DAY 9. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 3rd 2013. OUDTSHOORN. SOUTH AFRICA
It’s always been my conviction that when I am travelling I can find something in almost every circumstance of interest. That belief has got me through many grim experiences and uncomfortable journeys.
So four and a half hours at a public hospital in this socially unbalanced land was interesting in its own way… I’ve suspected for a week or so – almost since I got off the aeroplane, that I had a urinary infection. No need to go into details – one just knows! It’s not a comfortable way to ride a motorbike in foreign lands and needed dealing with. As it’s been a chilly, damp day it wasn’t such a sacrifice. Can you believe the weather can change so dramatically? Yesterday I sweltered in 35 degree beating sun, today I had to return after the first mile to get a jersey. I was going to ask Marius, the owner of my house, for advice but he was not on duty at his backpackers’ hostel so I began to ride out of town to look at ostriches. Before I left the city limits I saw the hospital signposted and decided to take my chance. I knew the diagnosis; all I needed was some medicine.
First I was sent to pay! Oh, how this experience makes you value the NHS. I paid my 249 Rand, about £18.50, cheap for me perhaps, but a huge sum for an unemployed black family. The median annual salary for employed blacks is only £900. For whites it is £4850. All citizens of the same country but with different skin pigments. I paid my money, somewhat lulled by the efficiency of this first part of the experience to imagine the rest might be as efficient. The casualty waiting room was across the balcony of the old cottage hospital, with about thirty people waiting about, one with a bandaged head that dripped on the lino tiles and one or two others looking distracted and uncomfortable. Fortunately I had taken a book along as my first wait was for two hours. Now and again names would blare from the loudspeaker on the wall and the steel grille be slid open for patients to enter the assessment ward. People around me sat quietly and patiently. No one complained of the wait. This is how medicine is for most of the world: a few harassed doctors in provincial towns looking after a mass of the poor population and doing the best they can to stretch resources. Britons would never complain again about the admirable NHS if they experienced, as I have sometimes done, African medical facilities. We are SO privileged and still we complain.
Two hours got me through the grille to a pleasant young Indian student triage nurse. She pointed to a door with a broken handle. “Go in there. There is a toilet. You will see a cup. I need a urine sample.” On the windowsill of the gents was a selection of containers: old plastic cups, a couple of beakers and some plastic pill containers. I rinsed one out (!) and did the necessary and returned to the nurse who tested the sample and instructed me to empty the container – and return the receptacle to the windowsill for the next sample.
She politely took my details, confirmed an infection and asked me to return to the waiting area until a doctor could see me. An hour and a half later a voice bleated with great delight from the loudspeaker: “MR BEAN! MR BEAN!!” with barely disguised excitement at my name. Oh, how I would like to ask Rowan Atkinson one day what prompted him to name his world famous character after me! His humour without words has enraptured the entire world. Everywhere I go I must get used to embarrassed giggles and suppressed laughter. I take it in good part: it amuses people so well. And they always remember my name. I left the whole waiting room grinning – even me.
This was a summons to wait another twenty minutes in a corridor. But at least I was in the sanctum now and approaching journey’s end: the doctor. Finally, I was called in to meet the doctor, a middle-aged, coloured woman of jolly demeanour at a steel table in a basic ward. Behind me in the next room someone grunted and groaned, to whom she shouted raucous sarcastic comments. My file was before her and she dug deep in her books to find a medicine that the hospital could supply that wasn’t penicillin, to which I am allergic. She explained matter-of-factly that the hospital was limited in its supplies and that private clinics would be better supplied. If I am not better in a few days she recommended I go to a private clinic, which is, I don’t doubt, where the white South Africans go. Either that, or no white people were ill today for mine was the only white face in Oudtshoorn public hospital. Throughout the process I was treated with kindness and efficiency, even if the situation was basic. The drugs she supplied were included in the 249 Rand I had paid at the outset. I have no criticism of a stretched and pressured service and could not even resent the four and a half hours it took to get my egalitarian treatment.
Hopefully, all will settle in a few days. Meanwhile, I shall stay here in this lovely house – which I have all to myself tonight – for a couple of days. The forecast’s not quite so poor for tomorrow.
