2015 – SOUTHERN AFRICA JOURNAL – 11

DAY 65/6. WEDNESDAY/ THURSDAY FEBRUARY 11/12th 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

Relaxing days and a chance to get some ‘housekeeping’ done – deliver the red bike to the mechanics for an oil change and check over. I asked them to check the front suspension and it turns out the front wheel bearings need replacing. They have had some serious work over a lot of rocky roads. It is serving me well, that elderly BMW.

Also a chance to sort out the road tax for the bike. Perhaps you remember, I went all the way to Matatiele in Eastern Cape two months ago to do this, to find that day one was a public holiday and on day two they had run out of forms (instead of sending someone to a photocopier, the instruction was ‘come tomorrow.’). Meanwhile, the tax ran out and a reminder was sent here to Kloof – my ‘postal address’. But you can only pay by cheque or cash. Now, who uses cheques any more? Neither Michael or Yvonne even have a cheque book and the bank I visited admitted they had stopped even issuing cheque books to their customers. So I had to take Yvonne to her bank where she could buy a counter cheque in her name for £4.50. This I have now photocopied along with the form and sent registered mail to Matatiele. Frankly, I don’t much care what happens now! I have proof if I am stopped and I am leaving the country in a month anyway… In fact, I have never been stopped in 30,000kms on the bike. The tax is only £12 for the year.

I’ve spent half a day sorting through bills and so forth to send my invoice to USA for my trip at New Year. It is easy to do these things at home but here I must improvise with my iPad and Michael’s scanner and another computer. All this takes time and a mood that doesn’t settle on me on the road.

*

Fascinating scenes in the South African parliament tonight as Jacob Zuma gave his State of the Nation annual speech. Very good TV! The minor, but vocal, opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, a left wing group that won 25 seats in the election last year, headed by the ex-youth leader Julius Malema, had vowed to disrupt the proceedings to hold Zuma accountable for some vast personal corruption in which he has allegedly appropriated funds for his own rural dwelling place – to the value of £14 million. Zuma is something of a buffoon and not much respected as a leader and denies (of course) wrongdoing despite an independent investigation that charged him with undue profit from taxpayers for the upgrades to his house.

All started calmly. Then it transpired that all mobile phone coverage had been jammed within the chamber – a totally undemocratic action for which no one could be found responsible. Yet. There was a lot of anger and points of order, talk of democracy and refusal to allow the proceedings to start until it was restored and someone admitted responsibility. It was eventually restored – but no one yet admits responsibility.

Lots of ridiculous protocol and then the president rose to give his speech. Up jumps Malema, in his red cotton suit and hard hat – symbols for his party of unity with the working man, with a point of order and probing question about when the president is going to pay back the money. Well, it was fascinating and very entertaining. The Speaker, a woman in a ridiculous yellow hat with aerials of feathers waving angrily, tried unsuccessfully to prevent the interruption; Malema persevered; the Speaker called for him to leave the chamber; he continued to ask his question. Next, the Speaker warned him he would be removed from the chamber by the parliamentary guards. His colleagues added to the points of order. The guards were called and the TV coverage was switched away from the chamber. But someone must, by now, have had a mobile phone up in the gallery. We, the nationwide audience, watched astonished as the opposition members were all forcibly – and roughly – removed from the chamber, guards leaping over seats and punches being thrown. Not an edifying spectacle for a national democratic parliament.

Now the main opposition party wanted to know who the security guards were. Were they parliamentary guards or were they – for they had firearms – South African Police? It is, of course, completely unconstitutional for police to enter parliament in a democratic state and remove members. This was fascinating – and very entertaining indeed! The Speaker, who is suspected of very partisan politics on behalf of the ANC, the ruling party, and known to have a short fuse, was now suddenly sidelined by a dragon of a woman, Speaker of the Council of Provinces, I believe, sitting by her side. She would neither admit nor deny – a bit of an admission in itself – that the armed officials who had man-handled the small party out (injuring seven of them, according to the reports) were or were not police.

