DAY 13. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 7TH 2013. BLOEMFONTEIN. SOUTH AFRICA
About 9.00 this morning, as Steven was repairing the indicators I had snapped off, he received a call from his employer asking him to go out and inspect some equipment. Steven is an engineer working on contract for one of the large telecom companies. He ranges across most of northern South Africa designing and fixing installations at communication masts.
I suggested I should go along and see new places. He had to visit two masts about 70 miles away to the north west around a town called Virginia. We travelled in the bakkie, a relaxing ride for me, up a wide new toll road built to serve the new freight airport that will serve South Africa as the skies around Johannesburg and Pretoria become too polluted.
The first mast was in a school compound in a black community amongst mining towns. Out there they mine gold and in one mine, diamonds. Steven told me about the crime war raging at present between criminal gangs who illegally enter the gold mines by climbing down the air shafts (and if you see them, you would not want to do that) and stay for months underground. Isn’t it strange? Guess where the criminals come from? Nigeria… So many problems in the crime world originate from that country. Ghana blames all its recent waves of armed robbery and road hold-ups on Nigerians; even in Europe they have become synonymous with internet scam crime. How is it that one nation in West Africa – where morality is usually so high and religion plays such a large part in regulating life, that one nation has a totally different moral code – or at least enough of that nation to become infamous? These gangs are ruthless. Well, if you are prepared to risk your life by climbing down mine air shafts for months of labour underground, I suppose you do not consider you have much to lose.
The mast was heavily protected by razor wire, palisades and locks. The metal is regularly stolen…
The second mast was few miles away on country farm, on top of one of the sharp little hills or koppies that rise from the enormous flat landscape. Here there are large grasshoppers that grow up to 3 or 4 inches. We found a few small ones, with bulbous green and black striped bodies. “Watch out for them,” warned steven, “they have a acid they can spray up to a meter. It causes a nasty burn”. Great, just as I am about to walk through the long grasses to look at the sociable-weaver-bird nests that hang upside down, intricately woven from grasses, a hanging straw globe that houses the eggs in a hollow inside. Once the eggs are laid the mother stays inside fed by her mate, to protect the eggs from tumbling from the bouncing nests, for they hang way out on narrow branches.
We got back into the bakkie. I had cobwebs stuck round my legs and was sweeping them off. “They’re strong!” I commented.
“You didn’t bring in any spiders, did you?” asked Steven, causing me to search somewhat desperately, apparently in vain. “There’s one spider; it’s the size of your hand and carries hundreds of babies on its back. It’s not poisonous but if you touch it and brush against it, you are suddenly covered in little spiders! There’s one too that weaves a web strong enough to catch guinea fowls!” Oh boy…
Twenty minutes later we were bowling back along the highway and a little spider, little bigger than a British ‘money spider’ spun up its web between me and the windscreen. “Kill it!” says Steven, reaching for a weapon, “This one is nasty! A sack spider. It bites; you can’t feel it but it causes bad damage to your muscle. One of my friends was bitten and she dug open the wound and all these little spiders climbed out of her arm!” Great… Now I shall watch every potential sore and bite and expect the worst I suppose. After all, ‘…You don’t feel it…’ Not until the damage is done. Huh!
Last time I was with Steven we rode back across the veldt from Kimberley in the evening. Next day I had a very sore blister on my forehead. “Is there a spider in your helmet? We must check,” said Judy. But when we looked we found the smashed remains of what had probably been a large flying termite that had crashed between the top of my goggles and the bottom of my helmet. They are largely formed from formic acid and for several days I had a very sore burn spread across my skin. This evening Steven showed me some pictures he had taken eleven years ago and, sure enough, in one of them I have a pad of lint applied to my forehead. The unknown is a dangerous place – but it’s fascinating too, and I never live life on the ‘what if’ principle. Just as well or I’d be terrified already and waiting to see if a sore develops that will lead to my muscle disintegrating and baby spiders climbing out through my skin like something from Indian Jones.
Steven’s got some other photos from 2002. It makes me miss my African Elephant more and more. There we are, riding the sun-beaten roads with me on my trusty old machine obviously having a lot of fun. I was. I remember that trip as one of my most satisfactory.
We came home and Steven cooked half a cow for supper With delicious vegetables, just to confound my stereotype of the Afrikaner man. A ‘braai’, or barbecue, is standard household equipment in South africa.
Pretty much the whole biking community seems to know Steven around Bloem. It was good fortune that led me to that chance meeting when the Elephant broke down eleven years ago. He certainly has contacts. Back in town we picked up a few items I need to maintain the red bike and called on his friend Willem, whom I remember from before. He is currently building his own bakkie, the latest in a long line of vehicles it seemed. I admit, all this is an enthusiasm I cannot share one little bit. I love to ride my bike but I have no interest in how it works – and very little in maintaining it, I’m afraid. Just as well I seem to have a unique ability to meet people who do like to do that.
Tomorrow Steven is going to a big motorbike rally where he and a team do stunt riding and spread the gospel. “Why don’t you come along?” he asked as we drove the bakkie back to Bloemfontein.
Bike rally? Me? Hummm. I don’t see myself as a rally type. I mean, I just said, I like riding my bike but I don’t like looking at bikes and comparing points. But then, I thought, I AM in South Africa and I am here to enjoy new experiences, so why not? I travel to meet people and these Afrikaners are very friendly. “I’m not equipped for it; where could I stay?” I asked in one last half-hearted demurral.
“In my tent. Young Steven will be with us as well. I have a mattress. Come along! You’ll meet people.”
…and have a weekend enveloped in the extraordinary, not very beautiful, Afrikaans accent… (‘ Ifrikarnse icksent’)
So I am going to an Afrikaans motorbike rally this weekend! Haven’t I said, time and again, the best aspect of travelling (of life!) is not knowing where I’ll be tomorrow?
Oh dear, I have an itch around my kidney region… I could be in casualty with spiders crawling out, not in a tent at a biker rally. Not sure which I’d prefer!
DAY 14. FRIDAY 8TH FEBRUARY 2013. KOFFIEFONTEIN. FREE STATE. SOUTH AFRICA
Well, the things one does! I’m in the middle of a noisy, lively Afrikaans motorbike rally with a hundred or more South African bikers. It is NOISY with loud electronic beat music thumping; engines screaming; the smell of burning rubber and exhaust from un-silenced engines – and a lot of goodwill. But I was never much of a ‘club’ or group person and I’m really not interested in motorbikes, except as a machine that gives me unsurpassed freedom when I ride them. I have to say, in any other situation, this is an experience I would have gone a long way to avoid!
However, I am remarkably relaxed about it even though I think even ear plugs may be unequal to this. The bass beat is coming through the ground. I’m in a tent by the side of a largish lake that serves the nearby diamond mine. It is a fine site, just noisy. Well, I will make the best of the experience. Try everything once – and I got to 63 and 25 years of biking without going to a rally before. I feel it could be a once in a lifetime…
Koffiefontein (a fontein is a spring or source of water – or a fountain) is about 100 miles south west of Bloemfontein. Steven is exclaiming that he has never had such good petrol consumption from his 1200 BMW (same model as mine at home). “I NEVER rode from Bloem to Koffiefontein so slowly!”
