Note: I just got back from South Africa two days ago and finally have some time to write up a post and share some pictures. I’m planning to write this post as an overview and then go into detail in further posts about what we did in each city, plus include a practical guide to the things that I wished I’d known before going.
I left Madison on June 9th with my friends Andy and Katie, not really knowing what to expect. We had tickets for all three USA matches, plus Spain/Switzerland and an idea of where we wanted to go, but hadn’t booked any accommodation except for the first two nights. I had read all of the press about South Africa being dangerous and that we shouldn’t drive, but I wasn’t worried. I figured that if their media is anything like ours, they would really overstate the bad and ignore most of the good.
The trip was unbelievable. South Africa is an incredibly beautiful country, with varied climates and landscapes. The people were extremely nice and we never felt threatened the entire time we were there. If anything, the people, both black and white, were protective of us. They clearly really liked Americans and everyone we met went out of their way to make sure that we were having fun and staying safe. Here’s what we did:
We landed in New York on the morning of the 9th and dropped our bags with my friend Chris who works in the city. He was nice enough to take all of our bags up to his office, even though his co-workers all gave him strange looks. Andy and Katie had never been to NYC, so although it was rainy, we went all over the city. We had to catch a flight out of JFK at 1130pm, so we had plenty of time.
We got to the airport to find it packed with soccer fans. We were flying via Dubai and we were happy to see tons of Americans, Mexicans and South Americans, all dressed in their team’s gear, getting ready to board the flight. As we were going through security, someone spotted Justin Timberlake going through security and most of the women got really excited. When we got on the plane, someone asked one of the flight attendants if he was on our flight and she just giggled and said she wasn’t allowed to say.
We got to Dubai after a 12 hour flight. We flew Emirates and it was a pleasure. It’s the best airline I’ve ever been on, with fairly large seats, personal LCD screens with 600 channels and front and bottom cameras so you can watch the scenery from the plane. The food was really good too and we quickly realized that they do Middle Eastern/Indian food much better than western food.
The Dubai airport is massive. We had a 6 hour layover and got to explore a huge area. It’s really the crossroads of the world and it was fun to see people from every corner of the globe. To kill time, we walked around and tried to guess the destination of the flight by looking at the people. We got pretty good at it after a few hours. We finally got on our 8 hour flight to Johannesburg (Joburg for the rest of the posts) and arrived at 10am.
We rented a car and got on the move to Rustenburg, about 2 hours northwest of Joburg, where the USA would play England the next day. It was incredibly strange at first to drive a car on the other side of the road, but I got completely comfortable after two days. The hardest part were the round-abouts and shifting with my left hand, although the South African drivers were more aggressive than drivers here. I’ll have more about driving in a later post.
We stayed at a camp in Rustenburg Kloof, which was a beautiful area just north of the “city” of Rustenburg. I say “city” because there was really only a mall and a few restaurants, all about 10k from the stadium. We watched the first South Africa match at a bar near our tents and it was an unreal atmosphere. The South Africans were so excited, so supportive and incredibly happy to have to tournament start. When South Africa took the early lead, the place went absolutely nuts. We were too tired to watch Uruguay/France and fell asleep by 7pm.
The next morning, we were woken up by Sky Sports News doing interviews outside of our tent and I got interviewed about whether we had a chance to win. I pretty much said that we would draw and that we had a better goalkeeper and got to feature on Sky. We went to a bar called Lucky’s in Bafokeng, about 4k from the stadium. It was an outdoor bar with tons of English fans. The atmosphere was electric and only built on the way to the stadium. Most of the English were really nice, until we scored our equalizer on a howler by Robert Green, then they started to get really angry and a guy in our row tried to fight an older American fan with a neck brace on. After the draw, which felt like a win, we went back and celebrated at Lucky’s.
The next morning, we started the 6 hour drive to Durban, without a place to stay. Our plan was to start calling places from the road, but most of the places were booked up because Germany was playing Australia that night. We asked a few places if they had any recommendations and one place sent us to Florette, a woman who rents out rooms in her amazing house. We ended up staying there for five nights and it was one of the best decisions of our trip. I’ll go into more detail in my Durban post, but I went to the Germany/Australia match after buying a ticket on the street for half price and the Durban Stadium was the most beautiful stadium I’ve ever been to. Germany killed Australia, but the highlight was talking with a South African, Jordan, who sat next to me for the entire match. He was extremely nice, bought me a soda and a pie and then offered to give me a South Africa Jersey for free. He wouldn’t let me pay for anything.
After we explored Durban for a few days, we had tickets for Spain/Switzerland and my friend from the previous game met me outside with the promised South Africa shirt. The Spain match was one of the best games of the tournament. Everyone thought that Spain would roll, but the Swiss were organized and countered well. When the Swiss scored, they stadium was largely silent. Everyone was shocked.
