Au Revoir, Afrique du Sud

Hmm, is Afrique du Sud really the French for South Africa?  It seems a bit too, well, Franglais to me.  And that’s probably exactly what you’re getting when you use Google Translate.  But hey, who cares?  It’s the Au Revoir bit that’s important.

I arrived home last Tuesday.  It’s now Monday and I am writing this in my Mum and Step Dad’s back garden in glorious sunshine.  Can’t think of too many places I’d rather be.  Cape Town is possibly one of them.  I was away for more than a month and could have stayed longer.  I think I’m like most people in that after a while when you’re on holiday you begin to look forward to the odd creature comfort of home.  I think it’s just the mind’s way of softening the blow.  The break is over but at least you can have a nice cup of tea.  Well, despite having been away from home, away from the UK for longer than ever before, I had no particular desire to leave.  Sure, it would be nice to get back to my own bedroom with a nice big double bed rather than sharing a room with a bald, snoring Northamptonian, but to be honest, if I’d been given the option of going with Dandini back to Cape Town for another week or two, I’d have taken it.  Or, more accurately, snatched at it greedily.  I will return to South Africa one day, and I look forward to being reunited with Table Mountain once more.

Before I left the UK back in early June I received several bon voyage messages on Facebook.  Most people ended their note with the words “take care”.  I don’t usually get told to take care when I go on holiday.  I certainly didn’t when I went to Canada and the US last year, or when I went to Tuscany or France or, well, anywhere.  But people found themselves advising me to be careful during my time in SA.  While there was a kindness and concern behind these messages, it did bother me that people genuinely did think that South Africa is a dangerous place to go to.  Of course I would take care, in exactly the same way that I take care walking alone at night in London or Swindon or Southampton.  If you’re not streetwise, not careful, then you can find yourself in a sticky situation in almost any town or city in the world.  If a foreign visitor to London decided to take a late night stroll around Bermondsey they’d probably get mugged but that doesn’t mean people should be concerned about visiting London.  The wishes from my friends and family were very much appreciated, but I was surprised that so many people felt that it was worthy of comment.

There were, however, some people who did not suggest I be careful.  Who were these heartless people?  Did they not care about me?  Did they want me to come to harm?  No, they were people like my friend Paul who lives in Johannesburg, or Yvette, a South African living in London.  Or my cousin Nicola who has been to SA and loved it.  Indeed, these last two examples expressed nothing but jealousy.  These people’s perspective was much more up my street!

South Africa exceeded my expectations in almost every way.  It’s beautiful, fascinating and friendly.  The recent history is shocking and disturbing, enough to make any person with the slightest hint of morality seethe with anger.  Yet there is almost no anger or bitterness here, even from those who were the subject of the most brutality.  I still can’t quite figure out how this can be the case.  There are certainly things that people think are not being done correctly.  Many black people are still shackled by serious poverty, some white people lament the fact that positive discrimination has been commonplace for years, almost everyone is concerned about corruption.  But things could be so much worse here.  Civil war was only averted thanks to strong leadership from the likes of Mandela and Tutu.  Things are moving slowly but steadily in the right direction.  And the most clear and striking image of a country working together could be seen constantly, everywhere, from day one:  Every man, black and white, was proud of the same country, proud to fly the same flag.

What also became clear to me quite quickly was the locals’ desire that the real South Africa be known.  They know only too well how the rest of the world sees them.  But they want people to move on from the idea of a crime-ravaged land where oppression and poverty are rife.  There is much more to the country than that.  The country needed a chance to show itself to the world, and it took that chance, in my opinion, with both hands.  SA deserved a great World Cup and it got one.  more specifically, it provided one.  I hope the world has taken notice, and more people forget what they thought they knew about the place and just go there and see it for themselves.

There was a flag at the final which I felt summed things up perfectly.  Here it is:

It’s not easy to read, so here’s what it says:

We did not rob you, we wowed you.  Come back world.

I couldn’t agree more.  I’ll certainly be back.

Confirmed: The World Cup Final Was Rubbish!

If there was any justice in the world, there would be no such thing as an anti-climax.  But there isn’t, and there is.  If you see what I mean.

I can already hear you bellowing at the screen how much of an ungrateful git I am, and you are absolutely right to think that, but I must defend myself by stressing how fantastic a day World Cup Final day was.  It was a real privilege to be a part of the experience, and it was a day I will never forget, but the game itself was, for me, something of a let down.  That was Sunday and it’s now Friday and I am back in Blighty.  On Wednesday I watched the game online on the BBC’s Why Aye Player just to see if my less than perfect view of things had given me a false impression.  It had not.  But the game is, of course, just part of the day.

