Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The African Adventure

I had read prior to my trip that the kind South Africans anticipated me being homesick so duly obliged with reminders of home; an apartment block called Ponte City and the Kaiser Chiefs in Johannesburg whilst Durban hosts the Currie Cup and is even twinned with Leeds.

Day 1, 3pm, London

Following a smooth, traffic free drive down to Heathrow, some awful yet expensive service station food, a quick farewell to Helen and a successful negotiation of the Krusty Kreme stand, I started in my quest to track down my coach and travel companion, the elusive Mr Chris Haueter. He had just returned from taking gold at the Pan Ams so I figured that I would hang out with him and get some reflected glory, success by association. Unfortunately no one recognised him, damn minority sports.

I checked in without getting stopped and searched for the first time ever then spent the next hour trying to find Chris. He wasn't answering his phone and wasn't returning email so I would have to do this the old fashioned way; walking and looking.

I spotted what looked like an old tramp lying across 3 seats sleeping soundly and upon further investigating turned out to be Haueter; I left him to his much needed beauty sleep and went to grab a coffee.

After killing another hour or so, we boarded the plane and settled down for an 11 hour flight. I got a great window seat next to a guy that didn't fit my racial profile of being a terrorist so my journey was going to be effortless.

Once in the air I went to check Haueter's whereabouts and found him sandwiched in his seat by his 150kg flight mate, the guy was so big that he spilled into Chris's seat so much that they couldn't put the arm rest down properly. His flight was going to be hell, quality.

South Africa Day 2

Day 2, 8:30am, Johannesburg

Arrived at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg (aka Joburg and Jozi) the largest and busiest airport in Africa, sampled some of the local cuisine then headed over to check in for the last leg of the journey to Durban.

We were flying Mango Airlines who have bright orange coloured 'planes, I wondered if it was to make it easier for the crash investigators to spot them, at this point I couldn't have cared less as it would mean an end to 26 hours of travelling and waiting.

As soon as we departed the 'plane at Durban, the increase in temperature was ridiculous, I knew right away that training in this heat was going to be a test in itself, at least it was all no gi.

Our host for the trip, Morne Swanepoel, met us and whisked us away in his 'bakkie' which was proper 'lekker'. A brief stop at his place to quickly dump our stuff then immediately down to the beach for a rejuvenating swim in the ocean with it's subtropical climate. Perfect.

All too soon it was time for our first training session. A short drive delivered us to the Muscle and Fitness Gym in Pinetown, the headquarters for Morne's Association, where we entered the gym to a heat that I was just not used to, anyone who has trained at our gym knows that heat is not usually a problem; this atmosphere was even hotter than training in LA which is saying something.

Thankfully we didn't do an intense warm up otherwise that may have been my demise right there and then. We progressively worked through side control drills and escapes which linked nicely into the ½ guard section that I would teach. The first workshop was completed with rolling as always and a brief Q & A session to iron out any queries the guys may have had along the way, all in all a great session for this very warm and weary traveller.

Everyone congregated outside for a while in an attempt to cool down, awesome that after training you can stand around outside wearing only shorts, might try that when I get home.

Need food and sleep.

South Africa Day 3

Day 3, 9:00am, Durban

Today was our day off so we set off to do some sightseeing whilst trying not to look like a tourist.

KwaZulu Natal is said to be "South Africa's most African province" and has everything the country is known for; beaches, wildlife, the melting pot of cultures and, of course, crime. Also with this province are the famous battlegrounds of Isandlwana and Rourke's Drift (as seen in the movie Zulu), coming off an upset victory at Isandlwana where the Zulu masses obliterated 1200 British soldiers, between 3000 and 4000 Zulus (against the wishes of their King) were repeatedly repulsed for 12 hours by only 100 British veterans, many of them ill, protecting the field hospital restoring British "honour"

KwaZulu Natal's principal city, Durban reflects the melting pot culture perfectly , the European architecture alongside Zulu and Indian influences, Hindus being the second largest ethnic group in Durban (making it a great curry district). There are many fine (and not so fine) things to see in Durban; Francis Farewell Square, for example, is the site of the first white camp set up by British adventurers to trade with the natives even though these days it is populated by the down-and-outs. This is sadly echoed throughout the city, history being swamped by over population and general disregard.

