DAY 9. WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 17th 2014. MPAKHI, KINGDOM OF LESOTHO
It makes me smile to put those words at the top of tonight’s entry: Kingdom of Lesotho. Once again I have entered this tiny mountain kingdom that seems to hold all the romance of lost worlds, up here in the clouds, the smile-capital of the world, with some of the best beauties to be seen anywhere in Africa. Lesotho, also one of the world’s best kept travel secrets. I am so happy to be amongst the initiated.
I awoke to sunshine, at last. Foaming banks of cumulus danced above Lesotho to the west, the patio doors of my chalet room framing a view of blue mountains reduced by distance. Lovely Lesotho awaited…
But first, I had to get online. It’s not that easy in small rural towns in Africa. I went to pay my hostess, Pearly, a kindly young middle aged Afrikaner in her sprawling bungalow – in which I counted no less than five maids and a gardener. She offered her own internet connection and the dining room table, privacy and calm for which I came to be very grateful as the process of purchasing airline tickets to America became increasingly frustrating. It took two hours..! Having gone through the whole process and hit ‘purchase’, my credit cards – all three of them, were refused. ‘Phone your bank’ says the glib message on the screen. What do they imagine we have these magic cards for? ‘Phone your bank…’ Just like that. I am in rural Africa with no international phone and the bank won’t even open for two more hours. As you may have surmised, we got the ‘go!’ from the potential client in Boston, my pretty extravagant budget agreed. I have no excuse not to fly the forty two and a half hours (flying time!) it will take me to get to Boston and back.
At last, after waiting impatiently for 08.00 to creep up the British clock face, I was able to make a Skype call to my bank and clear the payment, and then repeat the whole tedious process. I shall fly out of Johannesburg on December 30th and get back on January 10th at night, just a month after arriving the first time! More about all that later. For now, I am happy to put it all out of mind as much as possible and enjoy the untold delights of Lesotho, eight thousand miles from Boston, Massachusetts that may as well be a million.
My other task in Matatiele was to tax my motorbike. By the time I got to the tax office it was eleven o’clock. The place was full to bursting. My heart sank. I dithered.
A weighty white Afrikaans fellow came to my rescue. Because I was white, of course – but why should I complain at this odd privilege in this circumstance! He saved me a couple of horrible hours. I needed a certain form and I’d also need a photocopy of my ID. He pointed to a desk, behind which sat a bored young woman. “Yu’ll nid the corrict form from her feerst.”
But the forms had run out. “Come tomorrow!” This is Africa…
“I came all the way from Durban yesterday and it was a public holiday! I can’t just come again tomorrow!” Of such total time-wasting is so much of African business. The concept of time being money has no hold in African bureaucracy. ‘Come tomorrow…’ How often have I heard that in Africa, as now, as an excuse for the petty inefficiency of not printing enough forms. How difficult is it to send someone to a photocopier? But that needs initiative and management, skills so lacking on this continent. ‘Come tomorrow – early! There will be forms!”
In that case why not print more, one wonders…
But this is Africa! My road tax runs out on February 28th and I leave South Africa on March 10th. I shall just be tax-less for the last ten days and give it no more thought! The bike will be either sold or stored a few days before that date and the system is SO inefficient no one will ever notice. Forget it! African bureaucracy is seldom worth the paper on which it is lengthily printed (sometimes in insufficient quantity..).
So I filled up and headed for the Lesotho border, an impressive twenty rocky and dusty miles up dirt roads that twist and turn into the brown rocky mountains. Rounding one corner, I plunged deep into a filthy brown puddle that must have been a foot deep. Water shot everywhere, soaking me to the waist and leaving muddy stains plastered on me and bike. Trouble is, you can never tell just how deep these ponds can be. On the 35 mile gravel road after Underberg yesterday I hit two similar puddles, one of which came over my boots and engine, stopping fortuitously just short of the spark plugs and HT leads.
So into this land of such magnificence; semi-vertical landscapes of washy browns and greens, brushed with small terraced fields of antiquity and cut by wide brown rivers in the deep valley bottoms. A land of ox-ploughs and small round rock and thatch homes, men wrapped in the traditional blankets on sure-footed small Basotho ponies; a land where everyone waves and smiles at a passing motorcyclist; where hard graft is visible everywhere in tilling and maintaining the tiny fields, tending animals and just existing in a landscape so high and steep. A land of wide twisting roads where my biggest danger is driving off the roads while wondering at the astonishing views – maybe what happened to the bus lying on its side twenty feet below the road on a sharp curve and the tractor that must, to judge by the gathering crowd, have only just fallen fifty feet into a ravine.
It’s an interesting observation that after yesterday’s comments on the lack of gardens around houses just a stone’s throw away in Transkei, every house in rural Lesotho, however mean and simple, has a garden patch of corn and vegetables, fruit trees and even joyful rose bushes now in full bloom.
In 2002 I stayed at Mpakhi, at the Farmers’ Training College; basic accommodation that costs all of £5.50 for a three-bedded room with a fine view fully to the west and the sunset. There’s no electricity and only cold water, but the view makes up for a lot.
I have a couple of candles tonight and will have to sleep early – as does most of Africa, sleeping when it’s dark and rising when it’s light. No one speaks English here, so my room was arranged by dumb-show, at which I excel. Asked for my country, I told the fat keeper that I was from England. She signed that I should spell it as she had to enter it in the official book. She carefully copied the letters with no more significance to her than if I had written ‘North Pole’ or ‘Timbuktu’. Anything past Maseru is probably unknown and unthinkable to her. And that’s another reason to love this little country.
