South Africa Tour 2015/16
Lofty and I got into Ladybrand just in time. The tropical storm that had been threatening all afternoon finally broke at about 6pm, meaning we were confined for the evening to our bed and breakfast, Cranberry Cottages.
Our arrival had not been auspicious. First, Lofty had to change our rooms as we had been allocated chalets next to a stagnant ornamental pond - Mossie tuck shop territory.
Next, I discovered that the swimming pool was full of leaves, frogs and goodness knows what else, so that was off limits, and to cap it all the hotel internet was unavailable for the duration of our two day stay.
Eventually we were given air conditioned rooms in the main building which were a vast improvement so we made our way to the bar and got the cards out for the SA Rummy challenge. As I shuffled, the bar manager came over to us, a very pleasant and well educated local lad called Kevin, who I later learned was headhunted from the Spur Restaurant in Maseru, Lesotho.
Not literally, you understand!
Kevin seemed hypnotised by my card shuffling.
"Do you wanna see a card trick?" I said.
He was up for it so I showed him a simple 21 card maths driven piece of nonsense that my Great-Aunt Tilly in Diggle had taught me when I was about eleven.
As Kevin's chosen card popped up, the magic was clearly impressing him.
"Oooh you must show me how to do that trick! You don't know how successful it will make me with the ladies!"
"Well, mate, its done f*ck all for me over the years!"
The magic also attracted the butler, Monorwe. He asked to be shown the trick, but I declined as Kevin pointed out that he already has three wives in tow!
Next day normal weather service was resumed and we drove out to the mountain villages on the Lesotho border. Our destination was a town called Clarens, where Prince Harry, no less, has allegedly been spotted chasing tail on his holidays.
Clarens proved to be an African Alderley Edge, full of expensive shops, artsy fartsy galleries, wine bars and the like so we didn't linger.
However the drive there was the real highlight. As scenic and enjoyable as yesterday had been stressful.
The final leg of our epic journey on the 13th January - a 400km drive to Johannesburg .
After following rural A roads north for an hour, we were reunited with our old friend the N1 motorway. Further road works, lorry convoys that were impossible to overtake on the single carriageway and lunatic saffer drivers trying the impossible, made the first three hours a nightmare drive for your writer.
As we crawled past Ventersburg, a huge roof sign proclaimed in yellow paint:
'JESUS IS LORD',
just as Steve Harley croaked on our car stereo:
"Well I know what faith is, and what its wuuurth....."
As Henry Cole always says at the end of his motorcycle travel programme:
"So that was the N1 motorway from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Was this one of the Worlds Greatest Motorcycle Rides?"
Well, Henry, don't bother with this one.
As one of my old workmates was fond of saying, it was "a crock of shite."
Only one way to progress on this road - unleash Lofty.
Our last 180 km to our hotel, the Protea Wanderers, flew by, accompanied by the usual jerking of the car, screeching tyres, annihilation of cats eyes, and aching indicators from high speed overtaking.
When we arrived, a reunion par excellence took place in Nelson Mandela Square, Johannesburg.
Tremers, Smithy, Jamo, Freddie, Greavsie, Lofty and myself hit the beer at the Hard Rock Cafe and so it continued for most of the afternoon and evening.
Greavsie was sensible and left around 7pm, but for the rest of us it was a late one, and full marks to Freddie for seeing it out after his long and tiring flight from Heathrow.
At breakfast on day one of the test it became apparent that our hotel was overrun with tour group travellers such as Gulliver's and Barmy Travel. It also became apparent that the staff were not geared up to deal with a host of middle - aged, oddball single Englishmen all demanding bacon and eggs simultaneously. Absolute chaos.
However, one pleasant surprise that morning. An old friend, Simon the Palace fan, was staying at the Protea Hotel and he joined our group as we took up our usual position on the extreme right of the benches at the Bullring.
England lost the toss and South Africa batted, but despite a solid opening stand they never really got away and the cricket reflected the pivotal nature of this game, tight and intense, rather than cavalier.
