A Truly Divided Country
No readers, I am not referring to the UK and/or Brexit!
Many of you will be having thoughts of touring South Africa in 2019-20.
Indeed, I gather some eager beavers have already booked flights.
Having very recently returned from a month long touring holiday in South Africa, I thought it might be useful to pen some thoughts about how the country has evolved since my first visit in 1996.
This earlier trip occurred about two years after apartheid was abolished, and it is concerning that over twenty years later, this wonderful country remains as divided as ever. Most towns and cities you will travel to contain very distinct 'black' and 'white' areas, and as ever straying into the wrong areas can be hazardous.
However if common sense is applied then South Africa remains a safe, value for money destination for a fabulous cricket tour. Todays exchange rate is 17 Rand to the £ representing great value for us compared with, say, touring Australia or New Zealand.
On our latest trip having flown into Johannesburg, we drove to Mpumulanga, the Kruger Park and Hoedspruit, then flying down to Cape Town. A leisurely drive along the Garden route followed, taking in Robertson, Knysna and a little further off the beaten track, Graaff - Reinet. This latter town like many others is subject to severe drought restrictions, being situated in the middle of the Karoo. Bore-hole pumping was used for swimming pools, giving the water therein a rather interesting green hue. The more publicised water shortage problems in Cape Town have for the time being abated but be prepared to buy lots of bottled water basically wherever you go.
The Kruger Park is a must see for most British tourists but if you intend to venture inside the Park, please be aware that malaria is prevalent and passed on by those pesky mosquitoes. You will need a malarial prophylactic - to any Americans reading this, I do not mean a condom - or alternatively do what I did, given my permanent allure to our buzzing friends. Give the Kruger a miss and go instead to Chester Zoo when you get home.
Big Five sighting guaranteed!
There have been some slow politically-driven improvements to the South African infrastructure since my previous visit in 2016.
On arrival, Johannesburg airport appears to have got its act together and the customary two hour queue to navigate customs is no more.
And anyone flying into Cape Town, for instance, will notice on the taxi ride into the city the shantytown close to the airport being gradually demolished and replaced in sections by more modern, 'western' style housing for the black community.
However there is still a huge schism between black and white communities.
The black population seems to prefer to live and work mainly in its historic heartlands and no doubt economic factors play a huge part in this.
In service industries in the bigger towns and cities there seem to be more black people in management roles, which was pleasing to see.
Otherwise the usual more deep rooted issues around segregation still apply; very much despite the positive changes to the law.
The black community has its own bus service that it uses pretty much exclusively and the vehicles are basically cream minibuses with a yellow striped livery which operate from different stops than the westernised buses, where these are present - eg Cape Town.
Communication. If you need to stay in touch with a loved one (or even the wife) in the UK consider bringing an unlocked phone & renting a simcard on arrival at Johannesburg Airport. This was pretty simple with Vodaphone charging me a 500 rand deposit, refundable on return of the simcard. Calls to the UK are just 2 rand per minute, so you are unlikely to suffer 'bill shock' by doing this. However, you may get text messages relating to the previous renter of the number for the first few days - this was actually quite amusing at times not to mention a little embarrassing!
Train travel has become increasingly difficult and this is very relevant if you are attending Newlands, which has its own station halt and will no doubt be a sell out for the first three days of the Test if past tours are anything to go by.
At the time of our visit, only a quarter of the platforms at Cape Town station were operative and all services were subject to arbitrary delay and cancellation.
Just like Northern Rail, in fact!
Joking apart, train travel is also dangerous at night time and armed guards are in situ. If you must use the train at night returning late from the cricket, it is recommended to travel in the armed guards' carriage.
Please also be aware that Cape Town station closes up at 9pm and the surrounding area is not considered safe.
These downsides apart South Africa is still one of the best cricket tours. Quality accomodation can be found for less than £50 per night for bed and breakfast in most places, even cheaper if you are prepared to endure the privations of a backpacker.
Eating out is also inexpensive with every taste catered for.
Now onto the important stuff!
Beer and wine remain ludicrously cheap.
On Long Street in Cape Town, a pint of Guinness in my boozer of choice The Dubliner cost 40 rand, or just over two quid.
The local beers are even cheaper and the price drops further still once you leave the main tourist drag. My tipple of choice when Guinness was unavailable was Castle Milk Stout. A real old mans drink, but at 29 rand for a pint bottle at our last bar in Kynsna, I can cope with that!
Widely available for our lager louts are Castle, Windhoek and Carling Black Label. The latter is nothing like the swill served in the UK. It is half the price, and twice the strength, and will no doubt induce nausea and a few sore heads amongst the unwary.
For the more sophisticated palate a good quality bottle of red or white wine will cost a fiver in the supermarket or a tenner in a restaurant as part of a meal. If you are a member of the wine tasting bullshit brigade with precious taste buds, feel free to shell out lots more if you like!
Football addicts, fear not. The Sky Sports service over here is second to none and unlike the antipodes, you will not have to stay up half the night to watch your team do battle.
The time difference between South Africa and the UK was just two hours at the time of our visit and you will be delighted to find consecutive live Premier League matches widely available in pubs, bars and even some better bed and breakfast establishments especially at weekends. Not at backpackers though, the bedbugs don't watch footy! The locals do, however, and you have been warned - most of them support Liverpool or Manchester United. Not a Man City shirt in sight for a whole month - just like Manchester, in fact, before the Saudi money flooded in.
Shopping is a pleasure here and cheap to the extent that 'rand fever' reached epidemic proportions this visit with me.
Trainers, designer clothes (not for me I might add!) and gifts are all heavily discounted.
A Midnight tip, bring a big suitcase or bag which is half empty when you leave the UK and load up with gear whilst in SA. I have just been stripped of 330 rand at George airport for failing to allow sufficient leeway for the weight of all my additional purchases by Kulula Airlines - at least Dick Turpin wore a mask, eh? To be fair the internal secondary airlines such as Mango and Kulula are cheap, cheerful and reliable on the whole so don't pay British Airways rip off prices for your internal flights, there's no need.
South Africa itself is beautiful, second only to N-- Z--land (sorry another plug) in my eyes so do try and see something of it rather than just the inside of cricket grounds and bars.
Given the unreliability of public transport, why not hire a car. We used a local company called Bidvest, who were cheap, helpful and absolutely straight with us. It goes without saying that petrol is a hell of a lot cheaper than at home, and driving is much the same, ie whilst sober and on the left.
Once out of the city/off the motorway there is nothing much on the roads. But do take out hire car insurance nevertheless. I seem to remember a hilarious incident in Pretoria in 2009.......!
Turning to cricketing matters. Although the tour dates have not yet been announced, Tests at Cape Town, Johannesburg and Centurion are a given. Any uncertainty surrounds the fourth venue and the smart money is riding on the traditional Durban Boxing Day Test being scrapped.
A glance at the non-existent crowd for the latest Kingsmead fixture v Sri Lanka gives the game away and I understand that Port Elizabeth is likely to feature as a venue this time albeit maybe not on Boxing Day. As much as I like Durban this will make a pleasant change, but ironically as I write from home with the current PE Test on Sky, there hardly seem to be any fans there either!
So in summary then, what's not to like.
Do not be put off by scaremongering about South Africa being dangerous, the centre of Oldham is far more frightening after dark on a Friday night!
Hopefully, see you over there in December.