It was slightly odd in the hotel on Sunday morning.  There were people around.  Lots of them.  That was unusual as on all the other days most folks were either off on an excursion somewhere or sleeping off one from the previous day.  And for all our previous games we’d been whisked away at the crack of dawn to a far away city.  But on Sunday morning everyone was gearing up for the same thing:  The Main Event.  In addition to the hotel regulars, many more had arrived the previous day.  These punters had paid thousands of pounds to come out for the final, a very expensive whistle-stop tour indeed.  The hotel bar and lounge quickly filled up with excited, chattering football fans.

Despite the game kicking off at 8.30pm, Clare the Super-Rep had decided we should leave at 1pm.  Soccer City was only about 40 minutes drive away so this might seem just a tad on the over-cautious side, but Jo’burg was likely to come to a complete standstill as the afternoon wore on.  Indeed, the main highway leading to the ground was due to be closed at the time when the dignitaries were being chauffeured in and we wouldn’t want to get caught up in that mess.  The prudence paid off and our journey was completely free of complications, meaning we arrived before the turnstiles were opened.  Again, this didn’t matter.  Fans were arriving, most of them covered in orange, and the atmosphere outside the ground was superb.  We were let in at 2.30pm and in our seats by 3pm.  This is a record I’m unlikely ever to come close to beating:  Five and a half hours early for a game of football!

Soccer City stadium is, like most of the other World Cup grounds, beautiful.  It’s been designed to look from the outside like a giant calabash, a type of African cooking pot.  It’s a unique sight and very fitting for such a game.  Inside it’s large and orange, and probably felt like a home game for the armies of Dutch fans!  Watching the place fill up with weird and wonderful people from across the globe was entertainment enough for me as the time ticked by before the closing ceremony and the game itself.

My initial reaction to our seats was good.  We were in the second row, behind the goal, in between the corner flag and the penalty box.  In other words, very close to the action.  I thought this was brilliant and was very much looking forward to being right there in amongst it.  However, as proceedings approached I realised there were fatal flaws.  First of all, the closing ceremony.  These things are always carefully choreographed, visual spectaculars.  When viewed from above, the movement of the hundreds of performers creates an impressive array of patterns and pictures, words and shapes.  In addition, this particular ceremony employed a breathtaking lightshow projected onto the covered pitch.  Here’s what people up high saw:

Viewed from ground level it’s a bit pointless.  Then there was the game itself.  Yes we would be up close and personal, but between us and the action were several TV cameras.  Right in the way.  Check it out:

Not great.  Hence why I needed to re-watch the game when I got home.  Sitting low behind the goal makes it difficult enough to properly appreciate what’s going on.  Having a dozen cameramen between you and the action makes it impossible.

I thought at the time that the game was rubbish.  I shared this opinion with friends and family but was surprised to get disagreement from many sides.  Lots of people, it seems, found the game intriguing and intense, if not exactly free flowing and entertaining.  I can see where impression comes from, but I found the game low on quality and sadly dominated by the antics of the players.  The Dutch went out of their way to kick lumps out of the Spanish.  The Spanish spent half the game surrounding the referee trying to influence his decisions.  Neither set of players seemed to me in any way interested in playing open, expansive football.  Considering the reputations of the two sides and how they’d played previously in the competition that was surprising.  But then this was the final and winning at all costs seemed to be the way to go.  Watching the game again with a decent view pretty much confirmed my initial opinions although I was able to appreciate the game more.  And, I can also prove beyond reasonable doubt that I was there.  Look!

It's me!

See?!  What do you mean “no”?  Look closer!

Look! It's me! Clearly!

There!  What do you mean “where?”.  Right, look:

Crystal clear!

I bet you feel stupid now, not seeing me the first time.  Perhaps a trip to Specsavers..?

Despite for the first time in the entire trip being absolutely freezing, I was actually hoping the game would go to penalties.  I just felt that neither side deserved to win the game other than on a lottery.  I’ll accept that Spain were the better side, but I don’t think their play was of anything like a standard worthy of winning a World Cup Final.  But, as I say, it was a brilliant day and, WOW OF WOWS, I got to see Nelson Mandela.  The poor old boy was wheeled around on the back of a golf cart, smiling, but showing all of the 92 years he’s now notched up.  I also saw Shakira which was exciting for other reasons…

Well done then, Spain.  I only wish I could say that with more enthusiasm.

