2014 – SOUTHERN AFRICA DAIRY – TEN

DAY 48. SUNDAY APRIL 6th 2014. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA

Autumn is coming down here. I suppose that this is the equivalent of about October 6th in the northern hemisphere climate, late in the year for riding motorbikes in mountains at the edges of the day.

I am back in Underberg, the one-horse town in which I started out from Durban six weeks ago. Back, indeed, in the faded Underberg Inn after a quite entertaining evening with some locals in a couple of bars.

It was almost 2.30 before I left Yvonne and Michael’s in Kloof. I knew that I had a quite short ride, just 120 miles or so, and I knew I could find accommodation without searching – at the Underberg Inn, so there was no rush. What I didn’t bargain on, though, was that, having selected a different route to the last time, my map book did not indicate that my road would reduce to a dirt track and gravel road for 35 kilometres, slowing my progress and causing me to ride the last part of the journey in trying conditions: late afternoon sun and riding west on potholed roads. The sun is setting earlier now; it’s getting time to leave this hemisphere…

I bowled along out of Durban again to the west on the rolling highway that sweeps through those big hills, carving its curving path through so much greenness. On sunday the road is quiet, without the trucks that will slow it in the week. After twenty miles or so I turned south on lesser roads and found my way through pleasant countryside and finally through a small town onto a road that rose into a mountain range. Unexpectedly the road reduced to gravel and ran into magnificent mountain pass scenery, bumping down into a large valley and then curling and winding up onto steep slopes between red rock faces. A large village with many waving children and young people sat in the valley bottom by a concrete bridge and I had no idea how far the rock and dust would continue. I was lucky that it was only 35 kilometres before I found my way back to a tarred road for the sun was already getting low and I still had forty miles to go.

The sky was crystal clear, just a small string of cloud coiled about the tips of the distant Drakensburg Mountains of Lesotho high above by the time I reached Underberg. The town was dead and so was the Inn, only one fellow, who described himself as the ‘resident drunk’ propping the bar. With only four or five days left of my trip now I am able to travel even lighter. And I am wearing almost all my available layers of clothing against the autumnal chill, so moving into a room takes moments. I had drink with the resident drunk and then walked to a bar and restaurant on the edge of town for supper.

Rejecting a table for one, I elected to sit in the bar. I don’t like eating in restaurants on my own: it makes me feel inadequate and lonely. At least in a bar there is a chance of conversation. And so it proved. It was only Diane, the bar lady, and Wayne, the bar manager, and a customer called Nigel, but it passed a couple of hours while I had a not particularly memorable chicken curry and a couple of beers. Nigel is a local estate agent and they were all three friendly and welcoming. Wayne then insisted on driving me the 500 yards back to the Inn and buying me a beer there, talking of his interest in buying my bike – which I think is just bar-talk (but I left him my number just in case)! The Inn has been sold for demolition; Nigel tells me he negotiated the biggest deal in Underberg’s history for the site. It will be redeveloped as a shopping centre and boutique hotel. One can only wonder why…

It feels chilly tonight, but up in Lesotho I expect the nights to be down to only 2 degrees Celsius. Certainly time to be heading for warmer places not colder ones. Winter at Lesotho’s altitude is cold with ski resorts developed for wealthy South Africans. I don’t believe much snow falls on South Africa, just a bit in places like this near the mountains. Apparently a white winter brings tourists to Underberg for the novelty. They are expecting a cold winter this year.

It is difficult to imagine the parochial life of these small towns in backwoods South Africa. I was perusing the free local paper at the bar. Black and white don’t mix much socially – although there was a black woman running the bar tonight (you may remember my disquiet here some weeks ago at the reception of the pretty black customer by the unfriendly white barman) – so social life must be very limited. Doubtless the couple of bars are the only meeting points, well those and the inevitable plethora of churches. I guess they all depend on TV for entertainment. What a life that must be! South African Big Brother to deaden the senses. Great…

DAY 49. MONDAY APRIL 7th 2014. MOKHOTLONG, KINGDOM OF LESOTHO

What a great day! I am so happy to be back in this magical kingdom full of charming, quiet, friendly Basotho. Before I fly out and complete this very rewarding journey, I just had to come back for one last taste of Lesotho.

