South Africa is an epic land at the tip of the world's most epic continent. It is a country that almost defies description, a constellation of attributes, a constant source of awe, intrigue and inspiration.
It may be the 121st nation I have had the privilege to explore, but comparisons seem futile - this place is simply unique. A complex political history has forged a complicated series of intersecting cultures. The diverse, warm and at times problematic people have inherited or migrated to a sublime slice of earth, teething with an embarrassment of riches.
For Mick, Danny and myself interacting with this smorgasbord of scenery seemed more a necessity than an option. The World Cup may have brought us here, but there is so much to discover that a few football-free days were inevitable. After all, it is the place and the people more than the football that we find ourselves discussing during the daily late night pints before succumbing to fatigue.
Having seen four games in our first four days in South Africa, we spent our next four days on the road, in exploration mode.
Of course football is always on the African horizon. Unlike previous World Cups in Japan and even Germany, where it was easy to escape the hysteria, the South African mindset is completely consumed by this global sporting event. Impromptu games of football with locals and tourists, frequent stops at road work sites together with general conversations with hotel and restaurant staff are all dominated by talk of the plight of Bafana Bafana and who will lift the trophy on July 11th.
Thrice daily match coverage on national radio has been another travelling companion, keeping us informed of the latest football developments. The commentary was annoying at first, to the extent that I almost began to long for Britain's Martin Tyler and Garth Crookes.
But we soon warmed to the senseless musings of South African commentators, who would scream with excitement at a two-yard pass or a throw-in and then casually hide the details of an imminent red card or penalty save in the midst of a random story about where Samuel Eto'o's mum does her weekly shopping.
The half time analysis soon became our favourite feature of the matches however, where the level of punditry reminded me of a Zambian sitcom I once had the misfortune of sitting through in Lusaka airport. Imagine your mate's dad, you know, the socially inept one who doesn't know anything about football and likes something stupid like Formula One instead, discussing the events of the first half with your Nan, who says things like middlefielder, 'they need to kick the ball harder', and 'they are losing so they need to score some goals'. Maybe this is where Channel Five in the UK recruit their panel of 'experts'. Maybe not though, as I'm not sure Colin Murray and Stan Collymore are quite of the standard of Radio SA2000.
Our cultural explorations began with a form of safari, tailored of course to our unique interests. We stumbled upon the turn off for Kruger National Park just before inadvertently entering Mozambique. We arrived just after sunset, to find the gates locked.
The manager of the adjacent lodge told us to return at 6am and pitying our lack of organisation even booked us rooms at a nearby guesthouse. The conversation then somehow got onto Braais, the South African food-centred social event that we were warned not to refer to as a 'barbee'.
She was shocked to the point of being offended that we were yet to experience this national institution, and insisted on hosting us the following evening at her house. She would bring friends and food, we would bring ale and charm. At least that was the plan. So a day on safari in South Africa's smallest car, followed by the complete culinary experience was on the cards.
As we drove through the world's most spectacular animal park the following day, the three least knowledgeable wildlife commentators exchanged theories about matters of real zoological importance. Meaningful debates transpired centred around significant questions such as: who would win a fight between a hippo and a lion? Is Kruger better than Knowsley Safari Park? What's Gary Neville doing in that cage? And will they mind if we feed cereal to these monkeys? The braai that followed was worth the trip alone and completed a memorable day, although I'll avoid expanding as to why.
Consecutive day trips to the landlocked countries of Swaziland and Lesotho followed. Not that we progressed far in either nation, as there was the little matter of not having the correct hire car insurance. So we only spent a day in each nation, just to be cautious.
Swaziland presented more related problems, whose streets had more potholes than Luke Chadwick's face. Both places proved well worth the investment in time and risk however. As the last remaining absolute monarchy in Africa, Swaziland is a nation embedded between Mozambique and South Africa and felt culturally distinct from both.
We exchanged waves and smiles with everyone we saw, the colour of our skin, and selection of attire promoting amused response from locals. Lesotho, known as 'Africa's Kingdom in the Sky' was breathtaking in both the metaphorical and the literal sense.
The people of this mountainous nation were similarly friendly, although we were lucky to escape with our football after a group of kids who had joined us for a kick around seemed determined to keep hold of it. They settled for 50 Rand instead.
The following morning we set off in the direction of our own slice of history, an event hidden in the excess of events South Africa has experienced. After bribing our way out of an early morning speeding fine, we headed for Ladysmith. The town is littered with memorials to battlefields from several conflicts, notably the Boer Wars. With British involvement a notable feature, one particular site has close connections with our hometown of Liverpool. Prepare yourself for a brief history lesson - stay with me.
During an early period of success with league title wins in 1901 and 1906, Liverpool FC constructed a new single-tier stand at the traditionally working class end of Anfield stadium, which would eventually house up to 27,000 supporters.
Liverpool Echo sports editor Ernest Jones suggested it should be named the Spion Kop, after the hill site of a famous Boer battle in January 1900, which claimed the lives of 322 men mainly from Liverpool.
The Kop in Liverpool was the first of its kind, as a platform for large numbers of supporters to collectively and innovatively express loyalties and opinions relating to football and various socio-political and cultural elements.
The Kop became a scarf-waving celebration of civic solidarity, providing fans of other clubs with a football education. Numerous clubs in England and abroad have since adopted the term Kop as the name of one of their own stands. But it all started at Liverpool, and that in turn has its roots in South African history. A visit to the impressively kept site and a picture with the 'THOSE SCOUSERS GET EVERYWHERE' banner seemed inevitable.
That visit left us about 1200km from our next point of interest, the capital city and world renowned metropolis of Cape Town. Next up is a welcome re-acquaintance with World Cup football, starting with Portugal against North Korea at Green Point Stadium - if we survive the drive.
© Dr Joel Rookwood & Soccerphile.com
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