It was inspiring to meet Mia, electing to come and face – and help – the problems of developing world medicine with all its limited resources. And South Africa maybe has the one of the highest standards of living on the continent. If the Oudtshoorn hospital sounds basic, remember Navrongo, Ghana, the African hospital of which I have most knowledge: dust and the oldest operating equipment imaginable; a doctor who admitted to me he sometimes had to operate with a text book in one hand; where little Rhoda had to spend weeks with her seriously broken leg in traction – weighted by a paint can of stones tied to a knotted rope; where the beds and furnishings are ancient and I once had my hand X-rayed on a machine like those I remember in shoe shops as a child. For most on this continent, those are the realities – if people have access to medical care at all. I have no doubt that for more money I could attend a private clinic and find it relatively European.
It’s endlessly fascinating: a country of divided people. 42% of black South Africans have sanitation in their homes; 99% of whites. 8% of black households have indoor running water; 87% of white households. Less than 2% of black households have a computer; 46% of white households have one. For refrigerators the numbers are 40% / 98%. For mobile phones 25% and 75%. 5% of black people are educated beyond high school against 71% of white South Africans. Unemployment amongst the black population is officially about 28%; amongst the whites 4%.
Black Africans make up 80% of the country; 9% are white. The rest are Indian or Asian. Yet white-skinned people own almost every visible material resource and possession and have five times more the median income.
Since 1994, when this country began its troubled rebuilding process, almost half a million white people have emigrated, citing the growth of crime and the discrimination against whites in employment. The majority of them will have been relatively recent immigrants during Apartheid years – for whom the gravy train hit the buffers and many of them were medical personnel… It will be such an arduous process, building any form of unity.
The mobile phone revolution was a development that hit Africa just right for once. The lack of infrastructure was unimportant, even an advantage, in the uptake of mobile phones. In Ghana phones are expensive but calls very cheap. That’s why Wechiga always fills his bag with old phones when he has visited me. Now I can phone any member of my Ghanaian family at any time. Even ploughing his fields Wechiga can talk. Yesterday I bought a South African phone. It cost me all of £7 and enough call-time for what I need cost me about £3 more.
I phoned Michael and Yvonne in Durban to update them. My charmed life continues: I am to attend a consultation with Mike from Durban in two weeks. We are to meet a couple of Zulu princesses to discuss the tourism possibilities of their palace. As I said tonight: there’s something of interest in every situation when you go travelling and throw your fate upon the winds! Urinary tract infections notwithstanding, I am very cheerful. The other two thirds of the bottle of very good South African wine might be helping.
DAY 10. MONDAY 4th FEBRUARY 2013. OUDTSHOORN. SOUTH AFRICA
One benefit of having no fixed plans and just going as the whim takes me is that I could just follow the weather today. I had been going to the north to the beautiful rough passes I remember from 2001 as some of the finest scenery in this beautiful country. But within a few minutes of riding northwards I was wet and quite cold. I turned in the road as the clouds seemed thinner in my mirror. Instead of the mountains to the north I would cross the lower range to the south in the direction of the ocean, just fifty miles south.
It was still rather cold and showery. I swept along on a fine road into the mountains, sweeping this way and that. There were viewing places by the road and I pulled off once or twice to gaze into the damp valleys and the steep slopes across the deep cleft. From the second viewpoint I spotted a dust track sketched across the opposite, steeper faces; spaghetti-like and very inviting! I do enjoy those old roads so much more. A few miles further on I found a dirt turning and began to follow the old Montagu Pass, built in the 1840s by those extraordinary pioneers opening up the interior of this country. It is a winding track, quite well maintained although I only met one vehicle in the twenty miles or so. These old roads are terrific feats of engineering, the railways also. Far up the mountain – by now the major pass across the big valley was just a scratch – I rode under a railway line, the narrow gauge typical here. It’s been a feature of the past few days: incredibly long (little used now) railway connections across the hostile landscape.
Wild flowers are a feature of the South African landscape. Shortly after the top of the Montagu Pass, which runs through one of the very many national parks and reserves, I rode through a veritable shrubbery of colour. Such tropical wildness and abundance is so exotic to European eyes. Amongst mundane purple heather were extravagant blooms and vivid flowers in confusion. I stopped and enjoyed that mountainside for some time. South Africa is full of so much natural beauty.
