FRIDAY JANUARY 25th 2013.
Finally the bond of Europe is broken. The tedious days of preparation are done; of lists and stray thoughts in the night of things that have to be done before I can set off once again. I am on my way at last, high above the unique Sahara, with such vivid of memories of the best weeks of my life. ‘Bean there – done it in’, trumpeted the headline in the Daily Mirror years ago in that silly week that the tabloids got hold of my story of motorcycling to Ghana to find my friend Perry was back in England. A clever journalist interviewed this naive ‘Mr Bean’, changed the dates to suit himself and wrote a nonsense piece that filled page three, about the way in which ‘The Real Mr Bean’s’ travels seemingly trailed civil unrest and disasters in their wake. It might have been six years later that the students revolted in China, but that didn’t spoil a tabloid journalist in search of an amusing story. ‘Bean out, students revolt’ said the caption beneath a picture of Tiananmenn Square. ‘Bean out, Russians Invade’, said the caption beneath a picture from Afghanistan. It was a year or two later, but why spoil the story? Sadly, my memories of Algeria may well have to remain just that, memories, now that Islamist fighting has effectively closed the wonders of the Sahara to travellers…
Still, no such unrest is likely to befall my destination: Southern Africa – Zimbabwe notwithstanding. This is my second trip down here, the last in 2001/2. That was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking journey, seeing for myself the odd political and social situation in South Africa; discovering one of the world’s best kept travel secrets: Lesotho; the warmth of the Zambian people; the finest natural sight in the world (after the Sahara of course) at Victoria Falls; and continuing on to north west Kenya, with adventures and stories along the way.
That trip, I shipped my old motorbike, my BMW R80GS, the African Elephant, to Durban, where it got stuck in a dock strike for a month, bobbing about in a ship I could watch frustratedly from a bar on the harbour front. I flew the Elephant home from Mombassa some months later. It took two days and was considerably cheaper. This time my poor old Elephant is tired at the age of 31 and the freighting out and back expensive, so I have bought, unseen of course, a motorbike on the Internet, which I will pick up on Tuesday next. That bike is in East London, somewhere down the east coast of South Africa, quite well placed to begin my trip to the interior and eventually back to the delights of Lesotho – and beyond as the whim takes me, for I have no real plans at present. I like to travel on these journeys with an open mind and see where serendipity takes me. That’s the fun of travelling: never knowing what tomorrow will bring.
One thing it will bring, I know, is a drastic change in temperature. This morning I crunched my way carefully from a basic ‘hotel’ outside Bristol Airport on the ten minute walk to the terminal over hard, frozen snow from a room of furnace-like, uncontrollable heat. In Amsterdam it was minus seven degrees Celsius and white. In Durban it was 37 degrees yesterday. Ouch! But before that I have a probably dismal wakeful night in Johannesburg Airport. The Romance of Travel evaporated exponentially with the ease and competition of worldwide flight. I’ll say it again: I am happy that I started my travels long enough ago – in the 70s – to experience a much bigger world. Here I sit, cramped but otherwise untroubled by the difficulties of moving 5000 miles in a few hours, one of the few people aboard this uncomfortable cattle truck/ bus in the sky with actual experience of how it is to be in such close contact with that desert down below. I have been covered in its sand, sand-blasted by its winds, astonished by its scale, and irritated by having it in my eyes, my ears and my teeth – intimate encounters that make it real, even from six miles high.
LATER. 25th January 2013. JOHANNESBURG
Never believe what airlines tell you, even if it is KLM. They would check my bag all the way to Durban, they said. You should be able to use the lounge at Jo’burg overnight, they said… Huh! I’m now lugging my bag about and am in a B&B fifteen minutes’ drive from the airport. Ah well, travelling was always thus and I do enjoy the need to live on my wits and adapt as I go along. Just as well, I thought, as I carried bags about the enormous airport at night, looking for a non-existent information stand. They’d all gone home for the night at 10.30.
Finally, I found a fellow sitting behind the tourist information counter. I don’t think he was a tourist officer, but he did have leaflets for a B&B for £35 including free transport to and from the airport. He was probably just another hotel tout, but who cares? So I followed nearby Prince to his car and drove off into the night. It did occur to me that Jo’burg (as everyone calls it) is one of the world’s crime-ridden cities and we might be headed for a dark lay-by but sometimes you just have to trust people and Prince appeared to be trustworthy. A quietly spoken man, it was difficult to adjust my ear so quickly to the South Africa lilt and upward inflections as we drove in the balmy warm night on city motorways that could have been in the Mid-West of America.
I am now at the Transit Guest Lodge in Kempton Park, a faintly faded large bungalow with four otherwise empty guest rooms built along one side of a grassy yard with a calm swimming pool. The young hostess is the chubby, smiling Florence with a warm African welcome, the customary African handshake (palm to palm, wrist to wrist, palm to palm) and a gentle manner. Immediately I know I am back on this endlessly fascinating continent: the warm air wrapped about me, quiet welcomes, the pulse of a just-enough-distant disco beat drifting under the huge black sky – always so apparently soft in Africa after the brittle skies of winter Europe – and a slightly seedy hotel where the chipboard wardrobe is just that – chipped, the taps wobble and the shower door doesn’t quite fit.
