How extraordinary are our emotions. No one even knows what they are, or how they work: minute chemical changes that are triggered by actions and reactions. A total mystery in an era that we can land a craft on a meteorite travelling at millions of miles an hour. But our brains, of which we each have a unique example, remain hardly understood.
The train hadn’t even made its way through the chill, grey drizzle as far as Newton Abbott before the smile that I had been waiting for these past three weeks spread over my being; with it that lump in the throat, the physical manifestation of anticipation and joy. I know I disappoint myself and everyone around me by showing no excitement at my forthcoming journeys. But there, in the gloom before Newton Abbott, one of Devon’s less pretty corners, my journey began at last. No turning back. Mine to make of it what I will. New people to meet; new places to go; new things to experience. The addictive hit of travel.
Days dominated by lists: the pausing of bureaucratic life in Britain; leaving a house in winter; travel arrangements; mundane domestic stuff; people to tell; things to finalise… No, there’s no excitement about preparing to leave. But pulling out of Totnes station… It’s too late. Now I can change mode. I am on my way.
Thirty hours later. High above the Caprivi Strip that separates Angola and Botswana in the packed discomfort that is air travel, rushing unconcerned over Africa… It’s a cattle wagon, but it gets me 5000 miles to another world in only ten hours of captivity. We forget so easily, in our complaints at affronted dignity, just what a wonder this all is. In minutes we soared over the Alps, resplendent from up here in vicious crumpled whiteness; over a speckle-whipped Mediterranean and on over the spectacular Sahara, still the most impressive landscape I know. In an hour I shall be on Africa soil again, touching down at Johannesburg at ten at night. I’ve booked the cheapest hotel I can find (wonders of the internet – something else we already take for granted). Tomorrow I shall ride eight hours by bus on to Durban. Next to me in my discomfort is a charming and pretty young Zimbabwean nurse from Stockton on Tees, travelling home to bring her children, two girls and a boy, aged 10, 8 and 5, home in January. She told me an illuminating story. She took her children home to meet their Zimbabwean family, somewhere near delightful Bulawayo. Her daughter stood in the airport, her mouth dropping open and said, in awe, to her mother, “Mum, everyone is black!” As my pretty neighbour added with rueful understatement, “It’s a bit different in Stockton.” Stockton to Bulawayo, yes, just a bit different. And, actually, I reckon I know where I’d rather live, of the two… The children liked it so much they asked to stay! Now, though, the cruel reality of Stockton-on-Tees seems to be calling.
My travels have brought me many wonderful benefits, none of them better than friends and acquaintances in so many countries. I purposely chose an obscure flight itinerary so that I had to spend a night in Holland, where my dear friend Marti, to whose family I feel an increasingly close bond, met me at Schipol, took me home for dinner, warm conversation with Marthe and the three very delightful girls, and a night’s rest and then back to a station for a morning train back to Schipol. Oh, how that ride across the Sahara in 1987 changed my life! A whole new perspective of my place in the scheme of things, of what is most important, plus three very close friends, and now extended families too. You cannot share an experience like that without arriving at a deep affection for one another; one that lasts. Next winter, Rico, all being well, it’s my time to come to back to Kenya again for exploration of Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and other bits of this extraordinary continent – so overlooked by the (so-called) ‘developed world’ that Rwanda doesn’t even make it into the computer spell-checker…
DAY 2 WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 10th 2014. KEMPTON PARK, JOHANNESBURG. ZA
Ishmael comes from Zimbabwe, one of many young Zimbabweans living and working in South Africa, exiled from their lovely homeland by a crazed dictator and defunct economy. Zimbabweans are popular with South African employers, their work ethic substantially better than that of the native people. A cheerful, handsome, oval face with dazzling white African teeth, he is a student of electrical engineering at university here, subsidising his stay by working as a driver for a pleasant hotel near Oliver Tambo Airport.
