DAY 43. TUESDAY APRIL 1st 2014. BARBERTON, SOUTH AFRICA
These rather fluidly planned journeys can change so easily. I meant to be in Swaziland tonight but chance roadworks diverted me to Barberton, a place in which I stayed last year. For a moment I almost took the same room, largely to see if they’d fixed the lavatory cistern yet, that I remember jury-rigging with a spare luggage elastic. However, given the choice of every room in the faded old hotel, I chose the brightest. The Phoenix was probably quite a stylish hotel about fifty years back: it still shows those pretensions in its solid hardwood furnishings, its elegantly wide staircase and the fifties’ curves and pediments of its decoration. But time and changes of taste and style haven’t dealt it well and rather than rising from the ashes it seems to be sinking back into them. This phoenix is drifting away resolutely to oblivion…
Roadworks in South Africa can be a real problem to schedules. It is common for roads to be closed in lengthy contraflow systems: traffic controlled in one direction at a time, not uncommonly with the flow changing after ten, twenty, even thirty minutes and the length of single carriageway extending for many miles. So when I came to the back of a queue on the biggest road hereabouts, a major arterial motorway to the east and eventually to Mozambique, and a sign that read: ‘Average waiting time 45 minutes’, I turned in the road and decided to find another route to Swaziland. Hence Barberton… So tomorrow is Swaziland instead.
Graskop lay bathed in sunlight by the time I was conscious, and stayed that way until I left, a leisurely departure after a saunter round the small town that exists mainly as a tourist centre these days. It is a pleasant town though, little larger than a village, in fine scenery and with a relaxed manner to it. Quite different in sunshine to its gloom and murk of last night’s arrival. My bungalow was silent – I was the only guest in the complex – and had it not been for the half-cow I ate for supper, sleep would have been deep and long. Still, it was restful after the grim afternoon yesterday.
At last I was on my way, curling back down the range to the lowlands a thousand metres below. This whole region is important for forestry, great sweeps of firs and eucalyptus lining an empty road. Until, that is, I found myself in Nelspruit, the regional capital, a sprawl of commercial development and even a few high rises with the look of a prosperous city such as I have not seen for some weeks. Sometimes, being in South Africa seems like Europe. It is a land with a well developed infrastructure with which I have an uneasy relationship. On the one hand it is reassuring to be back amongst things that work, that are of familiar standards and where everything is available. But, and for me it is such a big ‘but’, this is a first world imposition and mainly created by and available to the white population. In this deeply divided land where equality is so vastly unbalanced, I feel guilty at enjoying the things that seem familiar – that I am able to afford because I am part of that white economy. Most of the populous are outside this elite economic privilege… This is a land of two parts. I usually feel more comfortable amongst the indigenous part.
I eat to live on these journeys. Just as well in Afrikaans Africa. Oh, for a green vegetable! Choices tonight: steak with egg and chips; fried chicken with chips; chicken livers (fried) with bread; breaded mushrooms (deep fried) with bread; spaghetti Alfredo – bacon and gloop – with nothing except spaghetti, gloop and bacon (I had it! Not even a faint hint of something green, not even a token lettuce leaf); all carbohydrate and protein. Were I here longer, I would be on the vitamin pill search again. Or begin to take on the pear shape of the Afrikaner.
The hotel has a bar. Last year I listened to the most racist, offensive conversations I heard in South Africa, where I hear many! Tonight the other customers and the barmaid were all black. Since last year the hotel opened a ‘slots’ casino across the hallway (slot machines). Here the customers were all white, hugely overweight, universally ugly as sin and with that scowling look of in-breeding, gloomily feeding coins into machines. I did wonder about the paucity of the gene pool in this region last year! Sorry again for my prejudice, me, who abhors it in everyone else. I am just noting my observations… Hopefully, I am wrong and these are lovely, warm-hearted folk who love their neighbours. Poverty and poor education is noticeable amongst some of the white population in these outlying areas; not everyone enjoys the white wealth – just as some black South Africans are now becoming fabulously rich. These are the fringes of the equality gulf, the gulf that constantly troubles me in this country. A country of such beauty but such social unhappiness.
