DAY16. WEDNESDAY MARCH 5th 2014. HARRISMITH, FREE STATE, SOUTH AFRICA.
I am already missing Lesotho. I have promised myself that I will return before I sell the red bike next month. I am now at the absolute opposite end of a social scale – in my opinion. I am in Harrismith, an Afrikaans town that has seen much better days. Well, I hope it has! It’d be pretty grim if it’s always been like this. It’s the third time I have stayed here and I ventured back to this dump because I know it has an old faded hotel that is only £13 a night. The worst part of my day is finding a place to sleep so I saved myself the trouble. I know the Grand National Hotel (FAR from grand…) will just about do. It is scruffy and faded; was obviously once the best hotel in town, but that was a long time ago. I am sitting in the bar, a dimly lit place – not, I suspect to make it more romantic but because electricity costs money, and it does hide the stains – with dull boarded panels and a wrinkled, cheap green carpet. The customers somehow match it… Yes, that is racial prejudice! From me! But really, Afrikaans people are frequently overweight, out of proportion and have skin coarsened by the African sun. They also smoke heavily and dress badly. The men are excessively hairy and wear shorts with belts looping beneath the steak-belly and long socks. As for the accent (Ekzent), well, OK, I admit a bit of prejudice. Much of that prejudice is caused by their blatant prejudice against people I like so very much. No, this Africa is not what I want at all. I’ll probably make as quickly as I can now to the north.
The last 50 miles of my ride today were a serious trial of vile weather. And a customer (I have to admit Afrikaans are generally friendly to me. But I am cynical enough to wonder how they would react had I a black skin) just informed me that this weather is expected to last for five days. Autumn is setting in extraordinarily early. I suppose the next few days are going to be hard. Maybe I should have stayed in Lesotho and sat out the bad weather.
This morning I was a bit late leaving yet again. The last four nights have been nights of the best sleep I can remember for months. I am completely relaxed! But my lateness was occasioned by the only other guests at the Old Trading Post guest house: a Swedish woman and her mother, and little Sam. Suzanne, the younger of the women, has waited six years to be able to adopt a child from a Basotho orphanage and just yesterday she met Sam, her new son. It was moving to be privileged to see them in the first 24 hours and the joy that Suzanne was experiencing as she bonded with three year old Sam, who was abandoned at two days and has lived three years in an orphanage. This is a side of these countries which is seldom apparent to a passing visitor: the vast numbers of children without parents and the appalling toll that HIV and AIDS has had in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sam’s mother is HIV positive and one can only wonder at the desperation that causes a mother to abandon a child to an orphanage on the third day of its life. The father, needless to say, is unknown. That, sadly, is Africa. Adoption is now strictly controlled in Lesotho, with a preference for local or African adoption and the process has been difficult but well organised. Sam is a cute little thing and was bonding fast with his new mother after life amongst so many other parentless children. Only minutes before Suzanne introduced herself and she and her mother joined me for coffee as I ate my breakfast, I had been conversing with one of the young men who helped me with my bike repair yesterday. He has four children of his own and all the children of his brother whose parents are dead, doubtless from AIDS…
Only as I left – finally – I said to myself, “No more Lesotho carpets”! That resolve lasted only forty miles. Last year I bought a lovely souvenir of Lesotho, a finely woven, colourful mohair woollen mat. It was a cheerful hour I spent at the cooperative where I bought it, and I took pictures of all the laughing, happy ladies. So I decided to stop to see them all again and show them a picture of the carpet on the floor of my house. Another cheerful half hour was the result and they were happy to see me again. Further along the road in Teyateyaneng (‘TY’), a town famed for its weaving, I saw another workshop and stopped, knowing that I would have happy greetings and warmth from the craftswomen. Of course, I ended up buying another mat, made by Augustina Montebello Rapolo, who was happy to have her photo taken as a memento. I shall mail the mat tomorrow. Last year I carried the mat for two or three weeks on the bike! The weaving is a cooperative venture, and my £55 will go into a common pot and be shared out according to a fair system allotted by the square meterage that each woman produces per month.
I rode on around the outer edge of Lesotho, waving and smiling everywhere. I wore my waterproofs for occasional spitting showers and a slight chill in the air. At four o’clock I reluctantly passed through Caledonspoort border once again, sorry to leave the Kingdom in the Sky and all its welcoming people behind me for the next two or three days of rather boring riding. Calendonspoort brings me into the Golden Gate Highlands National Park on the South African side of the Drakensberg Mountains, complete with numerous guest lodges, fine dining, tea shops and craft shops. It is touristic and impressive – unless you have been in Lesotho, the other side of the mountains, the undeveloped, natural side. Very soon the weather changed and I was soon riding in vile rain, spray from the increased number of vehicles and chilled by low cloud. Various antelopes grazed the vast meadowland between the rugged cliffs of red rock – and misty, weeping clouds. All I wanted was for the ride to end as soon as possible as I watched the kilometres count down from 80 to 70 to 60…..
