ANOTHER JOURNEY IN SOUTHERN AFRICA. FEBRUARY 2014
DAY 1. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 18th 2014. FLYING SOUTH WITH AIR FRANCE
I read the travel journals of my ancestor James Bean, my three times great uncle, and of the extraordinary adventures that he had; the dangers he faced; the dreadful and wonderful events that befell him two hundred and fifty years ago, and I can’t help being astonished by how very small our world has become. Then he sailed the eastern seas as a merchant and gentleman, now I can Google map any remote part of his journey, even the to the ends of the world he knew – only partly knew the edges, to be more accurate – and see from space the islands of the South Seas and the beaches on which he was becalmed; the jungles in which he and his shipmates found meagre sustenance from fruits and shooting wild pigs with their muskets; the rivulets that saved life aboard ship when all the supplies ran dry… And I can sit, in comfort, with free champagne, in an airport lounge in Paris and know that tomorrow I will be in South Africa. It took James weeks to get even this far.
The world HAS lost a lot of its magic. It’s lost the dangers too, I acknowledge, but the mystery and adventure is no more. Now we can only hope, at best, for a few personal adventures and a bit of self-discovery. It’s a tame world now. Last week I was in South Carolina; tomorrow I will be a couple of oceans and three continents away in South Africa.
On the other hand, James was dead of dysentery by 35 and I will be still riding motorbikes around Africa as a pensioner so I guess that balances out some of the loss of mystery. No corner of the world is still unknown though, no corner anywhere. Few of them are without Internet access and none hidden from the eyes of strangers. Few without a damned Starbucks, probably!
But James’s sailing ship would have been about the size of one wing of this giant aeroplane, a huge two-storey Airbus 380, a ship of the skies now flying six miles above my mind-expanding Sahara once again. It’s my first time on one of these spacious enormous planes, odd considering how much I fly these days. In the past twelve months I have clocked up more miles than James did in his entire short seafaring life. Flying the skies of the world has got no more romance and wonder for me than getting a bus… Shame.
What happened in 1986 when I first set foot on this extraordinary continent? What was it that attracted me so much that I have travelled nowhere else since (not counting Europe, on my doorstep, and work in America)? Travelling/ holidays and Africa are one and the same for me now. I responded so strongly that it became a part of my life. I love the diversity, the people and the integrity of so much of the continent, lands that haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater and lost human values in pursuit of material wealth (well, I guess you’d have to count out Nigeria! But even there, I bet you still find compassion and mutual support in rural areas). Maybe it all comes down to the extended family system so prevalent in so many countries? Most of the ‘poorest’ countries in the world are on this continent, yet so are some of the most generous-spirited people I have found; people for whom giving is a natural action; people with the greatest fortitude and a remarkable ability to smile and be optimistic despite so many troubles. Ignored by the rest of the world except as a source of mineral and natural wealth (much of it now being bought up wholesale by China) it falls through the gaps of most people’s attention, struggling its own way in the modern ‘global village’.
And I am very glad to be soon on this wonderful continent once again.
DAY 2. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 19th 2014. KLOOF, DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA
In the past 55 weeks I have taken no less than 56 individual flights. That’s how bored you get on aeroplanes: such that you sit and count. It’s a terribly tedious process these days, with little excitement that you are being transported five and a half thousand miles to another culture – and another climate. The warmth enfolds me and I can feel already the stress relaxing in muscles that seem always to be cold in the dampness of England.
My motorbike is wrapped under cover in Yvonne and Michael’s garden. Tomorrow will do for the unveiling. Now I just need to relax with my beers and chat to old friends – and enjoy the freedom of tee shirt and shorts in the warm evening. Tomorrow I must see to the bureaucracies of vehicle licensing and look up the motorbike dealer, with whom I have booked a service before I set off, not, I may add, the big dealer in a nearby town that took a week to even look at my bike last year, to my great frustration and despite calls to the BMW head office while I kicked my heels as my time ticked away for the trip northwards. I want to be on my way to the proper Africa (as opposed to this bizarre ‘European’ sham of South Africa) by monday at least.
But now it’s time for a twelve hour sleep to get over the sleepless night in the air.
DAY 3. THURSDAY 20th FEBRUARY 2014. KLOOF. SOUTH AFRICA
Engines..! How I wish I understood them. It’s such a mystery: I love to ride my motorbikes, especially in Africa, yet I seem to have so little aptitude for the way they work. My red BMW has been standing in the garden here for some ten or eleven months, well wrapped, but it won’t start. I changed the petrol, for I know petrol degrades with time, and I did all I could to get it going before resorting to asking the bike dealer a couple of miles away, with whom I had arranged a full service, to bring a trailer to collect it – which did not happen today, so bang goes day one… With the weekend coming up, I guess I am in Kloof for several days. At least I am fortunate enough to have generous hosts and home comforts but it is nonetheless frustrating not to be able to start my journey in my own time.
But I do need a period of rest after my very busy project in USA so I must look on the bright side, relax and enjoy the warmth and welcome.
DAY 4. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 21st 2014. KLOOF, DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA
Oh dear, I never was much good at sitting about ‘relaxing’ and waiting for things to happen. For me, relaxing is an active occupation! Day four and things only beginning to move. It will be at least tuesday before I begin my travels. The bike was picked up this morning by a local bike repairer and seller; their driver, Johan, a stocky, thickset Afrikaner with pale brown eyes, loading it onto a trailer as we were soaked by heavy tropical rain. I couldn’t have ridden today as it happens: the rain was strong and relentless, ironically breaking a long spell of hot dry weather that had everyone complaining.
Later, Mike kindly drove me to the dealer’s workshop where I did my best to appeal to the better spirits of the owner, Peter Marshall, and his workshop engineer, Rob, to get me on the road and on with my holiday as soon as they can. But it will be monday before they can begin. “I’ll put my neck on the block that it’s the fuel pump!” declared Rob. “They always go if these bikes are left to stand unused.” What bloody good is that? How I miss my old African Elephant, my old R80GS BMW from1982, languishing in my Harberton workshop because of the expense of shipping it out here. I should have spent the money again and have it with me! My reliable old bike is simple, now rather unstylish, but such a strong old machine – without fuel pumps or ridiculous over-engineering; the sort of machine you can mend with a bit of an old wheelbarrow in the backwoods of Africa. But for now I am stuck with this red F650 BMW and need it to be reliable for the next few weeks. So I must wait – patiently for the sake of my hosts – for it to be serviced.
It’s those borders with the real Africa that attract me here. As usual I find this strange last vestige of white colonialism irritating and uncomfortable. (Hey, it’s taken me four days to get round to this subject!) I’m fascinated by Africa, but not this odd enclave of European values of the British colonials or the Calvinist narrowness of Afrikaner nation imposed upon indigenous black Africa. These suburbs of Durban are particularly out of ethnic proportion, whole white – largely British by nationality – ghettoes of exclusivity, where black people are maids and gardeners and wealth so divisively spread.