Mind you, they could just have been stupefied by the fare available on South African TV. In the bar the eyes of the customers kept drifting to a local version of Big Brother. It’s the first time I ever actually saw it! It is just a bunch of narcissistic illiterates vomiting ignorant opinions into security cameras in a cheap set! I remember my mentor and first film tutor way back at art school, when TV still had some integrity, and long before the invention of ‘reality TV’ (which is utterly manipulated and far from real of course), Peter Sachs, expounding his view that TV was the most powerful weapon ever invented. “Thank god,” he used to say, himself an escaped German Jew, “Hitler never had TV…” Peter presciently believed that TV would come to be used to quell the minds and thoughts of the masses to prevent them complaining about and doing anything about the human condition or threatening the status quo of the Establishment. He saw it as an oppressor despite its amazing potential for education. I don’t think I took his diatribes all that seriously back then. After an hour’s exposure to South African Big Brother I am inclined to reconsider..!
It was a relief when the barmaid changed the intrusive wallpaper to cricket. But I noticed that even that has been souped up with an excitable, trivial commentary and flashy, shooting graphics to appeal to momentary attention spans. None of the laconic ‘Johnners’ about this TV fare. Just like all TV: self opinionated commentators enamoured of their own wit and voices vying for the attention of an audience – frequently diverted by their mobile phones, in hand constantly. I am horrified by the number of wavering drivers I pass who are texting at the wheel, probably the cause of otherwise inexplicable accidents, the rusting evidence of which I see on bland open roads with little traffic…
Yes, Peter, maybe you were right. I’m your age now and have seen all you prophesied come to fruition. Funny, how you don’t ever imagine being the age of your mentors when you are 22! When Peter had a heart attack in my final year, I took over his classes for a time. I remember earning £18 per day, a king’s ransom in 1972, and one that paid for my first extended journey, the South America one that set the pattern for all the rest.
Barberton was one of the first gold rush towns from the 1880s. It was important and rich for a few years, years that have passed on. The facade of the first stock exchange is all that remains across the road from the Phoenix. Now there are four operating gold mines in the area although the gold rush was short-lived and many people lost their fortunes in corrupt investment deals. But for a few years the place had a colourful history. It’s pleasant enough now and quiet and peaceful. Here and there remnants of the early town can be seen behind more modern facades and there are a number of old wood and corrugated iron buildings of the gold rush period. It is also the home of the earliest sedimentary rocks so far identified in the world, giving it claim to be the cradle of mankind, the sort of appellation much coveted by town councils! Mankind has moved on and Barberton is a quiet backwater, the usual topographical South African mix of wealthy white bungalows set in mature gardens, busy cheap shopping outlets and supermarkets, and a large distinctly separate township sprawling over barren hills on the outskirts.
Cool again tonight. Maybe this really is the beginning of autumn? I have decided not to enter Swaziland over the magnificent but obscure route that leads out of the back of Barberton, winding up the mountains to an insignificant crossing where I was the thirteenth and last person to cross for the day last year. On the Swazi side that road deteriorates to rock and eventually earth. With all the rain this year, and including a thunderstorm after I reached Barberton this afternoon, the road will have turned to a mud slick – not enjoyable on this bike. Pity, I like those little-known border posts.
From Harberton to Barberton and back to Harberton…
DAY 44. WEDNESDAY APRIL 2nd 2014. MALKERNS, KINGDOM OF SWAZILAND
My stay in Swaziland will be unfortunately brief. I don’t know what’s happened here but a room I used last year for 300 Rand was quoted this afternoon for 557! The next hour was spent trying to find economic accommodation but every room was quoted at £25 and above. Even a room at a Backpackers’ lodge would have been over £20. My limit for the whole journey (except Botswana) has been £18 per night and I have had some excellent value for less than this. Not in Swaziland… In the end I decided to cut and run, back to South Africa, never far away from Swaziland, where I would find a room within my budget.
Then I realised that my Taurean obstinacy had taken control! Nose and face came to mind. I am in Swaziland, for goodness sake! How often does that happen? (Actually, this is the third time). So I chose what I thought was the best value of the places I had investigated and went back and checked in – at over £26. But my room is quirky and pleasant, with a good bathroom, lovely gardens, a bar next door and a smart open air restaurant too. Sometimes even I should just accept circumstances and forget my obstinate nature. It’s taken 64 years, but I am learning sometimes to analyse my own behaviour with the same eyes that observe everyone’s about me! So here I am in an unusually smart place – and rather enjoying it now I have accepted it!