“Well, I am of the Ndebele, you see,” he told me in response to my question about the prejudice of South African tribes against the Zimbabweans (‘comin’ over ‘ere, takin’ our jobs’ – a sadly universal prejudice of the ignorant and UKIP). “The Ndebele people followed their chief northward to Bulawayo when he fought with the great Zulu king, Shaka, the ‘Napoleon of Africa’ who wanted to colonise all Africans. So I am able to be invisible amongst the tribes of South Africa. I speak all their languages; we are the same people.” He also speaks faultless and almost accent-less English, this man from Africa’s best educated nation. Like many young Zimbabweans, he left the country four years ago during a period of particular economic strife as the economy spiralled out of control and all the investors (excepting China, who couldn’t give a damn about human rights or indigenous cultural values) deserted a corrupt and useless land. “In those conditions, my parents just couldn’t afford to send me to university, so I had to leave. From here? Well, of course, I’d like to work overseas for a time – Australia, Canada… And then maybe things will change in my country, when Mugabe is gone… But now they say he is sacking all the people who may prove disloyal and his wife suddenly got a PhD – in two months! – and he’s grooming her to take over, so… Who knows..?”
I stood in the dark garden, peace interrupted by the roar of late cargo planes taking off into the night a few hundred metres away, and thought sadly of his country, once a beacon of hope and prosperity in this beleaguered continent, diverted by the crazy ego and ambition of an undoubtedly clever but increasingly crazed leader – the African story. Sipping my Windhoek beer, I thought fondly of Bulawayo, probably my instinctively favourite African city and enjoyed the calm of arrival in Africa once again. Places to go; people to meet.
I found this hotel on the internet. At £30 the cheapest and closest to the airport (just off the end of the runway, by the sound of it) and excellent value; a fine, large room with high thatched roof and a huge bed, two fine African ‘lazy chairs’ (two interlocking pieces of wood shaping a primitive deck-chair shape), pleasant gardens and an honesty bar.
Quietly and politely, Ishmael excused himself. It was late now, almost midnight. I emptied my beer and retired to my comfortable room at the other end of the world to where I started out only this morning.
DAYS 3 – 6 THURSDAY. FRIDAY, SATURDAY AND SUNDAY DECEMBER 11th – 14th KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA
But as I retreated to bed that travel-weary night (South Africa is two hours ahead of England, so midnight here was really ten for me) a storm threatened, developing into two theatrical hours of huge noise and torrential rain tingling on the thatch; sleepless hours, but relaxing after ten cramped hours in the sky.
South Africa is a beautiful country with enormous scale to its landscapes: vast green veldt, round-topped kopjes punctuating the expanses; distant blue mountains and etched groves of eucalyptus amongst giant fields. The sky arches above, limitless and blue. The green is distinctive: a washed-out, faded colour, gentle on the eye. I don’t know this shade anywhere else. It stretches from horizon to horizon.
My comfortable bus cruised its way from Johannesburg to distant Durban, a journey of eight hours or so, arriving an hour after schedule – for no apparent reason. Maybe just because this is Africa…
Charming a round young woman, duty manager of a McDonald’s fast-fat franchise, I made use of their telephone, mine having died through lack of use for over six months. And soon I was able to relinquish responsibility for my journey for a few grateful days to my kind hosts – once again – here in Kloof, the hilly suburb of the big city of Durban. I said goodbye to Yvonne and Michael only seven months ago – now I am back.
It’s a rich irony that my first email in South Africa, asked me to go to USA in the New Year for a week of conceptual design for a large vehicle collection. I have just travelled eleven hours at 500mph away from Boston. Do I really want to go? I am no longer looking for the ‘Big Break’. My contented life in Harberton has put that sort of ambition to rest. On the whole, I have what I need, and it is stress-free and pleasant; includes modest travelling (yes, I know most people don’t think of travelling Africa as modest – but they should try it the way I do it!!) and enough creative satisfaction without the need to accomplish any Great Works. I really have little desire to go. So I spent some time coming up with a budget that might just make the extreme discomfort worthwhile. And as yet have had no response! It would entail three sleepless nights in the sky, two of them consecutive, and at least forty hours in the sky. I was quite prepared to travel there in November, but no one acted fast enough. Now my head is in a different ‘space’.
So I have just enjoyed a few days of getting into travel mode ready for the ‘off’ tomorrow, a new week and new horizons.
