DAY 8. TUESDAY DECEMBER 15th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO
It’s such a pity, it seemed to me as I rode the high mountains of this extraordinary little country today, that I can’t rekindle the delight of my first discovery of Lesotho in 2002. Then it was no more than a tantalising space on the map of my footloose journey in south and eastern Africa, an excuse to ‘collect’ another country. For it to still weave its magic hypnotically thirteen years and perhaps ten visits later says so much about the beauty of the country and its charming people.
Riding those sky-high roads, sweeping this way and that, twisting beneath the unblemished deep blue of the high altitude skies, in chill pure air, with vastly expansive crumpled landscapes upturned and contorted by the forces of nature all around is a humbling and engrossing experience. On my insignificant little machine that occupies so much of my concern, I am just a speck of dust in this endless natural order. The infinite blue sky domes above me and drought-browned canyons open below, streams now dry. Huge cliffs of sedimentary layers tower to my side, with legible millennia-long stories carved carelessly through by modern road engineers. The narrow tarmac layer will one day be a minuscule part of a much bigger story. In these conditions tarmac lasts a decade or so, not millennia. It’s difficult to remember, as I ride along, my nose already sun-burned and reddening, that this rumpled, contorted mountain-scape will be deep in snow again in but a few months, for the Basotho are the only Africans who regularly live with sub-zero temperatures and metres of snow, a fact that explains the geological rawness of the little kingdom, up here under the African skies and stars.
My little 650cc bike struggles up there above seven or eight thousand feet, searching for air to combat the poor petrol that I put in at Thaba Tseka, the main straggling town of the interior of Lesotho, 100 winding, mountainous miles from Roma. During those hundred miles I must have gained and lost tens of thousands of feet of altitude, the maximum being a mere 2633 metres – eight and half thousand feet – for Lesotho, boasts Africa’s highest road at about ten thousand feet – (read on, around New Year!). I love this arid, dramatic landscape and ride along with a wide smile sun-blasted onto my face, always ready to respond to friendly greetings and waves as I ride by scattered hamlets and lonely shepherds, dodging sheep, Basotho horses, donkeys, wandering cows and tumbled rocks on the tarmac. Sometimes I can see my road, graphically sketched across the mountains far ahead and far above, or etched in sinuous curves and coils far below. It’s a feat of engineering, to stretch these skeins of road across Africa’s highest mountains. Traffic is light, a few almost stationary, fume-belching lorries and minibuses grinding their way into the heights, their passengers dozing over the interminable journeys through unregarded wonders that are so familiar and make returning home so tedious.
I rode to Thaba Tseka, 100 miles each way. At some point I reached a point of no return as the petrol required to return meant either turning or continuing to the next pumps at Thaba Tseka. So fine was the ultraviolet day that I opted to ride on, only the numbness of my bum even reminding me that all this was real, not fantasy. It really is indescribably wonderful up there – amongst one of my favourite world landscapes. And so little known…
I turned off the tarmac and shook my way over 20kms of rock and gravel to search for the mountainside of red hot pokers – form of aloe, of which so many are endemic to southern Africa – that was so wonderful early this year. But either it is too early, or the severe drought has caused them to stunt, for they were no more than grey-green shrubs without so much as buds. In a couple or three weeks’ time I am to bring Steven, and probably his friend, Sean (owner of Milo and Marmite) to Lesotho. Steven, who lives sixty or seventy miles from Lesotho and loves biking, has never been to Lesotho – like so very many white South Africans I meet. Encouraged and emboldened by me, he will make his first motorbike journey ‘overseas’ in the New Year, before I set off elsewhere. I shall be guide, so I need to select my favourite routes and sights. Not so difficult in this magical kingdom in the sky.
