2015 – SOUTHERN AFRICA JOURNAL 5

It’s been a long time since I updated this journal. This entry includes my ‘side trip’ to USA, that severely disrupted my African travels! But I am back on the bike now, riding north up the side of the Indian Ocean….

DAY 32. FRIDAY JANUARY 9th 2015. FLYING EASTWARDS TOWARDS THE SUNSHINE.

I am going to deal with the whole nine days of my USA trip as one entry. Not often do I miss writing my diary, but this has been a FULL nine days.

I don’t actually LIKE champagne much – but sometimes one has to suffer things that one doesn’t like a lot just to live in the moment! Oh, the suffering…

It’s a little pathetic, I suppose, to be so impressed by the suspect surface glitz of feeling like a ‘jet-setter’ (itself an indication of my generation, I guess, since most of us are now!) but it’s indicative of my mood at the moment, sitting in Business Class with a glass of bubbly…

About half an hour (‘a half hour’ as the Yanks’d say) into my journey from Boston to Detroit (OK! So I know that’s the wrong way to go to Europe) I chuckled at the Bill Bryson I was reading, glanced out of the window (‘out the window’) of the plane at brilliant, dazzling sunshine (Yeah, I was at 30,000 feet!) and a big silly smile spread over my face. Then the cabin attendant brought me a second Sam Adams beer – unrequested (well, I was in seat 1A…). Arvo Part’s ‘Credo’, loud on my headphones – the sort of theatrically structured music I love – and I had another of those wonderful ‘I’m here’ moments – the moments of thrill for which I travel. Detroit looked like a giant urban crossword puzzle, all black and white squares. The iced Great Lakes grey in the background.

I am ‘on the road’ once more – (so, it’s a 30,000-foot-high road over a tightly graphic monochromatic landscape of snow and ice with an occasional blinding ribbon of silver reflection) – on my way back to new horizons, with the added boost that I seem, at the grand age of 65, to be finding that place creatively where I should have arrived a few years ago. It DOES feel somehow satisfying to be jetting about the world in Business Class because people actually want to listen to me and value my opinions and creative skills.

Yeah, I am happy and having so much fun. Just shows: you can bullshit most of the people most of the time. If you do it with a smile on your face.

But, know what? I shall be SO happy to be back amongst Africans!

*

It’s ten days since I was here, tapping my journal on the amazing iPad. Busy days, indeed. Satisfying as well, though, even if I miss the sun and warmth that I left England to find for the winter. There’s been little time or energy to fill in the details of my crowded work period in USA – one that looks likely to pay for several more trips, in better comfort, to the fascinating continent – Africa, that is, not mundane North America, to which this was my 37th visit. (That, alone, is 74 crossings of the Atlantic! 26 visits to the African continent, hopefully to increase).

Well, I have been working hard for my money, reasonably generous though that is, in my parsimonious career. Seven long days of creative brain-storming and frantic production of what Americans call ‘deliverables’: concept sketches and words, and a lot of impressing clients with our collective genius.

It was New Year’s Eve when I arrived, fresher than ever before, despite the two long journeys: ten hours followed by over seven hours in the air. I really do believe that for trips such as this there is a real argument to support the decadence of Business Class. Although I had flown seven time zones backwards, I was, within less than a day, fresh and raring to go and enjoy myself. Oh, and to work.

A biting wind met me, after my eight minute transit from the aircraft door to the street outside – the value of travelling so lightly. The weather in Boston/ Providence has been poisonously cold, complete with snow on the ‘warmer’ days. One day the feels-like temperature hit minus 23 degrees Celsius.

January 1st was my rest day. The only one. I collected a rental car – from now on a prerequisite of my American trips. Bill Bryson tells me that a study by the University of California found that 85% of Americans are ‘essentially sedentary’ and 35% ‘totally sedentary’. The average American walks less than 75 miles a year, about 1.4 miles a week or 350 yards a day! It is very difficult to rely on public transport and a lot of towns don’t even bother to supply pavements – so a car it is from now on.

By the second of the year, I was at work, work that filled the following week.

Let me describe the reason I came to USA.

My first email received in South Africa, you will remember, asked if I could come to meet a new client with an extraordinary collection of historic vehicles. My reply was, yes, but it won’t be comfortable for me – or cheap… It’s one of the busiest travel periods of the year. All flights were pretty full and the only seats available were central rows on big jets for the two crippling journeys. It was at that point that I added $1000 to my estimated budget!

Since 2008, Bob, the owner of Boston Productions, and I have developed a close working relationship. He admitted last week that BPI is getting a lot of work: it’s a successful company. And much of the work it is getting, he said, is on the back of the projects that he and I have done together! He comes from a theatre background – and I probably should have done too. Oddly, way back when I was selecting a direction to continue after my foundation course at art school, I instinctively opted for theatre design, applied to two London colleges and was rejected by both – probably because I had no idea what theatre design even implied. Funny that a decade later that is the way my ‘career’, if you can call my lurching directions such a thing, began to move.

Bob and I have created together a number of story telling theatrical, historical exhibits, computer controlled with effects, film, sound and a lot of magic. It seems that almost no one else in USA has this approach to dramatic story telling in a museum context. BPI has been winning awards and plaudits for our work.

Now we look to be about to create up to five theatres in the Colling Foundation collection in Stow, Massachusetts, a little west of Boston in a charming rural setting in New England. On my second fay I drove out, down increasingly rural lanes, to Stow to meet the clients, Bob and son, Rob, Colling at their farm cum museum cum airstrip cum educational foundation. Recently, they have absorbed a vast collection of military vehicles from a collector in Silicon Valley who died, and whose family has presented the Colling Foundation with much of the collection. It’s pretty impressive! (But not as delightful as the antique cars and aeroplanes). A new building will be constructed this year to house and display the tanks, armoured cars, guns and miscellaneous military vehicles. It is our job to interpret and display the collection in a way that will interest the general public while satisfying the ‘anoraks’. A challenge and an enjoyable theatrical experience. (I rather hope to get some flights in those old aircraft!). We have suggested five theatres: an introduction to the changing face of mechanised warfare in the 20th century; a First World War trench; the Return of War Clouds, that is, the rise of Nazism, leading up to Pearl Harbour and the entry of the Americans into World War Two. Then we have a theatre about the restructuring of American production into making weapons of war and another that will deal with the Gulf War. All that and ideas about the contextual display of working tanks and military vehicles in a vast hangar-like building, bearing in mind that almost all the vehicles are in working order and will often be extracted from the displays to fight mock battles and re-enactments, a curiously American obsession.

