Sunday, July 25, 2010

Finished for Another 4 Years

Well Fiona and I have been back in New Zealand for a couple of days now, and we are stuggling to come to terms with the cold, wet and the jet-lag. The thrill & excitement of travelling around Southern Africa and being a part of the World Cup seems a long time ago now, but we both have some great memories to keep us going until next time.

Once again I would like to thank all the many people that we met during the course of our travels, both old friends and new ones for their hospitality and friendship, and for helping to make our trip as memorable as it was. And a big Thanks to everyone that left comments and encouragement on our blog, your involvement has made the effort worth so much.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What can I tell you about Singapore...?

Well I can tell you that it it’s hot, humid and 6 days/5 nights here have just flown by. Partly the reason that time has flown by here is that on the first day, Fiona & I spent an extraordinary amount of time sleeping, almost 18 hours...! I guess leaving Africa just takes it out of you...

Day two in Singapore was spent lying around the pool at the hotel, doing nothing more strenuous than listening to the iPod, reading the paper and magazines, and ordering beers. We took advantage of a whole day of sunshine at a time when all the forecasts said rain and even thunderstorms. It’s the rainy season here, but being so close to the equator means that every day has the potential to have a rainy season and a dry season, and I guess we were just lucky.

Day three and the rainy season was back... We spent the day touring the city on the free hop-on/hop -off bus, hopping on when it was raining and off when it stopped, I think we did nearly 2 complete circuits. Managed to get to wander over to Boat Quay during a lull in the rain and conveniently find a pub the moment the rain started to get heavy, where I enjoyed an unexpected pint of ‘Old Speckled Hen’. We had a recommendation of an Indian restaurant in the middle of Boat Quay, but there seemed to be a handful of them nearby, so we plumped for the one near the middle that was open, (Khusbu), and enjoyed a very nice meal.

Day four and it was back to the dry season, back to the very hot, very sunny and very dry season. Fiona spent the morning shopping, which is not hard to do in this air-conditioned nirvana for shopaholics, as there is appears to be major shopping mall on every corner. In fact on Orchard road I would go as far as saying that there is a major mall on every corner and in every building in between, plus under the street and possibly overhead.

After lunch we continued our tourist activities with a trip out to the new, and somewhat startling, Marina Bay Sands integrated resort, hotel & casino, which stands like a set of massive cricket stumps, overlooking the city. The resort element of this huge complex sits at the top of the three, 60 storey towers, on an interconnected platform, that houses an excellent observation deck, and possibly the world’s most impressive set of infinity pools. Unfortunately the pools are only open to the hotel guests, as both Fiona and I would have happily taken the opportunity to get out of the thick and clammy heat and cool off. Back to ground level and then straight back to our hotel to make the most of our somewhat less impressive, but equally cooling, pool complex.

Day five rolled around and we thought it was time to check out Sentosa Island, a sort of resort destination for Singapore, for which we had some freebie tickets for some of the attractions. We planned our journey to make the most of the various free buses and arrived on the Island in the sweltering midday sun, almost melting into a puddle as we wandered somewhat aimlessly around this sub-Disneyland type theme park. I would imagine this is the sort of place that families visiting Singapore would dream of, offering over-heated parents the chance to off-load the kids onto the various attractions whilst they lay on a man-made beach somewhere. Suffice to say that Fiona and I were reaching for the bus timetable to see when the return bus would be, within 15 minutes of arriving. With a couple of hours to kill we did manage to ride the chairlift to the lookout point, and then go up the Sky Tower for a great view back across to the city, before the weather broke and the cooling and refreshing rain set in. An interesting place, but we were back in the city for a very late lunch before heading back to the sanctuary of our hotel for the evening.

We won’t be doing much more than packing today, as this is our last day in Singapore and we will be making our way to the airport later this afternoon, and then back to New Zealand by tomorrow morning. It’s funny, this being the last day of our holiday, I should be feeling a bit sad, but instead there is a sense of comfort in knowing that we will be back home soon, and back to the routine of our normal life.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Guess What...? It's Bloody Hot......!!

Just a very quick post to let you know we have arrived safely in Singapore, and guess what...? It's bloody hot & humid here....

After traveling for 18 hours we arrived at Changi airport at 5:30am, (our body clock thinking it wasalmost midnight), and it was a staggering 27 degrees.... Luckily I had booked a shuttle to our hotel, so after getting slightly lost in the airport we arrived at our hotel, Traders, just before 7am, waiting for our room to be made up. Once we got to our room it was just a case of going straight to bed and sleeping for 8 hours...! We have now been out & about on Orchard Road for a while, enjoying the rush and bustle of this futiuristic city, and we have eaten a huge cheap & tasty meal... Time for more laying around.

Forecast for tomorrow....., more laying around, maybe by the pool this time....

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Last Day at Abloom

Well there comes a time in every holiday when you just have to accept that it is drawing to a close and start the dreaded packing process again. One of the greatest things about staying anywhere for over 4 weeks is that you get to unpack every single thing you have brought with you, and hide away your suitcase or backpack. The downside to this principle is that you then have to reverse the process and try and cram all that stuff you brought with you, plus a load of other crap you have picked up along the way, back into the offending suitcase or backpack and then lug it to the airport. Can you tell I wasn’t looking forward to packing...?

Well as today is our last full day here in South Africa, Fiona & I have spent a portion of the day looking at how we can pack everything up and make it as easy as possible to travel on to our next destination. I think we are okay, but I’m still not sure how we will carry my hand made New Zealand ‘Makarapa’ , (think of an adapted construction helmet), I might just have to wear it on the plane....

But it hasn’t all been dreary packing and worrying about carrying our stuff through various customs and immigrations departments. Our wonderful hosts, Carmen & Louie, took all three of us out for a breakfast at a local landmark home that once belonged to a local industrialist called ‘Sammy Marks’. This was a spectacular 5 course champagne breakfast that we had sitting outside in the warm winter sun, overlooking the formal gardens. It was a sumptuous meal which I am still digesting now 6 hours later, made all the more enjoyable by the quality of the company and conversation. Carmen & Louie have stopped at nothing to make sure that our stay was not only comfortable and relaxing, but they also went the extra mile to make us feel like we were visiting old friends, they could not do enough for us. If there are two more friendly, approachable and hospitable hosts in the whole of Africa I would be totally stunned. Thank you guys, you have made us feel more than welcome and we will endeavour to come back some day.