At breakfast I found myself with two black South Africans. The man was somewhat taciturn and I never found his name before he left me talking with the very charming, buxom and smiling Mavis. They are both bus drivers and arrived yesterday from Johannesburg, bringing a sporting group to compete at the university up the street. Mavis was disposed to chat. She is an animated, cheerful person, full of the curiosity and compassion I admire in so many African women. Filled with fortitude – attributed by her to to God’s influence in her life – she once again impressed on me how different this continent would be were it run by women, not the generally useless, feckless and lazy men. Mavis has a son of 20 and daughter of 14. She is the breadwinner, her irresponsible husband having done what so many African men do after fathering children: walked out and left her. “I can’t chase him, for he might kill my children…”
A cheery woman from Swaziland, she is obviously popular with the European tourists she often drives for a tour company in Johannesburg. But to provide for her children she works long hours and drives many miles about the south of this huge continent. “I live in a ‘project’ house now,” she told me proudly, describing one of the mean block dwellings that rise outside the smart white parts of so many towns and communities in South Africa. “Some of my European guests liked me so much they gave me enough money to buy a washing machine! My daughter, she can do the washing, clean the house and look after her brother, and I have a very good neighbour… but I don’t like to leave my children so much. But what can I do…? I have to provide for them. They must be educated. My son, he’s a bit slow and has memory problems; he was hit by a car four years ago and has difficulties since then. But he can draw! I want to find some way he can work with his hands.” She spread Marg and local jam on another slice of soggy British Empire sliced toast, her weaved hair framing a smiling, chubby, unlined face with dark-chocolate skin much younger than her 41 years. “No, I don’t look my age! Everyone says it! I don’t drink. I never touched alcohol in my life. You must look after yourself, and I have to care for my children. If they die, what is there? Some kind tourist from Holland, he wrote in the internet that if Mavis is your driver, you are LUCKY! I was proud! And now, when I collect passengers they know that with Mavis they will be safe! They are HAPPY! Sometimes they give me gifts; I want to extend my house. I dream of three bedrooms so some of my foreign friends can come and stay in my small house. Already I bought the geyser and pipes! I want to have a shower; now we must use the bucket…”
“We used to live in a shack!” She confided, and I saw in my mind’s eye the tens of thousands of crude zinc and firewood sheds in which so many of the poor South African black population live. “OH! In winter they are so COLD and in summer it is HOT, and my daughter, she suffers from asthma and I always had to be paying hospital bills for her. No, my house is small, but it is not a shack any more! I give thanks to God! I believe in God you know!” I changed the subject quickly, for disbelief is one area in which so many indoctrinated, devout Africans cannot come to terms with the western world.
Mavis was a delight to converse with. She was tired and drawn from her tiresome duties and being on call half the night to drive her charges back from bars. But she epitomised the fortitude and strength of African women, and an acceptance and gratitude for the things she has, rather than a tirade against the things she lacks. Give an African woman money and she will feed and educate her children: give it to the average man and he will drink it and go home and beat his wife – if he hasn’t already left her to her own devices… I know it’s a generalisation, and I apologise to any of my Ghanaian family who may read this, but it is a generally sad truth about so many poorly educated men on this endlessly fascinating continent. If the likes of Mavis ruled this continent, it wouldn’t be in the undoubted mess that it is…
Back ‘home’, weary but happy from the purest air possible and endless sun and concentration on serpentine mountain roads, I bought myself a six-pack of milk stout and joined the garrulous Chris with his wine and cigarettes and old stories of anti-establishment action, and later the privileged but engaging South African biker group around the dinner table, back, glowing and enthusiastic from energetic rides about the rough country around here. From a large, mainly but not exclusively, white public school in the ‘Midlands’ of Natal, they see little of the reality of the hard life around them, enjoying that especial white South African ability to keep their heads in the social sand. Decent teenagers, polite and fun, I couldn’t help thinking that their extracurricular credits would be better engaged by staying a couple of weeks in a rural village – or Mavis’s ‘shack’ – and seeing the life to which they have such an ability to be blind, rather than scoring points by ability to drive cars or ride motorbikes safely. The vast majority of people around their privileged bubble will never own or drive a vehicle, they are too busy trying to get through life. But then, I suppose that’s me expressing my political and social polemic in much the same lengthy way that Chris expounds his!
A fun day. Tomorrow I must move on and try to sort out my bike tax. I received an email from Rico in Kenya this lunchtime. The money I transmitted by the efficient online company, Exchange4Free (good international tip number two!) late on Sunday afternoon reached his bank this morning. He suggests that my Kenyan bike will be registered in the name of his Kenyan wife, Adelight, and we then draw up a ‘hire’ agreement for me to use it outside Kenyan borders. Ah, African bureaucracy.