Bob and Rob, our clients, are dedicated collectors! Our role in all this is to bring our exhibit skills to their collection. It’s a huge project and one that looks as if it could keep me occupied for much of the next twelve to eighteen months.

How do I feel about that..?

The ‘who needs whom’ relationship has changed between me and BPI – and this sort of work. I am now entering my ‘Third Age’ – not that I’ve done with one and two yet! (haha!) and don’t really NEED work in the way that I used to. My Harberton odd-job career can fill in the gaps in my income adequately, along with rental from my ‘other’ house. Who’d have thought that I, disinterested for so many years in capitalistic enhancement of my financial status, would now own two houses – a quirk, of course, of the extraordinary fortune of the Baby Boomer generation, to the cost of all those following us. Maybe the luckiest generation in British history…

So, I have to think long and hard, as I ride about Mozambique and Zimbabwe (whoopee!) about how I want to work on this project. I don’t want to put my personal life on hold for months on end and live in Stow, Massachusetts, mixing cement and blathered in paint! I want to be the ‘design director’ now. On the other hand, I acknowledge that jobs like this will keep me in the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed: impecunious African travels, the delights of Harberton and all the beer I want! It could even restore my old African Elephant for more motorbike journeys in Africa! And I could go to Lesotho as often as I wish…

*

There’s another project in the offing too, about which I met other clients on thursday. I can’t say much about that yet, but it would involve constructing a vast detailed model of parts of 18th century London (built in England!) for a camera to ‘fly’ through for a feature film. Now THAT sounds like fun!

Well, it’s been a full visit. Nine busy days out of my southern African trip. Now I want to get back to that from these frozen wastes. This morning I drove my car to the airport in a blizzard; two days ago the temperatures plunged to a lethal minus twenty something. Walking in my African style cotton trousers was like wearing shorts, well, actually, like wearing no trousers at all! I want to get back to the warmth and sun. It is white here, icy-chill – everything I left England to avoid…

I’m on my way there now, thrusting along a snowy runway, with de-icer flushing along the fuselage, into the skies over Detroit. In eight hours I will be in Amsterdam and another ten hours from there to Johannesburg and my red bike, standing in the sun-bleached car park of the airport Protea Hotel! New places to go; new things to see; new people to meet.

DAYS 33 and 34. SATURDAY and SUNDAY JANUARY 10/11 2015. JOHANNESBURG and eMALAHLENI. SOUTH AFRICA.

The lower case ‘e’ in the place name above, which I cannot pronounce, is intentional. But I can’t explain it! It’s sometimes that way with South African names.

Well, I am back in the reality of Africa at last. Not missing the frozen wastes, either. What a relief it was to discard the layers of clothing last night, even as I walked through the airport.

Today, sunday, I am weary and stiff. Imagine how I would have been had I been squeezed into insultingly meagre seats in Cattle Class! If this is how I arrive from twenty hours in the air in relative comfort – at least I could stretch out – I can only wonder at the state I’d be in. It would take days to recover. I noticed that difference particularly about my journey: after a night’s sleep each way I was just about ready to go. I used to say I wouldn’t fly Business Class even if I could afford it. I now retract that statement – wholeheartedly! Just give me a chance.

From Boston to Detroit to Amsterdam to Johannesburg… Three continents in twenty four hours. All that recycled air, all those meals (not bad up front! Proper cooked meals – on plates), all that sitting, all that waiting for time to pass… And it does, eventually. Two sleeping pills inside me and I managed about an hour’s dozing, to wake somewhere over Worcestershire en route for Amsterdam. A four hour wait – in the pleasant KLM lounge – and then the ten and a half hour flight south, much of it in a dozy state.

At Johannesburg, long legs and travelling micro-light, I was first off the aeroplane and into immigration; out in the shuttle bus area within fifteen minutes and soon back to the rather plush Protea Hotel where I had to find the confirmation of my room price on my iPad, for even Lerato, the charming front desk manager, with her expertly braided hair in neat furrows, said she had: “never seen this rate before! You are LUCKY!” I had a half-price room! Then, to add to my amusement, when I asked for a room on the quiet side of the hotel, away from the airport and intervening highway, as I had requested on my booking, I had to be upgraded to a better room! My lucky day. I could see my red bike below in the car park. I opened the window to the warm night, hung the ‘Do not disturb’ sign on the door (and my washing over the windowsill of course! However swish the hotel…), put in my earplugs and slept until ten this morning.

Life was good.

*

eMalahleni – complete with little e – was Witbank before the restructuring of South Africa, that gave back a lot of ethnically African names to places. It’s a town that doesn’t make the guide books, despite it being a city in size, with little evidence of a white population. It’s about 120 miles east of Johannesburg, deep in one of the uglier parts of this country, where I spent an hour lost on minor roads amongst open cast coal pits and power stations, on roads pounded by long trucks with gritty-wind tipper containers bouncing along behind them, sandblasting my cheeks. I’d selected, at random, a small town called Ogies for my night’s stay, for sign boards advertised all sorts of accommodation from miles distant. A very cursory ride round Ogies determined me to ride on to the next big city, where the coal pit demeanour might be a bit less overt. So it was that I found myself riding many kilometres round this much greener city searching for a room. Nothing attractive caught my eye in several kilometres of wandering suburban streets. This is the least enjoyable part of my day… I tried two places but found them unwarrantably expensive and only by asking for recommendations to somewhere cheaper did I find this place, unmarked down a side street. It was the friendliness of Spusiso (meaning: Blessing) that persuaded me to stay. He’s the caretaker of what is essentially a suburban bungalow with a few rooms set aside for visitors. I chose a set of small rooms opening onto the rear driveway. They have a zinc roof and the attendant warmth, but I love the sensation of that dry warmth on my skin as I sit here on the bed writing. My American colleagues would be appalled at the lack of air conditioning! None of them would visit my room, I remember, in a smart hotel in Wisconsin where I had turned off the air-con, crept the widow open by the six inches allowed by health and safety and let the warmth build to the outside 82ish degrees! Goodness, I slept well – and healthier than any of them in their chilled, recycled rooms…

*

So here I am, weary and stiff still, but attempting to recapture the essence of my journey. It’ll take a day or two, and the environs of Johannesburg would test anyone’s spirit at the best of times. I began to catch the feeling again this evening.