After breakfast, (which lasted until 1pm), Fiona Yates & I did the house tour to find out a little more about Sammy Marks, a Lithuanian Jew that left his homeland penniless in the 19th Century, only to make his fortune in South Africa through a number of different ventures. Although this is not a surprising story, and Sammy Marks was not particularly extraordinary in himself, but in his will he bequeathed his house and all its contents, not to his immediate decedents, but to the fifth generation that succeeded him. The net result of this was that for 60 or 70 years, none of the estate or a single piece of furniture, cutlery or even linen could be sold, and when the fifth generation did come along, they in turn bequeathed the house and its contents to the South African people. The Sammy Marks house has therefore become a late 19th century South African time-capsule, with 98% of its original features and details that is being lovingly restored and open to the public. Our tour, which was brought to life by our very knowledgeable guide Thabi, lasted about an hour and it was like going round a BBC film set for an Edwardian period piece, I expected someone in a top hat and tails to pop out at any moment... This was another very interesting place that we would not have seen if it was not for the excellent local knowledge of our hosts.

The rest of the day has been spent finalising bills, sorting our paperwork and doing some packing, I think Fiona is finished already...! We will be having our last (sob!) gourmet meal at the lodge tonight and Louie intimated that it would be a special one, so we are looking forward to that. Tomorrow, Fiona and I will be heading out to the airport at about 8am and then onto Singapore. As Yates’s plane is about 7 hours later than ours, he is getting a ride to the airport later in the day that will also be giving him a driving tour of Soweto, which should be an interesting end to his time in South Africa.

I will be updating the blog from Singapore, but as I intend to spend as much time sitting by the pool, don’t expect anything too riveting....

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Origins & Endings......

On Saturday we completed our trilogy of ‘Cradle of Humankind’ experiences by driving in to Johannesburg to the Origins Centre at Wits University, an innovative museum where art installations alongside museum exhibits, tell the story of human development in Southern Africa. As an extra bonus, the museum is also showing for a short time the near complete fossilised skeleton of a previously unknown branch of the hominid family tree. The ‘Sediba’ remains of a 1.9 million year old distant cousin to the Homo sapiens, were only announced to the world in May 2010, and were only on display in Johannesburg during the period of the World Cup, before being shipped off for more research and various presentations. We took the audio tour of the museum and watched a presentation on the Sediba discovery before having to get one of the local anthropology students to unlock the room with the skeleton in it. The young student was obviously very proud of being part of this discovery and was eager to answer any questions we may have had, but our somewhat limited understanding of the world of paleo-anthropology and evolutionary science meant that we had soon exhausted ourselves of any deep probing questions.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in one of Jo’burgs many shopping complexes, and while Fiona went in search of clothing bargains, Yates and I had a few beers after lunch, meandered slowly around this huge outdoor shopping centre, before meeting back at the car later that afternoon. We headed home to chill out for a few hours before reconvening in Yates’s suite to watch the 3rd/4th place final between Germany & Uruguay. This was one of the best matches at this year’s tournament, with a highly entertaining, end-to-end epic between two teams that did not want the indignity of finishing 4th.... Germany came out on top, although it was a ding-dong battle right to the end that the Uruguayans could have easily have snatched away. I was hoping against hope that the next day’s World Cup final would be as good as this match, but didn’t really hold out much hope of that wish coming true...

We had made plans with Carmen and Louie, our excellent hosts at Abloom, to return to the ‘Holland House’ Dutch bar once again, to watch the World Cup Final on their big screen, along with a huge crowd of those ‘crazy Dutchies’. Our plans started to awry when both Carmen and Louie’s cars broke down, and we found out that the local authorities were closing down the main motorways between Pretoria & Johannesburg from 2:30pm until 5:00pm, in some bizarre plan to ease traffic...?? Always adaptable, we agreed to drive our hire car down to the bar in Fourways, and leave the lodge at 1:00pm to avoid the road closures.

This worked out quite well as it meant that we arrived in the vicinity of the bar in time to sit and have a nice lunch in the sunshine, before staking our place at the venue when it opened at 4pm. Even better, I had driven in to Jo’berg and Fiona would be driving home, so I could start drinking early and pace it out through the rest of the day, in hope of not getting absolutely ‘smashed’ as I did on our previous visit. We were some of the first people into the bar and staked out a whole bunch of chairs directly in front of the big screen, ensuring we would have a prime position for the game that would start in just over four hours time. We stood around chatting and drinking for a while and the time seemed to slip by quite quickly, and before too long Carmen’s friends arrived and after eating a couple of plate loads of some traditional Dutch food, it was almost time for the closing ceremony to start. We all enjoyed the entertainment and the reflections of the 2010 World Cup that was now nearly at its end, and I was warmed to see what a great reception Nelson Mandela received from the patrons in the bar and at the stadium when he was ‘wheeled’ across the pitch.

What can I say about the Final itself that has probably not been said before...? Well, I enjoyed it..., but this probably more to do with the 6 hours of drinking that preceded the kick-off. I was expecting a tight and nervous match with limited opportunities, and the lack of flair or skill on display did not disappoint. I was somewhat surprised that the Dutch team were taking such a negative approach to the game, and that kicking the Spanish off the park was one way of trying to beat them, but really had little to do with the style of ‘Total Football’ that Holland had the capacity to play on occasion. It really was a terrible advertisement for the beautiful game, and was not a fitting end to what had been a great tournament here in South Africa.

