DAY 59 THURSDAY FEBRUARY 5th 2015. GRASKOP, SOUTH AFRICA
I like Graskop. It has a village feel to it and is just a few streets with friendly locals, black and white. It is very touristic, with tour buses stopping through the day, on their way to the natural sights around. It is only forty or so miles to the great Kruger Park, so this is one of South Africa’s tourist hot spots, but for all that, it is relaxed and a pleasant place to pause for a day and do a few ‘domestic’ things – like a bit of bike maintenance and sorting my luggage and sending a parcel home. This I did this morning, a parcel with souvenir ‘stuff’ that accumulates on such a journey. Maybe I will see the parcel again in about June or July…
There is, in Graskop, a shop about which I can’t quite make up my mind. It is one of the reasons I stopped here. It calls itself ‘Curios d’Afrique’ and is an emporium of African crafts and antiques. Herein is a huge collection of old masks, carvings, chairs, sculptures, spears, clubs, ceremonial items, carved doors, trays, bowls, pipes, pots and every sort of antique artefact from all over Africa. On the one hand, it is a fabulous collection, almost a museum in its range. But on the other, it is an eclectic mishmash of cultural artefacts made meaningless by their quantity and various origins. One man, now in his eighties, made this collection as a business. He has travelled Africa with an almost uncritical eye buying up all the cultural items he could find to sell to anyone interested.
Africa has changed beyond all recognition in just a couple of generations. I saw a good deal of that change in my visits to Navrongo, now stretching over almost thirty years. When I first visited, the old cultural life was still important and tradition and conventions had to be served. Then, as the old generation died out and the new, worldly wise generation, who learn their ‘wisdom’ not from the Elders but from manipulative American TV, swept away the old ways and adopted the new grey, polyglot, Coca Cola, CNN, and Microsoft ‘culture’ instead. In my own compound in Navrongo, I became the only one interested in the old pots and trappings of the old people I had known – pretty much the only material things they owned. When they died they were all swept in one bulldozing sweep into the ruin of the well that had collapsed outside the compound. I climbed down and rescued the only one of old Akay’s prized pots that had fallen fortuitously unbroken in the disregard for her ‘old fashioned’ possessions. I have it, with pride, in Harberton, a tangible reminder of Akay (Wechiga, Perry and Gladys’ mother), one of the most remarkable people I have met on ALL my travels, and of the old beliefs that controlled her society.
So maybe the elderly collector has saved many of these fine items from a similar fate: chucked disregarded into wells or burned as firewood? People in Navrongo laughed at my trying – largely unsuccessfully – to preserve any of the old things.
Well, I bought a spoon that came from Gabon. It occurs to me that finding spoons is now almost as difficult as it is to find those old traditional items. Thirty years ago, when I started my odd collection, they could be found everywhere – as useful household objects, made from local materials and using all sorts of intriguing vernacular design and ‘engineering’. Now I seldom see them, for China has swamped the world with its tawdry rubbish in tin, enamel and plastic. No one makes wooden spoons any more. Just as with the old cultures, generally they get preserved only where tourism turns them into a source of ready cash…
A few months ago I bought some hair trimmers and decided to cut my own hair, since a ‘Number Four’ – a haircut that takes moments with trimmers – was costing me a rip-off seven or eight quid a time. Using my bike mirror, I trimmed away until the rechargeable battery died. Then I realised that the electricity was off again! I went to town with a jagged, patchy haircut…
Eskom is the South African power distributor and generator. It is they who have been warning that funds were running low in the country and sending out dire predictions of cuts. The cuts have started and most of the country is now suffering black-outs to a generally, but not always, programmed timetable. Last night’s cut was unscheduled. The government helped out with a contribution of a handful of million Rand to keep things running. But it appears that Eskom requires no less than 200 BILLION Rand to keep the supply going! Exports of electricity to neighbouring countries must be served first of course and all the South African power stations are now on reduced hours as the company says it can no longer afford the coal. Even the nuclear station down Cape Town way is on part time production now.
The cost of this to business and the general economy must be staggering. Why, just in little Graskop this morning most restaurants were closed except those with their own generators; ATMs were down; the supermarket was running its own generator to keep the foods cool, the garage to pump fuel. Shops could not take ‘plastic’ money and many were simply closed until the lights came back. The internet was down, lights off, work stopped.
