AFRICA 2016 – Journal fifteen – last for now!

DAYS 88-91. MARCH 5th – 8th, 2016. DURBAN TO DEVON.

Friday and Saturday were days of little new, just relaxing with my old friends – friendships strengthened by my five visits to southern Africa on which they have provided me with a base and home from home. Now, early on Sunday, the 48 hours of the journey back to Harberton by Tuesday lunchtime has begun. I am writing on a bus from Durban to Johannesburg, a bus on which I will sit for eight hours, about as long as tomorrow night’s flight from Kenya to Amsterdam. But all I have to do now is sit and wait.

*

So what of this trip? And where next?

South Africa… One of the strangest countries in which I ever travelled. A place full of beauties and some of the most wonderful natural pleasures – completely overshadowed by its contemptible social issues. On Saturday morning we were up early to drive to a large outdoor market to the west of Durban. I think it started as a sort of farmers’ market but appears to have developed into a food and ‘stuff’ market. Breakfast was good and the chocolate brownies worth going for but the rest was somewhat unattractive. The market exists in a semi-formal setting on a hilltop in the lovely Shongweni Valley, with shaded stalls and large grass car parks. There were perhaps a couple of thousand people there – it is a popular weekend event.

Yes, you’ve guessed what I am about to write! There wasn’t a black person there, except for a few employees of white stall holders, assisting in serving coffee and food, and a very few black stallholders selling a very few things that actually looked as if they might have originated somewhere in Africa – some wooden carvings and wire sculptures and the like. There were plenty of Asian faces, this being Durban which has a large Indian population, but NO black people! This country is NINE TENTHS black. But you wouldn’t know it, so invisible is the majority and so very visible the tiny minority.

I can’t take it any more. I have become so sensitive to this issue that it colours my whole view of South Africa. I am so conscious of it that I ascribe virtually all my reactions to it. I mean, I am sitting on a bus as I write. It’s filling up as we travel. There are no other whites on board and the seat next to mine looks as if it will be the last filled, since all the passengers are black. I do think South Africa really works at such a damaged instinctive level, I really do.

“They still blame everything on apartheid! It’s time they got over it. Apartheid has been gone more than twenty years!” Someone said a few days back – a common cry amongst the whites. (’They’, you note).

But such grossly immoral, appalling injustice, that coloured this land for half a century in law and a lot longer in practice, is not overcome in just twenty two years! Most social and economic faults of apartheid are still firmly in place; it’s only the legal framework that has gone, nothing else. All the privileges cling to the whites, as does so much of the wealth, ownership, land and assets of the nation. They may complain about positive discrimination but I don’t see many of them living in shacks made of old rusty corrugated sheets, recycled timber and old plastic that surround any town and city here, sprawling across dusty miles always way out beyond the flowering trees, razor-wired gardens, security-gated bungalows and smug coffee and gift shops of the inner towns.

There is a growing black middle class, it’s true, and the whites always tell me this. So there should be. Blacks outnumber whites by nine to one. It seems to me there should be nine black-driven gleaming 4X4s on the road to every white one. The converse is probably no exaggeration.

I have to work hard, and create a lot of surprise, to make South African black people look me in the eye and return a smile. They are conditioned not to make eye contact with white people, not to be familiar, not to expect equality. If this is my imagination (as I am sometimes accused), why is it the opposite in surrounding countries that did not have the disgusting social engineering experiment of apartheid imposed upon them for several generations? National characteristics are a product of nurture more than nature and 100 years of undermined national psyche will probably take another 100 years to grow out of the communal memory and myths of the people.

South Africa is the only country where I am conscious of, and embarrassed by, my skin colour. The black South Africans assume that as a white I share the prejudices of so many of my colour – and the white South Africans also assume I share their prejudices and see me as an ally.

*

So, for a while, I have been in South Africa enough. Beautiful country; wonderful climate; very economical to travel – it’s just too unhappy and too far from my liberal principles for me to ignore all that I see as injustice. Recently I have more enjoyed South Africa for its proximity to its neighbours than for itself. Maybe someday Mike will find me a project and maybe I will be lured back by the delights of Lesotho. But for now, it’s time for new travels. My only disappointment on this trip was not to return to Zimbabwe, but maybe I will find equal though different pleasures in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia – all of which open up with the acquisition of the new Kenyan piki-piki (motorbike)!

*

I appreciate the old comfortable friendship with Yvonne, now almost forty years, and with Mike, with whom I have bonded happily in these trips. We’ll meet again sometime. And for the two Stevens I have a warm fondness. I’ve loved the freedom of my red motorbike, but that’s over now as it became more of a liability than an asset. It’s been great to be warm for three months and to have so much stimulation and sunshine. Another 900 photographs, another 90,000 words, a lot more stories if I can find listeners, a wider view of life and apart from a swollen knee (hospital next week…) I’m as fit as ever – and thoroughly cheerful.

*

I’m booked in a guest house near the airport tonight, with a free shuttle service. Then tomorrow I fly north once again until the next time I return to this remarkable and fascinating continent.

I’ll be back!

*

Now I am in a high flying sardine can once again, somewhere over Egypt. With a slight limp and a good deal of charm I managed to blag my way into a full-stretch exit row seat thanks to the sympathy of the cabin attendant. KLM is good that way! By strange coincidence, my neighbour is Ghanaian; he lectures in English literature and maths around Africa for the Cambridge examination board (always pronounced ‘Cammbridge’ in Africa). I’m grateful for the extra space, minimal though it is even now, since my right leg has swelled uncomfortably to about half again as big as my left. It’s the cabin pressure; the attendants warned me about the probability of it happening.

Only by insistence am I here at all. It appeared that when I changed my ticket someone somewhere didn’t issue me the new one for Kenya Airways and the first leg. “We can’t do anything. You’ll have to go to KLM office.” said all the Kenya Airways check in people. “But KLM office doesn’t open until two o’clock. You’ll have to wait!” Fine, but the flight was at one o’clock! It took 25 minutes on an attendant’s private mobile phone to sort it out temporarily – by me paying another 150 Euros, on top of the £114.81 pence that they seem to have no record of taking out of my bank account last week. So that’ll all have to be sorted out later. Happily, I arrived at the airport an hour earlier than I planned.

*

Flying over Kenya inspired me about my next journey! Doubtless I’ll start counting the days soon. And I’ll put myself through all the indignities of air travel again for it. To think that air travel used to be exciting and romantic. Huh. Those were the days.

*

So, another journey over. There’ve been so many. And every one of them had their hardships, highlights, trials, difficulties and, above all, rewards. Experiences, stories, lessons, friendships, fun and diversion. It’s all just become a way of life – my life!

My thoughts already begin to travel to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda! Watch this space. That’s it for now!

MARCH 8th 2016

AFRICA 2016 – Journal fourteen

DAY 81. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 26th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

Well, look where I am. So fed up with it. But I agreed with Steven that we’d sort out the paperwork of the ownership of the bike at 11. He is so hectically busy that we managed it at 2.30, too late for me to move on – and anyway, the oil leak is getting faster and faster now, so I’m not even sure how practical riding off is, even just for the weekend.

Fixing the papers was simple; Steven knows the right people at the vehicle taxing and testing station – all members of his Christian biker club: ‘Riders for the Son’. On Monday the ownership of the now ‘unroadworthy’ bike (similar to a SORN) will pass to Steven on behalf of young Steven, to whom I have given the bike. An ancillary deal is that if they make it into a really smart bike for young Steven, they might pay me the 8000 Rand value I’d have got from the mechanic. If they fail and have to sell it for parts, they share the proceeds. Well, we’ll see. I bet they’ll make a good bike of it. And maybe I will come back and borrow it sometime for a southern hemisphere springtime trip to Namaqualand, where the desert flowers vividly just once a year for a few weeks, something I’d like to see. It happens in August/ September.

So too late and too oily to move on, I bought some beer and sat and read once again. I really have seen enough of Bloemfontein, the sort of place that’s OK for doing a bit of business for a couple of days, but NOT for staying, trapped for days on end. 15 days and counting.

We spent the evening at a very noisy restaurant in a mall full of hard surfaces. It was like eating in an airport. Steven, Isabel and I ate while the kids all ate junk food and went to watch films in the nearby multiplex. I wasn’t sorry to miss out on the films, the choice being American action films or Afrikaans romances. Neither attracted me.

I could scream with current frustration! Bits of this journey have been the best of all – while quite a bit of it has been frustrating as hell: periods stuck in Bloemfontein and Himeville for mechanical problems.

DAY 82. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 27th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

I’ve got rather used to putting that address at the top of my nightly entry. Well, my motorbike journey is just about over and I didn’t want to end it with a whimper in Bloemfontein while Lesotho was only 100 miles away. This I will remember as my Lesotho winter. I have become increasingly familiar and delighted with this tiny kingdom in the past three months. I have penetrated most corners and met and chatted with hundreds of charming Basotho people and watched the seasons change from the dire drought of midsummer to the increasing green of late summer as autumn approaches. I do wonder what it’s like here in winter..? But I’m not sure I wonder enough to come and suffer the cold and snow in July, interesting though it’d be to see a completely different aspect of the landlocked, fancifully-called, ’Kingdom in the Sky’. Now I am sitting outside my rondavel with a beer at seven o’clock and the air is cool enough for me to think of a light jersey over my tee shirt – or to retreat inside away from the mosquitoes…

*

Steven has done his very best with my little red bike. This morning we stripped it down yet again and replaced the epoxy over the weld and leak. It’s still leaking, but there’s not the oil slick beneath the parked bike or the oil dribbling from the undercarriage any more. I have been able to ride the 120 miles to Roma without too much loss of oil. It’ll need a top up in the morning, but not the half litre it required a couple of days ago. There’s no way I could have ridden it all the way to Zimbabwe without major (and it will be quite major) repair works.

And ‘little Steven’ is quite delighted at the idea of having his first bike. His father is determined that the lad will do most of the restoration work himself; a good idea. I am so happy with the outcome of the bike. At best I was going to get about £350 for the machine in its present condition, and I know I would have resented selling it to Johan, the mechanic, who wasn’t easy to bond with at all. I would have constantly supposed he was getting advantage of me. The engine alone must be worth that much. As it is, I have been able to repay the Stevens for some of the friendship and kindness they have both shown me over my southern African safaris.

*

It was almost three before I was able to set off, waiting for the epoxy to cure and then organising a bus ticket for Tuesday over to Durban. I took the direct route to Maseru Bridge, the main border crossing between Lesotho and the Free State, quite calm on this Saturday afternoon, and quickly accomplished. Once past the major – black – town of Botshabelo the road becomes quiet, just a few vehicles and ‘black taxis’ heading for Lesotho and the South African towns that circle the border. It was in Ladybrand, the last South African town before Maseru, the Lesotho capital, that I met Steven in 2002, in need of mechanical assistance as now.

It’s a mainly flat run towards the Lesotho mountains, blue in the distance. Huge fields line the road and sunflowers make a cheerful crop just now, their heads drooping in the waning late afternoon sun. I seem to be pretty much alone at the Trading Post tonight and for supper I had to resort to a cafe in town, for a somewhat lukewarm plateful of Boerworst (sausage made from God only know what), corn ‘stampa’ and a couple of congealing vegetable dishes. At less than a pound, I don’t expect gourmet food, and actually, it was perhaps more pleasant than the fake Italian pasta dish I ate in that airport-like mall last night for considerably more money.

And talking of airports… What an irony. I emailed Rico yesterday as I recollected he had said he had to be in Europe by the 7th, the day I leave Africa too. I pointed out that I have to spend four hours in Nairobi airport that night changing planes, was he by any chance leaving that day too? Huh! Believe it or not Rico is flying on the same flight as me – the night before! If only I had asked before changing my ticket we could have travelled on the same plane to Amsterdam! But I can’t go through the hassle of changing my ticket yet again, and he can’t change his travel date. What a damned shame! We haven’t met for so many years. Oh well, we will meet, all being well, for my next safari within twelve months.

*

So for these last two days I am back in lovely Lesotho and then back to Bloemfontein on Monday, ready to bus to Durban on Tuesday. On Monday the red bike officially changes hands to the Stevens.

DAY 83. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 28th, 2016. KUKHUNE, LESOTHO

I’m happy I decided to end my motorbike journey in Lesotho. Tonight I am back at one of my favourite places, Mamohase B&B – a suitable end to my travels. Well, of course, I still have a night in Bloemfontein and a few days in Kloof, but in my mind, my journey ends here. Here, in the magnificence of the valley, the total peace, the calm hospitality of Mamohase’s house, the ‘cultural’ bed and breakfast that I have come to appreciate as such a warm, typical manifestation of all that is good in Lesotho. It is deeply quiet now, night is falling as I sit on the doorstep of my round, traditional room, the family dog at my feet, not a breath of wind and the Maluti Mountains in darkening silhouette against the crystal African sky. Only a few stars are pricking the blue grey mantle as yet, but tonight will bring the stars out in all their astonishing, dancing radiance – a splendour I have only ever seen in Africa. Yes, a good place to mentally complete my fourth southern African journey.

*

Every time I ride through Teyateyaneng – conveniently shortened, even by the Basotho, to ‘TY’, I say to myself, “no more carpets”! For TY is renowned for its small weaving workshops. Two years ago I bought my fine ‘Independence’ mat, and last year another woven mat. Today, despite my resolution (obviously not very strong!), I am carrying yet another Basotho mat in my baggage – my fifth. Made from home-spun mohair, spun by Adolfina, and woven by a cheerful weaver called Alina, it’s about 120cm by 60. It probably represents at least a week and half’s long work. I paid £56. The business is a cooperative, with seven weavers, income shared monthly by the quantity they create. Alina, Joyce and Adolfina were particularly delighted that my money means they have made a ‘big sale’ to end the month of February (which, being a Leap year, is actually tomorrow) and will all benefit. Such delightful ladies, who wouldn’t want to end their month on a high note? Fortunately, I don’t have to carry it far.

*

The stars have appeared now; the night is quiet, but for the inevitable barking dogs (not in the league of Askwith or Bloemfontein, fortunately!). This is Africa, and dogs are always barking… It’s almost eight. A palm tree stretches its fronds above me, completely still. Beyond that there’s nothing but clear sky between me and Orion, the constellation I always associate with Africa – for it is always so dominant (as, of course, it is in England – where all it does is remind me of Africa…) – directly overhead, upside down as usual here in the southern hemisphere. Lightning flickers on the western horizon, where the high mountains are, but denotes nothing much. Tantalising smells of my supper come from Mamohase’s kitchen across the yard. Morebane, another of Mamohase’s eight sons (and two daughters), has lit the oil lanterns in my round earth-built, thatched room. It is deeply peaceful – and the explanation of the urge that keeps me travelling.

