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On the road to Durban for World Cup semifinal

openroadsouthafrica.jpg
The Insider is a country boy at heart, so after 33 nights in bustling Johannesburg and irreparable damage to ear drum and disposition inflicted by the vuvuzela symphony, I plan a journey to Durban ahead of Wednesday's premier semifinal between Germany and Spain. The easy option is to fly; one colleague said he found a $13 one-way fare, plus $59 in taxes. (Who's the pilot, this guy?)

I ache for adventure. Enough with the chartered buses, media shuttles, group outings and taxis. I need the open road -- and much of South Africa is open. My travel companions are Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times and Frank Dell'apa of the Boston Globe, two swell fellas who share my travel bug. Most importantly, Kevin promises to bring quality snacks.

It's not without concern, rooted in the fact that South Africans drive on the left side of the road. I have never done such a thing. Not intentionally, anyway. I reserve a suitable vehicle, a Toyota Corolla. The travel envelope includes the contract, emergency information, GPS -- and a package of breath mints. Problem is, the Corolla is no longer available. So, at no extra charge, I'm offered a BMW. (Maybe they thought I was Bastian Schweinsteiger.) Who was I to say no to German engineering?

Honestly, I didn't think I would make it out of the parking garage without causing a head-on collision. Everything is reversed: You drive on the left side of the road. The driver's seat is on the right. The seat belt goes from right to left. The primary side mirror is on the right. The shifting mechanism is operated with the left hand. Yup, I am doomed.

More.....

Remarkably, I navigate the city streets, as well as the ramp and merge onto the motorway. (You enter and exit highways on the left.) It's as if your brain senses something is terribly askew and, in an act of self-preservation, adjusts accordingly. It does need reminders, however: Wide right turns, tight left turns, wide right turns, tight left turns.....

I collect my mates at a designated location and commence on a 579-kilometer journey -- six hours, if we are lucky. The initial route, the M1, dissects the center of Johannesburg, a city with a troubled core surrounded by sprawling, affluent suburbs -- not unlike many American metropolitan areas. Though companies have fled downtown and human suffering is in full view -- homeless huddled on the side of the road, apartment buildings in disrepair, abandoned businesses -- the soul of the city is alive and well: children playing soccer in a dusty park, a father gripping his young son's hand crossing a busy street, taxi drivers having a laugh while awaiting hire outside a takeaway restaurant, street vendors hawking flags of the World Cup participants.

The road out of Jozi takes us east to the N3, a major north-south motorway that will eventually spill us into the heart of Durban. For a first-time driver in South Africa, it can't be much easier: Get onto the motorway, merge with another motorway, do not exit until you see the Indian Ocean. Despite the simplicity and directness, GPS is activated. (Why risk ending up in Swaziland?)

The voice is female and soothing.

"In 800 meters....."

Yes, yes?

".....keep right."

From that point, we call her Shakira.

With our guardian angel watching over every lane change, we leave the gray city behind. The land is open. In soccer parlance, we have created space. Farms and meadows, rolling hills and ponds. Sheep, cattle and ostrich. It has the look of the American plains. If that first stage is Nebraska (without the "Go 'Huskers!" bumper stickers), the second is Monument Valley National Park in Utah and Arizona. Mesas and buttes dominate the skyline. The most prominent is Platberg, a 7,800-foot-high, 5 1/2-mile long marvel standing guard over the town of Harrismith on the eastern edge of Free State province.

platberg.jpg

It is here that we stop for lunch, passing over burgers and biltong (South African jerky) for peri-peri chicken, peri-peri spinach and peri-peri fries. The shops and parking lots are cluttered with weekend travelers. Youngsters make use of a playground on a gentle hill. On one parked car, a Spain flag serves as a curtain for the rear window. On another, "ARGENTINA" is outlined, fittingly, in the dust on the back bumper.

Somewhere off to the west lies Lesotho, a mountain kingdom completely surrounded by South Africa. Most of the tiny nation sits above 6,000 feet. While we would love to have "Lesotho" stamped in our passports, sadly there is no direct road access from our location.