DAY 7. MONDAY DECEMBER 15th. UNDERBERG. SOUTH AFRICA
…and my journey begins…
Unimpressively… In heavy rain and chill very un-summery weather. Everyone complains that this summer, and we are approaching mid-summer, has been endlessly wet in this region. My ride today was notable for the fact that I ended up with all my layers of clothes, including full waterproofs. I was lucky, though, that the really heavy rain held off until after I arrived in Underberg in the afternoon.
Underberg hasn’t changed much since about the 1970s, I should think. It’s a one-horse (probably a mule, in fact) town straggling along a minor road southwards. It might not exist as anything more than a rural, farming outpost with agricultural suppliers and a few jaded supermarkets, were it not for its proximity to the Sani Pass, the tortuous rocky road that ascends steeply into the side of the Drakensburg Mountains, up to lovely Lesotho several thousand feet above. So dreary Underberg is home to a number of ‘Adventure Tour!’ (complete with exclamation, as standard) companies that run four-by-four vehicles up the twisting track for a drink and lunch at the Sani Top Inn, the ‘highest pub in Africa’. My motorbikes and I have been up and down that steep trail a number of times, but not tomorrow. I am told that the rain has been relentless up there and I know that the gravel and earth roads will be slimy and wearing on two wheels. I will stick to lower roads – and preferably tarred ones at that.
It was noon before I left Durban, confused by this sudden likelihood of flight to America once again, just as I get into travel-mode. Better now, I suppose, than later when the magic of the road trip is more real. I have to wait now for confirmation that I am to go. My ultimatum was that they have 24 hours to reply as I have taken an option on flights – at the most expensive and busiest time of the year.
The Underberg Inn is a place that is also stuck in about 1975. Dowdy and faded, but sufficient for my modest needs, it is very typical of the sort of place in which I seek to stay on these relatively impecunious journeys. You may be able to picture it… Duvets are an audacious invention somewhere in the future; for now it is still reliable candlewick and blanket and rather thin cotton sheets; a thin brown carpet; ‘Cringle’ windows and hardboard panelled ceilings; an old ‘utility furniture’ wardrobe and dressing table and a perishing cold white tiled bathroom with ancient cast iron bath – showers another concept of the far future – and those old clunky steel taps. Hot water takes about three minutes to reach this end of the corridor. The rain falls steadily on what is, I am sure, a zinc sheet roof, and there is a dark, cigarette smoke-filled bar with of heavyweight white men and women with grating accents smoking glumly and talking aggressively loudly as cricket and rugby play on screens in the corners.
The owners are all white but the security and cooking staff black of course. My supper was served by a cheerful round girl with fully zipped fleece and wooly hat. Astonished that I had ridden from as far away as Durban (225 kilometres) on a motorbike she just threw back her head as she went out of the door, leaving my tray of curry on the bar. “It’s not far!” I called after her. “I am on my way to Cape Town and then Zimbabwe!”
“Haha! I don’t believe you!” A flash of teeth and a dismissive laugh. Beyond all comprehension.
Perhaps so on a night like this. At least I have made a start.
DAY 8. TUESDAY DECEMBER 16th 2014. MATATIELE, SOUTH AFRICA
The likelihood of a large side trip to USA is making me indecisive and things confused. It’s not easy to plan while waiting for confirmation – or otherwise – and reliant upon dicey internet connections in restaurants and internet cafes. So I have stayed in Matatiele tonight, for the 24 hour deadline I gave for information has extended, my flight option that I took has run out and I still have a lot of organisation to do tomorrow. It is irritating.
The reason for riding to Matatiele, the first town over the Eastern Cape provincial border is to re-tax the motorbike. It was here that the amused lady falsified the documents to look as if I resided in this small town so that I did not have to follow the law and ride a further 500 kilometres each way to East London, the city where the bike was originally taxed.
