2015 – SOUTHERN AFRICA JOURNAL – 13

DAY 73 THURSDAY FEBRUARY 19th 2015. MIDDELBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

This turned into a longer day than I intended. I tell you, 300 miles on a motorbike in the burning sun of the Great Karoo Desert is too far. Well, I wasn’t in the Karoo all the time; that’s where I have ended up tonight. It’s a vast area that encompasses most of the southern interior of South Africa, expanses of dry grassland and small scrubby bushes, largely flat but with mountains rising out of the brown-grey vegetation on every horizon. This is a land of the Big Sky, an endless dome of blue scattered with white clouds: impressive country. You can’t imagine plodding across this limitless landscape with an ox cart carrying all your worldly wealth and belongings, plus the family – but that is the story of the legendary Voortrekkers, the original white invaders of this land.

*

The day began without a cloud in the sky as I rode south through Lesotho to a small border crossing that I haven’t used before. I counted on my map: there are twelve border crossings into Lesotho. I have used ten of them now. One is closed to vehicles. So there’s only one other variation possible… Doubtless I will clock it up. It looks rugged.

The south western arc of Lesotho forms the major part of the lowlands of this mountainous country. Much of the population live in towns here and there is a lot of agriculture. Quarrying and what little industry there is and most of the commercial activity happens here on the west and southern edges. Borders as remote as Makhalenbrug are a joy, taking just a few minutes to pass, with friendly officials. On the South African side the road is just gravel, 42 kilometres to the next one-horse town of Zastron, from which I hammered southwestwards on minor main roads for several hours.

*

Leaving Lesotho is always a wrench! On my wall at home, amongst many others, but rather special as it makes me smile whenever I look at it, I have a photo of one of the cooks at the guest house in Roma. Her huge laugh is a delight. She wasn’t working until last night, when I received a vast, enveloping hug, just as I did on leaving this morning, a wonderful, good-looking pudding of a woman, like wrapping your arms round a bunch of pillows. I had to have another picture – another huge laugh for my wall. I need more walls…

*

Much of the peace and stability of Lesotho must be put down to the fact that Lesotho has been a separate country, even under British colonial rule, for a long time; it has no history of inexcusable apartheid; and the majority of the population is of one tribe. For even in the 21st century, tribal jealousies, preferment, and pride cause much of the unrest in Africa – except that manipulated by the self-profiteering IMF, World Bank and the cynical corporate interests of the USA.

So then, back to South Africa. Gone the equal friendship and warm welcomes, the hugs from a cheery fat cook, the handshakes, waves and gleeful smiles. I am back in South Africa… One to one, people remain polite and reasonably friendly – pump attendants, shop assistants, policemen and folks from whom I ask my way. But now if I wave instinctively as I pass, I get a wave in return, but no smile. For I represent the White Man, the Oppressor. No one leaps in the air or dances for me as they wave enthusiastically, no thumbs up, no sense of equality.

I ride now through smart white towns with trimmed lawns and mature trees, pompous churches, pet delis and pet grooming parlours and coffee shoppes with sentimental ‘craft’ shops. But to get there I first have to pass black ‘townships’ on the outskirts – separate – sprawling across hillsides, no trees and dust streets. Some of them look like fund-raising images from an Oxfam flyer of refugee camps: thousands of bothies and shacks formed from scavenged pieces of corrugated zinc, plastic sheeting and wood from recycled boxes and pallets.

These habitations are cheek by jowl – well, allowing for a decent space to insulate the smart old colonial streets from the squalor. I feel the attractions of South Africa have waned in the light of my liberal social politics. I cannot reconcile my ideals with the reality I see about me here. I cannot understand the arrogance and insensitivity that allow the privileged to sleep easy at night, let alone complain so bitterly that ‘everything has been ruined’ by black empowerment.

Oddly, my host tonight in Middelburg, Ponnie, a tubby Afrikaans fellow, (“Oh, we like our meat!”) is one of those few I meet who accept that change had to come and that apartheid was an evil ideology. “We have become a nation of great complainers, these last few years. We do it better than anything else. Instead of accepting change, we complain. Why, I am even getting a few black friends now! I never expected that. We still have much to be happy for; we just have to stop complaining and get on with it!”