I’m content too for having ‘faced a demon’. On the whole I have not bonded that well with the red bike. It is too heavy in the wrong places and I do not have much confidence in its off road abilities – or maybe that should read: in my off road abilities on it… Today I brought it up the Sani Pass and across the top of Lesotho. Sani Pass is the South African ‘adventure’ trail. It is a 4X4 route up into Lesotho, the stuff of a hundred tour companies – although not today. There were few vehicles today on the impressive, rough track that winds its way up the steep rock faces to the Lesotho plateau. This is a road that requires constant remodelling; diggers and heavy road-making vehicles work year round to undo the reshaping of the rains and snows. It’s an astonishing road, corkscrewing its way upwards to the skies of Lesotho, scratched across the rocks and held together by road mending skills.

Part way up, you exit South Africa at a simple border post. The Lesotho immigration is a small building at the top of the pass, a corrugated zinc gateway that spans the dirt road. At the top of the escarpment sits the ‘highest pub in Africa’, the Sani Pass Inn, where I stopped gratefully for a cup of coffee and to enjoy the green view back down to South Africa. I have been up and down the Pass a couple of times on my old Elephant in 2002, but that bike is so steady and reliable, unlike the much harder work of the red BMW. I had to work hard to get it up the rocky, rutted, dusty and gravel track, which rises at impressive gradients. But I did it! And I brought it across the top to Mokhotlong too.

I’ve said it before: trail riding, that I used to enjoy so much years ago in Yorkshire, just doesn’t have the same attraction any more, when journeys on this wonderful continent involve so many long off road routes: very often the only way to get from A to B. A couple of miles of rock and dirt in Yorkshire is not quite the same as 50 miles of mountainous terrain on top of Africa! And tomorrow I intend to travel into the centre of this little nation, another long dirt road. In 2002 I spent two days without riding on tarmac as I crossed about half the country.

Add to the joy of the fine high scenery the delightful people of Lesotho and you may understand my happiness. Before supper, as the sun waned, I went for a walk out of this small town that spreads across rounded mountain slopes. Everyone – and I mean everyone – greeted me with a smile and a welcome. Children coming home from secondary school greeted me politely; women returning from the market area smiled and waved; drivers waved from their pick ups, taxis and minibuses; old men waved from doorways and children gave me the universal thumbs up. And I was only walking. When I am on the bike it is even more extravagant: road-menders call to me; young men driving donkeys call and wave; children come running. It is wonderful, quite wonderful, and such fun. Lesotho smiles are very attractive, full and instant.

*

It was a cold night in Underberg and it was about ten this morning before it really felt warm enough to ride towards the wall of rock faces that form the Drakensburg range that rings Lesotho. My riding days are getting shorter. This afternoon I reached Mokhotlong well before three and decided to stop. The gravel road – through more impressive high mountain scenery – to Thaba Tseka, my next destination, is over sixty miles long, and from there to Katse, if I decide to go that way, a further forty miles. I am pretty weary tonight from the fifty miles I did today. It’s hard work piloting a hefty motorbike over so much rough ground, and I must not forget that I am riding at high altitude too. Sani Top, ahere icicles hung from the rocks, is over 2800 metres and after leaving there I climbed over one rocky pass well over 3000 metres. All that fresh air, strong sun, effort and altitude and I am yawning at seven o’clock! But happy, happy, happy! Delighted to be back in Lesotho.

*

The clarity of the air is a feature riding through these high mountains, so clear that I can see to the farthest horizon, layer upon layer of peaks and ridges. The landscape is virtually treeless, no more than a few small trees around habitations and an occasional slender poplar, now turning golden with the season. The grass is short and green at higher altitudes; browning lower down. It looks like a velvet coat over the soft contours of the folding hills, the ridges of broken red rock rising against the skylines. Valleys plunge below to rivers silenced by distance where they tumble amongst rocks the size of houses. Scattered villages sit on the slopes, round thatched roofs above sturdy brown rock-piled walls interspersed with the visual curse of Africa: boring grey concrete block structures with shiny zinc roofs. Most homes have a very prominent zinc pit latrine punctuating the landscape. Shepherd boys tend their ragged sheep; their cows and donkeys on the hillsides, disguised as always by their draped blankets and woollen balaclavas. They call and wave as I pass, perhaps hoping for conversation or cigarettes to break the loneliness of their steep hillsides. Donkeys tiptoe along the dust road loaded with flowering brush for fodder or bedding; sure-footed Basotho ponies trot across the steep slopes on invisible paths; infrequently a small field of maize or vegetables is carved from the unforgivingly steep valleys. Above it all the sky is the endless deep blue of a sun-filled African day. Hardly a cloud disrupts its infinity.