Added to which, as I arrived back at the smart place, the heavens opened in a torrential shower. Decision made.
The sun is going down behind lovely lawns; there is a field of uniform tall green sugar cane backed by three or four graded blue-grey mountain ranges. My view is directly west to the dying sun as it follows the day over the horizon. I have a beer by my hand, a candle on the table and the smell of cooking from the kitchens. You know, sometimes even I have to just accept that grasping the moment is better than maintaining my rigid principles…
Leaving Barberton, I rode through over a pass with fine views of the huge South African landscape below. This is an area of forestry, one of the largest in the world, I seem to recollect. The roads were quiet and eventually I was back to rolling veldt, not very interesting to ride across, watching the kilometres count down towards Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland up on its mountains. Border formalities were fairly brief: the two countries have a pretty symbiotic relationship; and I was soon climbing to Mbabane. And then down again to the lower valleys of the southern part of the country. I investigated a sign that read ‘Royal Residence’ but came to a barrier across the road. Up above, I could see the many roofs of a fine modern mansion. From there the road descends to the city; a road that was once said to be the most dangerous in Africa, a long long descent that would be summarily cleared of traffic if the king was to pass. Now there’s a motorway, but I remember that old road from my first trip.
The central valley is wide and populated. I passed the traditional complexes of this small kingdom, the formal buildings and palaces that are used for annual the festivals, government and gatherings. I was heading back to the place that I stayed last year, and enjoyed, a small wooden cabin incongruously lost amongst a chalet development. But at double last year’s cost I was soon searching for other choices. A trying hour…
Back in Barberton I fell into conversation with John, the hotel manager(?)/ owner(?). The conversation started when he exclaimed, on seeing people trying the closed hotel door, “Who the hell wants to gamble at 8.30 in the morning!?” He admitted that the new slot machine parlour now subsidises the entire hotel operation. We began to chat…
John, it turned out, is a white Zimbabwean. In his middle age – difficult to define, with sandy blond hair that looked younger than his skin. I find it very difficult to put an age to white Africans: their skin is usually ‘antiqued’ by the tropical sun and their frames either emaciated or pear shaped. I see few ‘normal’ white Africans! John errs on the extremely thin side, not the frame for shorts and sandals – but then, neither is the average pear-shaped Afrikaner, and it’s the national costume!
Anyway, he was happy to hear of my love of his country of birth. He has lived in Barberton some twenty years and much of his life has been in South Africa, school, hotel school and so on. He has no ties left in Zimbabwe, he says. “You see, the difference between Zimbabwe and here is that in Zimbabwe almost everyone has A levels! It’s so different here. The South African blacks are lazy and aggressive and don’t take education seriously like the Zimbabweans.”
He characterises the South African indigenous population as indolent and angry, with a chip on their collective shoulder. Riding along, I thought to myself that if you look at the history of this troubled country over the last 100 years – or even more – it falls into perspective. Take away incentive and disenfranchise a people for a century, treat them worse than you your treat animals (not an exaggeration in the past fifty years at least) and then suddenly re-politicise them in a decade or two and the problems become understandable. In fact, it is surprising that they are so mild. Why should you work hard, and why should you not harbour resentment towards a cruel master? Maybe it will take another century to redress the wrongs of apartheid? The separation has to die out of the culture, not just living memory.
I spoke with many Zimbabweans who, once they realised I was not South African, were candid about their distaste for travelling to South Africa, where they feel two-fold prejudice: from the whites for their black skin and from the blacks a resentment for their reputation for hard work – that old saw of ‘coming over here and taking our jobs’ (usually jobs that no one locally wants to do anyway…) that led to some spates of brutal violence in the recent past.
Swaziland and Lesotho never suffered the evils of apartheid and there’s a much more comfortable equality here that is SO refreshing. The appalling wrongs of the history of South Africa are like a veil I must look through to try to see the country. It’s always a release to get over the borders into neighbouring states…
I still have 640 kilometres (400 mile) to ride to Durban, a day and a half, the latter part quite boring. Distances here are just so vast!
