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Comrades Trip Day 1 - Johannesburg

So finally, 9 months after being talked into running this race and ticking it off the bucket list by my friend Helen who's here too, it's time to pack the bags and head out to South Africa.

I cannot think of any race I've done, and I have entered a lot since I went for my first London Marathon in 2000, where the anticipation has reached anything like this pitch.  I guess that first London would be the one to run it close and reaching the finish line of that was something very special and it certainly set me on the path that sees me tapping this into my laptop in my hotel in Cape Town.

Who knows what lies ahead? Anything could happen and it's already apparent that the weather gods are doing their best to make it as much of a challenge as possible with 30 degrees forecast in Durban and only a couple less at the finish in Pietermaritzburg, 54 miles and at the very least 7 hours of running later.

Several running from my club are out here too and my travel plans were originally booked to go along with a then nebulous collective plan.  Since then one of the group has dropped out and two others (one non-runner) decided to go horseback riding for some days prior to Comrades.  Personally I thought that's nuts. I don't need saddle sores and a busted bum from 3 days trekking before this race no matter how attractive the proposition would have sounded at any other time.

So I decided to do some sightseeing in advance with a night in Johannesburg - mainly because I'd booked flights to JB rather than the whole way and there was a tight connection of just an hour in Paris to make and I feared the worst. Following that, having succumbed to the prevailing opinion that JB is a crime hotspot and unattractive to boot I thought 3 nights in Cape Town would be just  the thing to clear my head before heading into Durban on the Thursday before the Sunday race.

There's been a feeling of gathering momentum from the start and keeping up with the RunnersWorld forum reinforces that as one by one forumites announce they are off to the airport.  I get a strong sense of thousands of individuals converging on Durban in ever-increasing numbers.

I had an overnight flight on Air France via Paris CdG and there's precious little entertainment value to be gleaned from that 12 hours of my life let me tell you.  One brief highlight was when I realised I'd be taking my debut flight on the massive Airbus A380 and for some reasoned imagined vast open spaces, perhaps a bar and a tennis court in there and hostesses tossing me the odd grape while I reclined on a chaise.

Of course it was nothing like that with the exception that the plane was indeed massive.  I had thought it wouldn't be a busy flight - it's Autumn over here - but couldn't be more wrong.  In addition Air France had seen fit to position the seats in the 'veal crate' setting and my knees were a centimetre from the back of the chair in front.  Bearing in mind I tower to an impressive 5'7" others may have looked upon that centimetre with envy. The plane is also very quiet and on take-off just seemed to drive into the sky.

I'll say one thing for the French, they did put some effort into the food.  Not much - this was economy after all - but there were touches. I liked the mini bread roll things handed out restaurant-style, where you're wondering whether the previous diner has washed their hands before fondling most of the produce.

Some good news for arrival though was that Helen's South African friend and colleague, Dean, would be picking me up so no farting about with buses and taxis.  A weight off.

The French Connection was as tight as I'd feared as my bag was searched in Paris and then it was about a million miles to walk to the departure gate. I had 20 mins to spare in the end but sure what would I have done with the extra 40?

We landed at O.L.Tambo airport at 9:50am on the Sunday with me sporting my 'tried and failed to get any sleep' hair, face, eyes and armpits.  Helen and her other half Maarten had had the convenience of a night in the airport hotel so looked a lot more presentable.

Dean, gawdblessim, whisks us off to the Guest House in Melville, a suburb of JB and there's all of a matter of minutes before we head out exploring after a cursory freshen up.

We skirted round the centre of JB to get there so first impressions I suppose were limited.  The suburbs are quite unremarkable, like anywhere really, though you do notice the barbed wire, steel grille shutters and gates. Our guesthouse is a case in point.  It's a quaint single-storey building with a front lawn and verandah and pretty small.  When I checked in I was given a bunch of keys that made me think the owner had mixed them up with her own master set.  There were 7 in all!  To traverse the distance from the front gate to get into my bedroom, probably 25 meters, I had to use 5 of them. There were that many security gates.