*

Morebane, over supper, taken together, eating with our fingers round the family table – one of the aspects of staying here at Mamohase’s that makes it so special, tells me that this guest house was their own concept. “Why, to be registered as a guest house you need certain things in this country – electricity, running water and so on. We were very lucky; the minister of tourism understood our concept was different! We have none of the things usually required!” Morebane is developing his own guest house down in Butha Buthe, where he lives. “But we will have showers and electricity, all the things we need…” In winter he and his wife work up at the Afrikski resort, catering to South Africans. It’s difficult to define quite what he does the rest of the year: sort of African ‘business’ I think. Well educated at university in Pretoria and articulate, with excellent English, he is a smart fellow and congenial company. There is so much advantage in returning to places as I have been able to do on these recent trips. It becomes a much more personal experience when you become a ‘regular’ and a bit familiar!

*

The ride to get here is one of the less attractive in Lesotho, through the western ‘lowlands’ (4500 feet high…) where most of the population dwells. There’s a way I discovered to avoid the tedious ride through the capital, that involves a deteriorated rocky road through a splendid valley, rejoining the main road at TY. Then it is back to the two lane main road that grinds through towns and villages, traffic reducing when I turn onto the final road that will, past Mamohase, wind and curl its way to the very top of Lesotho into those mind-expanding highlands that I love so much. That’s where the splashy lightning flickers on the horizon far above, electrical activity reflecting the extreme heights of this small kingdom.

Now the stars are bright and glorious in the dark, moonless African sky. It’s unusually calm and resplendent tonight. Ending on a high, indeed!

DAY 84. MONDAY FEBRUARY 29th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

My final journey with my little red bike – and the first wet one, ironically, so now I am trying to dry boots, gloves and so on to pack away for the journey to Durban tomorrow. In three months I have ridden through a brief shower somewhere in the Karoo, those three kilometres of drenching rain approaching Malealea the other day, and today’s storms from Ladybrand to Botshabelo, a distance of about 60 miles.

Lightning terrifies me. And there were great streaks of pure power shooting from the clouds to right and left. I rode in something of a funk, hoping desperately that the storm heads remained off to right and left. Thank goodness, they did! Rain, I can handle. Lightning, I can’t. In fact, the spray from the road was worse than the rain itself, that came in brief bursts amongst the deep slate clouds. The afternoon went positively dark and I could only put my head down and head for the slender strip of light that formed the far horizon – and hope the lightning kept its distance. It was a stressful hour and a half… No fun at all for my last ride.

It wasn’t much fun when I rode into a bee, either! But I guess the poor bee suffered more as it hit me at 65mph and stung me on the cheekbone. Wow, did it hurt! Now the whole side of my face and chin looks as if a bad dentist has been working on me. A droopy cheek right down my neck, all puffed with bee sting.

*

This morning, accompanied once again by Moruti’s cousin, Moeti, I walked in the local villages, partly to give out prints of some of my photos from my previous visits. I had breakfasted, Basotho style, on sorghum porridge and scrambled egg and Mamohase’s home made steamed bread. Walking to the villages was a bit of a risk with my swollen knee but, gladly, it seems to have strengthened it – or maybe the bee sting’s folic acid has been an unexpected medicine! It’s such a pleasure to wander in these rural areas; something I have come to appreciate so much on this journey as a byproduct of the bike’s problems. In Lesotho I seem to cause no surprise or annoyance to walk where I will – avoiding crops of course. I appear to be a welcome visitor everywhere I go, greetings and waves from all I meet.

Then, about noon, it was back down the hills to Butha Buthe and back to South Africa for the last time, border formalities simple and familiar now. Into the Free State again with all its bizarre qualities of seclusion and exclusion. One last night and tomorrow round Lesotho to Durban for the last few days.

The red bike is now young Steven’s. It has done me well. Costing me about £1700 four years ago, I have ridden exactly 11,600 kilometres (7250 miles) since December 8th, and 49,021 (30,638 miles) since I bought it in January 2012. It has taken me all through South Africa and Lesotho; most of Swaziland and Zimbabwe, and big parts of Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana. By the time I leave I will have spent a total of over 300 days with it. I have many stories to tell and many experiences to remember; a number of friends and many many acquaintances made. It has done well but now it needs the attention that young Steven (fondly known in the family, for some reason no one much remembers, as Farley) and his father can give it. It is over sixteen years old and has ridden 127,405 kilometres (about 80,000 miles). It needs a rest.

And with a baggy cheek and a still slightly swollen knee, maybe I do too! But, actually, I feel fit and cheerful, stimulated and healthy. And I have missed three months of dismal, wet, darkness into the bargain. Restless it may be, but this life suits me.

DAY 85. TUESDAY MARCH 1st, 2016. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

Eight and a half hours in a comfortable bus brought me back to Pietermaritzburg, where Yvonne picked me up and drove me back to Durban. It was an effortless ride: front seat, top deck and a pleasant route through several of the small towns that I have ridden through myself recently. For the first hour or more I had the conversation of a charming young Basotho man, riding from Cape Town to go home to Maseru for a few days. By coincidence, he studied film and TV and is a keen photographer – and Basotho to boot. So we had plenty to talk about. From there I had two seats to myself and relaxed in the South African sun, while someone else did the driving.

‘Email your prayer requests’, reads the video screen on the bus, and recorded prayers are said at every destination. The company informs me (warns me?) that it espouses Christian values on its coaches and it’s in with the ear plugs to avoid the evangelical programming and ‘family entertainment’ – the most anodyne and sickly American films imaginable.

*

I have to accustom myself to the fact that in a few days I will be back to thick clothing, heating, feeling cold. I don’t look forward to THAT.

DAY 85. TUESDAY MARCH 2nd, 2016. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

Often I have been asked on this trip, ‘why don’t you come and live in South Africa in the winters? Buy a place and you could live like a king!’ (Maids, servants, gardeners, cheap services…). Well, of course, you who have read these pages know exactly why I couldn’t come and live here! It’s all about social injustice. As I write a gang of (black) men working for a security company (white boss) are erecting another couple of feet of razor wire round the entire garden. Some weeks back an intruder got into the garden and set off all the alarms at night. Fear runs so high amongst the white population and these incidents are rehashed and ‘shared’ endlessly, upping the insecurity. Of course, there are many burglaries and attacks and crime here often includes violent attack and guns and life is treated relatively cheaply. Handguns are rife.

But where you have such a VAST disparity of wealth, and the consuming social pressures say that ‘success’ comes from owning ‘stuff’ you will have crime. It’s like night follows day. Twenty percent of this country owns SO much of the wealth; the rest are a largely invisible underclass… A small percentage live in what in Europe would be classed as huge palace-like properties, protected by razor wire, security gates, alarm systems, armed guards, grilles on all windows and doors; also surrounded by gigantic 4X4s and all the trappings of easy consumerist life; the live rest in shacks, sheds, and small government-built two-roomed block houses on blasted heaths.

No, not for me.

*

Yvonne and I went shopping to replace my burned trousers and for antihistamine for my wattle, now slowly reducing! I bought them from Woolworths. No, not the Woollies we know, that disappeared from our high streets a couple of decades ago, but the South African Waitrose equivalent, owned, I believe by M&S. It’s the upmarket food shop here and sells clothes as well. Might as well do a few of these things and take advantage of the Rand.

DAY 86. WEDNESDAY MARCH 3rd, 2016. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

Last few days, mainly sitting about reading. Not much to report in my daily discipline. Organising my homeward journey, dining with Yvonne and Michael’s friends – the usual wind down from a long journey. This time next week I will be bored already and wishing I was elsewhere rather than in the cold, damp and dark. Ho hum..!

DAY 87. THURSDAY MARCH 4th, 2016. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

To a local dentist this morning. Just opening the fancy oak door of the dentists I distrust so much in Totnes costs me £50… Here an inspection and a small filling and polish costs me £31.50.

Relaxing with my old friends. Who knows when I’ll see them next? Mike has been sounding me out on the possibility of coming back – probably in a couple of years – to work on a museum in Natal, where they found a unique clutch of fossilised dinosaur eggs in the Drakensburg Mountains. He’s a concept for making dinosaurs from the local wire sculpture technique and needs someone like me to make it work. Well, we’ll see. I am, these days, in the delightful situation of being able to choose the projects that interest me, or not. The back of the Drakensburg Mountains is Lesotho! That, of course, would be a major persuasive factor in my decision!

AFRICA 2016 – More pictures from Lesotho

Red hot pokers grow wild, seeds trapped in various valleys in the highlands.

Red hot pokers grow wild, seeds trapped in various valleys in the highlands.

What beauties there are to find in this small kingdom!

What beauties there are to find in this small kingdom!

Southern Africa's highest falls - 192m.

Southern Africa’s highest falls – 192m.

This woman, selling peaches by the roadside, has applied a cosmetic preparation.

This woman, selling peaches by the roadside, has applied a cosmetic preparation.

Girl with hat. Everyone wears some sort of headgear in Lesotho.

Girl with hat. Everyone wears some sort of headgear in Lesotho.

Selling peaches. They are everywhere at this time.

Selling peaches. They are everywhere at this time.

Malealea valley.

Malealea valley.

Mamoeti. Moeti's mother.

Mamoeti. Moeti’s mother.

Adolfina spinning wool for weaving.

Adolfina spinning wool for weaving.

Alina displays my new Basotho mat. The wall is made from aliminium cans! Recycling at least.

Alina, who wove it, displays my new Basotho mat. The wall is made from aliminium cans! Recycling at least.

Vincent, retired head teacher, aged 73.

Vincent, retired head teacher, aged 73.

Magnificent views, two a penny...

Magnificent views, two a penny…

Basotho boy.

Basotho boy.

Now Lesotho is green, but the effects of the deep drought will be long-lasting.

Now Lesotho is green, but the effects of the deep drought will be long-lasting.

Young Bofokeng, complete with filthy plaster cast!

Young Bofokeng, complete with filthy plaster cast!

Home sweet home for Bofokeng.

Home sweet home for Bofokeng.

Bofokeng insisted on a picture.

Bofokeng insisted on a picture.

Always mountains as background.

Always mountains as background.

And mountains to ride through...

And mountains to ride through…

Thabang the miller.

Thabang the miller.

Mountains and sky.

Mountains and sky.

...and rivers.

…and rivers.

Road building in Lesotho. Look carefully. There is a continuous road all over this picture.

Road building in Lesotho. Look carefully. There is a continuous road all over this picture.

Drying peaches for winter.

Drying peaches for winter.

Just as well I was foing slowly, or the whole pannier would have burst into flame, fanned by the wind. Shorts, trousers, shirt and towel..!

Just as well I was riding slowly, or the whole pannier would have burst into flame, fanned by the wind. Shorts, trousers, shirt and towel..!

Happy young Steven with his new bike. He won't get a licence for at least a year though.

Happy young Steven with his new bike. He won’t get a licence for at least a year though.

AFRICA 2016 – Journal thirteen

DAY 74. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 19th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO

Days in Lesotho pass with a sort of blissful smile on my face and a patience and warmth that I can maintain like this in few other places. It’s all – ALL – to do with my interaction with the Basotho people whom I love so much.

The lodge likes to provide local guides but I much prefer to just walk by myself and see who I meet and what will happen. With a guide I might see the sights but I won’t meet the people. So, feeling guilty about rejecting the locals who stand around the gate in hope of hire, I lied that I was just going to walk around the village and headed off way out into the beautiful countryside that spreads before the eyes in every direction. I had no idea where I was going – just setting off to see what happened again. After yesterday’s rains, the morning was bright and wonderful, the skies blue and the air refreshed and clean. Paths were still muddy here and there, but it doesn’t take much African sun to dry them. I walked deep into the view, between red earth and roughly greening meadows with some maize fields trying to grow this late in the season after the drought. Everywhere the landscape was punctuated by small herds of cows and sheep tended by blanket-shrouded herdsmen with sticks over their shoulders. I soon fell into conversation with Ben, at seventy, an old man amongst the Basotho. He had good English with a heavy Basotho accent, but my ear is fairly attuned now. His herdboy wasn’t available so he was looking after his own six cows, with a young friend who had another four. Ben had such a gentle, polite manner and charming quiet smile. Blanket over his shoulder and stick in hand he told me he lives in Malealea and used to work in Mohales Hoek, fifty miles away to the south. I think that’s where he picked up his English.

I gave everyone a happy “Dumella!”, the Basotho greeting (actually spelled Lumella, for L is often pronounced as a D in Sesotho). Every herdsman replied with a broad smile, “Dumella, Nthate!”, ‘hello Daddy’. I walked into scattered villages, largely empty at that time of day, children in school and adults watching flocks, working or farming. In one small hamlet on the lip of the river escarpment that falls away steeply all around, I chatted with Mahatle, a mother whose children were at school over in Malealea against the endless blue mountain backdrop. Her sheep could be heard far below, bells clunking in the silence of the rocky valley. We stood together for some time, just gazing into the blue distances, before she started down the rocky slopes to her sheep. I congratulated her on caring for her own sheep while sending her children to school. “School important, Daddy,” she agreed, a common belief in Lesotho.

Walking on I met Bofokeng and the day took a funny turn. Sometimes I meet children who make me regret my childlessness – not that you necessarily get the children you wish for… Bofokeng, aged 12 and with scanty, idiosyncratic English, never stopped talking for the next couple of hours. He was an absolute delight – joyful, cheeky and full of 12 year old life. He tried so hard with his English but his gleeful chirpiness was at last so much that I agreed he could show me the Bushman paintings far below in the river valley. Filthy and dressed in rags, with trousers that had no crutch whatsoever, exposing orange underpants; a totally threadbare jumper in shreds tied round his waist by the bits that were left, a green gumboot on his right foot and the dirtiest imaginable plaster cast on the other, with parts of an old Wellie tied round the base with old string, he bounced about the rocks with a cheerful hobble. He told me he had broken his shin and ankle ‘playing boll’ and the pot was due to come off on Monday, when he intended to immediately start ‘playing boll’ once more. An irrepressible, playful kid, he made me laugh and smile widely, his attempts at English and his constant chatter endearing him to me as he seemed to not even notice the filthy plaster cast making his left leg so big, his utterly grubby toes wriggling in the red dust. He was so desperate to show me the Bushman rock paintings to earn a few Maloti for food, that I eventually agreed, more for his ebullient enthusiasm and company than in any expectation of the paintings being worth much – for I have seen a few and they are somewhat underwhelming. In fact, the paintings that bubbly Bofokeng and I clambered deep down the steep valley sides to see are the best I have seen, well preserved and easy to read. But for Bofokeng, the echoes across the narrow rocky defile provided more fun as he shouted into the rocky sunshine with such unconstrained delight. He gave off that smell that I know from the world over: a slightly animal, goaty smell, mixed with woodsmoke and general grime, not at all an unpleasant aroma, just a natural redolence. The grubby plaster cast constantly amused me, its scrap of green Wellie slipping about on the rocks and dust. His twelve year old bones have quickly healed and his boisterous energy makes the cast redundant now as he scrambled over the rocky slopes, chattering incessantly with a huge smile. What a tonic! How could I not react with delight to this small, ragged, slightly smelly bundle of energy and good humour who cannot walk to school far across the fields at the foot of the blue ridges?