So the entire opposition party now got up and walked out of the chamber, leaving only the ruling ANC – and their dumb president still sitting in front of the Speaker’s podium. Scenes of chaos everywhere – and in the midst of it all, and eventually starting his speech with absolutely no reference to all that had just happened, sat Jacob Zuma, as dumfounded as that memorable image of George W Bush talking to those kindergarten children as the Twin Towers were attacked – completely unequal to the situation and notoriously unpresidential in demeanour…

His speech, which he now delivered only to his own party, was lacklustre and uninspired, scraping the barrel for achievements and actions of his government that were astonishingly uninspiring, even to me, who knows only bits of South African politics. It was a pathetic effort, with no reaction to what had just occurred, to which any true leader would have responded. One wonders how such people get to such power? It was all most entertaining – but hardly statesmanlike or edifying. One can only hope that the corruption charges eventually catch up with him. Why does poor Africa have these problems of leadership? Power corrupts – particularly on this continent that can least afford it.

The South African anti-corruption watchdog found that almost £14 million of taxpayers’ money had been spent on the upgrades to Zuma’s private residence at Nkandla in rural Natal, in a display of ‘opulence on a grand scale’ in a place where villagers do not have access to electricity. The report continued that it: ‘…leaves one with the impression of excessive and unconscionable ‘Rolls Royce’ security in a sea of poverty and paucity of public infrastructure’. The ‘security’ upgrades included a swimming pool, amphitheatre, visitor centre, cattle enclosure and chicken coop. The swimming pool was justified in official documents as ‘firefighting equipment’!

DAY 67. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 13th 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

In Kloof, Hillcrest, Gillitts and several of these western, hilly suburbs of Durban you could easily forget that this is Africa. These are white, English speaking towns, full of white people shopping, eating, living and doing business. The only black people up here are the workers. I find it very odd indeed and strangely uncomfortable…

My old motorbike has new oil and new front wheel bearings. It’s astonishing how you can get used to things – until they change! Riding the bike back from the dealer I noticed how much steadier and less noisy it is. I guess the bearings had been slowly going over many many miles. Now the front end is quiet and smooth. Labour charges here are £22 an hour. In Plymouth the BMW franchise charges £85ph… My bill was about £100, a worthy investment for the last month on the red bike. So far this trip I have ridden a fraction over 9000kms (5650 miles).

Something I appreciate increasingly about my ‘mature’ travels, unlike those many years of impecunious journeys, is the ability to treat my friends to dinner now and again. I invited Yvonne and Michael tonight and they chose a new, quite smart tapas restaurant. Set round a pleasant terrace and fountain we had a bottle of decent wine, four pints of craft beer and six or seven filling tapas dishes, and coffee for one. This country is inexpensive. The bill was £41, plus a fiver tip. The meal was excellent. As usual, there were no black people present except for a few pretty servers – and probably most of the invisible kitchen staff. I do find this area very odd indeed. It doesn’t feel like Africa at all. The vast majority of residents are British immigrants since the war and their families. I find it impossible not to remember how I used to scan labels in the supermarkets forty years ago to make sure that none of my pennies supported the pernicious politics of South Africa – at a time many of these people chose to relocate… Until the end of apartheid I would not even visit South Africa as a tourist despite the attraction and invitations.

DAY 68 SATURDAY FEBRUARY 14th 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

In all the times I have spent up here in Kloof, I have seen little of the city of Durban, down the hills to the east. So today I rode my newly quiet and smooth bike down to the centre. It’s a well developed city with good infrastructure – and a lot of one way streets, as I found to my frustration, looking for many kilometres for a museum I wanted to visit (only to find, when I eventually found it, that it was, contrary to its website, closed). The museum is housed in the former notorious ‘Department of Native Affairs’, and shows the oppressive administration of the black population during the twentieth century, a subject that, it must be obvious, fascinates me: how could any apparently civilised society think up such a system as the ‘Durban System’, the ideological precursor to Apartheid? And how could it thrive for almost fifty years in the modern world?