Around the corner, Spusiso told me, was a cafe. The streets by now, soon after dark, were thronged with wandering people (all black-skinned) and astonishingly noisy cars with rather silly lights and hugely vibrating bass speakers that must have all-over massaged their drivers. The bass notes from one small car must have been shaking the entire neighbourhood! I’m surprised it didn’t vibrate off the road. It certainly shook my cafe, drowning out the awful pumping and wailing of a rather inept brass band exuding from a church service on TV, in which a chorus of weighty women in red and brown dresses and odd hats gyrated and rocked with tambourines.

The only white person visible, I opted for pap and chicken. “Take away?” called the tubby woman behind the hatch, a little astonished to have a white customer for what is essentially very African food. “No! To eat here. So you’d better make it good!” I joked, to peals of cheerful laughter. It is so easy to make people laugh here. They are sadly so inured to being separated from white people that any interaction with a smile and a joke excites them unproportionately.

Pap is the ball of stodge so commonly eaten in one form or another all over the continent, in this case a heavy dough of maize meal. It is the base of most meals here for the indigenous people. It came with mashed pumpkin and a delicious stew of tomatoes, onions and herbs. I ate with my right hand. I don’t like eating with my fingers: I never liked to have grease on my hands (another reason I don’t like bike mechanics!), but when in Rome you garner a lot of respect for behaving like a native. The two tubby ladies watched surreptitiously from their hatch, raising a big chuckle and a thumbs up when I caught them watching. It was a good, nutritious meal – for a couple of pounds. I walked it off in the dark Sunday evening streets for a bit, thinking to myself that this is what everyone (every-white-one, I should qualify) warns me is so dangerous. It’s just Africa: a bit noisy, a bit exuberant, a bit natural, a lot of fun… (And a lot less vulgar, squalid, drunken and ‘dangerous’ than a lot of British cities at night…) How much white South Africans miss by not embracing the culture in which they live and trying to impose on it the reserve, the restraints, the greyness of what they mistakenly think of as ‘civilised behaviour’!

*

An illuminating question from Spusiso, with great concern on his open, smiling face – now with a frown of complete puzzlement: “So you mean, that for the next eight or nine weeks you won’t be able to attend church..?”

Some things are better unsaid.

Now, to sleep in Africa, no bed cover necessary. Two days ago I was in minus twenty-some… Haha!

DAY 35 MONDAY 12th JANUARY 2015. WHITE RIVER. SOUTH AFRICA

My day began in irritable mood, despite good sleep. My initial annoyance stemmed from trying to get malaria pills from various pharmacies, to be told that I must have a doctor’s prescription – price £17 – if I could find a doctor to write it – who wouldn’t know me from Adam and would make the quickest 300 Rand of his day’s work. I decided to delay the process, having tried various chemists and a surgery. I rode out of town onto the boring motorway through immense scenery under a vast sky, but a landscape littered with all the detritus of distant coal-fired power stations, an ugly highway and grit-flinging wagons. Then it began to rain: sharp needles of water beating my face along with the spray and grit at 70mph. My mood deteriorated…

Just short of the next – expensive – toll booth I made an illegal U turn on the motorway (the roads are so empty and lightly used that you can do that sort of thing in South Africa). The prospect of paying another £4 to ride on a road I wasn’t enjoying was just too much. I turned south onto a fine sweeping road and headed toward Badplaas. Immediately my mood improved. There was no traffic and the scenery closed in as if the giant hand of nature had crumpled the veldt into fine valleys and very green hillsides. It took me forty miles out of my way but became increasingly lovely. At Badplaas I turned east again and entered soaring mountains closely covered by pine, fir and eucalyptus plantations the size of a small country. The vistas were fine and the gentle, soft smell of pine filled the air as I sped along on my way through empty mountain passes, with views towards the mountains of Swaziland and the Kruger Park.

White River was my destination tonight, the home of Frank, Steven’s (Bloemfontein) father and his partner, Linda. They had kindly offered me a night’s accommodation and rest. I was to call Frank when I reached the town. Spotting a bookshop and cafe on a corner I stopped. I bought a couple of second hand guides to Mozambique and bemoaned the ridiculous situation about obtaining malaria prophylactics on the edge of a known malarial area with the proprietor. “Talk to the pharmacy next door! The sister there may help you, ” she suggested. Leaving my coffee on the table outside the bookshop, I did just that – and shortly thereafter had my malaria pills and had parted with £72, most of it to Glaxo-Smith-Kline in the process. Interestingly, last year I took malaria pills in eastern Zimbabwe and they gave me bad dreams the day after I took each weekly dose. The nurse phoned a doctor for me, who suggested that I am now probably immune to the Lariam that I normally take, and having once had cerebral malaria this was probably the cause of my nightmares, a known side effect. Now I have a dose of something else…

*

Frank arrived to meet me and guide me back to his small house outside town. It’s down a rural track in a compound of six simple homes surrounded by the usual ‘devil’s fork’ fencing and barbed wire. It was Steven who pointed out the irony that most churches are now protected by ‘Devil’s fork’ fencing, the three-pronged security barriers…

Frank, a wiry, leathery-skinned man of 68 and Linda, his partner of some years, live a simple life, scratching a living on meagre pensions (about the same per month both together as mine per week and somewhat less than their rent) by making preserves and pickles and ginger beer. Frank sells these at a roadside stall and they supply a few local cafes and restaurants. Like so many whites, they bemoan the direction ‘their’ country is taking, basically being ruined by the black government. Mind you, there is some justification when you hear that in a recent survey the leader of this poverty stricken nation, is the third highest paid leader in the world.

