2015 – SOUTHERN AFRICA JOURNAL – 15

DAY 83 SUNDAY MARCH 1st 2015. MIDDELBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

Rather a slog today. It is easy to underestimate the sheer size of this country. Distances are long, towns separated by many miles, roads sweeping over mountains and across expansive deserts. And the only way to get to the other side is to put my head down and ride. I am about half way back to Lesotho from the southern coastal region.

And depending on the outcome of finding the local bike mender, I may have to return to Lesotho via Bloemfontein, not such a diversion if it’s necessary. For this afternoon my rear brake disappeared completely. That’s fine on the long highways, since bikers use at least 75% front brake as a rule. But if I go off road, the front brake, of course, stops the front wheel too fast and the rear wheel continues to power – and down you go. So before I get back to Lesotho, I need a rear brake. I guess the seals have gone on the piston, finally succumbing to yesterday’s usage maybe. If it can be done here, well and good; if not, Steven will happily repair it for me, I know! I am only about 250kms from Bloem now. I could be there by late lunchtime if I need be. “Nothing goes on for ever!” as Steven said when I phoned him this evening for advice. It’s true that my red bike has proved to be VERY reliable indeed. In fact, now that I feel so much more comfortable with it, a good choice of machine to partner my crazy journeys. Pity it’s not my old Elephant, but it is becoming a good second best at last.

*

Middelburg is the town in which I stayed some days ago. I wasn’t going to stop here, but in Cradock, fifty miles earlier. But I knew that here I could stay in Ponnie’s pleasant guest house, and if I need to ride to Bloemfontein, I am part of the way there. Sometimes the strain of finding somewhere to sleep makes it worthwhile just to ride on a little further. Cradock didn’t appeal much, in any case. Those mid-desert, mid-everything towns are pretty dreary on sundays. The white people are pious, puritanical church-goers and don’t approve of fun on sundays and the black males are frequently drunk on cheap booze, or driving their clapped out vehicles loudly round town, under the frowns of the buttock-clenching church goers. The black women attend their cheerfully noisy churches and then repair home with the children. There’s not much choice of food on sundays in a lot of one-horse South African towns, especially if you don’t consider Kentucky Fried or Wimpy food

*

The fertile valley in which Patensie and other nearby towns are situated is known for its citrus orchards. This country has so much fertile land. My ride today brought me past many large orchards and rolling farmland, until I finally turned northwards and headed back into the Karoo desert, away from looming dark clouds ahead. My little red bike hammers along quite well at 75mph on these big sweeping highways with almost no traffic. It’s going to be a struggle, as it always is, to get accustomed to British traffic density again in ten days. Often, even on these big roads, I can see no other vehicle in front or behind – and here you can see a very long way!

Roadworks are a hassle on the highways. They just restrict long stretches of several kilometres to one way traffic. Sometimes the wait can be up to 45 minutes! Today I met three sets of workings – with no one actually working on sunday – with waits of mercifully only about ten minutes each. It’s not what you want just after you decide to ride on a final fifty miles extra. Road quality, however, is generally excellent in South Africa.

*

I was astonished to find how much I had undervalued the minimum wage in South Africa. I had assumed, based on my sense of what I spend in a day and what things cost, that it must be at least £1.50 an hour. I did some research and find that for most people it is about 10 to 12 Rand – 55 to 65 pence an hour. A typical breakfast with a cup of coffee costs me about five times that. My dinner tonight, in the balconied, old fashioned hotel round the corner, is priced at 99 Rand, my 340cl bottle of beer at 15 Rand – over ten hours at minimum wage, which is, I am sure what most earners get, not even mentioning the unemployed. Hardly surprising there’re no black people drinking in bars, only serving – at something little above the minimum wage, I bet. Hardly surprising that servants are the norm, and in numbers, for the white invaders. I certainly could live like a millionaire, if my scruples let me… In one hour of ‘design consultancy’ in the USA, I can earn an obscene multiple of the wage of a maid or garden boy in this unequal country. But the spurious argument that ‘we are giving THEM employment’ just never stacks up in my morality.

Oh well, mustn’t get onto that sidetrack.

