DAY 15. TUESDAY DECEMBER 23rd 2014. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
This was a relaxed day. The last few days have been full, and I needed a bit of time to reflect on the shape of the rest of my journey, taking into account the disruption of the forthcoming side trip to America, now only a week away. I think I shall ride to Johannesburg after Christmas, hopefully leaving the bike with a cousin of Steven and, on my return, ride to Mozambique, which is of course close to Johannesburg. Southern South Africa will follow if or as time then permits.
Christmas is coming so Steven is winding down, although telecommunications never rest and his phone rings often, with problems about the region (his patch takes in about half of this huge country) that need to be fixed. But he left work at lunchtime and drove young Steven and I for lunch at a – quite good – fast food place in a mall that could have been in USA. Thronged with shoppers with large packages, it was busy with the season, thankfully, still without Bing Crosby or sleigh bells. Father Christmas was sitting, looking warm, in the children’s play area though, with black and white kids as visitors. Shopping is indeed the one activity that seems to ignore the prejudices and divisions. Maybe there is hope for unity and reconciliation in shopping? Now there’s a thought! Mind you, most of the black shoppers were obviously of the growing black middle classes…
It’s very interesting, keeping coming back to this country. It’s now twenty years since the first democratic election: those heady days of the first black president. It’s my fourth visit here, 2002, 2012, 2013, and 2014. With my racial awareness monitor always at a high pitch here, I begin to notice change at last. I’m writing in these journals much less about day to day unthinking prejudices. This isn’t my own sensitivity being blunted by so many visits I don’t think. There really is beginning to be some philosophical acceptance amongst whites that this is how it is now, and how it has to stay and even perhaps how it should have been. Crime is reducing dramatically and black and white seem to relate more comfortably. Steven himself admits that his attitude has softened as he became familiar with and worked with black people on an equal basis – created by law but increasingly becoming the accepted norm. He tells of a man he used to employ – for a time he had a paving business, mainly laying block driveways and floors. One of his workers was wise, skilled and enterprising. When Steven let go that business and went into telecommunications he employed this man as his assistant, sent him for training and increasingly worked with him as a partner, sharing the benefits from working hard together. On one occasion they were forced to find accommodation. The white guest house owner regretted that there was only one room — but it had two beds… Unthinkable only a few years ago, Steven had no difficulties to share with his employee and friend. Coming out from his shower, his black assistant, was laughing widely. “Ahhhh! If everyone could see me now! Sharing a room with Baas Steven!” Now that man still works in telecommunications and is training fellow workers. France, who is working in the garden as I write (we were late to bed so it’s now Christmas Eve), has worked for Steven for 13 years. Steven says he is now one of the family, a friend rather than a servant, and this afternoon we are to go and buy Christmas food for France and his family. This from Steven, as Afrikaner as they come.
Now I see children playing together increasingly, as schools are now open to all, even the previously exclusive white academies. I see white people treating black workers with much more politeness and less dismissiveness than a few years ago. Yes, give it another fifty years and apartheid may actually be dead…
Well, Lesotho Bloemfontein is not! It’s a spead-eagled, cosmopolitan city. Seen from above, on top of a 27 storey block of apartments and offices to which Steven has access to the roof for service to all the masts and dishes, it sprawls to every horizon, flat and green with a few small kopjies rising from the streets. It was a focus for the Boer War and was once capital, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, of the independent Boer Republic. The discovery of the immense riches of diamonds in the area – particularly in Kimberley and Jagersfontein, led to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, a war about which I know shamefully little, considering my grandfather had a medal that I found amongst the effects of Mother’s house three years ago. Doubtless, the war was about which foreigners would control the power and money that went with the stealing of land from indigenous people… A sad but true fact of colonialism – now more insidiously perpetrated by USA and China, cultural and economic colonists respectively.
Everyone here, black or white, still communicates in Afrikaans and English is actually not that widely spoken. It feels like a foreign land in many ways, separate to this day from the rest of the Republic. Bloemfontein is one of the South African capitals; this being the centre of the justice system, home of the high courts and judicial law.