We had been hammering along at 75mph all the way. I have no screen on my bike and an engine half the size of his. Anything over about 65mph is blusterily uncomfortable. “You should drive with an old woman like me more often!” I joked. “And I don’t mind saying that, or if you think I’m slow because I have ridden places on my bikes that you never have!” I have motorbiked in about 45 countries after all. So what if he thinks I am slow! I am aware that I am in foreign lands, uninsured for injury incurred while riding, and have a long journey to go.
Steven’s eleven year old – Steven – is with us, a delightful lad and a biker at heart, from a family of bikers. As soon as he is big enough he will have his own proper bike. He’s already had his small ones. His English is a bit faltering but better than his father imagines when Steven is alone with me.
It is not easy being amongst a hundred or more people for whom English is a second language. Inevitably, it makes me feel rather isolated. But they are friendly people. It is very noticeable how big they are; many with large beer bellies (women too!) but just very large-structured – and with those huge crushing handshakes.
It’s been a very hot day and I am tired. I am so sorry that I am, and always have been, such a bad and light sleeper. In situations like this, and many other travel situations, I suffer badly. Oh well, all discomforts pass… and they become the stories, often as not.
DAY 15. SATURDAY 15th FEBRUARY 2013. KOFFIEFONTEIN. SOUTH AFRICA.
I have never before put my travel journal out for anyone and everyone to see. It has circulated a select readership as a hard copy. Now anyone can read it, including the people amongst whom I travel. It does present a bit of a conundrum.
This has always been a pretty honest retelling of my observations, opinions and activities. Trouble is, do I maintain that honesty and tell things as I see them, or do I compromise to salve people’s feelings? If I say that amongst the Afrikaans people I see some really ugly folk: hugely overweight, bull-necked, over-sized, hairy, leathery-skinned and unattractive (and that’s only the women – sorry, that IS a bit flippant, but you get my drift), if I write as I see, will I offend if some of them happen to find and read this? This is the new danger of the internet. We put stuff into the public domain and it stays there…
It is not meant as criticism for these people are welcoming and hospitable in the extreme: kindly folk. Just a bit out of normal proportion. And of course, when I see them against Africans – whom I have long considered far more attractive than we pasty whites – the comparison gets worse! So, sorry if you are reading this, you kind people I have met. Just remember, it’s only my opinion. Beauty in the eye of the beholder and all that. Black Africans frequently have that beauty. We pinko-greys certainly don’t. Bulky Boers even less so.
Added to this, there is, needless to say, the serious unthinking racism that I see about me. Never the twain again… I find it completely absorbing, watching the people around me, most of whom have many generations of white Afrikaans family behind them. They will tell you that they have built this country, with its high African standard of living, by their determined efforts. And so they have. Hard work has been a shaper of their culture. They harnessed the resources, tamed the lands and brought development and prosperity. I suppose it all comes down to the question: how long is needed to create an indigenous people? After 300 years, are white Afrikaans people indigenous? They would say so. They have built the place. Left to their own devices, the indigenous black population would not have developed the economy and culture that I see around me. South Africa would still be languishing with many of her neighbours, tribally fractious and economically corrupt. Thanks to the white population – largely – they are on an economic par with the so-called first world. A very interesting socio-political situation. I just wish they mingled and spoke to one another more. I do, and I find warmth on both sides. But I don’t carry three centuries of cultural baggage around with me and can mix as I like. I will never understand it and make a lot of mistaken and naive assumptions. Like I say, I can only report as I see. Where, for instance, are the black bikers? I seen two so far on this site, which has filled up considerably and now must number over a couple of hundred. Motorcycle enthusiasm is, in my experience, something that unites all social classes and economic levels.
Despite a few friendly welcomes I do feel a bit of fish out of water at an Afrikaans bikers’ rally. Some parts of popular culture just passed me by. Loud rock music with super bass beat for one! 150 yards from the entertainment marquee the ground beneath my mattress is pounding. It is all to the same beat: a rate worked out by engineers that is the rate of a fast beating heart and so excites and stimulates, manipulating mood. This is all ‘music’ created by sound engineers not musicians. It is very boring.
Last night was not as bad as I feared. The noise reduced marginally between midnight and 6am, enough to be combatted by ear plugs at least. I think it remained fairly riotous in areas but I was unaware. Steven stayed awake all night and took a security duty, sorting out, he said, a couple of incidents. Alcohol-fuelled I guess since some people come to these rallies to drink. The site’s filled up a lot more now with perhaps a couple of hundred bikes. I even counted four black bikers today. But this afternoon a heavy rainstorm raged for an hour or more, turning the site to a good deal of mud. Steven’s tent is old and now pretty damp. This followed an extremely hot day of burning sun that has left me very red.
The main street of Koffiefontein was closed to traffic so that motorcycles could play the fool with stunts and a great deal of screaming of engines from bikes with silencers removed. Part of the resident population of the small town came out to watch the fun, mainly small black children and youths. I found the spectators a good deal more interesting than the bikes.
Bikers for Jesus are all around me. A very traditional, narrow Christianity is very much alive amongst these conservative people. There’s a rally uniform: denim jeans covered in cloth badges from other rallies and black leather waistcoats smothered in metal badges. Pony tails, beards and vast bellies for the men and rather stretched tee shirts under rally waistcoats for the women. The backs of many waistcoats are emblazoned with club names and frequent skulls, wolves heads and similar. Many of them are the shields and names of Christian groups. Crosses abound. Bikes are generally top of the range and flashy and souped up to make more noise. There are a lot of drinkers and very many South Africans smoke heavily.
The lake beside which I am sleeping is a reservoir for a diamond mine a few hundred yards away. Steven told me I could probably get to see the local ‘big hole’ if I went to the mine security gate. The gate guard signed me out a set of keys and gave me directions to a local lane that led me to a gate into a compound containing a high gantry that cantilevered out over the big hole – and it is. Diamonds are found in volcanic ‘pipes’ two or three hundred yards across and many thousands deep. The immense task of digging these pipes out, by hand, has caused the series of ‘big holes’ to be found at mines in this area, the most famous one being at nearby Kimberley.
I must try to go to sleep. The music pounds, my mattress has partially deflated and the tent will leak if the rain – currently just waves of drizzle – returns in earnest. I hope we don’t have to thrash back in rain tomorrow. And I hope the bikes don’t start screaming at 6am again.
Uh oh… Here comes the rain.
DAY 16. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 10TH 2013. BLOEMFONTEIN. SOUTH AFRICA
It was an amusing night. Young Steven slept in someone else’s tent; big Steven slept in a chair in the God-spot coffee tent – and I slept(ish) through gales and rain in a slowly folding tent in a gentle spray of rain and moved about the tent as the rain found new ways to enter. Surprisingly, I reckon I did get about four hours sleep between peripatetic manoeuvres. When I awoke one corner of the double inflatable mattress – which had also slowly deflated in time with the collapsing tent – had a puddle and everything was a bit damp. Fortunately we woke to sunshine that enabled us to dry things out again. Steven passed the wrecked tent, having seen its last rally with him, to some friends who reckoned they will bodge repairs to it and give it to some tentless persons.
