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Johannesburg, South Africa

Alright, I’m officially sick of flying. 11 hours, very little sleep, and I think I’ve picked up a cold from all that re-circulated air. Miserable. First-class is really the only way to go when you’re flying on these long flights.

Our arrival at the airport was our first real taste of the World Cup. Everything at the airport was decked out in World Cup paraphernalia – columns, walls, people. World Cup sponsors were handing out free Coke, free chocolate, free visitor packets with ponchos. There were fans of various countries – Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mexico, USA, Netherlands – but none were as rowdy as the Chileans, who were already dressed in their jerseys, flags & hats, blowing their horns. Mind you, this was at 9am. There were a few scattered Vuvuzuelas being blown around the main atrium as we waited to pick up our tickets. Got our phone card during the wait too. After roughly 2 hours, we had our tickets, our luggage and our rental car, so it was time to head to Kruger Park and the Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

So. The rental car. First off, it’s manual transmission, which eliminates me from driving it. Second, they drive on the left side of the road in South Africa. Third, we’re in the Southern Hemisphere, and so as we were driving during the middle of the day, I suddenly realized that the sun moves from east to west across the northern part of the sky instead of the southern. That threw me for a loop. We started off the trip right by missing the exit onto the first highway, so we had to circle through the airport before getting back to it. The highways are as nice as any American highway around Jo’burg, so it was quite easy travel for the first couple hours. We grabbed lunch at a Wimpy Burger, which appears to be a chain across South Africa. Eventually we made it to Nelspruit, which is a World Cup city. Due to a wrong turn, we were able to pass by the stadium, which looked quite nice, as did the rest of the city.

As we continued onward towards the park, it began to get much more local. The roads became one lane, and we started to see the locals out and about. There were signs all over the place for “High Accident Zones”, which weren’t necessarily for car-to-car interactions. People hang out on the side of the road, they walk on the side of the road, they cross the streets at any given moment. The women walk around balancing anything and everything on their heads – it is really remarkable. One woman was carrying a pizza box on her head! Many people waved as we went by. Eventually we made it out towards the park area as darkness was quickly approaching.

Things got a bit trickier once we turned off the paved roads. Each time we thought we were at our destination, we had more kilometers to go. We managed not to get lost up until the very end, when we were supposed to “follow the arrows” to the lodge. We did ok at first, until we saw a jackrabbit in the road right in front of us that started bouncing away. Eventually, it turned to the right, just beneath a sign that said “Deliveries ->”. Seeing no other signs, we went that way…and wound up at a fence. Fortunately, a staff member heard us making crazy car noises and opened up the fence so we could finally enter the lodge.

We arrived in time for dinner, which was absolutely fantastic. A full 3-course meal, with all of the lodge guests, in the round, with a fire in the middle. 5 people were from Argentina, 3 others from the US, and 2 Australians. Dinner was served earlier in the night than usual to accommodate the football match between Italy and Paraguay that was starting at 8:30. Everyone was very friendly and it was fun to be watching the match all together. Unfortunately, jet-lag caught up with us and we left at halftime.

Tomorrow, the real safari fun begins!

permalink written by  nucappy on June 14, 2010 from Johannesburg, South Africa
from the travel blog: London and South Africa - World Cup 2010!
tagged Safari, SouthAfrica and WorldCup

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Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need...roads….

Justicia, South Africa

Wow. Where to start? Today was incredible. Our agenda was laid out for us yesterday, so we knew that today would consist of a 3-hour morning game drive, breakfast, a 1-hour bush walk, football match, lunch, a 3-hour afternoon game drive, dinner, football match. This is a life I wouldn’t mind living, especially considering how good the food is.

Let’s begin with last night, however, or rather, early this morning. You see, we were awakened at roughly 1am by the guttural growls of a territorial monkey who must’ve been perched on our roof or somewhere very close by. Being completely confused, I thought that perhaps it was the wakeup call, until I checked my camera (doubling as my watch) to see that it was clearly not the case. It stopped after 5 or 6 calls, so I went back to sleep. A short while later, around 1:45am, Mr. Monkey decided he needed to howl some more, although he was farther away this time. Between the head cold and the howling, this was once again a poor night of sleep.

Wakeup came at 6am, upon which I threw on some clothes and made my way to the lodge for an apple and some morning tea to get things started. About 6:45, we climbed into the open-air Land Rover featuring a seat out in front of the vehicle for the Tracker, 10 seats for guests tiered in rows of 3, plus a seat for the Ranger and a place on the dashboard for his .375 bolt-action rifle. Considering that it was in the 40s when we started, we were given a heavy blanket and a bladder full of hot water to keep ourselves warm. Let me preface this by saying that words cannot do this full justice and pictures will eventually make its way up here when I can get enough internet access to post them.

Throughout the next 3 hours, we traversed roads, dirt paths, brush, bushes, trees, and pretty much anything that got in our way. Our first animal sighting was a lone young elephant that was feeding itself on the side of the road. Following that, we came across a few Impalas, which, in fact, are not crappy American cars stranded in the wilderness, but are related to the antelope and look somewhat like deer. These were everywhere throughout the course of the day and are generally food for some other predator. Then we decided to up the ante a bit as we went off-road for the first time. The next animals we went to see were lions. First we passed by a lioness who was sunning herself and sleepy, so we then found her male counterpart in the brush, eating grass. It will be tough to imagine this, even with the pictures, but our Land Rover was “parked” in a ditch at a strange angle, leaving us (by design) roughly 5-10 feet from the lion. Of course, I was on the side of the vehicle closest to said lion, so in the event he should decide grass wasn’t so tasty and human would be much better, I’d have been first on the menu. Eventually he decided he’d had enough grass, so we followed him back to the lioness where he proceeded to lay down in the sun and stare at us for a while, before turning on his side to catch some rays. We came upon a watering hole next that featured a crocodile sunning itself and a belligerent hippo making his presence known to all. Apparently hippos are actually timid creatures when confronted by other animals, except for when humans surprise them. Guns don’t kill people, hippos do.