Steven just told me a good story: a few years ago he was waiting at the school gate for his children, Juvan and Steven. As he waited for Juvan, little Steven played on with his mates. Suddenly all the waiting parents erupted with laughter. One of the black kids was always picked up by his father, usually an hour late. This day he turned up early. As his small son ran to the car, one of his mates shouted after him in surprise, “hey, you never told me your dad was black!”
But Steven reckons he played with more black kids, learned more black language and interacted MORE in his childhood than young Steven does today. For this he entirely blames media attention for making capital from the divisions. He also tells of the undercurrents, often kept from the media, of farm murders in which white people, often elderly and defenceless, are tortured and killed by out of control young blacks, born since reconciliation, taking revenge for imagined injustice, the powerful myth of blaming history for your own ignorance and self-imposed ills.
It's a story that is going to take a long time to tell… And my ‘insights’ are only superficial.
DAY 16. WEDNESDAY, CHRISTMAS EVE 2014. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
A very hot day, which does not aid any thoughts of a Christmas in one accustomed to northern hemisphere seasons. This afternoon the temperature reached a warm 36C (97F).
So it was really another calm day. Christmas Eve is the celebratory time here, so Steven cooked a meal of gammon, tongue, vegetables, and home made bread. Young Steven lives most of the time with his father, so we carried the dining table out onto the stoep and ate happily in the warmth of the evening.
Earlier in the day we took Steven’s bakkie to the tip. No recycling at all here in acres and acres of billowing rubbish and trash, except the recycling done by scavenging itinerants. Not a place to linger, known for robberies and attacks, for it’s not the nicest or most trustworthy citizens who hang about African waste sites. We unloaded and then took France home deep into one of the ‘locations’, to his humble house and tin shack bearing food for the family, gifts of Steven. The ‘location’ houses are modest two-roomed places that black residents get free of rent, with free services – such as they are. To get one you apply first for the plot, then the house. It all takes time and the resultant homes are basic. The concept of free housing brings with it, of course, all the debates about lack of incentive to work for better conditions, laziness, acceptance of welfare – and a certain resentment and dismissal by the white population, who largely have to work for and pay for their privileges, better though they are. Of course, it is the middle classes – which includes the majority (but not all – I do see white poverty around as well) of white South Africans, who pay taxes… I do begin to understand that there are many levels to the socio-political situation in this odd land. I only scratch the surface with my own liberal morality and championing of the indigenous under dog…
First to be supplied to every plot on the government housing schemes is a pit latrine and sink, long before homes are constructed. A small patch is allowed for each qualifying family and sometimes the block house may not arrive for years, during which homemade shacks suffice. Road , drainage and water infrastructure are quite impressive, especially to one accustomed to West Africa…
DAY 17. THURSDAY, CHRISTMAS DAY 2014. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
Christmas in the sun – and how. Steven suggested an excursion to a rocky canyon near Fouriesburg, on the top left corner of Lesotho and the start of the South African Drakensburg Mountains that encircle the top of Lesotho. It meant a journey of 300Kms each way, but going in the car was relaxing for me at least. Young Steven, a fourteen year old delight, came along with us. We stopped at Ladybrand and took a photograph outside the butchery shop where Steven and I met almost exactly 12 years ago.
At Meeirngskloof we clambered about the red sandstone cleft, finding large overhanging caverns carved by the water in past times. Our hike included a hairy forty foot chain ladder up a cliff. Frequently Steven, who knows his terrain so well from visiting remote microwave towers on top of distant outcrops and mountains, terrifies me with stories of the snakes, spiders and scorpions that abound in this hot region, many of them nasty things with which I hope to avoid contact!
This is an abundant fruit season and we took along water melon, grapes, pineapples and nectarines. I took along a chunk of extraordinarily rich – and excellent – fruit cake, made by my neighbour, Pat Mills, in Harberton that I most amusingly won at the Christmas Fair a few weeks ago. It was my one concession to Christmas here in the scorching sun, and we shared it atop a sharp mountain escarpment, well inside the gates to one of Steven’s towers overlooking a fabulous, expansive view of green veldt, the town of Frickburg and on to the blue ridges of Lesotho. Someone please wish Pat Happy Christmas!