It did rather reinforce the reason I seldom camp any more. There’s little attraction, after a hard day on the bike, to crawling into a tent to sleep on the ground. Oddly enough though, I always sleep well when I do camp so long as I have a mattress and am warm. And if I am to attend a noisy motorbike rally it is fitting to do it in the traditional fashion and suffer the mud and wet bedding. I can’t see myself going to Glastonbury and booking into a B&B: its just not in the spirit of the event. (Mind you, I can’t see myself going to Glastonbury at all! An Afrikaans motorbike rally was pushing my bounds reasonably far).
I enjoyed the weekend though. It was an interesting people-watching weekend and I met with plenty of kindness and generosity. It amused those who realised they had a foreign tourist amongst them and I made good part by trying the various unknown meaty foodstuffs and amusing the assembled biker crowds. “What is that?” I asked, pointing at a menu item on the A4 sheets taped to a large fridge.
One of the women preparing the typical Afrikaans cow-and-carbohydrate looked at her colleague and they discussed the delicacy in Afrikaans before showing me an egg-sized meaty ball. “It’s liver in fat!”
I couldn’t help telling her just how unappealing was her description. “So nothing green then?” I asked, feeling as I once did in red-neck USA when I stood at the bar in a plywood roadhouse between beer-bellied men in baseball caps drinking Miller, Miller Light, Coors, Bud and Bud Light and asked in my prissy British tones, “What’s the darkest beer you have, landlord?” Well, I didn’t actually address the sour-faced, hard-as-nails bartender as landlord, but it seemed to my ears that the word hovered in the air. “We got Miller, Miller Light, Bud, Bud Light…”, came the uncaring response. All as dark as urine and not much more appealing as a beverage. So it was with ‘…anything green?’ at an Afrikaans biker rally.
“You can have potato salad!” came the apparently inspired response. Chopped potatoes in other fats, just white ones.
“It’s actually just cholesterol in a bag!” said Steven, laughing at my distaste. “That’s how she should describe it.”
Later, several big hairy bikers asked how I had enjoyed the bizarre liver in fat. “Quite tasty, actually,” I replied, “trouble is I can still taste it three hours later.”
When in Rome. I’m willing to try absolutely anything – and have. People often ask what’s my worst culinary experience. No hesitation: fresh sheep milk yoghurt served me by the headman of a rural Syrian village. I had to look as though I was enjoying the bitterly sour tasting, lamb fat-flavoured, grey, streaky, washy vomit.
Liver in fat was a doddle.
By this morning the site was a mess of puddles and wet grass. Most of the campers had already left when I emerged from the draped shreds of canvas that constituted the remains of the tent. The revving of bikes had percolated the ear plugs for some time. Slowly, we packed up and got on our way. I left ahead of Steven, who needed petrol and was further delayed by a flat battery from leaving his GPS connected. I hammered back most of the 100 miles to Bloemfontein and waited for him and little Steven outside the city. Tortoises are to be seen on these roads. Drivers are usually respectful and it even brings out the kindness in them that they will stop and carry the slow-moving creatures to safety. I passed one being lifted off the road by a motorist. It was as large as a washing up bowl. Another was the size of a large pudding bowl. They grow to prodigious sizes.
Back in Bloem, at Steven’s retreat that is amongst fields outside the city limits, we had a relaxed afternoon. I dozed gratefully off in the bath while father and son fell into deep sleep in their chairs. We will all sleep well tonight. Little Steven was a charmer very self-assured, polite and thoughtful. A delightful 11 year old and good company. Like father, like son, I suppose, for it was a good day when I heard that familiar BMW engine sound when I needed help eleven years ago. Steven is kind and generous and extraordinarily warm-hearted and seems delighted that I returned for this visit. I shall be reluctant to move on. It is so easy having a host. I do not have the pressure of living on my wits as when I travel alone.
Tomorrow I shall move on but I will try to visit again before the end of this journey and, in due course, I shall enlist Steven’s help when I want to sell the red bike again.
I do enjoy having friends all over the world!
Electric storms raged across about 120 degrees of the horizon tonight. We set off to take young Steven back to his mother’s place across town. I imagined the storm would just pass by somewhere many miles away. Suddenly we were in the midst of a complete deluge. It is remarkable the power of tropical weather. One minute all is peace and calm, apparently moments later all hell is let loose. The lightning came too, streaking across the rain-sodden skies accompanied by terrifying thunder, one clap of which, soon after we got home – and drenched in the couple of metres from car to stoep – was no less than an explosion. “That was close!” exclaimed Steven who, living here and working with large steel towers, knows a thing or two about thunderstorms. And has some dramatic tales to tell of near escapes… It calls to mind my experiences eleven years ago in Lesotho when I was out in just such a storm, riding a large piece of metal, with gallons of propellant between my knees, at 3000 metres nearer the clouds – I was in them. One vast explosion of thunder almost threw me off my bike and when I looked across the sodden brush to my left, it was burning 300 yards away. I am still apprehensive about Lesotho today and am waiting as late as I can to go up there as the weather improves in the late summer. “But our weather patterns are not predictable any more…” one badge-bedecorated biker told me yesterday. So I guess I just have to take my chances.
The forecast for tomorrow is storms in the morning in the direction I shall be heading, coincidentally the very same road that Steven and I rode at 15mph back in 2002, limping my Elephant to Bloemfontein.
DAY 17. MONDAY 11TH FEBRUARY 2013. HA LEJONE. KINGDOM OF LESOTHO.
The Kingdom of Lesotho, what wonderful words to type. I have travelled in something like 90 countries; just short of ten years of travels. It has been my privilege to see with my own eyes some of the finest scenery in the world. This mountain kingdom, entirely encircled by South Africa, rates amongst the most beautiful places I know. As a country it has to be in my top five for sheer scenic splendour and warmth of its people. I now realise that what attracted me back on this journey was the possibility of return to Lesotho. It’s right up there with Iceland, Norway, the Palawan Islands (Philippines), the Faroe Islands, the Hindu Kush and an elite handful of other lands.
Of course, I am also back in Africa, the most fascinating, extraordinary of continents. What a difference a mile or two can make. I traversed a somewhat confusing and chaotic African border and suddenly I was back in a land where life takes place on the streets; where shacks and kiosks line the roads in town with dazzling displays of goods; derelict taxis and minibuses grind up hills in a fog of black fumes; where donkeys and cattle roam the road and people walk along the roadside with no discernible destination – on of the eternal mysteries of Africa. Women wash clothes in rivers; men trot by on sturdy Basotho ponies, wrapped in blankets and woollen balaclavas; schoolchildren wave at me in their hundreds and the local houses are squat rondavels with pointed thatched roofs. Suddenly the pernicious feelings of racial unfairness has evaporated. I wave and greet with EQUALITY. There is suddenly no sense of a nation of two peoples divided by the colour of their skin. We are all equal and that underlying resentment and class system based on a millimetre of skin has gone. No more is it just white-skinned people who drive pick ups, often with an empty cab and black-skinned people riding in the open back, maintaining – with little subtlety – the social division… No more the big white houses behind security gates manned by black-skinned guards paid a pittance…
Oh, Africa – the REAL Africa – is amazing.