Day 31: Constitution Hill

OK, that’s enough, I want to go home now.  I’m not sure I can take any more of the incredible, heartbreaking history of South Africa.

Today we went to Constitution Hill.  There’s a Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth where I went to university.  It’s got a funicular railway and a camera obscura and some lovely views over the town and the sea.  Constitution Hill in Jo’burg has an Apartheid era prison.

I’ve been reluctant to write about today, to be honest.  There are no words that can adequately express how I felt walking around that place, and any attempt would be a travesty.  But I shall try to at least describe what happened there, albeit briefly and certainly inadequately.

Like Robben Island, the facilities at Constitution Hill have been used for both military and civilian purposes, off and on, depending on which nation was invading or ruling at the time.  Then it was used to house various political irritants, petty criminals and poor, hapless souls who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time during Apartheid.  There were three main sections to it; a women’s wing, a section for white males, and “Number Four”, the jail for black and coloured prisoners.  Needless to say, the conditions in the white and black prisons differed hugely, shockingly.  Here are some lowlights:

  • The quality of food provided to whites was poor.  Coloured prisoners were fed worse than whites.  The blacks food was worse still.
  • Part of the blacks’ rations included an energy drink so that they could do more hard labour.
  • Prisoners ate their food in a courtyard, crouched down, facing south.  At the south end of the courtyard were toilets, basic holes in the ground.  Due to the high numbers of prisoners and low number of toilets, as well as the diseases and illnesses thanks to the lack of hygiene, at least one person would be shitting into a hole at any one time.  Prisoners would be forced to watch this while they ate.  Anyone not facing the open toilets was punished.
  • Cells which should have housed 25-30 blacks ended up holding over 100.  Some black prisoners had to sleep standing up through lack of room.
  • A hierarchy of prisoners based on, presumably, violence, meant that about one third of the communal sleeping quarters was reserved for just two “bosses”.  Blankets from the others were stolen to make more comfortable beds and a small wall designating the territory.
  • 16 year old boys new to the prison were “groomed” for the bosses, and slept with them in their end of the cell.
  • Prisoners put in solitary confinement for a month – more than long enough for anyone – were left in there for up to a year.  By the time they were let out they were quite mad.
  • New male inmates were anally searched, females vaginally, for contraband, out in the courtyards, in full view of all the other prisoners.  These courtyards were overlooked by nearby office blocks.

I thought the Hector Pieterson museum was shocking, but this place took it to a new level.  Years of deliberate abuse and humiliation, as well as torture and even murder.  All done, systematically, mercilessly, over years solely because of the colour of their skin.

All this was going on as late as 1983.  Nineteen Eighty Fucking Three.  I’m sorry, but I defy anyone to get emotional and angry at Constitution Hill.

However, this is South Africa, and you can bet your life that some people will do all they can to make a negative into a positive.  Constitution Hill, as well as having a wonderful museum and tour of the old prisons, is now home to the new Constitutional Court.  It’s an amazing modern building that has been designed around the partially demolished stairwell of the Awaiting Trial block, and uses reclaimed bricks from the prison itself.  Mandela said that South Africans needed to forgive but not forget, and that’s the idea here.  Using the bricks that once divided the nation to form the basis for freedom.  Just like the District Six, Robben Island, Hector Pieterson and Apartheid museums, the prison at Constitution Hill is a wonderfully curated place which cannot help but hit you hard in the head and heart.  It’s necessary and courageous and shocking and maddening.  Placing the Constitutional Court on the site, next to the jail, built out of the prisons own bricks, is a stoke of genius that, once again, sends an uplifting and powerful message of hope and unity.

One thing is for certain:  How this country didn’t descend into civil war after Apartheid is nothing short of astonishing.  The leadership of Mandela, Tutu and others pulled the country together.  Yes there is corruption, poverty and crime here, but there is also pride and spirit and hope.  This place deserves so much credit for how it has responded after those dreadful years, and also the world’s support in helping it move forward.  This place deserves peace.

Day 29: Germany vs Spain

Back when the World Cup finals group draw was made, it quickly became clear to all England fans that winning the group was very important.  It would likely reduce the chances of meeting tough opposition like Germany and Argentina, and for us in South Africa it would also mean a considerably more convenient set of venues to travel to.  We all know what happened next, and we had to make do with second place in the group and spluttered out of the competition shortly after that.  But for us the damage was done.  We were now on the wrong side of the draw and would face a marathon trip to Durban for the semi-final.  Goody.

