5am Lavender Lodge, Seapoint. We rise and shower, breakfast and hit the road while it’s still night. Driving east through the city and out past Khayelitsha towards the winelands. It’s too early in the morning to drop in on my HIV orphans project which I visited last time I was here – but we’ll be back. As we climb the impressive mountain road the lights of False Bay twinkle below us and disappear. The faint glimmer of dawn is on the horizon. Layers of mist swirl across the road, a tree-top here, the distant mountains poking through the blanket of soft cloud, the car eating up the kilometres. Gas stops are clean, peopled by africans of varied hues, and you never fill your own tank – someone does it, wipes the windscreen, asks if you want the oil and water checked, gets tipped and on you go. We spot ostrich in a field, then in the back of a lorry. As the sun rises the mist starts to break up and melt and the full glory of the countryside is revealed, just one long unbroken road stretching out before us.
Our deadline is 4pm – when Bafana Bafana kick off against France in the make-or-break final group game – or to be more accurate our deadline is 3.50 because we both want to hear our hearts beating when they play the national anthem of South Africa, N’kosi Sikelele Afrika, and wherever we are on the road we have to be part of it. So I drive like a demon until lunch, which, appropriately for the fabled Garden Route, we take in a Garden Centre. Surreal but there we are at outside tables with fry-ups, coffee and tea, delicious. Back on the road. All the land we drive through is farmland here, so the chances of seeing wild animals is slight. Nysna is a stunning break in the road, a great bay, a cliff-break to the sea, a small busy community. We move on through Humansdorp and reach Port Elizabeth where the road sweeps down to the beach and the Indian Ocean. I’ve been driving for eight hours and it’s 3pm. We push on driving north towards Addo on a small one lane road. Suddenly : zebra, wildebeest. It’s another farm. Then : monkeys, on the side of the road, in the bushes, a whole family with babies. That’s not a farm ! Thrilled we push on to Addo National Park and drive in at 3.45, park up, buy two beers and sit down in a great thatched dwelling with no walls, open to the bush, but crucially with a TV screen suspended from the roof and a few hundred South Africans gathered to wish, and hope, and pray. They need to win 5-0. The anthem is immense, and touching when a six-year old girl behind us joins in.
The game is lively. A Frenchman is sent off for the elbow. High drama. Bafana Bafana score after 20 minutes, then another, then another which is disallowed. We can scarcely believe it. 2-0 at half-time. In the other game, Uruguay are beating Mexico 1-0. Come on bafana !! Three more goals against ten men ! But it isn’t to be, they huff and they puff, the French score a goal but are still beaten 2-1 by our hosts South Africa, the greatest result in their history. France are bottom of the group and out, and so are Bafana Bafana sadly, on goal difference to Mexico, who proceed with Uruguay. The locals are sad but not gutted I sense, and indeed they recover quickly, after all they are still hosting this tournament, and mindful of their role they brush themselves down, become philosophers (like us all) and whole-heartedly throw their support behind all the remaining African teams in the competition, and most notably Ghana. What is striking to us untravelled Europeans is the enthusiasm that white people have for Ghana, considering both themselves and Ghana to be Africans. And thus we learn an early lesson in south african culture. It’s not just black and white. They’re a rainbow nation, and they are moving forward. Together.
Next day we safari in our own vehicle through the park. There’s a map outside the office where they flag sightings from the dawn patrol, and since this park is the size of Buckinghamshire we need to target our morning. Kudu are immediately in evidence, large graceful beasts, and it isn’t long before we see our elephants. A large family slowly crossing the road in front of us, eating, travelling, not bothered with us or the few other cars here. Magnificent spectacle it is to see them getting on with their day and we take endless photos.
We are not allowed to leave our vehicles here as it is deemed to be their space, and besides, it’s not safe ! Further down the road we spot a warthog with his wiggly tail, then a bird squawk beside the car alerts us to movement and a mongoose flashes by pouncing on a mouse. A kill right beside us. Then the leaves shake and it’s gone. Further up the hill are a group of eland with their elegant long horns, more ostrich and loads more, literally tons more elephants. We carry on driving into Port Elizabeth (PE) where England are due to play Slovenia at 4pm. We’ve had a wonderful wildlife day and decide not to try for tickets (later learn that people are giving them away and the ground isn’t full) but to try the Fifa Fanpark instead and get a different vibe. We make the first of many mistakes by asking a taxi driver fixing his engine where the fanpark is. “Summerstrand” he says with authority and waves us in the direction so off we go. Fifteen minutes later we are asking at the gas station where the fan park is – “next to the Casino, you can’t miss it”. Turns out to be a funfair so now we ask a policewoman (with ten minutes to kick off and both of us getting frazzled with endless circling moves around PE). It’s in the cricket ground !!! We finally park up, walk in through the frisk security, and indeed here we are at the Oval Port Elizabeth. Hundreds here, all locals from what we can tell, generally supporting England – we can tell from the painted faces and scarves.
This is rather moving, since the night before their beloved Bafana Bafana had been knocked out of the tournament thus ending the hosts’ interest in the World Cup, yet the very next day they’re actually painting their faces with the red on white cross of St George and cheering on the uninspired millionaires Gerrard Lampard Rooney and Defoe – oh what a goal !! Come on England !!! Half time we mingle with the locals, eat local food (kudu burgers ? “proper african food” says the white lady serving from a caravan) and wait forever for a cup of tea. Defoes’s goal is replayed on the big screen. C’mon we can do this. Hope springs eternal. But it wasn’t to last – a brief moment of inspiration, a flickering match in the dark which cannot light the way to the poetry of football, to touch, to control, to pass, to cross, to shoot, to score. We grind out a 1-0 win and actually laugh as John (poison) Terry throws himself horizontally at the ball in a surreal attempt to deflect a Slovenian shot. USA score against Algeria in the 92nd minute and we finish second in the group, but without deserving anything from a weak group of teams, we are through to the knockout stages with a chance to turn it round. So who will it be ? Serbia ? Ghana ? Germany ???