Sorry, Holiday Inn Express – Columbus manager. We could have sorted this out between the two of us but then you went and ignored our email. Which is almost as rude as cancelling someone’s hotel reservation 30 minutes prior to their arrival.
When we planned our initial World Cup trip, we first inquired with a few organized tour group and the prices were insane. Truly absurd.
Don’t do that. Seriously, just don’t. Unless you truly need some company to take all of your money, plan out your every minute and select every detail of your vacation, you (and your pocketbook) are so much better off coordinating your own trip. Trust us.
It’s not that hard, boys and girls. Planning your own trip is so very attainable, even for those of you who are not information professionals. Jump on Tripadvisor, work up the courage, buy some travel insurance and get to booking.
Your trip is going to be so much less expensive and so much more you, not some generic “see the highlights of [insert city/country/region here]” tour where you’re scheduled to go on a garden tour even though you don’t give a damn about flowers.
Not to mention that booking your own trip keeps you from spending your precious vacation trapped amongst obnoxious weirdos in your tour group who you would never elect to spend time with otherwise.
Example: The Dentist from Brazil. Had we been on a tour with that fine fellow, one of us would have been convicted of murder. There is no doubt.
Book your own vacation. Go rogue. Stay where you want to stay. See what you want to see. Get stuck with only obnoxious travelmates who you already know and love. Your trip will be better for it.
The tour guide had to pick up a few other groups at other hotels in the area before we were on our way to Pilanesberg National Park. There were nine of us in the van and all nine of us slept at some point on the two-hour trip to Pilanesberg. We were all so excited that we couldn’t keep our eyes open!
At one point during our trip, our tour guide mentioned that we would be taking our safari from our tour van. Should any of us be interested in doing the safari from an open-air vehicle, it would cost an extra 190 Rand. A little ridiculous, really, considering that we had already paid over 1,200 Rand for the tour. Oh well.
Our tour guide clearly wasn’t all that keen on putting us in the open-air vehicle. But she did eventually hand the seven of us interested in taking the open-air vehicle to a new tour guide; she took the two prissy city girls (who applied makeup on our drive to Pilanesberg) through the park in the tour van.
Moving into the open-air vehicle was definitely the right choice. The guide was undoubtedly more knowledgeable, we had a much better view of the park as we drove through it and we ended up seeing more animals than the group that stayed in the van. Three cheers to the Italian who really pushed our tour guide to get us in the open-air vehicle.
The first animals we saw were some of the more common plains animals. Our tour guide pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the vehicle. As was common throughout our safari, he would give us a bit of information on the animal that we were seeing and a little bit of time to take pictures before pulling away.
Within the first 10 minutes of the safari, we round a corner and I see the backside of a giraffe bending her head down. “Oh, funny,” I think to myself. “A statue of a giraffe’s backside.”
No, dummy. That’s a giraffe. It was so close and so big that I thought that it couldn’t be real. It was. She stood quite still, looking at us as we all stared back at her. Lauren was busy taking pictures – she brought her zoom lens and took a lot of really amazing shots.
We saw gnu and impalas and wildebeests. We saw a pretty bird in an electric blue color whose name I cannot recall. We saw a dead elephant, with his intestines spilling out of his abdomen. We saw monkeys, a big group of them, running down the side of the road and climbing into trees and generally being the cutest things you’ve ever seen.
We saw an elephant that wasn’t dead, too. He was just chilling by a tree, eating, eating, eating. We were maybe 10 feet from him and he wasn’t interested in us whatsoever. When our tour guide turned off the vehicle, we sat in the quiet (except for the sound of cameras clicking) and listened to him munch away. It was amazing.
We saw zebras. We saw hippos from across a lake. “They look like two big, shiny rocks,” our tour guide told us. And that’s exactly what they looked like. We saw two rhinos from afar. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any lions or cheetahs, but that’s pretty common. They don’t guarantee that you’ll see any animals, as the park is enormous and the animals are permitted to roam wherever they please. The lions were sometimes hard to spot in the grass at the Lion Park, when the vehicle was stopped and someone was pointing them out to us! I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we had just driven past a lion or two. Their camouflage is quite effective!
All in all, I would consider our safari a successful one. Driving through the park was a delightful trip in itself and seeing the animals so close was just magical. I wish that we had the time to do a longer safari – three day game drives at Kruger National Park are quite common – I suppose we’ll just have to come back one day!