Here at midday the sun is almost exactly overhead. It burns down fiercely and saps a good deal of my energy. I find myself sleeping for eight to nine hours at present and surprisingly lethargic (not like me!) through these hot days. There’s no stress and I am on the road, so anything goes…
A good Christmas excursion – with not one reminder of the commercial festival we have created.
DAY 18. FRIDAY, BOXING DAY 2014. BLOEMFONTEIN. SOUTH AFRICA.
Not a great deal to say about a day like today. I have done very little and not left the house all day. Steven and I worked for a time on my red bike – he is very impressed with its condition – but he never seems to off duty from his work. Even yesterday his phone was constantly ringing as he organised repair teams to keep the nation’s communications going. Today, just as we were about to ride out for a snack, he announced that he would have to leave and drive to the Transkei in Eastern Cape, not less than three hours away. With many apologies he drove away leaving me to look after myself, with young Steven out and about on his BMX bike until early evening.
Steven rents a decent three-bedroom bungalow in a quiet residential district of this large city, the nation’s fourth largest. The property has a large garden, double garage and double car port. He doesn’t employ a maid, only France, the gardener and handyman. I undertook a few maidly duties round the house while he was out this morning. Least I could do for several days in which he has not permitted me to pay for anything
My forthcoming trip to America really is screwing up my southern African journey. But for that I would probably be on my way south towards the Cape and new travels, probably tomorrow. As it is, I shall be heading completely the other way and killing time to fit in with airline schedules. It’s probably costing me about three or even four weeks of my holiday. But then, it will pay for quite a lot of it too! I suppose I shouldn’t complain.
Well, a few days of deep relaxation isn’t actually bad! The extreme heat slows me down too. Next week will be so busy I may look back on this with some nostalgia…
DAY 19. SATURDAY DECEMBER 27th 2014. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
Certainly a day to stay put, which I did. A chilly, rainswept day after the last few scorching days. It all started in the night with thunderstorms and continued through the day. We chatted, Steven slept, I read. The rain lashed down. In the evening we went for pancakes with a friend of Steven’s in an old family house from the 1930s.
Many of Steven’s friends are deeply Christian, and the religious streak is very strong amongst the Afrikaners. Grace is always said and many of the bikers with whom I talk have badges and stickers that suggest Jesus has a large ownership of motorbikes in South Africa. Religion, a fairly fundamental, evangelistic strain of it, is prevalent in the Free State. It underpins a lot of Afrikaans life. Steven himself, ‘Rides for the Son’.
DAY 20. SUNDAY DECEMBER 28th 2014. PARYS, SOUTH AFRICA
A couple of years ago I had a lot of difficulty finding Parys. I was asking directions all over – and pronouncing it like the capital of France… It is actually ‘Per Ice’. It is a town about 100 Kms south west of Johannesburg, my next stop. It’s convenient for me to stay over here and attack one of Africa’s largest cities in the morning.
It took a long time to get away from Bloemfontein. It’s not easy getting back into the travel mode after a relaxed period in which I have relinquished responsibility for my journey to someone else. Now I must get back to self-motivation and making all the tiny decisions that make up a journey. So it was noon before Steven left me, at the toll booth on a main highway to the north, a few miles from Bloemfontein.
Steven is such a decent man! He is big and deeply Afrikaans, but also very quiet and generously good-hearted. He seems to be genuinely delighted that I come to stay; keeping on thanking me for my visit. He is a charming fellow and it was good fortune for me the day I met him in 2002. I shall be back later in my journey: he has agreed to store the red bike for me for as long as I wish, possibly, in the fullness of time, buying it from me for young Steven, who’ll be wanting his own bike in a year or two. So it looks likely that this trip will end in Bloemfontein, as accessible for Johannesburg airport as Durban. With Lesotho so close, it will be the start of the next one that I make down here too…
On a glorious sunny afternoon I rode 200 miles northwards, much of the journey on some minor highways that were not very interesting. The landscape is huge and rather flat, stretching away to the far distant horizon; gigantic fields and grazing lands dotted with beef herds and occasional game animals, large antelopes of various sorts and the ever-amusing ostriches. I saw one pair with three chicks by the roadside. Chicks suggests something small and furry. These were ungainly bundles of brown feathers on tall grey legs, about the size of a small armchair! Ostriches always make me chuckle. They rush away in disgust at the motorbike, all offended and flapping: their tiny heads wobbling atop the long necks. Their brains are somewhat smaller than one of their eyes.