I just fell into conversation with Johan, a local sheep farmer. He kindly bought me a drink before he drove home from the bar. His family has been in this area since the early settlers. He farms in Hanover, a bit north and west of here, with a 90 year old father here in town needing care and attention. He tells me that he can keep one ewe on two hectares of land. Not surprising the farms here are so vast. But he told me that the greatest revolution in sheep farming down here came in the 1880s with the introduction of fencing, and then the invention of the Karoo windmills to water the animals. His deepest windmill is pumping water 100 feet. He tells me that the Karoo is trying to ‘brand’ their meat, like champagne, and all the specialist regional products. But to do so, the animals must be proven to have eaten from seven distinctive shrubs and herbs. He also applauded Prince Charles for his support for wool products, having become patron of the International Wool Secretariat (based in Ilkley) and says his work is raising the profile – and value – of the Karoo product. An interesting conversation for a few minutes over his nightcap, before he got in his bakkie and drove off to see his old father. Yes, the Afrikaans people are friendly and warm-hearted…

DAY 84 MONDAY MARCH 2nd 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

Well, Bloemfontein it had to be. Not a great sacrifice of course. I have the pleasure of seeing the Stevens again for the night.

My neck aches again from the stiff wind. Always a head wind: it is bizarre! Sometime last year I had cause to visit a chiropractor about a shoulder problem, an old injury from hitting a wall with my first motorbike in 1978. He diagnosed part of the problem being caused by some hugely overdeveloped muscles, ones that hold my head on, probably over-used from holding my head and helmet in the wind. Well, they’ll be even bigger now.

Back across the vast Karoo, endless expanses of golden dried grasses, low fnybos bushes and red rock earth. The road is wide, empty and long. Sometimes you can see the road, straight as an arrow, even TEN miles ahead! This was the N1, the long, long highway that stretches fro Mussina, on the Zimbabwe frontier, where I stayed on February 7th, to Cape Town, a distance of twelve hundred miles. Gritting my teeth, I flogged along for three and half hours, into a chill headwind beneath the cloudless enormity of the great blue dome of sky.

*

My host, Ponnie, was helpful, guiding me round Middelburg in his car in search of assistance with my rear brake problem. But I soon exhausted the two possibilities: one fellow was away and the other, a small-time bike repairer, admitted he would have to send to Bloemfontein for the necessary parts. “I’m afraid you might as well ride there!” said Johan, after a look at the brake piston. “It’s a simple repair, but I’d need the seals.”

So ride I did.

*

Back here in Bloem Steven has all the contacts to help me fix my bike and get on my way for the last few days. I will return here on saturday. Meanwhile, I took both Stevens, (young Steven is 14 and delightful) both very charming and good-hearted, out for supper. I look upon Steven as a friend. I am happy to see him once again. A warm bond.

DAY 85 TUESDAY MARCH 3rd 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

Still in Bloem, but an enforced day with warm friends is really no cost to my journey – in fact, it’s really what my journey is about. The two Stevens are such kind, generous friends – even little Steven, aged 14. As for big Steven, well, he has become a valued friend over my visits to South Africa.

It turned out that there was no replacement master brake cylinder for my motorbike in Africa. Ordering one from Germany would take two weeks. I was sent to look for second hand parts but those, too, were unavailable. I phoned Steven, who had gone on to work and he determined to strip the brake cylinder down for me and make a repair. Well, what with some work commitments as well, it took all day to do this, driving round town finding parts to bodge a temporary repair, the problem an O ring so valueless it was given to us. Steven is a good African repairer: making do with what he has, like Rico in Kenya. A replacement cylinder was estimated to cost £160. Steven’s repair cost nothing – except a bit of time, and dinner for the three of us again. An undistinguished dinner in a fish food chain.

By the end of the day I have a working rear brake and a repaired oil leak from my engine. I also have a replacement front tyre to match the new rear one – a part-used tyre that Steven gave me. So for the final few days of my trip I have a functioning motorbike. The bike will be stored here at Steven’s house until such time that I make a decision whether to ride it again or sell it. For now, it costs me nothing to keep it, whereas finding another that is so reliable would be troublesome and costly. If I decide to ride it more, Steven will rebuild it for me in the meantime.

A hot day in Bloemfontein. This city gets a continental climate, behind the Lesotho mountains from the Indian Ocean and a long long way across the deserted interior to the cool Atlantic.

