No amateur tour guide
Back in June last year I was thinking about spending the winter in South Africa but didn't want any rushing around like has happened in the past. No waking up in a different room each night whilst moving on to the next test. The continual living out of a suitcase and lugging it around. So a new plan was needed, not one that I'd ever considered.
So after a few enquiries I settled on booking with HowzatTravel on their Long Off Wanderer tour where I'd be able to meet up with some familiar faces from past tours, Posh (now known as Upgrade) Margaret, Brummie Steve, chief scorer Richard, Mick the train spotter and, of course, Bob who is on the Howzat staff for this tour. Hopefully many others on the way. There were many optional excursions between tests more of which later on.
So the day arrived to leave wet Guernland two days before Christmas. Arriving into Johannesburg on Christmas Eve morning we were welcomed by the familiar face of Bob Buckler and transferred to our hotel in Centurion. Midnight was already there, soaking up the sun and making waves in the pool, so there was at least one familiar face. First thing to do was get a local phone number so a visit to Vodacom in the nearby mall was needed, 199 Rands (£12) gave me a number and endless calls and data for a month. Cheap like most things here, although the exchange rate is not as good as 4 years ago. Met Steve and his mates in the bar later before a meal and early ish bed followed by a leisurely lie in. Only a light breakfast as Christmas Day lunch was included at the Irene Country Lodge. Not knowing many people at this stage, Steve and his mates made me feel very welcome during pre dinner drinks and being able to join their table. Thanks Steve, that was most appreciated.
So on to the cricket and the first test at Centurion. Tickets had been distributed for the first four days, 10AM start every day meant the transport leaving at a ridiculous hour or so earlier. Anyway thanks to the alarm clock this was achieved after a quick breakfast. There were only three other days as the fifth wasn't required following a South African win. A lie in, happy days. So on day 5 a tour of Pretoria was organised. Not a particularly picturesque place but visits to the Voortrekker monument and Paul Kruger's house made it a bit interesting but not my usual cup of tea!! But it filled an afternoon.
Time to pack as it is now New Years Eve which means a transfer to Cape Town for the second test starting on 3rd January. Due to the numbers we were split across at least 5 hotels, probably more. I was in the Signature Lux Waterfront, not as lux as the name may suggest. No storage and limited hanging space so live out of a suitcase for 8 nights. Not good for those sharing which resulted in at least one transfer. At least the bar and food service were decent, friendly staff etc. New Year's Eve was spent in the hotel as many, including me, had decided against paying £130 for dinner etc at a local restaurant. Got to know a few fellow travellers here, particularly Dave and Tom from Lytham-St-Annes, who also moved on to Port Elizabeth. Midnight had opted to stay in Simon's Town. Didn't quite understand that but you've no doubt read his blog elsewhere. A couple of days free before the test meant that a red bus tour could be done and an interesting return train trip to Kalk Bay for lunch at the Brass Bell to meet his nibs, Nigel, Helen and friends.
So on to the second test on 3rd January. Another early coach transfer even though each day the start time was 10.30. Well worth getting up for. At least Root decided to bat but England didn't capitalise until the second innings, Sibley's maiden test century, and Stokes eventually finishing them off for an emphatic win by 189 runs after tea on day 5.
Now there's a break of 9 days before the third test in Port Elizabeth. Various options were available, stay in Cape Town as part of the original cost, or watch animals, no thank you, visit Victoria Falls, may be, visit Namibia, possibly, or take the Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria preceded by some wine tasting. Well that had to be done so I booked it, sod the price. Not really my style but it was an opportunity not to be missed. About 20 of us had signed up for this so were picked up from our hotels for two nights at the 5 star Marine Hotel at Hermanus. On the way we stop off at La Vierge Winery for a wine tasting then travel on to Creation Wines for a 5 course lunch and 8 wines to taste. No need for a meal that evening. Chance of a lie in and chill out for the day. Try to find a laundrette without success so had to get a few things done by the hotel. Oh well!! Will try again at Port Elizabeth. Next day we're off to Franschhoek for a visit to La Petit Ferme wine farm for lunch and some more wine. Once again no need for a meal later. This evening we're staying at the 5 star Coopmanhuijs Boutique Hotel at Stellenbosch where one or two Savanna Dries were enjoyed before bed. Luckily another lie in was enjoyed as our transfer to the Blue Train wasn't until early afternoon. Check in time is 14.30, welcome drinks, when we get rid of our bags. We've had to put our main bag in a separate carriage so have had to prepare an overnight bag for the journey due to limited cabin space. Unlike most South African trains we left almost on time. This is an all inclusive trip, apart from champagne and caviar!! All day long food, breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and all you could drink and first class butler service but it's not toffee nosed. The only rule was that you had to dress for dinner, jacket or waistcoat for men, no ties necessary which was a bit odd. This train was not busy, only about 40 passengers rather than 80 odd when full. Each suite doubled up as a day room and converted into a bedroom by the butler folding down the bed. En suite bathroom with bath and shower. I didn't enjoy a good night's sleep on the first night. Too much noise from the train movement. Didn't trust myself to stay upright in the shower for the same reason!! Anyway ate and drunk my way through the next day. Progress was slow, waiting for freight trains on single tracks. Scheduled stop was at Kimberley to visit the Big Hole. This is a big diamond mine. Stinking hot here much like Kalgoorly in Western Australia where they have their even bigger hole. For some reason the train didn't go very far on night 2 so no noise meant better sleep until it started up again about 4.30. Arrival time into Pretoria was 10AM but due to thefts of overhead cables the train was diverted which ended with an almost 3 hour delay. Lunch was provided at Trumps, no connection, in Nelson Mandela Square.Then overnight in Sandton at the 5 star Michelangelo Hotel before flight to Port Elizabeth. Fantastic 5 days.