I’d identified Steynsberg as my stopping place, until I got to Steynsberg. It was a small ‘dorp’ that has fallen on hard times. The streets were mainly dust, the businesses closed up and people sat listlessly about staring at me in a dull way. Not much of a place to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening. Nothing for it but to go head-down for another 55 windy miles. For by now a desert gale had risen: a hot, blasting wind.

Ponnie owns a historic property in Middelburg – so named as it is in the middle of everything – surrounding towns, the Karoo, the road from Johannesburg to Cape Town and the farmlands hereabouts. Built in the 1870s, it is a sturdy Victorian bungalow beside the street. Behind is a pleasant bricked yard with a few decent rooms opening onto it. I have one of these – for a very reasonable £12.50. A comfortable en-suite room, neat and clean. All I need for the night. Ponnie’s conversation defused my perhaps hypersensitive irritation and racial awareness just in time to prevent a tirade tonight! Thank Ponnie for that.

*

As Stilton and Cheddar are to cheese, Bordeaux to wine and Belgium to chocolate so the Karoo is famous for its lamb. The Karoo grows copious quantities of a dry bush that smells as I pass like thyme or rosemary, on which the sheep graze – natural infusion of the meat! My first question to Ponnie – when I could get a word in – was where I could eat lamb tonight. Despite my almost-vegetarianism these past several years, lamb is my weakness. Forgoing cow and pig is no hardship; lamb, though… So I found a restaurant up the road – in a building built by Lord Kitchener’s (he of ‘Your Country Needs You’) chief builder in 1899, during the Anglo-Boer War, as it is called here. Wasn’t Kitchener Minister of Defence or something by the First World War? In Britain most of us know so little about the Boer War – as we call it. One of those remote colonial wars that was over-shadowed by the ‘War to end all wars’, now an insignificant episode in British history. Still remembered bitterly here though. I know so little of its causes, yet my grandfather won a medal in the Boer War. With wonderful disregard for the indigenous peoples we fought the Boers for control of someone else’s land and I suspect the causes were basically diamonds and gold…. Huh, those Victorians had some arrogance! And, my, didn’t it cause some profound ramifications? Ones people are still paying for a century and a half later.

DAY 74 FRIDAY FEBRUARY 20th 2015. DE RUST, SOUTH AFRICA

The Karoo is strangely impressive in its grey and brown emptiness. Most of the day, not a shred of cloud sullied the blue overhead as I batted along on seemingly endless roads, working my way slowly southwest into the Western Cape province. De Rust is just in that province and from now the desert makes way for mountains towards the oceans.

The Karoo is enormous; my rides across it long. It is an empty place. Scattered about are remote sheep stations, creating tiny, distant oases of green round a tin roof, amidst the late summer burned landscape. What do people DO out there? They have no neighbours, just a few black workers and their families living in basic two-roomed houses at a strategic distance from the white family farm and, of course, they don’t entertain each other… What do they do for entertainment, stimulation, diversion? Eat – eat sheep, maybe. That could explain some of the weight problem amongst the Afrikaners.

There are big distances between towns out here. Fifty or sixty miles between habitations of any size is not uncommon. The towns are old settlements, with Victorian colonial architecture. Graaff Reinet, for instance, is a fine old town filled with well maintained Victorian cottages and commercial buildings lining shady avenues. As you get nearer to the bottom bit of Africa, there is more history apparent – European history, that is, of course. Towns are elegant and trim, historic properties proudly kept – and the ‘blecks’ carefully screened by a convenient ridge or carefully planted trees, in their scruffy semi-informal ‘townships’ of small two-roomed blocks with zinc roofs and appendages of all sorts of scrap materials, the yards empty, dry and ringed by old, rusty wire alongside dusty streets, the cars clapped out. They provide the labour for the coffee shoppes, trinket and ‘craft’ ‘galleries’; pump attendants, parking boys, cleaners and gardeners.