Moving along, we soon came across a pair of buffalo. Buffalo have some quite large horns on them; however, they too are herbivores and were eating grass as we followed them around. I should mention that in our particular game reserve, which is a private part of the Kruger National Park, there are 7 lodges that share information amongst each other when they go out on drives. While it seems like cheating, it’s a great way to ensure that the guests see what they want to see while out on the drives. I bring this up now because this is how we found our next animal, a female leopard. We followed her for a long time, hoping that she would bring us to her cubs. Instead, she brought us through ever-increasing brush, getting us stuck numerous times on rocks and branches before we got as far as we could go without encroaching on someone else’s property. I should also mention that the Tracker, who is responsible for pointing out any animals in the distance along with the direction the Land Rover should go while off-road, is getting hit in the face by a variety of tree branches, many with extremely long and sharp thorns. He is a brave man.

At this point, it was time to stop for a bit of tea and stretch our legs before heading back to the lodge. On our way back, we happened upon a giraffe. Giraffes, for being as tall as they are, blend in exceedingly well if you are not looking for them. Apparently giraffes have no social structure and just sort of roam as they please. They are able to use their long, sticky tongue and flexible lips to eat the leaves from the thorniest trees. These trees have these thorns because their leaves are the tastiest. Giraffes laugh at their efforts…or something. Unfortunately, though giraffes can run quite fast due to having 6-foot-long legs, they are food for lions, which are rather smart when it comes to hunting and usually find a way to make the giraffe fall down before going to town on it.

So all of that happened in 3 hours. Crazy, right? This was just the beginning. Breakfast was a delicious spread of eggs, beans, sausage, bacon, sautéed onions, mushrooms and tomatoes, yogurt, and fruit. Once that was finished, it was time to get ready for the bush walk. As I came out of our cabin, I noticed a rather large antelope-like animal standing 10 feet from the porch. Not knowing exactly what it would do, I hung out on the porch for a bit and took pictures of it and some birds until it sat down and looked docile. I then swung out the other side of the porch and took the long way around to the lodge to go on the walk.

There were two rules for the bush walk – always stay behind the rifle, and listen to any instructions the ranger gives. Seemed easy enough. We got to observe rule #2 pretty quickly, as we were walking out the front entrance of the camp only to find a pack of elephants feeding about 25 feet away, including one pissed-off mama elephant. The mama took 3 charging steps in our direction as we stood still and silent, before it returned to eating grass with the others. We took a bit of a detour to get in better position to view them while also waiting for them to move along. Eventually they left, and we went to take the long route around the camp to get to the watering hole that those elephants would most likely be heading towards.

Once we arrived there, we noticed a hippo in the water, giraffes in the distance, and a large male elephant making his way down to the water as well. On the other side of the bank, there were a few Waterbuck (another antelope-like animal), along with some Egyptian Geese (neither geese nor in Egypt) and a Water Monitor Lizard, which is not small and is related to the Komodo Dragon. Eventually, the pack of elephants from before made their way down to the water, where they eagerly paraded through it for a few minutes to cool themselves down. One female elephant decided to stay behind while the pack left, and we were waiting for the hippo to try and assert itself, but it never did. Outside of the few times when hippos bellow and make angry sounds, they’re pretty lame animals; all they do is sit underwater with their eyes and snout sticking out. Once the elephants left, we did the same and returned to the lodge for some rest and a football match to watch.

permalink written by  nucappy on June 15, 2010 from Justicia, South Africa
from the travel blog: London and South Africa - World Cup 2010!
tagged Safari, SouthAfrica and WorldCup

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Safari Day 1, Part 2

Justicia, South Africa

I missed the 2nd half of New Zealand-Slovakia, but apparently it was a hell of a finish. Lunch was excellent, continuing the theme of awesome meals (plus they catered to my gluten allergy, bonus!). The main dish was prawns and mussels over rice along with some other meats and cheeses plus fruit. Following lunch, it was time for the afternoon game drive.

Having seen so many animals in the morning, there were only a few that we had missed, so we set off in search of some rhinos. We didn’t find them at their usual spot, so our ranger assumed they’d be at the watering hole since it was such a hot day. Sure enough, when we drove down there, we found 4 white rhinos hanging out by the far side of the pool. White rhinos are apparently quite docile unless you surprise them, whereas black rhinos are far more aggressive. So of course, we decided to drive through the brush and get around the other side of the rhinos. Naturally, this surprised them as we came crashing through the brush in the Land Rover, and they got a bit jumpy. We had blocked their path out, or at least the one they assumed they were planning to take, so they started making some grunting noises and moved to within 10 feet of the vehicle. One of these beasts had a horn that was roughly 3 feet long and very pointy – a horn that on a previous drive found its way into the front grille when our ranger accidentally surprised it while it was sleeping. Needless to say, it was a bit anxious as we waited for them to settle down and move along, especially since the vehicle was turned off at the time.

Once the rhinos moved on, we continued our drive past some elephants eating by the side of the road, including one who was on a small hill and looked like it could have easily jumped on the hood of the car as we sat there taking pictures of it. Our ranger got a call on his radio that there was a massive herd of buffalo not too far away, so off we went to go find them.

The guy wasn’t kidding – there were a few hundred buffalo roaming across the landscape eating grass along the way. Naturally, we drove right into the middle of the herd so we could get some good photos as they milled on by. They seem to be very similar to cows, in that they have multiple stomachs, eat grass, and make a sound very similar to mooing. There’s also a good chance that any 11 of them could beat the Buffalo Bills on any given day. As we moved on from the herd, we came across a few stragglers who were wandering around with birds on their backs. Buffalo have a cooperative relationship with these birds, which pick things off their backs that shouldn’t be there. We also learned that many buffalo have had unfortunate encounters with a creature called a Honey Badger, which has a nasty habit of biting the buffalo in its testicles if it happens to walk over its nest. We saw a number of these with scars from such an occurrence.