Yvonne keeps encouraging me in that I could live here, in the hot climate in which I feel so much more comfortable, cheaply and lavishly. A three-bedroom town house in a Durban suburb (white) would cost me less than £50,000; For a little more than the price of my little two-bedroom cottage in Harberton or about the price of my house in Yorkshire (that I will sell when the present excellent tenants move out…) I could buy a huge five or six- bedroom mansion of ‘classic charm and grace’ (ie. colonial extravagance) in a wealthy white suburb sitting on 1800 square metres of indigenous landscaped gardens, double garage, car port for a further three cars, off road parking for ten more cars (that’s fifteen cars..!), a koi pond, 3 bathrooms, two lounges AND two reception rooms, AND a formal dining room with another lounge, an office, granny flat, swimming pool with entertainment area, and – of course – ‘large servants quarters’…
I’d still have cash to pay all those servants!
But I could not do it… I’d rather buy a small cottage across the border in the real Africa, with real African neighbours in, say Lesotho, and do my own housework. There I could get a two bedroomed brick cottage on an African hillside for as little as £5000 or a five-bedroom farmhouse for about £50,000.
Where would I rather live? Ha! No choice. Africa of course. With Africans.
I mean, it’s very pleasant to holiday here with old friends and sit round the dining table eating a potje with their friends but it’s the African culture I want to see, not the ex-pat culture. A potje, pronounced ‘poy-key’, is an old Voortrekker dish of lamb stewed very slowly with potatoes, onions, apricots and spices in a giant cast iron pot over the braai (South African barbecue). It’s what the original Dutch settlers ate as they trekked into the interior in the early days of this strange divided nation.
DAY 5. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 22nd 2014. KLOOF, DURBAN.
Four days waiting, and probably at least two more to go, maybe three if the bike place doesn’t get their act together for me. I try to be positive and treat this as a deep rest from the past three months of hard work – but it’s difficult, knowing Africa is out there waiting behind this bizarre expatriate facade where today everyone watches rugby, a basically white sport with white players, while the black population watch soccer, the global sport these days and a sport in which Africa and African players are frequently on equal terms with the rest of the world. I always feel inadequate, in that I can’t converse very knowledgeably on football in Africa, even though most of the football matches I have attended – and thoroughly enjoyed – have been in Africa!
DAY 6. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 23rd 2014. KLOOF, DURBAN.
Another day of frustrating inactivity. I am trying to be positive as I wait, and see this as a deep rest period. But I am not good at that. I shouldn’t complain: I have comfortable lodgings, easy hosts and no worries, except that I want to be on my way to novelty and fresh horizons.
A rather remarkable thing happened this morning. I was sitting on the stoep writing an email to Rico, my old Sahara crossing friend from 1987. We keep in touch irregularly but my being at one end of the continent and thinking about early plans for a trip to see him in Kenya next winter, I felt moved to contact him. I was writing for perhaps an hour, filling in on events from the last three months since we wrote and ideas for the next trip. I pressed the ‘send’ button within four minutes of the time that he too pressed ‘send’ on an email to me! We have had this sort of synchronisity before, have Rico, my ‘White African Brother’ and I. We did almost exactly the same thing once before. Odd things happen on this continent! He is in Ethiopia right now, on contract for Medicines sans Frontieres, having recently returned from the war zone in South Sudan, where once again he witnessed the distress of unrest of civil war. Rico and I were both on our first trip to Africa when we met at a run down hotel on the edge of the Moroccan desert a day or two after New Year 1987. Neither of us knew how Africa would get to us: I have travelled almost nowhere else since and the life of this continent has had a huge influence on my thoughts and way of life and he has lived in east Africa virtually since that time. He is now a Kenyan citizen, with a Kenyan wife and all the adopted children of his late wife and her extended family. He cares for and educates about ten children now. His fortunes have fluctuated in a way that is probably totally African. At one time we lost contact for about three years and I assumed he was dead; probably murdered by scheming extended family members or his then deranged German landlady. In fact, fortunes made life extremely troubled for him and he did at least one moonlight flit, with entire young family, to escape conflict and possible death! His life has been eventful in Africa. He seldom returns to Holland now since his parents died and his own son is now in his early 40s and his sister and brother in law visit occasionally in Kenya. I do hope to go for my own fourth visit to my old friend, with whom I feel such a strong link, within the next twelve months. We four, Rico, Marti, Liesbeth and I have remained very close, fond friends since those magical days in the Sahara, probably the best days of my life. I have a date for Marti’s 51st birthday in May in Holland. I know Liesbeth, his girlfriend of Sahara days and close friend of his now wife, Marthe, will be there for yet another fond reunion. We will talk of Rico – and the Sahara!
DAY 7. MONDAY FEBRUARY 24th 2014. KLOOF, DURBAN.
I could have stayed in Devon for weather like this. Tonight it is hosing down, as it is over most of eastern South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique and Lesotho, and a lot of the country to the west of the mountains too. To get away from cool and rain I would have to cross the continent to the other side of South Africa. In a way, but only when I try to encourage myself, I would not have much enjoyed being on a motorbike for the first seven days of this trip so far. The bike place had not even started on my machine when I rang at midday. This weather makes it less urgent but nonetheless frustrating.
And now I find that I have to start my journey with a diversion of 250 miles (each way) in the opposite direction to that I planned as I find that, ridiculously in a large country of several very extensive regions, I have to visit the Eastern Cape region to re-tax my vehicle as that is where the bike is registered! I could doubtless change the registration to KwaZulu Natal, which is where I am now, but that would entail waiting for the bureaucrats to mail my papers back to me. Of course, I cannot leave the country until my papers are in order. That would just be a gift to the petty officials at the Zimbabwe and Zambia borders! So it looks as if I will begin by a big loop south east and then back through my beloved Lesotho – where it is raining and stormy…
So another day goes in the repair of my housemaid’s knee (bursitis). You see, I am trying to see the bright side of this delay. Rest is the only cure for housemaid’s knee and it has been painful, and unrested, for some months. I sit and read on the stoep as the rain slashes down in the trees of the garden. This is Africa: this is travelling. I just have to go with the flow and contain my restlessness and frustration.
DAY 8. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 25th 2014. KLOOF, DURBAN.
A further day on the stoep reading and relaxing. I am promised my serviced and re-tyred motorbike by three o’clock tomorrow. Maybe I can start my journey on thursday. This sunny, windy day would have been better on the road but I have to contain myself in patience and let Africa infuse my senses and just accept the karma of the journey! But as I write, at 11.00pm, I can hear the rain begin once more. I hope that by thursday the climate of South Africa improves. Not that there is anything I can do about that: I just have to accept what comes…
DAY 9. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 26th 2014. KLOOF, DURBAN.
Departure creeps closer… “Yourrr bik wil be reddy befurr three, ire pramis!” said the Afrikaans mechanic. Then it would be ready at a quarter to five. Then, as Yvonne drove me over the lovely green hills dotted with vibrantly coloured trees of these western suburbs, my phone rang again. “We have a pruablim..!”
“I’m five minutes away,” I replied, “let’s hear it when I get there.”
