DAY 28. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 21st 2013. KLOOF. SOUTH AFRICA
Aaaaargh! I have reached screaming point with Hillcrest Ryder Motorad. I am SO frustrated that all they ever say is, we’re working on it. It is patently obvious that they are not. In fact, when I visited at lunchtime today every item on the workbench was in exactly the same position it was in at lunchtime yesterday. This afternoon Mike phoned the BMW head office in South Africa and put in a complaint. It seems my bike does not feature on the list of machines registered for maintenance at Hillcrest… I hope that his phone call will put a rocket under the bloody place and I can collect the bike tomorrow. If they had said it would take most of the week I could at least have had the seat recovered while I waited and made some other plans.
So another day trapped (comfortably and in friendly company) in Kloof. I took Yvonne out for lunch again and kicked my heels about the house the rest of the day. This evening we went for a congenial supper party with Yvonne and Michael’s friends Di and Mark.
Oh dear, I am so frustrated by this delay, especially as it looks as if the American contract my cut my time here short.
DAY 29. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 22nd 2013. STILL IN BLOODY KLOOF! SOUTH AFRICA
Despite getting BMW South Africa’s customer relations department involved, I STILL do not have my bike. The maintenance manager admitted that nothing happened yesterday as he was away, and I know nothing happened the day before by the evidence of my own eyes. Today I went, bad tempered, and was firmer. This afternoon they were ‘still working on it as we speak’. It is now a week since I left it for a fairly straightforward diagnosis and repair. I have wasted a week of my trip. Well, that’s unfair on my kind hosts, Yvonne and Michael, but they will forgive me the use of the word.
I realise I just want to get over a border to a country where black people smile at me. These wealthy white suburbs just do not suit me. Sitting drinking coffee in a cafe exclusively used by white people and served by black people and then in the old railway station, now a bar, across the road with the same conditions is not what I want to see. I want to be in a place where my skin does not mark me out as a representative of a socio-political status of which I do not wish to be a member. Here I desperately speak to the waiters and even the fellow sitting at the street crossing holding a banner looking for work as a thatcher in an attempt to talk with Africans. I need to get to Swaziland. Soon. If I don’t I am in constant danger of offending white people around me!
After dinner tonight we got into a lively (partly wine-driven, it must be admitted) discussion of my observations and views of the privileges (as I see them) of white South African life and the appalling inequalities (as I see them) of opportunity. Mike listens and understands my discomfort but blames a lot of the current malaise on the present government missing opportunities and descending to a lot of unbalanced prejudices themselves in favouring black over white irrespective of qualification. Yvonne just accuses me of seeing all the wrong things and seeing them from my prejudiced angle. Maybe I do. But I do believe very strongly in some fundamental ideals of equality that I do not see in practice. She cannot accept my discomfort in the employment of servants, asking how those servants could keep their families if they were not employed by the whites. But in this argument I see a basic flaw: it’s the perception of master/ servant that I find abhorrent, not employment per se. Yvonne says I probably offended the maid this morning by doing my own washing in the shower (as is my travelling habit) as that’s what the maid is paid for and that money keeps her family. Lindiwe, the maid, is, in a paternalistic manner, very much part of the family (she is third generation in this household) – as is Henry the gardener – and gets paid much more than the government basic wage and enjoys a lot of perks on a personal basis. But she is still a maid and that for me has just too many associations with perpetuation of a class system for my comfort. I don’t know. I guess it’s just my personal confusion but I am uncomfortable with life here. The baggage of all those decades of racial suppression are going to take several generations to rebalance.
And I want my bike back from the bloody BMW dealer. I think I have justification for being VERY frustrated…
DAY 30. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 23RD 2013. VRYHEID, SOUTH AFRICA
At last I am on the road again. I finally rode away from Kloof at noon today almost exactly a week from the time I left the bike for repair. The maintenance manager was apologetic and accepted some responsibility for the delay – and reduced the bill by £32 as a gesture. It turned out the problem was the valve clearances – which were seriously badly adjusted. Trouble is, they told me on wednesday that they were just going to do that. It took until friday afternoon to actually achieve it. Oh well, I have the bike back now and it is running fine. The maintenance manager, Michael, says it is in quite reasonable condition and that Garvin’s price was very reasonable. So I cannot really complain at investing a further £183 in getting it fettled, as they’d say in Yorkshire.
