Snow & the FIFA World Cup: A weekend of firsts
Well, I certainly got around this weekend... although not in that way, gutterminds.
I spent Friday through Sunday midday in the Southern Drakensberg mountains of my home province of KwaZulu-Natal. The World Cup may be on (and yes, I missed the opening ceremony and first game of the tournament), but KZN tourism has taken a serious knock this year. The region is having its worst tourist season in decades for a number of reasons that include an over-reliance on FIFA for promoting KZN accommodation options, bloated accommodation pricing for the World Cup period and block bookings that chased away the majority of locals (typically from Gauteng) who normally visit sunny, warm Natal during the chilly South African winter. The point is that instead of being jam packed with vacationing families like it normally is at this time of year, the Berg is blissfully quiet.
Thanks to a friend with family timeshare, we were staying at The Fairways, an exclusive section of Drakensberg Gardens Golf & Leisure Resort, with luxury self-catering cottages. This kind of resort tries to offer as many activities as possible on-site, so there are horse rides (my ass is still sore), hiking trails, golf, miniature golf, fly fishing, a wellness & spa centre, swimming pools, a kiddies' entertainment programme, several bars (with darts and snooker tables) and dozens of sports available, from tennis to squash; badminton to bowls.
Apart from our Sunday morning horse ride, we tended to take the weekend easy - just relaxing by the fireplace and watching World Cup football matches and movies on the flat screen TV. Given the amount of snow on the mountains on Saturday we grabbed our passports, leaped into a 4X4 and made the occasionally treacherous 2 and a half hour drive up Sani Pass to enter the landlocked mountain kingdom of Lesotho. It's an entirely different world up there: freezing, rustic, isolated and clearly very poor. But Lesotho's not without its charm of course. Or, just as importantly, snow! Soon my friends and I were knee deep in fields and hillsides of the soft, white powder.
Not only was it my first time ever in Lesotho, but also this coastal resident's first time in snow (it only took 28 years). And I loved it. I doubt the novelty of snow would ever wear off, particularly if I was wearing my proper waterproof boots as opposed to ankle high sneakers. In the few hours we playing in Lesotho's snow we did it all: made snow angels and snow men, had a snow ball fight, rolled balls down the hill, ate the powder and (although I didn't witness it myself) created a patch of yellow snow. Afterwards, we wrapped up our visit to Lesotho with a mug of hot chocolate at the highest pub in Africa - at an elevation of 2874m above sea level.
Apart from fuel, our day trip to Lesotho cost just R8 for our vehicle's entry into the country. With our South African passports, our visas for the day were completely free.
I must say, after my snow experience, I am much more keen to join friends for a European ski holiday that's being proposed for early next year. I think it could be marvelous fun.
Anyway, we we left The Fairways at midday on Sunday so we could make the 3 hour drive back to Durban with a few hours of buffer time before the first of 7 World Cup games taking place in Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium - South Africa's most impressive looking stadium, for the record.
Due to the fact I didn't know where on earth I would be in June and July, I hadn't bought any World Cup tickets. However, at the last minute I was invited to Sunday night's game for free, which was a major score... not to mention a once in a lifetime experience. I'll tick "Attend a World Cup Football Match" off my life to-do list.
Of course the atmosphere at the stadium was fantastic, and I didn't even need the earplugs I took with. There was no antagonism between the Australian and German supporters - everyone, whether locals or foreigners, was there to just enjoy themselves, gape at the prettiness of the stadium and enjoy some enjoyably aggressive, attacking football. Given that they were the underdogs, and given that I met some fantastic Australians while I was on a group tour in January, I had to support the team from Down Under. They showed guts but were no match for the slick precision of former world champions, Germany... who had a massive fan contingency at the stadium.
The friendliness and helpfulness of the officials and volunteers at the match was very impressive. They made an excellent impression. In fact the only negatives inside the stadium and fan park were food related. Although expected, the prices were a rip-off (R30 for a bland, grey boerewors roll, R30 for a Budweiser beer and R15 for a 500ml Coke), and there were hot food shortages at some counters and kiosks. The closer you got to kick-off time the harder it was to find a counter that offered more than drinks, chips and chocolate bars. Sorry for you if you were a vegetarian or looking for a healthier eating option.
My only real complaint about the first World Cup match in Durban was the highly touted Park & Ride system, which did not meet expectations. Basically the Park & Ride system was put in place to ease traffic around the stadium. Ticket holders park at the city's biggest shopping malls (Gateway, the Pavilion, Galleria) and then catch a free bus to the stadium, and back to the mall again after the match. Last night the system worked fantastically on the way to the stadium - or, rather, a fenced area by the Workshop shopping centre. Once at the Workshop you can either walk the 4km or so to the stadium or catch another free bus right to your final destination.
After the game, however, the Park & Ride system collapsed under the demand placed on it by tens of thousands of people using it (for the record, there were 62 000+ people at the stadium last night). First, the crowds from all 3 malls had to queue together for buses back to the Workshop. From there, the crowd was split into 3 queues to get back to the 3 different malls, and there was some organisational confusion with officials giving conflicting information about where we had to stand. For whatever reason though (Underestimated demand? Drivers sleeping? Durban's usual late night deadness?) , it took ages for the buses to arrive and shuttle people away.
It took me 3 hours to get home, and all the queuing post 10:30pm - without the opportunity to sit down or buy water anywhere - really killed the goodwill that was otherwise the defining feature of the evening. Of course, Germany vs. Australia was the first match, and teething problems would be inevitable. I just sincerely hope that the Park & Ride system that will be re-evaluated and improved for the remaining Durban games.
In completely unrelated news, I received my fastest ever job rejection on Thursday: less than 3 hours after my CV was submitted via email. I rock!