They had found that an engine mounting bolt had rusted through and the carburettors needed new seals. Having gone this far – and wanting to actually go rather a long way – it seems best to complete the job. So now my reunion with the red BMW will be before noon tomorrow, still time to get some of the journey towards the Eastern Cape behind me so that I can re-tax the bike during business hours on friday.
To the west of Durban lie beautiful green hills and the ‘Valley of a Thousand Hills’, sweeping deep valleys stretching away to the horizons, dotted with habitations of black Africans and defined by soaring ridges. A minor highway, that I have followed far out of the clutches of greater Durban on a couple of occasions, swings and twists along the top of the biggest ridge, truly a scenic road with views to right and left down into plunging valleys and verdant growth punctuated by the vivid blues, purples and reds of flowering trees. It is very beautiful and a popular drive out with many souvenir stalls and restaurants, at one of which Yvonne and I took a light lunch while I enjoyed the full sun, here high overhead in the sky, and everyone else sheltered in the shade. It’s so good to feel the sun on my skin again. I hope the weather is changing back again, although the evenings do have a touch of a very early autumn already.
My wait will be over tomorrow.
DAY10. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 27th 2014. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA.
At last, I am on the road again. Already the magic captures me. Only three hours out and I am back in that mood that has carried me to all those countries (almost 100) and all those memories, stories and experiences. It is like a drug: utterly addictive, living on the edge, never knowing what tomorrow will bring: new people; fresh conversations; observations, sights, feelings: a sense of feeling alive like I never find any other way – except ‘on the road’.
I am sitting in a sort of pub in this bizarre country that I so little understand – even if this is my third fairly extended visit. I am in white Africa, surrounded by apparently invisible black Africa. I doubt I will ever understand this country. Truly, I think it one of the oddest in which I have travelled, only contested by Japan, about which I have always said I understood less when I left after seven weeks than when I arrived, since when I arrived I had pre-conceptions. By the time I left, even they were proved wrong…
About a dozen people, all overweight men with bellies hanging over belts except for one woman with a belly over her belt, sit at the bar. They are all smoking heavily as is still so common in South Africa. Strongly accented, they are of course all white. The barman seems to know them all and laughs and jokes with them. Rugby plays on a couple of televisions. Moments ago a young black woman, very pretty and well dressed, stood next to me at the bar and asked for three beers. The smile left the barman’s face; he pulled three beers, took her money without thanks, gave her change without comment and turned away abruptly. No one, well, except me of course, who does it on principle, spoke to her or acknowledged her. I was rewarded by the prettiest of smiles for my smile and jest as she tried to pick up all three fluted glasses. Now she sits with her two black companions in the yard outside drinking their beers. ‘They’ drink outside. A sign on the entrance reads: ‘Right of admission reserved’. In past times in this divided nation it meant more perhaps than it does in law today but the invisible barriers still stand, lingering on in the hearts and economies of both races as strongly as ever.
My red BMW motorbike is like new! It was worth waiting these days for the work to be done, and it’s been done well. For less than half the price it would have cost me in England, Marshalls’ Motorcycles have done a major service as well as replacing the battery, brake pads, both tyres, plug, oils, filter and indicators. The bill, including labour came to about £330. At the Plymouth BMW dealer the labour alone would have been more than that! I reckon that in England the same work and parts would have cost me more like £750! What’s more, Peter Marshall, the owner, intimated that he might buy the bike from me at the end of this trip for about 20,000 Rand. I paid 24,000 Rand a year ago and will have had two trips and about 20,000 kilometres out of it. May well be worth the lack of hassle just to sell to him, even though I might get my money back on a private sale. Except that last year there were 14 Rand to the pound; this year 18, great for my journey, not so good for the sale…
And the bike runs well now. So much better even than last year. It’s ironic that I love to ride motorbikes through these odd parts of the world and yet I have absolutely no aptitude for mechanics. So I am happy in the knowledge that a man who knows has inspected my machine from end to end. I expect it will now take me through several fascinating African countries.
Despite the promise of a noon completion, it was two before I was able to leave the motorbike place. Having filled up with petrol (about 75p a litre, aided by the strong pound just now) I headed westwards on the toll highway to Pietermaritzburg. South Africa is a land of BIG scenery. It is such a spectacularly lovely country that I so regret its unhappy socio-political situation. This country is a place of expansive landscapes and fabulous views. Even leaving Durban is impressive, with huge green mountains through which the highway sweeps: forests and trees and red rock faces beneath a blue sky of vast proportions. Somewhere after PMZ, as it is called for obvious reasons, I turned south on a minor main road through increasingly lovely scenery with green mountains disappearing into distant ranges, valleys falling away to white-rimed rivers and my road switchbacking this way and that over broad rolling mountainsides.
It wasn’t a hard ride this afternoon, just 218 kilometres to get me on my way. I had decided to stop at Underberg, a small market town serving the region. It’s a popular stopping point for ‘expeditions’ up the rough Sani Pass to Lesotho, most people’s only experience of the most wonderful of African kingdoms. From here they go up in Land Rover ‘adventures’ to the highest pub in Africa, the Sani Pass Inn, a place into which I lurched, years ago, sodden to the skin and frightened half out of my life after my survival of the most terrifying thunderstorm on top of the world. I was exposed as never before with a violent storm raging right over my head, very aware that I was half drowning in mud and stair-rod rain with several gallons of very flammable propellant between my knees. At one point I was horrified to see the scrub burning in the torrential rain, no more than a couple of hundred yards away. It had ignited by one means only: the same means by which I expected momentary annihilation. I fell into the Sani Top Inn and a little lady from Surrey, excited by her adventure up the pass, asked me in fluting tones, “OH! have you just come up that awful pass?!” No lady, I had just come through the jaws of a hell such as I had never seen before – or ever want to see again.
So Underberg sits at the bottom of the Drakensberg Mountains, a World Heritage Site and arguably the cradle of mankind. Away to the west the range rises ethereally in misty washes. The town is not a pretty sight but it boasts hotels and B&Bs, supermarkets, petrol stations and small businesses. Spotting a Sani Pass tour business and souvenir shop (whose owner admitted she had only been as far as the Sani Top Inn into Lesotho – my favourite magical kingdom. What is it about these people!) I pulled up to ask about places to sleep. She pointed to the next building, the Underberg Inn, assuring me it was clean, economical and unpretentious. Well, it seems to be all of those… A dowdy old room with a cavernous white bathroom with gigantic cast iron tub from another age is £13. My two beers cost a pound each in the pub and steak, egg and chips (bring on the vitamin pills: this is South Africa! Green vegetables??) was £2.50. I fell into conversation immediately with a fellow of my age who runs an engineering shop next door. He has a house in Wareham, was born in Zimbabwe but has lived in South Africa and England and has an English partner. “I work on my own. I don’t employ, well, errm, well, errm, you know, ‘lazy’ people…” – by which he meant black-skinned people… I do hate it when I am expected to subscribe to prejudices just because, by an accident of birth, I share a skin colour. Well, better get used to it: this is South Africa.