It was three o’clock before I realised that I had forgotten to eat today! I even forgot breakfast. So I walked to the village centre to look for food. It’s a bit like walking up Kingsbridge Hill or the Otley Chevin to look for lunch, but walking up them at about five or six thousand feet above sea level. This country is high and steep. I was wandering about a bit lost in this rural village where few people speak English despite the proximity to South Africa, when Pitso, a laughing middle aged man asked where I was going, and proceeded to walk me to a corrugated tin shack where I could get a delicious local meal of ‘pap’ (a sort of dry maize meal dumpling), vegetables and local lamb. The meat was tasty and unusually tender. I ate with my fingers of course, so as not to look the squeamish foreigner. The interior of the shack was clean and bright; a sheet of lino on the floor; a plastic tablecloth and four plastic chairs. Half the hut was divided by hardboard partitioning for the kitchen; gas bottles and foodstuffs stored neatly in plastic. It’s fun to eat local like that, a decent fortifying meal for a little over a pound. On my way home down the hill, accompanied by Zebindzile, a chirpy young man with a delightful, happy face and manner, dressed in blue dungarees and typical floppy sunhat, I bought a tin of peaches, a packet of ‘Eet-sum-mor’ shortbreads and two large bottles of stout for my evening, watching the sun set and feeling the chill night air creep up the high valleys on this near-midsummer evening of the sharpest, scalpel-cut clarity of mountain silhouettes and dark depths. There is no electricity visible in all my view, except a couple of – perhaps solar powered – lamps a mile away. The sky is silken clear; the stars beginning to prickle. It is silent and deeply dark. And time to blow out the candles at 9.00pm and lose myself in happy dreams of a quiet, soft night in the Kingdom in the Sky.
DAY 10. THURSDAY 18th DECEMBER 2014. ROMA, LESOTHO
Just eight months ago I stayed in Roma, one of my favourite ports of call, at the Trading Post, where I have the same delightful thatched rondavel in which I slept in April, and before that in March. There are old, established gardens all around me and the place is tidily kept and peaceful. The staff are friendly too. It’s a trading station first established by John Thorn, a European settler, in 1903 and now run by the fourth generation of the Thorns, now a white Basotho family. It still operates, as always, as a trading point for local farmers and supplies the district as well as its tourism ventures.
Tsiliso, as recognition dawned, was surprised and delighted to see me pull through the gates. “Have you brought our photographs?” Well, fortunately, they are all still on my iPad and we should be able to download them tomorrow. One or two of the team here smile at me every day from my Harberton walls.
Some time after I arrived I had a troubling experience… I felt dog tired and had to lie down for a thirty minute rest! Me! For some time I was concerned that this was senior behaviour and not within my self-image at all. On getting up and rinsing my face up to go for supper I caught sight of my face in the mirror. My nose is as seasonably bright as Rudolph’s and my cheeks shining like beacons. I reckon I have had many hours of high altitude sun and fresh air and that explains my condition. That, at least, is what I am telling myself.
I can seldom remember sleeping anywhere as quiet as last night’s room on that ridge. But it was COLD. Even I had recourse to the bed cover and a thick Lesotho blanket, sadly now entirely synthetic and made in factories in South Africa. The blanket is the national dress, said to have originated from a colonial gift to some king. Almost all men, from teenagers to bent old fellows who look ancient but are probably no older than me, wear a thick coloured blanket draped about their shoulders, usually with Wellington boots and the ubiquitous woollen balaclava hat, sometimes with another wide brimmed hat balanced on top. Matrons use the blanket wrapped round their waist. Busty young girls, on the other hand, dress in sexily provocative cut-offs not far from hot-pants, or brightly patterned tights and tank-tops, their hair curled and woven into astonishing designs. To see them walking with their grandmothers, in their long skirts and clumpy blankets makes me smile.
Sitting over a sandwich on a guest house terrace, a woman trotted by on one of the tough little Basotho ponies, a wide, floppy red straw sunhat on her head and a large container of cooking oil slung like a baby in her blanket at her back and saddlebags of market provisions. One hand whipped up the horse, the other – inevitably in Africa – fiddled with a mobile phone.
It is remarkable how landscape changes with the season, the light, the weather. In March I rode through Mpakhi and made an exclamation mark on my map at one of the most amazing vistas I can recollect, even in this magnificent country. I stopped for a photograph and have thought of it often. Today I couldn’t find it! The light was full and the skies clear, peppered with very white clouds. When I saw it in March the view dissolved in wave upon wave of subtle hues like an atmospheric watercolour, more water than colour, except where the depth of shadows in the foreground and a few patches of cerulean sky created great depth.
However, the landscape of Lesotho never disappoints, even when it changes. Perhaps that is its wonder. The road that I took for 70 miles there and back, just to see again the view I couldn’t find, was dramatic enough for many gasps and a few expletives to cross my lips. Huge valleys plunge to invisible rivers that have carved the brown rock; cliff faces soar and dispense rocky screes and block-of-flat sized shards; tiny terraced fields patchwork the slopes, following the contours in sinuous curves, with ox ploughs busily turning the dark soil, the shirts and dresses of men and women creating colourful accents as they work over hoes and young plants. There are hundreds of artlessly placed stone and stick rondavels and lines of blowing, brightly coloured washing amongst small thatched houses on distant bluffs and ridges – these are some of the wonders of the scarred terrain of this mountain fastness.
At Mount Moorosi, where I memorably stayed at the ‘Granny and Four Sisters’ bed and breakfast in March – where one light switch controlled all three basic rooms – I turned about to ride back to Mpakhi and then on over the brand new road that now cuts Lesotho in half, the first tarred transit through the middle of the semi-vertical country, still unfinished when I was here in April.