Germany

The day soon came, as days are wont to do, and we readied ourselves for the coach journey south-east.  In lead up to the game, no-one was really sure how long the journey would take, with estimations ranging from 6 to 10 hours each way.  This frightening prospect was enough to persuade many of our number to find their own way there, or else sell their tickets and give the semi-final a miss altogether.  Flights and hotels were booked and the hotel here in Johannesburg slowly emptied of England fans keen to make the Durban experience as painless as possible.  The upshot of this was that the number of us making use of the coach transfer had dropped from 40-odd down to a much more comfortable 17.  The news that each of us would have a double seat to ourselves if we wanted it made the trip a great deal more palatable.  Room to stretch out is probably worth an hour off the trip as far as I am concerned!

The other good thing was that our departure time was a decidedly civilised 8am.  We had all expected another pre-dawn start, but instead we had time for long showers and breakfasts before we left.  That was bonus number two.  Bonus number three came in the form of probably the most comfortable coach seats in existence.  Soft, comfortable and supportive, they reclined like a dentist’s chair but without the drilling.  Two comfortable seats per person, a nice sensible departure time.  Perhaps the trip wasn’t going to be the ordeal we had dreaded.  There was just one snag: The “entertainment”.

It was the second time we’d experienced it – the same thing happened on the coach back from the Aquila Game Reserve.  Drivers of nice new coaches with DVD players in them seem to assume you really want to watch their choice of movie with the volume at full blast.  The first time it happened we had to endure about 15 minutes of some weird South African version of Benny Hill in a bizarre jungle based caper before our own coach-based revolt persuaded the driver to switch it off.  This time, the moment the wheels started turning, they put on the 80s Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America.  Loudly.  It’s got some amusing moments I suppose, but I can’t believe more than one person on the bus was pleased it was on.  Once that had finished, we were treated to the utterly dire-looking White Chicks.  After this abomination the movies stopped, thank goodness.  But the respite was short lived.  In another example of supremely inappropriate decision making, the movies were then replaced with gangsta rap!  At this point Clare, our Thomson rep, decided enough was enough and asked them to either turn it off or replace it with something more appropriate.  It half worked.  The music went from one end of the ridiculous extreme to the other and we spent the remaining hours on the coach being tortured by Christian R n’ B.  If there’s on thing I can’t stand it’s R n’ B.  I find it the most painful assault on the ears imaginable.  I’d listen to almost anything else before R n’ B, including opera music.  I’d even chose to listen to an Embrace album ahead of Miriah or J-Low or Witney.  And as with most things, adding religion to the recipe only made matters worse, if that were possible.

To be fair, I didn’t hear too much of all this.  Instead, I chose to blast my ears into submission with my iPod and drown out the noise pollution with something much more agreeable.  Thank you again, Mr Frank Zappa!  😉  Not that I couldn’t hear the odd warble from our saved singer during the quiet bits, or the bass line thumping from some of the more upbeat numbers.  Sigh.

Anyway, rant over.  I realise I’ve just gone off on one big-time, and I do apologise.  As I have said, the journey was surprising bearable in all other regards, and when we arrived in Durban I was feeling pretty fresh and alert.  The journey time was a bearable 7 hours exactly, and this included one brief stop for a stretch, and one hold up as we passed a baffling car accident.  You hear stories about the poor safety record of South African roads, and the way some people drive here it’s not surprising there are a lot of “accidents”.  This particular scene looked quite nasty, and as we went though the mess it was impossible to figure our what might have happened.

Spain

Our coach slowed as we approached a section of roadworks with the third lane of our carriage way closed off with large concrete barriers. This seemed to explain the first casualty.  A car appeared to have ignored the roadwork and lane closure signs, hit the concrete at high speed and flipped over it, landing on its roof.  Thankfully the car was modern and seemed to have protected its passengers very well.  The front was wrecked completely (the engine could be seen on the other carriage way!) but the passenger section had held solid, protecting those within.  The passengers were out of the car and sitting beside it looking decidedly shaken but amazingly unharmed.  Then things got strange.  Just a little way further down the opposite carriage way, we saw a single lorry axle.  On its own, complete with tyres, but no rest of lorry.  A group of people were pointing down the embankment on the other side of the road.  Whether the rest of the vehicle was down there we couldn’t see.  Then there was another big two-trailer lorry, apparently unharmed, facing the wrong way on the opposite carriage way.  Then the road was covered with coal.  Goodness only knows what happened, the whole scene didn’t seem to add up.  I can only hope that anyone in the lorries was as unharmed as those in the car.  Having since returned from Durban I’m a little relieved that all our long distance coach travelling is over.