*

If you’ve read this far, you will understand a few things about me: I love the unpredictability of travel and I have rather liberal, left wing views about the equal rights of my fellow men and women. So I always find it so difficult to accept prejudice. But, of course, I just ride through, smiling at everyone and seeing the best in everyone. But amongst Afrikaans people and white people I meet with so much ugly, unthinking prejudice.

“I’m not a racist, just a realist,” are eight words that actually define racism so far as I can see. Inherent in that phrase are all the prejudices required to colour completely one’s view of one’s fellow. Not until people can grow together and realise that the outer millimetre of skin doesn’t denote goodness or evil will anything change. It’s not the black skin that makes someone evil; it is their disposition and upbringing; and their mistaken belief that people with a white skin represent a worthless enemy. It’s the grudge of ignorance: the need to blame someone for your own ills; so easily fed by material poverty; difference between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’; unscrupulous politicians; encouraged by religion, that ‘my religion is of more moral worth than yours’; and the belief that ‘taking by force what, by rights, is mine’ is justified. The world media propagates the divisions. Who the hell needs ’24 hour news’, wall to wall tabloid excitement?

Some of the people to whom I am closest in the world have black skins – but I don’t see their colour. I don’t classify them by that, but by their acts and qualities. Sadly, some of the younger population of this country ARE out of control, have grievances that they blame on acts of the past that they didn’t even experience. But it’s not their blackness or whiteness that makes them good or bad. It is greed, lawlessness and lack of conscience and imagination and a need to apportion blame. The roots of all evil.

So I bridle when I hear unwarranted prejudice – but then my son wasn’t shot and killed by a black gang, probably for a meagre amount of money or property. But logically, it wasn’t their black skin that caused their evil.

Linda and Frank are kind, decent people – just living in the wrong country, a country where prejudice spreads like a disease. I find it very sad, for I KNOW that ninety nine percent of people everywhere just want the same things: a peaceful life, love, comfort and good health. How will this country ever resolve its problems? Not for many generations, I fear. The past holds too much anger and meanness. ‘Whites’ invented the poisonous apartheid and ‘whites’ will be blamed for that for a long, long time.

Over the weeks I have heard it all: “I wouldn’t sleep in those cheap hotels. You don’t know who slept in the beds before. Those Blacks…”; “Not in my kitchen! I want things done cleanly and properly.”; “I can’t give the Blacks the TV remotes in my guest house. They destroy the TVs and I have to get the repair man in.” as if black skin makes you dirty or stupid. As if a black millimetre of skin is a reason to judge most of the people most of the time. Or anyone, ever.

Maybe I’m just naive…

*

So I find myself sharing the living room – Frank and Linda’s bungalow is one bedroomed – with a grey parrot that speaks Afrikaans, and a burbling fish tank. A peacock stands on the roof and the drizzle whispers on the zinc. I love the eccentricities of life!

*

I was most amused to receive the Harberton Circular, the excellent email that keeps the village in touch with what’s going on. At Christmas I ate a piece of my neighbour Pat Mills’ Christmas cake that I had won at the village Christmas fair. Steven took a photo and I posted it on the circular with the question: ‘Is this Harberton’s furthest travelled piece of Christmas cake?’ Today, in reply, Pat’s grandson, who lives in Costa Rica, has posted a picture of himself paddling out on a surf board off the coast eating a piece of Pat’s cake! He reckons I may beat him by 400 miles or so. But I do feel upstaged! Haha!

DAY 36. TUESDAY JANUARY 13th 2015. PIGGS PEAK, SWAZILAND

In minutes, over an insignificant border in the backwoods, I was back in a country where people greet me as an equal, talk and laugh with me without reserve. Children waved, youths gave me thumbs up, people smiled. I represent nothing but another human being enjoying myself, with a smile on my face. The immigration man chattered (his colleague shaking his head and signalling to me behind his back at his volubility, such that it was difficult to keep a straight face!). The police who stopped me to look at my licence – as they periodically do in Swaziland – advised me on accommodation and wanted to know about my journey. The girls in the hotel that I eventually found joke and laugh with me as an eccentric elder, but not one seen as from another race, different maybe – but equal.

*

I am back in Swaziland. Like Lesotho, a little kingdom with great identity that avoided the taint of apartheid. Once another British protectorate, now an independent country with a distinct character – and at ease with itself. It’s good to come back and feel that ‘Africanness’. This time it’s just an interesting staging post on my way to Mozambique for a few days. I will enter that country at a lesser border post than the main highway from South Africa.

*

One of southern Africa’s loveliest roads is that from the South African gold rush town of Barberton over the small border crossing at Bulumbu into Swaziland. Barberton, site of South Africa’s earliest stock exchange and a historical town from Victorian times, sits at the foot of a steep mountain range. Quickly the road rises from the green rolling landscape and winds into the highlands. The road is empty. I recollect that a few years ago I was the last person through the border post as it closed for the day – and the thirteenth vehicle to pass. The road also forms an interesting geological trail, well laid out and informative, with many well interpreted stops, for here are some of the earliest rocks known on earth. They display the earliest fossil life forms and tell an extraordinary three and a half billion year-plus story. The gold still mined hereabouts is said to be the oldest in the world. All this and a totally empty sweeping road through some of South Africa’s finest scenery, softly contoured green hills of considerable scale, almost sensually curvaceous. I rode thirty miles and saw no vehicles.

On the Swazi side of the mountains the road deteriorates to rock and gravel but sweeps through vast coniferous plantations, plunging into deep valleys. It is magnificent, and the reason I rode this way, even though I arrived in Pigg’s Peak with a red beard again from dust. But the smile was back on my face!