After Durban, we drove back up to Joburg ahead of USA/Slovenia. We drove through Golden Gate National Park and it was absolutely beautiful. We were staying in Pretoria since it was cheaper and safer and stayed at a hostel. The next morning, we drove down to Joburg to see the match at Ellis Park. We got there really early and went to Radium Bar, which was the bar picked by the American Outlaws as the place to be. It didn’t disappoint. Katie got on NBC getting her face painted and the place was LOUD. We sung just about every American soccer song we could think of and then walked to the game. As always, the South Africans were huge USA fans.
We went down 2-0 early, but we felt that we could score. In the 2nd half, Donovan scored a great goal and then we got another one in the 84th minute. I got huge bruises on the backs of my legs from celebrating so much in the stands. We were sitting next to three little South African kids and they were really getting into it. We scored again, capping the biggest comeback in USA history, but the referee decided he’d seen a foul. He got sent home for his poor decision. It was still a great day, even though we should have won.
After the match, we went back to Pretoria and watched the England/Algeria match at Eastwoods, right across from Loftus Versveld, the stadium in Pretoria with two Americans we had met in the bar in Joburg. We were rooting for the 0-0 draw that happened and were just about the only people supporting Algeria, as the rest were English fans.
The next day, we drove 4 hours through the mountains to get to Madikwe Nature Reserve, where we had a 4 day Safari at a place called The Bush House. Other than the soccer games, the safari was the highlight of the trip. We saw all of the big 5, minus a leopard, a lion eating a wildebeest, a cheetah and tons more. We were driven around by a trained guide and it was awesome.
After our safari, we drove back to Pretoria for the USA/Algeria match, which was a must win match. We didn’t have a place to stay again, but ended up right across the street from the stadium. I’ll go into more detail again later, but FIFA and Match really screwed up here. We got accommodation because FIFA bought up all of the rooms at cheap rates, then tried to resell them at 4-5x prices and failed. The place gave us a room for a good price because they were empty, although FIFA paid for the nights.
On match day, we went to some bars and were completely surprised by how many Algerians there were. They were everywhere and wanted pictures with us. Most were really nice, but a few were a bit angry with Americans. We had ANOTHER fair goal disallowed on a blown call and the atmosphere was incredible. People stood the entire match singing, chanting and blowing their vuvuzelas. We had chance after chance and finally put one home in the 91st minute to send us through. I don’t remember the next 10 minutes because everyone was celebrating so hard. Andy and I got on TV right after the match and everyone stayed in the stadium celebrating for the next 30 mins, then went outside to sing and dance some more. Katie got a ride on a police horse in exchange for her American flag and the party went on most of the night. Those 4 hours and that one moment were incredible. Those moments are what make soccer the best sport in the world and now clearly top the list of the best sporting events I’ve ever been to.
We stayed with a family near the stadium and left early the next morning for Cape Town. We had assumed before the World Cup that the US was likely to finish 2nd in the group and play in Bloemfontein, which would have been a drive from Cape Town, but since we won the group, we played up north again in Rustenburg. I went to an Internet cafe to check out flights and told myself that if I could go for under $500, I had to do it. Luckily, I found a flight for $180, a car for $60, a place to stay for $40 and a match ticket for $150, so I had to go.
We climbed Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain, watched the two matches that day and then I drove to the airport for what I hoped would be an unreal 30 hours. Besides for the final result, the day didn’t disappoint. I met two Americans in the airport who were planning to do the same thing as me, so we traveled together. We slept in the airport, rented a car, drove to Rustenburg, went to Lucky’s again and hung out with Americans and some really nice Brits. The match was electric again. When the media here says that Africa is behind Ghana, it’s an understatement. Everyone except the Americans were cheering for Ghana, hard. It was a fun match and I thought we would pull it out, but it was not to be. We went back to Lucky’s and partied with the South Africans.
The next morning, I drove back to the airport and was back in Cape Town with Andy and Katie by 1pm. We took a drive around the Cape, stopping at beaches, towns and mountains, before stopping in an English pub to watch England get destroyed by Germany. We saw one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen from the top of a mountain, overlooking the Cape and then went back to Cape Town to watch Mexico/Argentina.
The next day, we drove to Stellenbosch and the towns around it, about 30 minutes outside Cape Town to tour the winelands. It was a beautiful day and a great way to relax. The vineyards were all set in incredible locations, many surrounded by mountains and rolling hills. We did tasting at 3 different places, then went into Stellenbosch to explore for dinner/games. We got back to Cape Town and prepared to leave the next morning for our last day.
It was raining the entire day on the 29th, so we drove around and explored Cape Town and had a great meal in the Cape Malay section of town. We got to the airport at 4pm and were back in Madison on the 30th at 10pm. It was an exhausting two day trip via Dubai and NYC again, but completely worth it.
Overall, the World Cup and South Africa were amazing. The soccer was great, the people were incredibly nice, were were safe the entire time and it cost about what we expected. I’ll likely come back to South Africa sometime in the future and will for sure be in Brazil in 2014!
This post was sort of a rambling overview, but I’ll get into more details about each city, the soccer and South Africa in general over the next week or so. I hope you enjoy reading!