We took a break for a drink as the sun set, before beginning the most exciting part of the night. Someone had found 3 lions who were on the hunt for some food – most likely the scent of the hundreds of buffalo who had previously roamed by. Using only a spotlight, we moved along with these lions through the darkness and the brush hoping to have them take us to a spot where they would get a kill. There were 1 or 2 other vehicles that were along with us using spotlights as well to keep light on the lions as they walked on. Even after a full day, I still can’t get over how remarkable it is that the presence of these noisy, smelly automobiles along with spotlights doesn’t disrupt or anger the lions in the slightest. The whole time we followed them, they never once stopped or gave the slightest hint that they knew we were there. Unfortunately, it was time for us to head back before the lions reached their objective, so we returned without seeing any action. As a consolation, we passed an owl sitting in the road on the way back. Surprisingly, it didn’t have quite the same impact that 3 lions killing a buffalo would’ve had.

Dinner was another 3-course masterpiece, with a trout appetizer in a creamy dill sauce, followed by a main course of oxtail along with honey mustard chicken, ground maize (looked like rice), savory butternut squash, carrots, beets and green beans, and a dessert of fruit in a sort of custard. I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to go to a diet of bread and water the rest of the trip to make up for how well we’ve eaten here. Following dinner, everyone watched the Brazil-North Korea match expecting Brazil to roll over them. This clearly did not happen, and the game was so dull for a while that the most exciting thing that happened during it was a bat that somehow made its way into the room and flew around in circles for a minute before someone opened the door and it flew out. North Korea made it interesting at the end, but it was not enough to win. I can only imagine that Kim Jong-Il himself will take credit for the most glorious goal and will have the rest of the team summarily executed. Poor guys.

Tomorrow is our last full day here on safari, and I expect it should be another great one.

permalink written by  nucappy on June 15, 2010 from Justicia, South Africa
from the travel blog: London and South Africa - World Cup 2010!
tagged Safari, SouthAfrica and WorldCup

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In case you forgot, it’s winter here

Justicia, South Africa

We woke up today to find that the temperature had dropped like a rock. It was a stark reminder that though the calendar reads June, the season is winter down here. We bundled up and got in the vehicle for the morning game drive, which today, began with elephants munching on some trees nearby. We drove around for quite a long time after that seeing a few antelopes here and there, before coming across the three lions we had been following from last night. This morning, they were fat and happy. All three of them were lying on their sides sunning themselves with big full bellies. A couple of times, they perked their heads up when they heard some noise, but that was roughly the extent of their movements while we were sitting there watching them. I had brought my Northwestern flag to try and get a picture with some real Wildcats, and these lions were a great backdrop, even if they weren’t looking particularly wild at the moment.

Once we finished with the lions, we drove around for a while more before going off-road and crashing through the brush into a fairly thick area. The prize for pushing through all of that foliage? Four lionesses that were themselves getting some sun and relaxing. Apparently all of them had lion cubs, but they were hidden somewhere else at the time we saw them.

Next, we got reports that there was a leopard on the prowl, so we caught up with it while it was stalking some prey. At one point it actually went under our vehicle while on the scent of its prey. For a while, we were able to see it, but then it crouched down low in the tall grasses, and it virtually disappeared. We could see what it was stalking off in the distance – a herd of Impala. They must’ve been at least 60-80 feet away, but it seemed like some of them could sense that something was up, as they moved away from the leopard and were in a very open area. The leopard was staying very still, hoping that the impala would forget that she was there, but it was taking too long and we had to return to the camp to eat breakfast.

The impala ran around as we drove by, and we saw that there was one male and maybe 25 females around him. According to ranger Rob, during breeding season, which was just about to end, a male Impala spends roughly all his time mating with females, until he is too weak due to spending more energy on mating than eating and he is replaced by another stronger male. The cycle repeats until the end of breeding season, and the last male to be there stays with the females until the next breeding season starts. This is advantageous, as the other males are off on their own in smaller packs, and are easier prey for predators. The male who stays with the females is better protected, as he will usually stay in the middle of the group while the females are the ones who get eaten by predators.

We took a brush walk with two of the guides after breakfast, and learned an awful lot about poop. It is very easy to determine the owner of a given piece of dung just by looking at it to see what it is composed of. Hippos spread their dung around with their tail on bushes to mark their territory. Elephants have dung with lots of undigested grass, bark and leaves in it since they are very inefficient at digesting their food, and it also has a reddish color to it because they eat leaves off trees that have lots of tannins in order to ward off the animals. Elephants don’t care, since they have poor taste buds, so they eat anything in sight. Rhinos, buffalo and the antelope types have multiple stomachs, so they are much better at digesting their food and their dung comes out looking “finely processed” for lack of a better term. Lastly, we learned that giraffe dung is scattered since it falls from such a high height. I hope you found this just as informative as I did.

Back at the lodge, there were a few warthogs that decided to graze on the grass between cabins. I think they win the award for ugliest creatures we’ve seen so far. I went up to watch the Honduras-Chile match before lunch, which once again was quite tasty. The Chileans looked pretty good and their fanbase was as boisterous as I remember it being at the airport 2 days ago.

At the end of our morning game drive, ranger Rob noticed some leopard tracks with cub tracks alongside it, and so the first objective on our afternoon game drive was to go find that leopard, as it was most likely taking the cub to a kill it had made earlier in the morning. When we got to the point where the tracks went off into the brush, Rob and tracker Ron got out on foot, rifle in hand, to go try and find the kill and the leopards before driving into the thick of it. They were gone for about 5 minutes, leaving the rest of us to wonder what the hell we’d do if some animal came up to the car with no ranger and no gun. Eventually they returned with news that they’d found the kill, but no leopard. We drove in to where it was lying – it was an impala – and waited for the leopard to return, as it had probably run off when Rob and Ron approached. After about 10 minutes, we decided to leave and come back later in the hopes that the leopard would’ve returned.

As it turned out, we got about 3 minutes away when the call came over the radio that the leopard had returned. We stopped in front of a rock where there were a few dwarf monogooses. They are curious little creatures who look a lot like prairie dogs, but very tiny. We made our way back to the kill, where the leopard cub was chowing down on the dead impala as the mother laid down a few feet away and watched. The cub was a cute little guy, but with quite sharp teeth that would cause problems if you tried to play with it. The cub got its fill of food and went back to play around with its mother before wandering around looking at the other vehicles that had showed up to see it. It got its nose bloody from digging into the flank of the impala and looked a little like Rudolph the red-nosed leopard. At one point, it had ripped off the tail of the animal and was playing with it. Somewhat sadistic if you ask me.