At the junction with the tarred road in this straggling town that serves the plantations I made a bad decision. I turned left, to ride northwards, a road that would take me towards Mozambique. I was looking for accommodation, as usual the most stressful part of my day. Apart from a £45 hotel, nothing appeared. At last, a police check point stopped me and I learned that unless I rode another forty miles, I would find no bed for the night. It was better to turn round and hammer back the twenty miles to Pigg’s Peak. Here I found a pub/ hotel with a great sunset view, called the Highland’s Inn.

*

On my journey from White River to Barberton I stopped at the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Eden, a well set up park for rescued chimpanzees. It was worth the detour for the driveway, deep into the hills, where impala and baboons watched my passage, but the giraffes evaded my view. Most Europeans come to Africa to view animals – the chimpanzee rescue place is strategically placed here to catch the tourists going to the vast Kruger National Park nearby.

But I come to Africa to meet the people! Yet again I convinced myself that I have no interest in visiting game parks, from which I am barred on my motorbike anyway. The rather expensive tour introduced me to about 25 chimpanzees and their unhappy life stories, presented in an anthropomorphic manner of which I am always suspicious. They were behind fences as they are dangerous animals, potentially aggressive and stronger than humans. But I couldn’t communicate with them – as I could with the parking attendant, the petrol pump lady and the immigration officer… I was more interested when a wild baboon ran across the road in front of me than I was by the whole troop of chimps.

*

The waitress just brought me a large plate of chicken curry. “Wow!” said I, ” That’s a big meal!”

“Yes, and you have to finish it!” she quipped with a cheekiness and equality that I relish after days in South Africa.

*

Sometimes, however, I feel so impotent on this continent. The cook, a charming young woman of 22, called Gcinile, said with the ‘click’ of some of the local languages, that I have no hope of pronouncing, asked in a diffident whisper if she could come and talk to me after I had eaten. She is an orphan, as are so many here. She has no family and no prospects to better her situation. She got this job as cook but it’s not what she wants to do. She wants to train as a nurse. My instinct tells me she’d be a good one. A bright, intelligent, polite, and pretty girl, for this she needs a scholarship, and scholarships only go to the middle classes and those related to the royal family in this small kingdom. She has no connections and no real hope to get out of her trap – the African trap of poverty. Were I wealthy I’d be giving money away right and left, soft touch that I am, or, I’d rather express it, empathetic as I am… A scholarship of a mere £1200 would put Gcinile through the first year of her training. The second year, she says, she would get from the government as she would work so hard, given the chance, that they would supply the scholarship. I believe her. And I have the imagination to put myself in her place, with the helplessness caused by poverty. I am SO fortunate. Africa puts things in perspective. A bright, articulate youngster who has to timidly address an old ‘daddy’ in a restaurant. It takes humility. But in Africa, in her situation, you learn humility from a young age.

Fortitude and philosophical acceptance are over-riding qualities on this spell-binding continent. Sometimes I feel guilty to be riding a motorbike through so many people’s troubles ignorant of and unmoved by the life stories all about me.

DAY 37. WEDNESDAY 14th JANUARY 2015. MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE

The unthinkable just happened: my iPad died on me, eventually opening by chance. So I must not switch it off until after I have found an internet connection and sent out the latest episode. After that, it may be in the lap of the gods that I have to return to writing longhand. Ironically, I have come to rely on my iPad as a tool of my journey. Maybe it just got too bloody hot today. I know I did. And bothered…

I always feel oddly apprehensive about entering new countries. You’d think I’d have grown out of it – but I am quite a timid traveller really! Honestly, I am. Within a day or so, all settles down and I am in the swing again. Here, of course, I have to deal with unknown ways and a new language – one of which I am largely ignorant, except that any European has a surprisingly wide comprehension of all our languages as they spill over so much. In Mozambique few people speak English and Portuguese is the national tongue. Maybe in the next few days I shall pick up a few words. At least I knew ‘obrigado’ (thank you) before I even arrived. From here on I can make do with sign language and making a fool of myself and smiling. I am fluent in THAT international language at least!

It’s 8.15 and I am yawning fit to break apart. Of course it’s the heat not age! Actually, it IS. I am now in tropical Africa and the temperature has risen sharply into the 30s. Try riding a motorbike in this sun, clad in jacket (black…), boots, helmet and gloves. It’s just about bearable when I am moving at 50 or 60mph, but when I hit Maputo – a fume-filled place of virtually static traffic – I just boiled – and broiled – and roasted – and grilled. I bloody nearly spontaneously flambéed! No one would have noticed in the hectic traffic of Avenida 24 Julho… There was too much going on.

Fortunately I have a good deal of experience in African traffic. As a European I start with an advantage: I’m a well trained biker and used to high density. When I set out to drive like an African I can quite enjoy myself! Eyes in the back of my head; aware of the peripheral chaos and on a machine with a small profile and quick acceleration. It can be fun. But I was already tired and became completely exasperated by long traffic lights, one way streets and the remembrance of my last time in Maputo, hassling with traffic police looking for bribes.

For I visited Maputo in 2002 on my Elephant. I stayed in Mozambique for a day! I think I did it, to be honest, to ‘collect’ another country and to say I had crossed the bottom of this continent. I now realise why I stayed such a short time, for I recollect being irritable and bad tempered here.

*

I broke off writing there as my dinner arrived. I’m sitting in bar, at a table by the street in the centre of Maputo. The mosquitoes (malarial) are enjoying their meal too. The traffic has reduced now – it’s almost 9.00 – and I am beginning to calm down once again. With a smattering of all those European languages, I recognised fish of the day and rice. Mozambique is a maritime nation. It has a vast coastline and most of its fortune has been based on their intimate connection with the sea. The fish I just ate must go down as the best meal of this trip – this in a common street-side bar from one who eats to live. No idea what it was (it was smiling!) but it was oily and deliciously grilled and the rice was also spectacular, cooked I thought at first, with cinnamon sticks, but I wonder if it wasn’t star anise? With an eye-pleasing garnish of green tomato, green pepper and raw sweet onion, I can see why Mozambique is famous for sea food.

