As the cabin doors finally opened on arrival of Lufthansa Flight LH 572 to Johannesburg International Airport, it became clear that we had exchanged the sultry, sun-soaked UK for the pale, cold morning air of the South African winter.
The 10-hour-long haul had enabled us to catch at least some sleep in preparation for the day ahead and the first of our scheduled activities. We were swiftly escorted to our transportation and soon departed for The Gold Reef City complex in the north of Johannesburg. As the coach arrived adjacent to 'The Runaway Train', 'Raging Rapids' and 'The Tower of Terror', Ms Smeaton was surely not alone in feeling a slight churn of the stomach. However, she needn't have worried as Stanley, the coach driver, instead turned left and pulled in at the Apartheid Museum car park next door.
Our museum tour, tracing the rise of the racially prejudiced system which was finally abandoned in 1994 may not have sent the pulses racing to the same extent as the nearby theme park, but it did provide an informative and indeed shocking insight into the blight that apartheid placed upon the country for so many years.
No less thought provoking and thoroughly moving, was our next stop at the two charities the tour was supporting. Guild Cottage, the refuge for abused girls and Door of Hope, a charity which takes in, and cares for, abandoned babies, were grateful to receive provisions and financial donations. For our part, the experience proved emotional in the extreme and one which I know will stay in our hearts forever.
Of course we were here to play netball and hockey, and the first to provide opposition for us was Reddford House School. Four convincing wins for the girls and a comfortable victory for the boys was a thoroughly satisfying start, although Reddford could probably teach us a thing or two about cheering and chanting. The local pupils all turned out to watch the netball and the court echoed to the cry of 'Let's go, Reddford, Let's go!' One seven-year-old girl was asked by a passing teacher what the score was, "Eight!" she replied enthusiastically.
"Eight, what?" asked the teacher.
"Oh, I don't know how many the Americans have, Ma'am," was the reply.
Tuesday was fixture-free but involved a packed programme of events. Without entering into too much detail, we fed and interacted with elephants at The Hartebeespoort Elephant Sanctuary, plumbed the depths of the Sterkfontein caves, stopping to marvel at the amazing rock formations, stalagmites, stalagmites and the like. Oh, and in between times we visited the birthplace of humanity, learnt what it is to be human and still had time for lunch!
Having gained a handle on the lives and times of our prehistoric ancestors, Mrs Pankhurst delved further into her past by taking us back to her old school, Boksburg High, where the next round of fixtures took place. Indeed, she was able to put one over on her former employers (and alma mater) by overseeing another clean sweep of victories in both the netball and hockey. By way of celebration, we spent the afternoon back at Gold Reef City, this time taking full advantage of the various thrill rides on offer. Needless to say, Ms Smeaton was the self-appointed safety officer on the ground.
Thursday encompassed a visit to the Union Buildings of the South African Parliament in Pretoria. And if basking in the shadow of the magnificent statue of Nelson Mandela wasn't enough, we rounded the corner and managed to gain entry to the Loftus Versverld Stadium, home of the Blue Bulls rugby team and one of the most impressive stadia in South Africa. Training was in full session and we were able to enjoy our own private demonstration before heading for our next fixture at CBC Mount Edmund, a large independent school in the capital. Two more 'significant' wins (Mrs Pankhurst's word, not mine) were achieved by the girls, whilst it's fair to say the boys are beginning to get the hang of grass pitch hockey. A score line of eight to one, bears testimony to Birkenhead's superiority in all departments.
And that completes our first leg of the tour. Tomorrow sees us bid farewell to the chilly evenings of Johannesburg as we fly on to Durban in the morning. We have an unblemished record of victories thus far and had a fabulous time to boot. The staff have been extremely impressed with all the pupils and the way they have conducted themselves. On the only occasion I overheard Mrs Pankhurst complaining about, 'a very naughty boy', it turned out to be Tamba, the 14-year-old African Elephant at Hartebeespoort, whose behaviour was just beginning to overstep the mark.
By Mr Stockdale
For more photos from the trip, please visit the Birkenhead School Facebook page.