I rode out briefly to look at the natural sights provided from the edge of the great escarpment that towers a thousand vertical feet from the forests below, with vistas into the blue hazy distance over the Kruger Park. The clouds that rise up the face of the cliffs create a local ecosystem with a small rain forest at the summit. It’s a fine area for these natural phenomena: Blyde River Canyon, Bourkes Luck Potholes, where the river has formed a sort of Swiss-cheese effect in the sandstone; various pretty waterfalls and the fine views from the cliff-tops. It is all very touristy, with hundreds of craft stalls all selling the same stuff as in Zimbabwe, but generally of lesser quality.
A fabulous thunderstorm built to a crescendo just as I hurtled back into town watching the dramatic clouds. Tonight I watched, fascinated, another ceaseless light display over the Kruger Park as the clouds flickered and flashed dramatically, towering high into the night sky. We are in the thick of the rainy season. Just so long as it avoids this motorcyclist I am happy with the incredible green abundance.
I couldn’t face the biker bar this evening. As I got near I heard that crowd of Afrikaans locals singing – unbearably badly – Dylan songs from about 1968. Sorry, but no.
DAY 60 FRIDAY FEBRUARY 6th 2015. GRASKOP, SOUTH AFRICA
The two things I miss most on my travels? The English pub and Radio Three.
Sometimes I would so love to be able to go and sit in a pub, that absolutely English institution (And I know. I have been in pastiche pubs all over the world, none of which work…). Tonight I did actually enter the bar in Graskop for a quiet beer. But here you are unlikely to fall into conversation beyond a couple of pleasantries. It’s a basic place; in fact, it makes a feature of its basic quality by making the furniture from old pallets and the decor particularly dull. At the bar sat the same few habitués. At least they weren’t serenading tonight. And I am about to express my prejudices again! Me, who rants about prejudice in others… But, I don’t know, Afrikaners have so much deeply ingrained prejudice themselves that I tend to consider them fair game.
There were eight customers and a barman, with a low-browed scowl. I’m sorry, but the rest did look a bit freakish… At the corner of the bar was an extraordinarily disgruntled-looking old bugger with a lazy eye, a grey parrot on his shoulder, and parrot shit dribbling down the back of a grubby green tee shirt. His hand was in a grey bandage like a big muff, his baseball cap (national dress, when it’s not a tattered old greasy, grass-woven Stetson or a camouflage cotton hat turned up at the sides) was askew. He had uneven shaving technique, a large beer gut, and when he got up to go to the gents, he limped. He, like every other customer except yours truly, smoked like a chimney, a pall of stale smoke filling the room.
Leather-skinned, sartorially distressing, shapelessly clothed and lank-haired, the rest of the customers didn’t attract a lot. The parrot was the best looking being in the bar!
I was the only one prissy enough to ask for a glass too… AND I drank the last bottle of milk stout. Just as well I am on my way south tomorrow.
Apologies. Enough of my prejudice. Maybe, but for that laughter two nights ago at the African Union quip, I might be less critical.
There was an impressively violent storm at two o’clock this morning. It sounded like the end of the world, crashing and exploding above Graskop. I awoke to a dull morning and decided to stay here for another night. It’s a good value room, a comfortable bed and Graskop is a pleasantly small community. There is enough to do on a day’s ride round the nearby mountains for a relaxing day. The sun broke through and it was fresh and bright for the middle of the day.
Pilgrim’s Rest is an over-the-top touristic renovation of a mining village from the local gold rush about the turn of the last century. It’s now a national monument and over-run with souvenir stalls and ‘ye oldes’. I granted it about half an hour of my time. I can’t manage such blatantly nostalgic recreations. It wasn’t all quaint like that at all. It was hell, with malaria, feuds, drunkenness, prostitution, alcoholism, poverty, death in childbirth, bad health, accidents, disillusion, sickness and unspeakably unpleasant most of the time. For every man who got rich, dozens more perished in poverty. We shouldn’t turn history into sentimental nostalgia, all pot-pourri, lavender bags and home made jam. Most of history was pretty bloody awful. We’d do well to remember that and count our blessings…
My ride continued into the handsome mountain scenery about here. I rode over the Robbers’ Pass, so called because of two bullion robberies. One was successful when two masked robbers got away to, presumably, a comfortable life with £10,000 in bullion. The other robbery, in 1912, was a dismal failure when the successful highwayman went back to town to celebrate, got steaming drunk and enjoyed five years in gaol in Pretoria!