I rode westwards towards the small city of Pietermaritzburg through the big rolling down lands that spread west of Durban, the road sweeping through the large scenery. At PMZ, as it is shortened, I turned to the north on a rural road, the R33, and followed that for the rest of the afternoon. Distances are so huge here. The road climbed into rolling hills that were about big enough to be called mountains, covered initially in sugar cane fields. Later the ride was fun as the road wriggled over the hills through a number of Zulu villages where people live in typical round houses with pointed thatched roofs. It being saturday there were a lot of people about. I stopped in one town, Tugela Ferry, for a short while. It occurred to me, with amusement, that the white people of the Durban suburbs I left 150 miles back would have passed through with their windows wound up and their doors automatically centrally locked (this usually happens as they drive out of their security gates). I stopped bang in the middle of a seething market area where hundreds of people gathered. Yesterday was the last friday f the month: pay day, so the supermarket was impossibly full. I just laughed at a small crowd sitting under shelters outside, shrugged my shoulders and said, “Wow! TOO busy!” and found a stall selling omelettes and sheets of white, sweet bread. I was famished. As I stood by my bike eating, I was the centre of a lot of cheerful attention. I always smile at everyone and I always get smiles in return. It was a warm-hearted few minutes with absolutely no need for central locking.
From there the scenery became vast and handsome, huge sweeping folds of green mountain and then later vast veldts of rich grassland grazed by large herds. It has been a fine journey, but long, as are all South African journeys. Distances are so big here. Towns are invariably 50 and more miles apart.
It was early to stop when I reached Dundee, where I had planned to stop tonight – as much as I have any plans. So I rode on for another 50 miles to Vryheid, an unprepossessing sort of town that is obviously a centre for the farming industry around. I toured the wide streets for ten minutes looking for likely accommodation. I alighted eventually on Rita’s Guest House, a smartish sort of place with a large garden. On asking the tariff, I was told £35, which is beyond the budget I allow by a long way. In this situation I am always very charming and tell them I am looking for somewhere for more like half that. I shake my head regretfully and ask advice for other places to stay. Sometimes, if it is the owner, as in this case, I get offered a deal. Rita, not looking a gift horse in the mouth and preferring a full room for £21 to an empty one for nothing, said she would do the room for that price, “Room only!” I looked a bit confused. “Room only? Will there be sheets and a bed?” This amused her so much she conceded to throw in breakfast as well! Always worth a try.
I have been riding through the Zulu Wars and the Boer Wars this afternoon. All around me are signs to battlefields (not a lot to see) with famous names: Blood River, where the Boer Vortrekkers massacred 3000 Zulus, fighting with spears against rifles and grapeshot in 1838; Isandlwana where 25,000 Zulus defeated the 24th regiment in 1879; and Rorke’s Drift, where 4000 Zulu warriors laid siege to a mission station defended in an epic military struggle by the British just after the Isandlwana battle. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded in this battle. Many other battle sites are dotted in this historic area.
“I can’t leave the TV remotes in the rooms,” says Rita, the middle aged blonde guesthouse owner, handing me a complicated device, “the blecks mess up the TVs so I have to get professionals in to retune them!” I may be white, but I bet I know a heck of a lot less about using a TV remote than any black guest who may stay here. If anyone here is likely to bugger up the TV tuning, it’s me! But I am allowed a remote – because the outer millimetre of my body is a pinkish colour… I don’t think I’ll work this place out.
DAY 31. SUNDAY 24TH FEBRUARY 2013. MALKERNS. SWAZILAND.
I am SO happy to be back in Africa! That’s what it feels like, just crossing an insignificant border and I am back on the continent I love so much.
“Oh, it’s such a relief to joke with Africans!” I exclaimed to an immigration official who was ribbing me about selling the bike to him when I go, to the amusement of his two happy women colleagues. “I just can’t do this over there,” I said, thumbing over my shoulder.
