On the road to Durban for World Cup semifinal
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.
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....."
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.
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.
July 4, 2010; 7:06 PM ET
Categories: 2010 World Cup , Africa , South Africa | Tags: South Africa, World Cup
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