I seldom exceeded twenty five miles an hour. So much to see, so much to enjoy, so much concentration on the surface. Road-making wagons sometimes roared by in vast whirling clouds of yellow dust that got everywhere about me. A hand would wave behind a rushing windscreen and I would be left spluttering and invisible in the cloud. Often the hands were Chinese…

It is noticeable just how the Chinese have colonised these rural areas. Shopping for juice, water and biscuits for tomorrow’s remote journey, I entered various small scruffy, oddly stocked shops in this straggling town at the end of the world. Chinese faces ran every business, even the two scratched pumps of the petrol station. Many stores have Chinese names. The road contractors, the cheap provision stores, furniture shops, supermarkets, cheap clothing stores: all Chinese.

*

My supper tonight in the Senqu Hotel was welcome: beef stew with pap, the ubiquitous maize meal stodge that is actually quite tasty. I prefer it to the Ghanaian versions of starchy porridge dishes. I stayed in this hotel last year. Then I had a large, rather expensive room that broke my budget, but I could find nothing cheaper. Today, when I told Fusi, the friendly manager, that his rooms were too expensive, he offered me one without a TV for £17.50, and that includes breakfast. He told me that he must have thought I would need a TV last year! Me, who hasn’t turned on a hotel TV in seven weeks!

I luxuriated in a hot bath for half an hour and am already in bed at 8.00pm. Of course, I am a good deal older than last time I rode these tough, rough tracks! But I am still riding them. And probably will be for some time yet. Body and spirit still very willing indeed.

DAY 50. TUESDAY APRIL 8th 2014. ROMA, KINGDOM OF LESOTHO

I’ve a feeling that if I don’t start to write early tonight I might not finish..! This was a hard day indeed, but really enjoyable.

Had I known the condition of the ‘road’ from Mokhotlong to Thaba Tseka would I still have taken it? Well, I suspect that perversely I probably would. That’s me: never say no to a challenge or admit to age, a real chip off my mother’s block for that! I’m just a bit smug tonight that at 64 I will still try – and accomplish – sixty miles of extremely tough trail riding across the roof of Africa… …and the rest of the miles that followed, about 100 of them.

*

It was 9.30 before it was warm enough to ride out of Mokhotlong as the sun slipped into the blue sky above the Lesotho mountains. Breakfast was substantial but stone cold: two fried eggs like chilled casts, two rashers of coldly congealed bacon, a fatty and cold beef sausage that travelled with me all day and a slice of not bad sort of soda bread. Well, it filled the stomach after a fashion and you can’t be fussy when you are at the outposts of the African world.

(It is 18.35 and I am yawning widely and just realised how flushed is my face from the high altitude sun and all that very fresh, very clean air!)

Within two or three miles I was back onto dirt roads and then turned on to the Thaba Tseka road, which I knew from the map would be about seventy miles away. Yesterday I asked a young fellow about this road. “It’s gravel, but it will be fine,” he assured me. I should know better. I should always ask other drivers, not people who don’t travel. The first eighty kilometres were serious trail riding over remote mountain passes! It’s a rock and dust road, bumpy in the extreme and steep too in places, with rocky steps and unguarded drops off steep banks and cliff faces. It is scratched across one of the highest regions of Africa, winding this way and that to gain or lose altitude as it passes over numerous mountain passes and drops to cross rivers. It is often little more than a few feet wide with rocks and stones making headway strenuous. I have exercised muscles in the oddest places today. A LOT of exercise! On a motorbike on such rough terrain you cannot stay still for a moment, always fighting with the handlebars and balancing the machine as it plunges from rock to rock.

