2014 – SOUTHERN AFRICA DIARY – EIGHT

DAY 40. SATURDAY MARCH 29th 2014. CHIREDZI, ZIMBABWE

Mr Mugabe is considering boycotting a summit meeting between all the heads of government of Europe and Africa because his wife hasn’t been invited and she can’t get a visa! There’s an embargo on Mugabe and friends getting visas because of abuses of human rights and election rigging. Also, no other African, or presumably, European spouses have been invited to the summit anyway! He really is a rather ludicrous, capricious cartoon figure these days, on his seventh term in office… I would bet that no one of the people I have met and talked with in Zimbabwe voted for him at the last election, yet by some amazing coincidence he always wins by a landslide. Odd, that. Huh. It is difficult to take him seriously, and I think most Zimbabweans, peace loving people that they are, don’t either. They just sidestep him and get on with life.

*

I did not mean to be in Chiredzi tonight. I was going to an eastern town in the mountains called Chimanimani. It’s been a cloudy day and when I turned east off the main south road the mountains were wreathed in thick slaty walls of cloud. So I aborted that plan and kept further west and then south where the clouds were more broken. Riding in rainswept mountain scenery isn’t fun. Something for next time.

But I should have checked my map better and looked at the clock. As it was, the last two hours of my ride were very hard work, slogging along on a fairly tedious, flat road full of animals (goats and cows, not elephants and wildebeest) as the shadows lengthened. Today I rode 250 miles, more than I like to cover in a day. There was nowhere else to stop on the road, just a selection of sprawling villages and a lot of cane fields, for this is sugar cane country, on which Chiredzi has become rich. In the end I reached Chiredzi with less than an hour to find a place to sleep, not easy in this over-priced town and I saw a few rubbish places, below even my basic standards! People are so friendly though, that it’s difficult to get irritable about the poor quality of choice or the fact that I have an over-priced basic room with bed and chair, shared lavatory and shower, in a private bungalow barely converted to accommodation down long dusty side streets in the ‘location’ or high density housing area. There is no running water at night, no electricity for the past hour and I had to battle to get so much as a towel. They asked £18 for this, as much as I have paid anywhere, but I bargained three quid off on principle before heading down the road to buy a couple of cans of beer and get a rugged meal of village chicken and sadza in a cafe. It’s all so friendly however that I forgive much in Zimbabwe that I might not elsewhere.

The Nesbitts (remember my great aunt’s house in Bulawayo) have another of their plush baronial hotels here, the Nesbitt Arms, blazoned with fake heraldry and shields.

I was riding about rather desperately looking for places to sleep when a woman smiled at me as she opened a house gate to let in her husband’s car, so I turned and went back to appeal for help. As I might have expected, help was immediately openly given. “Well, I don’t live here, we have just arrived from Bulawayo to visit my mother. She knows more. Come on in and we’ll ask her!” She was coloured; so was her mother, but the daughter was married to a white Zimbabwean. Within moments they were all trying to help, advising me where I can get a cheap sunday roast: “Come back here! We could go together!” and advising me on guest houses – all of which, though, seemed to be rather expensive in this (somewhat scruffy, it seemed to me) town.

Somewhere along the long road I stopped to drink some water and found I had a passenger. A huge bug was sitting on the seat between my legs. A cross between a grasshopper and beetle, it had a red and blue carapace and six enormous articulated legs, altogether about three inches across. It must have flown into me. I am careful, even on hot days to keep my jacket zipped up, my goggles on – and my mouth covered or closed when I yawn! There are a lot of large flying objects in Africa, frequently big enough when they hit my exposed face to bring an involuntary tear to the eye. There was that time that a flying locust squashed against my forehead and acid burned my skin for days. Last year a wild bee flew into my sleeve when I had taken off my gloves for a bit and stung me very memorably on the elbow, such that my arm swelled to double size. It taught me a valuable lesson.

I am back in the south of Zimbabwe now, just a day’s ride from South Africa but a million social miles. It will be three days’ riding from here to Swaziland so with just 16 days of the journey to go, I need to move on reasonably well. Very soon now I head back to the restraint and unresponsiveness of unhappy South Africa. I shall miss Zimbabwe.