“There is so much fear there,” agreed the official.
“It will take at least a couple of generations to break that down,” I agreed.
“Maybe longer… The white parents still tell their children to be afraid.”
This country has no ‘baggage’ of apartheid…
Ncommy and Ellen, two cheerful young women outside the bar where I ate (amongst all black people for a change) summed up my contentment. They called to me as I pulled in and as they were getting into their car. They spotted the Union Jack sticker that I now have on my rear mudguard. We were soon in happy conversation, swapping phone numbers (that will never be used, but this is the African way) and finding out about each other. Just a few minutes of friendly contact with strangers in that wonderful fashion that Africa preserves but we have largely forgotten. There is a lightness of spirit in Africa, a sense of fun and that most lovely quality: curiosity.
Africa, the absorbing, wonderful continent, so much overlooked and judged by standards of past times, its social values disregarded in our material economy. Dismissed as ‘backward’ and ‘undeveloped’ when, in fact, they have clung to so many important social qualities that we have lost in our race for material wealth: family, generosity to strangers, charity and mutual help – human warmth. Humanity.
And all those smiles.
Breakfast was large and probably nutritionally nightmarish in that Afrikaans guest house where the black servants had downcast eyes and the owners deep fears and insecurities that they tried to pass on to me. Walking a block to get a meal last night was an appalling, fearful concept. Rita seriously expected me to drive for safety. There wasn’t even anyone else on the street in that block of town pavements for the six minutes or so it took me to walk, after I had been let out of the electric gates. I acknowledge that there is a lot of crime in South Africa – with that division of wealth it is to be expected – but so much of the fear is self-perpetuating. I travelled in South Africa for about seven or eight weeks in 2002 and now for another month. I have not met with a single potentially threatening or even mildly suspect event. If you go through life looking for disaster, the chances are you will find it! It’s like my distrust of legalised gambling- aka ‘insurance’. When you look at the risks (and the head offices and pension funds of the insurance companies) you can see who’s the winner. Peddling insecurity is one of the most valuable lines of our modern economy. It certainly keeps a heck of a lot of security companies in business in the rich suburbs of South Africa.The ’24 Hour Armed Response’ signs, razor wire and electric gates on every house are one of the most memorable visual aspects of South Africa.
Breakfast in Rita’s Guest House was probably one of the more life-threatening half hours of my trip so far – slick processed sausages, grated orange-coloured tasteless cheese (that the Afrikaans population seem to love), rather lumpy eggs, greasy onions and grim Kleenex ‘toast’. ‘Juice’ that is actually mainly sweeteners and, as usual, the worst instant coffee.
So getting over that border my heart lifted despite the dully overcast, cool day. People waved and smiled at the roadside, all quick smiles and conversation when I stopped. My road brought me through more over-sized scenery. I get a bit blasé about the scale of the hills and mountains as I sweep along. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I can see so much landscape around me. It really is impressive.
There have been significant improvements in infrastructure since I was here in 2002. I even found myself on a motorway. The driving, though, does reduce to more African standards… The roads were busy today, sunday, and I was soon looking for smaller roads, although these too had their share of poor drivers. I rode to a smart restaurant cum touristic development with some rather good fantasy, quirky architectural fun and some good craft shops and a very pleasant restaurant. I relaxed over a beer and an excellent bowl of soup to read the ‘what’s on in Swaziland’ paper and a tourist magazine they handed me at immigration. Swaziland is small enough (about alf the size of wales, I should imagine at 17,000 square kilometres, the smallest country in the southern hemisphere) to be covered by one publication.
Swaziland is another small monarchy landlocked by South Africa – but Swaziland does have a border with Mozambique too. King Mswati, who has been accused of profligate spending and a lavish lifestyle is head of the government although he does now have a prime minister and a two house legislative body beneath him, so he is not quite the power he was. However, he is still head of government… He is, of course, brother to HRH Queen Mantfombi who gave me a basket this week! He has a lot more queens than the Zulu king. I have a feeling he gets a new one every year.