And the shameful thing is, we taught them to do it this way! The Empire has lasting ripples, some worse even than Kleenex bread…
DAY 9. WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 16th 2015. MATATIELE, SOUTH AFRICA
A year ago, to the day, I arrived in Matatiele, a town of little attraction, to find it in the grips of Reconciliation Day, a politically correct bank holiday that replaces some Boer War victory commemoration and later a religious festival, when both became divisive in the new ‘Rainbow Nation’. South Africa spends quite a bit of energy necessarily rewriting its history and myths to fit new social principles.
So history – mine that is – repeats itself. I came a twelvemonth ago and found the vehicle tax office closed; I came today and found the same. Huh.
The new road across the top of Lesotho cuts the country in half and saves the very circuitous communications that existed before. Now you can speed from one side of the kingdom to the other in 150 miles – allowing for the three dozen very irritating speed humps on the second half of the journey. It’s a Chinese road of course, built by the new colonisers of Africa, colonisers with even less interest in the rights and good of African peoples than all the previous invaders. China just wants the power over resources for future gain, at extreme cost to the ecology of our fragile planet. There’s not much hope for the long term future of mankind on this planet, having managed to rape it in the last two or three centuries pretty conclusively. Now the Chinese have entered the ring, I see precious little hope at all. It may be the only home we have, but we do nothing to respect that fact.
But the new road sweeps up and over the central mountains of the little country, not as high here in the southern half as they are in the north, but still pretty impressive crumpled terrain. It was a trying ride though, with gale force, blustery winds funnelling amongst the rocks and ridges. Wind is perhaps the most unsettling of conditions for riding motorbikes, at least on winding roads. A line selected through a bend visually may well have to be instantaneously adapted as gusts and blasts change the dynamics. It makes for concentration and wearing rebalancing, gear changing and observation. The noise of the wind is discomfiting too, as it whistles and buffets across my helmet. Add a spaghetti serpentine road and it’s tiring. But the scenery makes up for a lot, despite the streaming cold that has settled on me – as always in my second week in Africa. It must be the change in climate for it catches me here in southern Africa or in West Africa – every time. I am tonight completely full of cold, sneezing and sniffling and unable to breathe. Or it could just be air travel, for it happens on most visits to USA as well!
Somewhere high on top of Lesotho I almost fell off my bike in amazement as a Thwaites Beer lorry blew past on a long brown hill! At least it added a chuckle to my ride. The eastern side if Lesotho is quite different, with dry brown and red soils of all shades from Devon red to Sienna brown, pink, cerise and white. Expansive vistas are formed of patchworks of reds, browns and fawns of all hues beneath the huge deep blue sky. It’s a unique scene, with shadowed canyons carved into the rounded hills. But now it is dry and parched. Even the mighty Orange River, one of southern Africa’s biggest rivers, flowing from Lesotho’s heights westwards to the Atlantic, and here called the Senqu, is no more than a torpid brown dribble in this drought that has gripped the continent. In many places you could paddle across a few feet of turgid brown water only ankle deep, and here and there you could cross dry-shod – and this was a big flowing river, a hundred yards wide when I was last riding its banks in February. No water falls into the gullies and canyons and the few rowing ferry boats are upturned on cracked dry mudflats. The landscape is dusty and worn, the animals thin and desultory, crops looking bleak and the prospect of rising prices for foodstuffs pressurising these subsistence economies. This year even Victoria Falls, that fabulous wall of water where the great Zambezi plunges into that mesmerising gorge, has made the news for being virtually dry and the river emptier than it is in the dry season. You can walk across the mightiest falls in Africa.
Matatiele has no interest for me – and I rode eight kilometres round town looking for something, so I speak with authority! I was also looking for a place to stay since the quite pleasant guest house I used a year ago was not answering their phone. It’s probably the tidiest town around the region; the ugly Transkei, one of the cosily named but depressing ‘homelands’ of the apartheid era, starts immediately south of here. There’s nothing of cultural or architectural interest, just an administrative and commercial centre, some quite over-priced guest houses and a few fast food outlets as the choices for supper. Not so much as a restaurant, just cardboard burgers and floppy chips in a hard-surfaced boombox behind the petrol station.