DAY 41. SUNDAY MARCH 30th 2014. MUSINA, SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa wasn’t really my plan for tonight. I had thought to stay on the Zimbabwe side of the border for another night but could not find anywhere that seemed instinctively suitable and then it occurred to me that crossing Beitbridge border, that last year was a horrid experience of pushing crowds and bureaucracy, might well be better undertaken on sunday afternoon than monday morning. Last year it took a very hot, tedious and frustrating couple of hours to get through. This afternoon I completed formalities in 37 minutes. Of course, it is simpler coming into South Africa since my motorbike is registered here and leaving Zimbabwe was just a question of surrendering all the bureaucratic talismans I have carried from the other side. And sunday was a great deal quieter as well. I’m happy I don’t have to start tomorrow with the prospect of the border crossing.

So I find myself in Musina, the most northerly town in South Africa. A town of little attraction and all closed up for the sabbath. This is the main road out of the country to the northern neighbours and the rest of Africa so there is constant movement of freight and people through town. I will have to face the first seventy miles tomorrow down the main arterial highway to Johannesburg and the rest of the republic. Then I shall turn off and meander towards Swaziland.

Chiredzi is a town to which I doubt I will return. An uninteresting place and poor quality accommodation choices. Last night I battled with mosquitoes and had to put on a stand fan that had only a short power cable, meaning it was too close to the bed, blasted cold air over me and was noisy. I had to wash with a bucket, had no mosquito net, managed to wrest an old torn half towel from the owner, had no running water in the basic shared facilities and frequent power cuts. Tonight, for two pounds more, I have a well furnished room with decent bathroom, a great shower (I enjoyed that luxury!) and all mod-cons in a real hotel in the centre of town. I could even call reception on my room phone – if I had anything to say… Chiredzi sits in a flat part of Zimbabwe surrounded by extensive tracts of sugar cane, the only industrial scale agriculture I saw in Zimbabwe, that used to have such a fine and remunerative farming tradition.

Odd that I wrote about flying things last night, for this morning I rode right into the edge of a swarm of wild bees! Suddenly I was peppered like grape-shot and very grateful for a well zipped jacket and gloves. It could have been a serious incident had they got inside my clothes, if my reaction to the single bee sting last year signifies. I stopped quickly and brushed dazed bees from my clothing, shaking things well before carrying on. A lucky escape.

I had forgotten that the traffic police sit on this road collecting hard currency. I was, said the policewoman, doing 77 kilometres per hour in a sixty zone. “It’s a built up area!” she declared. “Oh, come on!” I exclaimed, “it’s exactly the same as the last hundred kilometres! Built up! Huh!” But you can’t argue successfully with a Zimbabwean police officer and the derelict government probably needs every $20 (£12) of hard currency it can get for I am sure most of the population lives outside the state economy: it’s all part of their inventiveness and enterprise, their way of coping in a bankrupt land. In a country with
little crime maybe the police are best employed in the endless road checks. As soon as I crossed the frontier I knew I was back in South Africa: ‘High crime area. Do not stop’ commanded the highway signs.

Most of today’s ride was forgettable. For a few miles I rode through hills and past many bald granite domes and balanced rocks, but the rest was flat land and thick low bush. There wasn’t much to stop for and now I find myself over the border with a couple of long rides to get to Swaziland. It is hot here now. I seem to have outrun the rain at least.

And I am missing Zimbabwe as I anticipated. I am already wondering how my African Elephant and I can get back there. There are still many places to visit and a whole lot of charming Zimbabweans to talk with. My favourite nation!

DAY 42. MONDAY MARCH 31st 2014. GRASKOP, SOUTH AFRICA

There are days that just don’t really work. Maybe I am missing the homespun, broken-down charms of Zimbabwe as well in this odd country with its well developed infrastructure that makes it seem so European somehow. Less to my taste that the immediate smiles and quirkiness across that border – the rest of Africa. Real Africa that so obsesses me.

I thought I had outrun the rain. Not so in these dismally cloud-wrapped mountains. I am cold, have had to stand under a hot shower for ten minutes and now I am sitting in a ‘bikers” bar beside an open log fire. Last night I sweated buckets, but that’s another story..!