The quantity of mountains that have been moved, of rock faces blasted and rocks piled up to form the fine roads of Lesotho is mind-boggling. So, no doubt, is the national debt to China, builders of all these new African roads – and most other new infrastructure of the continent; the new Colonialists, working sadly for their own wealth and not from any altruism, much, I suppose, as all colonial powers. Across the middle of this country, with arrogant disregard for the topography, another miraculous road has been forced. It joins the others: the highest roads in Africa, like the road from the western lowlands to Lake Katse in the centre, one of the several large reservoirs that now supply the thirsty Gauteng region (around Johannesburg/ Pretoria with most of the mining and industry of South Africa). And the water is supplied through over fifty miles of underground tunnels into supply rivers – entirely by gravity! There is no pumping station. The road to Katse involves (so I read, no, I didn’t count!) 728 bends, and three passes, one of the highest in Africa at 3090 metres. These are no narrow twisting mountain roads, they are smooth, wide carriageways that sweep and turn about the peaks and valleys. It is impressive engineering indeed. The highest road in Africa is a few miles north, the Tiaaeng Pass, at a mighty 3275 metres (10,600 feet approximately).
And fun to ride, diverting sometimes round van-sized boulders that have thundered down from the steep slopes above; that, and the wandering donkeys, dirty woolly sheep, numberless pedestrians and horsemen, ill-disciplined cows and oxen, broken patches where rain and winter ice and snows have wrought damage. Add to that mix the incredible views that constantly distract and you can imagine why, after a couple of hundred miles of concentration, elation and high altitude sunshine, I felt a bit old – (briefly) – this evening! I also seem to have filled up at Mount Moorosi with rather low grade petrol, making the heights more difficult for my bike to scale without extra gear changing.
Motlatsi’s name means ‘deputy’. Most African names have meaning. Zebindzile, whom I met yesterday, told me his name meant ‘we have worked’. He was last born of nine siblings. His parents had certainly worked…
“You must be the first-born!” I joked with Motlatsi. He laughed in agreement. He was serving me my sandwich on that terrace beside a chattering river at the Semonkong Lodge, in the middle of Lesotho. I had thought to stay there, but it was double the price of the Trading Post at Roma, so I contented myself with a leisurely lunch and a chat with Motlatsi.
“I was born here in Semonkong, and educated here too. But now I am studying at NUL, National University of Lesotho.” A local boy making good with that African determination I admire so much. “I’m taking business studies. One day I want to open my own business like this, maybe a restaurant. I want to be independent.”
Wearing a Santa hat, instead of the ubiquitous woolly balaclava, he was dressed in the guest house fleece. A smart young man with an attractive smile (but that is a national trait) and a good manner with guests, he stood in the shade of the table umbrella and chatted as I waited for my lunch. “There is opportunity here, if you have a good business plan and are sensible and ready to work. But we have to be careful. Some good initiatives for tourists have been started by individuals but have been taken over by the management here at the guest house.”
“Poaching,” I commented, sad that the second generation white Basotho owners carry on the wiles of their forebears. “I am happy you want to stay here. Many young people think the opportunities are in the cities.”
“It is better to be a big fish in a small pond..!” he smiled. “Here I am well known and have support. My parents encourage me. And we are capable people. The Chinese are a threat to us; they buy up businesses, small, low-capital ones we could manage… and they treat us badly. They cheat us if they can and they don’t understand our culture – or speak our language. We need more local entrepreneurs.”
“You should think about opening a small, simple guest house, in traditional rondavel style, just a locally made bed and furniture, clean and simple, with a small gas water heater. It’s what I look for, and a lot of tourists don’t want to pay the prices of a guest house like this one,” I said, waving at the big operation around us. “I mean, I am going to ride all the way to Roma because I know I can get a good room, a thatched rondavel with a bathroom, for half the price of this place! I’d stay in your B&B! I shall come back and look for it one day.”
It was a good seed to sow. I could see it had fallen on rich soil. Maybe one day I really will go back to Semonkong and stay with Motlatsi…
In Mount Moorosi, a happy salesman called Arun, toting a large hold-all of local popcorn, wished me a cheerful “Happy Christmas, Daddy!” with a couple of African handshakes. I had completely forgotten that we are a week from Christmas Day. The sun shines down; Bing Crosby is a bad dream; there’s no desperate, miserable shopping experiences and none of the commercialism that has overtaken the season. Here it is almost midsummer and apart from a few Santa hats, I can ignore the whole thing!
DAY 11. FRIDAY DECEMBER 19th 2014. ROMA, LESOTHO
A night of thunder and rain persuaded me to stay in Roma another night. It’s not much of a penance! On my last trip, Roma and the Trading Post stand out as the best place I stayed. This morning I was visited by many of the staff, welcoming me here again. The big fat cook, whose name I think is Lior Dineo, even gave me a big, soggy-cushion hug. She is most amused to hear that her portrait laughs down at me above my table in Rock Cottage in distant Devon. With a laugh (and teeth) like that I could hardly resist.