The de Berg guest house is acceptable; quite comfortable in fact in my range of accommodations. In South Africa I carry a cheap phone with which to pull up outside and ask availability and rates, since everyone puts their numbers on the sign boards. It saves a lot of trundling round pushing bells and waiting, even if I have to pull off my helmet, gloves and goggles at every gate and switch off the bike. The de Berg had a couple of self catering rooms visible from the road behind a pleasant garden, rooms not unlike garages with patio doors into the garden. It’s quite a common form of guest house in South Africa, virtually always white owned, for I am in the old white part of town – the smart end. My room is clean, en suite, with a microwave, fridge, and terrace and costs about £19.50, just within my £20 maximum. Ah, I remember those dollar-a-night places I used to find. I do appreciate my relative wealth in my middle age! Glad I did it, but glad I don’t have to any more!
Well, I expect tomorrow to be a stressful day dealing with African bureaucracy; coping with road tax ten months out of date. We’ll see.
DAY 10. THURSDAY DECEMBER 17th 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA
It took a ghastly three and a half hours to re-tax my motorbike in Matatiele this morning. But it is done: legal for another twelve months. African bureaucracy gives the impression of taking some beating – but is vulnerable, just the same. A wide smile, talking enthusiastically at people and acting patience – however I may be feeling – wins through in most situations.
So I now seem to reside at 15 Tayler Street, Matatiele, the home of the manager of the road traffic department of the town! It appears that the law changed this year, and I now have to prove residence to tax my motorbike…
Determined to be done with this irritation as quickly as possible, I was at the vehicle tax office at 8.05 this morning, the five minutes being the time it took to obtain a photocopy of my passport in town as soon as the shops opened. Last year I had the frustrating experience of arriving at the tax office at 11.00 and being told, “No more forms, come tomorrow!” Why, I wondered then – and still – didn’t they just send someone to a photocopier? But that takes initiative and it’s so much easier just to say, “come tomorrow”… Actually, that’s one of the reasons my tax was overdue by eleven months! I lost patience and left a year ago.
“Oh, but you must have proof of residence,” said the young woman handing out forms – of which, at 8.05, she still had a large heap. I pointed out that that was a problem. “Go to the Municipal Offices; they will give you the proof.”
So I rode across town to to the Council Offices, where a beleaguered receptionist agreed that that was just a way for the vehicle licensing office to pass the buck. “Why do they send you here? There’s nothing we can do!” She called across town and spoke with her counterpart back at the tax office, berating them for constantly sending people to her and making her seem responsible for their disappointment. “It’s better you go back and talk to Mr Paton,” the apologetic receptionist told me. “Mr Paton…”
Back to the tax office, the first hour gone. Mr Paton, it transpired, was the manager, a tall, cheerful white man – busy in a meeting for the next forty minutes. I entertained myself chatting to his receptionist. You never know how being friendly and charming to anyone anywhere will ease your passage! At last I was ushered into the chief and laid on my apologies, respect and charm with a trowel. I explained my situation and he chuckled at the absurdity of the new laws he is expected to uphold and after a while wrote a letter ‘to whom it may concern’, confirming that Mr Jonathan Bean was residing at 15 Tayler Street, Matatiele, signed it and stamped it with a flourish. Better still, he said, “Now, go and see the woman on the extreme right-hand desk in the front office. I think she’s wearing brown today. Don’t go to the one with glasses, she’ll make trouble, but with Busa, you should be alright!” We chatted at some length, the queue outside increasing, but I was determined to maintain my advantage as he copied my forms and certificates and finally said, “Right, these papers are all you need. Now take them to the public office, and remember, the woman on the right! Enjoy your travels!”
The public office, without air-conditioning, was hectic. Fifty people formed sort of queues for the three windows. At the licensing window on the right was a Chinese family, obviously changing ownership on several vehicles. The Chinese don’t enjoy any respect here. “Eh! Look at this! Even their writing is different!” said my neighbour, a rotund Xhosa man sporting a leather hat. “They have been at least an hour!” I was seventeenth in the queue…
Well, everything has its time. At last I was able to get to the window and smile frantically and joke with the woman I had been advised to see. Several minutes later, contorting myself to talk and listen through the letterbox hole at the bottom of her window, I was able to pay my £25 – penalty for the last year and tax for the next (British bike tax costs £81 per annum). It was now 11.32. It felt like a day’s work. But CLK 074EC rides for another year.