For the second part of our tour, our guide drove us to Sun City. I had no idea what Sun City was, really, except for a place where we would be able to get lunch. Sun City, as it turns out, is something like a big Las Vegas hotel that was built in the middle of nowhere. It has a luxury hotel, a casino, restaurants and entertainment, all African themed. It was an interesting place and quite the juxtaposition to the quiet nature that we were just driving through. I still can’t quite comprehend why the tour company pairs Sun City with the safari at Pilanesberg, except that it is somewhere for people to get lunch. And maybe some people are amused by the vastness of the complex. I just thought it was sort of lame. Maybe we should’ve spent less time lunching and more time gambling.
After our two hours at Sun City, we headed back for Johannesburg. Again, all nine of us slept on the drive home. Safaris are hard work!
That night, Lauren and I went to dinner in Melrose Arch. It being a Friday night, it was absolutely packed. We couldn’t get seated at a few of the restaurants that we first tried. One was just booked out with reservations, which I understand, but the other just didn’t have any tables available at the moment. Instead of taking names, they just turn you away. It seems strange, but it isn’t the only time that we’ve experienced that since we’ve been here. I suppose that, with the number of people milling about on Friday night, they knew that any empty table wouldn’t remain empty for long.
It took a few tries to find a restaurant that would seat us, but we didn’t go hungry. We had our dinner. We watched Spain beat Chile. Lauren drank an alcoholic beverage out of a teapot. And, earlier, we’d seen elephants and giraffes and zebras! It was a good day.
Thursday marked the final match we would see in the group stage: Italy versus Slovenia at Ellis Park. It was a 4:00 pm kickoff, and our shuttle driver had another group to pick up from the airport, so we got to the stadium quite early. We walked around the stadium, took a few pictures, checked out the apparel, bought an ice cream, watched a bit of the corny “entertainment” put on by a few of the World Cup sponsors and were still to our seats an hour before the game started.
The game was an exciting one but, apart from the final few minutes of the match, the Italians were disappointing. It was quite a shock to see the reigning World Cup champions fail to progress out of the group stage! Italy was very well represented in the stands. The Italian fans had very long faces on the walk out of Ellis Park, that’s for sure.
The walk out of the stadiums is always interesting. We never fail to see a handful of foreign reporters – television and radio – looking for a good interview from an elated (or distressed) fan of one of the participating countries. The world press is definitely present at this World Cup. The press box usually takes up a section or two of the stadium. Dozens of photographers, all wearing orange vests, are seated at the sidelines at every match.
After the game, we met our shuttle driver. He was kind enough to drop us off at Nelson Mandela Square so that we could squeeze in dinner and a little bit of shopping before we headed back to the hotel for the night.
We had dinner at a restaurant that overlooked Nelson Mandela Square. I was feeling adventurous, so I took the suggestion of the “must have!” printed next to the Oxtail Casserole on the menu and ordered that for my dinner. It tasted okay, but the consistency of the meat left something to be desired. There was a little bit too much connective tissue for my taste, unfortunately. It is the only meal I’ve had on this trip that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. And, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t all that bad. Plus, we finished the meal off with chocolate mousse. Chocolate mousse heals all.
After finishing up dinner, we caught a cab back to our hotel. With the length of time that we’ve been in Johannesburg, we have a pretty good idea of the standard rate that it costs to get to or from our hotel to a few different points in the surrounding suburbs. It’s astounding how often we’re quoted a rate that is 50 Rand higher than the already inflated World Cup rate that the taxi drivers are charging. We’ve gotten quite good, and quite comfortable with, telling the cab drivers that there’s no way we’re paying such an astounding rate. And they always come down in price.
Back at the hotel, we got to bed earlier than we had been in bed during the entire duration of our trip. The alarm clock was set for 6:00 the following morning. No moaning about the early wakeup call allowed: we were getting up to go on a safari!
We had an early start on Tuesday. Attending our first match in Rustenburg required a morning of travel. Rustenburg is approximately two hours away from Johannesburg and, before we left, I purchased tickets on FIFA’s city-to-city fan busses. Because she’s really awesome (or maybe because she feels guilty about the whole hotel-burning-down ordeal) Jackie volunteered to take us to the bus station. Our bus was scheduled to leave just after 10:00 am; she dropped us off around 9:30 am.
If I’m being honest, I’m still not exactly sure how we managed to get on a bus and get to Rustenburg. It was that disorganized. Give your ticket to that woman over there. See that man standing by the wall? Get a wristband from him. Stand around. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
It was well past 11:00 when the bus finally showed up.
We joke about Africa time, but it is definitely a reality of life here. Things aren’t to the minute and people don’t live and die by the clock.
