MNINAWA NTLOKO: Arduous journey to ravaged Sierra Leone puts Bafana's stamina to the test
SUCH are the pitfalls of travelling on the African continent that even World Cup champions Spain, England and Germany would struggle to qualify.
Believe me, this is no exaggeration. Africa is certainly not for sissies and the arduous trip from Johannesburg to Freetown, Sierra Leone, at the weekend was a serious test of our mental and physical strength.
We travelled with the players and the Bafana technical staff on a charter flight that an advance South African Football Association (Safa) inspection team realised would be absolutely crucial.
A commercial flight would have taken more than 36 hours with stops in Kenya and Ghana. And yet even travelling by charter was a challenge that tested all of us to the limit.
The journey itself was preceded by a pill-popping exercise that team doctor Ephraim Nematswerani insisted was absolutely necessary to counter the myriad diseases that we were expected to encounter in Freetown.
We departed from OR Tambo Airport at about 12pm on Friday and our first stop was in the north of Namibia, very close to the Angola border. The heat in Namibia was unbelievably stifling and we were thankfully back in the skies after a two-hour stop.
We then embarked on a three-hour journey and eventually landed in the Sa o Tomé and Príncipe islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for yet another fuel stop.
We left the islands after a two-hour stop and eventually arrived in Freetown in the early hours of Saturday morning.
It took a while to transfer the numerous supplies and other essentials to a rickety bus that would not be allowed on South African roads.
I was convinced that the bloody thing would fall apart any minute and yet the driver drove as if his contraption was in good condition.
A short drive from Lungi International Airport - if you want to call it that - took us to the banks of the big Sierra Leone r iver at about 3am.
We transferred to a waiting ferry and this thing then negotiated the dark waters in a journey that lasted more than 45 minutes. Another rickety bus picked us up on the other side and took us to Hotel Bintumani, which is situated at the peak of the hills around a suburb - again, if you call it that - called Aberdeen.
The receptionist at Hotel Bintumani - which is run by the Chinese - claimed that this was the best and the largest luxury accommodation in Freetown and we were privileged to be guests in the establishment.
The shocking condition of the sheets in my room told a very different story and it is anyone's guess if the linen has been changed recently.
Don't even get me started about the condition of the towels! My word!
We only managed to absorb the full horror of our surroundings when the sun came up, and I have got to say the effects of the decade-long civil conflict has ravaged Sierra Leone. Abundant poverty is everywhere and it's no wonder that most women have no choice but to become prostitutes.
Their currency - the Leone - is not worth the paper it's printed on and our hosts from the Sierra Leone Football Association had to empty the contents of a big bag just to pay for our meals at a local restaurant.
The hotel staff spent nearly 30 minutes counting stacks and stacks of money while we looked on in amazement. The Bafana players kept to their rooms and made the best of the situation.
We got our first glimpse of the Brookfields National Stadium on Saturday afternoon and it is small wonder that football governing body Fifa has banned the place a few times in the past. Grazing fields in Tsomo Mission are opulent in comparison to the cabbage patch that greeted us.
The surface was littered with gaping holes that locals had filled with sand. It was clear that Bafana's ball players were not going to be able to spray the ball around and the football was not going to be pretty.
On matchday we were greeted by the news that the Sierra Leone players went on strike just hours before their 2012 African Nations Cup qualifier against Bafana and threatened not to honour the fixture. It took the intervention by the country's deputy president, Samuel Sam Sumana, and the sports ministry for the Sierra Leone players eventually to agree to honour the fixture.
The stadium was already packed to capacity by 10am and nearly 60000 people had crammed into the 42000-seater.
It is a pity that this match was not televised on SABC and South Africans did not get to see goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune's heroics.
No goalkeeper at the 2010 World Cup produced anything close to what Khune did for SA for the whole 90 minutes. The man was simply breathtaking.
He is the main reason that Bafana returned with a point from a very difficult assignment. Sierra Leone might be ranked at 132 on the Fifa rankings but believe me, even Spain would be lucky to escape that abomination of a stadium with a point.
The 0-0 draw was a safe result in the end because I shudder to think what would have happened if Bafana had managed a goal inside that overcrowded stadium.
The trip back to Johannesburg was just as tough and we spent nearly two hours at Lungi International Airport while the rain pelted the aircraft windows. It later turned out that the good people of the Sa o Tomé and Príncipe islands - our first compulsory fuel stop - were demanding a bribe before allowing us to leave Sierra Leone! Geez!
We again left in the early hours of the morning and we were all totally bushed by the time we got to Johannesburg after a 15-hour flight.
Hell, my body still feels as if an overfed bouncer gave me the once-over. Spare a thought for the likes of Macbeth Sibaya, who had to take a connecting flight to Russia only three hours after landing in SA.
Africa is certainly not for the lily-livered, believe me.
- Ntloko is sports editor.
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