Buying medicine for my streaming cold and sun-stick for my nose in a pharmacy, the pharmacist, a pleasant white woman, suggested that next time I just ask any resident to lend me a utility bill and go to the Town Hall or a police station and sign an affidavit that I am living in their house. “That’s all I did. I’m not a resident either. I came here to live with my boyfriend. It’s a stupid law!”
I decided on an easy day then. After a leisurely coffee and sandwich I set off out of town, soon turning onto a gravel road that in forty miles cuts two sides off a long triangle of tar road. Bowling along trailing a great feather of dust behind me, I cut at least 100 kilometres from my ride. It’s a road I’ve used before, through expansive rolling farmlands that makes you understand the attraction that this land must have had for space-starved Europeans in colonial times. There’s so much land here – especially if you forcibly clear out the natives, of course. It’s greener down here on the east of Lesotho, vast undulating miles of grazing and arable lands dotted with small coppices of fir trees beneath the powerful sun. Far away rise the blue mountains of Lesotho.
But what do people do out here? What are their entertainments when they finish looking after the cattle or ploughing the vast acres of arable? Their neighbours may be miles away, the nearest towns tens of miles. Dusty roads separate the remote farms. Black workers live in basic dwellings separate from the white farmers’ families. A flutter of washing on lines in the far distance is the only sign of life. It’s a lonely life calling for simple tastes. Often you see the same surnames on widely scattered farm name boards.
According to my conversations with Mr Paton, there is a groundswell of disillusion with the present politics of South Africa. More and more people, he says, are questioning the ANC leadership. The ANC is the old party of the ‘revolutionaries’ who fought so hard and long for some measure of equal rights for the black majority in South Africa, and it seems to me that much of their popular support is through loyalty to the ideal and sentiment for the old personalities of the struggles rather than political judgement. But now, with Zuma, ill-educated and thoroughly corrupt, in power, alternatives are at last becoming viable and the population realising that they have choices and are ill served by the present administration. “How is it they can buy private jets but I still don’t have the clean water they promised at the last election? That’s the way people are beginning to think now,” said Mr Paton. Zuma has many times been accused of corruption but manages to ride out the storm with the thick skin of African politicians, building a lavish personal palace complete with huge swimming pool, explained away as a water supply for fire protection! There are local elections coming in April and Mr Paton thinks a message will be sent by the electorate to the incumbents. I wonder? This is Africa, after all. Many black voters are convinced that if they vote for some alternative party, the ANC will know and take retribution.
I’ve returned to the Underberg Inn, a faded hotel I have used on various occasions. Now I can even ask for the best room, with a decent double bed and a large old fashioned en suite room. I wonder if the management has changed since I was here last? Mind you, I notice the sheets are still gossamer-thin and holey as before. I commented a year ago that there were no black drinkers in the bar and that the place was undeniably scruffy. It seems improved and there are not only a few black drinkers now, but black bar staff too. Maybe the Underberg Inn is struggling into the 21st century at last. At £12.70, it suits my taste anyway.
The strong winds have continued, chilling my ride and making me tired. I shall sleep well.
(Incidentally, next day I found that the management of the Underberg Inn has indeed changed. I congratulated the new manager, saying that I had noticed the changes).
DAY 11. FRIDAeY DECEMBER 18th 2015. MAMOHASE, LESOTHO
Sometime – rarely – I seem to discover the absolute distilled essence of what travelling is about. It’s happened right now, as I write, sitting on a Lesotho hillside, deep in rural Africa beneath a bright half moon in almost total silence. I can hear frogs in the valley below, a distant barking dog and the cries of a few children playing in the gathering dark, but they are quietening too now. Voices carry across the deep valley before me and a flicker here and there shows where a Basotho family has lit a lantern in their distant rondavel. The moon casts hard shadows of the palm tree beneath which I am sitting on a plank bench. A few puffs of cloud hang still in the night sky above the cut-out black silhouette of the mountains. Stars are appearing. It is utterly, completely still. A spellbinding African evening.