But the bus eventually showed up and we squeezed in with a bunch of passionate Mexican fans, along with the odd Uruguay fan scattered here and there.
The night before, we’d been warned about the trip to Rustenburg. Expect slow and expect long, we were told. And, by all means, when your bus stops at the gas station before you get to the stadium? Get out! Get out. Get food. Get drinks. Because it is your last chance.
At a gas station.
The problem with Rustenburg is that there are only two ways to get to town and both of them are simple two lane highways. It made for a very long trip. What takes two hours in optimal driving conditions took almost four. We arrived at 3:35 pm for the 4:00 pm match.
Mexico largely dominated the match but lost, 1-0. Mexico’s fans seemed to be the majority in the crowd and they were a little intense. After halftime, we were walking up to our seats and one Mexico fan looks at us and exclaims “you’re not Mexican!”
No kidding, bro.
After the game, we went straight back to the bus. It was a little after 6:00 pm, which was somewhat alarming because our bus driver definitely told us, upon arrival, that the bus was leaving at 7:30 pm. But Rustenburg’s stadium is in the absolute middle of nowhere. There isn’t any single place to go for a drink or shop for souvenirs or otherwise kill time. (Unless you wanted to invite yourself over to a family’s tiny tin home, I suppose. And that would be rude.)
So we sat on the bus. Waited. Waited. Waited. Waited. AGAIN. Finally, the bus was full and all of the sad Mexicans (and the occasional elated Uruguayan) were accounted for. Except two.
We would leave, the bus driver said, if the two missing passengers hadn’t returned by 8:30 pm.
They showed up. All of the Mexicans sang a song to the latecomers as they climbed onto the bus, teasing them for being late. I just wanted to cry tears of joy.
We slept, fitfully and uncomfortably, for most of the ride back. The driver didn’t have the air conditioning on, so the bus was stuffy in addition to being cramped and so, so slow. The infamous single road leading out of Rustenburg was backed up most of the way. It was not a pleasant trip.
But it got us where we needed to go. And it got us back. We arrived in Sandton just after 10:30 pm and we rushed over to Nelson Mandela Square to find a restaurant that was still serving dinner. Not surprisingly, our outlook on the day was a bit rosier after we had had a meal.
We survived the trip to Rustenburg!
And we’re going back on Saturday.
We started our day at approximately the same time that we start every day here, 9:30 am. Breakfast is served until 10:00 am, so we’ve set our internal clocks to get us up just in time. We haven’t missed a breakfast yet. And good thing. I hear it’s the most important meal of the day!
Following our breakfast and our morning email check, we sat with our friend James in the hotel lobby for a while. Though he is from Liverpool, James was travelling with the group of New Yorkers (who had since gone home) and we had spent quite a bit of time with him. He was with us on our first trip to Ellis Park, for the USA/Slovenia match, and he had gone to the Brazil/Ivory Coast match the night before, too.
James mentioned that he was going to the mall and to lunch with Jackie (the proprietor of our original accommodations and the woman kind enough to take us to the Lion Park) later in the morning. We decided to tag along. We ended up back at the African craft market. Where we bought a few things (of course) and subsequently banned ourselves from returning to because we find it far too easy to burn through cash there.
(I should mention that we’ve since made plans to return this Monday because self control + Lauren + Alyson = does not compute.)
We had a nice, quick lunch and headed back to the hotel to see James off. Before he left, he delivered several flags to our room: United States, Spain and Argentina. He had no use for them at home; we promised to wave them wildly at every opportunity.
The rest of our afternoon passed quietly. Lauren did homework and took a nap. I blogged and checked my work email.
We headed to Melrose Arch for dinner at a restaurant called Moyo. We had actually tried to have dinner there on Saturday, but couldn’t get reservations. Moyo is an authentic African restaurant that came highly recommended by Jackie.
Lauren suggested that Moyo may be the Frankenmuth of South Africa. The staff wears traditional African outfits, which is probably embarrassing yet mitigated by the amount of business that they see. We were seated in the basement section of the restaurant, which was absolutely enormous and completely packed. The basement is decorated to look like a cave. A cave with flatscreen televisions broadcasting the Spain game.
We had drinks. We had dinner. We watched the Spain game. We had our faces painted – which is apparently an African thing (or just a clever trick to charm the tourists). We talked a Frenchman named Francois into taking our picture. We soaked up the atmosphere. It was really fun.
And about to get better.