The botanical gardens were open and busy this sunny saturday, with wedding parties and photographers arriving every few minutes and an orchestra practicing rather painfully for a Valentine’s concert. The speaker system, tested at some boring length as I walked around the neat and fine gardens, was dreadfully badly balanced, even to my not well tuned ears. The orchestra sounded most peculiar, with sections that should be mellow and quiet, strident and forward, and the bass set far too high. I was grateful not to be attending tonight’s concert. I repaired to the tea house for coffee and the well known scones made by a band of elderly white women and sold for TB charity and enjoyed the almost tame birds, including a hardida bird, a common wild bird the size of a thin duck with a four or five inch curved beak that makes an astonishingly loud squark that sounds somehow onomatopoeic.

Instead of a concert, Yvonne and Micael hosted a cheerful dinner party for eight of their friends, most of whom I have met over my visits to their home. As we partied, the rain coursed down outside. I hope the weather dries up for the rest of my journey. As usual at this season, the clouds and rain will probably be attracted to this eastern coast and my ride inland will bask in the customary brilliant sunshine that I seek in my desperate avoidance of British winter!

DAY 69 SUNDAY FEBRUARY 15th 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA

New experiences are what travelling is all about. Haven’t I said that one way or another many times? But just sometimes it’s difficult to credit the things one is forced to do. Tonight I was compelled to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken! I do hope that this first will also prove to be a last. It is the worst sort of food that I despise and hector my unthinking American colleagues about: these artificially raised chickens kept in utterly inhumane conditions and food filled with chemicals, preservatives, sugars and fats. But Underberg on sunday night is a complete culinary desert. It’s not much use on any other night, but at least a few basic places are open. Tonight it is a ghost town. The petrol station sells bags of crisps and bottles of pop; KFC, a popular South African chain – because it is an affordable junk food at the lowest prices – sells crap next door. And that, on sunday, is the culinary choice in Underberg. I did think about starving rather than following my principles but decided I was just too chilled to go without food – however foul…

NB. LATER. I awoke in the early hours gagging for a drink of water. It must have been the KFC junk. I add no salt to my food – ever. The ‘meal’ was ‘served’ in about an acre-of-trees-worth of paper packaging, all throw-away and unrecycled in South Africa. Included in the mound of waste were no less than four packets of salt. A can of Coke, a beverage I will not contemplate putting in my stomach, that came ‘free’ with my ‘meal’, I gave back to the nice, smiling – rather fat – server.

A day or two ago I was reading an article about food safety in USA, a subject that fascinates me for, like my interest in apartheid – how could any educated nation let it happen? Much of what Americans eat is poisoning them in the financial interest of large corporations, just a handful of which now control much of the food chain in USA, with zero integrity and callous disregard for health. Look at the Americans – as I frequently do now – and you will see with your own, not even very critical eyes, the literally burgeoning problem of a people who are undiscerning about what is in their food. You will never see them reading the labels as I do in their supermarkets. I read a lot about food supply these days and it’s made me a lot more aware of what I put in my own mouth.

One paragraph from the article impressed me enough to copy it:

‘In considering these adulterations and their probable safety, we must consider that the human stomach evolved in a world stocked with game, eggs, milk, fruits, berries, cereals, and seeds, vegetables, and a very limited supply of natural sweets like honey—no sulphur dioxide, no sulphate of soda, no glucose, no alum, no aniline dyes, no benzoate of soda, no liquid, “artificial smoke” for curing ham and bacon, no frozen meats or eggs, or bleached or denatured flour. The only race of beings that can successfully live and breed on adulterated and sophisticated products is one which has spent its period of evolution in a chemical plant and fed from among dye vats, crucibles, acid carboys, desiccators, stills, and sulphurizers. And we who now live on this planet are not that race.’