I knew very little about Durban before I got there, but for some reason I’d painted a picture of a modern, attractive and popular city on the coast.  After all, it sells itself on its all-year-round beach and surf culture.  It’s also known in SA as the place to go for a curry as there’s a sizable Indian population there.  As we were driving through, my imagination had clearly got the better of itself.  It’s not a pretty place.  Block after block of derelict looking buildings lead slowly down to an industrial harbour that makes Portsmouth seem like village of the year.  We were dropped off in what appeared to be the middle of this harbour.  Much muttering from people wondering what exactly we were expected to do for the next three hours.  But in fact, we had been taken to the entrance of a shopping mall (surprise surprise!) which led out to the beach.  It was actually pretty pleasant down there, and not a bad place to grab a bite to eat and a couple of beers before heading up to the stadium.

Ah, the stadium.  Just look at it:

The Moses Mabhida Stadium is a real thing of beauty.  Its Wembley-esque arch splits in two at one end to form a Y shape to reflect the national flag, and for those who are confident of keeping their lunch down you can walk up it, take a train up it or even swing from it.  It really is a stunning thing.  Unless you have the misfortune to have one of the many restricted view seats.  Yes, you read it right, restricted view seats.  Now, back in the days of grounds being built with pillars to hold up the roof, restricted views were a fact of life.  But those days are long gone.  Unless you’re an architect whose concerns end with how the place looks and fails to take the views from inside into consideration.  This was my view of the pitch:

Oh dear.  That’s 400 USD worth of seat, apparently.  Fortunately, due to the Durban Airport FiascoTM, there were a few empty seats just along from ours so we did manage to get an unobstructed view of the game, although not before Dandini spent quarter of an hour berating an incompetent FIFA official and trying to get us moved.  The game itself was a very tight affair and it was not surprising that only one goal won it.  Germany couldn’t continue their red-hot form against a Spanish side who had clearly done their homework.  They never gave the Germans a chance to produce their counter attacking moves and allowed them no time on the ball at all.  They also defended brilliantly, something you’d have expected more from their opponents than them.  In the end, the team who deserved to win got to the final.  There wasn’t much of an atmosphere, although this is probably to be expected given the number of neutral supporters in the ground.  But even the Spanish and Germans in attendance didn’t really get behind their team.  It only serves to emphasise how good the English support had been.

The journey home was quick (7 hours again), uneventful and mercifully free of music and film.  Considering how many people made their own way down, or sold their tickets to avoid the journey altogether, it was not a bad day at all, and those of us who took the coach option were glad that we did.  But our time here is rapidly coming to a close.  Just one game left, although it is of course the big one!

The internet here has deteriorated from bad to almost unusable, hence this blog post taking almost two days to compose.  I shall try to write about today’s (Friday) trip to Constitution Hill and of course the big day on Sunday, but unless things here improve network-wise I can’t be sure I will be able to before I return to my 50mb heaven in Enfield!  Until then, AYOBA!

Day 27: Safari, Part 2.

A couple of weeks ago I described the three stages of wildlife watching: The Zoo, The Game Reserve, The Safari Proper.  It seems there are stages within stages!  Back then I wrote about our visit to Aquila Game Reserve.  Yesterday (Monday) we went to another game reserve, the much bigger Pilanesberg Game Reserve.

I really enjoyed Aquila.  The scenery was beautiful, the wildlife extensive and fascinating, the hospitality superb.  And considering my only previous vehicle-based wildlife experience was seeing monkeys rip cars apart at Longleat, it was a real eye-opener and great fun.

But Aquila is only 4,500 hectares.  Pilanesberg is 55,000.  That’s not a knife, that’s a knife!

Gerald Durrell

We booked our tour through Tailor Made Safaris and were picked up at 6am by Nick, our Dutch guide.  And I don’t mean Africaans Dutch, I mean a proper Dutchman from the Netherlands.  He’d moved to South Africa four years ago, presumably because of the lack of lions and rhinos running wild in Rotterdam.  Nick looked the part dressed in khaki and green and sporting a beard that seems destined to grow into a most impressive and appropriate Gerald Durrell in due course! But Nick’s talents go beyond the aesthetic, he certainly knows his stuff, and throughout the day there was nothing he didn’t know about any animal or bird or plant we asked him about.

The journey to Pilanesberg took a couple of hours and we found ourselves in the midst of a wild, mountainous wilderness which is unsurprising considering the whole park exists within a giant extinct volcano crater.  Previously private farm land, the government decided in the late 1970s to create a national park and undertook a massive animal reintroduction project.  All the animals there now descend directly from livestock introduced to the park by man 30-odd years ago.  It’s interesting to hear about which species have thrived and which have struggled in their new environment.