The rain frittered away by ten and a weak sun appeared to begin to dry my now sodden washing. It’s a fact of impecunious, lightweight travel, that I always have washing to dry! With lighter skies now drifting above the mountains, I rode off into the third of the astonishing roads into the mountainous interior. It’s perhaps the least impressive of the three roads that penetrate the high mountains, serving the lakes that bring so many economic benefits to this small country. But ‘least impressive’ is relative… Twisting and turning through the canyons and peaks, the road first rises over the Bushmens’ Pass, a ‘mere’ 2263 metres high (about 7330 feet). Next, after many more turns and corners like a bowl of spaghetti, comes the God Help Me Pass at 2281 metres and later still, but all in about forty miles, the Lekhola Le Thaba Putsoa, or Blue Mountain Pass at 2633 metres (a little over 8500 feet). Mere babies in comparison to the passes of the even higher ranges further north, these are wonderful roads. The sort of roads that leave motorcyclists with foolish grins, for it is the curves and bends that we enjoy, flipping the bike this way, then that for hundreds of bends (I did start to count them, Lisa, but I lost count at a particularly spectacular view at 223!) (NB. I counted them next day! 310). Some of the bends are so steep that even at low speed – and I seldom exceed 40mph with these fabulous sights – I have to keep my toes up for danger of scraping my boot on the road, something that has happened a couple of times to my alarm. Anywhere else in the world but Africa, these roads would be scenic highlights, the stuff of tourist brochures and viewpoints. Here they are only access to the high places, to the rural villages – and the Highland Water Project sites. I am SO proud to be an initiate to all this wonder.
I’m all alone – for traffic is very light – in all this extraordinary splendour and emptiness on the top of Africa. A smile spreads across my being as I rush through some of the cleanest, freshest air I will ever breathe.
Somewhere, half way up to the heights, I rounded a long bend amidst green grandeur and wove round two young men dancing in the road as if to inner music, or maybe to music they heard from the magnificent mountains about us. The Basotho really seem to have so much joy in their souls. I gave them a happy wave, chuckling as they receded, their herding sticks waving as they danced.
It is easy, of course, for me to romanticise the rural life of Lesotho, a life that is filled with hardship and is cruel and uncomfortable; icy winters, the awful statistics of AIDS… Yet people in Africa – and this is why I am so obsessed with the continent – seem able to find a happiness in life that we have lost in our imagined ‘need’ for material things. In so much of Africa, family, community and laughter supply these contentments; an ability to live only in the moment; to be thankful for what IS, rather than what might be. It seems to me that Africans seldom look forward with envy or backwards with regret, they just exist in the moment, as it is. I always meet the greatest generosity from the people with the least to give. My hardest life lesson was learning to take from the heart in Africa, the way in which all is given, and not to count the cost. The greatest pleasure I have here is the thankfulness that is expressed for any small gift, be it material or just in words, in a smile or shared laughter. There is no holding back of emotion; no cultural inhibition. If a Basotho is happy he or she will laugh.
Like those fellows dancing in the road in the middle of nowhere on a steep mountain hill, in their white wellies and with colourful blankets a-blow, I feel my spirits lift and soar in this wonderful land. Life is an adventure to go out and grasp! Every moment to be enjoyed for its novelty.
All alone, I stop to gaze across the crumpled wastes, and somewhere I will hear the clunk of cowbells and look about me. High on the slopes above, or far below amongst the scattered rock and rock faces, an arm will wave from a blanket-draped figure, a sentinel of peace and apparent tranquility, watching a few cows or ragged, fat sheep, leaning on his stick and gazing into endless days of tending a few animals, probably the family wealth. What goes on in the herdmen’s minds? What do they think about me? What are their concerns and joys? Do they comprehend the beauty around them, or if it’s all you’ve ever known do you see it differently? What is life really like without intellectual stimulation, possessions, knowledge, ambition, influence? I will never know, of course, but being in Lesotho – Africa – changes my angle of perspective and throws up all sorts of thoughts to ponder – as I pass on by…
A donkey tip-taps past, a sack of rice or maize strapped across its back. It is entirely alone, single-minded, with that stubborn, determined look of donkeys. Programmed by habit, it knows its own way home. Tip-tap, it doesn’t even react to me standing beside my technological magic carpet as it passes. It will be rewarded and fed at journey’s end: sufficient stimulation to continue. Tip-tap.
High in the mountains, I turned onto a side road and meandered my way along engineering miracles, roads that have been enhanced to an art form. How do the planners join all the contours and natural opportunities and impediments together? Sweeping between shining, drain-water mirrored rock walls, curling through vast rounded contours, balancing along narrow ridges, serpentining through the dishevelled panorama, rising and falling, twisting and turning… How does anyone start? How to make sense and dominate such a landscape?
I was riding along the sides of deep Mohale Lake, to the dam and the inlet for water that flows from here in a 32 kilometre tunnel to join Katse Lake and eventually, to the industries and high population of Gauteng. In 2002, on my first trip down here, when Lesotho was a marvellous new discovery for me, I stayed at Katse and befriended some Afrikaans engineers and their wives, spending the most bizarre New year’s Eve of my life at a braai in a dramatic thunderstorm in the middle of the towering Maluti Mountains. Next day, Leon, who’d given me the keys to a friend’s house, drove me down into the tunnel, then being drilled beneath the ridges and rivers of Lesotho. It is an operation of civil engineering wonder, these huge lakes formed by two of Africa’s highest dams by which Lesotho sells its only natural commodity to the wealthy neighbours and generates its own power on the way. Not only is it an engineering feat, but the combination of twisting expanses of still blue water amongst these rugged green and brown mountains makes for one of the visual wonders of Africa – and, for me at least, the world.
Lovely, lovely Lesotho. A constant flutter of waving palms; countless radiant smiles; an overwhelming sense of welcome and wellbeing.
DAY 12. SATURDAY DECEMBER 20th 2014. KATSE, LESOTHO
I’ve fallen on my feet again…
Perhaps the thing that really keeps me travelling is not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Well, this has certainly been a serendipitous day!