Then came the stressful part of my day. Funny, I was reflecting that travelling really is a bit of an emotional roller coaster. For much of the time I question why the hell I feel driven to ride all those miles, sometimes not very stimulated (downright bored quite often) to stay alone in strange, sometimes thoroughly seedy grotels and eat mediocre food and worse beer. Then some small event makes me forget the boredom it took to get here as I chat to two young women with such open warmth and such genuine human interaction. Or I breast some rise and before me lies a scene that no one else I know has seen or will ever see. Or a small event just lifts my day from mundane to special. Infrequently comes that almost physical excitement that wells up in an ‘I’m here’ moment.
All of that seldom happens in the late afternoon stress of finding a place to stay. I tried a backpackers’ place but dismissed it: I don’t come here to hang out in noisy places where the clientele listen to European rock music and retreat into Facebook. Anyway, it was no bargain. I rode on to search for places. I turned round and rode back to the quirky tourist place. Their B&B was delightful and I almost treated myself but the price was just too steep. I rode on again and this time found an apparently virtually empty chalet development. It too was too expensive until the pleasant Swazi on reception asked me how much I was prepared to spend. That’s always a sign that a bird in the hand is worth a lot more than one riding away on a motorbike in search of somewhere else. In the end I have a lovely room. I really like it. It is an old wooden cabin all alone amongst ugly concrete chalets and large gardens. It reminds me of Norway and is silent and welcoming. I got it down by 30%. It’s still £22, which, when I think of my impecunious travels of old, is a king’s ransom, but I have nothing to prove any more!
So, happily back in Africa for a day or two. It’s a wonderful benefit that so much of this continent speaks English so I can communicate meaningfully. Of course, all these southern and eastern African countries drive on the left as well so I never have to adapt.
Africa! I do love it.
DAY 32. MONDAY 25TH FEBRUARY 2013. MALKERNS. SWAZILAND
Whenever people ask for my advice about taking long journeys on their motorbikes one of my first suggestions is to stay in the same place for a couple of nights at least once a week. If you find a nice place just relax and enjoy not moving on for a second day. I like the wooden cabin so much that I have saved myself all that stress of finding another place to lodge tonight. Swaziland is very small so I decided to see this area, which contains the main towns, the King’s home, Parliament and most of the craftspeople from my wooden cabin. It has been a delightfully relaxed day.
I began a bit slowly as I didn’t realise that breakfast was included in my bargaining last night. It seemed that despite the reduction in price, breakfast remained available. Well, I don’t look gift horses in the mouth either, so I downed a ‘full English’ to start the day when I realised it was still available as I was about to ride out. Then I set out with reduced luggage – not that I have a lot – just two partly empty soft panniers and a bag that sits behind me. I am travelling the lightest I ever managed. I impress even myself this trip. The day was sunny and warm and tonight there is a totally cloudless sky and a brilliant full moon.
Much of the morning I spent at a large craft market, with shack stalls spread round a large area of sand and grass. I investigated half the 126 stalls, enjoying the process in this friendly, unpushy country. It was a relaxed atmosphere, unlike most African craft markets full of smiling, chatty saleswomen and some craftspeople – some of the women meticulously threading beads onto cottons to make the colourful beadwork.
One has to be careful nowadays with African crafts. Much of the stuff you see in the shops is made in China! That is a fact, a sad one. The Chinese copy, for instance, Zulu beadwork and can produce it cheaper than the Zulus themselves. Much of the touristic wood carving is produced as copies in China too. I have been travelling so long that I limit my collection to just two items (the odd woven mat not-with-standing when In can afford it!): carved spoons and the toys made from recycled materials. I have over 100 of the former and almost 30 of the latter. Today I added three spoons to my collection and two toys. The main toy I bought is a petrol tanker very cleverly made from two oil tins and a lot of cut and bent tin sheet. Mavis and I bargained hard together for some minutes, eventually arriving at a price that suited us both. If you submit to the bargaining process with goodwill on both sides it can be a cheerful experience. I bargained down from £18 to £10. It still makes it amongst the pricier of my collection but the economy here has improved a great deal in the last decade and the toys that cost me a pound or two are no longer available. Prices have generally shot up since I travelled here before. It is still not European prices, but it is about 60% of them, I suppose. The way of the world.