But what fun! Alone apart from the inevitable herdsmen and boys for most of the time I was privileged to ride through terrific scenery. I passed through remote villages of round thatched houses and avoided a thousand sheep, donkeys and cattle. About ten vehicles passed in the hours that I bounced along up there. I constantly chuckled to myself to remember that I was on the A3 highway through Lesotho, the magical kingdom in the sky. The A3 highway…

I’m feeling much more in control of the red bike. Well, I have ridden about twenty thousand kilometres on it now. Having two new tyres, now getting worn down again, and having had the stupid seat rebuilt while I was away has made such a difference. The original seat had a dip into which I was always sliding forward and thus unable to lock my elbows to give me control of the bars. I tend to ride quite cautiously on these journeys. I am always aware how far I am from a hospital and that I have no insurance for any accident. Insurance companies being the con that they are and making millions by peddling insecurity, they aren’t there to be a safety net for the vulnerable but to make huge profits for their shareholders. You only have to look at their head offices to see who is winning in this game of legalised gambling. So my medical insurance policy that I have for travels to USA does not cover the ‘risky’ occupation of riding a motorbike overseas. Anyway, I am quite content to take care of myself. I have only the basic insurances in life that the law tells me I must have… So I ride with some circumspection, at least keeping my speed down even if not avoiding these rough road challenges. This was a terrific ride, one that I am so satisfied at having made.

Somewhere half way down a rocky slope I met one of the only other white travellers of this entire journey. There aren’t many people about now. I suppose with autumn coming it is the end of the season. Pedalling furiously up the rutted track towards me came a Swiss mountain biker, on his way from the Cape to Ethiopia. I didn’t like to tell him that he still had the worst of the road ahead, an impressively high pass – about ten thousand feet, I guess – formed of rock and ruts. I wonder if he made it to Mokhotlong tonight? If he did he may be in the room I used last night. The idea of the hot bath was rather attractive to him when we talked! “The oddest thing about South Africa is that everyone is always telling me to be afraid! But I haven’t found anything to be afraid of yet..!” I was glad to have my frequent observation corroborated by another traveller. So it is not just my naive optimistic attitude after all. There really IS nothing to fear. But that’s not the way white South Africans see life. How awful to go through life afraid of your neighbour; never giving the benefit of the doubt. Is it surprising it is an unhappy country?

The road improved after the first fifty miles, changing to well graded gravel and dust, neither of them much fun on two wheels, but at least the crashing and banging eased a bit. Road construction in this country is impressive: just look at the terrain. That graded gravel road will soon be tarmac and a tall bridge is being built to span a river. Today I had a nervous crossing on a temporary structure, rather narrow thanks to a ridge down the centre to guide four-wheeled vehicles. I had to use the outer edge above the water…

Once at Thaba Tseka, and it must have been after almost five hours of trail riding, I decided to take the tarred road back to the lowlands rather than another sixty kilometres of dirt road to Katse. My energy was waning! The extraordinary mountain roads are a wonder of Lesotho. These roads sweep and soar through crumpled high mountains connecting the interior to the more populous lowlands of the west side of the country. Most of Lesotho’s economy is based on selling water to South Africa, hence the two giant reservoirs locked in the mountains and the need for connecting roads. Water is the commodity that has opened the rural centre of this landlocked country and brought relative wealth and development. It only brings a trickle of tourism though. I feel so privileged to be one of the few who knows the secrets of Lesotho, the best kept travel secret of the world. Mind you, I wouldn’t have known either, had it not been for my curiosity to come and have look twelve years ago.