Onto the beaches, the obvious choice is to head to Beachfront traditionally called The Golden Mile due to it's outstanding beaches, restaurants and entertainment (yes, even better than Blackpool's Golden Mile) although it is known as 'Muggers Mile' these days, as discovered by one of my friends as he was robbed at gun point when he stayed here. Where tourists are, criminals are. Who better than someone who doesn't really know the area, carries cash and has cameras & other cool stuff with them, you can't blame anyone for not suspecting some inoffensive little child but these kids are master pickpockets and bag snatchers.

Armed with this knowledge and packing nothing worth stealing, we go for a much needed walk on the beach. My friend, Jase, said I had to try a bacon and avocado burger from Steers whilst here, I spot a Steers too late as we had just literally eaten but consider bringing him one back. I doubted I would get it through customs so don't bother (it turns out I could have got it through after all)

Back to the car to continue our trip saw us taking a quick tour down Marine Parade which looked like a quaint old British seaside town but turns out to be just as dangerous as anywhere, no wonder people wander into these areas especially with the plentiful stalls supplying all your touristy souvenir needs (some may call it tack)

As it's starting to get dark we decide to leave the sea front all together to head home, stopping only for Haueter to get a photograph with a shotgun-toting security guard.

Another meal and another early night ensued.

South Africa Day 4

Day 4, Durban, 9:00am

Saturday arrived with a temperature of mid 80s so a beach session was the order of the day before the gruelling seminar in this heat. The locals were still telling me it wasn't a great beach day, they don't realise we would call this a heat wave. Having the benefit of local knowledge meant we avoided the main tourist (crime) areas and found the perfect beach spot for plenty of boogie boarding, swimming and sun. Again it was over too soon as we had to head to the gym, I had to keep reminding myself that the main purpose for the visit was to train.

Met a local fighter, and cool guy as it turned out, named Victor who gave me a lift to the gym. Got into a conversation about the fight game straightaway so made the journey more interesting and much quicker.

Arriving back at the Muscle And Fitness Gym, the heat was there already waiting for me, we had a quick introduction then straight into the warm up. I taught some sport specific movement drills which seemed really easy being so warm as was the stretching then Haueter took over for the first section which was to be controlling and escaping side control following on from his previous session, finishing with ½ guard retrieval which led nicely into my ½ guard section.

Again everything seemed to be well received as evidenced in the sparring as someone pulled Z guard on me (1/2 guard with shin across stomach). When I enquired how long they had been doing that, they said that they learned it that day. As a coach it is awesome when someone uses something against you that you have taught them.

We then split into 2 groups, I got to work with the Fight Team whilst Haueter took everyone else. We worked through some more continuous passing versus sweeping and submission drills where winner stays on. This is probably my most favourite of all the training drills.

I explained my philosophy on passing guard for mma; I personally feel that some people try to punch their way through the hole in their game or are even happy to sit in guard whereas if they put the time in to learn to pass properly it would open up a whole new world to them. When they can pass without striking then they can pass with striking. Just my opinion.

Finished with the rolling and another Q&A, again I really think these are worthwhile just to clarify a little (or large) detail that you might not have got right away.

I had a great time training with these guys, everyone was really cool and would have fit perfectly into my own gym. It is always a pleasure to train in that sort of atmosphere where there are no egos, everyone shares a joke and we all benefit from each other.

South Africa Day 5

Day 5, Durban, 3:00am

Yes, 3:00am!! Needed to be up early to set off on the long drive to Joburg, unable to get a flight in time for the seminar which was an important one so had to drive or rather Morne had to drive, I needed to try to sleep.

Being the seasoned traveller Haueter was asleep almost as soon as we left; the guy can sleep anywhere. He awoke just in time to see the most awesome African sunrise which kind of rejuvenates you as we pulled into the services for breakfast and his coffee fix. (Anyone who has ever been anywhere with Chris knows how important the 'proper' coffee is).

