2014 – SOUTHERN AFRICA DIARY – ELEVEN

DAY 53 . FRIDAY APRIL 11th 2014. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

The longest day on my bike: amongst the longest I ever rode – 412 miles! My hips are stiff. A great deal of fresh air, sun and concentration. But I arranged to take the bike to the dealer tomorrow and there seemed little point in stopping so close to ‘home’. I lost at least 100 miles of my possible journey yesterday and had to make them up today. I rode for eight and a half hours with few breaks. Also, I have come all the way here to see my friends, Yvonne and Michael so it seems only decent to spend the last weekend with them…

*

For the first hour on leaving Barkly East I rode through handsome scenery: a 2000 metre pass and fine mountain vistas of dry red rock and cropped green grasses. In valleys the poplars and birches are turning vibrant golden with the fast-approaching autumn. The colours have changed dramatically in a week. I passed the dirt road junctions that I would have used had I not lost the journey yesterday. I would need another full day to see those high mountains and get ’home’ to Kloof.

The second hour or two were less scenic. I was passing through the old Transkei district, one of the notorious ’homelands’ to which millions of black Xhosa people were banished during the apartheid regime. Oddly, I find people here more responsive and friendly to a passing motorbike. Maybe they have more identity and confidence? Many children and young people wave; some even breaking into a dance as I pass. Homesteads are scattered across the landscape apparently haphazardly and randomly, but knowing what I do about Africa, I am sure there is an order to it all. Land ownership, land traditions and the inheritance of it is so important on this continent. If you have land, after all, you can subsist whatever befalls. These are small, generally two-roomed bungalows, often with little else, zinc-roofed and painted in rather ugly pastel colours, uniform, low, modest habitations that constitute the dreams of so many poor Africans. Electricity is present but street lighting is not: just tall standards with halogen lights to illuminate the area. Gravel rods connect to the main roads and minibuses transport the inhabitants to the nearby, but completely separate, tree-filled colonial towns where the businesses – and the white people – live amongst leafy streets, church spires and large flower gardens.

Most of my journey, beneath a completely unblemished blue sky for the whole day, was on almost empty roads. The distances are huge but the traffic light once away from towns. The roads are good, allowing for potholes which keep me alert. Much of my way, Lesotho was tantalisingly on my left, the mountains rising as a cut-out wall against the fragile china blue sky. Impossible to tell how far away in the clear air, these are the mountains I bounced up and over last week. In fact, I chose the slightly longer but much more beautiful route that would take me further west as I looped back towards Pietermaritzburg, where I got completely lost until I pulled alongside a kindly black fellow in a traffic jam. “Eh! You are completely lost! You won’t find the way… You follow me!” So for a few minutes I trailed that generous man through the five o’clock friday traffic until he pulled over, pointed out a junction and told me to follow the road until I saw signs for Durban.

If you want to see bad driving in South Africa, ride on the motorways. On the normal highways people obey a sort of code that works, so long as I watch for the minibus taxis that stop on a whim. On the motorway everyone drives like corks out of bottles, desperate to be at the front. Fortunately, I had only the last twenty miles or so to travel, arriving in Kloof with the sun almost gone – ready for a large whisky, a couple of beers and Yvonne’s curry supper. I had hammered along for hours at 60 miles an hour, Africa racing by in expansive views of green mountains, outcrops, deep valleys and tall grasses. Always, in the background, high jagged, ragged mountains that are, for me, the magic of this southern African region, enough so to have brought me back to this socially unhappy country three times – mainly to visit the neighbours: spectacular Lesotho and supreme Zimbabwe…

And so, pretty much, ends my tour of 2014. I have a weekend with my friends and then it is back to the more humdrum life of spring in Devon. It’s funny, but one of the reasons for the success of this trip – for it has been a very good journey, this one – is my pleasure at finding a real home at last. I strongly feel a root in Harberton; pretty much the first root of my own in my life. I will, I suppose, always be restless – ten years and a day out of Britain pretty much settles that! – but restlessness is so much more satisfactory when there is a place to return to happily. “Harberton is the sort of place that is full of people who have been places, done things, and have stories to tell…” (Thank you, Francesca for that brilliant description soon after I decided to move, that sums up just the sort of place I always dreamed existed but hadn’t found!). I have thought a lot about HOME in the past few days: it is a necessary balance to all the footloose travels. I’d only add to the apt description that ‘Harberton is also a place with people who will listen to some of my stories too’. I never really felt that in Yorkshire, with a few personal exceptions, where I was always seen as an ‘exotic outsider’, an ‘invasive species’. I am viewed as normally eccentric in Harberton!