*

It’s harvest time in the interior valleys now. The tiny terraces of wheat, often just a few feet wide in apparently inaccessible places far down by rivers’ edges or high on slopes above, punctuate the semi-vertical landscapes with patches of gold. Some are bright stubble, the wheat piled in miniature cones like the Basotho roofs that the straw will become. Here and there people are busy piling heather-like brush onto their small donkeys. In one place I came upon a team of oxen, completely unaccompanied, towing a vast bale of something heavy towards, I suppose, a distant homestead. The sledge was formed from a large tyre dragged on the dust by a chain. The animals knew just what was expected of them. Doubtless their reward was waiting in some distant cattle pen. Tiny fields of maize, less pretty than the uniform wheat, straggled in broken exclamation marks sketched untidily over tiny, balancing terraces. It is a huge landscape; a truly rural one from which everyone scratches a subsistence living: romantic for me to pass through; hard and cruel on which to depend. I have to remind myself that next month winter comes. These are the only African people who live with sub-zero temperatures. The Maluti Mountains of Lesotho can have a couple of metres of snow in June. Electricity strings its way to many remote villages now: the water dams ensure a supply. Small thatched rondavels sometimes sport an incongruous satellite dish. Water comes from streams, often lugged up steep brown hills in containers. Frequently it is easier to take the washing to the stream than the stream to the washing. Bright lines of blowing washing colour the countryside beside the dark brown stone homes. Above it all the sky is that African blue, today with decorative, wispy clouds dry brushed onto the blue. The intensity of the light, for all day I was above seven or eight thousand feet, makes it impossible to estimate distance accurately. Often I could see twists and loops of my track miles ahead, curling and weaving through the crumpled mountains and know that perhaps in half an hour I would be seeing that scratch in intimate, rocky, rutted detail.

By late afternoon I was riding pretty badly. I could sense that my judgement was poor. I was VERY tired! I admit it. The last few tens of miles were a struggle but I had decided to return to Roma, where I knew I could find a bed in pleasant surroundings again. You will recollect that I stayed here for four nights six weeks ago in the round thatched rondavel next door to the one I have tonight. I received a cheery welcome from the tubby ladies who staff the place but was too late for them to cook me dinner. I have eaten the second most disgusting meal of my trip: chicken and chips in a styrofoam package, with enough salt (which I utterly dislike) to float a liner, soggy chips and vile greasy chicken. Which was the other disgusting meal, you may be asking? The same meal, from the same fast food joint in Roma six weeks ago. There is NO other choice in this small town. Ugghhh! So today was an undistinguished culinary experience: cold breakfast and vile supper…

*

Oh, I am going to sleep well tonight! Masses of fresh air, a lot of strenuous exercise, sunshine and the satisfaction of having had a great day amongst some of the most magnificent scenery Africa has to offer. By chance I have another room with a bath too!

I had a friend some years ago who, from the age of about 45 used to say, “Oh, I’m too old for that sort of thing!” He died at 63.

You have to go out and meet life. It is short in any case and those words ‘I wish’ and ‘If only’ are those used by people who say no to experiences instead of grasping the unknown and seeing what happens. It was only a rough road, the ‘A3’, no less, but I feel a sense of achievement tonight that is very satisfying. On waking I was a bit nervous. On sleeping I am fulfilled.

The joy of unknown tomorrows!

DAY 51. WEDNESDAY APRIL 9th 2014. LADY GREY, SOUTH AFRICA

I was reluctant to leave Lesotho this afternoon. Who knows when I shall get back there? But the days are counting down now to the end of this very full and fun trip. This time next week I will already be feeling the boredom of not being on the road!

By the time I had done with chatting to the delightful staff of the Roma Trading Post it was well after eleven. While I was in proper Africa I also needed to get a repair made to my motocross riding boot, just some stitching. In England, if I could even find a cobbler (how old fashioned is that?) it would cost a packet or I would be told to buy a new pair of £200 boots. In Africa everything can be repaired and given new life. Sure enough, the night security man at the Trading Post sews shoes in his spare time! One of my new friends there took me to find him in his small stone cottage at the end of the compound. It was just like something from Jane Austen: the old retainer at the end of the farmyard in a rustic cottage. For £1 he woke from his slumbers and sewed my heavy boot – probably giving it another ten years. These boots were second hand when I bought them at least fifteen years ago!

*

Tseliso (his name means ‘replacement’, presumably for a relative who died about when he was born) is 47 years old, a worker at the Trading Post. He helped me some weeks ago to mend the damaged plastic mudguard of my motorbike. He travels daily from Maseru to Roma. He has four children of his own and cares and educates two more from his late brother, who died last year – probably from HIV related causes in this afflicted country. He is one of five brothers, of whom only he and one other survives. His mother, now also dead, lived in South Africa and had her sons by unknown fathers. Tseliso returned to Lesotho with his grandmother when he was a small child and was raised here, seeing his mother infrequently. The other surviving brother scratches a living as a taxi driver in Johannesburg. Primary education is free in Lesotho but he has to find the money for exam papers, a huge sum of about £45. This sort of story is typical: the cruel facts of African life on this vastly over populated continent on which men take so little responsibility for fathering children.