Being bright daylight from 6:30am onwards getting back to sleep was not an option so spent the rest of the journey taking in the countryside as we passed it by reinforcing what a truly beautiful country it is. Finally we hit Joburg about 10:00am and got to see the other side.

We got to temporary home and as the security gate rolled back I got the first glimpse of what Paradise must be like. The property was amazing; tennis courts, swimming pool, mini nature reserve and more, this was going to be an awesome few days.

After a more than generous traditional South African breakfast, Morne and Chris decided to catch up on their sleep whilst I went for a wander round, deciding that a swim would be the better option for waking me up as we were due to teach a big seminar at 1:00pm. I got warning from the locals that the pool temperature may be less than 20 degrees C therefore much too cold to go in. They can't believe that their average winter day is as good as our best summer day. So I am quite happily swimming around with everyone giving me the same look that British tourists get everywhere they go in the world that has weather better than ours, the disbelieving 'it's not even warm' look.

Afternoon approached so we headed to Oakdene to the Box Office Gym for another outrageously warm training session. Morne has sponsorship from Bad Boy to film the seminar and have it aired on national TV so this would be an important seminar to see if we ever get invited back ;0)

Chris started off the seminar with some clinch work, starting right back at the pummelling basics then building up to single and double leg takedowns followed by attacking the quarter position when they managed to sprawl.

He then disappeared to his usual Hollywood lifestyle of doing interviews and photo shoots while I got to take over the seminar. Starting off with taking the back then progressing to establishing correct over/under back control and eventually how to finish the RNC, we moved onto the arm bar from back control. I was guessing that not many of guys had trained that before because there was then a kind of feverish drilling associated with trying something new.

Finally I showed my favourite 3 ways to break the grip of someone defending having their arm locked out from the arm bar position, I like this bit as there is always pain involved with #3 – the biceps crush.

Haueter returned from his celebrity duties to complete the technical part of the seminar with further options of attacking the back. As always with Chris I picked up new details that I hadn't seen before, his approach is not always a 'typical' game and can be quite unorthodox but effective. When he is attacking your back he was constantly trying to kill my base so no movement was really possible; most other guys teach you to make space, get the hooks and go from there. Chris seems to give you so much pressure you almost put yourself in a bad position by being steered into the direction he wants you to go, all without realising it. You know to defend hooks so as you are spending your time doing that you are twisted and turned without mercy, knowing he can still get hooks any time he wants. Not a great description but you have to feel it to fully know what I mean.

The rolling part concluded the seminar as always and, as mentioned before, it is always gratifying to see people trying to implement in sparring techniques you had just taught that day rather than just going back to the ego fueled win at all costs, try nothing new mentality.

A brilliant session today even if I do say so myself, a room full of happy people and I thought I was starting to get used to the heat (man, would I be proved wrong tomorrow)

Now for food and what better way to finish off a great day than with the South African version of our humble barbeque called a "braai". The braai is central to the Afrikaans culture, being an abbreviation of the Afrikaans word "braaivleis" literally meaning meat grill.

After consuming my own body weight in delicious food, an early night was in order so retired back to our "rondavel" a circular building based on the traditional African hut complete with a thatched roof although to be honest I was so tired I would have risked the mosquito attacks and slept on the grass if I had to.

Awesome day all round!!

South Africa Day 6

Day 6, Joburg, 10:00am

I am so getting used to these big traditional breakfasts, a little different to the bran flakes and toast I have back home.

We are not due to train until 7:00pm so we have another day to sight see, this time Joburg, 'the murder capital of the world' let's see if the title is justified.

Joburg lies in the province of Gauteng which means "Place Of Gold" so it is no surprise that Joburg's origins lie in the exploitation of the country's gold, of which there is still rumoured to be masses of un-mined gold. From these beginnings it has, in just over a century, rapidly become the richest metropolis in Africa although these days seems to be more renowned for being a place to avoid at all costs. From what I have seen in the city centre, this is good advice. The city centre is a kind of 'Escape from New York' meets 'Zulu'; the stories I have heard just reinforce this view.

