Tuesday, June 29
Roma - Ramabanta - Semonkong - Roma
We are on the road by 7am for the tough mountainous drive south to Semonkong. Leaving Roma we pass through a truly spectacular mountain gorge. The temperature is barely above zero at this time of the day in Lesotho and the Besotho people are up early dressed in blankets, riding their ponnies, leading their donkeys, herding their sheep.
It's a feast of stunning, desolate mountain scenery, which is best described as a cross between Georgia, Bolivia, Scotland and the Faroe Islands. This country feels like one of those few remaining places that the rest of the outside world, particularly tourism, is still yet to discover. I am not sure of the reason. I guess it is negative perceptions of the political instability of past years, the almost 50% unemployment rate and the world's highest AIDS rate at over 30% of the general population. Or, more likely, the country is simply overshadowed by its neighbour, South Africa, and consequently overlooked. As Robin put it, "I thought Leotho was just going to be one great big township surrounded by barbed-wire fence so that its population can't get in to South Africa. But it's not. It's actually an amazing country."
We stop off at the Trading Post in Ramabanta for the exquisite views, great hospitality and a full English buffet breakfast for five quid each.
Then the gravel and occasionally pot holed-tarmac road south takes us past remote Besotho villages where shepardry appears to be the only job going. The wild valleys mostly top 2000 metres.
At Semonkong we drive off road and hike down the mountain to the sheer mounatin cliffs opposite to the Maletsunyane waterfall. Maletsuyane tumbles 192 metres making it the highest waterfall in southern africa. This is also home to the world's longest single-drop abseil at 204m. The dimensions of the canyon and the vertical drop of the waterfall are bewildering, almost dizzying.
It is a perfect photo opportunity: time to don the silly wig and wave the flag that we found lying on the terrace floor after the England v Germany match.
As we climb back up the mountain to the van a crowd of small kids can be spotted peering over rocks at the top of the rockface. They are more than happy to pose for some (I must say) brilliant photos of us all together waving the English flag up in the peaks of Leotho. You get the sense that this is where England's World Cup really ended - probably as we speak the English team have touched down at Heathrow; the World Cup is not over, but England's Silly World Cup is.
we stop off on the way back to Roma for a scrummy dinner, inspiring sunset views of the nearby mountains turning red and Japan v Paraguay at the Trading Post in Ramabanta.
Lesotho is an amazing country. If you want to experience somewhere completely different from the norm then consider coming here. As the tourism slogan so rightly boasts:
Real people, real mountains, real culture.
Sunday, June 27
There are South Africans selling tickets outside the FIFA ticketing office. In previous tournaments you would probably have been hung, drawn and quartered for such behaviour but South Africa is such a laid back country that all present, including the police, simply accept it as normal and let them get on with it.
My England tickets were allocated - provisionally - several months ago. England members had to pay up front for tickets all the way to the 2010 final. This meant cashing out around 800 pounds in January. If England get knocked out today the ticket money for the quarters, semi and final will eventually be returned to our bank accounts in August or September. It's a big scam - not only do FIFA get to hold on to all our cash for several months, earning a fortune in interest from all the tens of thousands of fans, but they also charge us all ten dollars per ticket for each ticket that they return. If England crash out today it will therefore cost me 30$ just to get my own money back (also no doubt returned at a less favourable exchange rate), which FIFA has had sitting in its Swiss bank account for 7 months. Just from 20,000 England fans alone FIFA would earn 600,000$ for nothing. It is daylight robbery.
The only positive thing I can say about FIFA is that their ticketing machines are very efficient at this World Cup. Fearing a 2-hour queue to pick up my second round tickets for the three of us, I am actually in and out of their office in three minutes.
Football fans have taken over Bloemfontein shopping centre. I reckon there are several thousand genuine England supporters, several hundred Germans, while the majority are rent-a-fans. Most locals seem to be supporting Germany.
England v Germany black market tickets have dropped from 200 quid last night to 20 quid two hours prior to kick off. During the crush to the stadium many of those with spares can't even find anyone to give them away to. Free England v Germany World Cup tickets anybody?
Robin and I are on row z of the top tier. I guess the one advantage of being this high up is that you can stand up for the whole game without annoying anyone.
It's a fantastic atmosphere, with the chants and singing in England's favour 90-10. Despite all this, I expect us to lose. Schweinsteiger and Ozil are better than anyone we have; Klose and Podolski are more likely to score goals; England have the worst two players on the pitch in Johnson and Upson.