Imagine then, my irritation to find that today is one of South Africa’s many public holidays and the tax office is closed. Originally this holiday commemorated some Boer victory something over a century ago. When that became a bit too politically sensitive it became a religious holiday of some Christian sort, then, in the political re-imagining (or re-mything…) of recent decades it has become the Day of Reconciliation. This country spends a good deal of time rewriting its history and myths to fit more modern, liberal texts. Mind you, it needed to…
It’s been a gloomily damp and chill day following a filthy night with water coursing from gutters outside the damp-stained Underberg Inn. A drizzly, grey day in which these vast green curvaceous landscapes fail to smile. These are roads I have travelled quite often – I must say, more often in rain than sun, come to think of it. I have memories of wet feet, soggy waterproofs and wet luggage. But it is only a week away from midsummer now and this shouldn’t be happening.
Mosa, a smiling young waiter in a utilitarian cafe like a football stand, brightened the morning as I waited for the low cloud to lift and used their internet. His irrepressible smile and unfailing goodwill helped a dull morning. Meeting the owner outside I complimented him on his staff, a little goodwill on my part for Mosa.
So many white South Africans complain to me (because my skin colour suggests I am a compatriot in their views) that the ‘blecks’ are universally lazy and lack any initiative. Today I must have ventured, in the last part of my journey, into part of the old Transkei region, one of the notorious ‘homelands’ of the apartheid era. It’s a cosy, feel-good name for tracts of poor grade, mainly useless and unproductive land that the whites didn’t have much use for, except as a place for one group of people to banish millions of other people who happened to have a different coloured skin because they felt threatened by numbers, covetous of their own privileges, and had created the power to do so.
Looking at the landscape immediately south of Matatiele, the views change. Here are thousands and thousands of small block dwellings, painted hideous pastel colours, scattered apparently randomly across the huge landscapes. Most have a pit latrine, a green plastic 500 litre rainwater tank and a stretched skein of wire fencing enclosing a patch of lank and scabby grass. The top soil is wafer thin over red, rocky dust; the valleys riven by jagged red-earth ravines, and piles of haphazard red rocks dot the essentially tree-less expanses. They are mean dwellings, few with services, and there is no tradition of gardening as there would be in West Africa. Here a few goats suffice – and strip what sustenance might be found in this grim landscape.
Given this barren land, this grim existence to which so many millions were banished over several generations to protect the riches of the powerful minority, is it surprising that entrepreneurism and enterprise have become rare commodities? If for generations you have had to accept that there is no reward for hard work and drive, it becomes part of the collective history of the people. Hope was destroyed over many decades and several generations and it will be several more generations, and require a number of positive black role models, before things change and ambition and effort re-establish themselves as rewarding. Things are changing in South Africa, but it is painfully slow, and crude, heavy-handed efforts to change by legislation, positive discrimination and reallocation of ownership cause more resentment and erosive anger than they assist change. Mankind changes very slowly, adapting over generations. It will be a hundred years before apartheid is dead. First to go must be the cherished memories of unrest from all the old ‘revolutionaries’ and the myth of ‘the good times’ of the whites.
The reason I rode on into the Transkei district was that Matatiele has few attractions, so I thought I’d ride on to Mount Fletcher. Well, the latter was even more depressing; no more than a straggle of cheap supermarkets and dreary shops strung along a main road full of ancient battered vehicles. I didn’t even stop, but turned about at the end of town and roared the forty miles back to Matatiele. Rather the rain in Lesotho tomorrow, I decided, than the dullness of Mount Fletcher and a ride across the Transkei with its visual and emotional gloom.
At least now I can re-tax my bike before leaving town, up the dirt trail to Lesotho. Also, I hope to find internet access to sort out the next few weeks. At one point I texted and later rang Steven in Bloemfontein, telling him I appear to be the wrong side of Lesotho – and thus the mountains – for the sunshine, for Bloemfontein is sunny. However, he is in Pretoria. My other friend, Garvin, who sold me the red bike two years ago, is not responding to my texts or answering his phone. So I am in limbo. I guess it is Lesotho for a few days and then to meet Steven on sunday.
Wish I could get this trip sorted one way or another. People in business eight thousand miles away have no idea how difficult it is to arrange such things as air tickets, online visas and distant accommodation on the road – in Africa to boot!
Well, I found a decent, warm room; a chalet-type place in a large compound by the main road south at the top of town. It’s 400 Rand (£22), just on the preferred upper limit of my budget. I am the only guest.