Behind me the baked earth walls of my room tonight are etched with traditional designs and a couple of fine oil lamps formed from cows’ horns are casting a warm, gentle light through the door of my sleeping place, its walls painted in ethnic Basotho designs. It has a thatched roof and a beaten earth floor. The lamps flicker gently in the round room. Orion, my fond African star group has appeared, drifting up the eastern sky, sword pointing upwards in the odd displacement I sense when I am in this other hemisphere. A few cicadas scrape their night music. A plate rattles in the kitchen. I am at peace, with the slight aroma of fragrant local woodsmoke in the air as my supper is prepared. It’s worth the discomfort, the inevitable lonely spells, the hours of deep personal questioning and justification; it’s worth it when it all comes together like this in these rare moments. It is these moments that keep me so restless and questing. It’s this that keeps me travelling.
Yet a few hours ago, battling along on top of Africa, I was wondering what the hell I was doing it all for: I could be comfortable at home (in the inevitable rain, no doubt) with the prospect of a cheerful Friday pint at the Church House Inn amongst my own community. But here I was, fighting a stiff wind, surprisingly chilled and laboriously fighting my little motorbike through thin air that it didn’t appreciate. Mind you, even as I struggled I was deeply aware of just where I was: on Africa’s highest tarred road, right up there on the roof of the continent, twisting and leaning through countless bends – motorcycling heaven I suppose, had I not been chilled and tired. For the roads I took today are all the highest it’s possible to ride in Africa. First, the renowned ‘adventure route’ so beloved of South Africans, the Sani Pass, that drives straight up the side of the Drakensburg mountains from the Eastern Cape to high Lesotho. For most South Africans this is the limit of their Basotho experience, an ‘adventure’ drive up the twisting rock trail for lunch and a cool beer at ‘Africa’s Highest Pub’, the Sani Top Inn. From Sani Pass, I rode on, right over the top of Lesotho, up most of the time above nine thousand feet and topping out at ten and a half thousand, and then down perhaps Lesotho’s most dramatic serpentine road, the Moteng Pass. It was all magnificent, of course, but my bike was struggling with the thin air, I was cold and hungry and sneezing.
How moods can change! Now the stars are twinkling, oh, and one just streaked down the sky, a dying ember of star-dust! It’s delightfully warm, the frogs are singing, and no element – except perhaps the intrusion of my iPad (brightness turned to minimum) – is out of place in this perfect evening.
A year ago I stayed at Mamohase B&B, probably the most contented stay of my journey. An insignificant signboard points off the curling Moteng road and the approach is amusing, a gravel track that deteriorates after half a mile into a rutted path, that in turn brings me across pitted bedrock for the last four hundred yards. At one point, Moruti, the gentle, entrepreneurial owner, has written a sign: ‘Don’t give up! Almost there!’ Last year I had one of those chance recommendations from a barman in a coffee bar in the mountains and I enjoyed a delightful family evening with Moruti’s Basotho cousins from Johannesburg. His cousin Thabiso and I sat in this very garden drinking Glenmorangie beneath the stars. I took several portraits that now adorn my walls at home and determined that sometime I would return. A few days short of a year later I am here – and not disappointed.