The Montagu Pass brought me out onto one of the lesser main roads, but not before I disturbed a group of perhaps fifty baboons on my dirt road. They lolloped away, all pink bums and gangly elbows and watched me suspiciously from the embankment above the road. Somewhere later I passed a sign warning me of tortoises and shortly after saw a small one nipping across the tarmac, watched, I feared, by a huge, magnificent, white under-winged circling bird of prey. Had I not been doing 65mph I would have gone back and carried him to safety. But that’s nature: maybe the bird was watching something else, more immediately tasty and portable.
I decided to turn in the direction of lighter clouds. I would thunder 45 miles eastwards and take the Prince Alfred Pass over the mountains to the coast. I took that pass eleven years ago, a dusty, winding road; in some places cutting through tight gorges. That dirt road is about fifty miles long (you may understand why trail riding in England never really held the same attraction for me after I discovered Africa!). It passes through some fine scenery: huge mountain views, ridge upon ridge with tall conifers and graceful poplars. Here and there they are enlivened by dazzling flashes of flowering trees, tropical extravaganza. The clouds lightened and the light returned to its southern brilliance.
But the road became motorbike hell. This red gravel turns to slick, oily grease when it gets damp. It’s like riding on one ski – with only a couple of sticks for control: the handlebars, which must be gripped with locked arms, not easy when you are long-armed on a relatively small bike. I think I have to get the seat rebuilt, without the dip into which I constantly slip forward. Another question for Steven, my biker friend in Bloemfontein, when I get there next week.
The last fifteen miles of the Prince Alfred Pass were trying: dappled light through the trees making potholes look like shadows combined with slippery grease. I was relieved when the tarmac began again and I descended through the customary sheds, shacks and shanties of a township into Knysna, one of the most popular tourist towns on the beautiful but very touristic Garden Route. It’s a place of marinas and smart hotels, boutiques and seafood restaurants. Not much for me then… Or the inhabitants of the townships…
But I had to look at the pounding ocean, white rollers under a by now, truly blue tropical sky. This is the southernmost point I will reach in this journey. Actually, Africa goes about 50 miles more to the south further to the west, but I am turning north again from Oudtshoorn. Anyway, I DID that last time! Buffelskop is a small, obviously expensive seaside village. On a balcony before a restaurant I sat beneath an umbrella and watched the beach as I ate a (rather disgusting) ‘breakfast-in-a pita-bread’ and drank a coffee – a double -shot latte, of course, in a place like this.
Sorry… Warning signal. Skip a paragraph.
I gazed down at the beach from my vantage point. It is a fine expanse of pale sand washed by gentle rollers in a wide bay backed by green hillsides. Very exotic really.
Everyone on the beach was white skinned. Well, some of them were curing themselves to an ugly, leathery-old-motorbike-saddle-bag, status-symbol hide as you’d expect. All the customers in the beachside cafe were white – even me on the outside.
All the staff were black.
Yet we are in AFRICA! The ‘Black Continent’. There are five million white people living in this country and FORTY FIVE MILLION black people. The black people are so curiously ‘invisible’. Where ARE they? Out in the townships and shanties of corrugated zinc, plastic sheeting and bits and pieces that crawl higgledy-piggledy up the hillsides so well hidden from the exclusive towns – that’s where. And behind doors in kitchens and sculleries; in back spaces away from service counters; on tractors in the middle of huge farms; sweeping the streets; being night security guards and picking grapes deep in vineyards – or just living cheek by jowl in the city townships.
My political awareness, such as it is, was developed in the late 1960s. Sadly, I never attended the demonstrations outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square but I diligently read the labels on all products so I could shun those from South Africa in case I should inadvertently aid the poisonous apartheid regime. All my fellow liberal art students boycotted Barclays Bank for investing in the repugnant South African government. To this day, 40 plus years later, I feel resentful if I have to use a Barclays cash machine! Add to this my extreme closeness to the Ghanaians that adopted me all those years ago as a son, brother and uncle and perhaps my attitude is allowable.
Apartheid is alive and well today. No longer enshrined in law, but in practice kept going by inequality of economics and opportunity.
Well, I won’t bleat on about it any more (not tonight, anyway). It is just the thought that is usually uppermost all my waking day: trying to understand the conundrum.