I was glad to reach Parys and eventually find a room in a sort of chalet development beside the pretty Vaal River, here perhaps a quarter of a mile wide as it ripples and tumbles between numerous rocks and small green islets, spanned by a long low bridge, beside which is this pleasant place with tidy lawns sloping to the banks. Families were enjoying the green slopes, children bathing in the shallows. I took a small single en suite room for £18.50.
One of the worst trials of the lone traveller is to feel below par. For twenty four hours I have been fighting raging toothache (I should be accustomed to it by now…). By the time I got here it was weighing on me heavily. Finding a meal tonight would have been difficult even if I were less handicapped. Parys on sunday night is a bit like Wales used to be – closed up! No way was a fast food steak house suitable, nor a pizza…. In the end I found a slightly grim Chinese for gobbets of mono sodium glutamate with rice. At least you can swallow that food without the need to chew! I eat to live on my journeys and I expect to make it through another night, despite the cuisine and toothache. I have espied the town dentist and will throw myself upon her in the morning in the hope that a cash extraction for passing tourist will be an attractive prospect for her! Meanwhile some painkillers seem to be keeping the pain at bearable levels.
Around Parys is the start of the mineral wealth of South Africa. The Gauteng Region is home to many of the gold and diamond mines that make this country rich. There’s also a lot of ugly coal extraction in this rather ugly, heavily populated zone of the country and tomorrow will see me fighting it out with large double-trailered behemoths that beat the roads to ridges and holes. Riding round here is not attractive…
DAY 21. MONDAY DECEMBER 29th 2014. JOHANNESBURG. SOUTH AFRICA
When I think back..! The Hotel Jardin remains a landmark of squalor and one of the lowest points in a life of impecunious travel. It was in a scruffy, rain-sodden town on the Gulf of Mexico. As soon as I begin to think of it, of course, other similarly foul overnight abodes come to mind – but maybe none quite as low as the ‘Garden Hotel’ with its mud yard, tin-roofed cubicles and rats. It was only the fact that the other dwellers were without exception poverty stricken Mexican Indians, and I felt that I would immediately lose the small respect I had gained for my equality with them, that made me stay that night.
And it’s useful to have a measure of just how low you can go. It gives reference points when you start to live it up a bit more! And I intend to make the very most of the next few days, I really do! I will be as if to the manner born. It starts tonight. Tonight’s hotel is facelessly smart and could be anywhere. Actually, it is across the road from Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo Airport. By international standards it’s not expensive – at £46 – but my standards are different. Most of my southern African hotels are less than a third of that. The Hotel Jardin was less than one dollar…
Yes, I am having fun! There’s a slight overtone of being a bit naughty, I suppose… This ‘side trip’ to USA is crazy. It is very disruptive of my journey, probably taking at least two and a half weeks, not the eleven actual days that it is in reality. I have changed my plans completely; I spend days like today, when I would have been on the road, killing time in a city I don’t want to be in; I will travel back to the cold I came to avoid; I will have to pick up my trip as and how I can on my return. But I decided to make it work for me for once. In November this potential project first came up and I said I would fly to Boston post haste, before I flew south. I’d have gone for my fare alone, not even a fee – and cattle class at that for the seven hours across the Atlantic. So, when the first email I got in South Africa, having flown eleven hours in the wrong direction, asked me to go to USA, I thought, ‘OK, but on my terms!’
Tomorrow, for the first time in a life which has included a LOT of flying – (2013 alone saw me take 57 flights) – I am flying Business Class half way around the world!! Wowee! And back in ten days too. I intend to ENJOY it. Hence I find myself in a bland but comfortable hotel. I shall leave my old red bike out in the car park for eleven days, put my dust-stained bags and old boots and helmet in storage and head for another continent. Hah! What fun!
