Saturday, June 26
Grahamstown - Aliwal North
Peering out of the window, past the electric fences, security gates and the barbed-wire world of paranoia, Camper Van Nick's red and white England van appears to be voilently rocking from side to side in the car park. I hope he hasn't damaged his suspension.
Breakfast from the local 'bread shop' is enjoyed strolling around the Edwardian and Victorian era streets of Grahamstown. The town centre is ethnically 90 per cent non-white but architecturally 100 per cent white. Pride of place is the English style saturday market where you can buy African masks, hand-made wooden statues and Bafana Bafana memorabilia. Everything is so African; everything is so English; everything is so ridiculously surreal.
Our route north towards Bloemfontein takes us through the Eastern Karoo - a vast semidesert that is more cowboy and indians than any John Wayne film set you've ever seen. It is often 30 minutes before you see a single other vehicle in this part of the world. Temperatures hit 45 degrees here in the summer months but at this time of the year they can drop to minus ten. If you ever want to get away from it all and enjoy the peace and serenity of the big open spaces then this is the place for you. Leaving the semi-arid plateau, the snaking mountain pass takes us up over 2000 metres where, briefly, cacti, red aloe, shrubs and grazing sheep are replaced by snow, ice and sheer rock faces. Forget the Garden Route - this is the best road trip in South Africa.
After we pass Queenstown there are numerous dusty little township settlements where people live in the most basic of huts. The poverty is rather humbling and upsetting at times.
By around the time the first of the World Cup second round games between South Korea and Uruguay kicks off we reach Aliwal North on the banks of the Orange River. From here you cross a River Kwai-style bridge into the Orange Free State and the world of the Afrikaners. Actually, judging by the fact that all those present in the Riverside Lodge bar are six feet wide, wearing rugby tops and speaking Afrikaans, it appears that the Boer World begins here.
We are preparing for tomorrow's match in style staying at the adjacent four-star Lodge. Our suite comes with a balcony overlooking the Orange River, our own little lounge area to watch today's knockout matches and electric blankets on each of its four beds for when the temperatures dive down subzero as soon as the sun sets.
A little known fact is that it was the British, not the Germans, who invented concentration camps. One of them was here in Aliwal North where more than 700 Afrikaners died at the hands of the British. In total 27,000 Afrikaners and 14,000 black South Africans, most of whom were women and children, perished in camps during the second Anglo-Boer War. Most of the camps were in this region. In the case of the Afrikaners and the apartheid regime they spawned, it seems, as so often happens, that the abused became abusers in later years. In the case of the British, it appears to me that another of the shocking chapters in our brutal history of Empire has been all but conveniently swept under the carpet of time.
I don't think the Afrikaners in this part of the world are quite as happy to see England supporters as in other parts of South Africa. Consequently, we decide to skip the local bar full of 'large red neck units' and enjoy the luxury of our 25 pound-per-head luxury suite...now where's that switch for the electric blanket?