We emerged from the valley beside his crude homestead on a small ridge, his grandfather (much younger than me…) sitting on a rock listening to a trebbly transistor beside a small, much protected patch of spinach. His grandmother – looking about a hundred, but with Bofokeng’s father being only 28, she’s probably in her fifties or early sixties – sat on a threadbare blanket on the earth, a fat woman using a stick. The small money I gave to Bofokeng for food – about £1, he ran and gave to his grandmother. The family is probably quite genuinely undernourished. That report I noted last week claims that a third of Basotho have insufficient food after the drought. Bofokeng claimed his mother to be 23, which must have been a mistake in his English – but then, if his father is really only 28, he was only 16 when Bofokeng was born… Who knows..?

*

My diminutive, scruffy guide showed me the red dust path back to Malealea and we shared a few peaches scrumped from a tree as we passed, and I shook the lad’s hand, gave him the fist to fist greeting and went on my way delighted and laughing. He hobbled nimbly away with his puppy snatching at the string that tied the shred of old boot around his plaster cast. By now I was exhausted: I’d not meant to walk for five hours and had taken no water with me. Now a light shower was threatening as I walked back through the fields to the village.

*

Malealea Lodge has been less congenial tonight, the rest of the guests being an insular tour group of dour Germans, who just about nodded their acknowledgement of my presence and a Japanese fellow with rather basic English on a one month tour of southern Africa. I ate alone tonight while the Germans all sat together at a dining table, destroying the lodge’s attempts at forming a congenial conversational group of an evening round the brazier. All my Irish companions left at nine this morning to drive to Johannesburg to fly home tonight. I have a small thatched en suite room, basic but pleasant enough. The generator is only on from dusk till ten but at least now the water shortage has ended.

*

So, as the electricity dies away at ten o’clock, and total silence settles on Malealea, ends another Lesotho day full of charm, warm welcome and fine scenery. I’m going to stay in Lesotho a while longer. If I am to transfer my centre of operations to east Africa it may be a while before I get back to travel in my favourite corner of the world. I want to make the most of it.

I am a bit taxed as to how I will display all the new smiling portraits I have in my collection. I need many more walls at home! I just counted: I have a further fifty portraits worthy of framing on the wall – already…

DAY 75. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 20th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO

Seven hours, I walked today, scrambling down the rocks and staggering up the steep slopes, wandering through villages at will, and meeting the Basotho at home.

But I find my self increasingly ambivalent about this guest house and its isolation from the Basotho world. It is so firmly on the very confined tourist circuit of Lesotho, in every guide book and a place for unimaginative tourism for the masses. For many, this will be their only experience of the kingdom. I appreciate that sounds like travel snobbery, but with this sort of kcommercialism, however well meaning the lodge itself is in trying to create a community amongst the visitors, and to help the local economy, come some deteriorating relations with the community. My sixth sense for atmosphere is pretty well developed and the closer I am to the Lodge and its flood of foreigners, I feel a change of cultural behaviour: tourists seen as cash cows. The Basotho in the immediate vicinity of the lodge exude a certain distain, a business sense that is uncommon – and I have been asked for money seven times today. That is not in the Basotho culture at all, except where exposure to mass tourism is normal, and there’s not much of that in Lesotho. All those who asked were mere chancers, except one young woman who told me she had not eaten for two days. It is quite possible just now, so I gave her some money for food. For most people begging is a last resort.

But walk a mile or two beyond where the self-styled ‘guides’ are leading middle aged Germans by the reins on Basotho ponies and I am back in rural Lesotho, with excited greetings from children, polite old people and smiles and cheerfulness. The guides amble along prescribed circuits while I range independently wherever I will, meeting real Basotho people.

“Where’s your third leg?” an elderly fellow greeted me.

“I beg your pardon..?”

“Your third leg!” and he brandished his walking stick. “How old are you? I’m 72. My name is Vincent, pleased to meet you. You are from..?”

Vincent at 72, represents real old age in Lesotho. He was born and brought up in Malealea. “Now I’m on pension,” he told me with a grin.

“Yes, it’s good, eh? The government just gives us money every week without us having to ask for it!” Vincent chuckled, a boyish face for one so old here and full of charm. He went to school in Roma and continued to university to study Sesotho and English in what would have been colonial days in Basutoland. He became a teacher, graduated to head teacher of a secondary school in this valley and now he has returned in his retirement to his birthplace and owns a small grinding mill that makes corm meal and sorghum flour. His colleague, Thabang (be happy), dusty and lined, runs the machine. But business is slow this year as the crops suffer from the drought.

The further I got from the village and guest house the brighter and friendlier rural folk became. I met singing herdsboys; cheery men tending their cows; an old man in a green hard hat leading a huge ram to pasture; old women watching babies and mothers doing vast washes by hand, hanging the clothes on the wire fences to blow gaily in the breeze.

I clambered down into the deep river valley, dwarfed down there by the soaring scrub-covered slopes that rise against the deep blue sky far above. Bald rocks, expansive, pink and bleached, smooth as pillows, make a feature of the crazy landscape, undercut and hollowed by ancient rivers, interspersed with strange rock slabs that suggest that much of Lesotho, millennia ago, must have been boiling, molten rock, now set for ever in bubbly, frothy formations, cracked and split by natural forces into mad graphic patterns. Elsewhere the hundreds of complex layers of sedimentary formation make other intricate patterns as they break away.

In villages I was greeted; in one several small children grabbed my fingers and walked with me along the stoney track. It doesn’t matter where I walk, so long as I avoid crops. Now and again I stumbled into someone’s yard but was greeted with smiles.

In the mid afternoon, under a fine bright sun, the air cleaned by light rains last night and a cloudy morning, I drifted into the vast landscape of fields and grazing that spreads below the Lodge, determined get away from the less instinctively open villagers to the further villages that I saw from yesterday’s walk. An hour across the huge valley I walked through a long straggling village where a singing herdsboy with the biggest smile put the smile back on my face. It’s a fact of my nature that I obstinately have to see what is over the next hill – maybe that’s why I travel with such obsessive passion. Tired and weary, thirsty and sunburned, I had to go on. It was as if I knew there was a wonderful view ahead. And there was! To my surprise and delight the walk was worth every step when I breasted a small rise and found myself on the brink of a cliff. Four hundred feet below ran a brown river and I could hear the boys I could see, no bigger than insects, playing in the muddy water, their cries and shouts echoing up to where I stood before an enormous view of valleys, rocks, rivers, mountains and clear blue sky. I sat on a rock for some time, listening to their glee, before staggering back to Malealea, now worn out and ready for a pot of rooibos tea, spoiled by a German lighting up a revolting cigar that made me keep retreating further and further into the guest house garden. A tour group of middle aged Germans is a joyless thing to witness!

*

As I walked in the fields I spotted a small figure hurrying up the red track, wrapped in the brightest red blanket. I was trying to position myself to get a picture of the fine landscape with that vibrant red accent when I looked closer and saw it was my little friend Bofokeng galumphing towards me, all smiles and cheer. His vivid blanket was held by a rusty nappy pin over the top of his none-too-clean tee shirt, the same one as yesterday – and I suspect of many yesterdays before that. His little puppy sprinted along at his ankles. His plaster cast was just one day dirtier. This morning I ran across the Japanese traveller, the only person with whom I conversed in this now apparently German outpost last night. He asked me in his not very good English if I knew where to find the ‘paintings from past time’? I walked with him to where I could point him to the distant valley. Would he find them without a guide, he wanted to know. “Don’t worry, a ‘guide’ will find you, he has a broken leg!” and I pointed to my leg, miming a plaster cast for him. I’d have been amused to hear their conversation! Bofokeng talking fifteen to the dozen with a Japanese fellow with very basic English! I spotted the Japanese man as he climbed into a minibus to leave Malealea this afternoon. “Did you find the paintings?”

“Ha, yes! I met this boy!” And he mimed the broken leg.

*

The saving feature of this guest house for the past 48 hours since the energetic and inclusive Irish group left, are the senior staff, Mike and Debbie, the young owners and Glen and his wife, managers. I’ve struck up a relation with them, mainly through my knowledge of Lesotho and my enthusiasm for it. I suppose I just don’t like being so isolated from the real kingdom around me, but always outside the gates here…

DAY 76. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 21st, 2016. QUTHING, LESOTHO.

Today’s was a glorious ride, but tiring. It’s surprising how taxing sixty miles of dirt road, affected by the recent rains, can be. I’d meant to ride on to Mpahki, a small town still an hour from Quthing, but being weary I decided to stop. On finding a room, I dozed off for an hour, so strenuous had the early part of the journey been.

*

Yesterday, when I sat on that cliff edge and gazed down into that fine view, I saw a road curling through the fractured landscape. From up there it looked like a well graded road that must lead somewhere. It turned out to be my road today. Mountains have that effect; they confuse the geography to such an extent that these coiled ribbons of contact take the most convoluted form. It seemed completely counter-intuitive that this should be the road that I would take to go south from Malealea, for all that I could see last night went generally northwards. But that is mountain roads, sometimes you go the long way round. I did today!

For the first thirty miles or so I could still see the trees of Malealea, from whence I set out. By then I had circumnavigated whole mountains, yet I was still in the major valley of the Makhafeng River, that rises within a mile or two of the red hot poker field I intend to visit again in a couple of days, in the middle of Lesotho. Now I am in the far south of the kingdom, and the waters of the Makhafeng merge into the great Orange River not far away, just outside Lesotho, back in South Africa and will eventually flow past the vineyard at Kakamas, where I stayed a couple of weeks ago, on their way to the cold Atlantic.

The road was not as well graded as it looked from that cliff, a kilometre away. The reality was different. It was quite degraded, rocky and broken. But I love these roads! They meander through spectacular scenery and remote villages where schoolgirls sing and dance at my approach. They wind past small houses of thatch and stone, zinc and block. They are the walk back to secondary school on Sunday afternoon for hundreds of waving children in neat uniforms; the walk home from church for matrons and grandchildren in their Sunday best. They provide a link for thousands of herdsmen and boys, standing staring into endless space beside their cows and sheep. They form the transport network of this rumpled country, and even on these bad roads minibuses pick their way slowly from village to hamlet, grinding up steep rocky hills and pitching about down broken, rutted slopes. Around it all spreads the fine mountain scenery and above the limitless sky is clear, bright blue. The air is crystal and I can see to every mountain-held horizon, clear and detailed in the brightness.

But it’s hard work, guiding a weighty machine, bucking from rut to rock, watching for surprises, concentrating on the surface despite the temptations of the scenery or the smiles and waves of the countryfolk, my road scratched out far across distant hillsides, impossible for my brain to put together as a continuous strip until I am at the other end.

About sixty miles after leaving Malealea I was back onto tarmac and the main circular road that sweeps in a huge loop round the bottom of Lesotho. The scenery is not so memorable, yet all things are relative: in any other place, this too would be a scenic drive. I am spoiled by the extremes.

*

Quthing is unremarkable and, on this Sunday afternoon, rowdy and somewhat drunk. Walking in the streets of the ugly small town, trapped in its steep valleys, I felt a roughness that is not Basotho in character. I remember this feeling back in 2002 when I rode here and I believe there is some tension in the fact that there is a different tribe down here, but maybe I am just tired and less receptive, giving out less warmth myself. I found an indifferent hotel, all frills and no knickers, with a vast, empty dining room where all the chairs are dressed with white petticoats like a wedding venue and a silly black and silver bar, attended by an uninterested young woman, serves over-priced beer to the only customer. Still, the rondavel room is fine for the night, the food edible and I am tired enough that I need no entertainment or diversion. It’s just a place to lay my head tonight.

*

The receptionist is cheerful and friendly though. Her name is Lerato (love) – or rather, WAS Lerato. It seems that on marriage Basotho women change not just their family name but their given name too. Her name now is Mankoloko, a name conferred by her mother in law, although she admits that to her own sisters and family she is still Lerato.

“So what happens should a woman become a widow and remarry?” I asked.

“Ho, she just has to get used to another name! It sometimes happens.”

The conversation came about as I filled the register. ‘Mr Bean’. Lerato/ Mankoloko laughed, as everyone does. “We call him Linaoa.” (Which, with L pronounced D, is Mr Dinaoa, with all the syllables sounded). “It means bean in Sesotho.”

“No one forgets my name!” I promised Lerato. “If I come back in some months, you will remember it!” If your name represents a figure of fun to the whole world, you might as well capitalise on it…

*

It’s much cooler now, with Lesotho’s altitude and the slow waning of summer. The past three or four nights I have actually slept beneath a blanket. In the evenings and early mornings I even need a light jersey. Riding or walking through the days is considerably more comfortable. That last day in Namibia will go down in my personal story archive!

DAY 77. MONDAY FEBRUARY 22nd, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

Lesotho must be the finest place in the world to be riding a motorcycle! Much of the day I doubt I exceeded 30 miles an hour, until the last hour of the day, coming from Semonkong down to Roma, when I opened up a bit – as far as my small bike will allow at those altitudes, where it puffs and gasps for oxygen – and enjoyed the excellent road. It’s the new road I have been on now several times; fine smooth tarmac (albeit a few loose pebbles, and odd rock that has tumbled from the mountain to avoid, and some donkeys without much road sense), no other traffic and a wonderful range of bends and curves to sweep through in the fresh late afternoon air.

Road building here in this small country is pretty impressive. At times today I could see my road miles ahead, screwing itself in a multitude of bends and loops into the brilliant Basotho skies, stretched across apparently impossible semi-vertical territory, rocky screes, cliff faces and high sharply contoured mountain passes. And as I rode I appreciated my terrific fortune to be here seeing it all on a sparkling, sunny, fresh day in February, instead of watching rain dribble down my skylights at home…

*

Breakfast was bizarre in that very unremarkable hotel in Quthing. It consisted of a sheet of processed cheese pressed between two soggy slices of Kleenex bread, three small samosas, a puddle of baked beans, two fatty rashers of bacon and some oddly crumbly scrambled eggs. Some time after I finished, the waitress brought the bill to be signed to my table with its petticoated chairs. “Erm, any chance of some coffee, tea, juice, water…?” Somewhat surprised, she went away for ten minutes and returned with a pot of water and a jar of the revolting ersatz stuff called Ricoffy, so inexplicable popular in southern Africa. A distant relation to even instant coffee, it is made from Dextrose, Dextrins, chicory and ‘selected grains of (instant) coffee’. It’s foul.