Up early in Parys, I rode out and found all the dentists closed until January 5th. “Yeah, Parys is a bit laid back…” admitted a passer-by. A sign on the door gave a telephone number for an alternative dentist in Potchefstroom, thirty miles away. I phoned and made an appointment for 11.00 and rode across the expansive, flat farming lands of the province, astonished at the sheer size of the fields and emptiness of the landscape.
Dr Du Toit was a burly, jovial fellow. “Dennis…” he introduced himself, with the huge, damaging handshakes I have come to expect from Afrikaans men (probably not much less dangerous from the women…). His nurse, a silent wraith of a woman, appeared to be dressed in a negligee, flounced with lacy straps and drifting ethereally about the surgery. But Dennis laid me back in the chair and injected me with a gallon of anaesthetic, or so it seemed – it took four hours or more to go off. The surgery ceiling was decorated with children’s drawings and paintings. How often I have suggested to dentists that they should decorate their ceilings, but this was a first. “So you’re touring? Where are you from?” He waited until my mouth was free of fingers and hypodermics. “England… Which part?”
“Well, Devon. I used to live in Yorkshire…”
“York-shire..? Not York? Now that’s a fine city! They have that thing there… Near the cathedral… It’s a sort of diggings… You know, you go around underground in a sort of little car. Why, it even has the real smells! What’s it called..?”
“Oorvik iking enner!” His hands in my mouth, I was gesticulating at myself, “Gooeer… Uuurrrm… eee!” It was a few moments before I made sense. Half a lifetime ago – literally, I designed that damned Jorvik Viking Centre and it frequently still comes back to haunt me – even in a dentist’s chair in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Dennis was doubly impressed. Today he had in his chair the designer of something he remembers from a couple of decades ago as a highlight of a trip to England – and he had Mr Bean as well…
“Auch! That’s no good to you! It’s past it’s useful life!” he said of my tooth, whisking it out nimbly and cheerfully. “There,” he said, dropping it into a little plastic box shaped like a treasure chest, you can use the gold to make something small for someone special!” I enjoyed his humorous flourish. I imagine he is a good dentist with children.
Well, it was either extraction or a course of the antibiotics my Yorkshire dentist always sends me travelling with (for gum infections are my weakness) – and that would have meant a week without beer. Extraction was vastly preferable!
The bill came to a grand £17. My dentist in Totnes, definitely in the business for the money, charges me £49 to open his front door and walk on his polished oak floors or sit on the tasteful grey upholstery…
By noon I was riding east again, to approach Johannesburg. I had apprehensions about the journey – unfounded as it happened. I found my way without any trouble on the major highways and ten lane roads of Africa’s second biggest city. (I hear your question: Lagos). I had booked the Protea Hotel on line. I will return here from Boston too. I’ve a ‘business room’ on the fifth floor with a bed of American proportions and a bizarre glass-shrouded shower in the room itself. I rested a while, took a ride round the vicinity to find it typical airport-suburb stuff of no interest, and Johannesburg a busy ten miles away – and returned to doze on a comfortable lounger by a pool. A multi-laned highway roared by over the fence and aeroplanes jockeyed and thundered behind it; the smell of aero fuel didn’t add to the exoticism of the place, despite the warm sun, the trickling water and the glasses of milk stout.
My mouth came round and I raced upstairs for the painkillers. It struck me as I dozed that the gold in my tooth may well have come out of the ground not far away, and been transported many miles in my mouth to return to Gauteng Province. Odd thought.
So tomorrow a day in Johannesburg followed by a night on a plane. Checking in just now online, I noticed that there are only six business class passengers in the cabin for the ten hour flight back to Amsterdam. Cattle class, however, was fully booked apart from a few trapped, centre row seats, even back when I booked. This is one of the busiest, most expensive weeks of the year to fly…
I will see in 2015 in Providence, Rhode Island. A charmed life? Haha! Don’t I always say: half the fun of travelling is never to know what tomorrow will bring?