So on to the third test. Check in at the Town Lodge and once again advised not to wander alone after dark. First priority is to find a laundrette so I've got enough clean clothes until I get home. Mission accomplished with the aid of a friendly taxi driver. Apart from breakfast, evening eating options are all a short walk or a taxi ride. The two from Lytham are in the same hotel so we venture to a busy pub, Barnies, not far away for our first evening meal. Other alternatives range from John Dorys, a couple of eateries near the pub, Whimpy, KFC and up market de Kelder and the Coachman. The last two were very good.
So on to the cricket. 10AM start again which meant departing about 9 so not appreciated. Once again Root won the toss and batted. South Africa were well and truly beaten before they had a chance to bat thanks to an unbeaten century from the impressive Ollie Pope in a partnership of 203 with centurion Stokes. Finished off by a last wicket partnership of 83 involving a 23 ball 42 by Mark Wood. 499 for 9 declared was just too many. Thanks to Dom Bess's 5 wickets in the first innings and 4 by Root in the second innings, following on, the inevitable defeat by an innings and 53 runs was achieved on the final morning. So a series lead of 2-1.
Various options were available to pass the time on the day before transferring to Johannesburg for the final leg of the tour. On arrival, late evening, we checked in to the Garden Court Hotel in Sandton for 7 nights. Once again this gave the opportunity to unpack. Relatively safe here next to Nelson Mandela Square so plenty of opportunities to eat out. Still need to be careful but there are plenty of security guards. Didn't stop being offered a 'free massage' though!! A day off before the test could be spent doing whatever took your fancy. Same routine as most other free days.
Once again the start time was 10AM which meant the usual early transfer to the ground. I'm sort of getting used to this!! The coin came down in England's favour again so another chance was taken to rub their noses in it. With a first innings score of 400 another win was on the cards but rain could hamper this. That did give the opportunity of a welcome lie in on day 2. The opposition had almost given up the fight being dismissed for 183 in their first innings thanks to 76 from that pest de Cock and 5 wickets for Mark Wood. England didn't enforce the follow on, why would you. So the opportunity should have been taken to set them an impossible 600. But wickets were thrown away resulting in a total of just 248. That did set a record run chase of 466 in 6 sessions, not impossible but highly unlikely. Of course that proved correct, but not before resistance from van der Dussen (98), du Plessis (35), the inevitable de Cock (39) and Bavuma (27). At one time it looked like we may have to get up early again for day 5. But suddenly the last 6 wickets tumbled for 39 runs. So another big win, this time by 191 runs. An amazing 3-1 series win. So the welcome lie in was achieved. That thankfully coincided with the end of tour dinner arranged for the evening of day 4. Every tour group has this provided, food and drinks all included. Ours was held at the Wanderers Club adjacent to the ground, with guest Shaun Pollock who answered questions on various aspects of his career and South African cricket.
As mentioned day 5 became a free day to be used as you wished. As the Under 19 Cricket World Cup was taking place an opportunity was offered to go to the quarterfinal at Potchefstroom between India and Australia. Many did so but with a departure time of 8AM for the hour and a half trip, I opted for the lie in.
All of a sudden the day arrived to say farewell to the tour group who were all departing at varying times depending upon their eventual destinations. Transfers to O R Tambo International Airport were detailed on the notice board in the hotel foyer in the same manor as all communications throughout.
All in all a very well organised trip for which I must thank all the Howzat Travel staff. I won't be going to Sri Lanka, despite efforts to change my mind but I wouldn't rule out booking with them again in the future. I've met a number of really nice people and hope to see them again wherever it might be.