Between the towns stretches the desert, great plains of short dry grass, desiccated bushes, cycads, aloes and prickly pears. A thousand steel windmills draw underground water to cattle ponds and tanks, spinning frantically in the stiffening breeze. In the far, far distance the high mountains seem puny beneath the clear, clean skies. You can see for miles and miles.

*

It was fresher today, the hot winds having reduced to a pleasant coolness. But as the day progressed, back came the strong winds – and they always seem to be headwinds, whichever way I am riding! I rode another 250 miles to reach De Rust.

Thanks to the owner of a coffee ‘shoppe’, where I stopped in Graaff Reinet, I had little difficulty finding my sleeping place tonight. He told me of a farm on the edge of this insignificant town – just a main street on a gentle hill: blink and you’d be out the other side. It’s the only farm in town, and it is, unusually, IN town, well, right on the edge. It owns just about all the land around. White-owned of course. The farm is Victorian and the family has turned some old barns or outhouses into decent rooms in the quiet valley a couple of hundred yards from the road. I pulled in and confused Stephanie and Jahn who are staying here. The farm belongs to Stephanie’s sister and husband, who are away. But a phone call or two elicited the information we all needed and I have a charming en-suite room with a very comfortable double bed and views into a colourful garden, for less than £14. Stephanie kindly made me a cup of tea when I arrived, wind-blasted from my desert ride. I dislike tea, but have accustomed myself to South Africa rooibos tea, literally ‘red bush’, a smokey-flavoured infusion. The interior of the old farm house is impressive, with ceilings fifteen feet high to combat the extreme summer temperatures and shady arcaded stoeps around the outside. The floors are of aged boards and the scale of the rooms enormous. Those old colonials knew how to live. Fortunately servants are still cheap…

Jahn recommended a walk from the back of the farm, which I took for half an hour, accompanied by the younger farm dog, a lumbering woolly black-haired sort of old English sheepdog. Then I had to ride to town for supper at the only open restaurant and the other, similar dog managed to bite my leg as they chased me, sinking two teeth into my calf. Unfortunately, as I was riding only a kilometre or so, I did so in shorts… It’s sore and will be bruised tomorrow. I seem to remember having a rabies shot some time ago. Not that it is a likely risk on a well run farm… Monkeys and wild dogs are the danger here. I’ll have to watch for infection though.

*

I am now in ostrich country, birds that make me smile as they waggle away at my approach, feathers flapping in offended dignity like aged dowagers. Such funny birds, I will see many in the next day or two on farms in these mountains. There were some wild flocks on the desert, pecking at apparently nothing, but there must be sustenance as the sheep attest as well.

Tonight I ordered ostrich for my supper. Well, you have to really when in this area. More like red meat, it is lean and rich and dark – a sort of game meat.

Not far to the bottom of the continent now.

DAY 75 SATURDAY FEBRUARY 21st 2015. RIVERSDAL, SOUTH AFRICA

There are days that just don’t work. Well, I suppose part of it was enjoyable, but the over-riding feeling is that this was a grim day. Unusually, I settled into gloomy low spirits.

For almost a week now I have been fighting gum infection – again. Why do I have such bloody useless teeth? Everything else about me is, I like to think, below my age except my bloody teeth. I’ve already had one extraction on this trip. I don’t think I can have this one out as I think it holds in a couple of others – a bridge. Mind you, I might find a dentist and ask. If it’s got to go I may as well pay fifteen quid instead of my money-grasping Devon dentist’s fifty or sixty! My kind Yorkshire dentist always gives me free antibiotics but it means no alcohol, and I do enjoy my beer when I travel. I guess I have to give up beer for a week if I am to have any comfort as all else has failed. Add to that debilitating condition the disturbed sleep after the dog bite episode yesterday – shock, I suppose; the chill, grey weather and the struggle against strong gusty winds and I am feeling very dull. Very dull indeed.

I began to write in a restaurant up the street. I was the lone customer. Soon after I entered, they put on a loud disc of dreadful ‘Hits of the Sixties’. Having told them I didn’t need entertaining and preferred silence, I afterwards apologised for being a grumpy old git.

But all will be right again soon. It always is.