Then I was on my way, heading round in an arc at the bottom right of Lesotho through increasingly majestic scenery and up into the heights with vast views of crumpled mountains, small green meadows, plunging valleys, the wide brown Senqu River – that later becomes the Orange River when it changes country and language – tumbled rocks and dramatic cliffs and slopes. This scenery is unbeatable. It is all so unimaginably BIG and I ride along wide eyed and amazed – even though I have ridden these roads, in both directions, on various occasions.

High on one mountainside, as I swept round a sharp bend, a limitless yawning valley to my left, I spotted a group of people selling fresh local peaches at the roadside and pulled over to buy some, a handful for eight pence. Whenever I stop like this, everyone tries to make conversation – not always easy if education levels have been light out here in the deep country. But there’s a wealth of goodwill and laughter and often some great photos to be taken too. The peaches were grand, juicy, tasty and right off a tree in one of the valleys below.

Since I rode here in December, when the drought was at full strength, the landscape has taken on a wonderful range of deep greens. There’s been a lot of rain, too late for the crops, but it has made the countryside dazzling in the southern sun. In the late afternoon it was wonderful to behold, magnificent green slopes beneath the unblemished sky. It is a great privilege to be here.

*

Roma being my favourite, it seemed as good a destination as any. I am so welcome here now; hugs from the staff and warm greetings. I’m back to the room in which I spent five peaceful nights only last week. My companion for supper was a Swedish opera singer from Stockholm. He knew nothing of Lesotho until a day or two ago, when his friends were all heading to Cape Town, where he has been before and decided to break away for a a couple of days and fly to the little ‘international’ airport fifteen miles away. Tomorrow he flies to Livingstone in Zambia to see Victoria Falls. Soon he’ll be back in chilly Stockholm. Rather him… “Why are there no tourists?” he asks with a puzzled frown. Well, the answer is, of course, that the perception of most of Africa is of danger and distress – fed by a voracious Western media.

I’ve suffered a small domestic disaster today in losing my small ‘log book’ in which I keep all the statistics of my journey, notes and, more importantly, a record of all my photographs, now numbering almost 800. It’s irritating to lose anything when you travel as lightly as I do, and I like to keep these records for future reference. I’m usually so careful to check rooms as I leave. Now I have to try to reconstruct my photo notes using the rough notebook I keep in my pocket as I ride. Most of the names are there I think but I have to find them and put them to the faces of the many, many smiling people I have photographed – before the details are lost to my memory. It’s quite a task. But really, that log book is only an indication of the obsessive side of my nature, that likes to count things. What does it matter to know how many litres of fuel, the cost of fuel and the cost of accommodation? Maybe it’ll do me good to lose it. And why the future reference if I am going to Kenya and surroundings next year?

I do know that tonight I have clocked up my ten thousandth kilometre on this trip.

There’s a definite chill in the air tonight – to one used to the high temperatures of recent travels. Like a summer’s night in Devon. Haha.

DAY 78. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 23rd, 2016. HA LEJONE, LESOTHO

Some days test my resolve. What an utterly disastrous day! But I expect I will bounce back – when I have had time to recover and rest. This has been a ghastly day, worst of this trip – but, oddly, I am not particularly downhearted since I have coped with all the day threw at me.

Well, in order…

*

I have prided myself on this trip on travelling EVEN lighter than usual. I mean, I have survived on only TWO tee shirts for 78 days! That’s a record even for me.

But now I am travelling a lot lighter still. And tomorrow I shall be leaving behind some of what is left!

I left Roma about 9.30 and turned right at the junction onto the road that winds and bends its way up into the highlands, high into the Lesotho sky. The Blue Mountain Pass brings you over the steep escarpment after fifteen miles or so and then you are out onto the high moorland at an altitude of eight or nine thousand feet for mile after mile, to the provincial town of Thaba Tseka. At the top of the pass I turned onto a dirt road that I know quite well, to look for the hillsides covered in red hot pokers that I found last year. They are just a little past their best now: I must have been a couple of weeks earlier last year, but they are still a spectacle, spreading brightly across the scrubby slopes with cows grazing between them, and the whole backed by the blue-shaded mountain ridges of Lesotho’s roof.

It was a decision: carry on on the gravel road or retrace my tracks to the tar. Last year I had a terrific ride all on my own for many miles up there. Well, that was last year and it was fun, but today I meant to ride to Thaba Tseka and on to Katse, in the middle of the country, so I rode back to the tar road and meandered my way across the highlands, treeless, rocky moorland with the road a feat of planning and engineering. I often wonder just how road planners begin their task, especially in terrain such as this on the top of Africa.

Riding round one bend quite slowly, I smelled burning. There were some Basotho at the roadside and I imagined they had made a fire of paper. A bit later I smelled it again, but I had just passed a straining old truck. Ten minutes went by. I got another whiff of smouldering paper. It was, I suppose, fifteen minutes before the realisation dawned that it was following me up the mountain. And another minute or two passed before I thought, ‘I wonder if it’s me..?’ I pulled over…

It’s just as well I had been riding slowly! Had the wind fanned my left side pannier, it would have burst into flames. As it was, it was smouldering merrily against the exhaust. Since this once happened to me racing up the A1 (the English one) years ago – the contorted melted pannier may still be there down the embankment near Doncaster for all I know – I’ve been aware of the danger and packed less valuable, non-essentials on that side. Personal stuff, less replaceable, travels on the right. I’ve ridden almost 50,000 kilometres with this discipline. Then last night, searching all nooks for my little log book I must have changed the weight distribution and contents of the pannier.

Pulling everything out on the roadside, it took ten minutes and all my water bottle to extinguish the shreds that were left of my small towel. My ‘best’ trousers were charred right through in holes, as were my smart shorts and shirt. The owner’s manuals for my motorbike were smouldering brightly. The pannier itself had ridden its last. It now resides, filled with charred clothing, amongst some rocks beside the road to Thaba Tseka! By good fortune I carry a long adjustable strap. I used it to secure the right pannier and the small top bag onto the bike behind me – for of course I can’t have just one pannier on one side. My old backpack, stuffed into the burning pannier was unaffected, as were my waterproofs. I jury rigged my luggage and rode to Thaba Teska, where I managed to procure a long bungee elastic. The burned clothes can be replaced in due course in South Africa. Pity, I liked the shorts! They were ‘broni wawo’ (white man dead clothes) from Ghana, already second hand. They’re half way up a Lesotho mountainside now, what’s left of them, burned right through the middle.

*

At Thaba Tseka, an unattractive town that unwinds untidily through a high valley, I filled up, drew out cash and retied my miscellaneous baggage. Now I was continuing to Katse on a fairly level gravel road about 40 miles long. But the road turned out to be corrugated and I was soon re-securing my bags. By now it was late afternoon. I should have just called it a day and stayed in Thaba Tseka, of course. But I didn’t. My obstinacy again. I had decided on getting across the gravel road in case there’s rain tomorrow (frankly unlikely, looking at the skies) and it turns to mud. So I rode on. Actually, it was a gorgeous ride with the shadows lengthening and describing the terrain so wonderfully. The Maliba Matso River was FAR below in its canyon and the small villages of thatched rondavels looked their very best, perched on ridges and promontories high above the river.

Five kilometres in, there was a horrible grinding noise from my machine. A colourful expletive escaped my lips. I stopped. It sounded like when the chain flew off in Natal, but it didn’t lock the wheel this time. The rather useless plastic faring that guards the chain had completely disappeared, except for the scrap now trapped in the chain and wheel making music. I walked back along the track but I didn’t find more than a few bits and pieces, minced efficiently, shreds of the Union Jack sticker the only bits visible. Where the rest is I have no idea. The scraps ended up down another embankment, hidden by the scrub. Well, when I sell the bike it’d have had to be replaced. I mangled it a couple of years ago when I didn’t spot a speed hump in time and it was held together with pop rivets and wire staples. In fact, the bike looks better without it.

I rode on. The day wasn’t going too well so far.

*

I reached Katse, site of the huge dam project that supplies South Africa with water and supplies electricity to both countries. I knew the Katse Lodge was way out of my budget, but it’s always worth a try: a sob story about being late because half my luggage had immolated itself some miles back. But it didn’t work; the receptionist wasn’t sufficiently senior to make those decisions and bargain with weary international bikers. The price remained high beyond proportion.

The next place I could stay would be at Ha Lejone, another fifty five kilometres to ride. Now I was very tired.

Which may explain the complete illogicality of turning right instead of left..? Onto a gravel road. I rode the road from Katse to Ha Lejone last year and I knew it was good tar. But weariness and the thought that these roads are always being rebuilt, made me convince myself that the road was being reconstructed. I rode on. I rode over ten miles before I understood that I was on the wrong bloody road! By now it was going to six o’clock and the light was waning. I turned around, very angry with myself and hammered back over the gravel and rock to Katse.

The next ride should have been magnificent. My irritation focussed my riding and the road is one of the best in the world. I’ve ridden it a few times just for the pleasure of the smooth tar, the sweeping bends and the motorcycling fun of it. But now I wasn’t confident of finding accommodation and the sun was sinking fast behind the high ridges. It WAS fun, that ride, even shocking myself as my boot scraped the tar on a very tight bend. I was riding well – fortunately!

There’s a sort of holiday village at Ha Lejone. I have no idea what it’s for. Spreadeagled across a hillside down to the Katse Lake are odd Butlin’s bungalows and chalets and a bar and restaurant. I stayed here once before. It’s very strange. But it is the only option and the rooms very badly designed, basic but acceptable. And the only option anyway.

The complex is down a gravel road about a kilometre from the small town. Weary as hell, I rode down and then somehow – I have no idea how – I right-sided the bike in grit and gravel spread thinly and dangerously on thin tar. Down I went, my knee hitting the ground first, my cheek grazing into gravel, my foot trapped under the bike, now with the baggage piled high on the pillion and rack.

I pulled myself out with difficulty and hobbled down to the gate of the holiday village: that’s how close I was to my destination – about 50 yards. I needed help to lift the bike. No way could I do it in my present condition! A security man came – wordlessly throughout – and lifted it up. Little damage done fortunately. The indicator glass knocked off, the bars bent and my knee already growing in size inside my old, faded motocross trousers. It is now large and puffy but nothing is broken and I was within minutes of a shower. Ironically, my room feels like a mile hike uphill to the bar and restaurant, but doubtless a night in bed will settle the swelling. It’s badly grazed, but hardly the first time I have had grazed knees! I reckon on being somewhat stiff in the morning though. I sprained my thumbs too, annoyingly. In the morning I have to correct the handlebars and check the bike over, but apart from another graze that seems to be exactly where the previous one was, three years ago, no real damage. But I do think it’s time to cash in this poor old bike.

*

A testing day indeed! But no permanent harm done, by good fortune. My valuables – camera, iPad, etc are unharmed and I will bounce back, and even I saw the humour of the conflagration of a quarter of the meagre belongings I have with me. I’ve spent almost three months with this small collection of possessions. I do like to travel light in life but I am now stretching the concept to new limits. Still, I always think of Wechiga accompanying me on a trip round Ghana years ago with a carrier bag containing a clean pair of underpants, a spare tee shirt, a pair of gym shorts, a toothbrush and comb and a book on pig keeping. If my brother can do it, so can I!

I need some rest, very desperately. I have to face the long hike – limp – back to my room down by the lakeside. Right, no time to be feeble… Get walking! My knee is VERY stiff.

*

Downhill was hell. And here I am in a room that is pervaded by the aroma of scorched plastic. Huh. There are times when I wonder why…

DAY 79. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 24th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

The list of place I would rather NOT be tonight would be very short indeed! I suffered a very indecisive day, with no real plan or purpose; no idea even where I was going. Maybe I should have stopped at Butlin’s, Ha Lejone, but that prospect was fairly grim and after a while my knee was up to being eased over the bike – without the usual energy of being thrown over, but I was able to bend it into the sitting position and it was more comfortable than walking up and down that damned hill at Butlin’s… (For my American readers, Butlin’s was a very popular holiday camp company from the post war years, known for their organised activities and fairly basic chalet accommodation).

I left the top bag of my pannier set on top of a dustbin with some expendable items for the staff to pick over; some of the rest of my luggage went in the bin beneath. I have managed to pack everything into one pannier bag with my day stuff in my small backpack. This is the lightest that even I ever travelled. Then, leaving a general oil slick behind me – no need for chain lube – I set off, somewhat gingerly, into the Lesotho mountains and eventually, after climbing to the high passes, down through the impressive engineering feat of the road to the western lowlands – well, they’re still above 1400 metres (four and a half thousand-odd feet). At one point, so steep is the decline, the road extends out onto a hairpin built up from the steep slopes below in concrete. The road is spectacular, the views stupendous. My mood not worthy of it.

All the way down I had no real idea where I was going or why. I hate this mood. It was probably brought on by my mild depression and pain from my knee. I do like to have a plan! But the state of my little red bike has been bugging me. I have so little mechanical ability that I feel totally inadequate about it. The engine was struggling this morning. Since the tumble last night, it has been unable to idle or to work at low speeds. Or maybe it was the petrol filled from old oil containers at Ha Lejone, where there’s no petrol station? What to do? What to do? How will I spend the rest of my time here? What will I do about the fact that my tourist permit runs out in less than two weeks? I need to leave the country – and Lesotho won’t do. It will have to be England or Zimbabwe. But how can I ride (the exceptionally boring ride from here to the border) to Zimbabwe on a bike that is spraying oil like this? Should I go back to Bloemfontein and take it back to Johan, who supposedly ‘fixed’ it, or ride to Durban for some home comforts with Yvonne and Michael and get someone there to fix it? Questions; questions that revolved uncharacteristically indecisively all morning. I stopped for coffee, putting off the decision, grumpy with the waitress about the lousy music playing too loudly in the cafe garden. Yvonne hadn’t switched in the ringer on her phone, and Johan was on answerphone. No one else was going to make a decision for me in my downbeat mood. My knee was stiff and swollen.

At last I sent a text message to Steven: ‘So sorry. On my way back. Johan’s weld leaking like a fountain. Carb problems too. See you later. Very sorry! Oooooohhh!’ And back came the generous reply: ‘call me when you get here’. So I turned and headed for Bloemfontein yet again, more than 100 miles away. At least it was a decision and a destination. The final 40 mile thrash down the N1 highway seems to have solved the carburettor problem – temporarily at least. I left a message on Johan’s phone that I was bringing the bike back. I’d have liked to stop and stay somewhere on the road, but if I did, I’d have arrived back in Bloem tomorrow and he’d say he couldn’t look at the bike till Monday. I cannot face another weekend in Bloemfontein, despite Steven’s kindness.