I’m completing tonight’s journal in bed in a dingy room, warm from a hot shower and a dinner of steak, two eggs, good real potato chips and salad (£3.60) served on a hot metal platter. It’s no good to try to find the vegetarian option here so you might as well go with the flow! I ate in the dark, gloomy bar and find myself confused, as I remember when I was in Harrismith before. Broad Afrikaans accents were often unintelligible as I earwigged the conversations. I have said it so many times: travelling for me is about the people I meet or observe so much more than the places I go. So I was listening unobtrusively, until I got pulled into the conversation by a young Afrikaans woman in support of an argument about her credibility as an Afrikaner. Well, there seemed little doubt to me! Her ‘ekzent’ alone told me her origins. And then, for the next half hour or more, I was included in a warmly welcoming conversation with them all that was enjoyable, even if my cynical thoughts were about how I would have been viewed had I had a black skin… But I must admit, once again in Afrikaans company, I was received warmly and openly. I’m never quite sure what to think here. They entertained me generously despite the awful prejudices into which they so frequently, and perhaps unconsciously, slip. Very confusing.
My room is strewn with my thankfully light luggage, all dry since I wrap everything in bags as a norm, but the bags themselves are wet. Fortunately I invested in a new waterproof jacket for this journey and survived the spray and rain quite well but I will have the unpleasantness of damp boots and wet gloves tomorrow.
Well, the weather will do as it will…
DAY17. THURSDAY MARCH 6th 2014. MAGALIESBERG, GAUTENG, SOUTH AFRICA.
A long ride, too long, today. I rode about 300 miles. It’s too much to appreciate anything except the miles of tarmac and the view. But it was a generally boring ride. This part of South Africa is not very interesting, long rolling hills of grazing land and fields of maize. Later I passed an ugly district where gold mines littered the landscape with huge towers and industrial plants.
But I had an almost dry ride, despite all the gloom of the forecasters in Harrismith. The day started damp and dull with heavily overcast skies. It was cool. By late afternoon I was riding in bright sunshine with an increasingly sore bum and wind-burned face. I wanted to stop an hour before I finally did but couldn’t find a place to sleep. It’s the worst part of my day, that drag of hunting for accommodation.
Magaliesberg is about fifty miles west of Johannesburg. It’s more scenic this side than the east, which I struggled through last year on bad roads with heavy colliery traffic. Even with the tedium of rolling hills that you breast to see another few miles of rolling hills, the scenery of South Africa is in a scale that we Europeans do not fully understand. I can see for mile upon mile and the vast skies of the veldt arch overhead filled with towering clouds.
As I write that, the heavens have opened on the thatch roof of tonight’s lodging. So the forecasters may not have been completely wrong. I don’t mind when it rains at night but if this continues in the morning I shall be unhappy.
Yes, finding my accommodation is the one part of the day that I dislike, although sometimes it can bring the best part of the day. It is pure chance. I do not use guide books for then you always end up in the same places as everyone else. I do use tourist offices if I happen to see one, but usually I just rely on instinct, charm and luck. I decided to stop in Carletonville, a town fifty miles back. I searched the streets of a busy town that obviously serves the very large ‘Anglogold Ashanti’ gold mines thereabouts but found completely nothing. So I carried on to Magaliesberg, closer to touristic routes in and out of Johannesburg. I tried the Magaliesberg Hotel, a dull looking place of bungalow rooms round a garden. The reception clerk wouldn’t budge from £25 for a room. He suggested a place that would be cheaper but turned out to have closed down (intriguing that in a one-horse town with only a few places of accommodation, he didn’t know that!). I followed signs to a lodge that I could see was out of my budget, then spotted another sign to Matlapa Lodge. I could see thatched roofs amongst trees and found a rather swish place of pleasant thatched buildings set in lawns and shrubberies with fine views across a valley.
