Tour Tales – Port Elizabeth

JON CARDINELLI reflects on an accidental township tour, an irrepressible journo, and a showdown with a Cape buffalo.

‘Excuse me … Sorry I’m late … Couldn’t be helped,’ said veteran rugby writer Gavin Rich as he made his way toward his seat.

The flight from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth had already been delayed by 40 minutes. Rich’s ponderous quest between the airplane door and row 15 appeared to be delaying it even further. Still, the sociable scribe stopped en route to have a chat with former Springbok prop Robbie Kempson. An annoyed stewardess shook her head.

At the time, myself and colleague Craig Lewis watched the whole scene unfold and enjoyed a chuckle. Little did we know that the scene would be a sign of things to come during our stay in the Friendly City.

Life on tour with Rocky Rich is never dull. On occasion, though, you feel like you’ve been cast in a Monty Python skit.

A day later, the three of us set off for a Bok training session in Zwide. It wasn’t long before we were completely lost.

As Lewis steered us down the dusty and largely deserted main road of the township, I resubmitted my destination request to Google Maps. Oblivious to our plight, Rich continued with his stream-of-consciousness-type soliloquy from the back seat.

In a matter of minutes, Rich had regaled us with a detailed account of his varsity days in the Eastern Cape, expounded on the finer points of literary sports writing, and attempted to list every animal and bird in the Addo Elephant National Park. The more we tried to focus on the problem at hand, the faster he talked and the more determined he became to be heard.

When I think about it now, I should have checked the rental car for a hidden camera. It was a surreal episode, even for someone who has enjoyed many a bizarre moment with Rich on tour over the past 10 years. God only knows what the uninitiated Lewis made of the whole ordeal.

We passed Zwide Stadium. We raced down the road to Dan Qeqe Stadium. Other than some kids messing around in a cricket net on the far side of the ground, we were the only people there. Rich, a self-confessed cricket nut, was momentarily distracted by the contest in the net. Lewis took the opportunity to call another colleague for directions to the Woolfson Stadium, which we discovered was on the other side of Zwide.

The visit to the Ireland team in the seaside suburb of Summerstrand was a very different, and admittedly less exciting, experience. The Irish players who were put up for media duty certainly lacked the energy and enthusiasm of the fans who sang and danced for much of the Bok training session in Zwide.

What was interesting to hear was how the Irish players had spent their off-days over the past three weeks. From shark cage diving to interacting with lions at a local reserve, the tourists have evidently made this journey to South Africa count.

Both sets of players enjoyed an off-day on Wednesday, and so Rich and I took the opportunity to drive out to Addo. After spending the first hour or so dodging warthogs, we had two close encounters with some of the park’s biggest residents.

After turning down a narrow park road, we noticed a herd of elephants heading in our direction. As they drew near, it became clear that there were two calves among them. The elephants weren’t slowing down, and they weren’t moving into the bush or giving us the right of way.

‘What now?’ I asked Rich, as a massive bull closed in on our pathetically small rental car.

‘Not sure,’ he said, absorbed by the scene.

We continued to stare in awe as two large females adjusted their line and formed a screen between our car and the calves. They moved right past the mirror on the driver's side and, if we had felt so inclined, we could have touched them.

‘Never seen them get that close before,’ Rich said.

We hadn’t progressed far before we were forced to stop again. The road had narrowed to a single lane, and coming round a bend was a lone buffalo in a particularly bad mood. Rich saw the beast late, and hit the brakes.

‘What does it mean if he’s flapping his ears?’ I asked my learned companion.

This time, the animal was on my side of the car. If he decided to charge, the passenger door would offer about as much protection as an aluminium can. I was about to find out how Paddy Jackson felt when Ruan Combrinck ran through him at Ellis Park. Rich, great friend of mine that he is, took great pleasure in pointing this out.

The standoff lasted for what felt like 20 minutes. The beast maintained its challenging stare.

I tried to Google buffalo behaviour as we prepared to meet our fate. Apparently most hunters agree on the point that identifying an escape route, like a tall tree, is crucial before attempting a shot on a buffalo. It wasn’t particularly useful information. Our lone buffalo was closer to the car than any tree. We weren’t about to take any shots. We were at its mercy.

We discussed our options. Eventually, we decided to edge slowly in the beast's direction rather than reverse at full speed.

He looked away when we passed him. When I glanced up at the rear-view mirror, I noticed that he had turned around to face our fleeing car, as if he too was considering his options.

Later, when we came back past the turnoff to that narrow road, we saw the elephant family settled on an adjacent field, as well as the same grumpy buffalo occupying the path. Not wanting to tempt fate a third time, we gave both the herd and the lone ranger a wide berth.

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Jon Cardinelli