I started writing tonight as I waited for my rather late dinner (I ruined my appetite with that grim ‘breakfast’ at 4pm). I ordered ostrich tagliatelli. Yep! Ostrich and pasta… Haha! With Neapolitan ballads filling the South African night from a speaker above my head on the terrace of an ‘Italian’ restaurant, with a very camp black waiter, oil lamps and fibreglass Roman urns. No strings of straw-covered Chianti bottles unfortunately.
It’s been very comfortable here in this large house (that could hold about ten African families but only holds me). I think yesterday’s strident doctor’s medicine is beginning to work and tomorrow I shall probably head northwards. The forecast is improving and there’s lots to see and, hopefully, lots of people to meet. The stars are bright again tonight the clouds just holding a light, half-hearted grip on the northern mountain tops.
DAY 11. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 5th 2013. GRAAF REINET. SOUTH AFRICA
It’s all about friendship, you know. Life, that is.
Half an hour ago I was rather feeling my age (an alien feeling!). Then I used my new South African phone to call Steven in Bloemfontein. And suddenly, I feel half my age. In the week I turned 60 (now 3 years ago…) I heard an item on Radio Four that told me that a 60 year old today is the equivalent of a 48 year old in our parents’ generation. Not our grandparents’ – our PARENTS. Our life expectancy increases by 20 minutes for every hour we live: 20%. (Mind you, that doesn’t necessarily apply to the next generation, who may be the first generation to habitually die before their parents, thanks to bad diet, lack of exercise and obesity). So suddenly I am 48 again. Maybe tonight I cannot quite claim to feel my metabolic age of 34 (!) as tested recently in Florida…
It was just so good to hear Steven’s welcome. Just what I needed to lift me from my stiffness and aches.
I met Steven when my motorbike broke down in Lesotho in 2002. I soon realised that repair was impossible in Lesotho and was able to limp, in second gear, which was all I suddenly had, to Ladybrand, back across the border in South Africa. I had spent the previous two days on dreadful 10,000 foot high mountain tracks and goat paths, but my luck (which I don’t believe in of course!) being what it is, the problem – a 5 Rand spring in my gearbox – broke in Maseru, Lesotho’s capital town. I met Steven in Ladybrand. I heard a BMW ride by and went in second-gear pursuit. He tried hard to find transport for me back to the nearest BMW dealer in Bloemfontein, but it was New Year’s Day and all his friends who had trailers were out and about. At last he looked at me and said, “Well, we could ride there! I have to go. We could ride together.”
“I only have second gear,” I pointed out.
“So, you’ll have to ride slowly!”
And we did. It took five hours to cover the 35 degree hot, 75 burning miles. During that cheerful ride we bonded instinctively. A bond that seems still to exist. I have suddenly changed my plans (the plans I didn’t have in only last night’s entry) and I am on my way to meet Steven in Bloem, having phoned him after I finished writing last night. From a somewhat grim chain steak house I phoned him again tonight and he is going to ride to meet me around lunchtime in a small town on my route tomorrow. So the friendship, that lapsed through loss of contact, will be resumed. I found Steven again via the Internet, remembering that he had been a member of the Christian Bikers Association (‘Riding for the Son’, no less) in Bloemfontein. The president of that group has kindly put us back in touch.
An eventful day, today. The reason I was feeling my age (for a while only!) was that I took another fairly heavy tumble from my bike on a rocky dirt road. I begin to realise how much I miss my old African Elephant, my 32 year old motorbike now languishing in Devon. I should have spent the money to restore my old compatriot before this journey and flown it out. I have decided that the old bike is an integral part of any journey I take. I guess I give it the status I would have given my horse in former times. We are linked. It’s not often I imbue inanimate things with anthropomorphic sentiments but my old Elephant is an extension of my arms and a partner in my journeys. I often fell off but he (it was never a feminine machine!) always just reclined elegantly onto the sticking out engine bars and panniers. It was always simple to pick the Elephant up and carry on. This machine is a dead weight to pick up. I have pulled a muscle in my back doing so. Also, the bike fell on my leg, trapping my motocross boot under the soft pannier and I had the devil’s own job to pull myself free! However hard they have tried, BMW have never made a motorcycle to compete with the original GS model, the Elephant’s generation. They have produced many, many more but all we who owned the original (and many of us have kept it, making it increasingly a collectors’ item) agree that it has never been surpassed. I am now determined to have my old friend restored again for any other trips that I may take. Steven it was who said, “…If that motorcycle could talk, just imagine the stories it could tell!” I remember replying, quick-wittedly I thought: “I reckon it would just complain!” But my old Elephant and I have been places! I wish he was here now, not this impostor.