*

Ironically, last night’s was the most comfortable bed and best value room of my journey. I would have liked to stay another night, as Stephanie suggested, but this was quite literally a case of ‘once bitten’… Stephanie and Jahn were so horrified and embarrassed by what had happened – I had to ask them to keep the dogs in while I rode away – that they refused any payment for accommodation. “Please remember us, not the dog! And pay attention to that bite.” It wasn’t even their dog, or house. They may rest assured that I will study my health closely for a few days. Trouble is, when you already have toothache, are chilled and fed up, it gets difficult to rationalise!

Enough of that.

*

The morning was grey. I made a slow start, lingering over coffee and breakfast waiting for the promised improvement. By noon the sun was out north of the mountain range. Unfortunately, I was going south, over it.

The Swartberg Pass is one of southern Africa’s finest. It even boasts World Heritage status. I rode it in 2002 and in 2013. It’s an untarred road of dust and gravel that is scratched dramatically over a magnificent range with giant canyons and gorges. The track begins in a deep deep gorge, in places perhaps only fifty metres wide, with twisted and layered red sandstone walls like something from a geology textbook, reaching vertically to the slit of sky above. It is very impressive. Then the track begins to rise on narrow rocky shelves to the heights. It turns this way and that, a low dry stone wall keeping the outer edge where the rocky slopes tumble steeply, far into the rumpled depths. The road itself is a feat of engineering, an old route over this wall of mountains.

By the time I reached the top – it’s only something like five and a half thousand feet, a pigmy to Lesotho, but a mighty undertaking to construct from loose rock and gravel – I was in the clouds. A stiff wind had been blowing all morning and now it howled over the summit and drizzle set in lower down: chilly drizzle.

I battled on through Oudsthoorn, famous for its ostrich industry that made it fabulously wealthy in Victorian and Edwardian days, through Calitzdorp to Ladismith, where I had decided to stop. Like Steynsberg a few days ago, it was an idea that died when I saw Ladismith, a run down place of scruffy streets and well supported ‘drankwinkels’ – booze shops. It’s a sad fact that Africans like to drink their way through much of saturday and sunday after pay day on friday. In Riversdal, where I finally ended my ride, after another blowy fifty miles, the drankwinkels were doing good business too. My hotel tonight boasts a noisy ‘Ladies Bar’ as well as a disco bar down the back, both of them fortunately far enough away from my room that they will not disturb tonight.

My road brought me through many fine mountain passes today, at least ten or a dozen. The bottom edge of Africa is crumpled and ridged with ranges. Riversdal, being a nondescript town on the highway that ranges round the bottom of Africa, had more choice of accommodation. It didn’t take long to find the Travel Lodge Hotel – no, not the chain: this is Riversdal, Western Cape’s own version! But the manager was friendly as she showed me a selection of old fashioned but adequate rooms, finally suggesting I take the corner one that looks out across the wide main drag of the town, noisy tonight with old bangers cruising by, their stereo systems and enhanced exhausts the main features of the vehicles. My bike is locked up in a yard round the back by the pounding disco bar. The big en-suite room is less than £13. The bed is clean and comfortable. The building is very 1970s but someone is making an effort here.

*

The majority of people about me are now a different race. These are the Cape Coloured people, descendants of mixed race, with Portuguese and ancient Khoi San blood of the original south Africans all mixed in. They have quite different features, smaller and pinched faces and lighter skins. They are also noticeably more friendly, greeting me in the street in a way that I find uncommon amongst so many of the South African tribes. Yet it is still that minority of less than nine per cent of white South Africans whom I see most. They are the ones driving most of the cars – huge 4X4s, drinking the coffees and eating cakes in the many wayside tourist businesses, ‘weekending’, filling (and running) the B&Bs, hotels and campsites, dining in (and owning) the restaurants and being tourists. They are the ones with disposable income for such things.

*

It’s been another wearing day of stiff cold headwinds – whichever direction I rode. Bad sleep last night, grumpy moods today, concentrating on mountain roads: I need sleep.

DAY 76 SUNDAY FEBRUARY 22nd 2015. STRUIS BAY, SOUTH AFRICA

It’s all right again, as I said. Maybe I need those rotten days to make me appreciate the good ones?