*

But back to my last visit, when I managed one day in a bad mood… I know now that it must have been the difficulty of finding, and the ridiculous cost of accommodation that irritated me so much. Today I spent a horrible three hours riding the traffic jams of the city looking for a hotel. I found a few – sordid places asking as much as the Protea Hotel at Johannesburg airport! Way out of my budget and poor value. I stopped in a couple of fifty pound (or more, I didn’t bother to ask) places and asked for help. Receptionists in expensive hotels generally speak English, the world over, and are usually helpful. So I set off on other chases across the traffic-filled city, finally, after three hours of hell, finding a simple, scruffy place – the sort of place I used to stay – for £13, cheapest by half of anything else I found. But the fellow managing the place speaks English and the room is acceptable and everyone, I have to say, is very friendly. I reckon I will stay tomorrow and leave the bike parked up in the hotel courtyard and take to my feet. It’s crazy to come so far and ride away again tomorrow – as I think I did last time.

*

Breakfast, back at the Highland Inn in Pigg’s Peak was a cheerful, filling affair, with Gcinile and Chantelle, the cheeky one. She is an attractive girl too, with red hair and a ‘fair’ skin, a lovely dark tanned colour. Her father is German, her mother Swazi. My breakfast, that did me for the day until my fish tonight, was heavily meaty, as one comes to expect in southern Africa. I ate liver, bacon, ‘worst’ (dark, dense South African sausage) as well as scrambled egg and the inevitable baked beans. I felt very welcome there and slept like the dead – as I customarily do in these warm climates. I dream extensively; long complicated narrative dreams – that I sadly forget immediately. I associate warm African nights with lots of dreaming.

It was ten before I set off, taking a fine short cut on gravel and dirt roads for twenty miles across high hillsides, before dropping down to the less interesting eastern low-veldt, where sugar plantations and low bush lands dominated the landscape.

The Swazi border was soon behind me and I was nervous of hassles at the Mozambique side. But things have changed – and the officials were charming and chatty. Needless to say, despite my years of African travel, I was ripped off my a tout, but only by a fiver and I think he did actually get me through fairly effortlessly. He did it with a smile and I was soon in Mozambique, complete with £44 pound visa with, a first for me, a photo implanted on the full-page visa. I recently had to renew my passport, with three years still to run, as it was filled with these full-page African visas – and a lot of Lesotho/South Africa stamps!

*

Well, I have calmed down and the smile is back, aided by all the friendly smiles around me. I shall persevere this time, and investigate this rather ugly city tomorrow, full of Soviet-style utilitarian apartment blocks built in its Communist years. Avenidas Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenine, Mao Tse Tung, Kim Il Sung and all the other ‘Heroes of the Revolution’ are still here. It’s all peeling and stained now, something of an allegory for the Brave New World. Now SUVs and Coca Cola and capitalist multinationals overlay a different version of history.

Maputo reminds me a bit of Accra, Ghana – the same levels of decrepitude, chaotic traffic, itinerant boys selling things from trays and boxes in the bars; the same holes in the pavements and street traders and even similar countryside as you approach, with crawling lorries belching thick black fumes and everyone weaving round similar potholes and obstacles. A few weeks in the relative order of South Africa and you begin to forget the realities of most of the continent.

*

Another night of extreme tiredness. I doubt I’ll notice the aged mattress or wonder ‘who slept on it’. I negotiated a working stand-fan that might get me through the sticky night.

DAY 38. THURSDAY JANUARY 15th 2015. MAPUTO. MOZAMBIQUE

Sticky night it certainly was – but, you know, there’s a certain magic to knowing that on January 14th I spent a somewhat sweaty night, dreamt long dreams and slept with only a sheet and a fan! And I sleep SO well in these conditions. I am sure my body was made for this heat, not England’s shoulder-clenching chill that makes me tired by doing nothing.

*

Today Mozambique inaugurated a new president, about two blocks from my rather seedy lodgings. Walking out to look for breakfast, I soon realised that it was a national holiday for everything was closed and the traffic astonishingly light. Then I found that all the streets around my boarding house were closed to traffic and police and soldiers were everywhere. From my hotel keeper I found out that the new president would soon be arriving. I went to join the crowds and watch, even though I understood nothing of the lengthy speeches.

The Praca da Indenpendencia stands in front of an ugly, Soviet-style City Hall building that needs either a good clean and renovation (or just demolition). Here were stands for dignitaries, all of whom were there: most of the southern African presidents or vice-presidents and all the great and good (for which, sadly, read proud and corrupt) from all the surrounding nations. It was all fairly relaxed for African politics. I spotted marksmen on the roofs of some of the decaying buildings around about but little interference at ground level beyond a heavy military and police presence. It was colourful and noisy, with most people dressed in the red colours of Frelimo, the ruling party. Flags flew everywhere, but I am cynical enough to have suspicions of a national flag that sports a hoe, an open book and an AK47…

‘Viva o Presidente Filipe Nyusi!’ shouted all the plaques and posters. It was a big party for the people, leading to the appearance, after the formalities, of a lot of Mozambican pop and rock stars and a great deal of rather cheerful, rhythmic Afro-pop.

Most bizarre event of the day, and strangely impressive, was an eruption of music that stopped me in my tracks, receding down from the crowded circle. Suddenly, a choir began to sing the Hallelujah Chorus! But it was sung, very well, with that distinctive African cadence and in an African language. I stood transfixed. It was extraordinary. I was in searing sun in southern Africa listening to Handel! Thanks to the power of music, I had one of those ‘I’m here’ moments. It was exhilarating! The voices sang with that strident, high-pitched edginess that is SO African. They filled the streets of Maputo with Handel’s music but the context was so astonishing for me. I wonder what George Frederick would have thought himself? He would have appreciated the enthusiasm and power, even if the strains might have been not quite as expected!