As the game wore on, I kept reminding anyone that would listen that my prediction of a 1-nil score line was looking good, but at that point I didn’t really much care who got the goal. Obviously being in a bar with hundreds & hundreds of orange clad Dutch fans, and wearing a Dutch emblazoned t-shirt myself, I was cheering for the Dutch and booing the referee.... But secretly deep down inside, I was hoping that maybe the Spanish would sneak a late goal and go on to be the more than deserving winners of the trophy. Unfortunately I had to wait until the last few minutes of extra time to get my secret wish granted, when Iniesta had the ball slid to him in the box and he neatly lifted it over the keeper to sneak the aforementioned goal. With the sending off of Van Bommel the Dutch seemed to capitulate and minutes later, Spain were home and dry and the deserving winners of the 2010 World Cup.

The atmosphere in the bar dipped a little when the goal went in and as the final whistle blew, but you know those crazy dutchies, they just cleared back the chairs and pulled away the tables and started dancing. For us it had been a long day so we did not stay at the bar too long before we hit the motorway home, and with surprising only a single stop for a nature break, we slipped into bed around 1am. It was the end of another World Cup and thoughts about matches and teams would be have to put away for another 4 years, or at least until we start the planning stages of our trip to Brazil for 2014.

The last couple of days have been rest & unwind days for us around the lodge, in which have planned little and done even less. We had talked earlier about taking some time out after the Final so that Yates could go to a proper game reserve and see some of the animals that Africa is so famous for. But when it came down to it he was so indecisive and non committal, and surprisingly apathetic, that in the end it just never happened. Fiona & I saw more animals than you could shake a stick at when we were in Namibia, so we were not missing out, but I think when Yates gets home and reflects on his time here, he will regret not doing a safari which is what most people do when they come to South Africa....

Just another day or so before we each head to the airport and go our separate ways once again. Yates has a lot of personal stuff to sort out with work and living arrangements and he will be heading back to the USA via Frankfurt. Fiona & I on the other hand will be heading for a 5 day stop-over in Singapore, to soak up a little of the tropical heat before making our way back to the cold & wet of New Zealand. All good things must come to an end.....

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Birthday Boy Speaks...

As it's my birthday, I am taking a day off from writing the blog, and as you will have seen, left it in the very capable hands of Fiona... Thanks Fi....

I couldn't however resist popping on and adding my quick thoughts about yesterday’s great adventure with the Lions, as it was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was not just the various animals that we saw that made it so special, although they were pretty spectacular, it was also the earnest zeal that Colin conveyed to us during our time at Horseback Africa.

Colin’s passion for his latest project is obvious and he is so eager to tell you everything he knows that he delivers his words like a machine-gun, just pausing for the occasional breath. I don’t think there was a single second he was not imparting some interesting fact about the animals, their habitat and the environment in the four and a half hours that we were there. His enthusiasm was infectious and made the whole experience come alive in an unbelievable way. If you are ever in this part of the world, you would not be doing yourself justice by missing out on this fabulous experience.

Okay, back to my day off....

Walking with Lions.... [Message from Fiona]

Who couldn’t resist signing up to give this a go? Hey everyone, Fiona here again. Steve suggested I have another go at writing a blog, and since it’s his birthday today I couldn’t say no :)

Back to the lions – yesterday was yet again an experience of a lifetime. I know, I know, we say everything is great over here but it was another example of having high expectations and the experience going beyond these and delivering on all counts.

Carmen from our lodge booked our adventure with Horseback Africa – - a private game reserve that makes up part of the same conservancy that Abloom is located within. So, off we set on a short drive not really knowing what to expect other than it was going to be an experience we would never be able to replicate in New Zealand or America. We arrived at Horseback Africa in good time and enjoyed the drive up to reception admiring their wonderful views, some game and the magnificent geology that makes up this area. We were met by our hosts, Colin and Theony MacRae, and were soon sitting chatting with a great cup of coffee in hand and a welcome to match.

Lunch was included with our adventure and we sat in their outdoor eating area taking in everything they do at their game reserve. As the name suggests horseback safaris are part of their business, with rides suited from beginners to advanced. Polo plays a large part of their family’s lives and they also have a registered polo field and they offer polo holidays and lessons. For us this was an interesting aside and we enjoyed looking at the facilities which made a wonderful backdrop to the property.

After lunch Colin started our afternoon off with a chat about the wildlife aspect of their property and what we could expect to do. This was when we realised we were in for a lot more than ever expected. Colin explained that the lion cubs that are born here (to lions that are unable to be completely reintegrated into the wild) are part of staged release of wild lions in depopulated areas of Africa. They are raised by humans (due in part to the high mortality rate of lions raised in the wild – up to 90%) and are ‘trained’ in the ways of the pride, social hierarchy and of course, hunting. After their time at Horseback Africa (at about 18 months I think) they are transferred to specially selected areas where the lions can hunt easily and competition from other predators is not an issue. They are effectively living wild but it is their young that are truly wild – it is these cubs that will eventually be released as they have had no human contact. A long process you can see that obviously requires a huge commitment from a great number of people.

Walking with two five month old cubs, Frankie and Tatiana, sounds great doesn’t it? Well, it was! Like most youngsters they were a little naughty and did exactly the opposite of what Colin had told us to expect. With the help of his dog, Beth, Colin soon had them under control, well Beth did – the cubs obviously love her and happily followed her down to the dam for a drink. At this age the cubs are testing boundaries, seeing what they can get away with and were clambering over Beth with the odd little bite thrown in. Beth soon let them know their place – all part of their training to know were come in the pride.

We spent a bit of time down at the dam enjoying watching the cubs playing and admiring the scenery. At this stage I should mention that our host, Colin, is also geologist and a published author. There was an interesting cliff face above the dam and we were able to enjoy an impromptu lesson on the local geology. Colin was really interesting and easily imparted his knowledge to us. Steve and I both have a passing interest in geology and it would have been easy to forget we were actually here to take part in a lion experience.

We finished our walk with the cubs by watching them be fed. Now, all bets were off, as friendly as they’d been with each other there was no way these siblings were sharing dinner. They both jealously guarded their food and gorged it down in no time.

