Expect the unexpected when travelling in South Africa
By GARETH WHEELER, QMI Agency
QMI Agency World Cup reporter Gareth Wheeler (bottom right) rides a crowded train in South Africa
CAPE TOWN -- Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a comical John Hughes film featuring John Candy and Steve Martin at their best.
The movie stands the test of time. But the actual modes of transport are no laughing matter at the World Cup.
Aside from travel logistics, the country is a magnificent place. Great vibe. Great people. But when travel comes into the equation, hold on. Be patient. And prepare for the unexpected.
The tipping point of this travel extravaganza/nightmare came Saturday en route to Cape Town. Even trying to explain the situation in writing fails to do it justice.
The majority of South Africans has never taken the train before. The train is primarily used by the lower class, not suited for the better off. But during World Cup time, with traffic congestion rearing it's ugly head, locals feel brave.
Only one of the 10 Cape Town residents I was commuting with had used the train before. As we approached the train station, fans were walking away, saying trains had passed and were far too crammed to get aboard. The whole venture was deemed a lost cause. But being situated 25 minutes outside Cape Town City Centre, the train was deemed the only option.
So we waited. Ten minutes passed until an old, downtrodden train pulled up, looking like a train you'd seen in India; with people, basically hanging out of the moving object wherever space dictated.
My group would not be deterred. As the doors of the train opened and people squeezed out, we tried to cram aboard. For some in the group, the job was easier than others. For me, with my camera equipment and laptop on my back, it was always going to be difficult.
As my friends jumped aboard, finding crevasses to fit in, I found myself outside the train, contemplating how I could flag down a cab instead. From there, common sense went wayward. I heard my friend yell, "Gareth, get on!" So that's what I did. I looked up and the doors were closing. There was no room to be seen.
So as the doors were closing, I ran at the train door and jumped. The car was moving, but it didn't matter. I bear-hugged the woman in front of me and held on for dear life. The doors closed on my tripod, but I was in.
There was no room. It was difficult to breathe. Any kind of movement meant touching others in awkward places. That was inevitable. But hey, a small cost for going in the right direction.
Inside, the stuffy, smelly cramped carrier never felt so good. I had jumped on a moving train, just as I had seen in so many movies before. A random leap of faith, but one I will never forget.
Never mind the train, all transport is crazy here in South Africa. But by far the worst experience of all traffic related is the drive to Bloemfontein from Johannesburg.
You see, the country may have new highways but have a long to go in terms of efficiency. Bloemfontein normally is a 2 1/2 -hour drive from Johannesburg. For those in Ontario, think a little bit longer than London to Windsor on the 401. But really, it's the same kind of nothingness around you, feeling as though you're driving off the end of the world.
Picture that, but envision the amount of traffic on the road going to an England-Germany game with upward of 30,000 fans making the trip from Jozy to Bloem. Not fun.
Then picture the same road through the Free State is for the most part a two-lane highway, with three toll roads en route. That's called bumper-to-bumper traffic. Add the fact a small, four-seater plane had to make an emergency landing on the highway turned the ride down to Bloemfontein into a five-hour adventure.
Yes, an airplane landing on the highway really happened. But that ridiculous story had nothing on the ride back. The drive back turned into a seven-hour adventure, with all fans departing at once. Brutal.
Whether it's to Bloemfontein or not, driving anywhere is a pain. A lack of proper public transit will do that. It was always going to be the World Cup's biggest issue, and still is.
But as long as the journalists and fans accept things run on "Africa time," it's all good.
That brings us to the plane part. Generally, flights are pretty decent at a reasonable price from destination to destination. Cue my flight back from Durban to Johannesburg.
Kulula is a charming discount flier but has apparent issues in ticketing. After boarding the plane, there was an issue with tickets about 10 rows in front of me. And the flight wasn't taking off until everything was sorted out.
I watched with amazement as three flight attendants argued, debated and discussed the matter with a group of Portuguese travelers. The ordeal took almost an hour and a half to solve, almost double the flight time of the entire trip. It was surreal having the flight captain apologize publicly to the waiting travellers.
In the end, nothing was done. The Portuguese stayed in their seats. And I got to hang out with my seatmates for that much longer. Once again, brutal.
The airports in this country are beautiful. But efficiency is a lost term. It's a necessary evil to the magical World Cup ride through this beautiful nation.