*

So, I need to make decisions about my journey. Maybe I booked too long this time, considering I have been to all these places before? Perhaps three months would have been better? But I promised Vicky and Scott, who have been paying the bills and living in Rock Cottage that they’d have as long as possible with a temporary home of their own, and I really would like to avoid March in England! If Rico hadn’t landed a contract that will take him out of Kenya, that was going to be my destination this year. But fortunately for him, he did. Mainly, though, I need to be confident about the bike, and it’s been leaking oil now for almost eleven thousand kilometres…

*

Meanwhile, back to this strange country within a country where the big shiny white 4X4s are driven by white people and the old bangers and delivery trucks by black people; smart bungalows owned by white and shacks and hovels by black; coffee shops owned and used by white and staffed by black, and ‘devil’s fork’ fencing and razor wire keep the two apart.

But I’ll refrain tonight!

The last two days have been difficult. Testing times. I hope things buck up soon. First is to see if Johan can fix the leak – or buy the bike and I’ll revert to my old travel style: local transport for a bit.

Right now I’d LOVE a malt whisky! But this is a teetotal household so I have to make do with the gassy lager I left in the fridge against my return.

DAY 80. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 25th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

Decisions made – and, of course, now I wonder if they were the right ones… I am to return after three months, not staying until after the clocks change, as had been the idea. Still, thirteen weeks isn’t a bad holiday…

Johan, the mechanic, virtually condemned my bike. It needs a complex welding job to fix it and would take, he said, two days (for which I read four, even five) and cost £100 (for which read £150). Then I’d need a new tyre, another £100, and then I’d have to ride the very boring miles to Zimbabwe (probably at least four long days each way) in order to get the renewed tourist permit on my return. Most importantly, though, I have lost confidence in the little red bike. I am no longer sure that taking it another 2000 miles will be feasible with my mechanical aptitude. So I have cut my losses. Johan offered me a paltry 8000 Rand (£375) for the bike (worth at least £750, repaired). I have decided I would rather give it to my good friend Steven for him to repair for ‘little’ Steven, who will be getting his own licence in a year or so and who, like his sister, has been brought up on bikes since a toddler. If they make a good bike from it, he can pay me the 8000 Rand in due course. But, as with all such gestures, I have to be prepared not to see any money in the future. The Stevens are so charming and kind and have been such good friends to me over my five southern African journeys that I think this is the best I can make of the whole situation. I am fond of them both and have watched young Steven grow from a shy kid who wouldn’t talk to me in English into a delightful teenager, considerate, polite and cheerful. Every night I stay here, he sleeps on a settee in his father’s room without any complaint. He’s a charmer and very excited about our agreement. And the little bike owes me nothing. I have used it for four great trips, put almost 50,000 kilometres on it and have many happy memories and good stories.

Trouble is, I will get home to dismal late winter and wish I was back here in the sun. But that’s been a recurring feature of my life – always wishing I was somewhere else. I already started browsing for flights to warmer climes for March 9th, the day after I get back!

My other option was to abandon the bike here and take flights and buses back to Zimbabwe. But I have been to all the places I would visit there several times now and part of my enjoyment has always been the freedom that the bike has given my journeys.

Changing my flight dates was only a matter of £35 and KLM seem to have made a mistake and credited me with an extra 30,000 air miles in the process! You may remember that my flights that should have cost £710 cost me a mere £240 plus 60,000 air miles – all earned on business trips to USA.

Well, right or wrong, the choices are made. And by cutting my losses thus, I have opened up opportunities for more journeys since I will have more money to spend. The only regret is not avoiding all of winter – but I’ll have missed three of the worst months!

By the by, my knee is getting back to normal size and healing well.

AFRICA 2016 – Some Lesotho photos

This is Nthatoua, who walked and talked with me all through Maseru.

This is Nthatoua, who walked and talked with me all through Maseru.

Sophie from Roma.

Sophie from Roma.

Relebohile. Who wouldn't walk the fields with girls like this?

Relebohile. Who wouldn’t walk the fields with girls like this?

Roma valley, the village where Relebohile lives.

Roma valley, the village where Relebohile lives.

My favourite, Ntsilane, who already features on my walls at home twice. What a beauty!

My favourite, Ntsilane, who already features on my walls at home twice. What a beauty!

Shepherd boy in Roma valley.

Shepherd boy in Roma valley.

Thato gets her hair weave, Roma valley.

Thato gets her hair weave, Roma valley.

Thato walked with me for four hours in Roma valley.

Thato walked with me for four hours in Roma valley.

Village primary school, Roma valley.

Village primary school, Roma valley.

Student from University of Lesotho, Roma.

Student from University of Lesotho, Roma.

Malealea valley sunset.

Malealea valley sunset.

Malealea valley.

Malealea valley.

Malealea valley.

Malealea valley.

Malealea valley.

Malealea valley.

Ben, Malealea.

Ben, Malealea.

The irrepressible Bofokeng, Malealea valley.

The irrepressible Bofokeng, Malealea valley.

AFRICA 2016 – Journal twelve

DAY 69. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 14th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

It’s been another astonishingly sociable day, taking a long walk, right through Roma and out into the countryside in the wide valleys. I was following a bumpy gravel road, I knew not where. All along the way I was greeted and welcomed by everyone I passed – a not inconsiderable hoard on a hot Sunday. It’s such fun to be able to jest with people as I pass and know I will raise a chuckle and a smile. It was wash day for many women, clothes hung gaily from the wire fences round their small houses. “Wow!” I exclaimed to one woman in her yard, “you have a BIG wash!” The biggest bowl imaginable was filled to the brim with soaking clothes. “Yes, daddy, a big wash…” she sighed with a wide white smile, hands dripping suds. I was delighted that one old man even raised his hat in returning my greeting. Now, when did I last see that?

At one time, out in the country, I was being chased by a young girl, somewhat provocatively dressed in short white dress and revealing polka dot top. Relebohile was on her way home from church. I guess the local Catholic church is relaxed about the sensuality of their younger adherents; more interested in getting them through the door no doubt. Very pretty, with a complicated light brown weave-on hairstyle and lovely light brown skin, and nicknamed ‘Weenie’ (which she spells Winnie), she is 21 and was walking to her distant village, somewhere out of sight in the folds of the mountains ahead. We walked together, she seeing the limitations of her rural village, that only just got electricity connected, and from which she dreams of escape, and me seeing the rural beauty. Life is always thus, I suppose. Her father works in the gold mines in South Africa and she and her mother live in a comparatively well-to-do bungalow – although the roof zinc is unlined – on a large compound in the midst of a village called Tloutle Ha Mpiti. The village sits in a natural amphitheatre in the mountainside, looking out across the fields and valleys to the Lesotho mountains. The house kitchen now boasts a four-ringed electric stove – doubtless a rarity in such a rural village, but drinking water still comes from a plastic container and originates from a spring on the hillside above.

Relebohile gave me peaches from one of the garden trees and a glass of water and I turned and began to walk back. Soon I fell in with Nteboheng and Lebohang, two more bright girls aged 17 and 18, beginning their Sunday journey back to school somewhere near Maseru. These kids are so charming and such fun, and able to chatter quite unselfconsciously with a middle aged white ‘daddy’. From houses 150 yards away children yelled “Bye-eeee! Bye-eeee!” and waved frantically. Many people were using that remote dust road, returning to the villages from church or visiting friends; others commencing their weekly journeys to work or school in the city; most dressed up for Sunday, and all ready with a big smile and a cheerful greeting for a stranger. These really ARE extraordinary people.

I chatted at length with Letima, a self-styled ‘businessman’ – Africa-speak for doing anything he can and trying to set up trading of one sort or another. His big plan seems to be to market disposable nappies… I can think of absolutely NOTHING Lesotho needs less than the filth and litter of disposable nappies, such a problem in landfill sites in the ‘developed’ world already. What problems they would produce here, where there is no refuse collection and sadly little awareness of littering – it pains me to see so much litter in every corner of Africa. Imagine soiled nappies everywhere too… But I didn’t question his dream, just hoped he never finds the financial partners to invest and moves on to some other scheme.

Many others passed the time of day. I fell into step with three tubby women and some toddlers. “Eh! I am looking for a man! Take me with you!” exclaimed a fat young matron.

“It looks as if you found a man!” I joked, indicating the small baby on her back.

“Yes, but he ran away.” Another irresponsible African man, as I wrote only yesterday, so very very common. They father babies and are never seen again. And just under half Lesotho’s 2.1 million people are under the age of 18. That’s a frightening statistic – most of them fecund in the extreme. There’s not much hope the future of mankind on this planet.

*

Since arriving in Lesotho I have seen no other white people, except a couple of itinerants here in the guest house. In Maseru I wandered for hours without seeing another white face. In this most friendly of African countries there are almost NO tourists. What a wonderful introduction to Africa this country would be – probably were it not overlooked as lost in the middle of all-enveloping South Africa. A few tourists do make it into the country for just a day or two if they are reasonably imaginative and have a hire car that allows them to cross the border. Otherwise it remains the best kept travel secret of the world – for which, I admit, I a happy. Out in rural areas I am a novelty – a welcome one.

*

Houses range from small mud and stone rondavels to quite elaborate bungalows like Relebohile’s family home, with a few mansions of brick and tile, probably the money earned in the mines of South Africa, sent home to support families. Relebohile says her father comes home every month. Of course, the gold fields are not so far from Lesotho. Every house, without exception, has a tidy pit latrine, usually of zinc sheets but sometimes of block and even tile – this is where southern and eastern Africa diverge so distinctly from most of West Africa, where hygiene and sanitation are so woefully inadequate and apparently little considered. Roma is full of schools – one thing which even I have to credit to the Catholic church. There’s a nursing college and a fairly good-looking hospital and, of course, a huge Catholic mission area decorated with hideous grottoes and sentimental statuary. But they did plant trees too, that are now mature and impressive. Roma and its environs is a relaxing place to be stuck for a few days without wheels.

*

The only impoliteness I have suffered in Lesotho has been from Chinese shopkeepers. Grasping, distrustful and mean-spirited, they learn no Sesotho and are extremely unpopular with these gentle, good-hearted people, of whom they are the opposite. “Yes, and they try to sell us rotten food and are always selling out of date products!” complained Relebohile and Nteboheng, when I got them on the subject. One Chinaman had been very rude to me a short while before when I went into a supermarket to buy juice. He would not take my money because I refused to give up my small backpack, despite the fact that the fridge and the counter were almost adjacent and there were five people to watch me to be sure I didn’t steal his profits. I ranted a bit about the stupidity of his ruling and turned to leave. At that point he decided he would take my money after all. Too late for the stubborn Englishman though! “Keep it!” I exclaimed, dropping the juice on the counter. “I shall get it elsewhere!” Fortunately, just across the street was a Basotho shop that had juice, so I could maintain my pride and have the fun of standing outside the Chinese shop enjoying my juice, watched surreptitiously by the Basotho shopkeeper, laughing up her sleeve, for she too despises the Chinese traders who do nothing for the Basotho economy and run cartels with their supply of goods. Sadly, these small supermarkets are just the sort of businesses that local people with a flash of entrepreneurism could set up, but the Chinese have moved in, in even the remotest communities here.

*

Another smiley day in Lesotho. But later I sank into a crabby mood, caused by a combination of tiredness, heat, dehydration, and drinking too much beer under those circumstances. It was compounded by a young man begging money from me in a beer bar. That is highly unusual and under any other circumstance I would never donate – not in a private beer bar, restaurant and so on. The circumstance that made me relent and give him a pound was his honesty: he admitted he had misbehaved and spent all his money visiting his student friends and had no fare home!

Then I walked home, exhausted, and found that some member of staff had given the instruction that the English ’daddy’ had said he didn’t want dinner. Right then, it was what I really DID want! I had to go to a Chinese supermarket and buy three eggs, half an onion, a tomato, a loaf of bread, and two small ersatz yoghurts (75p) and knock up an omelette, feeling weary.

I felt better after I sought out lovely Mapokha, on duty here at the Trading Post tonight, and apologised for my bad temper, which she insisted she hadn’t noticed. Ill temper cannot be long maintained in the face of so much goodwill and I was ashamed of succumbing to it just because I couldn’t get my own selfish western way. Life in Lesotho is full of compromises for everyone. It is so seldom I see irritability amongst the Basotho that I should know better.

Now, the electricity has gone off – there have been isolated thunderstorms with their terrifying streaks of lightning and occasional gunfire rain showers around all afternoon – so I have to go to bed at 8.50. The battery on my iPad is low so I can’t even read. Bed it has to be. Oh well, I am tired from the hot day.

DAY 70. MONDAY FEBRUARY 15th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

It seems to be becoming a habit: being picked up by very pretty young women who want to walk and talk with me! I’m not complaining: Basotho girls are exceptionally easy on the eye and very charming too. First there was Nthatoua in Maseru, then Relebohile yesterday and today it was the turn of Tatho to ask if I would wait while she changed and walked with me, a lovely walk that continued for four hours through many rural villages in the Roma valley.

It’s been very easy to spend four days completely relaxed (I have never felt less stressed or physically fitter than I do at the moment, I realised today!) in Roma amongst such wonderful people. Each day I thought I might take a minibus to somewhere else and then ended up just staying local and wandering off with no direction and no plan – to see what happened.

*

The Trading Post and its guest house sits on a rise to the west side of the valley, backed by the steep slopes, on which perch many small houses, rising to the reddish cliffs of the valley sides. “Where shall I walk today?” I asked Tseliso, one of the outdoor staff that I have come to know. “Why not on the other side of the river?” he suggested, pointing across the valley to the other red/ pink wall. “You cross the road by the bus stop…”

So I did just that, crossing the road and surprising a woman who was pushing a heavy wheelbarrow loaded with two large tubs of something that rattled. She was struggling up a steep slope from the river valley to the road and was very astonished when I took the barrow and thrust it to the top of the gulley for her. She went away laughing. I went back down panting – but amused. Then I continued, with no idea where I would end up, wandering off through fields and rocky screes at the foot of the escarpment. One needs not the slightest concern about personal safety in Lesotho, a liberating feeling. And I need have no fear of causing offence by trespass, since if I end up in someone’s backyard they are invariably amused and talkative.

Meandering along behind some very crude and simple houses (it is remarkable what many Africans have to call ‘home’, sometimes little more than a heap of rocks and a zinc roof), I was invited into a family group sitting on scattered rocks before a small rock house. There are countries where I would think twice, but Lesotho isn’t one of them, for I know it is just open curiosity and welcome to a stranger, even though these people have so very little. Thato, as I came to find she was called, was sitting on the mud floor, her sister in law behind her, intricately weaving her hair with a fluttering halo of false golden curls. Her brother sat beside them on a paint can and a couple of small children played nearby. Another woman sat conversing. Thato, attractively inclined to fullness, was dressed in a pair of cycle shorts and had a headscarf wrapped around her rather generous bosom. She had fine light brown skin and a cheery way about her. Obviously the best educated, she became the spokesperson as they told me how hard life is right there and how the government does little to help. They have electricity but no water. Their water supply has been dry since August and they are forced to fetch grubby water from the brown trickle that forms the river.