DAY 86 WEDNESDAY MARCH 4th 2015. RAMABANTA, LESOTHO

Lesotho. Back again. I wanted to spend the last few days of this trip in this lovely country. It hasn’t turned out quite as I hoped yet, but maybe it will. I rode back to Roma, my favourite slightly ramshackle guest house, to find it in the throes of preparing for a party of fifty tonight. So I rode on into the interior another thirty miles to Ramabanta. Two or three weeks ago, as I rode through, I briefly met a white South African called Alex who runs the ‘Trading Post’ guest house here. It’s in a bit of a different league, one that on the whole I don’t appreciate. It is much more pretentiously up-market and feels like a poncy place in South Africa, rather than Roma’s home-spun quality and cheerful – equal – staff. What’s more, I have arrived along with a party of about twenty noisy elderly Afrikaners on a ‘4X4 Adventure’ – although it looks to me as if many of the vehicles haven’t been out of the supermarket car park and malls of South Africa, and I certainly wouldn’t want to rely on the MOUNTAINOUS men to help me get my vehicle out of the mud – unless using them as anchors, for their beer bellies would provide a good winch-weight. The women are pretty large hills too… I had to share my rather good self-service dinner with them, eating perhaps half the quantity of any of them. Relegated to a table for one, I chose to eat at the bar while they chomped and chewed, went back for more and told noisy stories in Afrikaans, an ugly language. I couldn’t travel like that: groups always look inwards; no one giving me more than a nod.

*

Steven, after hospitably cooking breakfast for me again (ostrich mince, fried eggs, toast and that awful South African tasteless orange cheese that I so look forward to leaving behind) had a busy day of work ahead of him, so it was quite early when I got on the road today. I rode to one of the smaller border points at about eight o’clock on the map of Lesotho, for I wanted to find a long dirt road that I haven’t ridden yet. But in the end I had not enough faith in the temporary repair to my rear brake to take it. It is working, but not to full strength, and I had no idea what to expect on that quite long loop of dirt and rock road. So I turned back to the tar road and headed for Roma – and then Ramabanta.

*

Ramabanta is now connected to the rest of he world by a tarred road. It is on the new road that traverses the centre of this small country. Only last year, this road was still largely gravel, as they constructed the new highway. Now it is a fine two lane road right across the mountainous interior, as usual representing a vast debt to the Chinese.

The guest house is fine. It’s just my perception of it that finds it wanting in simplicity. It stands, a series of nice rooms and smart thatched bungalows, amongst lawns and trees, overlooking a lovely valley to the distant mountains beyond. I negotiated for a room, managing to knock £11 off dinner, bed and breakfast by agreeing to take what I think is a room normally given to the drivers of tour groups, something more of a shed, making DB&B £21 – well within my impecunious budget. Smaller and more basic my room may be, but it is relative luxury for me!

Below the guest house on its grassy ridge is a steep valley to a contorted rocky river, currently virtually dry. I clambered down the rocky slope and sat for some time on a rocky outcrop drinking in the very handsome view.

The happy sounds of children playing reverberated around the rocky green vastness. A cluster of red-stone thatched rondavels perched on a ridge five hundred yards away, a line of calmly flapping washing catching an updraft and animating the still scene. An occasional horse and rider picked their way up the grassy slopes, all backed by the high, curvaceous mountains of Lesotho beneath a washed blue sky with handkerchiefs of cloud scattered above. Two children gleefully slid down a grassy slope beneath the village on plastic sacks. It was deeply peaceful, the stillness only disturbed by the whine of a few mosquitoes round my ears and the dull buzzing of passing flies in the warm, still, late afternoon air. As the sun lowered, the rondavels dissolved into a general shade, their organic qualities lost amongst the shadows that increasingly sculpted the curves and folds of the background mountains.

*

Ramambanta isn’t on the grid, so a generator hums away across the grassy lawns at the back of the guest house (where I am!). I forgot to ask at what time it will plunge us all into darkness, so I had better get my shower while it will still power the Calor gas geyser…

DAY 87 THURSDAY MARCH 5th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO

A day of happy smiles – one of them mine – and waving hands, also one of them mine. I am in Lesotho. Oddly, for one who needs so much novelty and constant activity, I don’t tire of Lesotho. Today I rode places I have ridden several times, visited reasonably familiar places and saw all the mountains I have seen before. But the situation is always different: the light, the weather, the people and what they are doing; why, sometimes it’s just me moving in the other direction.