I slept fitfully, the tissue thinness of the Underberg Inn’s sheets causing the coarse blanket to itch until I made mid-sleep adjustments, something I have to do frequently in the cheap hotels I frequent! I am adept at remaking African beds, just as I am at repairing African lavatory cisterns…
Over breakfast at a nearby cafe I met Gary, extensively tattooed and dreadlocked but part of the biker fraternity that knows no bounds of class, age or culture. He has returned to Underberg to look after his ageing father, having lived the past several years in east London, importing restored XT500 motorbikes (second favourite of all the bikes I have had, after only my Elephant) from South Africa, where they are cheap to London where are very expensive. Be sure I got his contact details, for I know a fellow in Middelburg, somewhere in the Karoo Desert the other side of Lesotho from here who restores old BMWs, particularly the same model as my old friend, the African Elephant. Seems you take them to bits and send all the bits in different crates to avoid duty, importing them as ‘spares’. Clever… He sent me to see Malcolm in Himeville, on my route to Sani Pass, another English passport holder and biker. My red bike has been leaking oil since its service, so I took it to Malcolm, owner of a smart repair garage. But it still leaks, despite his efforts. No matter! I just may have to top it up now and again…
“You’d better get going before a storm comes,” said Malcolm. “The storms here can be vicious. The lightning… When it’s as hot as this, the storms build up,” he said, thoroughly frightening me. “Ya, last year five people died from lightning strikes in Himeville.” Himeville is a small scattered community no more populous than Harberton. “Ja, only a couple of weeks ago five cows were killed. Hey, Patrick, you saw those cows,” he called across to his black mechanic, struggling to release a huge, worn tractor tyre. “I say, you saw those cows…”
“They were five, lying like this,” said Patrick, laying five spanners parallel on the cement floor of the workshop. “All in a line, heads facing the same way. A piece of barbed wire across their necks. Three dead. Dead…”
It put the fear in me as I gazed up for the next hour at the clouds slowly gathering high above the mountain wall ahead of me as I bounced and fought up the track, watching with grim attention. For it reminded me of my most frightening day on my 2002 trip. That time I entered Lesotho through one of the most remote entry points and rode over ‘roads’ no better than goat tracks across passes ten thousand feet high. It was incredibly remote. For two whole days I was off-road on rock, mud and gravel – on my own. During the morning of the second day I was approaching Sani Top across what was then still tough ground. The clouds gathered; the sky darkened; a storm brewed – a storm such as I have never seen before or since. I was out in the absolute middle of nowhere, no shelter, nothing. Just me on a large metal object filled with highly flammable propellant. I was terrified.
Crashing along in mud and puddles, soaked by now to my underpants, there was an almighty crash that seemed right over my head and almost threw me off my bike in shock. I turned and looked across the sopping bush land about me. Three hundred yards away the sodden grass was burning. It’s the most frightening hour of my life. At last I splashed into the Sani Top Inn, spreading a puddle of muddy water about me. An elderly woman looked me up and down. She was on an ‘adventure tour’ by Land Rover, up in bumpy comfort for lunch at the top of the Sani Pass. “Oh, goodness,” she fluted in an accent straight from Surrey, “have you just come up that awful pass?”
No, lady, I felt like saying. I just came through the jaws of hell!
So just the mention of lightning puts the fear in me.
Sani Pass, now at midday, at the height of the sun and heat, a tiring bumpy ride up the semi-vertical trail into the sky. I’ve often reflected how much I enjoyed trail riding until I began to ride about Africa. Somehow, a few miles of mud and rock in Yorkshire or Devon just don’t hold the attraction any more. Here in Africa so many of the roads I have to take to get from one place to another involve trail riding! It’s not sport, but the normal way to ride. The last few kilometres of Sani Pass satisfy any trail riding ambition as it zig-zags in rocky steps and inclines up to the clear, infinite Lesotho sky.
The pub at the top, bathed in sun today, the heat tempered by the altitude, provided a break, a beer and soup – and conversation with a hiking Finn. Then the road has been tarred since last year, making for an easy ride across the top to the small town of Mohotlong, where I thought I might stay. But there’s not much attraction in Mohotlong so I turned left instead and headed for the heights. Here,too, the road has been tarred since my last visit. It’s remarkable up there; a limitless contorted landscape without a single tree. The mountains recede in shades of blue and grey until they touch the clear, brittle blue sky. The road sweeps this way and that, new vistas revealing themselves at every turn and tweak of the bars. I have to concentrate; there are wandering sheep, pebble scars, odd patches of newly raked gravel and chippings – and the views, the incredible, world-class views of the heights of Africa, dry, barren and uncompromising; mounded and twisted, softly curvaceous and fissured; stubbly coated and rock strewn. It’s terrific, wonderful and perhaps even ‘awesome’, the most overused superlative in modern language.
So to the top of the twisting Moteng Pass, the road strewn like a carelessly thrown thread across the cliffs, ravines, slopes and escarpments, often visible thousands of feet below, incredibly attached in a single sinuous strip of semi-vertical tar. Then, as the road levels into wider valleys leading to the lowlands, I look for the sign to Mamohase B&B, named after Moruti’s mother (mama of Hase, the senior and now late, brother of Moruti, himself last but one of eight brothers).