Unlike Aquila when we were part of a group of eight in the back of a converted Land Rover, Dandini and I had Nick and his Nissan X-Trail to ourselves.  This proved to be the biggest difference between the two days.  Having our own personal guide meant that the safari really was tailor made.  Nick took us where we wanted to go, told us about what we were interested in and made sure we got as much as possible out of the day.  This is the way to do it!

The day itself was split into a morning drive around the park, lunch at a lodge, then back for more animal hunting in the afternoon.  The relatively small size of Aquila meant that there was a different herd of one kind or another virtually around each corner.  This was never going to be the case in Pilanesberg, but even so, finding animals in the morning proved to be rather tricky.  We saw some animals in the distance, lots of springbok and warthog, and various other creatures.  But as far as decent contact with animals was concerned, Nick was disappointed, although I for one was thoroughly enjoying the drive.

One of the main weapons in the armoury of the safari guide is his ability to track the big names, for example the lion.  They have a bizarre sixth sense that seems to draw them to where the action is.  Either that or the hoards of vehicles jostling for position in the distance gives it away.  In any case, during the morning we followed the lead of several other vehicles and gathered with them looking at a patch of long yellow grass.  We were told that there was a lioness in there.  Hmm.  We couldn’t see anything, and neither could the herd of wildebeest grazing nearby.  She did put her head up briefly, according the Dandini, but was looking away from her lunch.  After about 15 minutes we gave up.  I’ve played lazy lions, I know the point of the game.  And I would imagine lions would be pretty good at it!  No doubt there was a slaughter the moment we left, but there we go.

Lunch was taken at a lodge on the outskirts of the park, and was included in the cost of the day.  This was just as well.  The lodge was stunning, it’s restaurant overlooking the park itself.  The food was equally wonderful, and there was a ridiculous amount of it, as much as you could eat from the endless buffet in fact!  In the end I had five courses; a starter, two main courses and two deserts.  You may think this sounds like extreme gluttony.  You’d be right.  But the food and the company and the view were superb, so I don’t care what you think!

After our long and extensive lunch we returned to the park for another few hours of exploring, and this time we were a bit luckier.  Straight away we saw an elephant digging for water with his trunk and tusks.  We saw three groups of white rhino including one pair that came right up to the vehicle to pose for photos.  We saw all sorts of animals and most of which were nice and close to us.

Most punters get excited about the big five (lions, elephants, white rhino, buffalo and leopards) but Nick made a spot which excited him more than any of these could have done: A brown hyena.  Doesn’t sound too exciting to you or me but apparently they are extremely rare.  It had been four years since he’d last seen one, so that spot in the morning made his day.  You can imagine, then, how gobsmacked he was when he saw another one in the afternoon!  The poor guy was a loss for words for several minutes!

All three of us were enjoying the afternoon so much that we ended up leaving for home an hour later than we were due to, another bonus for us having our own guide, and in particular one who we got on with so well.  It wasn’t quite the same as a proper safari, ie a trip into the Masai Mara or Serengeti, but much nearer to that than Aquila.  There’s something about the more elusive nature of the animals in Pilanesberg that made the experience more rewarding.  Nick was a star, his knowledge and humour was instrumental in turning a good day into a really great day!

Day 25: England vs Argentina

One of my friends recently made reference on Facebook to England’s exit from the World Cup, saying that one good thing was that the “nationalist borderline xenophobia” would stop.  It’s a fair point, and one I know is much more obvious in the pubs of England than here in the middle of the tournament itself.  There’s a distinction, a line if you like, between harmless partisan support for your own country and the inevitable ribbing of your rivals, and all out animosity against an entire nation just because you’re playing them in a game of football.  The vandalism of German-made cars after the semi-final in Euro 96 is a clear example of the latter.

I for one enjoy the former, in the same way that I enjoy the rivalry we Swindon fans have with Bristol or Oxford.  I will tell you with complete sincerity how much I hate Oxford and all those who dwell there.  I will mean it completely.  If, that is, we’re talking football.  Otherwise, I’ll happily acknowledge that the city is a beautiful and interesting place with more style, class and culture that Swindon could ever have.  And I will mean it almost completely ;-).  But the fact that I sat next to a man with an Oxford United tattoo on his arm throughout yesterday’s Germany Argentina quarter-final in Cape Town, and that he knows I support Swindon yet didn’t (and, as yet still hasn’t) hit me is a case in point.  We were there as England fans, not club fans.  So the hatred and rivalry (within its context of course) was national.  And the day became, breifly, England vs Argentina.