The whole event culminated in a 22 gun salute (yes, I was surprised, and, yes, I counted) that sounded as if someone was bombing Maputo – not such an unlikely event, given the violent history of the last few decades. The Mozambican Civil War, largely orchestrated by South Africa and Zimbabwe’s support of the Renamo movement in order to destabilise the region for their own gain, has left deep scars. It was a vicious war that lasted 17 years through the 70s and 80s and decimated the country and the people. This was a country that leaned toward the USSR and East Germany for support and guidance, an experiment that dramatically failed, leaving the country in tatters. However, democracy has been established and the ‘market economy’ reinstated. Of course, this means changing allegiance to the People’s Republic. Out of the frying pan…

*

Mozambicans seem to be small, slight people. There have different features to many Africans, thanks to the Arab and Portuguese influence. I find them mush less quick to smile and interact and I am really missing the communication I enjoy with so many of the English speaking Africans all around.

I walked miles today, trying with increasing desperation to find something attractive and endearing about this city. I do try to like the places I visit.

I failed.

When I rode through in 2002 I stayed a day. Maybe I should have just trusted my instincts. They are, after all, rather well established! Maputo is a DUMP of the first order. It is ugly, unattractive, peeling, scruffy and the best thing will be the road out tomorrow. Well, I sincerely hope it will!

The pavements are full of holes, and cars are parked all over them anyway. So I must walk in the street. Blocks of heavy Soviet flats line the streets, festooned in washing and faded satellite dishes and with security grills, rusting and ugly, in different styles at almost every balcony – way up into the sky. Vast, tawdry hoardings apparently assist the ‘market economy’ and there is rubbish and filth absolutely everywhere. The smell of festering drains, rotting garbage and green puddles of mosquito-larval water abound.

Even a shady beer garden might have improved my opinion. But the only one I found, hardly a garden, more a concrete patch, had run out of beer. No, Maputo is a world-class dump. An expensive one too. I can find nothing whatsoever attractive about this city. I look forward to moving on – as I did twelve years ago. I hope I find other parts of this country more appealing or I shall be in Zimbabwe quite soon.

I do miss communicating so much. I can’t joke with people and find out what makes them tick. I doubt I’ve spoken above a couple of hundred words today! In the rest of southern Africa that would be unthinkable.

At least I have learned a couple of indispensable words: ‘cerveja preta’. Black (or dark) beer. It gets me away from the gnats’ piss beer at least. I try to see the positive…

DAY 39. FRIDAY JANUARY 16th 2015. BILENE. MOZAMBIQUE

It’s good to have put Maputo behind me. It took a while. It’s traffic and squalor spread far out into the very flat countryside to the north. It wasn’t an enjoyable ride.

But worth it, as is so often the way, for the destination. I don’t go in much for beach holidays. There’s nothing much more boring for me than the seashore, all flat and grey in one direction, tedious to walk along and often not much on the landward side of any interest. I don’t like water and sink like a stone if ever I get in it.

However, Bilene is pretty much the best that I can hope to find: a large smooth lagoon of warm water, connected to the Indian Ocean by a narrow channel on its outer edge. The beach slopes so slowly that even I, generally afraid of large expanses of water, got bored walking away from the beach before any intimation of fear! I was well over 100 yards out and still hardly to my waist. Suits me fine. Lovely warm water, palm fringed white sands, a beer waiting for me on my return and a pleasant beach-side room with a thatched roof. Life is hard this January 16th! So hard I decided to stay tomorrow as well. Last friday I was driving through a blizzard to Logan Airport.

*

Police barriers make for tedious riding on these Mozambican roads. In 2002 I had a brief run in with some policemen in Maputo, who claimed I had broken the law by doing a U turn in a wide main road. I had actually crossed an unbroken white line, it is true, but it was sunday morning and not a moving vehicle was to be seen anywhere. And I was lost. Bribery was their reason for stopping me but I brazened it out, for I have never given a bribe in Africa yet. Stories of police hassles are legion, for the officials in this country are under-paid. Today I was stopped only once and treated politely as they perused my funny driving licence and pored over the motorbike – probably the reason for stopping me. On the run out of Maputo, in thick, weaving traffic, I fell in with a police vehicle. The driver gesticulated at my bike in admiration so I knew I had a friend in the bakkie and we drove together for some miles, me weaving and ducking and him occasionally putting on his hazard lights and accelerating away. Always useful to have officialdom on your side in Africa. I gave them a cheery wave as they turned off, by now almost clear of the clogging traffic of the city – an hour out…

I rode two hundred kilometres up the coast. It is, apparently, a little known fact that Mozambique has a coastline LONGER than that of South Africa! Think about it… South Africa’s coast runs all down the west side of the continent from Namibia to Cape Town, and then up the east side past Port Elizabeth and Durban to the bottom of Mozambique. Mozambique is one very long coast from South Africa up to Tanzania, something like two and a half thousand miles. Many small low islands just off shore abound, as do lagoons. For centuries the country had close ties with Arabia and the Sub-Continent and dhows are still the customary sea vessel.

At a provincial town called Macia, still only a centimetre or two up the map of the country, I turned right onto a road to the coast, for the main north/ south highway seldom touches the ocean. Here it was about 35Kms inland. Bilene is set amongst the coastal dunes that reach most of the way up this long coast. It is a sandy village that is a popular resort for South African holidaymakers – or was until the Rand began to fall against other currencies.

As I so often do, I pulled into an expensive resort hotel for advice on where I could afford to stay and was sent to look for Jacques, a South African resident here who runs the Corioca Guest House, right on the beach. He showed me to a somewhat quirkily ethnic room up some steps overlooking the lagoon and beach through palm trees. At £20 I wasn’t going to complain!