I wouldn’t feel so stiff if I had had my old Elephant with me on the Swartberg Pass this morning…
Thank goodness I write these lengthy journals. I rode the Swartberg Pass eleven years ago – and I remembered NOTHING of it! Memory… I just knew from rereading my 2002 journals before I left home, that the Swartberg and the mountains north of Oudtshoorn was amongst my favourite bits of this very beautiful country. Mind you, later I was riding a long road, batting along through the dry mountains when I realised I had ridden the same road only four days ago and it appeared completely unfamiliar! I was, in my defence (or the defence of my memory) riding in the opposite direction, but still…
I left my exclusive accommodation in ‘Armanath’, the brand new thatched house on the northern edge of Oudtshoorn, and the uninterrupted view of the northern mountains from my bed, a bit late, thanks to phoning Steven last night and changing my route. I still wanted to ride over the magnificent Swartberg though.
The pass is wonderful. For miles it climbs, in scratched gravel graffiti up the dry slopes of the mountains. Twisting this way and that, cut as a shelf from the mountainside, it bounces its way upwards until it finally crosses the watershed and exposes a panorama of crumpled mountains, dry as dust, stretching as far as the eye can see. Then it scrapes its way into that huge landscape, corkscrewing up and down beside vast chasms and soaring faces. It bumps along in all the magnificence beneath the exquisite blue of the tropical skies, dry and desiccated, dramatic and convoluted.
And then I lost concentration for a moment – gazing in awe at a striated rock face a thousand feet high above me actually, dabbed my front brake, and down I went onto the rocky road. My foot trapped under the pannier as I struggled to get free. There went the other side indicator! So much weight of this bike is high that it is a hugely heavy machine for me to lift from prone. With superhuman effort (and a strained back muscle) I managed it. But it took its toll and now I am stiff as steel. Fortunately I insist on being well dressed for just such eventuality: I wear heavy motocross boots that took the brunt on my ankles, motocross trousers that left me with no more than a graze on my knee, gloves and jacket. they all protected me and I know well the sense of not giving in to the warmth of the climate and divesting myself of any of this protection…
Oh, I want my Elephant here with me! My horse.
The Swartberg really was worth the effort – if not the mild injuries. It is a magnificent, memorable place – except that, by my own admission, I had forgotten all the details! Such that on breasting one ridge and seeing the extraordinary view ahead I broke into a colourful range of exclamations at the scale and grandeur of the landscape beneath the sharp-edged sunlight.
Ostriches do NOT like motorbikes! It was so amusing: every time I approached a flock of these bizarre birds they fluttered their elaborate feathery wings like offended Edwardian dowagers and took off, all gangly legs, knobbly knees and heads held haughtily high in disgust, with almost an audible snort of distaste.
Ostrich farming is an important economy of the Oudtshoorn area. It made the town rich in former days thanks to the feathers and now it has revived in meat and leather products. These huge, flightless birds are a freak of nature. They do not have teeth or crops and swallow stones to help digest their food. Consequently, they live in apparently totally barren fields of dust. They are fun to watch, and so amusing in their cartoon-like gestures and behaviour.
Stiffly, I left the Swartberg Pass. Marius, the house owner, had suggested that I did not need to travel the N1, a major thoroughfare that I was reluctant to use that pounds from Cape Town to Pretoria. He suggested a longer but quieter route on the N9 further east. It brought me across another extraordinary topographic region; the Great Karoo.
The Great Karoo is the vast desert region that occupies so much of the interior of South Africa. For perhaps 150 miles I just beat along on a very good, almost empty road, straight as an arrow through endless land of astonishing emptiness and flatness. Enlivened only by fast spinning windmills lifting water to small tanks to water the Karoo sheep (their lamb is a culinary delight I DO still remember after 11 years). I would rise over some insignificant wave of the featureless landscape and see another four or five kilometres of the arrow-straight road in front and then… I would rise over some insignificant wave of the featureless landscape and see another four or five kilometres of the arrow-straight road in front and then… I would rise over some insignificant wave of the featureless landscape and see another four or five kilometres of the arrow-straight road in front and then… I would…. Well, you get the picture. All this AND increasing stiffness from my battle in the Swartberg!