This morning Mike took me to an extraordinary place: the Ammazulu Palace, near to their house in Kloof. It is a guest house, a ’boutique’ guest house and an amazing extravaganza of outrageous design. Designed by a local architect and an eclectic local collector, it purports to showcase Zulu culture – but actually is just an expression of the designer/ collector’s startling taste. It is just inside the bounds of astonishing Kitsch! It is theatrical, bizarre and eye-catching, vast operatic pillars of almost hideous colours, agglomerations of junk, Zulu artefacts and camp furnishings, with even (and this was the masterstroke – one I have always wanted to include in one of my designs) graffiti art panels between the Zulu artefacts. I enjoyed it enormously! An extreme example of the sort of work I often do but with no bounds of taste except those of the designer, which is how it retained the integrity to avoid out and out Kitsch! Wonderful.
There’s a distinct chill in the Underberg air tonight. It’s unseasonal and I wasn’t that warm riding this afternoon. If this goes on I may have to purchase some warmer clothing! But it’s good to be on my way at last. New horizons; unknown tomorrows. My bike is pulled into the pub yard, out of view of the street, and I am in bed by nine o’clock. It’s warmer here to write my diary and, anyway, I am tired from my first day on the road. It’s funny… “Are you excited?” asked Yvonne, taking me to collect my bike at last. But I’m not. If anything, I am anxious apprehensive and unsettled until I get going. Once I start, I begin to make a million little choices and decisions that add up to a journey, to stories and adventures. Instinct overcomes anticipation or planning and it all gets much more fluid, rewarding and fulfilling. It all becomes a journey.
DAY11. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 28th 2014. MOUNT MOOROSI, LESOTHO.
I wrote last night about addiction – well, I begin to wonder if Lesotho has become an addiction for me. It gives me some joy to put ‘Lesotho’ at the top of this entry: it is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and seems to be the secret of a very privileged few. One of the world’s best kept travel secrets. Long may that continue. It is just a wonderful place. My arm is tired from waving and my biggest danger is of driving off the road while watching the staggering scenery.
It’s been a good day all round. If I believed in luck I’d say I was lucky, but I am here by a series of choices and decisions and make all my own luck. I do feel a bit privileged though! How many people know the beauties of Lesotho? I know them because of my curiosity and preparedness to take a chance some years ago to come and look at this country about which so few, even South Africans – maybe especially South Africans – know anything. I constantly meet South Africans (white ones of course since the majority of black ones don’t have the money or opportunity) who live within short distances of this little kingdom – it is, after all, surrounded by South Africa – who have never been here. They go instead to the well-trodden, touristic Drakensberg Mountain parks, with their souvenir shops, dinky coffee shoppes, cute bed and breakfasts – and largely white-operated businesses. Lesotho is quite literally the back of the Drakensberg. This, indeed, is the unspoiled side full of cheerful, friendly and smiling (black) people.
My most important task of the day was to get a new tax disc for my motorbike, without which I will be unable to get out of South Africa. It’s the reason I rode all the way from Durban to the Eastern Cape Province. Matatiele is the first town over the border from KwaZulu Natal. I found the post office and as I did, my heart sank. It is the end of the month: payday… All of black South Africa wants their money immediately. They probably live hand to mouth and need the cash to pay debts and provide as well as possible for the next month. Maybe they have little trust in banks too, hardly surprising these days. So on the last friday of the month the banks, and indeed, Matatiele post office, have queues round the corner. But by luck, as I parked the bike, a post office official appeared, pushing through the throng. “Excuse me! Sorry to interrupt, but can I tax my motorbike in there?” I asked, pointing through the crowds. “I’m sorry, no! Why don’t you go to the Road Traffic Office? It’s just along this street at the end.”
Quickly I found said office. A fat Afrikaans man, all big belly, thick neck and leathery skin, immediately talked to me – I was white. He told me he thought I’d probably have to go to East London, where the original document was issued. It is 500 kilometres from Matatiele! “But you can wait and ask this person.” He scowled at the pretty, round black woman behind the glass in front of him, passing through a bundle of cash without so much as a smile.
I waited. My turn came. I passed my licence reminder and log book through the very small hatch at the bottom of her window. I had to talk through it as well! She put the details in the computer, while I smiled at her broadly and somewhat inanely. A smile gets you so far in Africa.
She looked a little puzzled. “Do you live in Matatiele?” she asked. “It says here your local office is at Gonubie in East London. I am afraid you will have to go there to renew the licence!”
Cast your bread upon the waters: always a good policy in friendly Africa. I bent down to the small letterbox hatch. “Look, I will be completely frank: I don’t even live in Africa! I am a tourist from England and I cheated a bit to register my address in East London! I really live in England! But I own the bike and I want to ride to Zambia so I need to have the papers in order!”
“Eh! You want to ride this motorbike to Zambia! It’s not possible!”
I assured her it was and that I loved riding in the black African countries. “Aren’t you afraid?” The stock question. “Why should I be afraid? Africa is so friendly and helpful and cheerful!”
I saw her mind working. Then she whispered through the letterbox (you do feel a bit silly talking through a slot but in African offices you get used to it!). “I think I may help you,” she whispered, gesticulating at her screen and beginning to type things. I sat almost holding my breath and smiling furiously.
So now I seem to live in Matatiele! Smiles you see! Be friendly in Africa and it is almost always returned. She had the power to make me ride a thousand kilometres but she took pity and forged the paper for me. It was a small lie but so big for me. We smiled in complicity and I scrunched my hand through the letterbox to give her an African handshake: palms, wrist, palms.
“The fee is 243 Rand and 60 cents,” she said. (about £13.50)
I carefully counted out three one hundred rand notes and passed them through the hatch. “I am sorry, I don’t have change but if you can’t find the change it doesn’t matter!” I said looking her right in the eye and smiling. “This is my lucky day!”
“…and mine too!” she chuckled. We parted with lots of smiles and waves, her colleagues joining in, all laughing at this elderly idiot. White hair gains respect and shows age and wisdom in Africa and I have little vanity where it helps like this! I have my papers. It took fifteen minutes, a rictus smile and a lot of chatter. I can now leave the country legally without having to ride a further thousand kilometres. I hope she enjoys the three quid and has an end of month drink tonight.
At about nine I left Underberg, riding south. south Africa is a land of such vast scenery. I rode a sweeping empty highway with the crumpled green sheets of the Drakensberg mountains folded upright away to the right, the high border of this tiny country, Lesotho, in which I find myself tonight, eighty per cent of which is higher than 1800 metres. At a backwoods village called Swartberg I spotted a sign to Matatiele that would cut my journey considerably and branched off onto forty miles of gravel road though farming country, rising and falling through green landscapes, a plume of dust rising in my wake. On these roads you can ride at 40 or 50mph quite safely until there are broken stretches that take a little more circumspection. In one dip I saw the first two bikes I have seen: a German couple on matching, heavily loaded KTMs. They too were heading for Lesotho and we have chatted several times through the day. They rode their bikes from Germany to Ghana, spent some weeks in Ghana – where they particularly liked the north – touring without the bikes but with their children. Then they flew the bikes from Accra to Johannesburg and will now ride north through Namibia to Kenya. I was particularly interested to hear that they had taken the western route through the Sahara to Ghana, opening up various trains of thought for me!