After leaving the leopard behind, we went up on a hill to have a drink and watch the sun set. I got a great panorama shot which I hope to show you all at some point. After taking some pictures, we all got back in the vehicle and traveled some more in hopes of finding a second leopard with a kill. Since it was at nighttime, it was tough to try and spot a leopard that didn’t want to be seen, however, I thought I saw one slinking through the bushes. We briefly backtracked, but didn’t investigate, and we drove on. Eventually we found the kill, but there was no leopard in sight. Since it was on another game reserve’s property, we didn’t press further into the matter, and we headed back for dinner.

Our last dinner was to the same level as the previous two, this time featuring a venison-like animal and a fish, along with some great veggies and a flan-like dessert. South Africa, or Bafana Bafana, was playing tonight, so everyone settled in to the lodge to watch the match in hopes that they would win, and we would all be happy. Alas, it was as bad as it could be, and Uruguay won 3-0. South Africa requires a miracle now to advance, and though they are playing a French team in disarray in their next match, it may prove to be too much of an obstacle to overcome.

Tomorrow, we leave for Polokwane and our first match of the World Cup!

permalink written by  nucappy on June 16, 2010 from Justicia, South Africa
from the travel blog: London and South Africa - World Cup 2010!
tagged Safari, SouthAfrica and WorldCup

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World Cup Fever - catch it…and freeze

Polokwane, South Africa

Today was the day we sadly had to leave the Idube Lodge and continue on with our journey to the World Cup! We were able to still get on the morning game drive for one last go-around with the animals, and I’m certainly glad we did, because it was a damn good one. We were driving for long stretches without seeing any animals at first, until we spotted some rhino tracks on the road and followed them to a clearing where, sure enough, there were 2 rhinos. These guys were much less belligerent than the ones we saw 2 days ago, perhaps because they were already out in an open clearing and not cornered against a lake. We had some new people today who hadn’t seen the rhinos yet, so it was a treat for them. Hard to believe seeing rhinos felt like it was nothing extraordinary today.

The real treat was to follow though, as we drove for quite some time before seeing our next animals. I heard one of the other rangers say something about “an extraordinary view”, but couldn’t tell what he was talking about. We soon found out, and it was well worth the wait. 4 lionesses, the same 4 we saw yesterday, were laying in the road with 6 lion cubs. I swear, I’ve never seen anything so cute and deadly at the same time. The cubs couldn’t have been more than a foot long, and were alternating between drinking milk from the mother, wrestling with each other, mewling, and just generally being pretty damn adorable. One of the cubs was 6 months old and much bigger than the other little ones, and was apparently the only cub in her litter. Normally, lions tend to ignore a single cub, but she stuck it out and became accepted in the pride. Remember, this was all happening 10-20 feet from our vehicle. I was able to get some good pictures and great videos that someday I’ll be able to upload.

Moving on from the lions, we came across a hippo hanging out in a pool getting some sun on its body to warm itself up. It decided to make itself known to us with a big thrash about in the pool before slipping back under the water. At this time, we noticed some elephants coming out of the brush into an open clearing above the pool. This was where the rhino bones that we saw yesterday were scattered about on the grass. Apparently elephants are one of the few creatures that understand death, as they mourn the loss of their own and are curious when they find bones of other creatures. In this particular instance, they were picking the bones up with their trunk, putting it in their mouths, tossing it on their heads, and breaking them with their feet. One elephant had some issues with the toss and hit itself in the face instead. Eventually they tired of the bones and moved along to eat some more trees.
We swung back around to the hippo to have some tea and attempt to get it angry again, but it was not to be, and we headed back to the lodge one final time. Packed up, said our goodbyes, checked out and away we went with my USA scarf on the dashboard, headed for some World Cup action in Polokwane.

The drive to Polokwane had to be done all on local roads, so while it took a lot longer than a highway drive would’ve taken, we got to see a whole lot of South Africa that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It is very interesting to see so many people just walking on the side of the road, but there are no sidewalks and people need to get around. We noticed many minibus taxis along the way that seem to be a main source of transportation, but most people tend to walk and either cart or carry their items with them. It seemed that a lot of people noticed the USA scarf and gave a wave back whenever I gave a wave to them. I’ve really yet to meet anyone in this country who isn’t extremely nice, and it’s really a great aspect. As we drew closer to Polokwane, the terrain changed to something that looked like it could belong anywhere in the southwestern US, with lots of cacti all around and very dusty soil. We eventually made it to Polokwane after only a couple minor driving errors, and found our hotel.

There were lots of Mexicans staying at our place for the Mexico-France match tonight. This would be a preview of the match itself. The hotel manager was a somewhat awkward, though nice, old Greek man, who told us that the best way to get to the match was to walk 2 miles to the stadium. Remember, it’s winter time and we’re now back up around the elevation of Denver. The weather seemed reasonable enough, so we decided we’d do the walk. Following dinner at a fast-food chicken joint called Nando’s, it was time to head to the match.

With earplugs in our pockets, my USA jersey on amidst the 3 other green shirts in our group, and a few layers beneath it including a hoodie, we ventured to the stadium on foot. The town is clearly a rather well-off town, as we passed many gated compounds and many nice cars along the way. The walk itself was nothing special, and we finally reached the stadium for our first World Cup match of 2010. We were sitting up high. Very high. There was no roof above us either, so the swirling winds found us early and often. The temperature must’ve been somewhere in the 30s, which was clearly helping my cold that has continued to get worse. Here, we suffered for the 1st half of a 0-0 match.

A note about the vuvuzuelas – the horns that make the buzzing noise on tv – in person, they’re really not that bad. The multiple microphones around the field that pick up the noise for the tv feed make it appear to be far worse than when you are at the match itself. In fact, they really add to the atmosphere and make the match a unique, South African, experience. I still need to get one of my own.