From there to Lydenburg – Mashishing, as it now is – was a pleasant 45 minutes or so, a stop at the town museum and then an exhilarating ride back over the magnificent Long Tom Pass to Sabie and Graskop. It’s a road I have ridden before, twice I think, but both times with a laden bike and in pissing rain. I had no idea quite how grand was the scenery and the sweeping pass, riding up to just below the cool clouds at 2150 metres today. The tops are bare and in a palette of washed out colours; later into vast stands of conifer plantations.
‘Power sharing’ is now the order of the day all over the country. The electricity supply is pretty unreliable. Even as I have been writing, it went off briefly. Seems like this is quite an economic crisis. The trouble is, there is more and more demand. ‘Location’ housing is being increased every day to meet the demands of a population now getting some autonomy. A vast number of these newly enfranchised home-owners get free or subsidised services. This, added to profligate waste – businesses everywhere that never turn off a light, car showrooms blazing through the night when no one is shopping, a huge population who have never actually had the right to power before and have never learned to budget – all this is putting an intolerable strain on services lacking investment and proper management, combined, doubtless, with staggering levels of corruption. It is not a happy situation.
Graskop has been a pleasant interlude, comfortable with this roomy chalet, but I have pretty much exhausted its attractions. On tomorrow towards Swaziland once again as I head indirectly southwards.
DAY 61. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 7th 2015. PIGG’S PEAK, SWAZILAND
Interesting how places change depending on people. I stayed in Pigg’s Peak’s Highland Inn a month or so ago, with the cheerful Chantelle and Gcinile, who wanted to train to be a nurse instead of a cook. Tonight the staff are lacklustre and unmotivated, so bored they are almost asleep. Still, the price is right and the location is still good, on the edge of a ridge looking west across many-layered blue-grey mountains to the sunset – even if I do have to get my own beer.
It’s been a good ride through some handsome scenery again, through one range of green mountains, down to the lowlands around the large north eastern industrial city of Nelspruit, and on into the mountains that form Swaziland. My ride included the wonderful road from Barberton once again, past all the geological wonders of these very old mountains, so well interpreted and displayed at observation points along the dramatic, winding mountain road. Then you reach the tiny border post and suffer the dreadful rocky, sandy track to Pigg’s Peak, fifteen miles of trail riding.
A police diversion redirected me into White River so I decided I might as well ride in and stop at the second hand bookshop for a few minutes, to restock on reading matter. As I turned at the junction into town, what should I see but a gazebo on the back of a van, a table of bottles and jars and behind them, Frank, Steven’s from Bloemfontein’s father, with whom I stayed on my way to Mozambique 26 days ago. It is there, by the roadside, that he sells his terrific home made ginger beer (I have to start making ginger beer!) and his partner Linda’s jams and preserves. It is an economic necessity to make their meagre pensions meet their needs. Their combined monthly pensions are somewhere below £150, somewhat less than their rent alone. Interestingly, I do see poor whites as well as the huge numbers of poor blacks in South Africa. Sometimes I see obviously impoverished white men acting as car park guards, a job that brings pennies in tips, and today I even saw one young white woman begging with a sign, that frustratingly I couldn’t read from the traffic, at traffic lights. Of course, such people are the minority. Mainly I am aware of wealthy, comfortable whites in large cars whisking through the poverty around them.
Frank was very welcoming and sold me a bottle of his excellent ginger beer – a much under-rated and forgotten beverage. Doubtless, he will relay to Steven tonight that I am still riding.
Another victim of the ‘power sharing’ is the traffic lights – ‘robots’ as they are called in Southern Africa. For the lights were out for two and a half hours in White River. As I approached Nelspruit, it seemed to be their turn next for black outs. As I negotiated a major junction – which, in the absence of lights, worked on the ‘four way stop’ principle that is so common in America – first come, first goes, in turn – a small sign caught my eye to Nelspruit botanical gardens. Now, I am a bit of a sucker for good botanical gardens, so I turned off on a whim and discovered the most lovely, well laid out, informative gardens, including a decent patch of rain forest, some dramatic waterfalls, a raised walkway that is supposed to be ‘hippo friendly’ and a plethora of fine trees and shrubs, well interpreted and identified. There are no less than nine national botanical gardens in South Africa. One of the world’s finest is Kirstenbosch Gardens at Cape Town, but I shall now look out for the other seven. It was interesting, the reference to hippos, for across the treetops in places I could see the surrounding shopping malls and car showrooms.