Mid-afternoon I arrived, somewhat weary and sun burned, in Katse after a lot of wonderful mountain riding and the last forty miles on a rough rocky road that had left me a bit tired. I decided that I would try my luck at the rather fancy Katse Lodge, just to see if I could afford to stay here. I pulled in to the car park, doffed helmet and earplugs and walked into reception, greeting a fellow traveller as I entered.
“I think the hotel will be out of my budget!” I told the receptionist with a big smile, “but if I don’t ask, I will never know!” Chuckling, she handed me a tariff sheet and it was, indeed, way out of my budget. But, as always, I kept a friendly smile on my face as I demurred. The white man that I had greeted came quickly across and said, “my wife and I have just taken a house, you’d be welcome to share with us! There are two bedrooms, aren’t there?” he asked the receptionist.
“But I might be an axe murderer!” I declared.
“Well, you don’t look like one, and anyway WE might be axe murderers!” (I hadn’t thought of that…) “I’m Brian; my wife’s Joan. You’re very welcome.”
We have had the most congenial evening. It’s something about travellers, this ability to bond quickly, probably pass in the night, but to share openly. Brian and Joan live in a south western suburb of Johannesburg and love Lesotho, have a well-stocked large bakkie, complete with fridge and camping gear, and are easy going South Africans, with a pretty liberal view of life. They are about my age, and Brian is a forensic psychologist, (maybe that’s why he didn’t classify me on the axe murderer scale…) an expert witness in court trails involving head injuries, and Joan, herself a qualified scientist, runs his practice. There are three married daughters, all living in South Africa.
They have been most congenial company! What a remarkable turn up! Here we are sharing a bungalow in Katse, complete strangers taking one another on instinctive and instant trust – and enjoying the experience. We dined in the plush restaurant of the Katse Lodge, shared our beers and wine and have had no lack of conversation for several hours. We’ve compared notes on Lesotho travel; European experiences; South African culture, politics and prejudices; and told stories happily for some hours.
This is why I travel! Chance meetings, exchanges of views, new outlooks.
Another day of fine riding, up the high Lesotho passes into the elevated moorlands at eight and nine thousand feet. I rode back up to Mohale and on to Thaba Tseka, a small regional town in the centre of the highlands. From there it was a bumpy forty miles across the hills on a dirt road to Katse, home of the major dam development that supplies all that water to South Africa. In 2002 this was where I experienced that strange New Year. This hotel is a very fancy improvement on the one I used then – it must be, for I could afford to stay here then. A third share in a bungalow, once the homes of the workers and engineers – although I think I must have stayed in an ‘unmarrieds’ quarter’ in 2002 (I recall it as more basic than this one, and completely shambolic!) – brings my stay well within my self-imposed budget. I recognise the community centre where all the wives had prepared that obscenely huge meaty braai that we ate in a thunderstorm.
So much of the day is spent with a wide smile on my severely reddened face and increasingly tender lips. The views are stupendous, the roads such fun, and the people so friendly. Sadly, in the last part of my journey an increasing number of children have a propensity to greet with open palms, begging for money or sweets. This habit – mostly amongst children in more rural areas here in the Highlands – has increased with each visit I make. Pity…
The sun has beaten down all day. Somewhere along the twisting road I stopped to photograph the lovely wild arum lilies that sprout all over the rocky hillsides at this season. Clambering back up to my bike I saw that it was standing entirely on its own shadow. It reminded me that tomorrow is midsummer and at noon the sun is almost exactly overhead. I paused at the next tall electricity pole to check. The fifteen or eighteen foot pole had a shadow not more than 15 inches long. Later a two metre steel pole had a shadow of 200mm. I can’t do the maths, but the sun is almost overhead.
Everywhere I dodged donkeys and wandering people, occasionally smelly flocks of tangle-woolled sheep. Blanket-draped men walked, often two by two, and anywhere you look, hidden deep in the mountainous landscape there are distant figures, calmly tending animals on high hillsides. Women are washing colourful blankets in rivers and laying them to dry on steep inclines, vibrant pixilations on the grass and sandstone slopes. Women walk with colourful umbrellas and wide plastic straw hats, shading themselves from the strong sun. Men use their blankets and balaclavas. There’s not much traffic, and what there is is all local, toiling minibuses and diesel-belching old lorries crawling up the mountains. Every slope that can be, is terraced with tiny fields, busy with farm work.
And here, at 10.00 I can write no longer!
DAY 13. SUNDAY DECEMBER 21st 2014. MIDSUMMER DAY. NEAR BOTHA BOTHE, LESOTHO
…Fell on my feet again!
What a terrific day I have had! This one beats many. I have been so cheerful and satisfied with life today…
Sometimes I think that the real excitement of travel is to face and outwit your innate fears and apprehensions. Readers may think me intrepid. I am anything but, in reality. Extremely ‘trepid’… Here I am, the world’s worst mechanic, all alone on top of the world, in the knowledge that I am in foreign climes, have no access to health insurance (never applicable for motorbike journeys, let alone in Africa, and now I am getting too ‘old’ for even my annual policy to be useful), faced with unknown trials. It would be easier to just turn round and head back. I mean, no one would know! You only know what I choose to write. But I am as stubborn as they come. I will not admit to the frailty of nervousness, so I push on, thinking, ‘well, if it gets worse, I can turn back’. But I don’t, of course, I push on, up rocky staircases into the sky, on remote tracks ten thousand feet up on the African tops, without knowledge of what lies ahead.
And the rewards for facing up to my fear and riding the most wonderful sixty miles of, in some parts, serious trail riding and for the rest, incredibly lonely, remote gravel and rock half way up the sky? Terrific beyond calculation! Memorable, satisfying and with a huge smile on my face. Grasping life with both hands!! Haha!
