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England Rugby Tour to South Africa 2012

Tour Review - by Des Newton, All Sports Travel Tour Manager

A long history of clashes between these two nations, from the political arena and the battlefields to the sports fields, guaranteed a passionate atmosphere for this three match series of rugby again on South African soil. The physical nature of the game where one is forced to invade one another’s private space seems to promote a camaraderie between all players, ex- players and followers of this great invention by William Webb Ellis who “picked up the ball and ran with it” at Rugby School. The friendly banter between our band of intrepid England supporters and the locals was a joy to behold as many strangers came to communicate with a real live Englishman of whom there were not many. Even an impromptu front row was formed, followed by beers outside the stadium before one of the games.

Our tour began on the warm waters of the East coast in the city of Durban. Our rooms were not ready so we, in rugby tradition, retired to have a beer at the Umhlanga Rocks Surf Saving Club literally on the beach overlooking the crashing waves with the big sea stretching out into the distance with numerous huge ships sitting high in the water. Following a lunch of huge prawns, oysters and kingklip fish we returned long after our rooms were ready to our hotel in the Gateway Centre which offered many pubs, restaurants, supermarkets and stores. On our free day we visited the tourist spots of the city including the docks waterfront for more oysters (Simon is an expert on ships so could explain what we were looking at) the beachfront, the old colonial buildings and Water World.

The Test Match day dawned with an air of hope for an England victory. We left at 11.30 am for the 5pm game in good spirits, stopping at the local rugby club, Berea Rovers adjacent to the Kings Park stadium, for ‘a beer’ while meeting the locals and the few other England supporters. The rugby vibe was upon us in this clubhouse with its huge bar and many attendants to make sure we could be served surprisingly quickly. After an hour of fun and a verse of “God save the Queen” we adjourned to the sports fields surrounding the stadium now packed with cars in their reserved spots where boots were open for the drinks and an area for each bay for a braai (barbecue). We found my friends who had kindly invited us for a pre and after match party and proceeded to do just that. It was very kind of them.

We had quite good seats on the 22 metre line but very high up. The stand is certainly almost vertical so can be off-putting for anyone who suffers from vertigo but offers very good views as one is close to the touchline. The final score line of 22-17 was also close with the game being level up to half time as reflected by the 6-6 tally.

The physicality of the Springbok forwards counted in their favour after the interval and with Farrel and Steyn trading penalties the game was finally won by the narrow margin of two tries to one in SA’s favour. It was a narrow win which gave England heart. We went to bed and slept like logs.

The next day we made an early start and headed for the town of Dundee in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands, which is close to Ladysmith, and many battlefields between Anglo- Boer, Anglo-Zulu and Boer-Zulu. Dennis, Jamie and Simon then went on a tour of the battle sites of Isandlwana and Rourkes Drift (famous for its thirteen VCs awarded) with their personal tour guide. They returned full of knowledge and were very pleased that they had witnessed the actual places where these epics occurred. I have been there twice and was very moved by the unfolding of the Battle of Isandlwana and, though I have always held the Zulu Army in high esteem, I did not realise the large scale of ground the Zulus covered on foot and I now understand how cunning and brave they were and how out- numbered and heroic the British were. The result of the Battle of Rourke’s Drift is almost a miracle and is the stuff Legends are made of. A visit will leave you marvelling at the courage and resilience of the British. Not to be missed.

Our hotel, The Royal Country Inn, was comfortable and the lounge and dining room walls are covered in precious paintings and memorabilia of many battles including the afore-mentioned and others like Blood River, Spioenkop and the Siege of Ladysmith to mention a few.

It was a reasonably short journey to the Nest Hotel in the famous Drakensberg Mountains. Our rooms were very good with a veranda looking up to the majestic range. It was a time for fun playing bowls (twice) where the steward would bring the beers to us on the bowling green. Once Simon went for a walk down to the Hippo Pool and the waterfall but we did not take part in the other sports on offer like tennis, golf, swimming, table tennis, pool or hiking. We did visit the nearby Falconry where the eagles could catch food in mid-air and would react to their falconer’s signs from miles away and also paid a visit to the Famous Drakensberg Boys Choir who sang like angels and then drummed us into submission. A top class show with the sounds of a thunderstorm, all portrayed with voices, voted by us as the best.

The sunny days turned into cold winter nights on account of the altitude (3200 metres above sea level) but with the aid of the under-floor heating and an electric blanket we were kept as warm as toast in our rooms.

It was a long and not so interesting trip to Johannesburg. The scenery was new, interesting and flat to begin with, but after a couple of hours it became boring, uninteresting and flat. This is a big country with many contrasts so it proved to be educational at least and so was good to experience. Once.

Our numbers swelled somewhat in Johannesburg so I managed to open the bar at lunch time which is apparently against the rule (6pm normally) at this hotel to provide an opportunity to introduce everyone. We all got to know Phineas the barman which made it easier to ‘bend the rule’ over the next days. He also managed to ask  Simon “When did the English learn to play rugby?” The hotel was a little away from the Sandton Shopping Centre and Mandela Square so we had to plan our shopping or meal excursions. Some would take a taxi back from the square. It is essentially a businessman’s night stop or a group of coach tourists stopover for the night. Anyway it did not take long for Jamie and Simon to discover the Baleleika Hotel with its Sports Pub and atmosphere, and many of us went there.