Lesotho is one of the world’s best kept travel secrets. Even South Africans do not venture here much, despite the complete fascination of a different culture and the finest scenery the region has to offer – to say nothing of the friendliest people. My arm is tired from waving since I crossed that border from the troubled social atmosphere of the rich neighbour. RICH..? I wonder.
Socially, this country has one huge advantage, even in Africa. It is a land of about two million people all of the same tribe. It has one language and one unified identity.
Tourism is not much developed here. Hotels are few and basic and the country only really appeals to the more adventurous and adaptable.
I am so happy to be one of the enlightened.
It was difficult to leave the hospitality of my good friend Steven. And difficult for him not to accompany me! But he had work to go to, while I had the endless fascinations of Africa to explore according at my whim. I really only made the decision to turn left at Ladybrand, the town in which I met Steven eleven years ago after I limped out of Lesotho, on impulse. I had been going to head further south east towards the Transkei of South Africa, but the sun was shining in defiance of the forecast and the magical Kingdom tempted strongly. I pushed the bars to the left and headed for Ficksburg, one of the border towns of South Africa and Lesotho, at about 10.30 on the topographical ‘clock’ of Lesotho.
Ficksburg was another typical small South African town: a smart thatched coffee shop and restaurant where I had a coffee amongst white people in big white cars – served by black waiters and waitresses; my cup later washed by a black-skinned worker. White people drive the cars; black people fill them with petrol. White-owned souvenir shops sell black African art and craft to white passers by without the need to interact with a black person. Their clipped lawns are kept tidy by poorly paid black manual labourers.
SORRY. Here I go again. In many ways I love South Africa: in other ways I despise it vehemently, especially when I get to Lesotho, the Kingdom in the Sky. It’s the contrast. I just had a delightful – equal – conversation with Steve, the cook and barman of this odd ‘lodge’ in which the fact that his skin was black and mine ugly scorched pink just did not figure.
Of course we are not EQUAL. We are different in many ways, but skin colour is so incidental and ridiculous as a defining characteristic. I have the money to be riding a motorbike about their country: no Basotho have that luxury. That’s economic privilege, which I have in spades. But cut ourselves and we both bleed red blood. I really do feel ‘black inside’ when I enter Lesotho, just as I do in cheerful Ghana. I feel welcome here, just another human being doing my thing, my way, not a representative of a race…
Right, I will TRY not to get diverted back to that subject. Not today anyway.
I met a couple of Afrikaans fellows having a beer at the smart thatched restaurant – where a black man swept the car park. Stop it! I am now sporting a Union Jack on the back of my bike and a discrete GB plate on the front. It causes people to talk to me, as it did having British number plates in 2002. One of these chaps knew the roads here in Lesotho and suggested that rather than head for Katse Dam and its fairly dismal guest house, I should stop at Ha Lejone on the way. He said I would find a holiday development that would provide a bed for the night. It’s quite important in a country like Lesotho, where tourism is basic, to get such information as I go along.
He directed me to the border post and with a bike I was soon through the confusion of the bureaucracy. Generally, just looking confused and smiling aids my passage through these situations. Getting irritable is a disaster.
Immediately I was in another world, not just another country. The scene of the street immediately over the border could have been in West africa. Taxis and decrepit minibuses touted for business, people carried loads, donkeys tiptoed daintily about and kiosks piled high with cheap plastics and towels (Africans always seem to have an obsession with towels!) littered the roadside. Far ahead I could see, through a haze of fumes and dust, the inviting green mountains that make up this kingdom. I rode out of town, past hundreds of smallholdings and rough stone houses, round with pointed reed roofs, waving back already at all the world about me.
Fifteen kilometres along the road I turned right towards the centre of this small kingdom and began immediately to climb into the impressive mountains. An hour later I was on an excellent road, twisting this way and that as I approached one of the most impressive passes, the Mafika Lisiu, a fine feat of road engineering that climbs to 3090 metres through the rugged green mountains. A lot of small rock falls litter the road at all times, falling from the steep, towering slopes and an occasional sign: ‘Ice’, reminds one that this is high country. Even today, in just-past-midsummer, I had to put on my Jersey and scarf beneath my summer jacket. Tonight I have a heater in my room.
Lesotho has the highest lowest point of any country in the world. That’s perhaps confusing. What it means is that there is no point in the kingdom lower than 300 metres above sea level, and most of it is above 1000 metres. The second highest African mountain, after Kilimanjaro, is in Lesotho. So’s the highest road in Africa: I have to get there again!
Most of the population lives in the lowlands, really a geographical extension of the Free State. Once you start to climb the villages get smaller. But everywhere are small dwellings of stone and thatch, distinctive houses that are recognisably Basotho. It’s a wonderfully green landscape. All tillable land is put to use; the rest is grazing. A wonder of Lesotho is that you can be in the middle of absolutely nowhere, mile upon mile from the nearest visible habitation, apparently totally alone – and round the corner, or up on the mountainside, or down a road embankment or round some rocks, will come a Basotho herds-boy wrapped in a blanket, both arms looped over a stick across his shoulders. Or bouncing down an insignificant scratch of a path will come a man on a nimble horse, blanket waving behind him and long woollen hat bouncing on the back of his head. Or a gaggle of young women will appear round the bend under colourful umbrellas against the mountain sun. Then very black faces will break into wonderful smiles and a flutter of greetings will pass with the wave of hands.
His Majesty King Letsie III is the monarch of Lesotho. It is a constitutional monarchy, rather similar to Britain, in which the king has a largely ceremonial role, although legislation is technically approved by the king. Lesotho has a history of colonial rule and division into the independent Free State an so on, but it is largely held together by its homogenous nature of a single tribal group in its mountain fastness – and probably by a lack of mineral wealth. A great deal of its present economy rests upon the sale of water to the thirsty mines and industries of South Africa.
Lesotho became independent of the British Empire in 1966. Perhaps its greatest strength comes from having no history of the appalling apartheid regime of its surrounding neighbour. My dear friend Dee, who worked in South Africa for a time in the 60s, told me the story of coming to Lesotho and walking into a restaurant. “There were black and white people eating there. I thought ‘Whoa!’ and then I was ashamed of the thought! I had become indoctrinated by that dreadful regime.”