I’d add to that list, no antibiotics and no hormones, and none of the ‘rendered’ animal shit and urine that gets into the processed foods and no petrochemicals such as we eat in margarines and ‘spreads’ (look next time). I went back to moderate amounts of butter after one book I read about those (by Michael Polan, an erudite and ruthless researcher into food matters).

*

It’s two months ago tonight that I began this trip in Underberg. Here I am again. On December 15th I had a pretty horrible ride through dismal dampness wearing every piece of cold weather clothing I have with me – which, of course, isn’t a lot. Today was actually worse! I rode through a dull, drizzly, chilly and eventually thickly foggy afternoon with steady rain and arrived completely chilled, wrapping myself in a duvet for the first hour and a half after my arrival in an attempt to get life back to the extremities. A day or two ago I was sweating buckets. But Underbergians do say that they can get all the seasons in a day here where the weather builds up against the high wall of the Lesotho mountains, invisible today in thick cloud. The other side of Lesotho is probably basking in hot sun. At the worst, I have to head round the country, a ride that I could undertake in a day if necessary.

It’s just a 220km drive to Underberg from Kloof, and seems to be becoming a bit of a habit to start each leg of my journeys here when leaving the comforts of my temporary home from home there. Partly, of course, it is just a relief not to have to search for accommodation.

Underberg is a dull place, a few shops, a petrol station, a few small cafes and businesses and a spattering of farmers’ suppliers and repair shops. It exists as a centre for the local farming community and a base for the ‘adventure’ tours up into Lesotho. There are a few B&Bs and the old Inn, a downtrodden old hotel with little to recommend it beyond budget. It is adequate for my meagre needs, although tonight even the bar is closed. My motorbike sits under the verandah in the pub yard. It’ll do.

I have about three weeks now to travel until I need to be back at Steven’s in Bloemfontein ready to leave the bike and bus up to Johannesburg. I only have a vague direction: to head down to the Western Cape province, with Cape Town as a possible goal. My next directions will be dictated by weather. I have the wall heater on in my room tonight.

DAY 70 MONDAY FEBRUARY 16th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO

Back to my special favourite, Lesotho.

I rode along today trying to analyse why the smile had spread across my face within minutes of entering this tiny kingdom. As I rode to the border I felt a lightening of my spirit, a rejuvenation of my enjoyment of travel and a warmth for this little country. Why..?

It’s difficult to put my finger on it. The magnificence of the scenery of course… The lovely soft green of the rounded mountains; the silence; the waves and smiles; the look of glee on children’s faces as I pass in a flutter of waves; the sense that I feel no discord between my whiteness and their brown skins; the lack of ugly commercialism prevalent in much of South Africa: advertising, hoardings, lorries with brash captions, roadside businesses and so many buildings that contradict the landscape (oddly called ‘development’). Here in Lesotho most of the structures seem to grow out of the green landscape. Even the sweeping roads, twisty enough to put a smile on any biker’s face, appear to meander purposefully but organically across the mountains in a way that seems complimentary rather than an imposition. The least possible movement of rock means that they are light scars rather than huge carvings from the mountains as they follow contours. Everywhere people wave and react; old ladies at the roadside, young men on trotting Basotho ponies and school children wandering home from distant schools, smartly uniformed, talking together, playing the fool, fighting and flirting.

This is a very special place. I am so happy to be here once again. This is my eighth visit to Lesotho. Not surprising I needed to replace my passport before this trip, even with three years to run. Eight visits to Lesotho means 32 passport stamps here alone, in and out of South Africa.