So what was it that made all this happen? Yesterday, in Thaba Tseka, the Pakistani supermarket owner, who’s lived in Lesotho for thirty years and whose authentic chicken or mutton curry tempted me strongly, except that it was only two o’clock and would have ruined the afternoon ride, recommended a dirt road that leaves the village of Ha Lejone and thrusts due north, past a diamond mine, right over the highest Maluti Range to eventually join the main northern mountain road, within a mile of the highest road pass on the continent. He’d only gone as far as the mine, but told me that the scenery was particularly fine.
In Ha Lejone I filled up, purchasing five litres of petrol from ex-oil containers at the street side, for there is no petrol station there. “Which way Kaa Mine?” I asked the assembled crowd, a query that took moments to register as no one spoke English and I probably don’t have the pronunciation. The tubby woman who decanted the petrol through an upturned lemonade bottle/ cum funnel pointed to a junction and I turned and set off, all the time nervous of what I might find. On the map this is called the R840 but in March I travelled the A3, and that was little better than a goat track… The road dropped into a river valley for a few miles. So far so good. Then it began to climb through villages and up rocky slopes that had deteriorated badly into informal staircases of rounded rock. Coming across a truck with its bonnet up and a local bakkie blocking the road, I took the opportunity to quiz the drivers about the road ahead. But people in Africa seldom really give you chapter and verse, rather what they think you might want to hear. Oh, it would be fine! I’d soon be back on tarmac. Yeah, in about 58 miles.
The first thirty kilometres were challenging, a pitted shelf road scratched across the mountains, here and there splashing through small rock-filled rivers, one of which was almost deep enough for disaster. Then came more steep, rugged inclines and a long stretch through a valley bottom in which the river alongside had obviously inundated the earth track at times, now hardened by the sun into ruts and ridges. But the scenery was pretty wonderful and took my mind off the effort to which my shoulders were being put, so I carried on – and on. I reached the diamond mine and turned up a steep embankment to the north. At last the track began to improve – marginally – as I ground skywards on steep gradients. Wonderful banks of wild yellow iris and flaming red hot pokers sparkled against the green, brown and deep, deep blue. The red track wound upwards. A large flock of smelly, ragged sheep blocked the road with four young men in their inevitable blankets, white Wellies, swimming trunks and wide-brimmed hats and balaclavas switching sticks and trying to control the melee. One young boy carried a lamb, its broken leg bound with bark and fibres. This was only one, but the biggest, of all the animal obstacles on that astonishing road. There were countless others for this land relies upon the grazing of sheep and cows on the high steep slopes and small serious donkeys for transport. Many times I had to weave my way through flocks of running sheep or around trotting pack animals.
Finally, I was out onto moorland that seemed to touch the endless blue of the sky. I was now at about ten thousand feet and for the next twenty kilometres met not one other vehicle and precious few shepherds. It was completely wonderful! The sense of space and freedom; the red dirt road scraped ahead snaking over ridges miles ahead; wild flowers blowing in the stiff, chilly breeze and the searing sun dazzling from the blueness. It was spectacular! It was a ride of one’s dreams, a perfect place to be at that moment. Exhilarating and exciting. Difficult to believe that I was there on the very top of Africa. There is nowhere on this spellbinding continent that you can drive a vehicle higher.
Sometimes it’s such a shame that there is no one else there to share it – and to take those dramatic photos as I splash and bump through rivers, teeter across concrete bridges inches from a racing torrent, or ease my way through a hundred smelly, grey, knotted-wool sheep. But then, also, part of the excitement is being alone there…
After a couple of physically wearing hours I saw the signs that signified the main road from Mohotlong back over the highest road pass in Africa, now only a mile away, and eventually down to the western lowlands of Lesotho and the Free State. But I was out of luck. I’d just ridden 60 kilometres on dust, rock, gravel and stones. The major road over the top of Lesotho road is being rebuilt and for the next 40 kilometres I had to suffer the roadworks diversion of… dust, rock, gravel and stones.
Afriski is Africa’s only ski resort. It caters to South Africans mainly, coming for the novelty of skiing in Africa in June and July. It also claims to boast Africa’s highest restaurant at about 3100 metres. So I stopped for a coffee and just to check whether the accommodation was as far out of my budget as seemed likely. It was. But I asked the barman, Mat (short for some much more complex Sesotho name than Matthew) if he knew a cheaper place I could stay. He did, much further down the mountains, where a member of his family ran a B&B. He phoned. A room would be waiting for me, dinner, bed and breakfast for about £19. I should look for the sign board after I descended the Moteng Pass (probably my favourite of all the Lesotho passes, with its good tarmac road like something in the bottom of a tin of paperclips): Mamohase B&B.
The approach to this, one of the most perfect places I could hope to have found, was appalling! The final quarter mile was over huge sheets of pitted rock, like a vast sponge, dotted with rounded pebbles. A sign in the midst of this punishment read: ‘Don’t give up! Almost there’, and made me laugh out loud.