Joking about Thato’s hair weave operation broke the ice. I asked for a picture and promised that it would only show her head and her sister in law, not her state of undress and the straining headscarf across her Rubenesque breasts. There isn’t much bashfulness in Basotho women! Fortunately, I am able to show everyone the picture I have taken on the screen on the back of my camera. It caused a good deal of amusement and then they all took me to see the dry spring, a concrete tank, now bone dry. The crops have failed and people in much of southern Africa are struggling for food, not least in remote communities like Ha Mokhitli.

We talked for some time, then Thato asked if she should come with me to show me the area? It’s easy to say yes in Lesotho. It took a while for her to wash and dress in the crude rock shack but at last she was ready and we walked away further into the wide valley. She was a great guide, cheerful and talkative, and knowing the remote area well to find paths and negotiate the irregularities of the landscape. People greeted her and she jested with most of them as is the Basotho way. We wandered through fields and villages for the next four hours.

Thato is unemployed – like so many – and an orphan of 24, losing her father at eight and her mother at twelve. It would have been impolite to ask from what they died, but one can guess so easily. She lives with the brother and sister in law and it’s always difficult for me to understand how anyone scratches a living at all out here in rural Africa. A vivacious, bright girl, it is sad to see the wasted potential of these delightful young people.

We visited the primary school that she attended in a bigger village in the midst of the valley. Four very basic classrooms ranged together down the hillside, each room only small and rock built. The teachers welcomed me and polite, excited children pressed to get to look at the white man. There are 70 pupils, lovely kids full of fun, smiles and vitality. What is their future, one wonders… An old man came rushing up with his fine woven grass hats in hope of a sale, but was philosophical when I explained I can’t carry souvenirs. We waited as a herd of cows descended a difficult rocky path steeply down to the river again, attended by a young herdsboy in the brightest red blanket, supplying me with a memorable and very Basotho photographic memory. The red and green have to be seen to be appreciated. We scrumped small dusty sweet peaches from trees as we passed, for they are everywhere just now. Thato stopped to chatter with people she knew and many she didn’t, all of them wanting to know why we were walking – without any purpose but to walk..? No one quite understood…

We arrived back in the town centre tired and thirsty. Offered a drink in town, all she asked for was a bottle of water. The Basotho take no advantage of their guests. Thato was still smiling as we parted after the best part of four hours, the both of us still with a half-mile or so to walk home.

*

Writing of tubby people, I had yet another photo session with probably my all-time favourite African subject, Ntsilane, again today. Ntsilane features on my living room wall (and the home screen on my computer) in two wonderful pictures already – and I now have a third. A big woman, she has the most exceptional smile and is extremely handsome, her eyes sparkling with fun, her teeth as white as my wildest dream. And for such a large woman she is so dainty, moving fluidly like a ballet dancer despite her size. She is a lovely woman and one of the reasons I love to return to the Trading Post at Roma. Whenever I arrive, ‘daddy Jonat’an’ gets such an enthusiastic, elephantine, soggy hug of screeching delight that warms my heart.

Selling my bike in a few weeks will be a wrench for only one reason: cutting myself off from travels in Lesotho. But I have a feeling that I will still find ways to come to this VERY special little kingdom in the future. It must be very obvious that my reaction to this country and its universally charming people is out of the ordinary.

A noisily dramatic stereophonic thunderstorm is passing overhead as I write. Tonight the power hasn’t failed, but a sharp rain shower has reduced the temperatures. A Basotho pony is munching outside the door of my round room as the pointed thatch drips gently. Having conquered the mosquitoes with spray, I have enjoyed three of the soundest nights imaginable. In Lesotho even my sleep is better than usual!

Tomorrow my motorbike will be ready, said Johan when I rang him this evening. So I will return to Bloemfontein, the ugly Afrikaans city tomorrow. But I doubt it’ll be long before I am back in the Kingdom in the Sky. I am utterly hooked by its charms – more so this year than ever.

DAY 71. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 16th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

It’s funny, a few minutes back in the Free State and I feel my hackles bristling at this odd white imposition on Africa. And I feel the reserve, the lack of eye contact, the undercurrents of resentment – and the almost complete want of smiles. I’m less than a hundred miles from Roma in a different world. I walked to the border post at Maseru Bridge, greeting and being greeted, smiling and making constant eye contact with everyone I passed. I exited the gate into South Africa and it all stopped in a yard or two. Suddenly I am a white man again in a black land. No longer ‘Ntate’ or ‘daddy’, I represent something quite different, seen as a usurper, a conquerer, an outsider – unequal.

*

On this, my return trip, the wait for the bus to fill was a horrible two and a half hours’ long, sitting on a plastic seat in a bus in the sun and filled with the smell, from somewhere round the back of the bus, of dried urine. When at last we got going, about three o’clock, we pulled away heading west and from the first gear shift to the crowded bus station in downtown (black and terrifying – not!) Bloemfontein we were entertained by pumpingly loud, hideous music, and I knew I would be too late to collect my bike this afternoon. Thank goodness for ear plugs, which reduced the caterwauling clamour by 35 decibels, still audible but a little less painful and less likely to reduce me to foul moods. It reduced the discomfort of the repetitive, trite, sentimental philosophy of American ballads played at stadium-sized amplification. Horrid soggy, sentimental tosh! What is it about modern life, that we are afraid of silence and thought?

Talking of which… to be thoroughly curmudgeonly tonight! I took Steven, Isabel and the three children for supper tonight and the phones came too again. I do wonder what this obsession with ‘social’ media is doing for their welfare – health, social and ability to communicate. I was reading of a study being done in England of the effects of many children now playing online games through the night with people in other time zones, causing sleep deprivation and inability to study. Many school children in Britain now regularly go to bed after midnight, busy with ‘social’ media and the internet. They may have very dexterous thumbs, but it seems a high price to pay. Isabel’s daughter, a bright girl of 14, spent dinner with the bright light of her screen glaring at her face and the two boys’ thumbs whisked manically across their screens in games. A couple of nights ago I was in the bizarre situation of sitting at the small round dining table at the Trading Post eating my dinner, looking at the open lid of a young German volunteer’s computer. A nod had sufficed for greeting as I sat down. Now, one of the things I appreciate at the Trading Post is the communal nature of meals there. I would hazard that talking to me would be of greater benefit than telling his Facebook ‘friends’ where he is. In the end, I forced him into conversation! The young lad has been in Roma for a month already and will be down here until August. So far he has walked between the school where he volunteers and the guest house and was astonished to hear that wandering alone is safe and that he might even be able to see other parts of Lesotho – let alone southern Africa – by himself. I do hope I changed his conception enough to make the experience he can potentially have a life-changer! This is Roma, full of friendly, charming students his own age – and he sits at his computer in a guest house! This is Lesotho, perhaps the most beautiful and stimulating little country on the African continent – and he relies on Facebook for his ’social’ circle. No, there’s a lot to be said for limited internet access!

And Isabel’s daughter ate her steak again. Not the quarter of tomato, the shred of lettuce leaf or the vegetable side she had ordered. This time I overcame any scruples and made her pass it to me. No way was I letting her leave a helping of very good spinach – in this Afrikaans diet where green is unseen on plates and chicken is considered the nearest to a vegetable that anyone will eat.

But these kids are respectful, friendly and well mannered and charming in their way, just blinkered by privilege, all with maids – probably in perpetuity – to clean up after them and black people to serve them. Invisible black people in this utterly bizarre place, that gets odder with every visit, where I have to walk in the ‘dangerous’ downtown areas to see black people catching buses, doing their grocery shopping, doing ordinary things, going home from workplaces often dominated by bosses of another skin colour.

So, you see, a few hours back here and I am sententious and grumpy. Walking through very unalarming central Bloemfontein, where whites don’t go, I missed the capacity of the Basotho for joy and laughter, for catching my eye and sharing a jest or a smile. Black people in Bloemfontein, capital city of the Afrikaans Nation, are inured to have no social contact with ‘my type’ so they look away. Their history will not go away easily.

Yes, I think a change of region, having bought the motorbike up in Kenya, for the next few African safaris, will be good. It’s obvious that my time in South Africa is coming to a natural end. A very beautiful country but too socially uncomfortable for me to visit much more. But, oh, I will miss the easy access to Lesotho, to which so very very few South Africans go. “Oh, but they’re all bleck, aren’t they?” as a rabidly xenophobic guest house owner in Bethlehem, forty miles from Lesotho, once asked me unforgettably, perhaps three trips back, before warning me about hanging my washing in the back garden because there was a Basotho family camping out there. She had never been to Lesotho, on her doorstep. “They’re all poor, aren’t they?”

Of course, I went into the garden with my washing and chatted to the Basotho family! No, lady, you are the poor one. Poor indeed. My wealth is on that scale immeasurable.

DAY 72. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 17th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

What is it about motorbike mechanics? Lack of communication seems to be their way. “Yees, your bike’ll be ready tomorrow,” said Johan, the mechanic, on Monday. So I returned from Lesotho on Tuesday, sending him a text that I was delayed and wouldn’t get there until this morning. This morning I packed all my panniers and walked round to collect the bike. It wasn’t even there, but in town getting the oil tank mended. The rest of it was in pieces around Johan’s yard. It would obviously be some hours before it was ready. He lent me a small scooter to do my errands. “I’ll call yew whin it’s ready.”

Frustrated to screaming point, I went back at 3.00 to find he’d another problem he hadn’t called about. A missing bolt – that I managed to find in Steven’s back yard from when he replaced the brake cylinder. So it will be tomorrow. Another day bored out of my head reading in suburban Bloemfontein amongst the razor wire and ‘devil’s fork’ (spiked fence railings) and electric security gates round white bungalows, their windows covered by ‘burglar-proof’ welded bars, and filled with consumer goods and big shiny 4X4s, motorbikes, mountain bikes, swimming pools, barbecues, boats… while a black destitute goes through the bin bags on the kerb and others wait resignedly for minibuses back to their shacks in sprawling, dust-ridden shantytowns on the outskirts. It’s the social inequality that is getting under my skin now, that and unthinking privilege. (Out of fairness, I have to add, that isn’t a description of Steven’s bungalow, which is relatively modest, but still ten times the size of any black ‘project’ two-roomed home – let alone the shanties of old timber, car parts, zinc and plastic).

*

Johan did lend me a small scooter, so I was able to do a couple of errands, knees stuck out sideways in order to steer the handlebars, perched on the little thing. Better than nothing to get to the bank to draw out the £290 the repairs will cost. It has cost me the best part of £900 to keep the bike running this year, plus petrol. New battery, chain and sprockets, brake cylinder, head gasket, tyre, water pump and a couple of full services. Time to sell. I don’t expect to get any more than that for the bike anyway. Still, I have had four great trips with it. I followed the two Stevens across town on big Steven’s 1200 BMW, me whirring along atop the tiny moped, to Isabel’s home for supper, missing a huge rainstorm while we ate.

*

So much for one night in Bloemfontein. But as Johan has texted me the bill, I think I can assume the bike is ready at last – ready for the last phase of this year’s safari…

DAY 73. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 18th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO

Almost eleven weeks, and this is pretty much the first time I got seriously wet. I am afraid we are getting past high summer now. Last night 85mm (that’s about 3.5 inches) of rain fell on Malealea. You should see the approach track over the mountain. MUD and slithery filth for five miles. Well, it cannot be denied that Lesotho desperately needed rain.

*

My little red bike feels about ten years younger – so do I, for getting back on my journey. There’s no oil leak, the coolant is still there (I was putting in about 400mls every day and yet when Johan took apart the radiator there wasn’t a drop of water in it) and the rear brake works again – but after 5000 miles without one I keep forgetting it’s there. Johan says he will negotiate around the 16,000 Rand mark (£700) for the bike when I get back. I might push him up to £800. But meanwhile, I went to see Nicky, who works for BMW in Bloemfontein, an acquaintance of Steven’s, for advice, for he knows about selling second hand bikes. What a nice fellow – he has put my bike on OLX, the South African sales site (like Ebay). “Let’s take some pictures and put it up now. At least you’ll get an idea! See what happens.” So he did just that, from the computer in the fancy BMW showroom. It’s up at 26,500 ‘negotiable’. It’d be good to get 22,500 as that’s a straight £1000, but I may have to settle for a dealer at 18,000 (£800) or less. It cost me £1750 in January 2012.

*

So what did I do as soon as I got back on my bike? Headed for Lesotho. Looking through my old log books I find this is the 43rd night I stayed in the kingdom. It has certainly grown in my affections with just about each day I have spent here. Tonight I am back at Malealea, where I stayed in early January, but it’s a bit busy. There’s an Irish school party here – 60 of them. Wow, when I was at school France was exotic! How times have changed. School trips to Lesotho…

*

I’ve said so many times that the fun of travelling is NOT to know what tomorrow will bring – proved yet again. Would I ever have thought I’d end up amused and very entertained by a party of sixty Irish folks on the last night if their two week trip to Lesotho? What a lovely evening! These are a large party of Irish gap year students of around 18 years old, with various teachers, parents and skilled people of all sorts volunteering their time with an Irish charity to come and improve schools, hospitals and nursing schools with practical work in this area and in Roma. David, an English ex-doctor who now teaches in Bahrain, first pulled me into the group on the terrace of the big guest house. He has brought four Bahraini students, two medical and two nursing, to join the Irish group.

This guest house is well set up and can cater for such large groups. It’s something of a Basotho institution, the Malealea Lodge. I dismissed it at first as a Lonely Planet isolationist cop-out but I now understand that it has a real heart and it works to develop Lesotho and to introduce visitors as much as possible to the culture. It tries hard to foster a community amongst its visitors and encourages interaction with the villagers. Spotted amongst the crowd of white faces tonight (me the only one in jersey, body warmer and wearing my long trousers for the first time in about six weeks) I was recognised by the manager, Glen, with a warm welcome. He even remembered my name. Last time I was here I was drinking till late with those Scotsmen, tonight amongst sixty Irish – a lovely nation to be marooned amongst for a few hours.

I chatted for sometime with the head of the school, Ethra, and various others, David, the doctor, an electrician and builders, all of whom volunteer to come here for two weeks every year. They all fly home tomorrow from what must, for young people, some of whom have never left Ireland, be a wonderful experience and a great eye-opener for these privileged kids, who raise money for their fares and come and work in schools and clinics, fixing them up, connecting computer laboratories and so on.

