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?
Tuesday, June 22
Wilderness - Knysna
We stop off at beautiful Wilderness for the Bafana Bafana match versus France. The town nestles next to a long stretch of pristine beach and is surrounded by old growth forests. It is the kind of place where you expect to find the dying breed of old school hippies living and, sure enough, the majority of those in the pub watching the match look like they've spent several weeks partying with the band 'the Doors'.
South Africa have France completely on the ropes but Mphela misses a guilt edged chance to put them 3-0 up in the second half - a third goal that would very likely have seen them through to the next stage. As it turns out it is a very respectable 2-1 victory over the French...but our hosts are going home!
Rather than treating their exit as a tragedy the general consensus is that South Africa have made the nation proud and, most importantly, united many South Africans in the process. It has been an absolute pleasure to witness this happen during our time here.
Home for the night is Knysna, another hour down the road.
Bed for the night is a spot on the floor of a theme park hotel, which has imitation ostrich eggs and African masks but no door on the toilet. Strange.
Friday, June 11
I am not a fan of celebrity culture. When people ask me who I most admire I think of real people who, against the odds, battle through life. The kind of people that I was fortunate enough to meet on the road in Africa.
Yes, it is 'cool' when you meet somebody like George Best as I was lucky enough to some years ago, but truthfully those who should really serve as an inspiration to us are the individuals all around us: those that have overcome horrific ordeals, those that dedicate their lives to helping others.
There is though, one famous person in this world who does deserve special mention. His name is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
'Madiba', as he is affectionately known, is a living legend who should serve as an inspiration to all of us. When he was released from jail after 27 years inside a cell, Mandela chose a path of peace and reconciliation for his nation. Others would have chosen revenge and retribution.
The World Cup is in South Africa because of Mandela. South Africa stands united today as a nation state because of Mandela.
Nelson Mandela has made it clear that, despite advice to the contrary because of his ill health, he will be there at Soccer City today for the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup.
Speaking personally, I believe that this man is probably the greatest man on earth.
I do not have a ticket for the opening ceremony but, if I could, I would pay a lot of money to be there today. Yes, I would love to be there for the first game of the World Cup with the majority of the 94,000 crowd cheering on Bafana Bafana. But, most of all, it would be incredible to attend the opening ceremony just to see Nelson Mandela, the world's greatest living person, open the 2010 World Cup with billions watching around the planet.
Tuesday, June 1
Guatemala might not be one of world football's powerhouses but they provided another confidence booster for South Africa who beat them 5-0 last night. It is now 11 games unbeaten for Bafana Bafana with the opening game of the World Cup just 10 days away. Mokoema earned his 100th cap ahead of his country's final 23-man squad being named today.
Opponents of South Africa beware of the following:
1. 90,000 crazy home fans
2. Deafening noise in the stadia making it impossible for team mates to communicate
3. Temperatures dipping to near zero in the evenings
4. Playing at 1800 metres can be a nightmare
5. Underestimating the hosts of any World Cup can lead to your first round elimination
Friday, May 28
It is football friday in South Africa. Each and every friday South Africans are encouraged to 'dress down' for work by wearing the Bafana Bafana's colours into the office as a show of national unity.
Seems like every second South African now owns a national team shirt.
The locals are extra happy today after South Africa continued its impressive World Cup build up with another victory last night; this time a 2-1 win over Columbia in front of 90,000 at an (as ever) noisy Soccer City. Bafana Bafana are growing in confidence despite the best efforts of the nation's media to knock them down.
Brazil became the second team to arrive in South Africa on thursday. I think the Samba boys are going to find Joburg a bit chilly with temperatures dropping close to zero some evenings.
Bjorn is giving a presentation to the PSL today as way of thanks for their help since we arrived in South Africa. The biking Viking is about to give an hour long interactive show chronicling his 11-month journey from Norway to South Africa.
Monday, May 24
I am fortunate enough to attend South Africa's pre-World Cup friendly with Bulgaria at the Orlando Stadium.
The stadium is in the infamous Soweto suburb of Johannesburg, within sight of many of the country's most notorious townships. After total refurbishment in 2008, this new state-of-the-art arena now seats 40,000 fans.
It is chaos on the roads leading to Soweto. Despite leaving another Johannesburg suburb at 7, we are only able to double-park on one of the roads adjacent as the match kicks off at 8.30.
Many of the streets leadng to the stadium are unlit and the noise is deafening. Once inside the arena the volume level goes up several more desibels. It is so raucous, in fact, that I cannot hear my friend Norris, stood next to me. It is very cold; maybe only 6 degrees Celsius. It is more like a chilly November evening than the summer paradise many foreign football fans are expecting.
The Orlando stadium actually shakes as tens of thousands of fans jump up and down in unison and dance rythmically from side to side. Truthfully, I have never heard noise anything like this from 40,000 fans. It is deafening.
When Bafana Bafana take a deserved 1-0 lead it is time to apply index fingers inside the ears.
Bulgaria have good support in the stadium. I can only assume the couple thousand present reside here in the Rainbow Nation. Cyrillic flags include: Slavia and Lokomotiv.
When the Bulgarians equalise it also feels more like a full international rather than a friendly.
At half time I realise, if I didn't realise before, strolling around, that the majority present here are straight out of the Soweto townships. There are a lot of, shall we say, quite 'rough and ready' lads present. In the toilets the local males think little of sharing urinals, rather than waiting their turns. Three blokes sharing one urinal is a first for me.
The stadium is located inside a giant natural bowl and, as it gets colder, mist begins to hug the floodlights giving the occasion the feel of a packed out November evening FA Cup replay.
Bafana Bafana look like a much more decent side than they are given credit for, look dangerous at set pieces, and are inspired at times thanks to Steven Pienaar. If this kind of support is behind them for their Group A matches with France, Mexico and Uruguay I believe they can and will qualify for the second round.
The match finishes 1-1. I break my 'never-leave-a-match-before-the-final-whistle' rule on 87 minutes, otherwise I will be spending the whole night in Soweto rather than one of Joburg's rather leafier suburbs.