I spotted some seats at halftime in the lower level for us to move to in hopes that it would be warmer and that we’d have a better view. Both points were true, and I was much happier in the new spot. No one checks tickets at all, so once the match starts it’s basically a free-for-all. Apparently this was the same for the concessions as well. I didn’t witness this firsthand, but Ryan did, and his report was that it was a complete disaster. The stadium was only 75% full, but they ran out of food constantly, the concessionaires were yelling at each other behind the counter, the people taking the money tried to coerce people into tipping them, and they ran out of beer as well. The bathroom situation was just as bad, with Ryan mentioning that people were going 3 to a urinal. No thanks.

Mexico turned it up in the 2nd half and put 2 goals away to take the match. I was pulling for a draw in order to give South Africa a chance to move on to the next round, but after this result, it will be damn near impossible for them to do it. It’s very unfortunate for them. France looked absolutely awful, which is the karma they deserve for their cheating ways that got them into the cup to begin with. The rest of my group was thrilled to see Mexico pull out the victory, all but assuring them of a trip to the next round.

We’ve now made our way back in the freezing weather to the hotel, to get a good night’s sleep (and sleep in – for an extra hour!) so that we can head out tomorrow morning to Pretoria and the US-Slovenia match!

permalink written by  nucappy on June 17, 2010 from Polokwane, South Africa
from the travel blog: London and South Africa - World Cup 2010!
tagged Safari, SouthAfrica, WorldCup and Polokwane

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Pretoria, South Africa

Leaving Polokwane began with yet another delicious meal from McDonalds. For a change, this drive was straight highway all the way to Pretoria, where we were going to be staying at a condo owned by a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend. To put it another way, a person who lives in the US that I’ve never met before arranged with her friend in South Africa to host 4 people who she had never met before for 3 nights. It took a bit of trust on both ends of the deal, but it sure seems like it’s going to work out perfectly for us.

We arrived at the condo a bit after 11am, and attempted to find an internet café to try and reserve tickets at the Park-n-Ride to take us to the stadium for the match at 4pm. We were told there was one at a mall nearby, except that when we got there, we found out the café was gone, but there was one in another mall really close by. Well, that mall wasn’t that close by, and no one could really give me great directions to get there or anywhere else, so we just decided we’d wing it. When we were on safari, we talked to some other guests who had been in Jo’burg for games, and they mentioned a place to eat called Melrose Arch. As it turned out, while we were driving towards Jo’burg, I spotted it right off the highway, so we exited and made our way to the parking garage there. Total cost for the whole day? $6! Now we just had to find a cab to the match, and we’d be all set.

There was apparently another “Park-n-Ride” nearby, but it turned out that this one cost $50 per person round trip. Ridiculous and absurd. We ducked into a restaurant to grab some food, and they said they would get us a cab after the meal. They did exactly that, and we got a very nice driver in a BMW who took us down to the match as far as he could go without breaching the no-car perimeter that was set up around the stadium. He even walked with us for a bit to make sure we were safe, as the stadium is right next to a slum area that is full of Zimbabwean and Nigerian illegal immigrants. It was sad to drive by the area and see just how awful the living conditions were there. I honestly think the people living in one-story brick houses in the rural villages have a higher quality of life than the people here. In any event, the ride was only $25, and he offered to pick us up after the match. For winging it, this turned out really well.

As for the match itself, there’s only one word – Ayoba! Ayoba apparently is a slang term for “wow” or, more accurately, a “wow-factor”. If you watched the match, you know what I mean. But let’s start from entering the gates. The US support was through the roof. Everywhere I looked there were American flags, face paint, and vuvuzuelas. I tried to get a video or two capturing the atmosphere, but I’m not certain how well it worked. Once again we were sitting in the upper level, so we made our way up the winding ramps to the tune of USA chants and vuvuzuela blasts. We wound up in the 4th row of the upper level much closer to mid-field, which were great seats. In the “it’s a small world” category, we wound up sitting directly in front of an American family who was on our safari just a few days earlier. I was on the end of my group, so I wound up talking to a South African couple next to me throughout the match who had never been to a soccer match prior to the World Cup. The guy was asking me about our team and how good we were, along with getting clarity on some rules of the game itself.

For whatever reason, I love the pre-match ritual with the flags, the entrance of the players and the national anthems of both teams, even more so when it’s a US match. I think it has to do with all the build-up to the match coming to a head right at that moment, knowing it is only seconds away from beginning where anything can happen.

Unfortunately, the “anything” can be bad just as well as good. The Slovenians set the tone of the match not 30 seconds into it when one of their players went down like he’d been shot in the head, requiring the presence of the stretcher only to have him stand up and walk off the field when it arrived, and then re-entering the field a minute later. The guy next to me remarked that it was less about actual skills and more about who’s the best actor. This occurred probably 5 times throughout the match, until someone finally did get hurt and actually went off on the stretcher.

The first half was a disaster. 2 goals by the Slovenians, none by the US. We had a ton of wasted chances late in the first half only to have it followed up almost immediately by the 2nd Slovenian goal. I thought we were done. The way the team had been playing, I saw no chance of us coming back to tie, much less win the match. At the time, had we lost, the World Cup would’ve been over, as we were certain that England would beat Algeria and make it impossible for us to claim 2nd place. As the 2nd half started and the US made what Ryan and I thought were 2 underwhelming substitutions, along with some tactical switching of the players, things started to pick up a bit. Then Landon Donovan put home his magnificent goal into the roof of the net, and we started to believe again.

The US had a ton of momentum throughout the next 10 minutes or so, but couldn’t put home the 2nd goal, and as time wore on, it started to get more and more bleak. We were having some success passing the ball up to Altidore, but no one was getting great shots on net. Finally, the breakthrough came in the 82nd minute on a beautiful head from Altidore down to Bradley who buried it past the keeper in the back of the net. Complete delirium from the American fans, and all of a sudden there was new life. What followed after that is something that I still haven’t seen a definitive replay of, and have no idea why it didn’t count. Altidore won a gift of a free kick, which was kicked into the box and put into the net by a US player. Everyone went absolutely crazy only to discover moments later that the goalie was taking a goal kick from the box and the goal didn’t count. After a few scares late in the match, it was over and the US was still alive. As an older South African man said to me as we were leaving, "the match was Ayoba". It certainly was.