The journey takes us into KwaZulu-Natal province and bypasses Ladysmith, birthplace of Joseph Shabalala, founder of the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Wikipedia tells us that his full name is Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala. (I love the "Bigboy" part.) In the far western distance, the Drakensberg mountains, one of the continent's most famous ranges, are draped in shadow. Goats are dangerously close to the road. Hitchhikers hold up hand-written signs with their destination contracted into three-letter abbreviations. A man in a formal jacket dashes across the highway to join his friends.

The temptation on the open road is to floor the gas pedal and exceed the 120-kilometer limit (74.5 mph). The authorities know it. Automated speed cameras lurk every dozen or so kilometers and patrol units are positioned strategically. Fortunately, the GPS device provides warning about radar. Unfortunately, it's a beeping sound and not "Shakira."

Sunlight is fading; it's winter here in the southern hemisphere and the days are short. The stark geological formations have given way to thicker vegetation and picturesque valleys in the Midlands. At the bottom of a steep, twisting decline that thrills car drivers and tests truckers, we pass through Pietermaritzburg, which boasts a regional population of a half-million.

We're close. Traffic has intensified, shopping options have increased. The N3, the day-long path to this coastal frontier, ends at Dr. Yusuf Dadoo Street. It's a straight shot to the beaches and piers. We weave through pedestrian-saturated side streets to Marine Parade, the ribbon of roadway dividing city from sea. It is dark. The beachfront is bustling with merchants, families and police officers. We are welcomed by warm, saturated air -- the opposite of what we left behind in Johannesburg. Tonight, Indian food awaits. Tomorrow, a new city and a new adventure.

By Steve Goff  |  July 4, 2010; 7:06 PM ET
Categories:  2010 World Cup , Africa , South Africa  | Tags: South Africa, World Cup  
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Next: U.S. World Cup players return to MLS play

Comments

A peri-peri good read.

Posted by: I-270Exit1 | July 4, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

Love it when you give us your travelogues, Mr. Goff. Really takes me away.

Here's to hoping you don't run into Spencer and Heidi.


Unrelated, Nike's USA-Post World Cup "Write the Future" ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hN3efui2fM&feature=player_embedded

Posted by: JacobfromAtlanta-ish | July 4, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Good job but tell the truth, did you hit the curb during the first 10 minutes of driving? I did when I first drove in England as the perception is obviously different. After that it was smooth driving.

Posted by: agoldhammer | July 4, 2010 7:21 PM | Report abuse

Awesome. Thanks for bringing us along.

Posted by: Ron16 | July 4, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Goff, I know that weird driving feeling all too well, as I had to learn it in reverse coming from the UK and learning to drive in the US and operating a stick shift with my right hand. It's all good now, as I can drive quite comfortably either way. Thanks again for the great job you are doing from
SA. Long live the beautiful game.....

Posted by: uknowmeas-GQ | July 4, 2010 7:48 PM | Report abuse

Aahhh, "snacks." That's what they call it nowadays.

Posted by: dcserge | July 4, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

Ah, reminds me of I-66!

Enjoy it, Goffinho!

Posted by: delantero | July 4, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: universityandpark | July 4, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

You know, if the sports writer gig ever gets old (and for our sake I hope it never does), you have a future in travel writing. Almost as good as being there.

Posted by: ricky_b | July 4, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

You also passed not far from the Bushman and San Paintings in the Drakensberg. It is a World Heritage site one of just 23 World Wide. It looks close on the map but travel in South Africa can be deceptively long. While in Durban you might try a unique culinary treat the Curry Sandwich. Durban has the largest Indian population of any city outside of India.

http://www.drakensberg-tourism.com/bushman-rock-art.html#

Posted by: csd1 | July 4, 2010 9:18 PM | Report abuse

Steve, it is nice you got out a little bit. Considering how far you have traveled your local observations and travelogues have been very weak. I know it is hard in Jobo behind gates to see much but this was a good entry. Do be cautious in Durban and if someone tells you not to go somewhere heed their advise but give the folks back home some travel morsels to chew on.