We shared the benches with a South African brass band, accompanied by about a hundred locals who treated us to their wit and repartee until the beer took over in the afternoon. Several of these clowns carried a banner reading thus:
'James Taylor! Does your shirt come in a men's?'
To reinforce the humour each member of the group carried a chest pouch with a pink plastic baby doll inside.
Their hilarious joke seems to conveniently forget the fact that their own player, Temba Bavuma, is much smaller than JT. Do you ever wonder why you have never seen a funny South African comedian?
The England support was audible today. The reason - Billy Cooper has now arrived with his trumpet. Clearly sad about the passing of the Thin White Duke, Billy was sporting a David Bowie tee shirt instead of the regulation Barmy Army cricket shirt.
Rebel, rebel, Billy!
During that morning as well as the usual tunes, Billy treated us to 'Starman' and 'Life on Mars'. Given the splitting of the Barmy Army into two groups as previously described, perhaps 'Changes' would also have been an appropriate number to throw in!
Wicketless for the first hour, England were under pressure, so I decided on a 'wicket walk' and I was immediately rewarded with the dismissal of Van Zyl.
My second wicket walk in the afternoon brought two wickets, one before I had even left the benches.
And my third in the afternoon was also successful.
Its fair to say then that Midnight was the pick of the England attack on day one, even though I ended up circling the ground three times for the cause.
My reward - to be pelted with biltong by my Addis buddies as I returned, and finally by a pile of plastic beer glasses by young Jamo. I do sometimes wonder if Jamo fully appreciates the humanitarian charity of Smithy and Tremers in employing him and protecting him from the horrors of Borstal.
South Africa finished on 267 -7 so England had the best of it in the end, and we retired to the Wanderers Club for a very pleasant and civilised beer with Billy Cooper and his South African host 'Major' Tom, who is a currency trader, and who promised to sing the '25 rand to the pound' song at work for the next few days. He will be the office oddity!
Breakfast at the hotel next morning was the usual chaotic mess but today we helped ourselves to some naughty 'take - away' fruit to eat at lunch. Its the first time I have ever walked out of a dining room looking like I had a banana down my shorts, because in truth, I did have.
Day two was the official Addis Army day, and the boys were proudly attired in our new range of Addis shirts. 'A slippery slope' as Billy Cooper had advised us last night. Perhaps, but I think by not advertising our wares and only producing to order, we will manage to keep our feet on the ground.
However just in case you become the man who sold the world, Freddie, can I point out please that I'm up for a job as the Addis Army Travel tour guide, providing the money is right!
Our morning started by being alerted to a sighting on the BBC and Daily Mail websites.
A picture of Greavsie (stood, with shirt off), Smithy (prone) and Midnight (sitting) had appeared in an article bemoaning the disappointing Test match attendances in Johannesburg.
"Is this a poor 90's album cover, or three England fans wilting in the heat?" wrote the gifted BBC journalist from his air conditioned box, whilst no doubt relaxing after a free lunch.
My God sir, I wish I had a tenth of your writing prowess. Now, please sod off and leave us wilting cricket fans alone.
South Africa were bowled out for 313 in just over fifty minutes and then it was England's turn at bat.
Hales was out quickly and cheaply again - our search for an opener isn't over yet, it seems.
When Viljoen took the wicket of Cook with his first ball in test cricket, we were under pressure once again, but a wonderful stand by Root and Stokes bailed us out in the afternoon session. Root went on to make another ton, and he was 106 not out as bad light, followed by a thunderstorm, curtailed play early.
The afternoon had been livened by more noise from the Barmy Army, and it seems they have found someone new to sing the 'Everywhere we go' song. Good on them, but the follow up song about the Barmy Army being the ' loyalest cricket fans the world has ever seen' may need a slight word revision after their no - shows in Durban and Cape Town.
However somebody had reported the Daily Mail web sighting to them and during the afternoon we swore we heard the Barmy Army singing:
"Greavsie, wherever you may be.
You are a pleb celebrity.
We've seen your gut on the BBC.
Now you're on tour with the Addis Army!"
The above mentioned song was rattled through once or twice in the bar that night.
England finished day two on a promising 238 -5. Its all set up for a result!