We made our way to that international landmark known as KFC to find our driver, who told us that the goal should’ve counted because he couldn’t see a foul when it was replayed on tv. On the way back to Melrose Arch, he was talking with us about how much it hurt to see South Africa going out before the 2nd round while the other teams are playing on, and that if they had only made it to the 2nd round, everyone in the country would’ve been happy. The rest of the World Cup will be very bittersweet for South Africans unless a miracle happens for them on Tuesday night.

Back at Melrose Arch, we went to a restaurant called Moyo that had been highly recommended by the Chicago people on our safari as well as the guy next to me at the match, and we sat outside in a big open area where they were showing the England-Algeria match. Thankfully, they provided us with big warm blankets; otherwise we would’ve been frozen. There were gas lamps and fire barrels scattered throughout the area as well. The place was absolutely packed as the game approached, with a small group of dedicated drunken English fans singing songs while everybody else in the area – mostly US fans, some Mexican, some Argentinian – were rooting for Algeria. A group of Hondurans passing by saw my American flag and all of them told us that the goal should’ve counted, and that they were rooting for us. We expressed our thanks, and said the same for them. The Argentines had a number of tables and were singing their own songs while waving towels or flags around in the air. It was a great atmosphere, and we got the result that we wanted with England drawing Algeria. If the US can beat Algeria on Wednesday, we go through to the next round regardless of what happens in the other match. Hopefully this is not a repeat of 2006, when we had a match against an African team that we should’ve beaten to advance to the next round, and lost.

The drive back to Pretoria was a piece of cake. Tomorrow, we see what it has to offer.

permalink written by  nucappy on June 18, 2010 from Pretoria, South Africa
from the travel blog: London and South Africa - World Cup 2010!
tagged USA, SouthAfrica, Pretoria, WorldCup and Slovenia

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Another day to relax

Pretoria, South Africa

With our place of residence established for the next few days, it was certainly nice to be able to sleep in for a change and actually have a “vacation day”. We didn’t get moving until close to 11:30 or so, and our first move was to find some internet, which we’d been lacking for a few days now. It’s pretty amazing how dependent I feel on being connected to Facebook and email, and at the same time, it’s quite liberating to not worry about what’s going on in the world (they fixed the oil spill, right? Right….?) or any other sports besides the World Cup.

After getting situated with the internet, we set off to find an African crafts market. We succeeded in finding one after asking no fewer than 3 people for directions, and paid the R2 fee to get inside (it’s basically 30 cents). For the most part, it was like any one of the Mexican Mega Malls that are found in Chicago, with lots of cheap crap for sale that wasn’t distinctly African in any way. They were even selling video game systems that looked like bootleg old-school Nintendos. The original Nintendo is 25 years old. The fact that they were selling it for more than $5 is remarkable in itself. There were a couple of African craft stores which sold some interesting items, and we picked out what we wanted before heading out. In the same market area, there was some sort of wedding show going on, consisting of young girls parading around in wedding dresses and one guy who would sing in between the girls. He was just awful. There was a sizeable crowd, and I can only hope that the people in attendance were the parents of the girls in it.

From there we went to Freedom Park, which was built in Pretoria as a symbol of the unification of South Africa following the Apartheid regime. It is a modern memorial venue, so it features many abstract manifestations of important events. We were lucky to make it in as one of the last tour groups of the day, and were taken up to the top where the tour began. I should mention that the venue is high above the city of Pretoria, and provides a fantastic view of the city. We learned that construction started on the center in 2003, and 7 years later, there is still a lot that they are building. South Africans take the unification concept extremely seriously, as it is still very fresh in their minds. Every adult in South Africa lived through the unification of the country, so it is like the US would have been following the Civil War. There is a memorial that was built by the Afrikaaners to commemorate their victory over the Zulu people in the 1940s, and as a symbol of being conciliatory and unified, it was mandated that while on Freedom Park, you can see both that memorial as well as the Union Buildings of Pretoria, where the official business of the country takes place. Our tour guide mentioned that from where the President sits, he can see Freedom Park and the Afrikaaner memorial.

We walked past the Wall of Names of every South African that had died in any conflict that is officially recognized by the country, although they have yet to engrave every name in the stones. There is an eternal flame that burns for the victims of these conflicts, as well as a symbolic final resting place commemorated by stones from every province in the country set in a circle. Along with providing phenomenal vista views of Pretoria, Freedom Park is a very tasteful and well-done memorial to all of South Africa, and one that is growing by the day. Hopefully I can return some day when it is fully finished.

After Freedom Park, we headed to the train station to determine if it was feasible to take the train to our match in Jo’burg tomorrow night between Brazil and the Ivory Coast. It was not. I think we will be hitting the casino tomorrow, which conveniently is right next to a Park-n-Ride for the stadium that we will attempt to take advantage of. We drove past Hatfield Square on the way home, which was very similar to the place we were last night in Jo’burg. Seeing as how we were all cold last night and half of us are under the weather, we decided not to go there tonight and instead went out to a restaurant where we watched the game in a more suitable climate. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that the match was being played in Pretoria tonight, and we probably could’ve gone and gotten tickets. Oh well. It was a great match, although I was pulling for Cameroon, who just didn’t have the talent to finish, and Denmark took the match 2-1.

Tomorrow is match 3 of 4, and we’ll all be attempting to make some money back at the casino beforehand. Hard to believe we’ve only been on this trip for a week. It feels like we’ve been here for 3.

permalink written by  nucappy on June 19, 2010 from Pretoria, South Africa
from the travel blog: London and South Africa - World Cup 2010!
tagged SouthAfrica, Pretoria and WorldCup

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The name “Soccer City” is not an exaggeration of the truth

Pretoria, South Africa

I don’t like gambling in a foreign country. Why? Because I’ve never won anything. Twice now I’ve gone outside the 50 states and played blackjack, and lost. The rules are different. Dealer only takes one card instead of two before the players play. Do I have any idea if it’s a disadvantage for the player in this style? No. But again, I’ve never won, so therefore it’s a disadvantage. Ryan and Rocio won money, so I suppose it balances out or something. In any event, that’s how we spent our afternoon after relaxing in the morning.