″A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.” – Moslih Eddin Saadi

Posted by: csd1 | July 4, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

A bird without wings is something to chew on.

Nice report and nice pictures, too (actually the first one is a bit boring but you do seem to be driving on the wrong side of the road).

Reminder, Donovan and Buddle might be back in action tonight as Seattle and LA play at 1030 on ESPN2.

So go out back and fire off your last bottle rockets before kickoff.

Happy 4th of July!

Posted by: Joel_M_Lane | July 4, 2010 10:12 PM | Report abuse

You had me at snacks.

Posted by: karengoff | July 4, 2010 10:25 PM | Report abuse

We once got upgraded like that in Spain to a Mercedes. I thought I was on the Autobahn driving through Andalucia and Galicia (the Northwest part of Spain).

Have fun! So what were the yummie snacks? (rattlesnake fritters!?!)

Posted by: Barracudas | July 4, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Missing my first World Cup on site since, well, the U.S. hosted, and your stories (as well as ESPN3.com) have made me alternately jealous but thankful you can share. Enjoy.

Posted by: paulkp | July 4, 2010 11:11 PM | Report abuse

Nice.
I wonder what Larissa Riquelme sounds like in GPS voice?

Posted by: garygeck | July 5, 2010 12:12 AM | Report abuse

Bradley,

It took Buddle and Donovan all of 18 minutes and 38 seconds to score a goal. Had they started and played together for a full game during the WC I'm wondering how many goals that combo would have scored.

You could probably blindfold Buddle and he would connect on more passes from Donovan than Findley and Altidore combined.

Posted by: Southeasterner | July 5, 2010 12:27 AM | Report abuse

No comment section on the firing of Brazilian coach Dunga, so I'll have to borrow space here. In World Cup, either the country wins it all or the coach gets axed. He got fired before the plane departed South Africa so the soccer federation could save a few dollars by moving him back to economy seating.

Wonder if they told him that he was fired because the team played like dunga.

Posted by: randysbailin | July 5, 2010 3:57 AM | Report abuse

How many times did you signal to other drivers that you were changing lanes or turning by turning on your windshield wipers?

Posted by: kolbkl | July 5, 2010 6:43 AM | Report abuse

Awesome trip report, Steve! What a great experience. Enjoy it!

Posted by: charlie015 | July 5, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

Great travelogue, Steve - but Monument Valley's not a national park. It's private.

Posted by: wombatua | July 5, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Nice piece of writing, Goff.

BTW, there is a tempest in the US Soccer teapot over that "Thank You" ad. Apparently many people feel it's sexist. As the mother of boys (and one who both watches and plays soccer), I think it's ok to honor the USMNT as good role models for boys. As every parent and coach knows, raising decent men is hard work. Glad to have the USMNT to point to.

Posted by: ldmay | July 5, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I've been to SA twice and Durban once. One of the scariest moments of my life was not being able to get a taxi after a concert and having to walk half way back to my hotel (in daylight, fortunately, it was an all day festival). If you stay at the Hilton (I would), you will find a city map warning you which streets are safe and which are not. Yes, the beach is beautiful, but don't swim there, South Africa has many safer places to swim.

I am surprised that Goff does not mention the most nervewracking features of South African roads, the fact that people walk along them, even the limited access highways. I mean a LOT of peoples. And the minibus taxis, making heartstopping manoevers to pick the ones who want a ride up. Those are not marked as taxis, they are just private vehicles. I drove a SUV and people thought I might be one.

I love the country. The people scare me.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | July 5, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I am jealous. Nothing more fun than a road trip. Enjoy.

Posted by: fengraf | July 5, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Goff,

I didn't know you had such awesome descriptive writing. After the WC is over, you gotta to write a Book. Thanks for the report from SA.

Posted by: godpere | July 5, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Sorry you couldn't visit Lesotho. My wife has worked there and loves it. They export water to SA!

Posted by: b18bolo | July 5, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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