You see, the trouble is, I forgot I was back in South Africa. I have been in Zimbabwe and Zambia, where nothing gets repaired, either because it’s not in the culture or because there’s no money. So when I couldn’t find a control for the air-con and saw the hole without a wire coming out of the switch, I just assumed the unit was broken. So I opened the window… Silly move, but I do HATE air conditioning. I am known amongst my American colleagues for my very odd habit of getting rooms in American hotels and opening windows to sleep in 80+ degree heat. None of my colleagues ever comes for a drink in MY room! So, anyway, last night I opened the window…

At three this morning I was awash with the heat and battling mosquitoes like Messerschmitts dive-bombing any inch of bare flesh. It was agony! Finally, at three, I gave up, pulled on my shorts and tee shirt and went down to remonstrate with the management. They woke and a young fellow, clutching mosquito spray and spare batteries for the air-con control unit plodded upstairs. Me, feeling aggrieved, for, you must remember, I spent the previous night in a rip-off barely-converted bungalow fighting mosquitoes and complained next morning that the management really should provide nets.

Well, the poor fellow reached my room and immediately plucked the air-con control unit off the wall – where it had been all the time..! He shut the windows with barely a shrug, sprayed the room and went back down, wordlessly, to his uncomfortable sleep in a chair in the lobby…

…leaving me feeling extremely foolish! And a complete cad! I honestly had just assumed that the air-con didn’t work and that’s why a pretty smart room in a ‘real’ hotel was £17. I am NOT in Real Africa any more! That hotel caters to white South Africans – and they don’t stand for broken air-con! Silly me…

What was left of the night was therefore too cold and I had to resort to earplugs to combat the noise of the air-con. Wrinkling my nose at the smell of the mosquito spray, I had a brief unsatisfying sleep and crept out of the hotel feeling embarrassed at nine.

*

When I left Musina I anticipated a very hot day. The sun beat from a huge blue sky – for the first twenty miles, that is… Then, in front, I spotted an ominous shade of slate coloured sky; assumed it might just be hanging round the low mountain range ahead and hoped for the best. It was sometime after I crossed the unmarked Tropic of Cancer that I began to realise that I was probably in for a soaking, and a chill one at that. The road climbed into mist-sodden mountains, across the range and improved for a while. I turned off the big toll highway. Usually I avoid the big highways but up here in the farthest north of South Africa there is only one road: that which runs from Johannesburg to the Beitbridge border with Zimbabwe. Now I was in rolling bush-covered countryside amongst extensive game farms. I rode this road only 13 months ago, admittedly in the other direction, but I recognised nothing whatsoever. It does sometimes bring into question why the hell I take these journeys! Thank god I write it all down – or it all would be lost to the fallibility and fickleness of my failing memory…

At Tzaneen I did recognise the bar/ restaurant at which I ate last year. I recollect that it was filled with white South Africans watching rugby while I chatted to the (black) waiter out of sight of his (white) master. He was, I remember, phlegmatic about the division of white and black. It had always been thus during his life. I find it so much more difficult to accept and get angry on behalf of people like him. My sense of justice and equality is SO offended. Anyway, let me NOT get onto that subject tonight. I have only been back in Ersatz Africa for 24 hours…

*

The scenery began to improve around Tzaneen, for here is a very fertile belt producing copious amounts of mangoes and citrus fruits on large farms that clothe the rolling hills. There are forests of extremely tall, waving eucalyptus too, pencil hatching the landscape. As I left Tzaneen I stopped to photograph a ‘caution hippos’ sign, but I didn’t see any. All I saw all day, despite being close to the vast Kruger National Park, was a buffalo – as startled to see me as I was it – a few graceful deer, a baboon or three, monkeys and the fastest snake crossing the road that I ever saw, blink and I really would have missed its astonishing slither, no more than a shadow blown by the wind across my path.

The road rolled on, and then on. There was nowhere much to stop so I chose Ohrigstad arbitrarily from my map. But before I could reach it the heavens opened and deposited impressive quantities of very chill rain on me and the muddy, flooded landscape. It was vile. One of those hours in which I question the whole enterprise, sprayed by mine trucks, soaked by rain and splashing through puddles beneath wreathes of coiling rain-heavy cloud. Ohrigstad proved to be dismal, unattractive, wet, muddy – and had no viable accommodation options in any case. I had to splash on, the water settling beneath my backside and in my crutch as usual. Why does NO ONE make waterproof motorcycle trousers?