So many cheerful ladies talked to me. It took a couple of hours to wander the 60-odd stalls. everyone is astonished that I even came from Durban on a motorbike, let alone that I hope to get to Zambia, impossibly far beyond their experience. When I tell them that last time I went to Kenya from Swaziland they are impressed. Most of them want to know why I don’t buy a car! It was so much fun to have equal conversations with them, even superficial ones. Two or three of them told me they don’t like to go to South Africa as they are treated unequally and one went so far as to say she feels the prejudice from many white South Africa shoppers here in her market.
The road to Mbabane was short from there. Mbabane is the capital, a small town of little note, just a commercial town of banks and shops, a bustling place of ill-disciplined traffic and jay walking pedestrians. It ranges over hills surrounded my steep mountains. The approach is a steep incline through big trees and sharp embankments. There is a new road now, formed since I wound my way up a narrow twisting road in 2002. Swaziland is so green. It’s the main impression, even around the cities, since the mountains rise as backdrops.
Mbabane did not hold much interest and finding a parking place was difficult so I rode out on a road to the northwest and found myself on a lovely ride for the next couple of hours, riding up into impressive scenery amongst limitless plantations of conifers. It DOES look a bit Scottish sometimes. Just rather bigger and under a hot sun (can’t be Scotland then…). The road was empty, the scenery lovely with range upon range of dark conifers interspersed with waving grassy meadows and nearby grassy banks and oddly shaped bald rocks. Eventually I descended back down to the valley in which Malkerns and all the main towns are found. By now the school day was finishing and crowds of small children walked the roadside home in their green and beige uniforms, most of them very smartly turned out for small children at the end of the day, and many of them waving happily to the passing motorbike (of which I have seen no others for two days). School is free at primary level but becomes a significant part f the family economy after that.
Back at Malkerns I passed a delicious smell of barbecuing meat and realised I was hungry so I turned round and went back to a small roadside shack. In half an oil drum a young man was roasting chicken. I asked for a piece but had to have it from the stall – complete with ‘pap’, the staple of these countries – a heavy maize porridge – and green mushy stuff that was made from pumpkin leaves and tasted full of iron and vitamins. I could not just have a piece of chicken from the fire, the pretty, quiet stall holder said, as that was an old chicken! I must have the one prepared earlier. I managed to reduce the pap to an edible amount and sat on a crate at the roadside, chatting to a young man about the difficulties of finding work in the present economy, as I ate the food with my fingers. The chicken was delicious. Pap I find dry and starchy but here it makes just about every meal for the people. The greens were quite good.
Later I ate a much more Western meal of curry at a bar table as I watched the sun set behind the low mountains to the west, thin draft beer in hand. The food was good, the beer mediocre, but I enjoyed the street-side stall more than the rarified confines of the lovely garden and the beer umbrellas and middle class customers with a preponderance of white people. And as I came out, chatting to the car park guard as I tipped him, I realised that I had spent the entire day thinking south was north again! For me with my highly developed bump of direction, it is a deep instinct to sort of know which way is up, so to speak. It’s a sixth sense. But here in the southern hemisphere all the signs are inverted. The midday sun is in the north, which I find deeply disturbing to my instincts. It’s not until I see the Southern Cross stars at night that I get my bearings again. And, by the way, the water goes down the plug hole anti-clockwise. I never remember to write that down so that I can check if it really does go in opposite directions in the southern and northern hemispheres (or if it is just a feature of sink design!). Have a look when you pull the sink plug out next time. Definitely anti-clockwise here in the Brookside Lodge at Malkerns, Swaziland.
DAY 33. TUESDAY 26TH FEBRUARY 2013. BARBERTON. SOUTH AFRICA.
Barberton, almost Harberton.