Before I get to the petty jingoism, I must just tell you how happy we were to be back in Cape Town.  After a week in Johannesburg with it’s bleak, walled fortresses and endless sprawling yellow wilderness, the greenery of Cape Town was as refreshing to us as a pint on a Friday evening.  And then there was the welcome sight of Table Mountain looming over everything in the sunshine.  Perfect.  We had lunch in our favourite Italian restaurant on the Waterfront before heading off to the ground, surrounded by noisy Argies and confident looking Germans.

Once in the ground we found ourselves sitting near a couple from our group, John and Sandy.  John and Sandy are passionate football fans and go to all the home and away games of Wycombe Wanderers.  Having arrived early, they hung a large England flag over one of the tunnels leading out to the corner of the pitch.  As we sat there watching the crowd swell, Argentina flags were added all over the place, including along the sides of the tunnel.  Then came England vs Argentia Part I.  Or the Falklands War Part II.  A couple of meaty looking youngsters who would not look out of place in the middle of a River Plate vs Boca Juniors standoff attempted to hang their flag directly over John and Sandy’s England flag.  “OY!” shouted Sandy, and she tore over to the culprits, with John in hot pursuit.  Bear in mind, dear reader, that John and Sandy are grandparents.  John’s in his 70s.  A heated argument took place in which the Argentinians claimed that John and Sandy had no right to hang their flag as England weren’t playing.  This was met with a robust response from the oldies, so much so that two or three police arrived to intervene.  The argument continued.  Then, about 10 “Robocop” police waded in clad in their Kevlar riot gear.  There are so many police at these games and so little trouble that they’re clearly desperate for something to do.  After three weeks of fight-free football, I expect this confrontation constituted a full-blown Code Red!  In the end the grandparents won, the police pointing out that they had every right to hang their flag as they’d bought a ticket.  Cue various cat-calls from the surrounding Brits about the Falklands and our two brave Argentinian warriors left with their tails between their legs.  John and Sandy returned looking indignant but victorious.

Sandy and John tightening the knots after the battle

The ground was filled up, as you would expect, with Germans and Argentinians, with noticeably more of the latter.  They were a noisy bunch while the Germans didn’t really much much of a sound at all.  It added to the sense of disappointment in our own side.  The atmosphere would have been incredible had it been full of England fans in a vocal battle with their south American opponents.  But there were a few English there, of course, and we all found it difficult to decide who to cheer for, what with two of our traditional opponents playing.  Well, I say “we”.  For me the choice was easy – it had to be Germany.  I’ve never forgiven Diego Maradona for his handball goal against England in 1986.  I remember it vividly.  I was 9 at the time and in Kefalonia on holiday with my Dad.  He’d woken my brother and I at 1am to go down to the hotel bar to watch the game.  I remember the Greeks all cheering on Argentina, and the Brits shouting at the TV when he punched the ball into the net.  The thing is, the reasons for hating that man only begin with his cheating.  Pretty much everything he’s done since then (with the exception of his second goal in that game which was class) has shown arrogance, disrespect or stupidity.  He is as unlikeable a man as I can think of within the game of football.

You’ve probably realised I don’t like him much.

When people knew I was going to be at the game, they asked me to, ahem, pass on my regards.  So as well as being there to enjoy some top-quality international football, I had a job to do.  My family were relying on me.  If I came home without doing my duty I’d face the ire of my friends and relatives.  Fortune, however was on my side.  An hour before kick off, the players ambled out to have a look around the ground.  They stayed for a few minutes and then went back to the changing rooms.  Then, another cheer from the blue and white crowd.  Diego Maradona entered the arena.  Here was my chance.  When the noise level dropped, I, surrounded by Argentinians, stood up, cupped my hands around my mouth and bellowed:

“Diego Maradona!  On behalf of my family, you are a cheating, coke-snorting shit!”

A shit

I sat down.  Job done.  I could return home happy in the knowledge that I had said my piece.  There was a small chance he might have heard me.  That’s enough for me.

There were three South Africans sitting next to Dandini who thought the whole thing was hysterical, and I received many nods of approval from the Brits sitting nearby. Of course, there was the small matter of a game of football too, and that turned out to be a cracker.  We had excellent seats 19 rows from the front, giving us an excellent view of Lionel Messi working his magic, and in the second half some clinical goals from the impressive Germans.  It was a great game and a superb performance from our European cousins.  Deutschland Deutschland über alles!  Who said anything about xenophobia?