A short time ago (well, actually, it takes well over an hour every night to put down my impressions) I walked back down from the bar and dining room of this sort of chalet development. It’s government owned – as is ALL land in Lesotho – and acts as accommodation for visiting officials, groups, conferences – and the occasional passing Brit on a piki piki (Swahili for motorbike) with £17.50 to spend on a room with a view. I walked down the dark lane, dimly aware of the scale of the soaring mountains about me. I am a few feet above the level of the enormous Katse lake, one of the three vast lakes that water South Africa. The stars are bright tonight – the air so clear at this altitude – Orion still on his head. The frogs croak in the night and jump about outside my door. It is deeply peaceful and I am thrilled to be back in one of the most beautiful countries in the world with its lovely people.
Mind you, I might just put the electric radiator back on for a bit. Africa, such a continent of surprises. There’s nowhere like it. Africa gets under your skin – whatever hue it might be.
DAY 18. TUESDAY 12TH FEBRUARY 2013. MOLENGOANE. LESOTHO
The top of the world feeling doesn’t come much better than in Lesotho. It is a truly special place. I feel so privileged to be here. No one else is. Well, no other tourists that I can see. It’s true there’s not much infrastructure for those not prepared to rough it a bit and be adaptable but such is the beauty of the place and its people that in any other country the scenery I have been riding through throughout the day would be the subject of tours, postcards and souvenirs. There’d be restaurants and look-outs on the passes and development everywhere. Here it is just me and empty roads, vast views and unimaginable beauty.
But I have paid for it in effort and tenacity. I am very tired. 8.30 feels like midnight and if I didn’t have this nightly discipline to complete I’d be downing the last of my beer and getting into bed. I have ridden 180 miles, fifty or so of them on bumpy, potholed rough tracks.
I must come to the conclusion that much of what I undertake on these journeys I do as a challenge to myself. Now added to that, which has been a long-standing reason for any of my mild adventures, is a determination not to admit to any frailty of increasing age! So I push myself as hard as ever…
I am one of the world’s worst mechanics. I have no aptitude and a great dislike of working on machinery of any sort. I love to ride my bike but I really don’t want to know how it works – just that it does. When it doesn’t I get irritable and feel inadequate. This morning the bike would not start. It’s been difficult for few mornings, just that first start of the day, then it has run fine. Each other morning it has started eventually, but this morning, try as I would, it would not fire. So, unhappily, I had to investigate. I removed many of the ridiculous bits of fashion panel that BMW now see fit to add to their machines to make them stylish. The Elephant has none of this. I undid about twenty small Allen screws and detached all sorts of bits of very expensive plastic to get at the engine. I tried the spark plugs, choke cables, fuel line and a few other desperate, ignorant measures. I borrowed a phone and rang Steven (poor man). He agreed that it sounded like plugs or wet fuel. So I went back to the bike and undid the petrol pipe. The fuel was not contaminated and the plugs looked fine. I forgot to put back the petrol feed pipe and fired the engine. Somehow it suddenly started. I have no idea why. Maybe an air lock? Who knows. But it took me three hours before I could get started on my day’s ride.
My day was hard. I rode the winding roads to Katse, site of the large dam that holds back one of the enormous lakes that snake their way tortuously through the Lesotho mountains, and whose water supplies thirsty Johannesburg and its industrial conurbation. At Katse I turned left and was immediately on a poor, rutted dirt road. My map shows it as a minor road, untarred, but omitted to show me how many kilometres it would be until I reached Thaba Tseki. It was almost forty punishing miles of bouncing, potholed track. However, the scenery was astounding. These vast crumpled, rumpled, creased, folded and softly green mountains plunged to swirling rivers far below and rose far above to the brilliant skies and painted clouds. My main danger was loss of concentration in looking at the wonders about me. On plateaux far below, and sometimes well above the road, were small tidy villages of round thatched houses, well kept and like a romantic picture book image of the old Africa. I stopped often for photographs. It always seems, in Lesotho, that you are alone, but somewhere, camouflaged amongst the rock and grass, tending a few cows or sheep, will be a herdsman draped in a brown blanket, with his gumboots and woollen balaclava, a stick in hand, gazing into the magnificence as placidly and calmly as his cattle.
When I passed through infrequent villages, so small they were just hamlets spread across the slopes, people waved happily. Cows and donkeys ranged across my road and the small houses were all cared for and neat. It is noticeable that Lesotho is free of litter and that almost every house has a tidy latrine, often of rather obvious shiny corrugated zinc. I bounced and bashed along, enthralled by the beauty around me. The body may be tired tonight but the spirit is uplifted.
Eventually, I could see Thaba Tseka across intervening valleys. Sometimes I could see my road far away and know that in ten or fifteen minutes I would be there and that the dust and rocks amongst which I was now riding would just be an indistinct scratch on the mountainside. The track just went on and on. I passed perhaps a dozen vehicle, mainly toiling minibuses taking passengers to remote villages.
At Thaba Tseka I turned with relief onto a tarred road and swept high, high up into the mighty mountains, soaring over passes that rook my breath away. I was riding at almost 3000 metres in chill air beneath a scorching sun. For some difficult miles the road deteriorated to broken tarmac, pulverised by the climate to dust and stones, almost more difficult than the dirt roads since gravel on broken tarmac is slippery. Still herdsmen and herdsboys waved from amongst the rock and grass, mile upon mile from habitation. In Africa cattle are wealth and are looked after as valuable possessions. They form the basis of any rural family economy.
The roads of Lesotho are varied. Some of them, many of them, are fine winding highways – completely empty of traffic, except the wandering four-footed kind. At one time I had to stop while a whole flock of very smelly sheep parted round me and drifted up the road herded by cheerful men and boys. One fellow trotted by on his Basotho horse, sturdy animals that clamber nimbly on mountainsides that seem semi-vertical.
Anywhere else in the world these roads would be a subject for tourist brochures, holiday trips and scenic drives. There would be restaurants and look-outs at every summit and souvenirs from one valley to the next. In Lesotho is just unspoiled nature, the endless sky and views without rival.
Slowly I descended. The latter passes were only 2000-odd metres. The landscape was still stunning, almost beyond all the literary superlatives I can conjure. This country is a wonder; one of the world’s best kept secrets: for there are no tourists. Even South Africans don’t come here. I remember in 2002 staying in a guest house within twenty miles of the southern Lesotho border. I was still ‘high’ with delight at the Kingdom in the Sky. My hostess was a little distant. “Oh, Lesotho? They’re all bleck, aren’t they?” I was shocked then. I am still shocked now. She had never been to Lesotho. She lived twenty miles from one of the most beautiful landscapes, inhabited by some of the most friendly, welcoming, easy-going folk in this amazingly varied world. All she could ask was, “they’re poor, aren’t they?”
“No, lady,” I wanted to reply, “YOU’RE poor…” Of course, I kept my council. You don’t change such prejudice. Only a couple of human traits do I really abhor and despise: wilful ignorance and lack of curiosity. She had them both – in spades…
So slowly I came down – from the high mountains, not from my high spirits. I was becoming very tired indeed and riding not very skilfully. Here I was on roads for which bikers search the world (well, not Lesotho, it seems) and my concentration could not really match the pure enjoyment that only a biker can understand, of twisting roads, no traffic and the thrill of throwing a well-made machine fluidly from one side to the other, leaning this way and that, flowing down smooth curling tarmac.