I decided I could go no further than Graaf Reinet. I was just too exhausted. I stayed here eleven years ago too, but I have no idea where! I hope this is not the onset of dementia and just that I have done so much in those years that my addled brain cannot recall it all. Prices have changed a lot too, so I expect I stayed in some smarter place. Actually, I am SURE I must have stayed somewhere smarter than THIS! I am in the Hotel de Graaf. It is a dingy place (literally, since the windows are grimy and there is no light bulb) with worn cord carpeting, cracked basins, chipped paint and un-ironed bedclothes. Downstairs is a gloomy old bar, propped up by three or four black and coloured habituess. It’s a place not frequented by white people. I doubt anyone much stays here. But so what? My eyes will be closed for the next eight hours (at least, given my aches) and if only one of the six lavatories down the corridor actually flushes, who cares since there are no other guests foolish enough to stay here. It IS cheap. Once quite grand, it has fallen on sharply hard times but all I need is a bed and a door to lock out the world for a few hours. I have stayed in hotels like this the world over. I wonder how many? One day, when I can no longer travel, I will sit down and count them from my diaries. They will start and end with the inaccurately named Garden Hotel in Coatzacoalcos, grimmest of them all, forty years ago. Or there’s Yusekova, Skardu, Mount Abu and a hundred others.
Graaf Reinet is quiet and rural, a town of rather fine architectural heritage in the sort of Dutch South African style with many old white plastered houses with verandahs and Dutch gabled fronts standing along wide avenues. It is peaceful and unexciting. Just about what I need tonight.
I hope I can move in the morning…
DAY 12 WEDNESDAY 6TH FEBRUARY 2013. BLOEMFONTEIN. SOUTH AFRICA
I awoke surprisingly refreshed and reasonably agile. I did have to sit down to put on my socks, though. It is a point of principle for me to stand on one leg to put on my socks. I have a theory that to sit down would be to admit to a sign of age! This morning I couldn’t balance on my stiff right leg and it was very difficult to twist about with my lower back.
Then it was load up and ride out of town on a blustery day during which I rode a total of 500 kms (300 miles) beaten by the breeze. My face feels wind-blasted and I feel tired.
I had arranged to meet Steven in a small town called Philippolis, 250 kms from Graaf Reinet at lunchtime so, after a breakfast treat at a pleasant cafe I gingerly swung my leg over the bike and turned to the north.
A feature of this central South African landscape is the extraordinary grandeur of its scale. It really is a land of vast, limitless skies, especially today when the unimaginably enormous blue hemisphere above filled with small puffs of brilliant white, feathery cloud. Somehow, their interference gave even grander scale to the scene. The land below was close to flat as far as every horizon, interspersed with sudden mountains. As I rode north over a few of the low mountain ranges the scenery became greener: a blush of pastel shades that softened the dry scene. I say low: they were actually passes of 1600 metres or so, but in such an expansive landscape they still seemed insignificant.
It was astonishing to see signs warning of occasional heavy snow, or of possible icy patches. Not now of course in late summer but in winter, in July and August, when these mountains can be very cold. It must be this that brings the softer greens and waving grasses.
It was a long slog into the wind at 70mph, only alleviated by photo stops. Even on a major long distance route like the N9 the traffic density is laughably light: a vehicle creeping from dot to windy blast perhaps every mile or two, sometimes as much as three miles between vehicles. Towns are as far apart as sixty or seventy miles with no more than a few farms, or sometimes just dirt roads with a signboard to a farm invisible way back in the landscape in between. It is lonely but very impressive. It is astonishing to image the tenacity of the Voortrekker, the original Boer settlers, crossing these vast expanses with ox wagons and no roads.
At Coleberg I turned off the N9 onto a local road liberally spotted with potentially damaging potholes. All day small metal wind pumps spun wildly in the wind, lifting water for cattle and sheep that graze these vast plains.