What beats walking with five month old cubs? Feeding a three week old one of course! It was a wonderful experience being able to hold and feed a wee cub and then to ‘burp’ it. Once fed the cubs (three of them, un-named) enjoyed playing in the garden with us and eachother. Yates obviously has talents a lion trainer and had the cubs following him with his calls of ‘mao, mao’ ( in Chairman).

While we had the cubs in the garden Colin brought out a wee monkey baby for us to feed. This poor wee fella was found clinging to his dead mothers body by his neighbours. Luckily they knew were to bring him and after two months loving care with the MacRaes he will soon be joining a group of other rehabilitated monkeys in being released together. After Yates and I feed him he must have decided that I was top dog as he decided that he better get on the good side of me and start grooming my hair! I’m very pleased to say that he was wearing nappy! Colin had earlier explained that when humans bend down and pet the animals it is a sign of weakness and they will go to the most off hand human to figure out just who’s top dog. We had been asked not to ‘baby’ the monkey and just let climb around us. It was really a strange experience have these tiny little hands hold yours as they were feeding – they were so soft and just like little human hands. We said goodbye to all the babies and went off to meet the adult lions.

Zulu is an eighteen month year old male who has recently been rehomed from a Middle Eastern family. A cute wee cub soon grows up and becomes too dangerous to be around your children and I think the only good thing to say about this situation is at least the family did the decent thing and arranged to have their ‘pet’ relocated to Africa, with Australian vet in tow for the journey. By all accounts he has turned around from a timid wee thing hiding in the bushes to a young adult who will have a fulfilling life and become part of the breeding programme. Unfortunately due to lion hierarchy he will never be able to be introduced to the existing adult lions as he will be seen as a threat.

The other three adults are made up of two females and a magnificent looking male – who’s names I’m afraid I can’t recall. They looked very happy and at home, with wonderful views over the reserve. It was incredible how huge they were! Colin obviously loves them and the way they greeted him it looked as if the love was mutual. The other amazing thing was how calm the horses were who were kept within sight and smell of the lions. They both must know that there was an impenetrable fence between them.

Next up was feeding time for a harem of Hermanus Baboons, 1 big male and 10 females, normally found in the more northern reaches of Africa. Colin had stepped in and rescued the troop when the one of the couple that were originally looking after them died, and no-one else would take the animals. All the scraps from the kitchen were put to good use as baboons will eat anything in terms of food or left-over’s. Colin explained the social hierarchy of this particular harem of baboons and pointed out the specific behaviour while we watched, fascinated by these most human of animals.

It was now late afternoon and those long lazy African shadows were creeping across the lawn and gardens as we made our way back to reception for the final section of our tour. Another part of the MacRaes projects is the rehabilitation into the wild of injured and unwanted snakes. Steve and Yates posed for photos with a red tailed Indonesian python wrapped around their shoulders – I was happy to take the photos! There were some sad stories that I won’t repeat but more importantly there were some happy endings.

This was the end of an incredible afternoon doing things we didn’t imagine we’d ever do. Once again, though, we realised that it was our hosts, Colin and Theony, who had made the day so special. We felt welcomed and involved and enjoyed the chance to chat and learn from them as much as the animal experiences. Plus I was able to buy a copy of Colin’s book – Life Etched in Stone, Fossils of South Africa – for Steve’s birthday. (I have to say the book is a beautiful gem.)

I spent an hour or so today just looking at the photos and videos and reliving a wonderful day.

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Oh My Head....., and what a Lovely Lunch...

I was somewhat alarmed that Fiona did not seem to have as much of a hangover as I did, as I tried to raise myself off the bed around 10am the next day. I don’t remember how many beers I had had the previous evening, but I was sure that Fiona was close to keeping up with me, which by the laws of drunkenness should have given her as big a hangover as I had. Still after some juice and a bowl of cereal, I was just about able to maintain level flight and some coherence of conversation, and after my coffee I was able to give the illusion of being able to function normally.

Today we were going back into Johannesburg to a friend of Yates’s Aunt Ginny, Yvonne, who when she heard that we were close by had very kindly invited us to lunch. We managed to get ourselves into the car, I set the GPS with the destination, and off we went. Fiona and Yates both looked in better condition than I did, and I was driving...! Anyway the journey was its usual uneventful self and we arrived in Lone Hill , not too far from where we had been the night before in Fourways, exactly on time, which seemed to surprise Yvonne, as she was expecting us to get caught up in the traffic on the freeway.

Yvonne lives in a nice little house on one of the many secure housing development in that part of Johannesburg, and she wasted no time in inviting us to sit on her open veranda overlooking her beautiful garden and pool, and getting us a drink. We had a wonderful time just sitting and chatting with a real South African lady, talking about our backgrounds, our travels in South Africa, and how much we have enjoyed ourselves. There is a real sense of relief when we tell any South African how great our World Cup experience has been, and how well we have been treated by everyone we have met. In return we feel somewhat apologetic for the negative foreign press and the ignorant stories they have been pushing, painting South Africa as a dangerous and violent place to visit. Nothing could be further from the truth....

Yvonne had prepared a real South African feast for us, including a delicious homemade Bobotie, a spiced curry-type dish with a savoury eggy topping, accompanied with a sweet potato side-dish and rice. For dessert we had a wonderful Afrikaans Milk Tart, with ‘Cook Sisters’, a sort of deep fried donut mixture in syrup, (these were as sweet as they sound), served on the side. It was great to have a real South African meal served to us by such a wonderful host in their own home, we felt privileged indeed. After a few photo’s we said our goodbyes and pointed the car in the direction of home, all very full and contented that the only thing we wanted to do was to take a nap.