The road from Matatiele to the border town of Qachas Nek is rocky and dusty, climbing into the green mountains to a small border crossing set in close rounded hills pocked with red rocks. The formalities are simple and we were all – for I caught up on the Germans – soon riding away into the magic of Lesotho, the first time for them.
People travel the world to look at the Grand Canyon and the parks of western America. They rush in their millions to the Alps and beauty spots of Europe. Lesotho can hold a candle to any natural beauty you like to name – and yet the traveller in Lesotho has it all to himself, in the company of delightful people who smile and wave and are warmly helpful.
Late in the afternoon I breasted a high ridge that I had been climbing for miles. Suddenly vast green canyons as impressive as the Grand Canyon were strewn before me under a sparkling sun in a sky of dramatic clouds. It was a wonderful moment, one of those that makes all the discomfort, effort and boredom worthwhile. The Lekhalo la Mogalo Pass was stupendous, the Orange River, now on its way to the far Atlantic, muddily scouring the foot of plunging slopes. It is all so BIG! It’s that top of the world feeling in spades. Round Basotho thatched huts perch on level patches, their views spectacular and the stuff of calendars.
My German acquaintances were going to a chalet type development near Mount Moorosi, a backpackers’ place I think. I usually avoid backpackers’ hostels as I don’t come to Lesotho to engage with other foreigners – most of whom, these days, are actually more busy engaging with unseen people on Facebook than investigating the Basotho… Well, I missed the place and then began a long hunt for somewhere to stay, during which, four kilometres down a very stony mountain track, I found the backpackers’ hostel, which was full anyway. The young Basotho manager promised to help me find a place to stay. I returned to town and then followed him through a torrential evening thunder shower to a place I doubt I would have found. ‘Granny and Four Sisters’ reads the painted sign on the concrete front of a scruffy shop unit below the road. The ‘B&B’ sign has faded away. Mahotlo is obviously one of the four grand daughters and she showed me the rooms. It’s like the places I used to use on my early travels. In a way, I thought this sort of accommodation had disappeared. It reminds me of my impecunious days in South America. I have a small, rather hot room with hardboard walls and a tin roof above the sagging hardboard ceiling panels. But it is perfectly adequate! A bed – two in fact – two plastic chairs, a few bits of old carpet, a mirror and a jolly wooden mortar of vivid orange fake flowers. The walls are African dull yellow and green and decidedly faded and peeling. There’s a bath in a communal hardboard partition bathroom and the lavatory is the pit latrine down the slippery grass hill beneath the house. And it is VERY dark out there! Very tired, I set out to walk back to the township to find some local food. It was pitch black and magically silent. Lightning flashed dramatically, exposing the VAST valleys below. A few black shadows passed, greeting the stranger who could not even see them. Then rain threatened. I was only a quarter of a mile into my walk, with another half to go, so I turned and came back to eat the odd bits and pieces I bought – fortuitously – yesterday. Supper, such as it was, was a bread roll and some sweaty cheese, a handful of cashews, some crushed grapes and a hot cross bun, with the rain drumming on the roof. Well, it keeps the body together, and Lesotho, just the fact of being here, keeps the soul going for a few days! My very basic room is a fiver and one switch seems to switch off all three cubicles from the door onto the road. Fortunately I seem to have the Granny and Four Sisters Bed and Breakfast to myself so I am in control of that light switch. And at 9.30, I think it’s about to go out!
A thoroughly good day! Back in the magical Kingdom in the Sky.
DAY12. SATURDAY MARCH 1st 2014. ROMA, LESOTHO.
The rain cascaded down for much of the night, beating a tattoo on the tin roof of my room at Granny and Four Sisters rustic residence, one that took me back to the ‘grotels’ of my early travels. But I slept well, in reasonable comfort in a room I could shut out the world. My motorbike stood beneath the extended shop front and even if I couldn’t see it through the high slot of a window, I knew that outside was a view that would cost a fortune in a hotel of more pretension – (and built the other way around)! I was warm, secure and dry. What more do I need?
The rain had changed conditions. It was now cooler and mud floes had wept onto the road from hillsides. The verges were a quagmire, and to be avoided on the bike, as I found the first time I pulled off to take a photo. My wheel and boot sank into two inches of rich red ooze and I slithered and spun to get back onto the tarmac. But it makes Lesotho green! So much beauty, so spectacular.
My ride from Mount Moorosi was not as impressive as yesterday’s wonderful journey. I was descending to the lower, flatter region of western Lesotho where most of the Basotho live. The early part of the journey followed the mud-filled, mis-named Orange River, twisting and turning far below my road in a vast landscape. I was amused to see a woman hanging colourful washing beside her round thatched house and wondered if she ever stopped to look at the view from her washing line, a view that anywhere else would warrant a viewpoint restaurant at least! I was constantly astonished by the sheer grandeur and splendour of the scenery. I doubt she thinks much of it and is more concerned about the inconvenience of living on a small plateau above the Orange River and having to wash in a bucket. Fair enough, I suppose. Views don’t feed the family.
They do feed the spirit though! They really do. The views coupled with such friendly people, most of whom wave as I pass and gather round if I stop. One of the features of Lesotho is that you can imagine yourself far from anyone, deep in rural areas, far from the road. And from the hillside will wave a form wrapped in a blanket, perfectly camouflaged as he watches a flock of woolly stub-faced sheep or some cows. Then a man will trot past on a Basotho pony, tip-tapping sure-footedly across the semi-vertical hillsides. I will never forget stopping 12 years ago on this very road – it was gravel then and one of the best days of my 2002 journey – and taking a photo in a vain attempt to capture some of the beauty surrounding me. I imagined I was alone in the world, and then round the corner came a young man carrying a suitcase, walking for two days back to a school where he was a volunteer teacher as he would rather be employed for no money than out of work. He was going back to start the new term and had to walk since he could not afford the fare. He was prepared to walk for two days! It was a humbling meeting. I remember that at the end of our conversation I gave him enough for his minibus fare, to his touching gratitude. But I suspect he continued to walk and sent the money home to his elderly mother whom he looked after one way or another. The ‘developing world’ – a phrase I despise, for why should anyone aspire to develop in the image of our world as the term implies? – but one which now is used to describe all of Africa and a lot of other places apparently beneath our concern; the developing world has so many lessons it could teach us, were we not so arrogant to assume WE must teach THEM… His name escapes me now (it will be in my journal of that day! 21st or 22nd of January 2002.) but the meeting still impresses me.
It was cool riding today after the rain. Right now, at 7.30 in the evening, sitting on my bed with a welcome can – or two – of Castle Milk Stout (made in South Africa – and Ghana, and my favourite tipple there), I make no pretence: I am exhausted! 225 miles of twisting, turning roads in very fresh air, many of those miles at altitude – including climbing to a couple of passes at 8500 feet or so – some of them on rocky dirt roads and every one of them requiring concentration and rewarded by fascination for what I see about me, all information that must be processed as I ride. So, yes, I am struggling at 7.30 – The Archers only finished ten minutes ago back in another world.