Pilgrims’ Rest was the next small town that might have habitation. It was, however, over a wet, winding 1778 metre (5750 feet) pass… Cold! And wet! And Pilgrims’ Rest, when it emerged from the gloom, was as touristic a trap as I have ever seen in Africa. It was ringed by tatty souvenir stalls and the only hotel was an ‘historic’ one, outside which a tour bus of (white) tourists with a plethora of large expensive suitcases had just pulled up. In my mind’s eye I could already see the chintz and nicknacks and religious and sentimental tatt of the Afrikaans-owned bed and breakfasts. I couldn’t envisage a happy evening surrounded by wet waterproofs, Jesus gee-gaws and sentimental homily-plaques and listening to unconscious opinions with which I do not agree. I moved on over the next pass to Graskop. At least I knew this is a local tourist centre with plenty of accommodation, places to eat and drink and shops selling Chinese made African souvenirs. (OK, so I am a bit cynical tonight. It goes with the territory and my political and social opinions!)

Graskop is quite high too – 1430 metres. A small, compact town that lives by tourism, being close to a number of natural sights that I have seen on both previous trips. It is amongst green mountains scoured by some fast rivers – probably supplied by the copious rainfall! – that have created the world’s third largest canyon and a number of water-worn sights. Quickly I found a chalet for £15 and was soon standing gratefully under a hot shower warming up from a tiring, trying ride.

*

There’s an ’emporium’ up the road, filled to the roof with African artefacts, wonderful carvings and ethnic items scavenged haphazardly from the entire continent. All that history, culture and MEANING lost in a couple of generations now that we have the polyglot CNN ‘culture’ in its place. Every one of those carved pieces of wood was created with a message and with conviction by the maker. Now, I bet hardly anyone knows the significance of any of the pieces and why they were made: to appease gods; honour ancestors; bring fortune to marriages; fertility or revenge. All lost to the TV culture and religious bigotry, culturally devalued and sold for a small cash return that will last momentarily, whole cultures and myriad beliefs that have dissolved into the greyness of ‘developed’ life.

It is so sad that even fascinating Africa succumbs to the same tawdriness of ‘culture’ as the rest of us do. I saw the last dying embers of that Real Africa when I knew Akay and her generation in Navrongo twenty five years ago. To them TV was white man’s magic. Mobile phones were a mystery and instant global communication impossible to comprehend. In ONE generation all these things are the norm, and to Akay’s grandchildren it seems that they have always been there.

We live in changing times. Mainly for the better, but sometimes we throw away a lot that has value and replace it with superficial shadows.

*

Back along the street at my complete £15 bungalow, I just stood up to open my third can of Milk Stout and realised I am in danger of falling over. I must be pretty exhausted tonight: I had a very disturbed sleep; a chill, very long ride (the longest of the trip at 310 miles – MUCH too far); and the largest piece of animal I have eaten for probably thirty years: a 400 gram steak, with a mound of home-cut chips, served with a fried egg just to make sure I had enough protein. Oh, and a sliver of tomato, three minuscule gestures of onion, two half lettuce leaves and a single slice of cucumber. Is it surprising that the Afrikaans people are probably the ugliest on earth? (Sorry to any of you reading this. Put my candidness (and prejudice!) down to the Milk Stout!). I don’t even much like cow meat but choices are limited. I long for Josie’s Harberton vegetables! I feel so much healthier on a mainly vegetarian diet.

Walking back through the silent village, a few generally overweight white diners clustered round candlelit tables in smart restaurants, the black Africans back in their tiny two-roomed houses in a nearby but separate township, there was a feeling of autumn in the air. Misty cloud haloed the few lights and fragrant woodsmoke drifted from early fires. The unusually wet summer, according to the barman, is just about done up here.

I am taking the biggest bed in the chalet/ bungalow and it is very quiet here. For the first time on this trip I am under a duvet. I’ll probably be asleep by nine-thirty! And probably for at least ten hours. Can’t continue……..

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One thought on “2014 – SOUTHERN AFRICA DIARY – EIGHT

  1. Wonderful, wonderful read, as always. You transport the reader every time. Love the mention of Josie’s veggies in Harberton. Keep dry and keep smiling … xx

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