We had some plans to go out locally to see the Germany v Spain semi-final, but in the end I think we were all still pretty tired from the night before, so we all piled on to Yates’s couches and watched the match there. I had already predicted that the game would not be the free-flowing football that we had seen from Germany and Spain previously in the tournament, and that it would be a tight, cagy game that would be settled by a single goal. I was right.... Spain put a stranglehold on Germany’s ability to counter-attack by just not letting them have the ball, and defending in numbers on the rare occasions that the Germans did make their way forward. Spain subjected Germany to ‘death-by-a-thousand-passes’, grinding down the German defence until a chink in their armour appeared, and up popped an unmarked Puyol to thunder in a bullet of a header which left the keeper with no chance. One-nil..., and once the Spanish were ahead that was it... game, set & match to Spain... Hard luck Germany, try again next time.

My prediction for the final is that we see a very similar game between Holland & Spain. For all Holland’s attacking flair and dynamic playmakers, Spain will just get possession of the ball and not let them get it back. My Prediction.... One-nil to Spain, but don’t tell our Dutch hosts, Carman and Louie, as we will once again be accompanying them to the Dutch bar on Sunday to watch the final... Hopefully we won’t get to drunk.....

Thursday, July 8, 2010

As Drunk as a Dutchman

Tuesday was a scheduled ‘Do Nothing’ day, consisting of mainly doing what we had been doing for the last few days which was lazing around the plunge pool and making the most of the sunny weather. So yes, we did nothing....

Our hosts at the lodge, Louie & Carmen, both ex-pat Dutch, had invited the three of us to join them in the city that night to watch the semi-final between Uruguay & Holland at a bar where many other ex-pat Dutch hang out. We jumped at the chance to see the game in a bar with a lot of atmosphere and the opportunity to go out and have a drink and not having to drive back.

The drive into the Fourways district of Johannesburg offered us a great opportunity to chat with our hosts about South Africa and let them know how much we were enjoying our stay here and the warm welcome we had received everywhere we had been. We continues our conversation over dinner at an Italian restaurant called ‘Ciao Baby’ in the Montecasino complex, a huge dining and shopping centre, focused around another Vegas like casino.... The meal was delicious and the wine flowed freely as we enjoyed getting to know Carmen & Louie a little better, but soon it was time to move on to the Dutch bar for the game.

We arrived at the bar to be confronted by a sea of seething orange, as it appeared that every Dutch man & woman south of the equator had turned up and was in the early stages of having a great time. Fortunately, friends of Carman & Louie has saved some seats for us up near the big screen, what with space in the bar being at a premium, and we proceeded to enjoy the very unique atmosphere and the slightly strange euro-disco um-pah songs that the Dutch seem to like so much . To make sure we didn’t feel out of place, Louie had lent Yates & I an orange t-shirt each that we had been wearing under our formal shirts, and it was not long before we had shed our outer layer and taken on the mantle of honorary Dutchmen for the evening. Fiona had been given a bright orange feather boa to show her support for the Dutch, which proceeded to drop a trail of fluffy orange feathers everywhere she went... Then we started drinking.....

Louie had brought a round of beers when we entered the bar, but because it was so packed the best way to order drinks was to order them in buckets of six at a time and get them delivered to our end of the table. Being a Dutch bar we could only get Heineken, not much of a problem in the scale of things, and when our buckets started showing up, with a bottle of white wine for Louie, we all tucked in. After a rousing chorus of the Dutch national anthem and some serious chanting in the bar, the game kicked off in Cape Town, with the first half being a very dour encounter with both teams looking both nervous and tentative. The exception to that was Van Bommel’s missile of a shot that was for all-purposes, unstoppable, and put the Dutch in a somewhat undeserving lead, not that anyone in our bar cared, we just grabbed another beer and sang along with the crowd.

The second half started in much the same way as the first half had finished, until up stepped Forlan for Uruguay, one of the consistently dangerous players in the tournament so far, and he neatly dispatched his long-range shot into the back of the Dutch net, with maybe just a hint of a deflection from a Dutch defender. One-One. This must have caught the attention of the underperforming Dutch players as the game started to open up and chances at each end began to occur. But when the Dutch scored their second goal, and even their third, it still didn’t feel like they were home and dry, with the Uruguayan looking threatening, especially after they got a very late goal to bring the score to three-two. The last few minutes of added time were tense and could have gone either way, but after a few false endings, the game was finally finished and the Dutch were on their way to the World Cup Final.

At this point the bar erupted like a giant orange volcano with delirious people shouting, screaming and jumping on tables in celebration. The DJ took this as his cue to start up with the mysterious Dutch Euro ‘um-pah’ music again, but by this point in proceeding, enough beer had been consumed at our table that Yates, Fiona & I were up, dancing & singing, (our own version of the words), with the rest of them. This continued for some time with various dance styles from all-out disco to old-fashioned linked-arm waltzing, with the odd conga lines moving around the bar. I had long since lost count of the number of beers I had drunk, but every time I went back to the bucket, there was always a handful of beer in there, and it would have been rude not to take one and carry on with the celebrations.

This continued for well-over an hour after the game ended until Carmen, our designated driver who had been consuming water all evening, rounded us up to headed us back to the car. It was only at this point that two things became obvious; one, I was drunk and so was Yates & Fiona; and two, Louie was even more drunk than we were. This led to a rather long and interrupted journey home, with many stops on the way for Louie to express his happiness to the roadside vegetation, and for the rest of his fellow passengers to take the necessary pee-breaks.... We arrived home a little after 1.30pm I think, it’s a little difficult to be sure....

Hangover ahead....

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

It Began in Africa.....

With the live matches out of the way, we took a day off to de-pressurise and lounge around the lodge, and take a trip out for a long and boozy lunch. After that there was nothing more we could do than head for a reunion with the couch and take a nap or watch some TV.

We had planned to spend the next day crossing off one of the touristy things from our list, and therefore headed off to an area to the North-West of Jo’burg called the Cradle of Humankind. This area of South Africa is riddled with caves that have been in existence for literally billions of years, with some of the local rocks being the oldest rock found on the surface of the Earth, at around half the age of the earth itself. In the Sterkfontein cave they have discovered some of the oldest fossilised bones of human ancestral Hominids (pre-Homo Sapiens) ever found, and a couple of distinct branches of the Human family tree.