The male national costume of Lesotho is so strange. How do these things develop? Most of the rural men wear short shorts with a blanket held by a large ornate pin or knotted across one shoulder; Wellington boots – preferably white one – and always a hat, usually a tall woolly hat, a knitted balaclava, a baseball cap, or less frequently, the woven pointed hat that is the symbol of Lesotho. I came across one herdsman on a lonely gravel road far from anywhere, weaving a hat from green grasses. The one on his head had obviously been not long completed as the ragged edges of the grasses awaited clipping and finishing, to be done at home I suppose. The blanket is one of the most typical items of Lesotho clothing, completely individual to this little mountain kingdom. I would bring one home as a souvenir of this country I admire so much were it not for the fact that most of them are made of synthetic fibres, imported from South Africa now, but originally from Leicester and Coventry. In the 1860s traders presented a blanket to the king, from which grew a national dress and a bizarre trade for the British.
I rode clockwise round Lesotho today, from about four o’clock to ten o’clock – on the map, that is. At about ten o’clock in this roughly circular kingdom, live most of the people and here is the small capital, Maseru. Almost to Maseru I turned towards the centre and rode up into the interior mountains, riding up the God Help Me Pass and the Blue Mountain Pass, otherwise known as Lekhalo La Thaba Putsoa Pass at 2633 metres, relatively low against some of the more northern passes, but nonetheless impressive. These roads are good tar, always accepting the likelihood of rounding sharp corners to find wandering flocks of sheep or lumbering cows – and lumps of fallen rock from the steep hillsides. Then of course there are the fume-belching minibus taxis that ply the roads to distant villages, struggling into the higher atmospheres of the mountain kingdom.
At the top of the Blue Mountain Pass I stopped to appreciate the views and to rest my now sore bum. A rocky gravel track led off across distant mountainsides and disappeared over a far ridge. Well, it was like a challenge! In fact, I turned after about five miles as I realised that it was leading me in a convoluted way back to the main road some miles on. Stopped taking a photo, a friendly local police bakkie pulled up to chat. “Where are you going?” asked the cheerful Mosotho police driver. “I have no idea!” I exclaimed. “I just saw an interesting road!” It was he who told me that there were “ten to twenty” kilometres to go. It was getting to late afternoon and I thought the time might be better spent in the process of finding a bed for the night, since I had decided to go back to the edge of the lowlands to sleep. Lesotho is very little set up for tourism, except for expensive ‘lodges’ catering to the rich of Maseru and the few rich South Africans who travel here, mainly, I observe, successful blacks. Those lodges are way outside my budget so I turned and began a terrific ride back down the sweeping bends, flicking the bike from side to side with a certain glee. We bikers look for roads like these! But there aren’t many as rewarding as in Lesotho.
Last year I stayed in this place so, rather than the strain of looking further I rode back here to Roma and rented a delightful thatched rondavel with bathroom and large, comfortable bed. I could have rented a ‘backpacker’s’ room for £8.50 but I am old enough (there, he said it!) to prefer a quiet, well furnished room for £13.50! Above my bed rises a pointy thatched roof and this is civilised and comfortable. I did the rural grotel last night in Mount Moorosi. Tonight I will enjoy the comfort that my slightly better budget brings as I grow older. I know quite definitely that I have nothing whatsoever to prove to myself or anyone else about my ability to travel on the cheap! Anyone who has stayed in the Hotel Jardin (the grossest misnomer of my life on the road) in Coatzacoalcos in Mexico has nothing left to prove! It may have been almost exactly 30 years ago, but it has NEVER been surpassed, hasn’t the Hotel Jardin – or ‘sub-passed’, I guess that should be!
On my foray across the high mountainsides on that dirt track I came across a valley in which red hot pokers grew abundantly, wildly across the scrubby grass. They grow wild here, but I seldom saw them in such profusion, maybe trapped in that valley by wind-borne seeding.
I hope the rain stays away now. Along the road I passed a sign directing up a rough track to a historic cave and dinosaur prints and decided to investigate. I had gone only half a mile when track became utterly impossible by thick, greasy, slithery mud and I had to turn back. On my way back to the road I stopped to talk to a man walking the way I had been going. He was the curator of the site that I wanted to visit. We had a long conversation, as I find so stimulating in Africa. He told me that they had been lobbying for a decent road to open up the important site to tourists for a longtime but Lesotho politics are so very corrupt, like so much of this ailing continent, that no road is forthcoming – but the politicians become obscenely rich… There are few beacons of hope around this troubled continent. Without corruption of local politicians and without the self-interest of the ‘developed’ world that controls commodity prices and meddles in politics in its own favour with no regard for Africa, this wonderful continent could be so rich.
It’s a bright starry night outside now, all the constellations unfamiliar to me down here in the southern skies. I hope that bodes well for tomorrow. From here to Semongkong the road has been rebuilt, gravel but much improved. Last year when I stayed in Roma I had to miss that ride as there had been rain and the road would have been many miles of slippery grease. Maybe this time I will be lucky. I went outside, fell around in the dark on a litre of stout and decided to take a welcome shower (I had only a bucket of warm water at Granny and Four Sisters) and get into bed at 9.00 once again. It IS hard physical work travelling – and surprisingly hard mental work too, keeping my wits about me and observing and processing all the new sights and experiences. But I’d rather be able to write my diary from the Kingdom of Lesotho than most places!
DAY13. SUNDAY MARCH 2nd 2014. ROMA, LESOTHO.
My addiction deepens; Lesotho weaves its spell. I really begin to think that this little kingdom must rise to the top of my favourite countries – for it has fabulous natural scenery combined with universally charming people: calm, warm and welcoming. It’s such a remarkable thing: I am in one of Africa’s ‘poorest’ countries (economically speaking: as with ‘developed’ I could argue the implied values in these too-easy phrases) that has an appalling AIDS statistic and where life is cruelly hard and life expectancy low. I must remember that this is late summer. In winter it is COLD in those high mountains. Yet, despite all this I see smiling people content with their lot and with a strong cultural identity that gives confidence and seems to create an ease and pride. How wonderful to be one of the chosen few who have discovered this paradise.
My thatched rondavel in this guest house, set up, I believe by a white Basotho family, surrounded by pleasant gardens and with a delightful cosy feel, was so attractive that I decided to stay here again tonight. I am even thinking of extending to three nights. Lesotho is small and I have my wheels, making it easy to tour out from this place. Today I headed for Semongkong as planned. It is a small settlement in the heart of the country about fifty miles from here. The road is actually in the process of being built. For the first thirty miles it is fine sweeping tarmac, apart from a couple of short patches of bad gravel as it winds into the interior mountains. Then, high up in the impressive terrain the tar ends and road works begin. For the last twenty miles I had to ride on a packed mud road and sometimes on difficult loose stones, the stage before tarmac is spread. That loose gravel is like ice for a two wheeled vehicle, slipping and sliding beneath the wheels. The packed mud is much easier – so long as it is dry. Today a strong sun beat down from the heavens. I have the proof on my neck and the tips of my ears, as purple as the beetroot I just ate with my supper.