About a dozen white people surround me here in this smart garden bar. I notice that I am the ONLY one wearing long trousers and a jumper in what I think is the chill of the air! I obviously wasn’t made for European winters when even a mild African evening makes me run for warmth. In fact, I reckon it’s time for a blanket, despite all those round me in sleeveless tops and tee shirts. Trouble is, as I get older, it’s getting worse and worse… I’d rather be steaming as at Lake Kariba than mildly chilled as I am now.
DAY 45. THURSDAY APRIL 3rd 2014. LOUWSBURG, KWAZULU NATAL, SOUTH AFRICA
Louwsburg was an obscure place to stop for the night. It just so happened that I arrived a bit before four but towns here in northern Natal are widespread. The next large town, forty miles on, is one I stayed in last year and met one of the two most racist landladies of my experience down here and ate the worst two meals of the trip – one was her breakfast and the other at the place she recommended for supper. So I had some prejudice against stopping in Vryheid and the next town after that was yet another seventy miles further on. So I turned into Louwsburg, surely the first tourist to do so in ages!
This is a poor Zulu town scratching a living from small scale farming and trying to overcome the dreadful evictions of the apartheid era, the legacy of which is still powerful in places like this. The town consists of little more than a gathering of buildings and run down supermarkets, a petrol station, doubtless a plethora of churches of one form and another, a couple of ‘bottle stores’ (off-licences) and a bizarrely large, completely empty hotel, except for one lone guest – me. I have the entire, sprawling hotel to myself for a tariff of £10: a large corner room, bathroom, and access to the room next door where the shower is warm. My bike is parked on the front brick path at the foot of the hotel steps. The hotel must be hang over from the white days in Louwsburg for few guests must stop here any more. Of course, there are no facilities for a wandering traveller so I have had to make do with a supermarket dinner of a tin of sardines, cheesy bread rolls, black olives and yoghurt, washed down with a Milk Stout from the bottle store next door. It’ll keep me going.
There’s not much white skin in places like this. It’s the sort of town most white South Africans pass through with their central locks engaged and windows wound up; the sort of place that feeds the paranoia of the whites. But of course – and you know what I am about to say – the reality is totally unthreatening and friendly. I can see the people’s surprise at finding a tourist here, but they react cheerfully and gratefully, acknowledging the equality I express, I hope. I wandered round town – it’s more of a village really – with a smile and was greeted by most people, laughed with one or two and was kindly received. Of course! We are all human after all. The only pale faces belonged to an unsmiling Chinese couple owning one of the three supermarkets and a young Afrikaans man managing the SPAR supermarket, the big international chain here in southern Africa.
Then this evening I was amply repaid for my decision to stop here. Sitting in my room eating sardines I could hear singing. Initially I supposed it was a radio or TV, then as it continued I understood it to be coming from the hotel. I went to investigate.
It was wonderful! One of those great experiences that makes the long rides and the boring days worthwhile, the chance nature of my unplanned travels. Following the noise, I found my way to the back of the ground floor where I found a group of Zulu women singing with all their hearts, directed by an earnest middle-aged man in a trim jacket, bifocals and with a shock of frizzy hair. They were practicing for Good Friday, he later explained. They are from an informal church group and meet several times a week here in the old conference room of the empty hotel. There were about fifteen women and a group of the most attractive, happy children, all of whom loved having a white man join them at the back of the room. African women’s voices raised in joyous unaccompanied singing are a wonder to hear! They sing at a much higher pitch than we westerners and with so much sheer passion that it makes my skin tingle. I was transfixed and thrilled, surrounded by delightful Zulu kids, just suddenly immersed in that shrill, rhythmic, ecstatic power, sung with so much energy and conviction, Zulu words bouncing off the hard surfaces in a joyous acoustic that would fill any great cathedral; an event that explains my obsession with travel; an unplanned, unexpected, unforgettable, unparalleled hour of pure joy to be here.
Worship is a thing of such joy and ecstasy in Africa, so unlike the restrained, embarrassed emotions of European religions with their preoccupation with punishment and sin. I’ll stick with my confirmed atheism but only Africa makes me even begin to understand the attraction of a shared religious experience. Those women and children were living their joy in a tangible way, uplifted and happy, their troubles temporarily subdued.