So we started our exploration of this fascinating area at the World Heritage Site of Maropeng, where they had built what I can only describe as a discovery centre to tell the story of these early human ancestors. The main building itself sits like an earth pyramid jutting out of the landscape and covered in long African grasses, and disguises the fact that it descends many meters below the surface. We entered and looked around an exhibition about Darwin, before moving into the bowels of the building on an interesting journey of discovery, down a ramp that reverse chronologically described the sequence of significant events in the Earth’s History from modern technology to the Big Bang. Who would have imagined that the next step of the journey would involve a subterranean boat ride through a physical manifestation of the forces that shaped the early planet...!! We were blasted by wind, heated and cooled, sprayed with water and even fogged in mist as the 5 minute ride meandered through a series of passages. After the boat ride we had our photo’s taken and then had to navigate the ‘Vortex of Perception’ in which we had to walk across a bridge, suspended in a spinning tunnel of lights..... Woah....!! Both Yates and I had some serious trouble making it through the vortex without falling over, and we hadn’t even had a drink yet...!

The rest of the exhibition space was filled with interactive displays describing every aspect of being human from our place on the family tree, through evolution, DNA, and how we become creative and socialise as groups. Even though this part of the exhibition looked like it was aimed at educating the kids, Fiona seemed to enjoy playing with all the buttons and flaps, and seeing if she could answer all the questions correctly. Toward the end of the exhibition was room full of fossils and a display about plate tectonics, and a very small display showing that earlier this year, the paleoarchaeologists at this site had discovered another Hominid species, not previously known. I guess what I took away from the whole experience is that there is a whole lot more to be discovered than science currently knows about. The exhibition area ended and threw us out, somewhat disorientated, into the daylight a little way away from where we started, but with a view over the ’Cradle of Humankind’, and a walk back to the main building.

We made our way back to the main building and decided it was time to grab some lunch in their World Cup themed restaurant, which was quite upmarket considering where we were. Even the meals were themed, and Fiona had a Mexican inspired dish (chicken), Yates an Italian style meal (tagliatelli), while took a walk on the wild side and ordered something call ‘Eisbein’ which was described to me as being pork. Fiona & Yates’s meal arrived and looked very tasty, but when mine arrived...., HOLY CRAP....! It was a massive Pork Roast sitting on a huge plate, big enough to serve all 3 of us and more...! Just looking at this monstrous thing made me feel full, and even though I manfully tried to eat as much as I could, I still had over half this thing left, and the heaviest doggy bag ever....

After that I needed to walk around a bit and let thing settle, which was good, as our next stop was at the Sterkfontein Caves, where we were due to take a tour. Our Guide, strangely called Maropeng, the same as the place we had just come from, led us on a short walk to the cave entrance at the top of a 119-step series of stairs into the belly of the caves. Once inside, the Maropeng gave us a humorous but informative guided tour of the caves main features, and some of the history of the discoveries made at the site. We saw stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone, pillars, lakes and whole bunch beside, before going through a series of very small and cramped passages, requiring us to bend almost in two or resort to our hands and knees. At this point I thought I was going to have a re-visit from my lunch, what with all the crawling around, but luckily we started the assent back to the surface, before my lunch did.... It was a very interesting tour and the guide made the hour fly by, but we were soon back in the car and heading for home once again, to do our own thing for the evening, which for me did not include any further eating...

Today when I opened the fridge, my pork monstrosity doggy bag stares out at me in a slightly threatening manner until I can take it no more and close the door..... I think I need to starve myself for a couple more days before contemplating any further attempts to finish it....

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Last of our Live Matches

The day of our last live match had arrived and we would be making our way to Ellis Park to see Paraguay v Spain later that evening. It’s funny because having tickets for 14 games seems like a lot before we started, but suddenly here we were with the majority of them behind us, wondering how they went by so fast. I guess one of the reasons is that we did see a burst of 10 games in 5 different stadiums in 13 days which seemed to go by in a blur, but now that we are at the sharp end of the tournament and facing the last of our matches, it’s strange to think it will be another 4 years before we see another...

Anyway, the bulk of the morning and early afternoon we spent relaxing before making our last visit to Gold Reef City, where we would watch the Germany v Argentina game before catching the Park & Ride to Ellis Park for our final live match. I have the drive in and out of Gold Reef City down to a fine art and can do it door-to-door, even in Johannesburg’s heavy traffic, in about an hour and three quarters, so we rolled up in perfect time to get to the Casino and stake a place at the upstairs bar, right in front of a large flat screened TV. From this excellent position we had an uninterrupted view of the Germany v Argentina game, could order beer via the waiter and even order food..., which of course we did as we settled in to watch the game.

Being genetically pre-disposed to a nationalistic dislike of the Germans, in sporting terms only of course, and in revenge for them decimating England’s World Cup Hopes, I was hoping that Maradonna and his merry band of Argentine superstars were going to open up a can of whoop-ass on this young and petulant German team, and give them a good old fashion thrashing... Gulp...!! After only the first few minutes it became pretty obvious that we were going to need a biblical intervention in order for the once fancied Argentine team to pull off a win of any description against the rampant German team that was laying siege to the Argy’s goal. Minutes later the faintest of touches from the big head of Mueller took the deftly floated free-kick past the hapless Argy keeper and into the back of the net... One-nil... For the rest of the first half, I watched in muted disbelief as the Germans dominated the midfield, cut Messi out of the game, and mounted serious pressure on the opposition goal. Argentina only had a mere handful of half chances going the other way, including a comical disallowed goal where 4 Argy’s were in an offside position, not that stopped them appealing as if they had just had the greatest injustice of all time perpetrated against them.
At one-nil there was always the possibility of a comeback, if Argentina could just get a goal early in the second half things could turn around like they did for the Dutch just 24 hour earlier, at least that’s what the desperate optimist inside me thought... Dejected and depressed I ordered another beer and a very large plate of pancakes and ice cream at half time, hoping that would make me feel better. No sooner than the second half had started, the Germans started banging in goals left, right and centre, and by the time my consolation pancakes had arrived was the game effectively over, and I think I missed the 4th goal as I slurped down the last of my dessert. Fair-play to the Germans who put on a commanding display of attacking football and came away deserving victors in a classic destruction of a promising Argentine team. At least England had scored 2 goals against the Germans, if you count the ‘phantom’ goal...., small consolation I know....