Just as we were finishing up our meal, the Spain game finished. To celebrate, the restaurant played the World Cup’s anthem “Waka Waka” (performed by our hero, Shakira) over the loudspeakers. The wait staff gathered on the floor and started to dance.
“Go dance with them,” I told Lauren. We’d been dancing to that song for nearly a week. And it isn’t like talking Lauren into doing something like that is even remotely difficult.
So Lauren gets up with the wait staff and she starts dancing. Before long, she’s wearing a hat made of feathers. And drawing quite the crowd.
Before I could really comprehend what was happening, Lauren and I were standing at our table and posing for photos with a large group of men. Who formed a line. To get their pictures taken. With us.
There was also a large group of others surrounding us, taking pictures. (Thankfully, I took a good number of photos of the paparazzi. So funny. Can’t wait to share them.)
Here’s something we’ve learned since coming to Africa: girls with blonde hair and blue eyes are a bit of a rarity.
Especially to a group of men from Saudi Arabia, which is where the majority of our fan club hailed from.
It was one of those situations that you could only ever get into with Lauren. You all know exactly what I’m talking about. Just so unusual that you can’t really believe that you’re there and so funny that you’ll be rehashing it for years to come.
The night was magic. Pure magic. (Plus a bangin’ Shakria jam and one feathered hat.)
We didn’t have tickets for any Saturday matches, so we went on a glorious adventure to the Lion Park! The Lion Park is located about an hour outside of Johannesburg. It would have been a costly taxi ride and costlier to have a tour guide take us, but the woman who owned our original hotel was sweet enough to take us to the Lion Park for the afternoon. She definitely didn’t have to give up so much of her day in order to shuttle us to an attraction that she’s been to a number of times. It was incredibly kind of her to do that for us.
The Lion Park has two main attractions: the game drive and touch-a-cub. We went on the game drive first. We were driven through the Lion Park’s ground by a very knowledgeable guide named Emma (her family breeds lions for a living. Seriously!). We started off driving through an area where we saw zebras, black wildebeests and springbok and all sorts of animals indigenous to Africa’s planes.
From there, we drove through the park’s four prides of lions. Each pride of lions is in its own area of the park and the vehicles just drive through the area: no fences, no moats, absolutely nothing between your cars and the lions. Apparently lions are creatures of habit and they’re used to the cars driving through their fenced-in areas, just as long as the cars stay on the road.
We were fascinated that the Lion Park allows self-guided tours. Essentially, people can pay a fee and drive their own cars through the Lion Park. (You’ll be happy to know that soft-top vehicles are not allowed.) As a result of this option, we were witness to a lot of stupid behavior. Such as the man who got out of his car inside of one of the lion prides. Or the man who drove his car off of the road and at a group of lounging lions. “This is what it is good that a lion kills someone every once and a while,” our tour guide exclaimed. “That way, people are reminded that lions are very dangerous creatures.” Well, then!
Our guide drove us through the back area of the park, where those who are taking the self-guided tour are not allowed. It was there where we saw other groups of lions, including their most beautiful lion, who is a bit of a film star. The park rents him out for movies, television and commercials. He’s the lion in the Pepsi commercials!
We also got to see our guide’s lion, who she calls Legs. Emma has been working at the Lion Park without pay for a year. As a result, they’re letting her take a lion home with her. I’m not even kidding. Apparently that’s a pretty good deal; we were told that a lion costs 150,000 Rand. Emma is going to take Legs back to her family’s lion breeding operation in a few weeks, once she has the proper import and export paperwork. In her car, I might add. Just in a crate inside of her car. No lie!
After our tour of the lion park was complete, we headed over to the touch-a-cub area. In groups of eight visitors at a time, you’re allowed into a pen with three or four lion cubs. You’re allowed to pet them and pose for pictures. The cubs are generally quite playful and good-natured about the whole thing, although we saw them get naughty and swipe a man’s hat or grab a water bottle and crunch on the plastic.
Lauren made a friend of one of the lion cubs. He liked her so much that he didn’t want her to leave! That’s the only reason I can think of that he would grab a mouthful of her shirt (with a bit of skin, too) and refuse to let go!
The park employee told Lauren to swat the lion on the nose. She wasn’t so excited about the prospects of hitting a lion. Eventually, he set her free. I might have spotting the young lion weeping as we walked away. I think that he wanted to come back to Michigan with us.
We were so fortunate that the owner of our original hotel, Jackie, offered to take us to the Lion Park. Tourist attraction or not, it did not disappoint. I mean, come on, we got to pet a lion cub. That’s pretty much the coolest thing ever.