Finally, photos of everyone taken, I got on the road south through Lesotho. This is the lowland area, still quite high, but low by Lesotho standards. It is the more populous region but even here the landscape is impressive, much more barren and rocky, softer, browner colours but still so large. On this ride I did not leave habitation for long as the road swept south through Mohales Hoek and Quthing until the turn off for Tele Bridge and a gravel track to the border posts. The border is demarcated by a shallow river and a narrow bridge, formalities simple. For a day or so my motorbike is at home – in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, where it is registered. For a day or two my number plate will not look out of place.

From Tele Bridge there is a tarred road to Sterkspruit and on to Lady Grey. I stayed in Lady Grey last year – and in 2002. Rather than search for accommodation I decided to return to the quirky ‘Grey Lady’ cafe and pub run by Karel and Celeste, a very Afrikaans couple whose B&B is good value. I remember Celeste’s breakfast from last March. The pub is a bar overlooking a pleasant garden at the back of an Edwardian building that was once a bank, a solicitor’s office and now the restaurant, cafe and pub. The town is an odd place: with a Wild West feel to it. Modern life has passed Lady Grey by. It is a town of wide streets, many of them dust, lined by Edwardian bungalows with green-painted corrugated roofs, white plaster pilasters and metal framed windows. Behind the town rise walls of ragged red rock faces. It is quiet and old fashioned, a white-skinned town surrounded by two large townships on opposite sides of the river on the outskirts: a black township of small two-roomed concrete houses on a blasted heath and a coloured township on the other side. The three appear to rub along calmly – there’s the least razor wire I have seen in South Africa – but there is little social interaction, although the annual passion play, about to be performed at Easter, seems to be a multi-coloured thing if I can judge by the rehearsal I glimpsed in the Germanic church at the centre of the small grid of streets. There looks to be a large secondary school with a lot of black pupils. Maybe this education level is what makes for a more cohesive, less frightened town?

Karel, my host, is probably downing at least a bottle of whisky a day. While talking to him I saw him pour seven doubles. He is a huge pear shaped man with the usual chin beard and has an Afrikaans ‘exent’ that is thick and grating. Not quite as extreme as Celeste’s though, whose ‘icsint’ has a sharp cutting edge! But they are friendly and welcoming as I always find the Afrikaans nation. Prejudice goes with the territory but it’s less offensive and more accepting of the situation than the prejudice of more recent immigrants. These people are just about as African as the black population: their ancestors came centuries ago and have fought alongside the indigenous peoples to forge this odd land of South Africa. I have much more time for the real Afrikaans people than I have for English settlers of more recent years who came for the good life with servants and gardeners.

Last night I was asleep by 9.30. Next I knew it was 7.45 this morning, except that, having taken another of those horrible malaria pills my dreams were disturbing. (I think that was the last tablet I shall take: I don’t think I was exposed to much potential malaria in any case). I didn’t ride the rough trails over high mountain passes today, but I still rode 170 miles in the sun and fresh air – which is getting distinctly cooler each day. Winter is approaching. Time for Devon spring…

DAY 52 . THURSDAY APRIL 10th 2014. BARKLY EAST, SOUTH AFRICA

A memorable day, for right and wrong reasons!

Let’s get the right reason out of the way first. It’s a bit of a landmark on my travels, today. As near as I can work out – (and those who know me well will know that lists and counting things can be a bit of an obsession. I NEVER walk up or down stairs without counting them! I can’t help myself. Any repetitive action, I count, even sawing wood, hammering nails and so on. It’s a very annoying trait) – as near as I can work out, this is the three thousand six hundred and fiftieth day I have spent out of Britain since my first journey, aged 14!! That is exactly 20% of my life since 14. Ten years. And what’s more I reckon that all but about two hundred of those days are recorded in journals like this; diaries or at the very least in letters home that have been kept. It’s quite an archive – that will sadly one day be chucked in a skip I suppose, having left no heirs to embarrass with it all. I hope I get to read it first in my old age, if ever I admit to one.