DAY 54 . SATURDAY APRIL 12th 2014. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

Right at the last I find myself indecisive… Michael offers me to put the red bike into their storage unit instead of selling it – at quite a loss – to the dealer. Do I… don’t I? Next winter I want to take my trip somewhere else, probably basing myself in Kenya, but I know I want to go again and explore more of Zimbabwe. Why not keep the bike here? Do I… don’t I? I have tomorrow to make the decision… How many more trips do I have – (at the unmentionable almost 65!?). Where is the money coming from? If I decide to sell the bike later, could I do it remotely, from Britain? Do I proliferate motorbikes around this amazing continent?

*

It’s been a relaxing day with a lovely climate today: about 30 degrees and a bright clear sky – Michael and Yvonne’s friends, Di and Mark, for a braai in the evening and the rest of the day spent just enjoying the company of old friends and their warm welcome. I rode to the bike dealer to tell him I would come on monday, not leave the bike with him today. Maybe that action alone tells me something..?

It’s all about money. How do I afford my next few trips? Of course, that is the great unknown. And I say I love the idea of unknown tomorrows. Sometimes, though, it would be helpful to know a few answers about the future..!

DAY 55 . SUNDAY APRIL 13th 2014. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

An eleventh hour reprieve for the red BMW. I decided not to sell it to the dealer and take a hefty loss but to store it in Michael’s storage unit and come to southern Africa again. The understanding is that it might be there for two years and that if it gets in the way, we sell it anyway. Michael will keep it taxed for me, saving me that long ride to Matatiele, where I now ‘live’, thanks to the nice lady in the vehicle tax office. So I am committed to another journey to Durban at some time, which means more exploration of Zimbabwe (and of course, Lesotho!) and maybe I could ride it north again as I did the Elephant in 2002, up to Rico in Kenya for my exploration of Ethiopia and Uganda. All sorts of possibilities open up and there are few drawbacks that I can see to keeping it. I would lose a lot by sale to the dealer anyway. The only drawback is that I keep about £1000 tied up in the bike here in store.

I spent a fairly sleepless night working it all out. While I love riding my African Elephant so much more than the red BMW it IS very expensive to get it to Africa; the sort of expense that requires quite a big job from America. Whether that will transpire, I know not… Meanwhile, having a bike down here won’t cost much, just a bit of depreciation, and maybe I can arrange a private sale next time.

I must admit, I quite like the idea of having my ’African motorbike’! It’s a tangible connection with this continent I admire so much.

*

We plucked avocados from a tree in the garden, me inexpertly catching them as they were cut off with a long lopper. Avocados don’t ripen on the tree and for that reason the monkeys, which are often about these gardens, do not get them first, an interesting foible of nature.

It’s been a relaxed sunday culminating in taking my friends out for a rather good meal and a VERY good couple of bottles of wine at a local Italian restaurant with a very charming waitress with the most lovely smile: a wonderful African face for my last evening. It was so good to make her evening by tipping her a 20% tip. “My god!” she exclaimed at my 100 Rand note (£5.50), being a little new to the job and delightfully naive. A lovely moment to remember; a lovely smile to remember; a lovely face to remember.

How beautiful Africans can be…

How I love this continent.

DAY 56 . MONDAY APRIL 14th 2014. KLM TO EUROPE

And here I go north again after a particularly enjoyable journey. It has been good, this one, up amongst the best of my 113 trips out of Britain (lists..!). When I started, I wondered if my familiarity with the region would spoil the ‘adventure’. As these pages must testify, I found plenty of new stimulus.

Yes, it’s been good, this trip. I have been relaxed and easy-going, and that’s always reflected by those I meet of course. The smile has been on my face so much of the journey, not difficult in places as responsive as Lesotho and Zimbabwe and Zambia. Partly, my enjoyment has been enhanced by getting accustomed to the red BMW, which last year seemed to fight against me much of the time I was riding. The reconstruction of the seat made a significant difference to the way I handled the machine – and new tyres, with tread, helped a lot! Last year, in the first few days I dropped it twice and lost a lot of confidence in my riding. This journey I managed to keep it ‘rubber side down’, as bikers say; upright for 10,670 kilometres. Incidentally, when I parked it in Mike’s lock-up this morning the speedo records 00015 kilometres, so it has gone once round the clock, and I have put 20% of those kilometres on the bike, having bought it last year at 78,380. Not surprising then that I feel more at home with it.

Soon after they opened, I rode round to Marshall’s Motorcycles to tell Peter Marshall that I was not, after all, going to sell him the bike, a decision he thought very sensible. I have lost most of the monetary value of the 15 year old machine by now and he and his colleagues will happily get it back on the road for me next time I wish for a trip in southern Africa. In fact, I will get it trailered from the store to the workshop a week or two before I return next time so it will be waiting ready for me. Over the next months I really have to think about my tactics for the next journey. Do I ride it up to Kenya? And if so, can I leave it there for a second journey a year later? It’s all about customs and duty payments. Well, I have time to plan and it will keep my restlessness at bay just to know that – if I have the money – I have the option of another trip around and about this wonderful continent that so obsesses me.