But it is some 26 degrees warmer than it was at 4.30 this morning in Bristol and I am about to start another journey! I feel content… I am in Africa. The crickets are singing…
…And of course the shower is dripping since the taps don’t turn off properly.
Day 1 SATURDAY JANUARY 26th 2013. KLOOF, DURBAN
This has been a congenial, relaxing day, a start to my holiday feeling. Cool – 23 degree – light rain kept us on the covered ‘stoep’ (porch) of the bungalow.
How is it one makes – and maintains – friendship, often in unlikely circumstances? I suppose it is a very basic instinct, perhaps fostered by feelings of trust and tolerance; trust that confidence will be respected in every situation and tolerance of differences. There is really no explanation of why Yvonne and I have been such fond friends for 35 years! We’d both admit that. Scatterbrained Yvonne, my neighbour in 1978 and friend ever since. She married Michael and they moved out here 25 years ago. Michael works as a tourism development consultant and Yvonne discovered painting a few years ago and her paintings seem to be popular and sell quite well.
I stayed with them, in the very large house from which they have moved just this week, on my trip here in 2001/2. It was they who had me billeted on them for a month while my old Elephant was stuck in its crate outside Durban harbour. It meant that I stayed with them for Christmas 2001 and used their home as a base for my subsequent travels. This time I hope to do much the same and store my motorbike here for more travels later. Assuming, that is, that there are no tedious official hassles in registering the bike in my name, for I have bought it on the faith that all will be well bureaucratically. Doubtless, I will find out next week. ..
One sunday in March 1886 one George Harrison stumbled across an outcrop of gold-bearing rock. Within ten years the camp was the biggest settlement in Africa. Johannesburg, known in Zulu as ‘egoli’ or ‘place of gold’ is now the world’s third largest conurbation by area. It is a huge, sprawling place, made wealthy because forty per cent of all the world’s gold has been mined in the region. It is now a place of 12 million – and a place that looked, superficially this morning from its airport outskirts, like any American city except, that is, for the number of its black inhabitants standing at street corners waiting for transport in the infamous ‘Black Taxis’ or minibuses – that I used so unusually during that time my motorbike was unavailable in 2001; an experience I enjoyed and which shocked all my (white) acquaintances, for in this strange ‘Rainbow Nation’ white people do not travel in black transport. However, here in developed South Africa, unlike in West Africa (and so much of the world I have travelled) the minibuses have four tyres that roughly match and have tread on them; have windscreens more or less in one piece; don’t have the doors held on by coat-hangers; don’t have to be started by touching a couple of bare wires together, and have even maintained their internal linings beyond the odd scraps that flutter out of the broken windows of their West African counterparts.
So the softly spoken Prince drove me to the airport as we listened to a rather detailed programme about breast cancer and mastectomies. The motorways of Jo’burg were well disciplined and not so busy. Here and there elderly cars stood on the hard shoulders with their bonnets up or their tyres flat with upwardly mobile black drivers looking a little forlorn waiting for rescue beside their third-hand vehicles.
I cannot claim to have seen much of Johannesburg. Maybe I will revisit later in this trip.
It was just over an hour to Durban, hardly up before we began the descent. And so to a new airport that I did not recognise and an excited Yvonne and a half hour drive home to a house on the hills of Kloof, a suburb of Durban, a comfortable, privileged enclave full of black servants and gardeners…
If you sense a mild overtone of criticism in the last paragraph, here comes my Reader Warning. Don’t bother to read the rest if you find an awkward sensitivity to the statement above, for I am afraid you may read it repeated time and again! I have reread my journal of my journey here eleven years ago and realised that my sense of fairness and justice was very frequently outraged by the social set up of this nation. It runs as a theme throughout that journal – and probably will through this, for I doubt much has changed – unless for the worse as the white population gets edged to the sidelines by the vast majority black population in their political ascendancy. It is a very complicated mix, and one I only superficially understand I suppose. So much history is involved, not just colonialism and all its arrogance, but also colonialism with all the benefits it brought to a well developed country like this. Three hundred years of history cannot be overturned in a few decades or even generations without a good deal of anguish. This is a quite fascinating theme which will, I am sure, occupy me over the coming weeks. I observe it, of course, from outside and with the knowledge that some of my closest friends have (very) black skins but share with me – and all mankind (and woman-kind) – very similar needs, desires, fears, ambitions, delights and disappointments. Only the outer millimetre or two of our bodies divides us, such an arbitrary way to make the judgements we do… I shall be travelling amongst both black- and white-skinned people and will receive great generosity (and maybe the odd unkindness) from both. It will tax my senses every day, my liberal beliefs in equality of opportunity and my views on morality of rich and poor.
So, reader, you have been warned! On the other hand, maybe I will make some discoveries that help me rationalise all this. Somehow I am sure I will remain as confused in three month as I do today. The relationship is so complex.
“Ukuhamba kukubona” – ‘Travelling opens a window to the world’, in Xhosa, one of the official tribal languages of the country.
We’ll see what’s outside that window over the next weeks.