The extremes of riches and poverty are also well exampled in Jozi, sitting atop a hill stands a collection of mansions with Hollywood style houses on stilts working their way down the hillside to meet a corrugated steel shack at the foot of the hill that someone calls home; the huge houses sitting behind solid concrete walls and electric fences barely a ½ mile away from the sprawling shanty towns, certainly two extremes.

The local newspapers report though that was the old Jozi, the new Jozi is being born with falling crime rates and shrewd property developers pumping money into the area. A CCTV system has been installed on every street corner in Johannesburg central which is operated by the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD), which can also detect stolen or hijacked vehicles by scanning the number plates of everyone travelling through the Central Business District, then comparing them to the eNaTIS database. The CCTV system has proved it's worth with the average response time by police for crimes committed in the CBD is under 60 seconds. Rumour has it that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani had been enlisted to help bring down the crime rate especially in preparation for the World Cup finals.

I truly hope this is the case as Joburg, very much like Durban, is an awesome city that is over-populated and in need of some renovation.

As with any city though having some awareness and not looking like an easy target will help you avoid a lot of trouble. Joburg was known as being a hot bed of carjackings, particularly if you drove a German car for some reason but general rules apply again; keep the doors locked, keep windows up, don't get too close to the car in front to avoid being boxed in etc although a previous car attachment is by far my favourite, the flamethrower!! Anyone who came near your car became toast; I believe they are outlawed now but how cool to have a flamethrower attachment.

Now to the last training session of the trip, back to the Box Office Gym. Rather than do a seminar/workshop we were to just do a regular training session and focus primarily on passing the guard. Just what I needed, the heat was oppressive, the open windows were letting heat in from outside rather than letting warm air out and this was going to be the hottest and hardest session of the trip. After a brief warm up I was struggling already.

Chris had everyone pair up and just start working passing guard in the way you normally would whilst he observed and made mental notes of points to review and correct in the technical section. I worked with Victor again so couldn't even slacken off a little as the guy is pretty good.

Haueter then ran through the principals of passing guard, posture, how to break the guard open, control, passing hips, etc then sent us back to practice these areas. The heat was really getting to me and even though I was consuming copious amounts of water couldn't cool down.

We then moved onto the line drills, passing versus sweeping, winner stays on. I had pretty much had enough as my body was rebelling and just wanted to leave but these are the times you have to dig deep. I had just watched the Renzo Gracie 'Legacy' documentary where he says when his body wants to quit he hits it harder to let it know that brain is in charge not body.

What the hell, I thought, it's my last night, I am going to try that so told Haueter I was going to do iron man for a while, take on one guy after the other. Damn, what a mistake that was, by the 4th match my left calf was cramping badly. I pushed on a little more and by the 8th match I was done, my calf completely cramped beyond anything I had felt before, I had anaconda body lock around my partner's body but had to let it go as the cramp was that bad. It was one of those where it looks like there is something under your skin running up and down. There was only 2 guys left to spar and I couldn't continue, I was gutted.

I had someone grab my leg and start stretching me out, I kept stretching all the time through the Q&A and tried to get some fluids back in. I was cursing the fact that we had gone to the pharmacy that day where I was going to buy some electrolyte/mineral replacement drink and got sidetracked by biltong (sun dried, salted strips of meat) instead. Oh well, trying biltong was on my 'to do' list anyway.

Turns out that it took about 3 days for my calf to start feeling better but that was the only down side as again I had a great time training here and got to spoke to like minded people who were serious about training but light hearted enough to have fun at the same time.

As far as the Q&A sessions go, unfortunately most people (everywhere) don't take advantage of this time for fear of looking dumb in front of everyone. I know I have done the same but not any more.

The first time I trained with John Machado he asked us what we were struggling with and no one replied so he took his belt off, threw it into the middle of us then said "congratulations, you guys are all black belts. If you aren't struggling with anything you guys must all be black belts" He then asked again what we were struggling with so I asked him how to counter being stacked when applying arm bar and/or triangle and he produced one of the best sessions I have ever been to, still using the material today.