Day 24: People, past and present.

I don’t know about you, but I find people fascinating.  One of the opportunities provided by spending so many hours in airports over the last few weeks has been the excellent time available for people-watching.  The public can make seriously interesting viewing.

The other members of our Thomson Sport tour are an interesting bunch, too.  It’s an eclectic group with a mixture of all ages, almost as many women as men, and people from all corners of England.  Most of them are very pleasant people, and the hotel lounge has become more and more sociable as time goes on.  On the other hand there’s a loud and irritating bunch of City wide boys who discuss their trading exploits at volume for everyone to enjoy.  But at least they’ve stuck with it.  Some of our number, after England lost to Germany, re-booked their flights home and fled back to the UK despite having paid for two more weeks of hotel accommodation and holding tickets to three more games including the World Cup Final.  The World Cup Final for heaven’s sake!  Still, it takes all sorts, as they say.  These are the people who spent two and a half weeks in Cape Town and only left the hotel to go to the games.  Weird.

The study and history of people was the theme of our excursion today, as it happened.  We booked ourselves on a trip to the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, specifically to visit the Sterkfontein Caves and the Maropeng Museum.

Africa is the birthplace of mankind.  Humans and pre-human species of homonids evolved here, and there’s so much fossil and bone evidence throughout the continent that a clear timeline of human evolution has been established.  It’s fascinating and at times mind-boggling stuff, especially when you consider the timescales involved.

It turned out that Dandini and I were the only two people on the trip, and we were picked up by a stout, broadly Africaans chap and driven in his car up to Sterkfontein, our first stop being the caves.  Some of the most significant homonid finds have taken place in the Sterkfontein caves including a full skeleton known as “Little Foot” which is believed to be more than 3 million years old.  This skeleton is such a remarkable find that it’s taken them 16 years to carefully excavate the 90% that has been revealed so far.  Now that’s what I call taking your time!

We were taken down into the caves by our superb guide whose Zulu name I will not attempt to spell (or pronounce!).  He was as witty as he was knowledgeable and we spent a fascinating hour exploring deep into the cave network.  The area where “Little Foot” is being excavated was heavily fortified with huge gates and razor wire, and only the excavation team are allowed in there.

One amusing side to the visit was the discovery that our driver (who came with us into the caves) was a creationist.  Now, I am a very atheist person (if that’s possible.  Surely you’re either atheist or not.  A bit like nothing can be very unique), but am happy to respect people’s religions and beliefs.  Indeed, it’s a subject I find almost limitlessly fascinating.  However, when it comes to creationism I have to draw a line.  Creationism professes to be a scientific school yet ignores and twists and fabricates and misrepresents all the evidence that proves them to be wrong.  The classic (and most spectacularly misleading) line they use when it comes to evolution was uttered by our driver as we left the caves.  “Of course, it’s only a theory”.  Yes, it is.  But so is gravity, and there’s considerably more evidence to support evolution than there is to support the theory of gravity.  I decided not to argue with our driver (not wanting to be left alone in the middle of the wilderness!) but couldn’t help smiling at his ignoring everything he’d seen over the last hour or so.  Also, I’m not sure he’d have been able to cope with the logical checkmate statement of “Who created the creator” either.  This is a man who told us that truck drivers were a problem on South African roads as they caused a lot of accidents, yet had several times driven at 60mph whilst writing and sending text messages.

After the Sterkfontein Caves we visited the Maropeng Museum.  Aimed at a much younger audience, the Maropeng Museum continued the story of the world’s development over time, taking each visitor on a journey of discovery through the ages.  Upon entering the museum you’re taken down a long, descending spiral path that goes back in time from the present day to the Big Bang.  Then, unexpectedly, you’re ushered into a round boat like those at rapids rides at amusement parks and taken through the eons.  Very entertaining stuff.  The boat docked at the beginning of the museum proper which turned out to be something of a cross between the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum back in London, a very hands-on playground for youngsters exploring all facets of humankind.  Entering the museum just behind us was a large group of schoolchildren, and if none of them is inspired to pursue Paleoanthropology later in life I’ll be very surprised.

So two more museums visited.  It has to be said, all the museums we’ve been to have been superb.  The District Six museum was thoughtfully created and sensitively presented.  The Hector Pieterson museum was heart-wrenching and fascinating in equal measure, while the Apartheid museum was as comprehensive on its subject as any place I’ve been.  I am of the opinion that education is the key to this country continuing to progress, and if these museums are anything to go by, the future is more bright than bleak.

"Little Foot"