I have learned never just to turn about assuming I can’t afford it but sometimes just to trust to a big smile and a helping of quite conscious charm! Many owners would rather have a full room at a cut rate than an empty room for no income. Sure enough, the elderly Afrikaans owners decided a cheap mid-week single for £19, including what I suspect will be a pretty food breakfast by the look of the dining room with its extensive views, was better than an empty cottage. I have a fine cottage with a great view, that sleeps three, with a large bathroom and even an outdoor hot shower (which I won’t be using. I thought I might have a luxurious bath instead!). I have a king-size bed and it is totally quiet – well, apart from the rain on the thatch. It is pretty comfortable and well worth nineteen quid! Oh, how my travelling has changed! Hah! When I think of some of the shit-heaps in which I have slept, often for a dollar a night in the early days, and the time that I got clean sheets for the first time on Day 81 of my Middle East and Asia trip. I’m glad I did it but I am more glad I really don’t have to any more!
Garnish, that I suspect often goes back to the kitchen, is as green as meals get for the Afrikaans people. It is hardly surprising that they are the shape they are and have the bellies they have with a diet that consists solely of protein and starch washed down by beer and cigarettes… Tonight I had to have two meals to get the greens: steak, egg and chips and a full Greek salad. It’s the first green stuff I ate for two days. Even that had feta cheese in it. I forewent the dressing of which the second ingredient after vegetable oil was sugar…
At one point I got a bit lost. I could not find a turn off to a small road, the R723. I was trying to cut across to Parys, so I stopped and asked various people, none of whom knew where I was going. It did not help that I thought I was looking for ‘Paris’ and in Afrikaans it is called ‘Per-ice’! Turned out, when the penny dropped, that it was a pretty bad road and I needed to detour fifty miles on the main roads.
Once again I travelled through the Boer War today, a war about which I am so ill-informed, as I suspect most of us are, despite my own grandfather being involved in some way, evidenced by a Boer War medal in the family archive. I have no idea what he did or why he did it. Or any of the others, yet it was a war that meant so much to so many at the time, enough for them to die for their beliefs, now forgotten except by the Afrikaans nation and historians. I passed a ‘Concentration Camp Cemetery’ in one town. For it was, as we are often reminded, the British who invented concentration camps during the Boer War. The Boer War was overshadowed by events a decade or more later that changed so much more of the world.
How am I going to get my washing dry? I travel so lightly that I have to wash every night. I didn’t expect this autumnal rain. Oh well, at least I am not trying to dry my riding gear as well.
DAY18. FRIDAY MARCH 7th 2014. LEPHALALE, LIMPOPO PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA.
I feel as if I am in the Empty Zone now. I am in the far north west of South Africa, a few miles from the Botswana border, not a long way below Zimbabwe. I have ridden round the vast conurbation of Johannesburg, one of Africa’s biggest cities. I even seem to be finally above the ugly mining belt. It’s been a day of pretty boring riding on roads unpleasantly busy with big lumbering trucks and long wagons, between some very ugly towns and cities through flattish bush country scarred by gold mines. Undistinguished scenery of low bush and forest: mainly the ubiquitous African tree, the acacia, a thin spiny thorn tree resistant to termites; some large aloes and a few very prickly cacti. But the road just went on and on, and then on… Sometimes I ride along asking myself the inevitable question: why am I doing this? And I know the only answer is: to get to the other side – and the more interesting bits and the rewards they will bring, the people I will meet, the experiences I will evaluate and perhaps appreciate.
The municipal area of this town started 108 kilometres back down the road, that’s how empty it is!
Rustenburg was the first large town I had to negotiate today. I have never seen so many car showrooms and sales lots in any city in the world. Maybe all Johannesburg comes here to buy cars? What an ugly town, the first of several. It also had one bike shop. Asking directions, I was told – obviously by someone who knew his town well – that it was to the right after seven robots (traffic lights). It was, too. It would be sensible, I knew, to carry a puncture repair kit with me, despite the fact I have never mended a tubeless tyre (how I miss my Elephant!).
It brought about an interesting conversation worth recording. The salesman was from the Free State and had lived in Rustenburg for a year. Bikers are always friendly: it’s one of the things that keeps me biking, that fraternity (and occasional sorority) that transcends all barriers of class, culture and race. Quickly realising I was a foreigner, he asked me what I was up to and his eyes widened on hearing that I was riding about his country alone, going as the whim takes me and, what’s more, it is my third time, amounting to perhaps eleven or twelve weeks altogether. “Hey, man, that’s not safe! Don’t you have trouble? I’d really like to do that but…” Always the unspoken inference that ‘they’ must be looking out to rob or murder me. I do not believe that I am especially charmed. I believe that if you see trouble everywhere, you will attract trouble. When I told him that I have travelled at will all over his country, just using the same instinct that I would use in, say, Leeds on a saturday night, he was astonished. It is so sad that white South Africans are, without a doubt, their own worst enemies in spreading this fear of shadows that really do not exist. I firmly believe that by smiling at and greeting everyone, I never see the threat that they imagine. No one is beneath my notice and I travel with a smile on my face, reflected by all I meet, be they selling key rings and lavatory rolls in traffic jams, guarding the hotels I stay in, serving me food or filling my petrol tank. I talk to them all! And I have never had a moment’s apprehension in this country.