At last I crossed the Orange River, one of southern Africa’s major rivers and already wide here. It rises in Lesotho and flows roughly north west to the Atlantic not far south of Namibia. Here it marks the beginning of the Free State and for me it marked just another ten or fifteen kilometres to my lunch date.
I saw Steven’s yellow 1200GS long before I reached it in the wide main street of the one-horse, single street town. He was sitting at a table on the old fashioned verandah of a simple cafe. He had fallen into conversation with an elderly local, Dans Pretorius, whose family has lived in the small town since 1824. Philippolis is the oldest settlement in the Free State, founded in 1823 as a station of the London Missionary Society. I suppose Dans’ ancestor must have been one of the original white settlers here. The ashes of Laurens Van de Post are kept in memorial gardens in Philippolis.
I like the Free State. People in the Free State are, I found in 2002, charmingly friendly and hospitable. I came expecting to find bigotry and conservative values in the extreme. Sometimes I did, but it was always with charm and always with a very warm welcome! This is the Afrikaans homeland, a region for which both black and white have fought against colonial invaders to protect. This is the landscape of the Boer Wars.
Steven is a big fellow, extremely warm-hearted and charming too. A head of severely cropped black hair, a short beard and a leather jerkin covered in rally badges and, emblazoned on the back the crest of The Christian Motorcyclists Association: ‘Riding for the Son’.
For evangelical Christianity thrives amongst the Afrikaans people. There are ‘biker churches’ and a strong lay ministry that goes round apostatising at rallies and bike meets. Tonight I attended a meeting of the Bloemfontein chapter of the CMA and I couldn’t help thinking that the organisation had enough sects and splits to rival any other church. But these are committed people who believe they are helping others by bringing their ministry out like this. It certainly doesn’t appeal to me but everyone must make their own minds up on this matter although I will not evangelise for atheism or for the fact that religion seems to be a huge force for war, bloodshed and rivalry… Still, they were very welcoming to me even if I do not subscribe to their beliefs.
From Phillipolis Steven suggested we should ride back to Bloem together via a small mining town called Jagersfontein, site of the deepest vertical man made hole in the word. It meant a ride over about forty deserted miles of gravel roads in the flat expanses. By now it was much hotter as well as windy. Following Steven as we thundered along the level gravel was a dusty business. Steven likes to ride fast. He admitted later that he never rode ‘so slowly’ as we did, keeping up a steady 50 to 60mph. I am always a little circumspect on these journeys. After all, as I told Steven, “Imagine I fall off and break my leg! I would be here, trapped in a foreign country, a foreign hospital for weeks, rearranging flights home, paying for treatment and so on…” No, 50mph is enough on unknown gravel.
Jagersfontein is a small, sleepy place of Victorian corrugated tin architecture. It was here that the world’s second largest diamond, the Excelsior, at 971 carats was found in 1893, which now probably resides in the British crown jewels like all the other empirical treasures. Unfortunately, the big hole was inaccessible so we rode away without seeing it. We stopped for a juice from a small-town supermarket, now owned and run, as is now so common all over the continent, by Chinese people. The Chinese influence in Africa in the past two decades has to be seen to be believed. And I have seen it. So much investment – and so much speculative purchase of whole tracts of the landscape in the hope that they can be exploited for minerals or wealth. Africa is being sold piecemeal to the Chinese…
Then we batted home the 70 miles to Bloemfontein on dead straight roads that seemed to go on forever. A fast ride beneath the cloud-dotted skies between a vast landscape cleaved by the tarmac.
Since I was here in 2002 Steven and his wife Judy have divorced His children are now 18 and 11. Juvan, his very beautiful daughter was just eight when I was here and little Steven was a baby. Steven and Judy were together for 32 years (Steven’s only about 45) but Judy has a new boyfriend and Steven now has a small bungalow in a pleasant private development on the edge of the city beside a quiet river. Here we arrived after five, me completely blasted by a long day in the saddle and left, fortunately in Steven’s bakkie, to his biker meeting, the president of which had put us back in touch through the internet. I was introduced to the fifteen or so members present and all of them gripped my hand in huge, crushing Afrikaans handshakes. When I fell yesterday I sprained my right thumb!
I tried not to wince at each friendly greeting. They were very kindly meant…