One sign identified a Rubber Hedge, a sort of succulent plant several feet high, used for hedging. The sign read: ‘…contains a toxic milky latex….can cause severe skin irritation and blindness if in contact with eyes. Can cause severe illness and even death if eaten or drunk…’ Where was this dangerous growth? Hanging over and crowding the side of an outlook platform overlooking the falls. Haha! I do enjoy Health and Safety in Africa! In England it would be fenced off itself.
Well, well, the lights just went out. I should be used to it, but I left South Africa some hours ago. This is saturday night in Swaziland. I was sitting in the ‘pub’ dining room a short time ago, eating my ‘chicken curry’, which was just boiled chicken with some chilli, and listening to a crowd of people shouting and making merry on the verandah. When I emerged I stopped, astonished. “Goodness,” I joked, ” I thought there were at least forty of you out here! You are FOUR! You are making NOISE!” They laughed. I do like that here in the countries surrounding South Africa I can joke equally. It’s much more touchy to do that in South Africa. They still sound like hundreds from my distant room. They are eight in total I think. Thunder rolls across the mountains and showers are cooling the evening. It’s fine when it rains at night!
DAY 62. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 8th 2015. MALKERNS, SWAZILAND
Those eight or so revellers last night made an unimaginable amount of noise, boosted by a thumping music system. Around midnight I found the ear-plugs! The party was still going at 3.00am, just as loud and still only a handful of people. They had been drinking and shouting at each other since 8.00 the previous evening. Somewhere around three thirty, I am told, the party broke up. Amazingly, at that hour they must have DRIVEN home! Ouch. Well, they enjoyed themselves – I imagine…
It was a dull, misty morning in the northern Swazi mountains. I made a slow start. I didn’t have far to go for Swaziland is small and I only intended to ride as far as Malkerns, a little south of the capital, Mbabane. Accommodation is expensive – for some reason – in Swaziland, even ‘back-packers’ places are £20. Last year I stayed here at Malendala’s, a delightful place with lovely sunset views, a decent open air bar and restaurant and nice rooms. It’s above my self-imposed budget (£20pn) at £28 (including a good breakfast) but just sometimes it’s pleasant to treat myself, and I like this place. I enjoy its quirky design, using a lot of natural materials and organic shapes. It gives the place character.
Swaziland is a small mountainous place, a little like Lesotho in some ways: an independent kingdom that never experienced the evils of apartheid. So it’s friendly and easy with itself. In the past trips I have been to pretty much every corner of the place, accessible by roads. It’s ruled by one of the very few absolute monarchies left in the world, King Mswate III and his mother, as joint heads of state. The king is the sister of HRH Queen Mantfombi of the Zulus, who entertained me to lunch and gave me a magnificent basket two years ago. Only yesterday I spotted just how much those baskets cost – about £50. I guess if you’re queen of the Zulus, you don’t pay…
Swaziland is a land of rolling green mountainsides, here and there rising in dramatic escarpments. It is a country dependent on its forestry: vast stands of dark conifers and the slender graceful eucalyptus blanket the slopes. The roads sweep and weave across beautiful scenery, constantly interrupted by uncomfortable and irritating speed humps. Sunday traffic was light and my day easy. This central part is small enough to ride back and forth between most of the major areas of significance in short rides.