Now as I relax in my cosy rondavel a huge storm is rolling the skies above and rain just beginning. The road to Semongkong would be impossible for me tomorrow! What luck! Thunder in such high mountains is always active and dramatic, stereophonic bass reverberating around noisily amongst the rocky fastness. It’s fun to be in a small round hut with a thick thatch above. It’s definitely NOT fun to be up on those mountains in such weather, as I once was on that most frightening of all my travel days on my 2002 discovery of Lesotho.
Last night I was tired. So tonight I must be very tired! It was not the easiest of roads to Semongkong, probably a couple of energetic hours each way, and once there I set off to walk to the waterfall, the highest in southern Africa. Anywhere else but wonderful Lesotho there would be car parks, paths, guard rails, signposts and restaurants overlooking the falls. In Lesotho you stumble about two hilly miles through mud and rocks to find yourself on a mighty high cliff edge viewing the fall across a canyon. At 192 metres the fall is very high, double the Victoria Falls but only a fraction as wide of course. This is just a river cascading in a single fall from the cliff top into a deep defile far below.
And I walked it in my motocross boots, hardly the best footwear for a four mile hike through Lesotho grazing and muddy swamps. But you have to suffer for your tourism! All along the way shy Basotho people waved and greeted me politely, flashing cheerful smiles in reaction to mine, which has been spread broadly across my face this whole lovely day. There is nothing like this place and no people like these.
Small rock built round houses with thatched roofs or rectangular blocks with the ubiquitous African zinc roofs make up the majority of homesteads and villages, the two probably in about equal proportion. This being sunday there seemed to be more people walking the hills even than usual. I suppose many had attended church in the town. Wherever you go in this country there are people, even in the most remote of mountainsides. Grazing rights are doubtless arcane and can be on far mountain ridges. Herdsmen, usually young boys or teenagers, live out on the hills, often in the most remote thatched huts balanced astonishingly on steep remote ridges, with their small flocks of sheep or a few cows, food sent to them every couple of weeks or so in summer. These animals are the basis of family fortunes, as is the case throughout the continent. Wealth is gauged by cattle ownership: if there’s a crisis an animal can be sold. It is important to graze them well through the summer months. Pairs of young men walk the roads wrapped in their blankets, their arms linked over a stick across their shoulders, their faces often obscured by the woollen balaclavas, their boots white Wellingtons. Their faces light up with happy smiles at my greetings. Literacy levels are low but all basically educated Basotho speak some English and love to converse. It makes for very happy travelling.
It is raining steadily now on my thatch. Those roads would be quite impossible already as they turn to mud slicks. I did briefly consider going up to Semongkong with my panniers and staying there tonight. But I did not fancy even the chance of riding back tomorrow on mud. Happy decision… Twenty miles of slipping and sliding would be no fun. Funny, I was thinking as I rode today, that since I started riding motorbikes in Africa (1986) I hardly ever went trail riding in England again. Somehow, a few miles of Yorkshire mud just doesn’t have the same attraction when you have done hundreds, even thousands, of miles off road in these exhilarating, invigorating places.
And so again to bed as I can’t write longer. It is 9.11… Me, for whom midnight is an early night at home.
DAY14. MONDAY MARCH 3rd 2014. ROMA, LESOTHO.
It must be apparent by now that I rather enjoy my stay in Lesotho. I have seldom had such a congenial day in Africa.
It is now official: Lesotho is my Number One in Africa! To find a country with such natural beauty combined with such charming people is rare indeed. I love Ghanaians, but their country does not hold the wonders of this little mountain kingdom. Lesotho makes me feel relaxed and comfortable to an extent that I seldom remember experiencing.
Today I rode to Maseru, the small capital city, about the size of a provincial English town, but somewhat more disorganised – and a lot more interesting. I rode about the chaos of the city centre for a bit looking for a likely place to leave the bike before realising that all I needed was to find one of the ‘parking marshals’ to look after me – and my bike. So I pulled in to a street-side parking bay and a young man immediately appeared with a small – very African – book of tickets and a big Lesotho smile, wrote ‘BMW’ on the ticket before handing it to me and telling me with a smile that he would look after my bike. I just wanted to wander in the busy streets and amongst the extraordinarily colourful market stalls.
There can be no nation like this! For the next two hours I walked in the burning sun with my face split from ear to ear with a happy smile. Well, who wouldn’t smile, surrounded by such good will? I greeted HUNDREDS of people, was greeted, smiled at and made welcome by everyone. A few stopped to engage me in conversation and find out about me; no one wanted for anything but that I should feel welcome. What a nation!
John Seitsiroratsiu looked about 80 but turned out to be three years younger than me. He wanted me to try to reconnect him with someone in Ipswich with whom he had lost touch, her address being: Ipswich, 43 Street, Eland, Landon (ie. England, London). Many people in Africa think London is my country. We stood amongst some smelly detritus and chatted happily. Francis Mokoena had a long conversation about South Africa and its social ills. Another man had studied in Ghana at Legon University, and so many others through the day told me how happy they were to hear how much I like their country and to assure me that they too are proud of it. It is noticeable how many Basotho admit to pride in their country.
The country is Lesotho; the people Basotho; a single person Mosotho and the language Sesotho. The currency is the Maloti and the national brew Maluti.
Markets are the hub of African cities. Here Africa comes alive. It is colourful and noisy, cheerful and busy. But here too are so many greetings and smiles. I am now old enough that I qualify for the names of ‘Dada’ and ‘Daddy’ and even ‘old man’, terms of respect and endearment. Here even schoolchildren have the confidence and charm to approach and ask politely where I am from and where I am going. Even young and old women will greet me or return my greeting.
Increasingly, it is noticeable how many of the shops in Africa are owned by Chinese people. The biggest nation on earth is buying up Africa piecemeal. They are pouring money into this continent in long term plans to rape it of all its valuable resources (not unlike past colonialists…). They purchase tracts of land, mountains that seem now worthless but may prove to hold minerals, and vast numbers of small commercial businesses like the shops in remotest villages. They seem to do little to integrate. Today many Chinese people sat at entrances to small supermarkets and stores, unsmiling as they guarded their stock and checked exiting shoppers’ bags. Even in remotest Semongkong the shops I went into for water and a woollen hat typical of the Lesotho herdsmen, were owned by Chinese people, none of whom spoke English even though it is the second language of the country. I assume they had made some efforts to communicate in Sesotho by now. Bigger stores throughout the continent, particularly building materials, are frequently Lebanese owned and operated. Many of the larger road and infrastructure projects are funded and overseen by the Chinese. Much of the money flooding in all over Africa is from China. The next big colonialists for this poor, beleaguered – too long colonised and exploited – continent.