*

And the wrong reason? Puncture…

I have ridden twenty one thousand kilometres on the red bike, last year and this, and never had a puncture – until today, on a remote dirt road 18 kilometres from anywhere and without my levers or pump. I had the patches and glue, and a fat lot of use they were without the rest that I stupidly left in Durban. Anyhow, I doubt if I could have broken the rim-seal of the tough tyre that I have on the bike now. I was heading to ride over the highest pass in South Africa – a dirt road. Well, at least it didn’t happen up there!

I was bowling along out of Barkly East on a lovely gravel road towards the mountains, kind of round the bottom of Lesotho, when I hit a sharp stone that bounced off the front tyre and went under the rear. Quickly I felt that tell-tale wobble. I really was in the middle of nowhere in a cutting on a hill with vast acres of rock, scrub and farmland around me. The mountains were still blue with distance. For the first hour no one passed!

What to do? Well, the wonder of the mobile phone in Africa is astonishing, with coverage even out there, so long as I climbed the embankment above the road. So I phoned Yvonne in Durban. I hadn’t, in my defence, any other number to call. “Are you by your computer?”
I asked.

“No, I am having lunch out! But Michael is here and he has internet on his phone!”

“Can you find me a garage in Barkly East?”

A few minutes later I received a text message: ‘M on phone to someone now’. A few more minutes and another message with a phone number: ‘His name is Kinky!!!! God help you!!! Haha. Xxx’.

So I phoned Kinki, as I found his name to be, and he was trying to arrange a pick up by the garage in Barkly. But they were at lunch for the next fifty minutes and then, eventually, had no transport anyway. “Can’t you take off the wheel?” asked Kinki. “Then I can come and fetch you.”

So that’s what I did. In the process losing the split link from the chain in the dust… It took 20 frenzied minutes of dust-scrabbling to find that later! Kinki, a charming Xhosa or Zulu man of about fifty, arrived in a battered old car and we loaded the wheel and my luggage into his car and drove the 11 or 12 miles back to Barkly. It looked like I would have to take my turn at the garage but somehow someone relented and a young man with Rasta weave-ons soon had the two holes patched. It’s so simple when you have the technology: so grim at the roadside!

The whole process had taken over five hours. By the time I was riding back to Barkly the sun was low in the sky and it was too late to do more than take the first budget-busting room I could find, at 50% above my £18 limit. But this IS the 3650th night of my travels! Pity is, it is no better than the room I had last night at half the price or any of the similar rooms in South Africa. If I am breaking my budget I’d rather it involved a bit of luxury, not a bit of rip off!

A budget-busting day all round: Kinki asked for £34 for driving the seventy five kilometres back and forth and spending five hours helping me. I paid him £40. The puncture repair cost only £4 plus a £1.20 tip for the nice Rasta fellow for his speed and good work. Then the hotel room… Oh well, sometimes I just have to accept fate.

*

I won’t get over the highest pass in South Africa now, but then it is probably nothing compared to the passes of Lesotho around the mountain. Tomorrow is my last riding day. I had hoped to turn over the clock on the red bike before I sell it in Durban. It stands tonight at 99,303 kilometres. I bought it at 78,384. I’m just getting used to it but I still miss my African Elephant. On that it is so easy to mend punctures when I have to…

*

The one thing from which I long to be away is the diet in these Afrikaans areas. I fantasise about a meal of real green vegetables. I shall not eat meat unless it is given to me for months. Please! Tonight I chose kingklip, a rather meaty fish. It came blathered in ‘butter’ (always marg here…) and lemon sauce. The baked potato (microwaved) came with a quarter pound pot of margarine and a quarter pound pot of sour cream (they went back to the kitchen). I asked for a side order of vegetables. They were a few insipid bits of frozen, processed vegetables lost beneath a veritable duvet of gloopy white sauce. Thank god I refused the so popular orange processed cheese that would normally have been on top too! Yuk, I have eaten some foul meals here in South Africa.

There’s a distinct chill in the air now riding my bike. I have dragged a heater into the bathroom tonight before I shower off the dust of that powder bath in search of the split link.

Time to be heading north to European spring.

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