England hold some good possession until crap defending from Terry and even slacker covering by Upson gifts Germany the opener.
They score the second down our end and pints of beer go flying into the Bloemfontein sky. England are sliced apart. They are undone by a combination of poor defensive awareness and slick german passing and movement. England look dead and buried but within 10 minutes Upson has redeemed himself with a header from Gerrard's best cross of the tournament. Robin and I punch the roof of the stadium in celebration and I manage to injure my wrist in the process.
Within a couple of minutes we are in ecstacy as Lampard makes it 2-2. The England end turns into an old school terrace celebration. The Germans are all over the place.
But as we all turn from our various jumps of joy and hugs of happiness we notice that play is continuing. The 'goal' has not been given.
Why not? Even from row z we could see that that was clearly a goal. what happened? Mobile phones ring, text message alerts beep - the news almost immediately filters into the England end from those watching back home that the ball was a couple of feet over the line. Boos instantly ring out and chants of "The referee's a wan###"
How could this have happened again? We are crap but is the England team forever cursed? 2004 Portugal - perfectly good goal disallowed; 1998 France - perfectly good goal disallowed; 1986 Mexico - Maradona handball.
Of course, there are to be no action replays inside the stadium. Any even slightly contenious decision is never replayed. Even at half time, when they show the first half highligts, the Lampard 'goal' is conveniently forgotten. It's groundhog FIFA: they make hundreds of millions profit, put virtually nothing back into the host country, refuse to move with the times by bringing in goal line technology and appoint clueless refs for the big knockout matches.
But, at 1-2, we still fancy it...Lampard hits the bar again, Gerrard wastes a couple of great half chances...then England begin to gamble and James only manages to parry a Mueller shot into his own net. All the rent-a-fans are on their feet cheering and vuvuzelaring. Many have swapped allegiances and are now cheering for Germany. It is all a bit naff, to be honest. Give me the snowy wild terraces of Dinamo Kiev v Shakhtar Donetsk any day if this is FIFA's vision for football in the twenty first century.
The fourth German goal is an embarrassement. You wouldn't get away with defending like that on the hungover sunday league pitches of Bristol and Derby. It is bad enough being knocked out by the Germans but they have ended up humiliating us.
England's early world cup exit is all so predictable. It is all so Groundhog England.
Post-match, Robin and I are, aside from around 200 celebrating German fans, amongst the last to leave the stadium. It is no surprise to find Blackburn and one of the Spain '82 lads amongst our number. Souvenirs of our humbling, found on the empty terraces, include a silly wig (kept as a prop), a box of kids' facepaint crayons (given to a six year old German kid) and a discarded England flag (to be used for photo opportunities in the coming days).
The riot police are out in force for the first time at this tournament. Even that is damaging - they obviously expected Germany to beat England and for us to turn into bad, drunken losers. Don't they realise that England 2010 are a bunch of football backpackers, fifty-something old schoolers and rich middle class Premier League fans?
Those of us who've been here many times before can't be doing with the knockout post-mortem down the pub - you get to hear a million silly points of view as to why England are out of the tournament and rather than wanting to fight with opposition fans, many England are taken by the sudden desire to lamp their own fellow supporters.
Are we getting older? Wiser? Or are we just worn out by all the years of disappointment?
Sunday, June 27
Aliwal North - Bloemfontein
We are awoken at 2am by the sound of drunken red necks fighting outside the pub and drag racing across the bridge over the Orange River.
We are awoken at 7am by the sound of Dutch reform church bells and Swiss Cheese Fabio's 17-piece orchestra alarm clock.
One fantastic buffet breakfast later and photos by the adjacent Hertzog statue and Orange bridge and we are on our way to Bloemfontein, Oasis tunes blaring out of the van's speakers as we pass endless frost-covered fields of sheep. You have to pinch yourself to really believe we are on our way to watch England v Germany in the world Cup, instead of on some bizare road trip with John Candy.
Somebody has had to have a word with Swiss Cheese Fabio because he's decided to dress in a Scotland tracksuit top for today's match. He's supporting England but naively thinks that many of the England lads, who will have been boozing since 7am this morning, will like his top. As we reach the outskirts of Bloemfontein truck fulls of lads from the local township give us the thumbs up as we go in search of the FIFA ticketing centre.
This is either the start of something beautiful or more World Cup heartache at the hands of the Germans...