Back to South Africa, last refuge of the right wing, racist English bigot. Maybe this is where they all came when we at last got a bit more politically correct and racism finally became an offence! I heard such offensive views in the hotel bar just now that I left after one beer. I don’t really want to mix with them. ‘Paki’ jokes that have rightly been outlawed at home; (I have been to Pakistan several times and before the present Islamist-fuelled troubles (caused by a tiny minority) it was one of my favourite parts of the globe, where I was always made consistently welcome by those who could least afford it. One of the most generous societies with admirable values, many lost by the West). Xenophobic jokes, racist opinions about almost everyone else, and anti-EU propaganda: all alive and ‘well’ in the Phoenix Hotel bar in Barberton. What’s more some of this came from a black South African (who, rich irony, had lived – and worked – in Britain for ten years!) as well as the three or four English ex-pats (who, rich irony, were ‘escaping’ Britain’s immigration and pro-european policies – by going and living in someone else’s country!). Ugh. The black fellow didn’t even like the Swazis – and they are only 43 kilometres away.
The Swazis are quite delightful. I’m missing them already. They would have been such polite, friendly, warm company in a hotel bar. Maybe I should have stayed the other side tonight, but often it is only whim and circumstance that plans my routes and the last village in Swaziland seemed to have only one ‘country club’ type hotel that looked rather expensive. The road back into Swaziland was the worst I have ridden in the last month and the border post was closing in twenty minutes, so no chance to investigate the accommodation options before leaving the country. Thus it is that I am in Barberton, the first South African town down the mountains from western Swaziland.
And what a spectacular last forty miles they were. My map showed an obscure border crossing at a place called Bulembu at about 10.30 on the map of Swaziland, a 20 kilometre bad rocky track from Piggs Peak, a mining town in the north west of that small country. The road clambered up into forested mountains, the air cooling as I rose. It was a rough gravel road with rocky patches but some huge mountain views over plunging green valleys. Bulembu was a charming place, beside an ugly asbestos mine, but while I was joking with a lovely happy group of Swazi women in a small, relaxed co-operative embroidery venture, they told me the border would close shortly. So I didn’t get to see the mine (but I have seen the world’s biggest asbestos mine anyway! In Asbestos, Quebec. The biggest hole in the ground I have seen) and a quick look at the country club persuaded me to head the last curling miles to the border posts. I came out of Swaziland through that unfrequented crossing, only the thirteenth person of the day, and since the South African official was lowering the flag as I rode away, there would be no more. From the border the road became the most scenic I have ridden since Lesotho with sensuously rounded green mountains disappearing into the far hazy distance across yawning valleys. The sun was becoming lower and describing the contours and shapes with graphic beauty. It was a wonderful ride, taken at about 30 miles an hour to enjoy the sense of space, elevation, peace and isolation.
Barberton is a small town with a colonial feel. It grew up in one of the South African gold rushes and some of the buildings retain a vestige of their Victorian charm and their green spaces and gardens. The first gold stock exchange was built here but the rush only lasted a few years. The stock market crashed as speculators were sold shares in bogus companies and investors lost heavily. By the time of the Boer wars, Barberton (I keep typing Harberton!) was pretty much abandoned and the gold rush had moved on. Recently the gold mining industry has been rekindled round here and four mines operate in the vicinity. At one time Barberton was a frontier town of bars, gambling and whisky in corrugated iron and timber. Now it is a place of rich white houses, a typical low rise commercial centre in which I can glimpse a few of the old Victorian buildings and a large black township a few miles away that supplies labour. The usual South African urban topography…
The Phoenix Hotel is an old, faded town hotel with a grand entrance that has seen much better times, a bar that still has that frontier quality and a vast empty dining room that looks faded and jaded. Once again I have had to rig up a makeshift repair (with a couple of luggage elastics) to the leaky lavatory cistern. ‘Hotel Lavatory Cisterns of the World I have Mended’ could well be a sizeable volume. But my room is comfortable enough – with that ridiculous pretension of having no less than TEN pillows and cushions on the bed – that I now have to fling off in a large heap that I must climb over in the night for a pee.
Back in friendly Swaziland the day began with not a cloud in the hot sky. Reluctantly, I left my homely cabin and headed back to Lobamba, the area of the Royal Palace, Parliament and National Stadium. There I spent an hour or so in the museum, which has a good collection of period photographs from the colonial period and some excellent cultural artefact displays and costumes. Culture frames so much of Swazi life, with ceremonial events and festivals binding the national identity. Tribal values, loyalty to the royal family and indigenous crafts have stood the test of time and withstood the trend to westernisation.