Riding in African cities is exhilarating, but this is a small one by comparison to so many. Traffic obeys no laws and things change instantly. The only way to ride here is to ride like an African, but with the sense of a European, wits on edge and observation paramount. Then it is fun! And my bike is quick and manoeuvrable. Returning through Maseru at rush hour the main roundabout was blocked solid, traffic tailing back in all directions. I weaved my way in and out with a lot of fun. Trouble was, I was so exhilarated that I got a bit gung-ho when I got out of the city and went over a speed hump rather faster than was advisable. I bounced high in the air and came down with a dreadful grinding noise from the rear wheel. The plastic chain- and mud- guard, a silly piece of BMW confection, had crumpled into the wheel arch and inverted itself over the wheel in a mangled mess. I was forced to pull over hurriedly to investigate. I could not pull it clear and realised the only way was to unbolt the whole assembly and carry it home on the rack behind me in rather bent bits. Fortunately, in Africa, everything can be mended! Even as I was unscrewing the Allen bolts, a young man suggested the broken and somewhat twisted plastic could be ‘sewn’ back together with wire. Perhaps tomorrow I will search for a suitable repair.
It was after noon before I got on the road today. Camping in the garden below my round hut are a charming French couple. I overtook them on the road to Semongkong yesterday, creeping along at snail’s pace in a compact South African hire car, swearing, they tell me, at the a Frenchman who had assured them that it would be no trouble to drive there – on those rutted mud and gravel roads. Dominique and Philippe have spent a year working as nurses on the island of La Reunion and are now making their way back to Brittany and harsh reality via trips to the Far East and to Southern Africa. Tonight, before the evening storm set in, with rain falling again now, we shared Castle Milk Stouts and Reunion rum in the dark garden. I have persuaded them to drive up into the interior, to Mohale Dam, and back tomorrow before they head back to South Africa on their way to Cape Town. They should not come to Lesotho without experiencing the wonderful highlands.
At 9.45 it is raining steadily again. So long as it rains at night I am content. I shall sleep with the comforting sound of rain ticking on the thatch of my round house and tin roof of my bathroom. But the back of my neck, tips of my ears and now the top of my head are all sore from the high altitude sun of Maseru, which is, I think, around 4000 feet. Burning hot in the day; chill by night.
And paradise in Africa!
Must sleep. Too much sun and a couple of rums from La Reunion…
DAY15. TUESDAY MARCH 4th 2014. ROMA, LESOTHO.
I have a destination for my journey now and that’s something I like. I am to meet Rosie in Lusaka, Zambia between the 15th and 21st of the month. Rosie and I worked together in 2008 on the Norwegian Glacier Museum. She was project coordinator for the company in London and we stayed together for some weeks in the most beautiful fjord in Norway (voted thus in a poll of Norwegians!) at Fjaerland, a terrific stay of about five summer weeks when it seldom got dark. A few weeks ago I got an invitation to ‘connect’ with Rosie on LinkedIn, the business networking site that, being popular with Americans, I have been registered with but seldom found a use for. I automatically clicked to ‘connect’. Her ‘invitation’ said she was: ‘Manager, Eastern Farmers’ Cooperative’ or something similar. I knew she lived in Norfolk and looked up her ‘profile’ to find she was living in Eastern Zambia not Norfolk! Finally, a use for LinkedIn. Not quite the links for which it was designed, but good for me and my African journey.
With the help of two men who work at this guest house, that is also the base for a large family farm, a trading post for all manner of goods and a popular meeting point in Lesotho – although once again I have it to myself – and has sheds, barns and a large workshop, we
worked on the bent plastic bits of my bike. With the aid of some wire, pop rivets and a drill we effected a reasonable repair. It looks a bit African but will probably get me by if I avoid the big speed humps.
Now and again on these long bike journeys it is good to leave the bike standing for a day and look locally or take local transport. So today I walked down to the road and boarded a minibus taxi to Maseru. It’s always an interesting experience to go local and use the ‘taxis’, ‘tro-tros’ (Ghana) or ‘matatus’ (Kenya) (also in Ghana called ’18 condemned’ and ‘have you told your family?’!). In one form or another they are badly driven minibuses, either created for the purpose, as in southern Africa, or converted with too many seats from old delivery vans often still with the names of bakeries, stores and workshops in Germany, Belgium, Holland and so on, as in West Africa.
The buses are usually owned by rich men – this is certainly the case in Ghana – but driven by a sort of franchisee and mate, desperate for all business, to fill the van to make profit. There are thousands of these vans plying the roads of Lesotho and South Africa, each one trying to out-race the next one to get to the customer first. They weave about and dash across the road with no warning at the sight of a potential passenger. Here they even search the surrounding fields to pick up anyone approaching who looks as if they might need a taxi. For instance, I was a couple of hundred yards from the road and the taxi stop when they spotted me, threw the vehicle in reverse and began gesticulating. I tumbled aboard and we set off, a mobile disco with super-bass speakers shaking the bus as we slowly ricocheted our way towards Maseru, slowing to a crawl to shout at distant possible customers or rushing to get past other minibuses. It took an hour and cost a pound.
In Maseru I just wandered the busy streets, enjoying the smiles and welcomes and the politely inquisitive nature of the people. The colour is terrific. Basotho people have a tendency to wear very bright colours, although basically Western style clothes, apart from the blanket-clad country people. Their roadside stalls are blaze of brilliant colour, all the very brightest imaginable. There are stalls selling vivid clothes; startling plastic shoes; local nectarines, apples, pears, grapes and peaches; melodramatic DVDs and raucous music. There are shanties that hold makeshift kitchens; half-oil drums with barbecuing sausages of a suspicious hue and oily meat, smoke billowing in the hard, high sunlight. There are sellers of hats of every colour and shape, from ladies’ hats complete with wide floppy brims or rather Edwardian cloth flowers to NY baseball caps and woolly balaclavas. Everywhere are sellers of lottery tickets, a small placard draped round their necks. There are cigarettes, strange roots and herbs, key rings, clothes pegs and every manner of cheap plastic goods or brightly wrapped snacks and bags of horribly-hued popcorn-like mixtures. There is flashy jewellery and large watches, bags and bangles. This is an African street. But in Lesotho it is all a little reserved and quiet, unlike West Africa which is deafening and chaotic. Here it feels restrained but colourful and people are relaxed and friendly, even, it appears to me, to each other. In five or six days I haven’t heard raised voices or discord, which you will see in more volatile West Africa.
And everywhere everyone greets me with a warm smile! It’s terrific.
But I would remove the horn from every taxi in Maseru, were I in charge!
After a couple of hours I found another minibus back to Roma, more thumping bass and rattletrap transport – but better by far than in West Africa. Here the vans are in good shape, usually have four not-bad tyres, glass in the windows and most of their interior upholstery left. Passengers are quiet and respectful and notwithstanding the odd jerk to a halt or dashing out into the face of oncoming traffic, the driving not bad. There is a rule of the road; it’s just that it is their own rule.
The rain set in as we returned to Roma and I was happy to have ordered my supper here in the guest house again so that I did not have to get wrapped in rain gear to ride to the town about a mile away. Roma, as its name suggests, is a town in which the first Catholic mission set up in the nineteenth century. It is now the home of the national university. A few churches and schools, the university and not really a lot else… It has, however, been very relaxing. Perhaps I needed this deep relaxation after the hard work in USA recently. But tomorrow I really have to begin the journey northwards.