Stop no.1 Lion Park, 'Gauteng's No.1 Tourist Attraction' according to their brochure, and we go straight for the food.  My first taste of a South African Braai - their version of a BBQ.  To be honest I could take or leave the meat though the wors were good.  It came though with some fantastic veg I could have eaten bucket loads of though according to the rules we were allowed up to the trough twice with our man tearing the meal voucher in half after the first oversized portion so there was no cheating.

It all tasted fantastic. The one new item on the menu to me was 'pap' which turned out to be made from maize. Pure white and quite jelly-like in texture.  It comes with a spicy sauce as it hasn't a great deal of taste in itself though I didn't mind that.  I was clearly stuffed full of carbs and I thought great running fuel.

There's a game drive on offer and the opportunity to pet a lion so that's not something you get to do every day and we're sold.

Our driver and guide ushers us into his grille-encased truck with a load of other tourists with a huge grin and explains the safety procedures.  Basically, don't stick anything outside the truck. With undimmed cheerfulness he explained the latch on the grille door had had to be changed as the lions had worked out how to open the old one! 

Our host is good value as he bumps us around the park stopping at antelope, zebra, giraffe and then into the wilder areas full of lions, wild dogs and cheetahs.  I never know whether it's right to keep these creatures like this though they had plenty of space and I'm sure were well treated.  All the big game had just been fed so were more interested in sleeping it off than in us. But we came very close to some spectacular creatures, all the while regaled in his cheery manner with grisly tales of how babies and children had been pulled from cars.

What we learned: Cheetahs are friendly, but they don't like being hugged.  So resist that temptation.

Afterwards we all about the cub petting and queue for the pen amidst throngs of children who to be fair are probably the intended target of this sort of thing.  But there was something about it even though the cubs were completely oblivious to their constant stream of paying petters.  I also fed a giraffe a bunch of unpalatable-looking pellets so it was like the junior school London Zoo trip all over again.

Next up the Cradle of Humankind where the world's oldest human fossils have been found.  After a fair old drive it turns out we'd done a bit too much petting and pellet feeding as the bloody thing had sent off its last tour 3 minutes before we pitched up.  A total frost.  I'm falling asleep at regular intervals in the car anyway so I doubt I'd have taken much in. Helen looks on the bright side and repeats throughout the rest of the day at intervals that 'at least we were on the actual spot' as if that were 90% of the experience.

So plan B (or is this C? Whatever) is Montecasino.  A large complex with an Italianate street theme but entirely indoors.  There's a sign saying no guns(!) and we're frisked for said guns like it's some Wild West town that the sheriff is trying to clean up. Lots of guns in South Africa apparently.

This is the sort of place I imagine they might build at Bluewater and I would go nowhere near it normally but I had diabetes brought on with a massive slab of chocolate cake and a vanilla and Toblerone milk shake in a coffee shop underneath a fake painted sky as my heart rate tripled from the sugar onslaught.

I'd originally planned on not drinking before Comrades. But as Helmuth Von Moltke once famously said 'No plan survives contact with the enemy' and I have long since caved in.  So much so that I can barely remember making the plan at all. It feels like midnight when we get back to the guest house but its only 7pm.  Being Autumn/Winter here the sun sets like it's been weighted down with bricks and chucked in a canal. 

With the dire warnings of 'make sure you take a taxi even to the end of the street' ringing in our ears we set bravely out for a bar at the end of street reassuring ourselves it's a good neighbourhood while checking all the shadows.  The sense of foreboding is made worse by the many electric fences.  They emit a regular pulse, presumably to tell the would-be intruder that they're going to get a shock, which sounds just like the hand-held scanner in Aliens. Creepy.

We survive the 400yd walk and discover the Lucky Bean with funk, stools and chilled customers spilling out onto the sidewalk. A few local beers - Castle - are made to disappear and a bowl of noodles before common sense prevails and we head home for the night having teetered dangerously on the verge of finding a bar open much later.  Just as well really as our man Maarten has an 8am interview and has to look good in a suit.

More apprehensive glances at shadows and people who may be about to follow later,plus a good 10 minutes trying to find the right key for the front gate amongst the bunch and we're home.

First day and night in South Africa done and dusted and it's been a good start to the adventure!  Cape Town tomorrow but not before a tour of downtown Joburg.

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