They call this area in north west Swaziland and the neighbouring part of South Africa, the birthplace of mankind since some of the oldest identified rocks in the world are here and some of the oldest evidence for conscious thought amongst pre-humans has been discovered in archaeological finds in this part of Africa. I was intrigued by one thought-provoking item in the museum that suggests that the rise of life on earth probably began because of the particular qualities of grass, and grass in Africa. The theory goes that almost all plants grow from the tip, so if the tip is eaten the plant stops growing. Grass, however, developed to grow from the base, so if it is eaten it grows even more. Thus there was a plentiful supply of grazing for early life forms.
Back on the road, I rode south east through fields of spiky pineapples, back through the chaos of Manzini, the commercial heart of Swaziland, and turned northwards to ride up the centre of the country. The landscape became a bit boring. It’s astonishing how you can become blasé about huge views of low rolling mountains covered in low green growth, fronted by villages of small block houses and round thatched storerooms. Cattle graze the veldt – and the roads – and people are everywhere. It is always fun in the early afternoon in Lesotho or Swaziland as all the primary schoolchildren wave gaily at the passing motorbike, giving thumbs-up and pink-palmed waves.
In the far north I looked again at my map and decided not to head directly into South Africa for if I did so I would get trapped on major roads on the other side. Instead I turned south again to Piggs Peak, named after a French gold prospector William Pigg, who arrived in 1884. There was a gold mine there until 1954, but no one made any great fortune. Now it appears to survive on the extensive forestry that covers much of northern Swaziland with some of the largest planted forest in the world.
Travelling this way brought me the discovery of the fine scenery and means that a good deal of my route to Johannesburg will be on minor roads instead of the boring highway.
Swaziland is a delight. Not perhaps as wonderful as Lesotho, but actually the Swazi people are more open and inclined to conversation. Basotho people are more reserved and less confident with strangers.
But Swaziland, for all its happy smiles and welcomes, and its deep-seated culture, hides some dreadful statistics and unhappy conditions. It is the AIDS capital of the world, not just Africa. the incidence of infection is an appalling 26% in adults and up to 50% in Swazis in their 20s. Seventy five per cent of the population is employed in subsistence farming and 60% live on less than US$1.25 a day. Swaziland has the lowest life expectancy in the world.
Yet despite all that, this tiny country just 120 miles by 81, is filled with the friendliest, most disarming of people. How remarkable that is. It could only be thus in Africa.
As my ‘Footprints’ guidebook (bought second hand some years after my 2002 trip, so I must have meant to return) puts it: ‘One of the attractions of Swaziland is the African atmosphere which pervades the country. After South africa it can be a pleasant change to relax in a country free from the tensions which plague South African society’.
Amen to that.
DAY 34. WEDNESDAY 27th FEBRUARY 2013. RANDBURG. SOUTH AFRICA
Old friends! Thirty six years ago Okkie Venter was at the London Film School in the term below me. We became friendly and he even came on a trip to Biddenham (where he remembers the pub!as a friendly community gathering). We lost touch completely in the mists of time and my attempts to find him in 2002 came to nothing, except that I managed to establish that he worked then for the South African Broadcasting Association. Now, with the magic of the internet, I have been able to find him. Tonight I am staying in his home with him and his wife, Antoinette (pronounced Ant’inette in Afrikaans).
It was a long ride from Barberton and a very hot day. When i set off at 8.30 I looked at the skies and thought it likely that I was to get wet. Barberton is on the edge of the mountains that border Swaziland and the skies looked heavy. Some miles out I wound up into a wide mountain pass. I was watching the road and the views and didn’t notice that the skies were suddenly crystal clear with not a cloud in sight. From then, the heat increased into a very hot ride.