If you never ask, you never know!!

Back to our hosts' place where I had a ½ chicken, pumpkin fritters and roast potatoes which raised my spirits then straight back to the rondavel for our last night in South Africa which turned out to be the scariest/funniest night of the whole trip.

We had heard tales of gangs of guys armed with AK47s doing home invasions pillaging and murdering anything in the way. A gang of 6 guys had invaded a house down the road from us previously and slaughtered everyone. We actually encountered a couple of guys outside our property on the way home who may have been drunk or may have been pretending, playing some rope-a-dope.

As I laid there I realise that our building is the only one with no bars so would make an ideal target for a gang invasion, we then start philosophising about how unprepared we are with only our Jiu Jitsu against 6 Aks to save us, This is the point where everything gets crazy, I guess it's gallows humour, but I found a stick for my protection so Haueter went off to search for a weapon too. He found a brush. I never felt so safe, 2 guys in shorts armed with a stick and a brush against a gang with automatic weapons. Man, would I sleep sound tonight! I guess it's one of those times when you just had to be there but I just laughed myself to sleep especially after Haueter got a text from his wife, Melissa, asking him why we were laughing. She makes a good point.

South Africa Day 7

Day 7, Joburg, 8:00am

Awoke to a face outside our door which turned out to be the gardener, I'm sure glad he didn't come around last night otherwise he may have been beaten to death with a brush. Haueter received another text from Melissa who asked if we had survived the night. Do you know what? I think we did.

With everything packed up we set off early to again take in some sights on our way back to the international airport in Johannesburg which is not called Johannesburg International Airport any more but O.R. Tambo International Airport under the new regime of renaming everything.

As we started to get into the more built up areas there were more and more adverts for FIFA Football World Cup 2010, everything about it has disaster written all over it. If South Africa could get any more dangerous the World Cup could well be the catalyst; the football supporters spill out of the airport to find transport a major problem, the buses are unreliable, the train system has a poor reputation, the minibus taxis are dangerous with the 'turf wars' still raging which has even seen shoot outs on the roads between rival drivers and the taxi ranks are a hot bed for petty criminals.

If you are thinking of getting around on foot, make sure you have up to date everything otherwise you will end up screwed with all the name changes of the roads. The last thing you want is to wander into a tourist 'no go' area such as Joubet Park or Hillbrow. Maybe there will be safety in numbers but imagine all the nationally proud football supporters combined with cheap and plentiful booze in one of the most violent cities on earth where the majority of locals are armed, some with automatic weapons and violent crime is a way of life for some.

Let's hope everything works out ok because the authorities are putting a lot of effort into this sporting event that will have the eyes of the world on it and from what I have seen, the nee stadia look awesome.

We arrive at the airport, say our farewells to Morne, who has been a great host and head straight to Nandos. Whilst waiting in the queue, a big local guy walks to the front of the queue where the manager comes flying out to greet him and starts making a fuss of him. Not being in the country very long I wasn't sure but it looked a lot like Jacob Zuma, SA's Deputy (but soon to be) President, he was in Joburg to see charges of bribery, corruption and more against him dropped. He had probably followed us to the airport to make sure Haueter left the country!

After a bizarre experience with a guy asking us how tall we thought he was, Chris took off to get a massage (what an airport) whilst I wandered around aimlessly killing time which led me to food again. After being served by a local African girl I tipped her 10 rand and saw her face light up as though she had just won the lottery, it equates to about 70p so you realise how cheap life is over there.

We landed back in Heathrow and saw the 'Welcome To Britain' sign so I knew I was home, reinforcing this was the obscene amount I had to pay for breakfast, I was home indeed.

Maybe I can get to go back one day and do the things I missed this time, going to one of the many safari parks, swim with the sharks, visit Table Mountain, the usual tourist stuff, it really is a beautiful place but unfortunately I can see it getting worse before it gets better.