It was their ‘pastor’, a selfless man whose every inspiration for good he sees as driven by god, not his own innate good conscience, who explained the poverty of the region to me afterwards. This area saw violent and terrible evictions during the apartheid years, with vast numbers of people cleared from their traditional lands to make way for white ownership. The community was totally disenfranchised and broken apart. Slowly, under the counselling of people like the pastor, something of a moving spirit – we did introduce ourselves but his Zulu name was lost to me, I regret – the heart of the community is being rebuilt. There is very high unemployment with attendant tendency to alcoholism but blacks are now getting back control of the lands and doing their best to rebuild lives on smallholdings, marketing vegetables where possible and scraping independent livings. Those evil years will take generations to balance again. It is only by exposing oneself to a small rural town like this, that most white people pass by at sixty miles an hour, that one really sees how life is for the majority in this divided nation. These are not John’s, of the Phoenix Hotel, ‘lazy, aggressive’ Africans : they are people who had all hope removed from their lives for two or three generations. It is a huge scar left by a regime as corrupt in its humanity as Nazism, with which it had so many parallels. ‘Apartheid is where it belongs: in a museum’, says the clever strap-line of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, in which I spent two educational and horrified afternoons last trip. But it has left deep, deep memories too.
Today, riding across Swaziland was the hottest ride of my journey. Even the stiff breeze was hot, and I can usually rely on wind-chill to temper the African sun. I had been going to ride to a border post at about seven o’clock on the map of Swaziland but lack of signposts left me on a ride diagonally across the country to the bottom right corner, where South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique all meet. By the time I realised I was on a different road it would have meant back-tracking through Manzini, the quite unattractive commercial city of Swaziland, so I decided to go with the flow and continue. Swazi driving is bad, very bad, and riding back through Manzini was an unpleasant prospect. The subsequent journey was rather flat and quite laborious, interrupted by many small villages, each with its fourteen speed humps. I did see a hippo floating in a lake, just a snout and those funny little round ears languidly soaking away the extreme heat.
Riding casually through the whole country from top left to bottom right, it’s difficult to remember that Swaziland has the lowest life expectancy in the world, not, in these more enlightened days, owing to the rate of infant mortality but to the highest incidence in the world of HIV and AIDS. It’s a whole aspect that is invisible to a casual tourist – the orphans, the youth of the heads of families, the grandmothers caring for the babies and toddlers of a whole missing generation. Some age ranges of Swazi society suffer an appalling 50% infection rate. Amongst adults generally it is over 25%. And yet they are a charming people quick to welcome strangers, friendly and full of smiles. I generally find that I get the most generous welcomes and kindness in the world from those whom you would think have the least resources or reasons to give them…
Border formalities were simple again and I was soon back in KwaZululand. After a bit I was unexpectedly sweeping up into some fine mountains, the sort that astonish me with the immensity of the African landscape, huge vistas of sensuously weathered slopes fading into the far far distance in a gentle, eye-easy green. It is amongst these, quite high I guess from the cool night air, that I turned off the highway to forgotten, by-passed Louwsburg.
In the morning, after a huge and uncomfortable ‘full English’ (I don’t much like breakfast!) that was part of the high price I had to pay for Swazi accommodation, I visited the large craft market in the central valley. But it was disappointing in its mass-produced, generic ‘African for tourism’ quality and quantity. Over one hundred stalls all sold the same bland souvenirs, except one, that has some very creative, individual pieces, one of which I would have bought but for the problems of motorcycle carriage! His pieces were sculptures made from found sticks, most imaginatively made into figurative pieces of a Giacometti-like style. Hours later I was kicking myself for not just tying one on the top of my luggage back to Durban! Still, it’s all ‘stuff’, and I do try to travel lighter in life as well as biking…
Perversely, I am enjoying being in a proper Zulu town tonight. It feels more like being on this wonderful, fascinating continent than will tomorrow, back in the wealthy white enclaves of suburban Durban with their razor wire and security guards, maids and gardeners. I am glad I didn’t pass by this troubled community like most people do.