Highlights and lows? Oddly enough, I have seldom been bored on this journey. You may imagine that long evenings in dull, second rate (do some of them even qualify for such exalted status?) grotels, may be tedious. Perhaps it is a benefit of growing older that my energy has been so satisfyingly sapped by days of riding and sunshine that I have slept deeply and long, often in bed at a time that at home I consider mid-evening, having recorded my journey in this journal, perhaps the real tangible result of all the experiences, conversations, sights and people I have seen and met.

The highs are easy: my ‘discovery’ of Zimbabwe; my returns time and again to Lesotho and all the charming, cheerful, talkative Africans I have met. Travelling is about people. You can keep the animals: I can’t talk to them and ask them about their lives, find out how they live. Life is about people; our interaction, our thoughts, emotions, the communities we form and the support we give one another. Africans, of many nations, have such an ability to socialise so freely and generously. I experience so much fortitude, warmth and kindness on this continent, emotions we have subdued or at best treat with suspicion in our greedy, competitive, ‘developed’ (Huh!) world. There is a tradition of giving in Africa that we would do well to respect and emulate, and it is a humbling fact that often it is those least able to give who give the most freely and generously. It is in the African genes, this mutual support. OK, it sometimes breaks down disastrously of course, into genocide and war, but I do believe that much of that is political manipulation of poorly educated factions, frequently for the personal gain of the politicians, a breed particular to Africa where education levels are often low, press freedom limited (or used by the propaganda machines) and human rights abused with apparent impunity.

By visiting Zimbabwe was I supporting a corrupt and inexcusable regime? It is always a moral dilemma. I would not visit South Africa until after 1994, after all. But my experience in Zimbabwe was that the people desperately wanted tourism to be restored. It was one of the biggest industries, employing many Zimbabweans. Sadly, crazy leadership has stripped the country of the support of the world (except China, who have no such scruples) and left the people to fend for themselves – outside the political system that has broken down so catastrophically. I doubt if many of my dollars reached official coffers, beyond the two traffic ‘offences’ I ‘committed’ (76kph in a 60 zone in that ‘built up area’ that was just any other piece of road with a sign put up to collect currency from foreign drivers, and a time I overtook where there was a white line, although I stayed within the white line quite lawfully – but not according to the policeman who could not possibly have seen the details!). That was forty dollars to Mugabe’s regime, but I doubt if much else reached him, for I am sure most of the people with whom I did business pay no more taxes than they have to! I think most of my money helped charming individuals whom I came to respect for their ingenuity and enterprise more than almost all other Africans I have met. They also have, I think, the second highest literacy rate in Africa, at almost 91%, just a couple of points behind South Africa.

Victoria Falls is a highlight of any world journey. So were my few days on the Zimbabwe side of Lake Kariba, with those wandering elephants. The practicing choir in that odd, empty hotel in Zulu Louwsburg was a spine-chiller, and my days in Roma, Lesotho in the cosy thatched rondavel were great. Riding over the top of Lesotho on the A3 was a lot of fun. There have been many fun days and only a few real lows, mainly connected with a wet crutch and bum from a couple of torrential rainstorms and very uncomfortable rides. The feeling of being ripped off by that hotel full of ants and cockroaches in Siavonga, Zambia for £41 will rankle for a long time!

I spent £685 on accommodation, always my biggest expenditure after air fares, slightly over £16 a night on average. I spent just under £450 on petrol and £550 on direct bike costs – maintenance, taxes, insurances etc, so £1000 to keep the bike moving. But it did take me ten and a half thousand kilometres (the best part of 7000 miles).

I met very few other travellers on this trip but a great number of charming locals. It was fun to catch up with Rosie in Lusaka, and of course, Yvonne and Michael generously provide me with a sort of root to which I can return and be sure of welcome and relaxation.

Now I am sitting in Johannesburg’s O R Tambo Airport, in the KLM lounge, frittering away the last five hours in South Africa, a beautiful but troubled and unhappy land whose main attraction for me is to get across its borders to the real Africa that lies beyond. I just flew here from Durban with a cheap no-frills airline that had the smallest seat pitch I have ever experienced and now I face a night in the air back to Europe and, according to my iPad, sunny days in Devon. But I also fly back to my customary restlessness…

However, by leaving the red BMW in Michael’s lock-up, I have committed myself to another trip south!

As I said some weeks back: life can be so much fun when you go out and meet it!

So ends another journey! Do join me on the next one – whenever that may be…

Jonathan

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One thought on “2014 – SOUTHERN AFRICA DIARY – ELEVEN

  1. Looking forward to welcoming you back to Harberton … the sun is still shining and the skies are blue … the Spring flowers are bursting out and there are lambs everywhere. You will enjoy their gambolling each evening before they go to sleep and you have a pint of beer in your hand. Thanks for the wonderful stories and images.

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