Finding accommodation is not so easy in Lesotho, where tourism is hardly even fledgling. My room tonight is poor value, rather pretentious but available. There’s a restaurant and bar for my nutritional needs and a bed and bath for my tiredness although running the bath has taken 45 minutes with inefficient plumbing.
I am so happy to be in Lesotho. I hope my enjoyment and thrill communicates itself. Words cannot hope to capture the sense of excitement at being here in one of the most beautiful places on the globe. Welcoming smiles. A thousand cheery waves. Spontaneous laughter.
The Roof of Africa; the Kingdom in the Sky – unrivalled magnificence; sheer satisfaction.
DAY 19. WEDNESDAY 13TH FEBRUARY 2013. BETHLEHEM. SOUTH AFRICA
It took twenty minutes to start the bike from cold this morning so I changed my plans and find myself reluctantly back in South Africa tonight. Having searched Maseru, Lesotho’s diminutive capital for some ten miles and well over an hour, finally finding its only (I think) bike shop and new spark plugs, I decided to ride to Bethlehem, where there is a BMW motorbike dealer and seek advice. It may be that the plugs work tomorrow, in which case I shall be most upset not to be in Lesotho… (But happy to have solved the starting problem). It could be carburation and that’s way beyond my skill level. I do need the machine to be reliable for the coming weeks, so a small sacrifice now might pay off later. I can return to the magic of Lesotho later.
So I loaded up – that’s becoming easy now, with my very light luggage – and headed downhill towards the lower lands on the west side of the country where most of the population live. It is still a huge landscape with big skies and extensive vistas of rocky escarpments and spreading valleys. More and more small dwellings fill the views and then Maseru, a rather scruffy, very African small city that could be in Ghana or any country in between, begins to fill up the green views. Strings of workshops, small factories and suppliers of everything imaginable sprawl along the roadside and battered taxis and fume-belching minibuses wander the road with as much discipline as the mountain sheep, stopping suddenly to take up or put down passengers. The traffic is ill disciplined and pedestrians hell bent on weaving across the road with all manner of goods but it is always fun to negotiate such busy scenes. On a motorbike I have unrivalled flexibility and so long as you keep eyes everywhere, including the back of your head, it is exhilarating to ride in African towns. I searched everywhere for spark plugs, cruising up and down the small centre, filled with banks, government offices, mobile phone companies (legions of which everywhere in Africa), shopping malls and taxi ranks and street-side vendors.
Finally I tracked down the only place in town that seemed to have the plugs I needed and it was the owner, a white South African, who suggested I needed to go to Bloemfontein or Bethlehem. It was only later that I realised that I have been enjoying Lesotho so much that I have lost a day. I could swear it was tuesday, but it is wednesday, and I need to be in Durban on friday. So Bethlehem it had to be.
Teyateyaneng – fortunately known as TY – is 45 kms north of Maseru and is also known as the craft capital of the kingdom. In 2002 I purchased, from a couple of delightful Basotho women in the Drakensburg mountains (on the South African side actually), two small colourful weavings that I cherish. I had decided that I might look for a tangible souvenir of this lovely country by stopping at TY to look at some of the weaving businesses, most of which are run on co-operative or vaguely ethical lines.
Sesotho Weavers was one such place. In a long shed-like building in the same compound as a cheerfully noisy primary school a number of happy women sat at frames on which they were hand weaving, using home-spun and dyed Basotho wool, hangings and mats with exquisite skill and apparent ease. They work with an outline illustration on paper behind the twines, dextrously slipping small skeins of colourful wool back and forth building up their pictures. It takes at least four weeks to make a hanging about a metre by 900mm. And that does not include the time taken carding, spinning, washing and dying the threads.
I bought the most expensive travel souvenir I ever did. My eye lighted upon a mat depicting ‘African Independence’, with lines of small characters winding their way round the mat to the chief in the centre, with drums and dancers. It will have taken about four week to produce and it cost me £120. It will be a fine memento of this wonderful kingdom and its friendly people. After I had made my purchase I spent a cheery hour with the ladies, taking photographs and playing at nonsense as one always does in a situation with African women in a group. Anna, a particularly happy weaver, whose fingers continued to weave as she laughed and pulled my leg, decided they should give a Basotho name: ‘Thabo’, meaning, I am proud to say: ‘Happy’. I enjoyed that hour so much. When I look at my rug I shall smile evermore.
At last I rode away, the mat strapped behind me in a black bin-liner. Now I had to bat along to get back to South Africa via the Caledonspoort border crossing in a fine low mountain pass. This was a good choice of border: quiet and quick. Looking at the map, I see I have used eight of the twelve Lesotho border crossings. I was unhappy to leave. My effusion made the immigration women laugh.
I saw that if I put on a spurt I might get to the BMW dealer before they closed at 5.00, which I did but the mechanic is away until tomorrow. However, the helpful Afrikaans boss suggested I come tomorrow if necessary and that they would even pick me up if the bike doesn’t start. The young woman in the office then kindly spent twenty minutes on the phone finding me a place to stay tonight. She found me a B&B on the edge of the town centre, close enough that I could walk into town for my supper at a bar, but set in a grassy garden.
I sped through the border and the lovely countryside beyond, beautiful grasslands backed by the end of the famous Drakensburg range.
Suddenly the waving stopped. I was back in this odd, troubled – unhappy – country where all the cars are driven by white people (sometimes with black people in the open rear of the pick up…); where all the wealth is in the hands of the ten per cent of white people. Now, in an instant, I represent something, something I don’t like and that does not square with my egalitarian ideals. I am a ‘white man’, no longer just a bloke riding a motorbike in Africa who just happens to have a white skin and who smiles at everyone.
In moments I felt the hackles rising. Perhaps more so now I have been in the proper Africa for just a couple of days and seen how much is missing here in this unequal, unhappy land.
In Lesotho people explain their contentment and equality easily. “We did not have apartheid!” exclaimed Anna, the weaver. And apartheid, it seems to my observation, is alive and well in South Africa. Of course, not in law, but in social reality. There are two classes and two economic groups still.
My hosts tonight are an English couple – Geordies, in fact. I arrived full of goodwill and high spirit from being in the real Africa. They asked what I was doing here.
“Oh, touring southern Africa for a few weeks!”
“That must be very dangerous!” they exclaimed with abject ignorance (one of my cardinal sins, as mentioned above: wilful ignorance).
“Do you know, I have ridden all over Africa and never had a moment’s apprehension!” I countered, keeping the smile on my face to cover my disgust. These people have lived 30 miles or so from Lesotho for over 40 years. They went once, 17 years ago. Within minutes of my arrival, presuming I suppose that since I have a white skin I would be sympathetic, they began to bemoan their lot in life, using words like ‘trapped here’ and ‘get out if we could’. Their political stance is obviously very conservative and racist from other things they touched on about Britain.