Mamohase B&B is a small venture set up by an entrepreneurial young man called Moruti, quietly spoken but charming and solicitous. He has opened his family compound house to visitors and built four delightful rondavels from local materials. I am a guest of the family, treated to dinner at the dining table with various cousins and young children. Moruti’s cousin, Thabiso, a man of the world from Johannesburg, has brought his wife and children back to the extended family home for a taste of rural Lesotho life over the Christmas holiday. We have chatted amicably for some hours, drank his Glenmorangie and sat beneath a dazzling mantle of stars with the family coming and going around us as if it is nothing to have a white visitor amongst them. There is no sense of anything but being one of this Basotho family. There is no electricity, just paraffin lamps; my rondavel is spotless, even though it had no door for an hour or two as one was planed down to fit; the bed is smart and comfortable and my every comfort seems to be the thought of Moruti. The building is quite new, with a packed earth floor and fresh thatch exposed over pale poles in the conical roof. I asked for somewhere to wash my face and hands. Instead Moruti lead me to a gleaming tiled room that is the washing room, brought a bucket of water and boiled a huge kettle on the gas stove, the contents of which he poured into a very large plastic bowl. He then inducted me into Basotho bath techniques. “First you kneel in front of the bowl on this mat and wash the top half. Then you step into the bowl to wash the bottom half!” It worked remarkably well and as a veteran of odd bathing techniques in Africa I was proud to leave the room floor almost dry. It wasn’t a bathroom as such, just the bathing room with a tiled floor but no drain. Good cooking smells came from the nearby kitchen, where Thabiso’s wife cooked at a gas stove in lamplight, amused by the simplicity of cooking with no electric light and few of the aids she probably enjoys in Johannesburg. Her husband is an educated black South African of Basotho stock. He works as a logistics manager for the big electricity company and is well informed, conversing on subjects as diverse as Basotho politics, the Scottish referendum, life for his kids so far from the roots of their Basotho culture, the awful problems caused by alcohol (all over this continent, it seems to me), life in South Africa as a black person and the benefits of Basutoland being separated throughout the poisonous apartheid years, eventually gaining her independence from Britain in 1966, which earns me a certain fondness here. Moruti was quieter but nonetheless joined in, his mind enquiring and his knowledge less wide but with a patent wisdom and drive that has created his small business out here in the sticks, a quarter of a terrible but rewarding mile off the highway. There is so much determination amongst Africans when directed to the benefit of the family and community and not stifled by pride, envy or politics.
It has been a great day! It began with a pleasant breakfast made by Joan of fresh fruit salad, toast and coffee. While we ate she insisted on making me up a delicious roll of cheese and bacon and a small bag of raw vegetables – that I ate on the roof of Africa amongst red hot pokers and dancing yellow flags. We exchanged addresses and maybe I will drop by if I pass through south west Johannesburg… “There’s always a bed…”
I joined a nine o’clock tour of Katse Dam, that took us inside the great dam, to its foot and onto the service road on top. Impressive to see that engineering feat at close quarters and to penetrate its secret interior, with its many tunnels and stairs for maintenance and surveying. Water levels are quite low at present in the great deep lakes, of which Katse and Mohale represent the first two phases of a four stage project. Another vast lake will soon be constructed. The infrastructure necessary for these gigantic works, in this dramatic crumpled terrain, is impressive, even before the big dams are built. Water level this morning was at 2045.865 metres above sea level, eight metres below the point at which the dams overflow into the Orange River, of which they are part. All the rivers in Lesotho except one flow west to the Atlantic, contrary to what you might expect, looking at the map.
And the day has ended in a silent rondavel under the African stars – all upside down and unfamiliar to me. So many new sights, experiences and humour. My body is well exercised – and so is my brain. I am tired and elated at the same time. A quite terrific day! A quiet rondavel on a Lesotho hillside, a warm night and a comfortable bed. When I blow out the paraffin lamp I doubt I will wake for hours.
DAY 14. MONDAY DECEMBER 22nd 2014. BLOEMFONTEIN. SOUTH AFRICA
By the time I reached Bloemfontein I had a red beard and the end of my nose, where the sunburn has stripped the skin already, despite sunstick, had turned black. Quite what the smart receptionist in the expensive hotel where I begged a phone call to find my friend Steven must have thought I wonder. Actually, when I said I was so tired and felt dirty, she did admit, “yes, you are black!”
On a country road, riding into the Free State away from Lesotho, a big slate blue and purple-hued storm was building in front of me. I feared I was in for a soaking as the sky changed colour, some of which was striking, especially the very odd brown colour that built up all along the western horizon. Minutes later I hit a veritable wall of wind. It was extraordinary. One moment the usual blast of riding on the big highway at 70, the next fighting with a physical force that was doing everything to push be to the left. I rode, canted at an angle for the next forty miles with trees bending before the hurricane, hanging on desperately, happy only that Bloemfontein was my destination and only a decreasing battle away, breathing in and eating a good deal of the Karoo Desert that stretches westwards for many hundreds of miles.
I was on the N1, the main north/ south toll highway that sweeps from the Zimbabwe border down to Cape Town, now 1000 kilometres away. There wasn’t much alternative for the final forty miles to Bloem, although I had found good country roads to bring me the sixty miles westwards from the Lesotho border. This is now the low-lying Orange Free State, centre of Afrikanerdom, one of the oddest parts of this continent to me. Small ‘dorps’, often where poor whites share the town with poor blacks, but seldom mix, spring up along the country roads, with strange throat-curdling sort-of-Dutch names like Verkeerdevlei and Eensgevonden. It doesn’t feel – or look – much like Africa but for the number of black people thronging the small, run-down towns and sitting huddled in the backs of white-driven bakkies. Even the white people are distinctive in their leathery skins, facial hair and bulk. These are a strange people that it’s difficult to understand, but who, beneath the gruff, hard-faced exterior have a kindness and warmth of their own. On my visits to the Free State I have come to have a very surprised liking for the Afrikaners. They are a product of their own exclusion, their strong identity and inbreeding, their long-inculcated belief in superiority to the black people and their very narrow, strict religious beliefs, upheld here to this day rigorously. Yet it has always appeared to me that they have closer understanding of and respect for their black neighbours than most of the later European, and particularly British settlers. The Boers fought alongside their black compatriots to retain and to tame the lands of the Free State for three hundred years. I find this a fascinating part of this odd country.