There was little queuing tonight at the Park & Ride and we were at Ellis Park in no time and following the usual routine of finding a toilet for Fiona and a beer pit-stop for me. Our seats were high up and almost behind one of the goals for our last game, which I thought were the worst seats we had had all tournament, but at least we were near the front edge of the stand with a surprising amount of legroom. It was obvious that the majority of the impartial fans and locals were going to be supporting Spain for this match, and because I had been disappointed that the Paraguayans had not allowed New Zealand to beat them in their group match and denied them the chance to be here instead, (assuming a win over the feckless Japanese), I wanted to see David Villa & co get past these tough and defensive South Americans.

At this point I think I should warn you against coming to me for football betting advice, because out of the previous 8 ‘Round-of-16 ‘games and the 3 Quarter-Final games that had been played to date, I had only predicted 3 correct results out of 11 games. Betting should be done from the head, not the heart...! Therefore I was somewhat foolishly predicting that Spain would win this game 4-nil, based on their results to date in the competition, their sublime and intricate passing & possession game, and their world-class attack pairing of Torres & Villa. It soon became obvious after the first 15 minutes of this game that form and history would count for nothing, and that Paraguay were going to be no easy-beats. Spain just did not look like the well-oiled machine that we had seen earlier in the competition, their passing was below standard and the defence looked nervous and shaky, And likewise the Paraguayans, far from being the ultra-defensive low-scoring team we had seen through the group stages, were playing a more expansive and attacking game than we had seen before. Although the score remained nil-nil at half time, the Paraguayans had seen the best of the chances, but if they could nick a goal early in the second half, they would turn the form books upside-down, and Spain would be in a world-of-trouble.

The second half started much the same as the first, cagy defensiveness from both sides with the occasional attacking move coming to nothing. When Spain subbed-off Torres first, then Alonso, (who was having a woeful game), and brought on Pedro and then Fabregas, the game took a turn and suddenly we had an open and flowing end-to-end game of football at last. Midway through the 2nd half, Paraguay sprang the offside trap, sent an attacker through only to be fouled in the box. Damn, I didn’t want Paraguay to score and no sooner had my silent pray left my lips than the Spanish keeper safely guessed the right way and saved the resultant penalty... Woohoo... Seconds later, the Spanish were attacking our end of the field and Villa neatly side-stepped his way into the Paraguayan box only for him to be brought down for a penalty...! Villa stepped up to take the 2nd penalty in as many minutes and coolly slotted it home, before the ref adjudged the kick invalid due to encroachment and made him take it again. This time Villa fired the ball to the goalies left where the keeper was handily placed to neatly scoop it up for another fine penalty save. Two penalties minutes apart, both saved, this was remarkable...., and this now had all the hallmarks of a game that was going to extra-time and maybe even penalties. No......, please don’t let it go to extra-time, I wanted to be in bed before 2am....

At last the football Gods must have thought it was time to cut this lowly football fan a break, and granted me my final wish of the evening, when in the 83rd minute, right below our noses, in an intricate but convoluted attacking move, the Spanish contrived to hit the post twice before the ball finally trickled across the line from the boot of David Villa for a late winner. And much rejoicing was had in the stands of Ellis Park, and possibly in many other places around the world, as the final whistle blew and the spectacle of Germany v Spain in the semi-Final was now a reality.

From our seats in Ellis Park to the door of our suite at Abloom took a mere 2 hours to achieve, and we were safely tucked up by 12:30am, with the last of our live matches behind us, and only 6 more games of the 2010 World Cup left to play. Now that attending matches was all over for us, there was a slight melancholy feeling that wouldn’t it be nice to see maybe a another game or two, but the reality is that we have been very lucky to see what we have seen, and that 14 games is more than enough....!

Monday, July 5, 2010

The First of our Quarter-Final Games

On Friday we made our last pilgrimage to the showpiece stadium of this World Cup tournament to see Ghana v Uruguay at Soccer City. Having discovered the Gold Reef Park & Ride now made it straight-forward to plan the day’s events as we knew it would be easy to get to, Fiona & I could spend a little more time at the Apartheid Museum to see what we had previously missed, plus we could catch the Holland v Brazil game on the big screen at the Casino. Everything went according to plan, we left early afternoon, Fiona & I checked out the museum again while Yates made a donation at the Casino, and I met Yates for the game at 4pm.

Holland v Brazil is one of those classic World Cup match-ups that not only has a long & distinguished history at the tournament, but it also promises to always throw up an absorbing and exciting match, and in 2010 it did not disappoint. Brazil started in their usual steam-roller fashion, pinging the ball around with ease and literally walking through the Dutch defence like it was not there. Little surprise when on 10 minutes, Robiniho waltzed right down the middle, slicing the defence in two and lifting the perfectly weighted pass over the keeper for the goal. One-nil.... Brazil played with such exquisite skill and awareness, and the Dutch seemed in such disarray, that surely Brazil were going to bag a handful more before half-time, and it seemed like a miracle when we reached the break with no further goals.

The old football hacks like to say that football is a game of two halves, and in this case they were exactly right. I dunno what the Dutch coach must have said at half time, but Holland came out in the second half a team transformed. Now the Brazilians seemed to have lost their touch, passes were going astray, and the Dutch crept slowly back into the game. Their big break came when a mix up in the Brazilian defence led to Melo and the keeper Caesar getting in each other’s way and contriving to let in the weakest of own-goals. One-all, and now where the Brazilians had been all over the Dutch in the first half, the Dutch were all over the Brazilians and were looking to put themselves ahead. The inevitable second goal came from a cleverly worked corner that was flicked-on at the near-post and nailed in at the far-post by Sneijder, the style of which I have not seen since the 1980’s.... By now I was hoping that the Brazilians would pull their collective fingers out and make a game of it, but when Melo was sent off for stamping it put the final nail in the coffin for Brazil’s World Cup challenge for this year, and the 5-times winners went out of the competition with their tails between their legs.... This was a great game that lived up to its classic billing.