Tonight was their last night and the guest house provided barbecued T bones for all of us – I take dinner, B&B here where the eating choices are limited. Then the Irish singing began; a couple of the girls had fiddles, a young lad a whistle, and one of the adults a guitar and various people had their party pieces to entertain the crowd. Full of merriment, music and laughter, it developed into a most entertaining evening – and totally unexpected! And of course, the ‘Oirish’ can sing.

*

How different the area is from early January, when all was parched dry and sunburned. It’s a three hour journey from Bloemfontein, boringly across the Free State to the distant mountains, passing ugly Dewetsdorp and Wepener and into Lesotho at a small border post and on through the small straggling town of Mafiteng. But as soon as I am over the border the waves and smiles begin.

It rained hard in Bloemfontein last night and continued drearily into the morning, but by the time I left, it was dry again, even managing weak sun for some of my ride. But ahead I could see that the mountains were wreathed in rainclouds. What a mess the approach road into the valley has become with so much recent rain. It’s only about five miles of off-road riding but slippery and deep in mud. And at the top of the last hill, about three kilometres from Malealea the rain began in earnest. It threw it down for those last minutes. I’d already put on my waterproof jacket for the chill and decided to ride the rest of the way without bothering with my waterproof trousers. Goodness, was I sodden from the waist down in those couple of miles! But it’s the first time in eleven weeks. I look at the forecast now and again from Totnes and know I am in the better place for now!

And I have the delights of the Lesotho scenery and the Basotho people to enjoy.

AFRICA 2016 – Journal eleven

DAY 63. MONDAY FEBRUARY 8th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

Unfortunately my need for mechanical assistance and Steven’s hectic workload have coincided. He tells me, in the few minutes I have seen him through the day, that he resigned from his job twice today! It’s that bad. But there was nothing I could do to help myself without the copper washer for the sump plug. So I have spent an entire day reading. I cannot arrange further travels – Kenya or no – as I have no internet, no email and no contact with the outside world. I walked to a shopping mall half a mile away and had the very frustrating experience of trying to communicate with the outside world over a cup of appalling ‘coffee’ at a Wimpy bar (unaccountably popular in South Africa) and a ‘free’ internet connection that will doubtless spawn endless junk mail, that was as slow as sending telegrams and awaiting a reply, and only 30 minutes long at that! So a VERY tedious, frustrating day.

Now I have the copper washer and at least tomorrow I can walk half a mile to a petrol station and purchase oil, and hope to put my bike back together so that at least I can ride it to get help from outside sources such as the BMW dealer in the city – assuming the leak is no worse than when we started. I cannot expect Steven, run ragged by work, to help, although I’m sure he would if he could. I have to be independent. Maybe it’ll do me good..?

No more to say of a day abandoned in suburbia in a pretty boring South African city. “You’re on holiday in BLOEMFONTEIN?” asked a woman incredulously in the supermarket checkout. “WHY..?”

“I take your point,” I laughed with somewhat spiritless irony.

DAY 64. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 9th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

At least a forced stay in Bloemfontein may be a bit more relaxed than in Himeville, although there’s little more to do here. Steven still crazily busy at his work, I put the bike back together myself, walked the half mile to the supermarket to buy oil and got it going once again. As soon as it was running, with no oil leaking from the tank but quite a bit from the sump plug, I rode to look for a mechanic of whom Steven had told me, who works with the engines that my BMW uses – but is NOT a BMW mechanic, with their attendant prices and single minded, linear, BMW thought processes. Parts are now on order (water pump and gaskets and head gasket as well) and as soon as they arrive – NOT from Germany, as it’d be with BMW, but from Johannesburg, six hours up the road, he’ll ring me and get me back on the road as soon as he can. But it’s likely to be the end of the week, I guess, before I can continue my safari…

Well, there’s nothing I can do about it except wait again. I have now determined to sell the red bike at the end of this journey. Having bought another bike in Kenya (red, too, fortunately, Rico emails!) it is likely that for the next winter or two my focus will change to Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and all sorts of intriguing trips around THAT part of Africa. Keeping the red bike would be only for a return to Lesotho and maybe Zimbabwe, my two favourites. But I can holiday there by public transport as I always used to do in my earlier travels, or I can (heaven forbid!) rent a car! It’s not worth having a motorbike standing in Steven’s garage for the next two or three years just for the off-chance of a return for a few weeks. I feel, after four extended trips, that I have seen most of South Africa and it’s time to move on. At least I shall sell the bike with a new battery, chain, sprockets, water pump, head gasket, new sump plug and so on! I won’t get a lot for it, but it owes me very little, having added – so far – 47,000 kilometres to it.

*

With all this, I have decided not to fly to Kenya next week. With Rico about to leave the country, I’d have gone for only two or three weeks anyway. I can’t find flights for less than about £400, plus another £150 to get to his town. Since that is a good deal of the cost of flying from Bristol to Nairobi I think it’s better to plan it all properly for next winter. Also, I have to attend to getting the bike fixed – Steven is FAR too preoccupied just now; I would be reliant on public transport to get to and from Johannesburg and I have only internet access for all the arrangements by visiting crap chain restaurants and drinking their coffee! I’m a bit disappointed not to see Rico soon, but I hope he will provide the base for several journeys over the coming winters!

So, bike fixed, it’s back to Lesotho and then perhaps a ride to Zimbabwe one more time.

*

I’ve seen little of Steven these past 48 hours. He is constantly working, with mad deadlines to meet. He resigned a couple of times, he tells me, but – like so many – he has his home and children to support. He complains of the positive prejudice that is rampant here. He is ‘the wrong colour’ to be able to change jobs, despite huge experience in what he does. It puts me in mind of an Afrikaner I conversed with in a bar fourteen years ago, who, when discussing this policy of positive discrimination, was wise enough to comment ironically, “who do you think they learned THAT from..?” But it’s difficult to justify, when black people with paper qualifications but no practical experience get the jobs that highly experienced people can’t qualify for on the basis of skin colour. It’s the stupidity of government ‘targets’, as ridiculous on a practical level as all our modern health service and all the other ‘targets’ – statistics on paper that look good to paper-pushers and provide politicians with media sound-bites but make little practical sense, an attempt to rebalance books, but often counter-productive to a common sense approach to getting jobs done.

*

A lot of reading these days… I am trying to accustom myself to reading on my iPad, reading my way through Jane Austen again – as free downloads. Such wonderful language and wit and a page-turning quality that is so difficult to explain in these circumscribed eighteenth century domestic dramas! And it’s just about the first fiction I have read in seven or eight years.

DAY 65. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 10th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

I’d as soon be stuck in the ‘Historic Quarter’ of Indianapolis as Bloemfontein. And it seems I AM stuck once again. It is likely to be next Tuesday before my motorbike will be up and running once again. The prospect of sitting for another seven days reading on the stoep in Bloemfontein-suburbia is unendurable. I am already bored out of my skull, so I rode to town today to find out where I get ‘black taxis’ to Lesotho. At least I can spend the weekend there. I will deliver the bike to Johan, the mechanic, and leave it with him while I repair to Roma once again. I can return on Tuesday, assuming the bike is fixed.

I checked out all sorts of possibilities – buses, even planes, to Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth; car rental; anything I could think of as escape. But buses all go overnight to everywhere and planes are expensive for a weekend escape. Lesotho, though, is a few hours away by minibus.

*

Out for supper tonight for Isabel’s birthday. Of the six mobile devices – sorry, that should read: people, but I am censorious tonight – round the table, for the various offspring were there with their ceaseless ‘social media’ (such a ****** oxymoron, as it precludes any real sociability, exchanging it for a sham virtual sociability…). Anyway, we were six people and I noted, in this land with the worst diet in the world (why, even the Scots have better dietary habits than the Afrikaners!), that I was the only one who ate a morsel of vegetables. And it WAS a morsel, for all I got was a tiny sprig of parsley! Isabel’s daughter ate a steak but not one leaf of the attendant salad: just the meat: ONLY the meat. The rest had pizzas – protein, washed down by high fructose corn syrup – the general cause of the American obesity epidemic (otherwise known as the products of the evil Coca Cola corporation), or pasta. I managed to find a pasta without meat – but the seafood pasta had no vegetables either, except that tiny scrap of parsley… It hurt to watch that plate of untouched salad – with two more precious nibbles of parsley – go back to the kitchen trash bin, it really did. I nearly asked for it, but sometimes even I balk at the rudeness of such implied criticism of my hosts’ diet. If I’d been in a less critical, objurgatory mood I might have carried it off with a joke, but the joke’s gone out of me for a day or two at the vexations I feel.

DAY 66. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 11th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

Tonight finds me a much happier man. The reason is in the line above. I am back in Lesotho which, every time I visit, gets better. I am SO cheerful to be back. Within minutes Lesotho works its magic. Moments after entering the country I felt my spirits lighten and the smile spread over my face.

Why is this? It just has to be the collective personality of the Basotho people. There’s something VERY special about them.

This time I came by public transport. I rode the red bike to Johan, the mechanic’s, place quite close to Steven’s bungalow in Bloem-suburbia and he was kind enough to give me a lift to town, for no white South African would consider abandoning another white man to the ‘black taxi’ system that moves the vast majority of the people around that increasingly bizarre country. I then walked into the unimaginable hell of most white South Africans’ imagination: the downtown bus station. Only black people go there and I was warned several times from the tourist office onward to ‘take care’. This paranoia, for that’s all it is, pervades white society here. Black people en masse are a terror and danger to be avoided or seen only from behind centrally locked 4X4 window glass – as infrequently as possible. Why? Ignorance. The unknown frightens most people…

I plunged in, a confident walk and a smile on my face. What is there to be afraid of? It’s ten in the morning on a bright sunny day in streets full of people just going about their business. I take the same care that I would take in Leeds on a busy morning: no more is necessary. I asked my way pleasantly and was shown my direction politely and helpfully. Like many others, I was just there to find the right minibus to the place I wanted to go.

And as for those minibuses that terrify the whites so much? Well, I have travelled in a lot of Africa now and have to say that the black taxi system of South Africa is the safest I have seen. The long wheel base minibuses are regulated, have decent tyres, doors that close without wire and pliers, window glass in all the places it should be, no holes in the floors to watch the road race by and they have maximum capacity numbers that are adhered to. There’s no tower of goods lashed to a bent roof or hanging out the back, for if there’s luggage it goes in a trailer behind. ‘Licensed to carry 21 seated passengers’, said an etched perspex sign behind the driver. And 21 we were. In Ghana – and a lot of the rest of Africa – we’d have been more like 40, with babies, goats, merchants’ trade goods, bowls, boxes, sacks, chickens and all the paraphernalia of African life packed around us and under our feet. We each had a seat. In necessity we could all have reached the emergency exit without climbing over one another and the driver was good, the road smooth and the other drivers well regulated too. There is NOTHING to be afraid of – in the vehicles or in the well organised bus depot. What’s more, the 80 mile ride cost only £4.35. Other passengers greeted me politely and then mostly dozed off as we waited the mysterious but obligatory African hour (it could have been three or four!) before the driver actually takes off and starts the journey, only to pull into the first petrol station en route to fill up the vehicle. Then we bowled along over the flat Free State scenery, with sunflower fields beginning to rotate bright flower heads to the sun, towards the distant mountains of the little kingdom. Quite acceptable Sesotho music blared from the loudspeakers over my head. At least it wasn’t American ‘Motown’, shite or ugly Afrikaans country ballads.

*

Less than two hours brought us to the Maseru Bridge border, where we unfolded ourselves and went through immigration efficiently, and walked across the international bridge over an insignificant river into Lesotho. I decided to keep on walking, knowing Maseru city centre to be only about a mile off. Within moments I was engaged in conversation with three young women walking my way, wanting to know where ‘daddy’ was going. I began to smile again. I was back in Africa – and in one of the continent’s best corners.

Sure enough, a brief but hot walk brought me to the small city and into Kingsway, its main thoroughfare. It’s a modern street of unappealing office blocks and shops, interspersed with government offices and an occasional old colonial-style building or ragged park. The taxis hoot incessantly and irritatingly and people, catching my eye, smiled back with a quiet greeting.

As I walked a pretty young woman fell into step beside me and addressed me. I didn’t hear her, so she touched my arm and repeated herself. “Can I walk with you? Do you mind?” Smartly dressed, wearing one of the odd felt cloche hats that are fashionable here, carrying files under her arm, we walked along together. She was Nthatuoa, with a sort of pause between the t and the u and the vowels all sounded separately. Studying to be a chartered accountant, now in her first year, she comes from Leribe, a town to the north, where her sister and single mother live. Faultless English, well educated and typically polite, she wouldn’t call me by my name for that would be disrespectful to an older person. “No, I must address you as ‘daddy’!” she told me winsomely. Her studies are subsidised by the state and she will only be expected to pay back 50% of her student loan, which seems remarkably liberal and sensible.

I needed a drink and invited her into a nearby cafe for a fruit juice, which she timidly accepted. “Oh, you like to read!” she exclaimed seeing books as I opened my bag, having asked for her photo (!). “Oh, I like to read too! I will give you my book. It is very good, even though I haven’t quite finished it yet. She pulled out a lurid blue volume entitled something like ‘Following God and the battle against Satan’ with many exclamation marks and many endorsements on the cover. I took the book with a serious face and read the rear cover blurb and managed to persuade her that perhaps she should finish reading it herself as I had plenty to read just now, although I was very touched that she wanted to give her book to me. Phew! I was touched too.

She showed me the minibus to Roma and then quietly slipped away with a light touch, to get her own transport home. The meeting was very sweet and I was quietly reminded of the charm and compassion of her people, all within minutes of entering the country. We had spent an engaging three quarters of an hour walking through the calm city centre. I had a huge smile on my face as I climbed into the minibus to Roma, a smile that attracted my neighbour on the journey, a smart middle aged business woman, to chat all the way to Roma about her country, a subject that I find easy.

*

Back to the Trading Post guest house, friendly greetings, “Eh, where is your motorbike?” and a different rondavel tonight, ‘my room’ being occupied. Some welcome beers with Chris, the elderly (he’s actually two years younger than me in years, but several older in everything else!) gay, communist academic from the nearby university. He’s a double first from Oxford and is quite brilliant, but his drink and fags problem gets no better as he downs the better part of two bottles of wine and puffs at a packet of cigarettes as he sits in the garden, where he finds congenial international company as a rule. Then supper with a pleasant medley of travellers, all of whom seem to have discovered Lesotho by some sort of accident, rather than by ambition. ‘The World’s Best Kept Travel Secret’ retains its magic. By now, of course, I am a pretty knowledgable source of travel advice for the country, knowing the best roads, the best sights and the best places to stay to get a taste of the magic of the little kingdom.

DAY 67. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 12th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

Gush warning: I am about to wax enthusiastic once again about Lesotho!

*

There can be NOWHERE in the world like Lesotho. Nowhere… Well, I’ve travelled almost half the world and I never found anywhere else like this, so I set myself up as a pretty good judge.