A note I made in the small notebook I always keep in my pocket when I am travelling is interesting: ‘cleaners wave at guests. Equality’. I was sitting in a very plush hotel development, probably the most expensive I’ve seen in Lesotho. It is a very fancy lodge with a ‘cultural village’, museum (not yet operating), an amphitheatre, conference facilities and so forth. Not my sort of style, but I had been to see the ‘cultural village’ (rather phoney and lifeless. Culture needs people…), and stopped for a cup of coffee (Nescafe!) on the luxury hotel veranda, the sort of things I can do with the exchange rate. As I sat, a cleaner passed pushing a laundry trolley and gave me an expansive wave and a cheerful smile. In South Africa that would never have happened – well, it MIGHT, but I would have had to wave first and the smile would have been perfunctory. Here she smiled and went on her way, she to do her work, me to enjoy (if that’s quite the word for Nescafe) my coffee. It was an expression to me of equality and welcome. The Basotho really DO seem to like to see strangers.

The pretty waitress, Intebile, brought my coffee. “Don’t bother with the sugar!” I told her.

“YO!” she exclaimed, with a shocked expression, a delightfully unsophisticated reaction to the fact that I could take coffee unsweetened. But to me, it represented an equality that she could overcome convention with a guest like this.

*

From Ramabanta I rode on to Semonkong, the town in the centre of Lesotho that, until last year, was remote on long gravel and rock roads. Now the Chinese are busy tarmaccing this little mountainous kingdom and roads – and subsequent debt – are stretching across the contorted contours. I am told that much of the A3, a road that will long live for me as a rugged, adventurous ride a year ago, is now tarred. The tar rather ruins the excitement for we bikers but it opens up so much of Lesotho for the local population. My little bike puffs and pants, struggling up some of the inclines at these altitudes, up around six or seven thousand feet. But it is all so scenically wonderful that I hardly notice. I still have the excitement of donkey dodging, avoiding flocks of dirty sheep, trotting horses and meandering cows.

The temporary repair to my brake has not lasted. We need the actual BMW seal, I suppose. So I am back to one brake for now.

In Semonkong I bought a handful of delicious local peaches, small and yellow, and wandered the dusty, bumpy tracks of the ‘frontier-town’ with its decrepit buildings, dark supermarkets and tin shack kiosks of the market. Here there are many horses and riders – more than there are cars – and donkeys. Young men watch me and gaze at my bike. They wear their woolly balaclavas and blankets, twitch their sticks and stare until I smile, mysteries to one another.

*

Now back in Roma, one of my favourite places in southern Africa, I am back in ‘my’ small rondavel at the Trading Post. I like it here: I know all the staff now and can be informal with everyone. Tonight I have enjoyed the company and conversation of Katt, a drama teacher from New York, who comes to work at the university here in Roma, drama projects around social issues, with AIDS awareness being an important topic in this poor country, with its high incidence and its astonishing numbers of grandparent or child-headed families, and missing generations.

*

There is an autumnal chill to the air in the mornings and evenings now. I found myself riding with jersey and jacket and scarf, with waterproof jacket on top to keep out the cool air until lunchtime. The sun, of course, just below tropical Africa, is hot when there’s no wind, awkward when I stop…

My trip is running down now and I am happy to end here in Roma, Lesotho. Somehow, this guest house; this town in its dramatic valley with cliff walls of pale sandstone forming bizarre shapes against the blue African skies, sums up a lot of what for me is best about Africa – smiling, equal people with the greatest fortitude, generous spirits, an unsophisticated naturalness in their interactions with me, laughter never far from the surface, warmth and welcome, optimism in the face of apparently crushing obstacles – just lovely human beings. A wonderful place to know: a wonderful place to be – and great memories to take away with me.

Lovely Lesotho, unique and unknown.