This central part of the country is quite heavily populated, although the capital, Mbabane really isn’t much more than a large town. A motorway more or less bypasses the city now, replacing the old road I remember from 2002, which was said to be the most dangerous road in Africa as it spun down a very long, long hill to the valley below the small city. There’s been a lot of development – and investment – since 2002. This afternoon I saw a sign to the Summerfield botanical gardens and rode on to investigate. In fact, it is a fancy and expensive ‘resort’ hotel, very flash, surrounded by some lovely gardens, only about four years old. But why, I wonder, do they let a scruffy oik like me in to wander round this exclusive hotel and its grounds? The fact that the Consulate of the Russian Federation has its name above the hotel’s did make me wonder if it’s an international money laundering operation? Who stays there? It is exclusive (except it lets in tattily dressed bikers) and seems completely a white elephant…
Sibebe is said to be the largest exposed granite pluton dome in the world and second only to Ayers Rock as the largest freestanding rock in the world. It took some finding. Several people I asked hadn’t even heard of it! It’s the second largest rock in the world, and it’s a few miles (I eventually found) from their capital city in such a small country. It is huge. I’m glad I found it at last, although all I could do was say to myself: ‘It’s big..!’
It will be good to get back to Durban in a couple of days (650kms or so). I need some company for a few days. It’s inevitable that on these journeys I do – even I – get a bit lonely at times. These past days have all been through places I have travelled two or three times before, so not much novelty, and I miss the ease with which I can fall into conversation in Zimbabwe. Here, well certainly in South Africa, it is different. I don’t bond much with white South Africans, and black ones don’t want to chat with any warmth or meaning to a white man. I’ll be happy to see Yvonne and Michael again for a few days. Then I have to plan out my last month on the road…
DAY 63. MONDAY FEBRUARY 9th 2015. EMALGENI, SOUTH AFRICA
Three hundred miles is too far to ride on any day, but on such a roasting hot day as this it seemed even more wearing. The temperature must have been more than 35 degrees for much of the day and I was on long, shade-free roads, hammering along on my own shadow. The options for stopping were not attractive and I am in my least favourite part of South Africa, KwaZulu Natal, home of the Zulu nation, probably with the most injured pride and biggest shoulder chips about the past. I find this region the least friendly. I have also ALWAYS had difficulty finding accommodation at the right price in this part of the country. It is also an area of long rides in my mind, a region I want to get through quickly. It is a province I wouldn’t visit if Yvonne and Michael didn’t live on the edge of Durban, my least favourite South African city.
Anyway, here I am beating down the highway, frustrated by almost two hours and an additional fifty miles while I tried to find accommodation, which I did, eventually, here in Emalgeni, having exhausted the nearby ocean-side town of Richard’s Bay, where every available room was about double my budget. Why is KwaZulu so expensive, I wonder? Consistently the worst value in the country.
The south of Swaziland drops to vast lowlands of low bush that gives way to large plantations of sugar cane. This will stretch all the way to Durban now, thousands of square miles of waving sugar cane fields. Most of the rivers in that southern part of Swaziland are home to hippos and crocodiles. I even crossed one reservoir created for national water supply, with warning signs at the roadside and somewhat superfluous ‘no swimming’ signs. I left the country at a small border post in the south east corner and was soon onto the main N2 South African highway that starts to the west of Swaziland and swings right down the east and south coasts to Cape Town. These are LONG roads! Just as well traffic is so light in this country.
Having tried a number of places in the £30 an up bracket around Richard’s Bay, I decided to cut and run to the less attractive inland city of Emalgeni. The second place I tried had a room at £20 plus breakfast on top. “I’m outside your gate!” I told the owner, for often now I just stop in the street and phone the number advertised on their sign boards.
Wally is a year or two older than me but has obviously enjoyed a less healthy diet. Affable enough, he showed me a room that was quite adequate. Trouble is, my aerials go up when I talk to these white B&B owners in South Africa and I become aware that they talk to me with so much ease because of the colour of my skin, for their body language changes when they talk to black guests. It is ingrained. “Tell me, where will I find a bar for a couple of beers and maybe something to eat?” I asked.
“Well, there’s a bar of sorts just down the road but I’ve never been in it… It’s frequented by… erm… the other lot… You know…”
Always that word ‘other’ or ‘them’… The divisions are maintained as strongly as ever they were in more evil times. It’s just subtler now.
In the hallway he showed me a framed photo of a fine, expensive thatched farm house big enough for ten families. “That’s the house I built on my farm outside town. But I lost it to the Land Claims. Within a year it was a ruin. ‘They’ (my quotes) had wrecked it; taken all the doors and windows for ‘their’ houses.”
So difficult. So difficult for a liberal who loves Africa! Sure, I am sorry he lost his house and his farm, but if you go and take someone else’s land to build your dream palace then you must be prepared for change when the disenfranchised become powerful once more.