For the first part, once out of the mountain ranges, I rode through huge landscapes of open grassland rolling away to distant low mountains. The scale of scenery here in southern Africa is so extensive. I can see for many miles across vast expanses. Of course it also means that I have long distances to cover between towns and destinations. Usually I pick my route from the map in a fairly arbitrary manner to avoid the main highways. My choice today was either a toll motorway or a somewhat convoluted route between smaller towns and habitations. I found myself in an ugly coal mining district tot he east of this huge conurbation, with hundreds of long, grubby wagons with trailers to overtake and open views of pits and farmland of enormous fields of maize. It was not an interesting journey except that the cosmos flowers bloomed at the roadside in profusion, lifting the scenery with a bit of much-needed colour.
Signposting was not good round those pot-holed roads busy with huge vehicles. Eventually I found myself on one of the main highways for the last miles into one of the world’s biggest urban conurbations. Traffic increased and sped up and I had a small map held on top of my tank by an elastic. I needed it! I had to race along with hectic traffic that dodges and weaves from lane to lane, battle it out with thousands of minibus taxis that have their own rules of the road (ie. not many) and commercial traffic. I knew the rough area for which I was heading in a northern suburb but had to make quick decisions as I rode. At last I found the correct off ramp, as they are called, and spun off into local traffic that was, if anything, worse disciplined. I was very happy to pull into a shopping mall in the general district that Okkie had told me to head for and fall into a coffee shop seat under an umbrella, from where I rang Okkie and got directions for my final few miles. There is a certain sense of achievement to be had from negotiating African city traffic successfully, especially in Africa’s largest city!
Okkie lives in Blairgowrie, a subdivision of Randburg, itself a suburb of this huge city. I found myself at last (by means of asking other drivers while we stood at traffic lights (‘robots’, as they are called in southern Africa) in a leafy area of small streets, and with relief, at journey’s end. Okkie’s family bungalow has an eclectic feel and is shaded by many indigenous trees he has planted in theri 33 year stay here. Okkie was born down in Oudtshoorn (where I was a month ago) and Antionette in Alicedale, the tiny one-horse town where I arrived on a sniff of petrol to find the pump dry and the Chinaman telling me, “No petro! No petro!” Her father was a doctor there. Okkie was working as a lecturer in Port Elizabeth when he decided to go to London to study film in 1976. He was then in his mid-thirties making him 7 years my senior. He returned and, after an obligatory two years back at PE, where his employers had helped him with is costs, he joined SABC as “a tea boy, virtually!” and went on to become a producer of children’s TV, then teenage and finally of documentary TV with an ecological bent.
It’s interesting to hear him and Antionette and their extremely liberal, understanding views of South African life and politics. As often amongst the Afrikaans population I find more acceptance of the situation than I find amongst the English settlers who now, it seems to me, harbour increasing resentment about the turn of fortunes for the whites in South Africa. Afrikaans people are South African and have no option but to accept and adapt. Not all of them do, of course, but families like Okkie’s are enlightened and understand that there are no jobs to be had thanks to the colour of your skin as there were in their younger days. Now you must make your own way. They have inculcated in their children Jacque and Tiana, a self-reliance that will probably help them weather the storm that is raging in employment. White skin holds no right to work. I hear a lot of carping amongst the English that their children cannot get work because of their skin colour. I think this is merely a reaction to a status that was untenable in a modern racially mixed society. Okkie, like a number of Afrikaans people with whom I talk, knows that things have to change but agrees it will take generations for any sense of fairness and equality to recover. Good to talk openly, though, with unprejudiced white people who number black people amongst their friends and colleagues. Antionette tells me of her weekly trips to Soweto, the infamous township of a million people, and how she enjoys the atmosphere so much. Okkie admits that his journey has been a hard one of adaptation and his overt prejudices had to be slowly overcome by knowledge and experience of getting to know black people which, in his youth was hardly possible.
They were not ‘good old days’ for the majority here and only resentful bigots (quite a few of whom I seem destined to meet on my travels!) hold onto the concept.
NOTE: I now have to include USA as part of this trip. What a bizarre change that will be. I have to fly to Boston on the 11th of March and return to Johannesburg on the 20th. I will leave the bike here at Okkie’s and complete the last two weeks of my journey when I come back. Now off northwards to use the next ten days. To Botswana and points north for a bit. Will add photos later. It takes so long with this programme, which is not very friendly to iPads… More later JB