Rugby day came and we left the hotel at 11.30 am again for the 5pm Test Match to ensure a full day of rugby atmosphere. We went to the oldest rugby football club in Jo’burg namely Pirates. They have a lovely big bar TV area and the clubhouse has lawns in front surrounded by sporting fields and braai fires roasting sheep on the spit. It was a beautiful winter’s day and Wales were playing Australia on TV watched by true rugby fanatics Jamie, Des and Simon and mostly Paul but not even this could entice Jon, Ian, Donna, Dave, Daniel, Dennis and sometimes Paul away from the glorious warming rays of the highveld sunshine on the lawn. With so few England supporters around, our group was somewhat a novelty with only Mike Teague of England rugby fame in attendance to assist in talking to the many Springbok supporters who were more than welcoming to us.

Our soccer football fans wear the most outrageous miner’s helmets cut into curious shapes depicting support for their side being mainly Kaiser Chiefs or Orlando Pirates. These style helmets were on sale at Pirates with England splashed across them. They are so way-out that I thought no one in their right mind would buy them. I was so wrong. Don’t they look great in the pictures? They certainly drew many people to them in other parts of the country where mining is not an industry. Anyway they were special. An Englishman wearing a miner’s helmet has not been seen for some time.

At 3pm we found ourselves at the Ellis Park (Cocoa Cola) Stadium in downtown Jo’burg and enjoyed a great time before the match at one of the numerous outdoor bars that cater for the masses at this lovely stadium of the World Cup Final venue of 1995. Once again the rugby fraternity kicked in to welcome our group. In particular I feel I should mention one such encounter. This big man was quietly sipping his beer with the general public standing next to us and I happened to ask him who he had played for and introduced him to our little group – Dries Coetzee and his wife. One thing led to another conversation wise ‘til we discovered they were the parents of the Springbok flanker Marcel Coetzee playing his second test match. He had given his tickets away in the VIP box as they had found the persons in that suite in Durban were not really interested in rugby but in themselves and their own status in life so had come to sit with the fans who cared about the game of rugby. A real rugby man. Check the photo’s with Paul and Dennis flanked by Mr and Mrs Coetzee. They sat two rows from us.

This test was another hotly contested match. The Springboks went into an early substantial lead, but England courageously fought their way back into contention. Only five points separated the teams at the final whistle. If only one of England’s players had not broken inside but passed the ball to his unmarked winger with an open try-line ahead it could have been all so different.

However Cape Town was beckoning with its wide diversity of entertainment and we left Jo’burg in good spirits. The hotels were excellent and well positioned. From Table Mountain to the Winelands, from Robben Island to the Waterfront, from restaurants and bars to walking on the beachfront promenade, a good time was enjoyed by all. Paul and Daniel even managed to squeeze in a round of golf. (Poor Donna left the tour party at this stage to return home owing to some dreadful family news and was missed by all).

Our itinerary took us up the Garden Route to the beautifully picturesque town of Mossel Bay, and then onto Knysna situated on the hills overlooking the lagoon. Here we went for a short walk on the Knysna Heads which stand guard over the entrance of the estuary to the vast open Indian Ocean. Not even Ian’s Whale calling in Southern Right Whale language could entice these huge creatures to show themselves. We had to be satisfied with the stunning views instead. The oysters tasted wonderfully of the sea and the steaks at the restaurant across the road from our hotel were big and first rate. Danny ate two 500 gram portions to the complement of cheers from us. If you are going to play for England front row where is there a better place to beef up? Remember Daniel has played for England under 16 already and is brave like his Dad and no doubt his Mum.

It was a great visit to the Knysna Elephant Park with a tractor drawn trailer ride to reach these pachyderms in the veld they freely roam. We bought little buckets of fruit and vegetables in order to feed them by hand. This is obviously the reason that they even take any notice of our presence and so they come right up to us stretching their trunks out with their sensitive and very nimble tips to take the morsels ridiculously softly to put it into their mouths.

We then were allowed to touch, feel and pat them and the more adventurous could go for a ride. It was a good feeling to discover how soft their skin felt and the warder told us that an elephant can feel a fly alighting on its hide. Places are few and far between where one can touch an elephant in the wild so I think all enjoyed the privilege.

The elephants come in at night to sleep in a big shed. Included in this shed is an apartment one can hire to share the night and "sleep with the elephants". Dave has already booked a night.

We crossed over from the Western Cape to the Eastern Cape over the Bloukrantz (Blue Ravine) River Bridge which is home to the highest Bungy jump in the world. 216 metres is the drop which equates to two and almost a quarter rugby pitches in length. It is awesome, to say the least. There is a small stream when not in flood at the bottom which is tainted the colour of tea from the tannin of the roots of the local protea plants. The locals say it is a much darker brown under the bridge. Our whole group watched from the comfort of the local café bar to see father and son both take on this daring stunt. Very few out of thousands of daring fathers have done it with their offspring. Well done David and Danny you daredevils.

Port Elizabeth is always a nice small city to visit. It is also the landing place of the 1820 Settlers from England and that’s a wonderful story (I am a descendant). It has a lovely beachfront to walk and a busy entertainment area known as The Boardwalk which also contains many restaurants and a casino where no guns are allowed. Say no more.

The new World Cup soccer stadium was the venue for the Test Match. We went early to taste the atmosphere and had a great time mixing with the locals from “The Friendly City “as it is known here.

England should have won this game but came away with a draw instead. I have never witnessed a game before where the Springboks have been booed by their own fans. The Boks kicked the last ten minutes away, totally oblivious of the fact that William Webb Ellis had “Picked up the ball and ran with it” all those years ago, amid loud catcalls and Farrell missed the last drop attempt to leave the game even. I had the distinct feeling that most of the spectators were angry with the style of the unimaginative approach of the home coach. Amid a torrent of rain we squashed into our vehicle and went back to the hotel. I left early the next morning so unsurprisingly did not see anyone at breakfast to say a suitable good-bye so let me say it now. It was a pleasure having you in my country and hope we meet again on future tours with Allsports and Howzat Travel.

 


Des, Cape Town.

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