After that, I doubted that Ghana v Uruguay would be able to live up to such a lofty height, but I was wrong. The crowd at Soccer city were nearly 100% behind Ghana, Africa’s last team at this tournament, and the green, yellow & red flags, with their black stars on, flew from every corner of the magnificent stadium. Ghana started very nervously, allowing the Uruguayans the bulk of the play for the first 30 minutes with a few good moves and the occasional shot towards target. But as time moved on so the Ghanaians found they feet and started to mount a few attempts of their own, and just on half time, Muntari collected the ball just inside the Uruguayan half, the defenders stood off, allowing him to move the ball forward a few yards and let loose with a low hard shot that just pinged into the bottom corner of the net. Wow... One-nil, and the dream of an African side in the semi’s was still alive.

Second half and the Uruguayans came out strongly, pressuring the Ghanaians and creating a hatful of chances, before Forlan stepped up to take a free kick some 25m out from goal, and just plant the ball inside the upright for the equaliser. Now it was game on and it was end-to-end stuff with each team coming close, but towards the end of normal time the Ghanaians seemed to gain the upper hand and mounted a full-on assault on the Uruguayans goal, but they were unable to make the breakthrough they needed, and we headed towards extra-time. We hate extra time & penalties, not just because of the perceived injustice or belief that a game of this magnitude should not have to end this way, we hate it because it means all that and that it will make us an hour and a half later getting home... Extra time is usually a cagy affair with neither team rarely willing to commit to winning the game in favour of trying to not losing the game, which results in a dour series of two, fifteen minutes periods, when seldom a result is obtained. This naturally leads to the worst way to settle a game, penalties.

On this occasion though, extra time was anything but dour as both teams appeared to really go for the win in an end-to-end battle to the end, in attempt to avoid the indignity of penalties. In the last few minutes of extra-time Ghana had an excellent chance of grabbing the winner with a couple of excellent shots going close or deflected by the defence, then a bullet header went just wide. Finally in the very last added minute of the game, a goal mouth scramble led to 3 chances for Ghana to score, each one defended off the line with the last being cleared by Suarez with a cynical hand ball. Penalty....and Suarez was shown the red-card. This was it, this was Ghana’s golden ticket to the semi-finals, all they had to do was convert the penalty kick and they were home and dry... Gyan stepped up and blasted the ball off the cross-bar and missed..... Aaaaagggghhhhhh....! The huge cry that went up from the crowd must have been audible around the world, as the dreams of a billion people were shattered. In the ensuing penalties, Ghana threw away their chance of progressing further with a couple of poorly taken spot-kicks as the Uruguayans clinically took the game.

How sad... Ghana had every opportunity and some to win this game, but in the end they just could notc step up and finish the job. We left the stadium somewhat dejected to start our journey home, arriving at 1:30am still pondering what might have been.....

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ever been down a Diamond Mine...?

As we sat around the dinner table last night we decided that we would check-out the Diamond Mind Tour in our nearest town of Cullinan. Diamonds have been found and mined for over 110 years in Cullinan, and the mine is most famous for the discovery of the largest diamond ever found, (called the Cullinan Diamond, 3,106 carets or 621 grams), which was gifted to the British Royal family, and used in Crown Jewels.

The mining company offers a comprehensive series of tours of the Mine including an underground tour which sounded quite interesting, so we turned up this morning and signed up. I guess we were a little unaware of exactly how involved this tour would be, so when we were presented with full overalls, helmet, boots, socks and a small backpack, we started to get a clue that this would be the real thing... After suiting up and walking through security, we were even more surprised when we had a full safety briefing and video, before being allocated our own emergency breathing unit and safety lamp...! Okay, this was more full-on than we had imagined, but as we stood at the mine head waiting for the elevator cage, we were actually quite excited about the tour.

Our first stop was at the lowest level of the mine, some 763m below the surface, where Pat, our excellent tour guide, started the underground portion of the tour. Pat had worked in the industry for over 20 years and what he did not know about the mine and the diamond mining process was not worth knowing, giving us a comprehensive run down of every aspect of the extraction of the diamonds. We checked out the main tunnels, a safety refuge, and covered almost 2kms to the production area, where the mined Kimberlite that holds the diamonds, was moved from the ‘Kimberlite Pipe’ to the surface. Apparently, it takes the extraction and processing of at least 100 tonnes of Kimberlite to produce maybe 6 carats/ 1.2 grams of commercial gems and 18 carats/3.6 grams of Industrial Diamonds.

It was all very interesting as whole process of mining diamond was not how I imagined, but it was quite exciting as we got up very close and personal with some of the heavy machinery, and watched huge chunks of the diamonds-bearing Kimberlite rock being moved around. Yates even thought that he had found a diamond in a piece of Kimberlite, and I'm not sure what exactly happened to that...? After 2 hours underground we headed to the surface to see where the extracted rock came out of the ground and went in to the ‘Recovery’ phase, before taking a look at the ‘Big Hole’. Now when they call it a ‘Big Hole’ they really mean it round here, as we stood looking at massive void in the ground, where initially rock had been removed by hand, but now was growing ever larger as the Kimberlite was mined below the hole, and the bottom of the ‘Big Hole’, slumped further down due to gravity. The more they take out from under the hole, the deeper the ‘Big Hole’gets..! It’s currently almost 500m deep and getting gradually deeper day-by-day...

Finally we went to the cutting room and the diamond sales room, where we were plied with alcohol and given the ‘soft-sell’ to buy a diamond, cut in the unique ‘Cullinan Star’ design. I have to say there was some very beautiful diamond of the 9 differing colours they extract from the mine, but the credit card stayed firmly in the wallet... Sorry Fiona... Overall, it was an excellent once-in-a-lifetime experience and we were all glad to have done it.