A traveller's guide to the World Cup (especially for England WAGs)

Rustenburg doesn't often figure in the itineraries of visitors to South Africa. Will the football change all that? Raymond Whitaker went to find out

Coleen, Carly, Alex, Abigail and all you other wives and girlfriends of England football players: this is your official WAG's guide to Rustenburg. And don't say "Where?".

During the World Cup your menfolk will be based in Rustenburg, which is in South Africa's North West Province. Actually, they will be behind high fences in a sports complex quite a few miles out of town, but more of that later. We all remember what a good time you had in the boutiques and champagne bars of Baden Baden during the last World Cup in Germany, so I thought I would check out the potential of Rustenburg for a repeat performance.

I have to tell you, girls, it doesn't look good. Rustenburg means "place of rest", which gives you some idea. Round here they dig up shiny stuff like platinum and chrome, dear to the heart of any WAG, but when you cruise the grid of wide streets, with a four-way stop at every intersection, you can think there is no centre to the town at all.

I have set a simple challenge for my guide, Nelson ("Like Mandela," he keeps telling fellow black South Africans, who seem surprisingly unfamiliar with the name): show me the sights of Rustenburg. A look of near-panic appears in his eyes. "Would you like to see the radio station?" he asks. No, I wouldn't. I suggest we follow the signs to the CBD, or central business district, with Nelson hopefully pointing out the local tax office on the way, and finally we arrive at the town's historic centre.

A century-old Dutch Reformed Church, where the Afrikaners who used to rule the roost in South Africa practise their faith, faces the old municipal headquarters, built in the Cape Dutch style in 1933. In front is a statue of Paul Kruger, the Boer leader who defied the British and ended his days in exile in Switzerland. A couple of rugby pitches, where Afrikaners practise their secular religion, stand nearby. The only sign that things have changed in South Africa is that the streets are now named after Mr Mandela and his allies.

Not much here to detain a WAG, or anyone else for that matter. After a fruitless visit to the local tourist office, I give up, and ask Nelson to take me to the Waterfall Mall. To listen to any Rustenburger, it is the centre of the universe, with a cinema multiplex, more than 100 shops (including eight jewellers!) and restaurants catering to every taste, from steak to, er, pizza. You might as well be at an Arndale Centre back home, but for any England follower looking for a bit of post-match buzz away from the officially organised "fan park", this is as good as it gets.

The truth is that although this mining town basks in the status of a World Cup venue, the real action is elsewhere. The football stadium is 20 minutes out of town in Phokeng, headquarters of the immensely wealthy Bafokeng tribe, who collaborated with Lutheran missionaries to hang on to their land during the apartheid era, and now reap the benefits from what is underground: some of the world's richest deposits of platinum.

If Rustenburg is quiet, neat little Phokeng is positively sleepy – and just to make sure it stays that way, the shopping centre next to the stadium will be closed on match days. The England headquarters is in a "sports campus" a bit further on, surrounded by open bushveld, with the flames of a platinum smelter lighting up the landscape at night. The only hostelry for miles around is the Carnivore Butchery, Pub and Grill, not quite what Premiership millionaires are used to. But this isolation is just what is said to have attracted the England manager, Fabio Capello, who does not want his players' high-maintenance consorts anywhere nearby.

Instead, any WAG worthy of the name is likely to base herself at Sun City, half an hour away. Launched in a supposedly independent black "homeland" during apartheid days, it used to lure repressed white South Africans with forbidden pleasures such as gambling. Now it relies more on golf and glitz, the latter epitomised by the Palace of the Lost City, the last and biggest hotel to be built at the resort. Here it is as though the designers drew on Moghul palaces and the temples of Angkor Wat for inspiration, substituted African for Asian motifs and pumped the whole thing up to megalomaniac proportions. Insufferably vulgar or gloriously over the top? I know what I think, but I can also picture many an England camp-follower happily spending his or her entire sojourn in this fantasy version of Africa, with its inland surf beach and planted rainforest.

Which would be a pity, because real, unique aspects of Africa are all about. The Pilanesberg national park is compact enough to get around in a day but large enough to house, in their natural setting, all five of the animals that big-game hunters used to consider it necessary to shoot: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffaloes. The Magaliesberg, one of the world's oldest mountain ranges, has deep water-carved kloofs, or canyons. At their feet, in an area now designated a world heritage site, some of the earliest ancestors of homo sapiens have been found, and are still coming to light – the discovery of a new hominid, Australopithecus sediba, was announced just a few weeks ago.

On the same day, I soared high above the treetops on what the locals misleadingly call a "canopy tour" and squeezed through a damp subterranean passage in the Sterkfontein caves, which have arguably contributed more to the understanding of our evolution than any other spot on earth. Arriving for what I imagined might be an elevated walk through a forest, I was strapped into a harness, clipped to a pulley and sent down a series of steel cables, 10 in all, spanning a precipitous kloof. There was little time to contemplate the stunning surroundings as I shot towards one rock face after another, wishing I had emptied my pockets first. Near the start, my expensive digital camera plummeted into the gorge, leaving me trying to remember the terms of my household insurance policy. But one of the two ferociously cool guides climbed down and found it stuck in a treetop, miraculously intact.

The ride was all the more exhilarating for having been so unexpected, but if you want to find out about the flora and fauna of the Magaliesberg, take a walking tour. I was off, though, to the Cradle of Humankind, as Sterkfontein and its surroundings are now known. At Maropeng, there is a prehistory "experience", complete with underground boat ride, but the exhibition at Sterkfontein is just as informative, without the need for light shows. Excavations here were originally made to obtain limestone, needed for the region's gold refineries: it was heartbreaking to learn how many fossils were inadvertently smashed or crushed before scientists learned what had lain here for millennia, waiting to be unearthed.

Neither the Magaliesberg nor Sterkfontein is suitable for anyone who wants to be seen only in spike heels. Nor could I imagine how the average WAG would react when George, my enthusiastic guide in the Pilanesberg national park, leaped from our vehicle to pick up a cannonball-sized piece of elephant dung, and broke it open to show how little of the greenery is actually digested by the beasts. We saw several elephants, along with two white rhino mothers and their young, giraffes, Burchell's zebras and innumerable others, though the lions eluded us. George pointed out a mixed herd of springbok and impala, a sight unique to the park: nowhere else in South Africa has the right blend of habitats. He was still at it after dark, picking out a black-backed jackal in the spotlights as we headed for the gate.

So, having seen the wildlife, the landscape and the prehistory of the area, what about the people? If Carly, Coleen or any of the other wives and girlfriends want to get out of their comfort zone, I'd suggest going to Mogwase, once a segregated black town near the Pilanesberg reserve, where fans of more modest means will be staying during the World Cup. There they will discover that the nightlife is a little more informal than the village pub back home – specifically, if they want a drink they will be told to go round to Lillian's house, where the eponymous landlady, as wide as she is tall, runs a nightly barbecue-cum-bar in her backyard.

Music blasts out, neighbours call in for takeaways, people leap up and dance when the spirit – or beer – takes them. You meet real people and everyone has a good time. Just call Lillian on her mobile (072 370 6062) and tell her you are coming. And you can wear what you like, even Manolos and Jimmy Choos.

HOW TO GET THERE

Raymond Whitaker travelled with South African Airways (0871 722 1111; flysaa.com), which offers return flights from £716. He stayed as a guest of the Rustenburg Orion Hotel (oriongroup.co.za), which offers B&B from £73.

FURTHER INFORMATION

South African Tourism (0870 155 0044; southafrica.net).

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