I am indifferent to cricket. There, I finally said it. Now, you can lynch me or burn my effigy. Imagine then, my dilemma, when I was offered a trip to South Africa for the ICC Champions Trophy 2009. But even the prospect of watching endless cricket couldn't dampen my enthusiasm at the idea of visiting South Africa - a place I'd always wanted to go to.
Sports tourism is big in South Africa. The country has regularly hosted various international sporting events. Now, with an estimated 4,50,000 football lovers expected to arrive in South Africa for the FIFA 2010, it is sprucing up its infrastructure and facilities to cater to the influx of tourists. The government is working with tour operators and travel agents from around the world to give sports tourists value for money. My trip too was designed with the same intention.
Just like India, South Africa too has something for everyone. There are beaches (Cape Town), adventure sports, a variety of food, warm people, mountains, rich history, beautiful wildlife and of course, like any new nation, an identity crisis of sorts. Full masala!
In the spirit of the game
I spent most of my ten-day trip in Johannesburg and Pretoria, the two cities in which the cricket matches were scheduled. My mornings, before the matches started, were spent looking around (Pretoria is a laid-back town with rows of jacaranda trees lining the streets, Joburg is your typical bustling big city). These are also the cities where most of the FIFA 2010 matches will be held. And most of the nights were booked for sampling the delicious food that most African restaurants offer.
The iconic Wanderers stadium in Joburg is big and majestic, with a capacity of 34,000 spectators. The Supersport Centurion stadium, near Joburg, is less imposing. It is small, cosy, with plenty of green grass for spectators to lounge on. I didn't turn into an overnight cricket enthusiast but I did enjoy every moment I spent in the stadium. Watching a match in Africa is quite different from watching it in India. Spectators come with picnic baskets, drink glasses of beer, recline on the grass, and even doze off when the match gets boring. In fact, I saw quite a few turn to their novels when things became a bit dull. It was like watching a game on a beach. By the time it was evening, I spotted smoke rings in the air. Spectators were having impromptu barbeques! It was one big party. A group of scantily-clad Zulu dancers kept the momentum high, gyrating to wild drum beats every time a player hit a boundary.
The flipside? You can't really make out what's happening. You'd be at a total loss without the commentary. "What the hell happened?" "What's the umpire saying?" Frankly, it made for great banter with friends. The highlight at Centurion were the interestingly designed beer glasses. My journalist friends and I made sure we collected as many as we could.
Our visit to Soweto (a town with great historical significance) or South Western Township was memorable. While on the way to Soweto from Johannesburg, we crossed the Central Business District or CBD, a bustling business hub with skyscrapers and a very business-like feel. A young nation, Africa still has scars of the past and the tension between the whites and the blacks is quite palpable. Our car crossed Helsbro, a supposedly 'notorious' part of Joburg and we couldn't spot a single white person. "Whites are rarely seen here. Some can be spotted driving past for work," said our guide. "I wouldn't advise you to walk in this area," he added.
But Joburg, contrary to its reputation, is not an out-and-out unsafe city. It's like Delhi. Some areas are safe and some aren't. Soweto borders the mining area near Joburg. It came into existence during the Apartheid era when blacks were evicted from Joburg city into separate townships. The black population would travel all the way to Joburg to work in the mines and homes of the whites. And because Soweto was close to the mining dumps, the blacks were constantly exposed to health risks. But things are changing with improved livelihood and education. A few of the matchbox houses have been renovated. I also visited Archbishop Desmond Tutu's house and the former house of Nelson Mandela (now a museum) on Vilkazi Street.
While in Soweto, we visited a shibeen or a local bar. A local version of beer called Joburg Beer is made here. Apart from drinking it straight from the packet, the other popular way of having it is with ice-cream and yogurt! The shibeen was actually a pitch-dark tin hut with benches full of men. I was only too happy to exit quickly!
We drove down for an overnight stay to the Pilanesberg National Park. Lunch was at Santorini, a Greek restaurant in Sun City, close to the national park. The world's who's who spend their weekends in Sun City. It is like a mini city - lush, green with mammoth water features, giant palaces, casinos, golf courses and hotels. People commute in buses and trams. One couldn't help but marvel at the architecture. To reach the restaurant, our group had to pass through a dense forest with artificial lakes, waterfalls, caverns, and a suspension bridge. Surreal.
With its thatched roofs and raw wooden furniture, Bakubang Lodge in the Pilanesberg National Park was very African and rustic in character. But it also had a great Internet connection, swimming pool and delicious food. While we waited for our safari bus to arrive, we sipped tea in the lodge's outdoor restaurant. Just 100 meters away, we saw a hyena roaming around leisurely. For a minute, I was quite scared. In fact, I lay awake the whole night, half expecting a python or some other wild animal to suddenly enter my room. But thankfully, that was just my imagination going wild!
The safari was a great success. Barring the lion and leopard, I spotted three of the big five cats, a herd of elephants, buffalos and rhinos. Though the park has a high density of animals, it takes a keen eye to spot them. That's because they get easily camouflaged in the yellow-green grass. I spotted a giraffe who gamely posed for our cameras for a good 15 minutes, a family of baboons sunbathing next to a waterbody, waterhogs, impalas, crocodiles, antelopes, zebras and many more animals I couldn't even recognise.
Post our brush with the wild, we had dinner in the lawns of the lodge. The reserve stretched out in front of us, and while we waited for our pasta and drank our wine, we listened to stories about the African wild.
The writer's trip was sponsored by South African Tourism