DAY 46. FRIDAY APRIL 4th 2014. KLOOF, DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA
Yesterday was the hottest day on the road for five weeks; and today the coldest. I had to resort to every layer of clothing that I have with me, and then was barely warm enough to concentrate on a trying road and a long journey. I awoke to cloudy skies and chill wind, and it didn’t get any better as the day wore on. It was a bit wearing: chill temperatures, a blustery wind and bad road surfaces with lots of bumps and potholes.
An impressive landscape lightened the day’s ride. I rode the same roads last year and chose to come back this way as the mountains provided expansive views that are so typical of South Arica. I must have been quite high last night, for most of the day seemed to be riding downhill! It was a journey right through the Zulu heartlands, well populated hillsides, lots of wandering cattle and large numbers of roadside people, many of whom waved at me in a way that I miss in this country. There is little white influence in these valleys.
Large Zulu matrons walked the roadsides in their voluminous long dresses that seem to be many-layered. Many country women smear their faces with red dust against the strong sun, wear floppy hats and Wellington boots. It is a great costume, their faces strong and handsome. Then, in cheerful waving gaggles are pretty, sexy young women dressed in curve-hugging skimpy skirts and tops: the exact opposite of their modest mothers and grandmothers.
In this hemisphere I was riding southwards into autumn. Nights are cooling and today’s chilly breeze is the precursor of winter. Up in the Drakensburg Mountains winter is severe but down here in Durban, warmed by the Indian Ocean it seldom gets cold in a European sense. Mid-April is probably as late as I want to ride here and I leave on the 14th – about right, I reckon.
For days I have ridden through sugar producing country, from the southern part of Zimbabwe all the way to the foot of the mountain ranges the crop carpets the landscape with its waving blue green fronds. Vast areas produce this crop that really does not do much for mankind: all these lands could be better utilised feeding people the basic crops that are needed to allay hunger. But sugar is a valuable cash crop, food effortlessly processed and converted to energy by the human gut, but probably causes so much ill health. There’s a new theory being expounded in the press that cholesterol is less likely the cause of heart disease than too much sugar in our diet… If that’s the case, I have seen a lot of potential heart attacks since Zimbabwe!
It was a long 250 mile day to bring me back to Durban and a warm welcome home from my friends Yvonne and Michael. I need to sort out the sale of my motorbike and then I will have just a few days left to return to lovely Lesotho to round off this satisfying trip. It is good to know that tonight I do not have to search for accommodation, something I have done 23 times in the last five weeks. I’ll enjoy the hospitality for a couple of nights!
DAY 47. SATURDAY APRIL 5th 2014. KLOOF, DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA
It looks as if my best option will be to sign my red motorbike over to Peter Marshall at Marshall Motorcycles a few kilometres from here, the dealer that serviced the bike six weeks ago. Of course I would make more money by selling privately, but since I am not here to do the paperwork I am a bit stuck. Another option was to ride the 650 kilometres to Bloemfontein to see my friend Steven, the Afrikaans biker I befriended in 2002, and get him to sell it for me. When I phoned him, it was his first offer: “Send me the details, man, and I will find you a buyer. I have a lot of contacts.” But not only would I have to get the bike to him, I would have to do the paperwork to sign it over to him, and that involves having a full ‘roadworthiness test’ and relicensing the bike to him, and he would have to do the same to the next buyer! It seems too much of an imposition, kind, generous man though he is, and much as I would like to visit him again.
So I have more or less agreed with Peter to deliver the bike to him next saturday, sign it over to him and then let him sell it on my behalf. The book price is 16000 Rand. He will probably sell it for 25000 and reckons he will have to spend 3000 or 4000 Rand to get it painted up and improved for sale. I could sell it to him now for 16000 Rand or let him sell it and split the difference with me, maybe 18000… It seems the best option. Unfortunately, I will lose badly with the exchange rate: great for buying just now but poor for selling. Altogether I will probably lose between £670 and £750 on the deal, but I have had two very good holidays with the red bike for that and most of my loss is on the exchange rate that has risen from 14 Rand to the pound when I bought it to 17.5 Rand at sale. Such is the luck of the draw, and this trip has been much cheaper than the last one.
A quiet day at home, with a visit from Yvonne’s sister and husband and their frail old mother for lunch. Quite relaxing just to stop moving for a day and let someone else make the decisions on my behalf!