I ask you: is there anywhere else in this wonderful, various, diverse world where an old (well, middle aged!) white geezer (probably more red, in actual fact) could go into a student bar and not only be accepted, but welcomed and even chatted with? I honestly doubt it. These are people comfortable with themselves, with a strong cultural identity and masses of social skills. People all day have engaged me in conversation: schoolchildren, students, old men, young women – everyone. And everyone, without exception has returned my greetings with a wide smile. My own smile was fixed inanely on my face the whole day until my face aches.

But those students – how remarkable! I had been walking in the hot, very hot, sun for hours and needed a drink. And this being Lesotho, I knew that bumbling into a noisy bar opposite the university gates would be as much fun as anywhere. I bought a large bottle of Maluti beer and bagged the only welded seat I could see that had four legs in the hot yard outside. Within moments I was surrounded by young students. “Sorry, I’ve got the seat, and I’m keeping it!” I joked, as they balanced on broken remnants of steel chairs under the thatched palaver hut. They were cheerful, friendly and very respectful. Most of the group were just out of high school and involved in the application process for the national university, a vibrant place of 1000 students that brings life to this small town, dominated by its Catholic presence. Their friends circulated, all greeting me, usually with the fist to fist greeting popular amongst younger Africans. They were very charming.

Some time later I walked on, with waves and fist greetings from lots of the students. Further down the road I stopped again at the ‘Speakeasy bar’, where once again, as I drank a small can this time, I was engaged in conversation by students enjoying the start of their weekend. And everywhere I walked, all day, on dusty lanes and the main road, I was greeted and many people instigated conversations. I had a delightful day!

*

The woman with whom I travelled from Maseru yesterday told me that high above the town, on top of the red-brown cliffs and bald rocks that stand over this valley I would find an extensive plateau and views of the countryside. I managed to find a rough track and scramble up the escarpment in the hot sun. As I neared the top, I heard voices, and as I breasted the last ridge and saw with astonishment the large stretch of green downland, I found a couple of shepherd boys beneath the only scrappy tree on the whole plateau. Their sheep and cows were in the sunny distance as they relaxed in the shred of shade, laughing as I sweated into view.

There is a whole unexpected landscape up there, about a mile long and a quarter wide, ringed by steep drops of bald pink rock falling away to the valleys below. Over it all the sky made its usual vast dome, a very few, very white clouds scattered above distant horizons. The Lesotho mountains strode away, blue and grey, in every direction. The huge rolling meadow was green from the recent rains and pocked by red termite mounds. The sun beat down and a gentle breeze, released by the falling away of the steep cliffs that I had negotiated, provided a little welcome cool air. The light had that blueness of mountains and the air was crystal and clean.

*

I walked the length of the plateau. To the north an arm of the pink granite stretched out in a promontory and I saw that I could find a way down there, onto a saddle over which ran a dusty trail and where sat a large ugly galvanised water tank for the town below. The razor wire round the tank had been cut away so that schoolchildren (and a white ‘daddy’) could fill their water bottles from a small leak. As I approached I saw many children, neatly dressed, of secondary school age, straggling up the path from the western side onto the ridge. “Where are you all going?” I asked them.

“We are going home from school, daddy.”

“Where is your school?” For I could see no buildings on the hillside.

“Why, that’s our school!” they exclaimed, pointing far across the intervening valley to some distant buildings on a far slope. They must have been a dusty mile away. “Wow!” I exclaimed, “you have a LONG walk!”

“Yes, and in winter too!” They were walking from the distant secondary school, across the wide valley, up the dusty hill to the saddle where we stood. And then the lucky ones were a bit more than half way home. “But some of us live there!” and some children pointed to a village, distant beyond the town of Roma below us on the other side. Twice a day, what’s more! European children just have no idea! These young people walk at least two or three miles each way, over a three or four hundred foot dusty pass to school every day. And back again. But school is important to them. It really is. In time many of those children will be attending the university below, and perhaps enjoying shared bottles of beer (for no one had their own) in the scruffy beer bars opposite the university gates.

*

And so passes another day, filled with smiling welcoming people. This country is unique. “Our only problem is we are surrounded by South Africa…” said an economics student. “If we want to go anywhere, we must first go to South Africa. We are smaller than almost all the South African provinces.”

“But South Africans don’t like to work,” complained a colleague. “Basotho people work!”

“Look at their history,” I pointed out. “For perhaps 100 years black people in that country, mostly they were forced to work and they knew there would be no more reward if they worked hard or not. Why should they bother? That’s now part of their cultural memory.”

“Those days are past now,” argued a student practically.

But I’m not so sure. It seems to me apartheid is largely an economic condition now, and the laziness and accusations of being dependant on ‘hand-outs’ will take a long time to mend, and a lot more very visible incentives to hard work will need to be seen – while the politicians line their nests, buy new jets, construct glorious palaces and swimming pools (as fire-fighting precautions!) and don’t deliver clean water and basic amenities to their people – and the rich get richer, and white people still own a disproportionate percentage of the country’s assets. Why work, when so few of the benefits accrue to the workers?

Lesotho never suffered the divisive evils of apartheid and few colonial white men invaded their little – apparently worthless – kingdom to seize the land for themselves to keep in perpetuity. It’s a problem they don’t have to wrestle with, although they have plenty of others.

But several of my new student friends know they will probably end up working in the neighbouring country. There’s more money and more employment than in their own small kingdom, despite the strong national identity and racial harmony. They will be forced to suffer the prejudices of both black and white South Africans. Their reputation for hard work, as with Zimbabweans in South Africa, will make them unpopular amongst the blacks who foster and promote their past grievances but acceptable among the whites who prefer to employ outsiders rather than engage with their own countrymen and know that they cannot offer permanency of employment to these foreigners.

*

Back at the Trading Post (which is how this guest house started life, started by one of the few white Basotho families, and it continues to serve as a local outlet) I seem to be pretty much alone tonight, dinner cooked for me on my own by cheerful Sophie, sporting a fine woven grass hat tonight and wanting another photo. It’s so difficult with these African women: the wigs they wear can make such huge differences to their looks and make recognition such a problem. I only later realised that I already had Sophie in my camera – looking like someone else entirely! Still, we were both happy to have another portrait.

Last night I battled heat and mosquitoes, sweating beneath the duvet cover – having extracted the duvet! A DUVET! And it’s at least 30 degrees during the night. I am hard pressed to even sleep under a sheet! I’ve sprayed the room tonight and hope for better comfort under the thatch of the circular roof.

A lovely day. Another lovely day. I am so happy to be in Lesotho. I am often asked if I would live in Africa. In Lesotho I might…

DAY 68. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 13th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

Well, dear reader, if you’ve read this far, you could probably make a pretty good stab at what I am going to write tonight! Not the detail maybe, but the sentiment. For it’s been another day in Lesotho, the Kingdom in the Sky; the best kept travel secret; the Roof of Africa; the smile capital of the world – my personal Number One.

*

I joined a mobile disco to Maseru. The minibuses here aren’t quite so well regulated as those of South Africa, but they are pretty good – just a few flapping bits in the roof lining and the odd patch on the seat covers. But the instruments work, the doors close, the police keep an eye on any overcrowding, the machines, in general, work. The driving – from inside – isn’t bad. As another road user it is pretty irritating as the minibuses will pull over without warning if they espy a potential customer or to drop a passenger. The efforts they will make to catch a passenger are impressive. I was seen approaching from at least 300 yards away and the conductor began to shout and gesticulate. No way was I going to run: there’d be another along within a minute or two, so I continued my saunter down the hill, waving them off. The minibus started accelerating in reverse up the dust track to collect me, all the other passengers resigned to this activity. You arrive when you arrive… ‘No hurry in life’: I have seen the slogan emblazoned across many minibuses (trotros) in Ghana. An African philosophy that on the whole I find healthy.

*

This morning I was thinking that I am not very good at ‘killing time’, a concept I abhor. But I have no choice just now, and I can think of nowhere I would rather be forced into it, and nowhere where it is easier to do – in a pleasurable, constructive manner.

Once again, the Basotho came up trumps and chatted to me everywhere and smiles and welcomes abounded. Checking out the small city centre war memorial park, with its unusually dated memorials to the 1914-1919 war as well as a larger memorial to the Second World War, plaques that held, I estimated, about 1300 names, the majority ‘native’ forces, I spotted a signpost to the Royal Palace at the end of a nearby residential street. A block away I found the large gates to the royal enclosure, one gate standing open, held by a chunk of broken cement. It all seemed pretty casual but of course military guards came forward – smiling – to see who I was. Then ensued a half hour conversation through the gate with charming Temba, a junior army officer on guard for his monarch. We had a lively, intelligent, wide ranging conversation, for he was curious to know much about European mores and lifestyle. He was particularly concerned to question how marriage – in the religious sense – is losing relevance and wondered how morality could be maintained without the influence of religion. How odd indeed to be having a discussion of the relative merits of secular and religious moral patterns through the gates of the royal palace of the kingdom of Lesotho. The humour wasn’t lost on me.

Temba was also concerned to talk of the very high incidence of AIDS and HIV in Lesotho – a subject that often comes up as great concern in this land with such appalling statistics.

For Lesotho has the second highest AIDS/ HIV infection rates in the world, after Swaziland and equal to Botswana. When you look at the statistics, it seems that southern Africa leads the statistics, reducing as you move northwards away from this part of this continent. Swaziland 27%, Lesotho, Botswana 23, South Africa 18, Zimbabwe 15, Namibia and Zambia 13, Mozambique and Malawi 11 – then next in world ratings comes Uganda at 7%, Kenya and Guinea at 6, Tanzania, Cameroon, Central African Republic 5, Gabon and Guinea Bissau at a mere 4% – and the rest of the world below 3%.

An estimated 360,000 people in Lesotho live with AIDS/ HIV, out of a population of a bit over two million. There are an estimated 150,000 orphans. Sadly, the infection rate starts young too, with 10.5% of 15-24 year old girls and almost 6% of the same age boys already infected. Gender inequity is blamed for much of the incidence (62.5% of Basotho men think it is their RIGHT to threaten or beat their women for refusal of sex) but there’s also a woeful knowledge gap, despite education levels being high here at 76% literacy (with women considerably more literate than men, but that might be a product of so many boys being expected to be herds-boys in rural areas?).

Temba was worried by the conundrum of the fact that infection rates are higher in the cities, he claimed, where information exposure and awareness is so much greater than in the rural villages where education is much more rudimentary. I suggested that Africa’s dual problems of largely irresponsible men and their inability to limit alcohol intake probably explain much of the differential (later confirmed by the gender inequity figures above), and I personally wonder whether the absence of SHAME in the cities, amongst looser communities, may make a very big difference. I have watched this in Navrongo, Ghana for almost three decades: the erosion of shame as a controlling emotion and brake on antisocial behaviour as family and community ties weakened; as outside media’s relaxed moral codes strengthened and young people increasingly gained their moral guidelines from cheap TV; as the old morality tales were seen to be just folk tales, however well they had guided social behaviour for centuries. Becoming a ‘market’ for shameless multinational materialist corporations has added so many social pressures too.

Whatever the causes, the disease is holding back development and every aspect of Lesotho life. Life expectancy at birth is now less than 49 years and all economic wealth is stifled by the terrible statistics of this disease. Retroviral drugs are available to some but largely at the behest of donors and obviously more available to those with knowledge and access to towns. There are very many deaths each year caused by HIV/ AIDS related illnesses. 150,000 orphans now being cared for – or in many cases, having to be carers themselves for – grandparents, or having to care for younger siblings, has untold social and economic costs.

*

Eventually the strong sun got the better of me as I stood at the palace gates and I had to excuse myself from the charming Temba and find some shade. At last, and I have searched Maseru on various visits for a bar or hotel with a garden, I found the Rendezvous Restaurant hidden behind some large modern buildings. A smart restaurant with a tiled yard and umbrellas, it was just what I searched for, intending a cup of coffee and maybe a light snack – for with the exchange rate I can afford even the most luxurious venues. (A beer and a rather tasty chicken salad cost me less than£3, including a reasonably generous tip!).

“Oh, I think I’ll have a beer! I don’t usually take alcohol at lunchtime, but it IS Saturday after all!” I pondered to Pulane, the cheerful waitress. “Well, actually, I took a beer yesterday as well…”

“Ah, well THAT was Friday!” she joked, picking up my emphasis and tone. It’s so good to be able to joke on equal terms here. In South Africa, Pulane, as waitress to a white man, would have been automatically subservient and wouldn’t have dared to cheek me so accurately and humorously as she walked away with a toss of her head and a laugh.

I toyed – very briefly – with an item on the menu called, ‘Norway Special’. It turned out to be: ‘fish fingers, served with tartare sauce, lightly fried chips and a garden salad’! Norway Special… Haha.

*

There’s so much human kindness amongst the Basotho. I notice that in the minibuses many people chatter to each other. They act respectfully and generously to their neighbours and there is little apparent aggression or selfishness of behaviour. They are patient and polite, paragons in this competitive world. I see no arguments and hear few raised voices. Maybe I have turned up the filters on my rosy specs to a blinding degree, but I think I am making accurate observations. Why else would I feel so content and comfortable here? Why would I be smiling so much? And why would I have so many, so very many, conversations with complete strangers?

*

I found areas of the central market that I have missed on other occasions and here again was engaged for an hour or more in many different, courteous, equal exchanges. Gunjah – a nickname referencing ganja or marijuana – is a reggae musician; his brother, Molefingane, (Elias) a plumber and woodworker with a creative bent. Their friend, who was happily drunk and easily tolerated by the brothers, periodically dozed off, lolling on a battered easy chair in the corner, his bottle of appallingly cheap wine now empty. It was late Saturday afternoon and they were relaxing in their untidy booth in a corner of the market, ready to welcome a passing white daddy for entertainment. Other traders stopped what they were doing to show me – modestly – their handiwork and wares, all ready just to chatter as I passed. Sadly, no one makes wooden spoons any more. “Why, I don’t even have any at home now!” exclaimed a fat matron with surprise, selling hand made clay pots and grass brushes when I explained my only collection wishes.

*

So back by ‘taxi’, as the minibuses are called, to Roma, fifteen miles distant and a slow, uncomfortable journey as we toured the city centre drumming up enough passengers to make the ride worthwhile – and me unfortunately on the sunny side of the vehicle. It’s quite fun not to have my own wheels for a few days and to take life at the pace of Lesotho; not to be concerned about parking, wearing my hot and heavy clothing, to be always passing by. For a time I have to be intimate with Basotho people and their lifestyles, suffer the same discomforts and laugh at the same events with my neighbours and enjoy their curiosity and conversation.

No, I didn’t kill time in the end: the Basotho breathed life into it all day long.