Well, that’s not quite true… I did feel very nervous for about five days in 2002 before my bike was released from the three week dock strike. It was my first time in the country and everywhere I went white people told me how dangerous everything was; where I shouldn’t go and what I should be frightened of. For those days I walked chin on shoulder. The first South African I talked with was an airport assistant. She was horrified that I was coming to ride a motorbike about her country and immediately began to list the places I should not go. Asking in the tourist office in Port Elizabeth what I should see, I recollect that the tourist officer said I should visit an out of town shopping centre (!) as downtown was “not safe”. I was told I would have to hire taxis to get about. After a few days of this, leaning on the balcony of the hotel in which I was staying, I rationalised it all. I realised that I had been in MUCH more threatening countries and situations around the world and used my instinct. Leaving my valuables in the room I went out for an evening stroll, walking confidently down the middle of the pavements, smiling at all I met – almost universally black-skinned holiday-makers. Next day I dived into ‘dangerous’ downtown and had a lovely, cheerful time. I rode the ‘black taxi’ minibuses and was welcomed; I even joined the black population in hitch-hiking from town to town. What a good time I had! What good people I met and talked with. How I shocked all the English South Africans!! Danger is where you imagine it, instinct the best judge.
It will be generations before white South Africans begin to accept that we are all equal. Generations of colonial superiority have to be discarded, and I see no evidence of any willingness to do that… And so many white South Africans live with the desire to be somewhere else, instead of accepting and working within the lot that they have been dealt and being thankful for the privileges they have enjoyed for so long.
Shaking free of the big towns, with their crawling and ill-disciplined minibus taxis is wearing. Invariably, it is not until I am past all the attendant satellite ‘townships’ where the majority of the black population live that the roads open up again. The townships are separated from the polite white streets, churches, coffee shops, bed and breakfasts and security guards, razor wire and electric gates and as I ride onwards I appear to go past modest bungalows, with somewhat pretentious appendages (barley-twist pilasters, ornate front doors), on to basic two-roomed dwellings with tin roofs, and finally to shanties of tin and plastic as I pass outwards through the economic strata.
I passed signs warning of wildlife on the road but all I saw was a handful of large antelopes off to the sides, a number of warthogs that looked up disinterestedly as I passed, a troop of monkeys that gambled away and a number of baboons that loped away, bulbous pink arses in the air looking a bit like mine was beginning to feel.
I was heading for a small town called Tom Burke near the Botswana border, fifty miles from here. The rain held off all day until late afternoon when I was hammering northwards with a range of blue mountains a few miles away to my right holding back slatey shafts of rain. But slowly the skies ahead darkened. I tried a couple of hotels in Lephalale but it was an unattractive town so I resolved to carry on and risk the chance of rain. A few miles out of town the bush resembled recent pictures of the Somerset Levels! Expansive floods reached to the edges of the road and here and there men sat on the verges with fishing rods, although I did wonder how many fish were going to swim through all those trees bushes and grass? Twenty miles out, I turned to the right and crossed a swollen river cascading in veritable cataracts under the long bridge. A kilometre on I met a WALL of rain! I made a hasty turn. No point having to dry boots and baggage for the sake of a further thirty miles that I can make tomorrow when it just might not be raining.
There was a thatched lodge development ten kilometres north of Lephalale, so I called in and found I could get a pleasant thatched motel-style room for £16.50. Dinner and breakfast would be a further twelve quid, so I decided against those. Thank god I did! I just saw the friday evening T bone steaks: obscenely huge pieces of cow flesh and a mound of potato chips. The pot-bellies around me are tucking in. I shall have to watch if the garnish, the only gesture towards vitamins, goes back to the kitchen. Thank goodness I rode back to town and ‘dined’ on a small vegetarian pizza! There are twelve people drinking in this hotel bar. I am the only one not smoking; the only one not overweight too.
As I left the bar I spotted that every shred of garnish was scraped onto the pile of used plates! Haha! Ah well, each to his own. I preach against prejudice but I am pretty hard on white South Africans. Only out of sympathy for the black majority, though!