*

It has been a chilly day. When I opened the curtains, it was to a dull day of cloud. I looked up towards Sani Pass, the dramatic route up to Lesotho and decided that riding up that serious trail into a cloud swept morning at nine thousand feet would be unrewarding, so after a short breakfast in an Underberg cafe, I took the road south. The entry points to Lesotho on the eastern side are limited to just two. Well, there is a third one that I took in 2002, but that is not for the faint-hearted and, even I will unwillingly admit, not for the 65 year olds, not, at least, on the bike I am riding now. I’d still contemplate it, mainly from sheer cussedness, on my old Elephant. So I had the choice of the rugged Sani Pass up to the damp clouds and two days of rough gravel roads over the top of the country, or the easier road via Matatiele and Qacha’s Nek, followed by the fine new road across the centre of this beautiful kingdom. With all the dirt roads likely to be greasy and damp, there wasn’t much choice. I rode south towards Matatiele.

The air was cold! As I rode the sun reappeared but not with much warmth. The clouds parted and split into puffy patterns across the huge South African skies. For twenty miles I took to a dirt road to cut a large corner and miss the ugly town of Kokstad. And from Matatiele to the border post is another rugged fifteen miles of rock and dirt too. Tonight I am tired indeed – a combination of the chill, 35 miles of rough trails and a ride of almost 250 miles.

It’s a remote and relaxed border crossing, taking only minutes of formalities up in a rocky saddle. Suddenly, in a way that is always so astonishing when crossing international borders, everything looks different. The scenery ‘inside’ Lesotho is quite different to that on the ‘outside’ of the mountains. Soon you are sweeping and curling through wonderful scenery, softly contoured mountains tower all about you, brown rivers flow in deep canyons far below. Small rondavels with thatched roofs stand on tiny terraces in inaccessible places far up the mountains slopes, across wide brown rivers and along scratched tracks far across valleys that don’t appear to connect with any other tracks or make any geographic sense. Tiny fields, laboriously formed in intricate terraces over centuries, fit the landscape and their multiple shades of green are a visual feast. Now, two months on from my last visit, some of the minute fields are being harvested of splashes of yellow grain stalks, Basotho families bending and cutting the sheaves, colourful splashes amidst the lushness.

This is a beautiful landscape, surely amongst the world’s finest. Yet this country is such a well-kept secret. Maybe if South African whites were less racially sensitive they would discover what a wonder they have on their doorstep. Fortunately for me and the few who share the secret of Lesotho the perception amongst a lot of white South Africans is that Basotho people, as well as the disadvantage of being black-skinned, are ‘poor’ and life here is ‘backward’. The majority of black South Africans have neither the money or the cultural habit of travelling as tourists. Oddly, the majority of other white people I meet in Lesotho are Europeans, not any of the nine million white neighbours who live no more than 100 miles away.

Tonight I had my dinner with a middle aged Swiss couple who worked here as volunteers thirty five years ago. They are here meeting old acquaintances and revisiting places they knew and celebrating the fact that their middle child was born in the hospital here in Roma. They see a lot of change of course…

*

Once again I am sleeping in ‘my’ small thatched rondavel at the Roma Trading Post. It’s probably my favourite place to stay in southern Africa, this little round house, about twelve feet around, with a comfortable double bed and a small en-suite bathroom tucked behind, down three steps. Above me as I write, the inside of he thatch reaches up in a cone above organically hand-plastered walls. It is very quiet, surrounded by mature gardens, shady trees and pergola-covered pathways. The place is well maintained and friendly. By now I know many of the staff. It’s a couple of hundred yards off the town road, insulated from the passing taxi mini-buses and the activities of the small university town below. A generous dinner, bed and breakfast is about £19.50. It’s usually difficult to tear myself away.

*

There’s to be a general election in Lesotho in about two weeks. It seems that, once again in Africa, the choice is between democracy or the ruling corruption. The same the continent over. So much manipulated by vested interests outside all these countries; interests that rape African economies for cheap resources, keep corrupt politicians in their pockets and ruthlessly ignore democracy in the race for corporate wealth in their overseas markets. As I said before on this subject: it is in the interests of the so-called ‘developed’ world to keep Africa poor. It keeps the prices of commodities, labour and extraction down and the local governments under control.

Poor Africa.

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