However, I feel no sympathy. They emigrated to South Africa at the height of the poisonous and disgusting apartheid years when I was, pathetically perhaps, scouring labels on products that might prove to come from South Africa so that I could boycott them on principle. And I didn’t even suspect back then how Africa would get under my skin. Well, I’m sorry, Geordies, but gravy trains eventually run out of Bisto. You made your beds by supporting a rotten regime and now you have to take the rough. You came here to live off the fat of – someone else’s – land and now it’s their turn. Hard cheese. Be positive and get on with life instead of such miserable negativity. Maybe you should talk to some black people – or visit Lesotho and try to get some understanding of the continent on which you chose to live (owning two houses, it must be said). You are living in a fascinating continent with astonishing cultures all around you. If you choose to ignore all that, then you have no right to complain that politics have changed and some form of meagre justice is surfacing. If you keep your heads stuck resentfully in the sand all you will see is sand. Lift your eyes and look around you. Be curious. Be willing to learn from those you consider inferior; they have a lot they can teach you.
Then I walked to a bar several blocks into the town. Every single being in the bar/ restaurant was white. Every one. I just came from eating happily amongst friendly black Basotho people. Eating metaphorically from the same pot. (In Ghana it’s often not metaphoric!). The white people in that restaurant were universally huge, out of proportion and eating meals that could feed an African family for several meals. One man beside me had a joint of meat placed in front of him – I do not exaggerate! Beyond the security grilles, the small-scaled, neatly proportioned Africans – who are indigenous to this continent: Africa – were going home to a meal of ‘pap’ (maize meal) and a piece of chicken if they were lucky. Or they would be living in a rainy tin shed guarding the whites’ cars and dreaming of attending Natal Tech to study town planning, like David was eleven years ago in Nottingham Road – and probably still is today.
I have been three or four hours in South Africa and I am offended, angry and bitter again! It’s a country of boundless potential scuppered by bad presumptions, lack of understanding and resentment. Wilful ignorance and lack of curiosity. On both sides…
DAY 20. THURSDAY 14TH FEBRUARY 2013. HARRISMITH. SOUTH AFRICA
As I rode the bike round to the hotel yard here in Harrismith I thought, ‘I’ve stayed here before!’ It wasn’t the faded hotel – The Grand National – but the bar opposite that I recogised. Sure enough, when I looked at my notes, I stayed in the Grand National Hotel on the 25th and 26th of January 2002. When I told Tony, the hotel owner, he reckoned I had seemed familiar. I suppose not so many Brits on bikes turn up in Harrismith. Maybe even at eleven year intervals it constitutes an event in Harrismith…
I recollect, from rereading my 2002 journal recently, that it was in Harrismith that I wrote that I had met the most appalling bigots – and quite liked them despite their awful prejudices. I was, in fact, in this very bar where I am beginning to write tonight – although I have forgotten every detail that I didn’t write down. Isn’t memory – or lack of it! – astonishing? I spent 12 hours of my life in Harrismith, long ago, and all I remember, thanks to my extraordinarily developed bump of location, was the relation of a rather bad bar to the hotel yard. I must have met someone to talk to, for I formed the opinion of likeable bigots.
Not so tonight. The bar, which has changed hands many times, is miserable, the service ‘with attitude’ and the food grim. No tip this time. It’s the customer’s only revenge for such dismissive service.
Confusion reigns. What a totally bizarre country. Fascinating enough to bring me back for a second look (although the proximity to REAL Africa may be more the cause for that) and utterly objectionable at the same time. Each day I meet offensive racists and kindly people. Just sometimes they are the same person and that makes it even more unacceptable.
I mix with anyone (except unsmiling, rude bar staff). I approach as I hope to be greeted. I converse with black and white. I had a lovely conversation with Mathla, a charming road inspector wearing a bight puce satin shirt with fancy buttons. He told me the history of Harrismith, showed me the petrified tree that lies next to the central offices, and was friendliness personified. I also listened, a little tight-lipped, to my morning host’s dreadful prejudices: “Huh, if you were black, you’d have the job already,” and: “You might feel uncomfortable in Phutaditijhaba (a township I might pass through), they’re all black. You’ll be the only white face…”
I do object most strongly to the assumption that because I share a skin colour (ish with my beetroot hues) I share the prejudices. Actually, I invariably feel MORE uncomfortable with this perception of white supremacy than I do amongst any number of black people. So much so that I made a point of stopping in Phutaditijhaba at a market area; was immediately buttonholed by a drunkard of no malice, and much to the amusement of the market women. We all laughed happily at the drunk’s unintelligible but enthusiastic conversation and I felt a brief but meaningful bond with everyone around me. And no ‘discomfort’ whatsoever. Certainly no fear.
“Oh, it costs us a fortune, all these damned Zulu ‘kings’ (inverted commas, my host’s) and their families!” when I told him I am to visit a Zulu palace next week and meet princesses. Well, sorry, mate, but the Zulus were here first, before the white men usurped and annexed their lands.
Racism, bitterness and total wilful ignorance. I see it around me so much. The dismissal of a whole race because of skin colour. It is so colonial and offensive. But I suppose this country is the only one in which I have ever really felt embarrassed to be white skinned and associated with the very real colonial ethos of the white ten per cent.
It all reminds me of that other troubled, unhappy land in which one culture is imposed upon and claims rights over another: Israel. It is a country I hated, thanks to the way I was treated as utterly insignificant by every Israeli with whom I had contact. Everywhere we Europeans were ‘warned’ and brainwashed about the iniquities of the Arabs, who would, according to Israelis, rob, rape and murder and do every unspeakable thing possible. The fact was, I found that when I ignored the prejudices of the arrogant Israelis, the Palestinians were hospitable, peaceable and warm-hearted: vastly more compatible than the Israelis. In South Africa white people – especially the immigrant British – spend a great deal of effort warning me of the iniquities of the blacks and trying to impose their own ignorant fears and insecurities on me…
Fortunately, I prefer to judge for myself.
I fitted the new spark plugs and the bike started normally. So, yes, I am frustrated not to be still in Lesotho as I predicted. Instead, I went to thank the people at the BMW dealership before I headed out of Bethlehem. My host and hostess were kindly – but painfully ill-informed. However, she cooked me a good breakfast (including porridge, which I eat about once a blue moon) that kept me going until tonight’s lousy meal. So it was late by the time I rode away, heading for Clarens and the Drakensburg National Park.
The Drakensburg is one of the major sights of South Africa, the magnificent steep mountain range that holds up Lesotho. Here in South Africa it is one of the best developed tourist attractions. For one who has seen the other side of these mountains, this side is beautiful but pales, if not to insignificance, to a dilution. International hotels, spas, galleries, coffee shoppes, horse riding centres, antique shops and rules and regulations. In Lesotho, round the back, it’s just nature as nature intends.
Red and buff sandstone cliffs and bluffs and green valleys: it is magnificent. But it’s not Lesotho. I rode some of the back roads and then up very rocky tracks to the Sentinel Peak area, up into an intimate view the mighty landscape. Here the final fissured and corrugated escarpments rise to the skies. Far below the slopes plummet in tight folds into the green emptiness. This is all a World Heritage Site – despite the fact that the ignored Basotho side is so wonderful – more wonderful to me.