Now, for the second thing that really grinds my gears – the Italian National Team. If you watched the New Zealand-Italy match today, you should understand why. The team is a disgrace to the sport and is a big reason why lots of people choose not to watch it. It amazes me that after years and years of the same flopping nonsense, the referees continue to reward them for doing it – in this instance, with a game-changing penalty that robbed the Kiwis of 2 more points and kept Italy in good standing within the group. How ludicrous was it? The New Zealand player who had a grip on the Italian player’s shirt was tugging him backwards and the Italian somehow managed to fall forwards. Unbelievable. Pretty much everybody in the casino was rooting for New Zealand, as it was being shown on TV screens all around the place.

At the conclusion of that match, it was time for us to leave the casino and take advantage of their very cheap parking so that we could hop a Park-n-Ride bus to our match – Brazil v. Ivory Coast. This match was being played at Soccer City, the largest venue in the World Cup, and quite possibly the largest venue since the US hosted in 1994 (not entirely certain about that). As the bus approached the stadium, it was tough not to gasp in awe. The stadium is beautiful. If, somehow, you haven’t seen a picture or video of it, the stadium was designed to look like traditional African pottery from the outside. This look is achieved using thousands of pieces of differently painted wood along with gaps throughout the structure to allow light from the stadium to stream out. It is not the tallest stadium from the outside, but that’s because it is sunk into the ground quite a bit. As we got off the bus, the atmosphere was buzzing with palpable excitement and anticipation. This was easily going to be the largest crowd of the 3 matches we’ve been to thus far, and with the place full of raucous Brazil supporters, I was ready to have a good time.

This was the first time where security was actually being effective at any of the matches we’ve been to, making people open their bags and take items out of their pockets. At the last 2 matches, we went through metal detectors, they beeped, and no one said a word. Once we finally made it through that checkpoint, we had to make our way around the massive stadium to get to the side where our ramp up to our seats was located. When we were looking on the seat map to see where we were sitting, it was disappointing; as it appeared that we had some pretty terrible seats high up in the corner. It took roughly 20 minutes for us to reach our location, going up the series of ramps that were very nicely hidden inside the “pottery” exterior until we finally got to the top. Once we were actually in our seats though, they turned out to be quite alright.

As massive as the stadium looked from the outside, it was nothing compared to what it looked like once we got to our seats. A sea of people – up, down, left, right, across, below – waves of yellow and green and orange. Horns blaring, flags waving, songs being sung – a true party scene. We had a great view of the close goal from our corner, although being up so high made it difficult to gauge the height of balls kicked in the air. After going to two matches that were not very full at all, this one was very, very full. Announced attendance was just under 85,000, making it the 4th largest sporting event I’ve ever attended as far as I can remember. The Brazilian fans far outnumbered the fans of Cote D’Ivoire, at least in appearance, with only small scattered pockets of orange able to be seen from our vantage point.

The starting line-ups were announced, with the largest cheers going to Kaka, Robinho and Didier Drogba that were to the point of almost deafening. The match itself started out fairly pedestrian. Both teams seemed to be feeling each other out, but nothing much was happening. The vuvuzelas started going into a “pulse” mode while the action lagged, and eventually a section of Brazilian fans started a coordinated cheer. Since the stadium was so large, it was difficult for the cheer to spread outside the section or filter down to the field level. In the 25th minute, Brazil struck with an unbelievable goal as Kaka showed why he is a world-class player getting the ball through a couple defenders and on to the foot of Luis Fabiano who made no mistake about slotting it home. 1-0 Brazil, and that’s how it remained through halftime.

The 2nd half brought one of the greatest goals I will probably ever witness in person in my life. Cote D’Ivoire was struggling to put any threat together for the beginning part of the half, and shortly thereafter Brazil put an end to any thought of a comeback courtesy of Luis Fabiano’s feet and concentration. I wish I had gotten my camera out in time to record the goal itself, but instead I, along with the rest of the crowd, could only stare in amazement as he popped the ball up over an opponent once, twice, and a third time to his left foot where he calmly powered it past the keeper to the delirious delight of everyone in attendance. While the replay showed he may have handled it with his right arm in order to bring it back down to himself, the goal was so incredible that to call it off for that would almost have been a disservice to those watching.

Following this, the crowd was clearly pulling for Cote d’Ivoire to do something, anything, to get back in the game and make it close and exciting. With this not happening, the crowd started a wave to generate some noise in the stadium. Normally, I hate the wave, as it distracts from watching the match and is completely overdone. This time, with 85,000 people in full roar, it was enjoyable. Shortly after it died down following a few full revolutions, Brazil put the match completely out of reach with a goal off of a perfect cross from Kaka to the foot of Elano who beat his defender to the ball. By the time Drogba headed one down into the net to make it 3-1, there was hardly any time left and virtually no chance of a comeback. As we started to leave to try and beat the crowd back to the busses, the remaining spectators started buzzing excitedly and we saw on the TV that Kaka had gotten red-carded for knocking a player down. Big news, since they play Portugal next and he won’t be available.

We got on the bus to head back to the casino to pick up our car to drive back to Pretoria, and the whole process took about an hour and a half or so. Not too terrible. Tomorrow we drop the car off and fly to Cape Town for the last leg of our adventure.

permalink written by  nucappy on June 20, 2010 from Pretoria, South Africa
from the travel blog: London and South Africa - World Cup 2010!
tagged SouthAfrica, Brazil and IvoryCoast

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Travel Day

Cape Town, South Africa

Today it was time to leave the condo in Pretoria and head off to Cape Town for the last leg of the trip. Hard to believe we've only been in South Africa for 7 days, considering all we've done, but we headed back to the airport to drop the car off and get on our flight.

The flight itself was only half-full and uneventful, which was much better than our flight from London that took off in vicious cross-winds. The Cape Town airport was nice and fast getting our luggage to us and we were soon on our way to the hotel via taxi.

It was unfortunately raining pretty hard on the drive, so we weren't able to fully appreciate the majesty of the view as we went into the city. We are staying in an area called Gardens, which is nestled right in the crease of Table Mountain. It's only 3km to the stadium, and about half that to the downtown area. From what we've been told, it's extremely safe to walk around in, even at night.