Last night I slept in THE most comfortable bed! It was as simple as that – well, and getting things back in perspective, maybe. The hotel was basic but my sleep was deep and long, nine hours of it. The most comfortable bed in southern Africa. So, of course, I awoke fresh for a new day, a sunny one, at that.

I seem to have withstood the dog bite without infection and the toothache has abated to a sore cheek. I need to find a dentist (tandarts, in Afrikaans) to see if I can have another cut-rate extraction! I had an email from my rip-off dentists in Totnes, reminding me that I hadn’t been seen for 12 months: no, because whenever I can I see the dentist in Yorkshire – often for free – or get my dentistry done in Africa! Since ‘that woman’ privatised dentistry, I so object to paying for their expensive grey settees and real oak floors, all pretension in their greed.

*

At about 5.15 this evening I was the southernmost person on the African continent. One has to do these things: the continent ends at Cape Agulhas, a couple of miles from where I sleep tonight. The Indian Ocean and the Atlantic meet here amid white rollers on the low rocky coast. Warm water meets cold, creating rough seas. It’s a magnificent sight: this end of a vast continent; next land thousands of miles south in Antarctica, west in South America and east in, well, I’m not sure… maybe as far south as Australia, perhaps only the Philippines? There’s a much-photographed marker and most visitors come away with a pebble or two.

A couple of miles back up the road is Struis Baai, a low straggling place of holiday homes and white stone cottages. I have hardly seen a black person all day; it is so odd. All day I have been travelling in a very touristic area full of small heritage towns, wine estates, coffee shops, handicraft and trinket stores, home-baked cakes, chutneys and embroidered cushions. It doesn’t feel like Africa. Africa only exists on the map, not in the scenes around me. Here the relative population statistics are turned about: I bet only 9% of the people here are black while 80% are white – except, of course, the back-room services – kitchens, cleaning, petrol dispensing, shelf-stacking, drain clearing – still has to be done…

*

Marie – pronounced with a long ‘a’: ‘Marrree’, was manager of the Travel Lodge hotel at Riversdal. A cheerful Afrikaans woman, she made my stay in the faintly dog-eared hotel pleasant. Upbeat and happy, she enlivened a quiet sunday morning, arranging a decent breakfast and suggesting onward routes that took me to picturesque Barrydale and Montagu, with 14 national monuments in its main street and through a couple of scenic passes through low mountain ranges. This is fruit, olive oil and wine grape country, with frequent vineyards and brandy makers. In the afternoon I was in landscapes that seemed European in aspect, rolling dry hills of late summer stubble, backed by ridges of blue mountains. It’s a big, bleached-out country that could be in France – or drier Portugal, a thought enhanced by small towns and villages dotted with pretty Cape Dutch thatched houses with sturdy, curly white gable ends. The large fields are pale dusty brown now, grazed by flocks of shorn, stubble-coloured sleepy sheep: a sort of sandpaper landscape, brushes of dry stubble coating the undulations beneath a pale blue sky.

*

Then comes the low, sea-bleached cape, hugely developed since I visited on my Elephant thirteen years ago. Admittedly, I recollect little of that visit (!), but I am sure that the new, smart seaside spread of expensive bungalows was just scrubland in 2002. And now there’s a boardwalk out to the monument at the end of Africa where people take photos and pebbles and are, for a few moments each, the last intrepid person on the continent as they teeter on the last rocks. There’s an obligatory lighthouse, red and white, on a rise beyond the bungalows and designer homes. People fish with expensive equipment in the big white surf. The light is that of the ocean and spindrift, salt and wind.

A helpful lady in a tourist office found me a place to stay nearby, a faintly seedy holiday apartment: two rooms with a bathroom, self-catering facilities and a noisy fridge. Good enough for the night, I wouldn’t want to spend my holiday here. Supper I took in a small Afrikaans-run bar: rather good grilled hake with chips, but the nearest thing to a green vegetable was the tartare sauce, as usual. It will do at the end of another quite chilly-winded day and a surfeit of fresh air at the bottom of Africa, about 100 miles from Cape Town.

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