By the time I got to the top of the rocky track the weather was closing in (as it did in 2002. I am out of luck). I descended again after a shorter walk than I would have liked. I did not relish the dirt road in rain. I was back on tarmac before the real rainstorm hit and by the time I had dug about in my pannier bags to find my waterproofs, pulled them on and got back on the road, the rain just about stopped, leaving me sweating in the humidity. Too late now for more sightseeing, I turned the bars towards Harrismith, the nearest town for accommodation. Had I checked the notes I made from my 2002 diary I would have come directly to the slightly seedy but great value Grand National Hotel. But I didn’t, following signs instead for the information office, which was officially closed, but by joking with the fat black ladies – it being Valentines Day there was plenty of opportunity for a bit of jocular flirtation, which all Africans enjoy – I charmed them into phoning all over town! Then I rode to the Grand National and a brief sense of deja-vu set in. The lobby wallpaper is peeling, the old stained paintwork is dull, the carpets threadbare. Business is bad, admits Tony, the fat Afrikaans owner, hobbling from his smoky office on crutches. I enjoy these old faded hotels so much more than pretentious, chintzy, pillowed and cushioned bed and breakfasts. There’s a basic honesty about them that appeals. And to Tony, I seemed familiar. How’s that after 11 years?
It’s been another log day. It’s now 10.00 and I am well ready for bed. The heat saps a lot of strength; that and the need to keep my wits tuned all day long. It’s stimulating and fascinating to travel, puts life in perspective, but it is surprisingly hard work too.
It is three weeks since I was in Bristol. It seems like months! So much happens to fill every day of my travels that time is elastic. I feel so far from Harberton, with so much still to see and do. This is feeling ‘alive’. It’s great!
DAY 21 FRIDAY15TH FEBRUARY 2013. KLOOF. SOUTH AFRICA
There are days when it is difficult to justify the pleasure of travelling. As the rain lashes down and you ride through soggy blankets of foggy cloud, with chilly water running down your legs inside your ‘waterproofs’, goggles steamed and spattered and sitting in a puddle of cold water… Well, that’s just such a time when the magic evaporates – or just washes away. Thus it was riding back to Durban for the last three hours of the journey. But even such discomfort is relative, and the satisfaction comes at the end when you have beaten the odds and have a whisky in hand after a hot shower.
Durban seems to have this effect on me; or me on Durban, I arrived in rain three weeks ago and I arrived in rain today. At least I did not have to find lodgings tonight and sleep in a second rate hotel room draped in drying motorbike gear. Been there: done that, all too often.
Much to my surprise in a faded old hotel like the Gand National, Harrismith, my ordered breakfast was delivered on a tray to my room at 7.50. That doesn’t happen in places twice the tariff of the Grand national at a mere £14.30. Breakfast was a cheese and tomato omelette, two slices of toast and two ‘Viennas’, I believe they are called. These were two luridly red, sleek, shiny-skinned sausages. Food that colour, you just know, is going to be bad for you. Lord knows what rendered horrors end up packaged in those tight slimy skins…
But it was food, and on my journeys I eat to live. There is no pace in budget travel for fancy tastes. You just take what you can get and make the most of it. It kept me going most of the day.
Then it was the ritual load up and the reluctantly slow machine-start again, after yesterday’s success with new spark plugs. So here in Durban perhaps I need to seek diagnostic advice. After a time the bike fired and I was on my way. A look to the hazy view that contained the mountains to the south suggested that the bad rocky road I was going to take in that direction would turn into a bad decision. Already I could see the clouds gathering, as they continued to do all day long, thickening to cool shade and mist and then full-on rain as I splashed the last thirty or forty miles. For a short time I took to the motorway but the spray and tail-gating at 70mph in rain alarmed me and I quickly turned off to follow the old but tortuous route, the R103, that I knew would bring me, eventually, to the suburb of Kloof. With a dry house and a welcome awaiting me it became a good deal more acceptable. I arrived and dripped water on the kitchen tiles as Yvonne laughed at my condition. A good supper, some large whiskies – and it’s all soon a memory of challenges overcome.
My route brought me through the battlefields of the Boer War. In the late 1890s and early 1900s this area resounded to the sound of big guns. Many British lives were lost here. Here were the Siege of Ladysmith, the battle of Spionkop, and other battles of those wars about which most of us know so little now. My own grandfather earned a Boer medal, but I don’t know why… He was an officer in the Royal Navy then so I assume he was involved in the shipping blockades or supplies to this half-forgotten war. To him, and to all the others, it was a matter of life and death, of huge significance – and yet here am I, only a hundred years later, and I have no empathy with the cause of those colonial wars or understanding of what those men suffered – or why. All I can do is stop at a roadside memorial site and read names of young men who gave their lives for some cause that obviously seemed important at the time. I suppose to the indigenous people of these lands those battles left a legacy, although the indigenous people were largely ignored as two opposing invaders fought across their tribal homelands for possession of which, it seems to me, neither had any right. These were wars fought with infantry and horses. I am reminded of that when I see the lovely waving heads of pretty cosmos, that simple daisy-like flower that fills the roadside verges. When I rode here eleven years ago it was in January and cosmos filled fields, acre upon acre of lovely waving pinks, white and purple. The flowers originated in seeds transported here in cattle fodder from Europe. It was then deposited along the routes of the horse marches and battlefields, a memorial today to the long lost battles.
I found a marker also for the scene of a train wreck that led to the capture of the Rt. Ho. Winston Churchill, another side note of history.
Later, I found a monument that had so much more meaning for me: the site of the capture of Nelson Mandela in the 1960s. He had been on the run, popping up here and there to speak so eloquently against apartheid and the division of his country. He had become known as the ‘pimpernel’ as he moved about the country against all the efforts of the white police and government. But on that road here in the ‘Midlands’ his car was stopped and he was arrested, leading, as we all know, to his imprisonment and the momentous events of the life of one of the world’s most admired statesmen; admired by black and white alike. There was an interesting exhibition in a nearby building with some of the history of his life. He is man whom everyone loves here. His death will be an event of considerable world importance, and great South African significance. His state of health is followed with attention.
I called in for a coffee and scone at the place where Mike and I attended the meeting about the San cultural exhibit. Once again the view was just something for which I had to take the word of Chris, who runs the restaurant there. The clouds had descended and we were left in a grey gloom that soon led to rain. From there my road became increasingly wet and miserable and, in those conditions, just seemed to get longer and longer.
So back to Kloof and the end of the first circuit of my journey – about two and a half thousand miles of it in 16 riding days. I have to decide where to go next – probably to Swaziland, I think and then northwards to Botswana. On monday Mike and I are to meet a couple of Zulu princesses and a queen at a palace that they want to develop for tourism. The queen whom I am to meet is the sister of the king of Swaziland, one of the few absolute monarchs left in the world. I must remember to tell her I am going to Swaziland because I enjoyed it so much in 2002.
I am sure you can see why I love travelling so much!