He seemed happy for company too, as I sat for an hour or more and enjoyed a relaxing beer. The day was extremely HOT! About 33 or 35 degrees. In my jacket, boots, helmet and all I was stewing gently and very grateful for a cold shower and chilled beer. The lagoon turned out to be the temperature of tepid bath water, about right for me. The whole place is very quiet, just three guests and few people on the mile or two of beach visible. Just here the lagoon is about half a mile wide, but it is, I believe, about fifty kilometres long. Periodically the sea water inlet blocks in storms and the water rises from the fresh water draining in. Then the town gets together to hire all and sundry to go over and dig out the channel so that fish and new sea water can mix into the lagoon.

I could do without the mosquitoes and a howling dog down on the beach, but otherwise this is a pretty exotic location! Especially when I remind myself that Harberton is getting bad weather warnings of icy patches and possible flooding. And I doubt if Boston has risen above freezing since I left. Yes, this’ll do for now, even if I get bored by all that water quite soon. The guest house has a library of old second hand books so I shall be OK on that Indian Ocean beach tomorrow.

DAY 40. SATURDAY JANUARY 17th 2015. BILENE, MOZAMBIQUE

Fed up with baying and barking digs down on the beach below my thatched room, I reached for the earplugs about midnight. Next thing I knew, I was awoken in a blizzard of flying mosquito netting at 3.00am. Everything was in motion and howling. I was at the edge of an Indian Ocean cyclone. Stumbling through diaphanous netting I managed to wrench the window closed and rushed naked to the balcony to rescue my writhing washing – for once pegged to a luggage elastic rather than draped on balcony walls, a happy chance that prevented my underpants and tee shirt now hanging from a Zimbabwean tree hundreds of miles away. A moment on the balcony stair beside the horizontal palms and I was soaked. Forcing the door against the wind I retired to bed, but not to sleep for a long time. Protected by a thatched roof on poles, despite the concrete walls beneath, I felt somewhat vulnerable to the extreme elements outside. At last I must have fallen asleep, to wake to a dull, windswept day and choppy lagoon that had lost its attraction entirely. Pity. I find a big body of natural water that even I quite liked and next thing it is wracked by a wind, surprisingly cool…

*

Not a lot of point riding away in a howling gale. The road outside had formed its own muddy lagoon. It was a day to stay put, relax and read. What else can you do? This is the rainy season here after all… The cyclone had hit the coast further north; the direction in which I am going. Everyone tells me that I must check the state of the roads, and especially bridges, to the north, to check that my planned itinerary to Zimbabwe is even possible. This has been a year of much flooding in southern Africa, and most of the rivers from Zimbabwe and northern South Africa end up on the coastal plains of Mozambique, a country heavily prone to devastating floods. The inundation in Malawi, just north west of Mozambique claimed a hundred and fifty lives in the past few days.

Travel in Africa is always a bit unpredictable. I recollect getting my old Elephant over swollen rivers in Malawi and Tanzania in 2002. The first one had washed out a bridge and apparently the whole Tanzanian army was watching about four of their number construct a Bailey bridge across the chasm. I hired five local men to rope me and my bike down the muddy embankment, across the shallow river and through 300 yards of appalling mud. When I reached the Kenyan border next day, the officials didn’t understand from where I had come. I was the first vehicle to get through in three days! The other river had obviously removed that bridge months or years before – long enough to have road signs, but not to have done anything practical about reestablishing the road network. That time I slid and wriggled across mud flats, loaded the Elephant into a flat-bottomed tin boat and was whisked by the current and about six men to the other side. There, they manhandled my heavy motorbike up a mud embankment to the road above, me watching for the single slip that would have sent my motorbike into the rushing brown waters…

I rather hope I won’t have recourse to such desperation here! It makes for good stories, I suppose, but on the whole ones I will be happier without. I am trusting that most of the problems are in northern Mozambique, above the Zambezi, and that I will turn west before that to reach Zimbabwe. But I know that I could still have to retrace my tracks all the way to Maputo. It’s the chances of African travel. Most of the trouble is coming from the west just now, draining from the African interior, but cyclones in the Indian Ocean make for a pincer movement that still could disrupt my journey. Time, as always in Africa, will tell.

*

So this was a day of rest. I accompanied my host, Jacques, a man of my generation, up into this town of deep sandy tracks. As so often in Africa, infrastructure slowly follows development. This is a town of mansions of the wealthy of Maputo, almost without paved roads, drainage and services! The ex-president has a mansion (about the only one connected by tarred road of course!) and even Nelson Mandela himself had a house in Bilene. Of course, his last wife, Gracia Machel was the widow of Samora Machel, the first independent leader of Mozambique, who died in a plane crash just over the South African border: a crash that has never been fully explained…

A little like my odd-job career in Harberton, Jacques helps makes ends of his guest house business (that must be struggling a bit to judge by the faded edges of the operation) meet by working in and the round town. He drove me about, showing me the town, to a home of a Maputo accountant to fix the pump from the borehole. The large bungalow currently on the property is scheduled to be no more than servants’ quarters when the main mansion is built… The division of wealth in Africa is almost as obscene as that in USA… More so, I guess, because at least most scandalously rich Americans have a sense that they should share some of their excesses. It is a land of impressive benefactors, after all.

*

Plans are impossible, so I wait for the morrow to see where I get to. There’s a small town 100 miles up the coast that Jacques recommends. Or I may be here, reading Eric Newby once again, from the collection of dog-eared books left behind by years’ of guests – most of whom unfortunately have preferred pulp fiction…

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2 thoughts on “2015 – SOUTHERN AFRICA JOURNAL 5

  1. Glad you are back on your hols. Sounds a different trip so far from the others.

    Snow this weekend on Yorkshire. Not convertible weather! But, I am learning patience. Snowdrops are out in Weston.

    You in the water? Unnatural. LOL

    Love
    Lisa

  2. Just started reading your latest missive with enormous pleasure. It’s just like being there with you. Will need several tea/coffee breaks to get through it but I always look forward to following your adventures and hearing your thoughts. Pretty nippy in Harberton but stunningly beautiful clear, sunny, blue sky days recently … not a breath of wind up at the cricket pitch. Enjoy the sun, scenery and people you love in Africa. We look forward to having you back in March. Safe travels.
    Love,
    Francesca and Huxley
    xxx

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