/ 28 August 2009

Beautiful game-watching in the World Cup city of Polokwane

I wondered why the hotel restaurant was empty at both breakfast and dinner.

”You are the only guest,” smiled one of several waiters competing to sweep my plate away. This, after all, was Polokwane, a sleepy city at the opposite corner of South Africa from Cape Town — and at the opposite end of most tourists’ to-do lists.

I asked the hotel receptionist if she knew of any local tour companies, noting a distinct lack of flyers or even the pretence of a concierge. She did not. The first three numbers I pulled off the internet rang out or were defunct. Eventually, with some detective work, I tracked down a local guide who promised to show me the sights.

It turned out that Polokwane game reserve was only a five-minute drive away. People go cycling here as casually as in London’s Hyde Park, flitting between the traffic and shopping malls of the city and the acacia trees and bush clumps of the open savannah. I saw a baby white rhino snoozing beside its mother, a committee meeting of magnificent zebras and a fork-tailed dronga hitching a ride on the back of an ostrich.

Yet there, not too far away on the horizon, was one of the host stadiums for next year’s Soccer World Cup, probably the biggest international event in Polokwane since the Anglo-Boer war.

Safaris are to zoos what live theatre is to black and white television. The thrill comes in the immersive setting and the unpredictability of live performance.

The long spells of waiting make the prize all the more rewarding when it comes, and give zoos the appearance of facile manmade prisons. The fact that the animals seem to regard you with sublime indifference adds to a sense of being an intrepid interloper in a place that existed long before humans and may be there long after.

When an ostrich sprinted in front of our car at speed, my guide said: ”When I see something like that, it makes me think of the dinosaurs.” Ostriches were not to be trifled with, he added, since they can disembowel you with a single kick.

We passed spiders’ webs, termite mounds and flat granite outcrops 2,6-billion years old, then headed back to an open road that stretched far into the bushveld. Lining either side of the highway was a jarring mix of smart brick houses and humble tin shacks. We passed signs pointing to places with names such as ”Nobody” and ”Cheerio” and convenience stores sitting below giant mock-ups of Coca-Cola bottles.

On our right I became conscious of dozens of buses parked in a field and, in the distance, a huge crowd of people dressed in blue. A giant white Star of David was painted on the hillside above the words ”Zion City Moria”.

This was the seat of the Zion Christian church, an all-black denomination with more than four million members and scene of the biggest Christian gathering in South Africa each Easter and September.

My guide was good company, an Afrikaner with deep knowledge and good stories. Less comfortably, he talked about growing up in the apartheid era.

”We were excommunicated from it,” he said, but presumably didn’t mean. ”We didn’t really know what was going on. We were in a paradigm of acceptance and it was only later we understood how bad it was.

”There’s no doubt it was based on exploitation. But when you look at the country today, we have by far the best infrastructure in Southern Africa.”

We rolled on towards Magoebaskloof and suddenly the environment was more alpine than African. We descended an escarpment that revealed a panoramic vista of thousands of tall pine and eucalyptus trees. As we pursued a winding road into the heart of the forest, I fancied myself in Switzerland and half-expected to see snow dusting the treetops.

But the sun was blazing in the valley and the surroundings subtly shifted again to become reminiscent of the Amazon. We stopped by a waterfall and supped the cool soft water from a ledge in the rock. We carried on down a hill to the Debengeni waterfall, where signs give dire warnings of past drownings. I basked in this island of natural tranquillity, watching the water cascade down the rock face into potholes and pools, listening to stories of the Tlau clan bringing offerings to the ancestral water spirits.

Wordsworth! Thou should’st be living at this hour.

We reached the town of Haenertsburg and a semi-circular war memorial, built around the remains of a big gun known as the Long Tom. Capable of firing shells about 10km, it was the Boers’ secret weapon against the British army until, short of ammunition, they were forced to destroy the Long Toms to prevent them falling into enemy hands. This was the last of the four to go, on April 30 1901. A wall plaque notes that many women and children from the area were sent to concentration camps by the British.

I talked to my guide about South African politics and rather wished I hadn’t. ”I shouldn’t be saying this as a tour guide because it has racial overtones,” he said. ”But my experience is that black and white people have a different way of running businesses. Black people don’t act as if there is a tomorrow, whereas Europeans know there is a tomorrow. There are exceptions without a doubt but they are in a minority. But you must judge by your own experience and interpret that as you will.”

He dropped me off at Polokwane’s tiny international airport. I caught a small plane to Johannesburg, and jumped in a taxi back to the steel and glass and neon lights of Sandton, just in time to catch a concert. As I slid into my seat, I could hear the German libretto of The Merry Widow. On stage, a black South African man and a white woman were dancing the slow waltz. – guardian.co.uk