I opened my eyes, after a deep and silent sleep, to the underside of that thatched roof, a perfect starburst of pale poles and new thatch, and it was noon before I drew away from the hospitality of Moruti and his extended family. A lengthy breakfast, a lot of conversation and then a photo session for us all meant a late start. I hope I shall return later in my journey. I recognised in Moruti the situation of people like my dear brother Wechiga in Ghana, destined to keep the family house going for the sake of his old mother and aunt, to grow subsistence crops on the family fields and do his best as an intelligent, quite well educated young man to survive in a very changing world by his own initiative and thoughtfulness. His small tourist business really deserves to do well; I have seldom met with such solicitous, considerate kindness in a B&B owner and easy acceptance by his whole family.
It was a couple of hours to the border, through the much more populated lowlands where most Basotho dwell. Here are small busy towns full of ancient taxis and fume-spewing old trucks, vehicles stopped at random, people thronging and the occasional tousled sheep and loaded donkey adding to the confusion. This is Africa; a few miles away there are ugly, poor towns of low peeling bungalows, hundred year old stores like something from the Wild West, and ancient bakkies parked up in the searing sun in wide, potholed main streets. A few over-dressed white women shop imperiously in small, cheaply stocked shops as their leathery skinned husbands talk to a passing motorcyclist in the dust and heat exposing innate prejudices – to my admittedly oversensitive ears. “It means you’ll have to drive through the locations to get on that road… Watch out for potholes.’ ‘Locations’ are the townships that spread round the older, whiter towns, like scruffy Colcoran, expanses of small rectangular homes of block and zinc, or even shacks of reclaimed materials where the black population live. Whenever I ride through them I find the people universally friendly, but I am not encumbered by decades of inherent prejudice. Unspoken but implied (certainly inferred by me!) were the words: ” And watch out for the blacks”…
A short time later I had a minor domestic drama when I discovered that half a litre of the guava juice I had just bought had emptied itself into my bag!! Surprising how far a glass of sticky, sweet-smelling juice can go in a small bag on the back of a bounding motorbike… Fortunately, I keep all the important papers in plastic but I am destined to ride the rest of South Africa with a smelly, wrinkled map book. Everything in the bag was sticky as I mopped up with a tee shirt. It was at this point also, possessions spread on the verge that I threw most of the supermarket sandwich – five sheets of soggy, Kleenex bread, two sheets of completely tasteless orange cheese and two meagre slices of cucumber – into a field…
At the small, remote border post, Peka Bridge, one of the few Lesotho borders I haven’t passed before, I fell into conversation with Katiso, the immigration officer. A slight, very charming Basotho, who is determined that I should visit him on my next stay in Lesotho, he is on a three month contract to the government. “I am a teacher! I completed my teaching training in 1996, but there is no work for us. I worked for three years, then there was no money. I have been unemployed so much but I was fortunate, I got this employment here. But next time you come I will not be here. It’s only three months. Now I face the prospect of unemployment again!” he said with a philosophical acceptance that this is just the way things are in Africa. “Well, it is all just part of life.” With a quiet sigh. “One day I would like to see London… It’s a big city? You see, we were Basutoland; we have many links with your people. Yes, I’d like to see London…” wistfully, in the knowledge that he almost certainly never will. It is an unfair world, that I can wander at will about his lovely country, few of its deprivations impinging on me, while he has dreams that are so unlikely ever to be fulfilled.
Steven and I met in 2002. After two days completely off-road in highest Lesotho, I had reached Maseru, the capital, on my African Elephant for the first time. Suddenly I had only second gear. A small 50p spring in the gear selector, deep in the gear box, had broken. Next morning I limped through the border back to South Africa, for nothing much more than a donkey cart could be repaired in Maseru. In Ladybrand, just over the border, I met Steven on his big BMW. I threw myself upon this dangerous looking fellow – in those days looking like a Hell’s Angel, with clipped hair, chin beard, leather jerkin covered in rally badges and an Afrikaans accent you could use to chip plaster off a wall. He was kindness itself! None of his friends were available to come to fetch me with a trailer for the 75 mile run to Bloemfontein and the nearest BMW dealer. Finally, he switched off his mobile phone and looked at me questioningly. “Well, we can always ride there! I have nothing to do today.”
“But I only have second gear, how can I ride 75 miles?”
And that day – it was 32 degrees, I remember – we rode 75 miles in five hours, stopping under every tree or shred of shelter for my engine to cool, talking all the way back to Bloemfontein. A friendship was cemented. I stayed with Steven and his wife Judy for several days and visited a couple more time on that trip, and again two journeys back. Judy and Steven are now divorced and little Steven, a lovely lad of 14, is growing up – and now daring to speak English much more than two years ago when we all went to that Afrikaans biker rally together. My first, and probably last biker rally, but I was travelling, and will do anything in the spirit of the quest! Steven is still bike-mad and already full of plans for modifications to my red bike in the next few days. A thoroughly decent fellow, who appears delighted to see me again. He’s big, bluff, generous – and very Afrikaans! “Man, I was so prejudiced! But then I got this job where I am working with blacks all around me, and I’ve changed… Yes, I’ve changed my attitude.” His work has to do with mobile phone signals and masts.
So it looks like I shall be having an Afrikaans Christmas… ‘All in the spirit of the quest’, didn’t I just say?