our parents worked for them. And they didn't know anything about our culture," said Mabitsela. "Sometimes they didn't even know our surnames."
Apartheid ended in 1994 when all-race elections were held and Nelson Mandela became president. But South Africa remains divided along racial lines. Blacks and whites largely live in different areas, work different jobs and watch different television shows. Despite the political power blacks have attained and a growing black middle class, racial slurs can still occasionally be heard in casual conversation among whites.
But South Africans of all skin colors say the traditional divisions are weakening. The biggest barrier keeping whites from visiting townships now is fear of crime, according to tourists and representatives of the hospitality industry.
The Johannesburg area has some of the highest rates of street crime in the world, though many Sowetans say the fear of crime in the township is overblown and that rates have declined as criminals target the more prosperous suburbs where white South Africans live. Yet images of rioting and battles with police in the final years of apartheid are hard to erase from the minds of South Africans.
"They are afraid," said Rose Malinge, owner of the Rose Bed and Breakfast. "There are so many whites who don't know the life of the Soweto townships."
What tourists find in Soweto is a sprawling city of millions of people -- most estimates run between 2 million and 5 million -- and a range of poverty and affluence spread across 40 square miles of dense settlements. Like other townships, Soweto -- an acronym for South-Western Townships -- was created to bring blacks close enough to work as cheap labor in mines and in the homes of white people, but not so close that they would mingle freely.
In recent years, Soweto has taken on the look of a bedroom community, with modest but sturdy housing, paved streets and nearly universal access to electricity. Differences in development, however, remain stark. Some poor neighborhoods have communal taps, rusty metal shacks and unemployment rates higher than 50 percent. Goats are still herded on makeshift pastures throughout Soweto. But elsewhere in the township are rows of mansions.
The tourism industry was built around historic spots such as Mandela's former home and the Hector Pieterson Museum, named for a 13-year-old boy who was among the first fatalities in the Soweto uprising on June 16, 1976, an incident that historians regard as the beginning of the end of apartheid. That day, thousands of students rebelled against a second-class education system that required them to take classes in Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch descendants who were the main architects of apartheid.
"I remember that day," said Bruce Robinson, 52, a white South African from nearby Benoni who visited Soweto for the first time recently. "To finally come and see where it started. . . . It's quite moving."
Robinson and his wife, Hilary, made the trip at the suggestion of some friends visiting from the United States and Canada. Their tour guide brought them to the museum before taking them for a drink at Sakhumzi Restaurant, located on the block between Mandela's former house and the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Collins and her friends said a tour was not enough. They stayed overnight at Lolo's Guest House, visited the informal bars known as shebeens and made a point of striking up conversations with residents.
"The last thing you want to do is drive around Soweto like it's a game park," said Warren King, 39, who made the trip with Collins. "I wanted to experience it as part of my city rather than as a tourist attraction. . . . This is my city."