We hung out for the afternoon and watched the referee take over the Chile-Switzerland match, handing out cards like they were going out of style, and as the match ended, the weather cleared up. We can see Table Mountain from our bathroom window - it's that close. As we made our way down to dinner at an Vietnamese restaurant called Saigon that was recommended to us by our driver from the airport, the proximity of the mountain to us was absolutely stunning. I can't wait to get up there on Wednesday. as for the restaurant, that recommendation turned out to be a great idea.

After dinner we bought a few snack items and dropped them off at the hotel before heading around the corner to Rick's American Cafe (yes, like Casablanca) to watch the Spain-Honduras match. I was hoping Honduras would win and complete the Spanish collapse, but they just couldn't match their firepower.

Yes, today was a bit low-key compared to some past days, but tomorrow we start right up again with a trip to the Cape of Good Hope followed by a tour of Stellenbosch in wine country. Once that ends, it's football, football, football. Bafana Bafana is hoping for a miracle while Mexico attempts to win its group. Should be a great day!

permalink written by  nucappy on June 21, 2010 from Cape Town, South Africa
from the travel blog: London and South Africa - World Cup 2010!
tagged SouthAfrica and CapeTown

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Penguins and Ostriches and Baboons, Oh My!

Cape Town, South Africa

We're finally staying at a true Bed and Breakfast here in Cape Town. It is called Tintagel and is terrific. A full English breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms and tomatoes, not to mention a bowl of fresh local fruit and some yogurt was a great way to start off a day of exploration. Today on the agenda - heading to the Cape of Good Hope and the wineries of Stellenbosch.

We were met promptly at 9:30am by a man named Grant who was going to be our driver/tour guide today. When I was trying to plan out where to stay in Cape Town, I had an idea of the neighborhoods and landscape from Google Maps, but I was completely taken by surprise when we actually arrived in the city to find that the scale of the city is much smaller than I had assumed, and the mountains are much more prevalent than I had thought. Our drive down to the Cape of Good Hope showed us this, as we drove through a lot of hilly areas when I thought it was all going to be low-lying.

The drive down the coast was absolutely gorgeous. Very similar to the Pacific Coast Highway of California. Winding roads, an ocean on the west side, mountains, beautiful landscapes - it had it all. It took about an hour to get down to the park, and as we got closer, we passed a German ostrich farm. We weren't able to stop and get pictures, but there were many, many ostriches hanging out in fenced-in areas. Very ugly birds. As we continued on, we started to see warning signs about baboons. Apparently baboons have learned how to open car doors, and will steal things from people if the doors are unlocked or the windows are open. As we pulled in to Cape Point, we saw one such baboon with a baby right next to the path up the hill. After it bounded away, we made our ascent to the top.

The view is absolutely breathtaking. You can see both oceans from the top, along with the suburbs of Cape Town and the other nearby mountains. I've taken some panorama shots and a video or 3 to try and capture the feel, which will get posted later. It was a nice hike to the top, and we hadn't had any real physical activity like this since our days in London, so it was great to use the legs again. After we descended, we waited for the same baboon to move away from the car (but not before getting great pictures), and then we went over to the Cape of Good Hope for the photo op. It's much lower than the other peak, so there was no need to go up it.

Leaving the Cape park, we passed some more baboons and ostriches on the side of the road that people were getting quite close to for pictures. One such car had their doors open next to some baby baboons, and I was just waiting for an adult to jump in and terrorize them. I might be a horrible person. Our next stop was a place called Simon's Town, home of penguins. Known informally as the Jackass Penguin because of its braying noises that they make, we got to get pretty close to a couple of the little guys. So that's 3 new animals we've seen today to add to the litany that we saw on the safari.

As it was getting quite late in the afternoon and we really wanted to get back by 4pm to watch the South Africa and Mexico matches, we just grabbed lunch at, what else, McDonalds, and drove off to Stellenbosch. We made it to the Warwick winery and had a tasting of 6 of their wines. 2 whites - a sauvignon blanc and a chardonnay, and 4 reds - a cabernet sauvignon, a pinotage (South African specialty), and 2 blended wines. All were quite tasty, and as we tasted the last glass, the person who was taking care of us told us we were going to go on a wine "safari". We took our glasses into a Land Rover that was similar to our safari vehicle, and went up the hill into their farm area. Once again, the view was just phenomenal. We learned a bit about the winery's history, as well as which grapes grew on what vines and all the different conditions required to make each wine. We finished off our last taste and headed down the hill to go on home.

We missed the first half of the matches on tv, but were able to get the radio feed on the drive home. Listening to soccer on the radio is quite confusing, especially considering that they were flipping back and forth between the two games without much notice. South Africa needed a combination of a 5-goal swing between them and Mexico, and as the first half ended, Mexico had given up 1 and South Africa had scored 2. It was quite exciting in the car, and as we got home, we rushed up to catch the 2nd half of the matches. Unfortunately, Mexico didn't give up any more goals and South Africa allowed France to score 1, so their time at the World Cup came to an abrupt end. They should be proud though, for beating France if nothing else.

We hopped over to a rich area called Camps Bay to get some seafood, at a restaurant called the Codfather. Yes, it's a horrible pun, but the food was fantastic. They have no menu there. There is a choice of appetizers, and then you are taken over to the display case to select which cut of fish you want. There were roughly 6 or 7 different fishes to choose from, and you are able to tell them how much of it you want to eat. Then they cut it, weigh it, and tell you the cost. They also had 2 different types of prawns, and we got a couple of each. The fish comes grilled, and is served with 4 different sauces - lemon butter with garlic, sweet apricot, lemon butter with no garlic, and chili sauce. All were great, although the chili sauce was freakin' HOT! And I like spicy things, too!

Following dinner, we thought about going to the bar next door to watch, but it was crowded and they were charging cover to get in. Instead, we headed back to the hotel to watch the night games, which were pretty boring.

Tomorrow is a day of high adventure with mountain biking and rappelling down the mountain to follow before we watch the US take on Algeria for the right to move to the Round of 16!

permalink written by  nucappy on June 22, 2010 from Cape Town, South Africa
from the travel blog: London and South Africa - World Cup 2010!
tagged SouthAfrica, CapeTown and WorldCup

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