And it’s not to say he hasn’t still got two pretty large properties here in town, the size of several African compounds. And a very large 4X4, the sort you so much less frequently see blacks driving. And I would hazard a bet that he isn’t descended from a long line of Afrikaans Trekkers with three centuries of heritage. It must be remembered that a LOT of white people moved here during the evil years of the latter twentieth century to a ‘land of opportunity’: opportunities created by subduing a whole indigenous nation in totally inexcusable ways to which many turned a blind eye. (NB. In conversation next morning, I found that Wally was born in South Africa, his father having come out after the war for better prospects than Leeds offered at that time).
Such a divided country. Such a socially unhappy land. So interesting to witness, but I could never contemplate living here, despite the extravagant property I could afford – with cooks, servants and gardeners – and 24 hour armed security…
As I ate my supper, in another blackout, since everyone is having to ‘share’ their power (partly, of course, with the vast numbers of newly enfranchised black townships!) for several hours a day, nine women were partying at the next table. It struck me that I almost never see mixed race groups in this country. The majority appear to choose their friends by skin colour to this day.
DAY 64. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 10th 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA
So, once again to Kloof, home of my old friends Yvonne and Michael on the hilly Durban suburb, and a warm welcome. I will probably stay here until sunday, when the last leg of my journey begins.
From Emalgeni I rode the old road instead of the tedious toll highway. “Huh, I wouldn’t go that way, it’s full of potholes!” I don’t know when Wally last drove that way to Durban, but it was a very pleasant ride on reasonably smooth roads. It’s odd, the disinformation I receive on navigating about South Africa; people seem to stick to routes they know and seldom adventure into what to them are the backwoods. The old route ran through vast acreages (mileages, would be a better description) of sugar cane estates, the crop that this coastal belt seems to grow endlessly. Mile upon mile of waving pastel green fields coating the hills into the far distance. Sugar must be processed within 24 hours of cutting, much of which is still done by hand in poor working conditions, so the estates gather round processing mills and sugar towns. Living conditions vary considerably, depending on the conscience of the estate owners, but the majority of housing is basic…
And it’s a funny thing, but I haven’t been eating much sweet stuff for weeks. Even my last emergency packet of EET-SUM-MOR shortbread biscuits lasted me right through Zimbabwe. So today it was a bit of a mistake to stop at a seaside restaurant overlooking the rollers of the Indian Ocean for coffee – and order a lemon cheesecake with ice cream. I really didn’t enjoy it! This life on the road is really rather healthy: I eat as I need and not much more. My stomach shrinks, aided by the loss of appetite from the pretty extreme heat. I get plenty of exercise (riding the bike, let alone the hiking about), lots of sunshine, plenty of sleep – much needed after a long day riding in the heat – and there’s no pressure or stress at all.
I recommend it.
The coast north of Durban is like the Costa del Sol, heavily developed with the fine beaches more or less inaccessible behind expensive homes and armed security of white people, perhaps with a sprinkling of wealthy black folk too these days, but the vast majority visible in all these resorts are white people, so much so that you would often not know you are in Africa.
What IS going to happen to this strange country? How will it deal with the inequality issues? For, although there has been a little movement on income rebalancing in the twenty years since the end of apartheid, it has been very modest and most of the wealth is still in the hands of the small white population and white incomes are still six times higher than blacks, who form 80% of the fifty one million South Africans. I’ve been trying to find statistics.
The best I can find is that whites own 41% of assets, blacks 27%, foreigners 13%, the state10%, coloureds 5% and Indians 4%. But against this, if I understand statistics correctly, you must put the racial make up of South Africa, of whom 8.9% are white (with 41% of asset ownership), 79.2% are black, 8.9% coloured and 2.5% Indian. So 8.9% of the people still own 41% of all assets, while the other 90.1% own 36%. Not very equal…
“Well, if you like this heat,” said Yvonne, feeling visibly uncomfortable, “why don’t you move down here? You could live like a millionaire!”
And in that, of course, she encompasses exactly WHY I could never live here, not with my views of equal opportunity and my perhaps somewhat skewed liberal morality…
Looks as if my next USA call will not be until April now, so I have the freedom to do as I wish for the last month of this journey. I fly out a month today. Lots more places to go, things to see and people to meet!