This is the first episode of the story of my month in South Africa for the World Cup.
First, some necessary preamble that Israelis and Jews particularly want to know - how did I do this entire trip for under £2,000 for the month? The whole plan started to come together way back in February when ex-Roomeus introduced me to a mate of his at the FA, who was able to procure a couple of "friends and family" tickets to each of the England games. Then a swift call to BMI Diamond Club Gold Line, and time to take advantage of a mispricing in their mileage awards structure - their assumption is that Middle East to Africa flights are direct from Dubai on Gulf Air or whatever, not from Tel Aviv via Europe on something more Yid-friendly (or Lufthansa). 28,000 miles (of which 20,000 were for signing up to the BMI AmEx card) and £400 later, and I was going out Swiss First Class and back South African/Lufty Biz Class. A quick call to Avis Preferred for 23 days of car hire for £530 (complimentary unlimited mileage and class upgrade), and some free accommodation at Freedmansdadsbestmate in Joburg and Dr Blond's in Cape Town, with some negotiated super deals for B&B's along the Garden Route and a lodge right in the middle of the Kruger, and I was sorted.
But enough of that. Well okay, one quick photo. Of the limo that drove me across the tarmac from the Swiss First Lounge to the plane at Zurich.
For the record, superb PJs that look like the Viet Cong in All Blacks gear, 16 year old Lagavulin in the Zurich lounge trumped by 18 year old Macallan in-flight, and this special Taste of Switzerland dinner menu:
Langoustine and melon sushi
Scallop quenelles with abalone topping
Norwegian wild smoked salmon
Accompanied by copious Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle
Fillet of snapper
Bed of herbed rosti and fresh salad
Accompanied by a super glass of Swiss-origin pinot blanc
Rack of lamb cooked to taste (medium-rare please)
Bed of wild rice, roasted veg
Accompanied by most of a bottle of a spectacular red, I think it was Donatsch
Selection of 6 different Swiss regional cheeses
Accompanied by Swiss muscat AND a tumbler of very nice colheita port
Passion fruit cheese cake
Lindt & Sprungli truffles
Accompanied by proper Nespresso decaf
Deep stupor-like sleep on my 6'4'' bed in my black PJs
Accompanied by snoring
So after a total of 20 hours of travel, which was in fact entirely blissful, I arrived at OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg. The whole place was festooned with flags of the various participating nations in the World Cup, and there were already groups of fans doing the same thing as me, and getting in a week or so of sightseeing before the opening game.
My first African experience was driving across town with Doron, my hosts' preferred cabbie, a nice guy with the most clapped-out Astra imaginable, as he swung it around every conceivable back route to try and avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic. Hiktik (hectic), as the locals say.
M&A's place in Victory Park was a 5-bed, 2-bath monstrosity with 3 big receptions (including a full-sized bar), an outdoor diner, pool, tennis court, two garages and staff block, which was sadly unoccupied, meaning I had to occasionally do some tidying up after myself. All for less than the price of a 2-bedder in Borehamwood. Unusually for that part of town, no huge fences or gates, and minimal alarms due to three of the housemates, Jack, Dot and Bumper the cats.
After a weekend acclimatising to the altitude and weather (winter there of course), mostly by eating a load of food, organic and largely veggie in the house due to my host, and balancing load of carcass elsewhere, I was ready to head to the Kruger. So I started out down the N4 with the sounds of John Denver playing (Wiiiiiild Montana Skies), and in a very spirited mood. After about three hours of driving through pretty bland plains interspersed with power stations and coal mines (best of all, a sign saying "caution, explosions will be taking place here on Tuesdays between 11am and 2pm") the countryside starts getting spectacular, rather like parts of Scotland.
Arriving in Nelspruit, I passed the new stadium and drove up for a peek. In homage to the nearby national parks, the roof is held up by pillars shaped like giraffes, and the seats are a huge zebra pattern. An hour later, and I pulled up at the Paul Kruger Gate, had my car checked for hunting rifles, and drove into the park just before sunset.
Rounding the very first corner I encountered a herd of buffalo marauding across the road. Sensational. Except that buffalo really just look like cows will silly viking hats on.
Thus ends Part I, under an incredible starlit African sky.
Dah wumba wumba wumba oh oh oh. And he walked the length of his days under African skies.