DAY 88 FRIDAY MARCH 6th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO

For one last, and I hope lasting, look at the scenery that I consider some of the finest in the world I took the little red bike, with one brake, over one of the world’s most impressive passes into the Highlands around Katse Dam. It was my intention to continue and complete a huge circuit, returning down the also wonderful road to Roma, a road I have taken quite often with its three vertiginous passes. However, when I had almost reached Katse a dose of sense overcame me. Must be old age.

I had already ridden 200 kilometres and was less than half way round the circuit, still with 60 kilometres of gravel road connecting Katse and Thaba Tseki. It’s not a bad gravel road but it twists and turns over some fabulous mountain scenery with the Orange River far, far below. From Thaba Tseki back to Roma would be another 75 miles at least. No rear brake was meaning that I had to ride with more circumspection than usual – judging every one of the bends (supposedly 728 of them to Katse, I seem to remember reading and noting earlier) so that my speed was correct to get round without braking. I was getting tired, quite tired. Forty miles of gravel would tire me even more – then seventy five miles of curly passes over the amazing mountains to get me home, all with one brake… I decided to turn round. Well, I said yesterday that everything looks completely different in the opposite direction! Mind you, I still had those 728 bends to contend with.

By an astonishing fluke, I think I also avoided several soakings had I continued. For the afternoon developed into sharp thunder showers – every single one of which I missed! Some of them were heavy, judging by the puddles and wetness. And, what’s more, I had foolishly not taken my waterproof trousers with me. Providence seemed to be on my side today. I saw the best of the mountains in sunshine and then turned my back unwittingly on the bad weather. Back here in Roma a thunderstorm had put out the electricity for some time, making for late dinner and, apparently, complaints from a couple of German tourists. This is Lesotho, for goodness sake! You take life as it comes here, and enjoy the unpredictability.

*

This is, I find from looking back at old diaries, the 27th night I have stayed in this little kingdom in the African skies. But I don’t tire of it; in fact, I increase my sense of wonder at the beauty and magnificence of the country and the cheerful welcome of its people. Everywhere I meet with waves and smiles, especially when I get off the main roads as I did this morning. I guessed there was a way to ride to the northern part of the country without the boring traffic, speed humps, crazy taxis and dust of Maseru, the small capital city. Indeed there was, a lovely ride through a great fertile valley with the high mountains as a backdrop. For about six or seven miles the road reduced to gravel but the scenery was immense, natural and sunbathed. People waved and greeted and those from whom I asked my way were friendly and helpful, curious about why I was there and full of smiles and warmth. The majority of Basotho speak some English, except right out in the country. It’s pretty much a bi-lingual nation. Where education has reached, so has the English language.

Summer is fading now. The tiny terraced fields have been harvested and straw piled in large stooks about the landscape. Animals are well fattened in preparation for the coming winter, which in the Highlands in particular is harsh. As I rode up the astonishing Mafika Lisui Pass, one of the highest in Africa at 3090 metres (a whisker over 10,000 feet), signs warned of the snow and ice that will come. For now the air was chill enough to warrant my over-jacket, the night cool enough for a duvet for the dawn hours, even for me.

*

Thinking of cold makes me ponder my return to England. In a week I will be waking up in Harberton. While I look forward to being ‘home’, which Harberton with its uniquely welcoming property has become, I realise that my body really isn’t adapted for the British climate. And as I get older, it has changed even more. People around me as autumn comes to southern Africa relax in tee shirts and shorts while I put on jumpers and fleeces and try to make heaters work. This year I have pretty well avoided winter, beyond a short unexpected flurry in Massachusetts. What about the next few? I sometimes ride along wondering just how long I can go on pretending that I am twenty years younger than I actually am!

‘Who knows tomorrow..?’ – a very African expression.

*

A dramatic storm just passed over, lightning flashing blue about the steep ridges, thick wet clouds obscuring the about full moon tonight. Rain is still pattering on the thatch and the trees dripping onto the tin roof of my bathroom. Summer really is drawing to an early close this year. I make no pretence: lightning in Lesotho terrifies me. This country, with its height and its situation between a vast ocean and a huge landmass has one of the world’s highest incidences of lightning strikes. That is no comfort to me, on a chunk of steel and very flammable propellant when I am up on the high tops of Lesotho.

Better than Devon damp, though, I think.

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