I was immediately recognised and warmly welcomed and shown to a large rondavel, the original family house in which Moruti and all his brothers were born – built in 1969. It’s a thatched house about 25 feet around, the outer walls decorated with fine scratched shapes in the mud plaster. Moruti’s late father worked in the South African mines and sent money home to build other structures for his expanding family. Later, after their father’s death, the brothers decided to make the house into a bed and breakfast venture with a cultural bent and Moruti sensitively manages it. He has education to high school and a quiet sincerity that works well with visitors, the ones who find this remote place – usually through recommendation. He has three cows, a donkey and goat and grazing rights in distant parts of the mountains. All land in Lesotho belongs to the king. The difficulty now is that water has not flowed for three months. His vegetable garden is dead and my bath water had to be carried up from far below the house. I took the traditional ‘Basotho bath’ to which Moruti introduced me a year ago: a large bowl on the floor, a mat, and bucket. You kneel on the mat and wash the top half, then stand in the bowl to wash the rest. It’s surprisingly efficient – and of course I am well used to bathing in a bucket! The lavatory is perhaps the cleanest long-drop earth closet in the world, in a stick-enclosed corner of the property. Moruti certainly runs an attractive, notable bed and breakfast.
Supper was delicious, cooked by Mamohase herself, grilled chicken with a lot of dishes of vegetables – pap, potato, butternut, tomato and pumpkin leaves in place of the spinach that has died by the drought. Moruti and I ate with our fingers. That’s not a habit I enjoy, but when in Rome I forget my distaste of greasy fingers. Pride would never let me request a fork.
And so back to my silent room with its stars and moons painted on the brown earth walls. I’m sitting by the cow-horn lamp with the sound of my own blood the loudest thing I can hear, all other sounds deadened by the earth structure, the attractive pointed thatch on natural poles and the deep rural night. It is silent, warm and utterly peaceful. All’s right with the world and I reckon I will sleep like the dead, my face flushed from many miles of high altitude blustery wind.
Sometime around three I went out and looked up at the velvet mantle of the southern skies, punctured by a million stars. I haven’t experienced silence like this since I slept somewhere in the Great South of the Sahara 25 years ago. It is the deepest silence, the blood pumping in my ears the only auditory sense. Nothing moved except the gently wheeling stars far above in the infinite night sky. It is perfect. This is why I continue to travel when most of my contemporaries have long given up! For a time it is possible to feel at one with the world, content and satisfied, needing nothing more.
DAY 12. SATURDAY DECEMBER 19th 2015. HARRISMITH, SOUTH AFRICA
What Moruti and his mother, Mamohase, have created with their ‘cultural experience’ B&B is remarkable. It’s a brief chance for people like me to see something of the inside of Basotho culture.
Well rested, I joined Moruti for breakfast, his mother having gone away to ‘visit a funeral’ as we would say in Ghana. Some hours away, she would still be expected to pay her respects to a distant relative who died a week or two ago. It’s a way of showing solidarity in a non-materialist culture. So Moruti cooked breakfast, a bowl of starchy, gloopy sorghum porridge, scrambled eggs and home made steamed bread.
Moruti offers a few extras from his B&B, and I opted to go for a village walk with his charming cousin Moeti. A well educated young man, but unemployed as is so common, he keeps some cattle, looks after an aged mother and helps out when Moruti needs a local guide, the tour that lasted well over three fascinating hours, costing a paltry couple of pounds.
This has been a stiflingly hot day, up around 40 degrees, I should imagine. A hot day to walk the bone dry dusty paths of the local area but a delightful thing to do amongst such friendly villagers. Moeti is a cheerful 35 year old and knows his culture well enough to answer my questions and assess my interests. It’s an area of straggling habitations dotted about the thin soil on rocky slopes down to a deep river canyon with steep pink and white water-sculpted cliffs. Everything is dust-dry now though; everyone complaining that they haven’t seen drought like this in their lifetimes. No water flows anywhere, nor has it done for three months.
Many houses are still rondavels with neatly thatched roofs, topped by a circular cap of flattened zinc sheet. I love the sturdy, earthy proportions of these traditional dwellings, so well insulated against both the intense summer heat and the below-freezing temperatures of winter. Increasingly, however, as money becomes available, rectangular blocks with red zinc roofs and ugly top-hung windows are replacing the traditional, as in so much of Africa. On one hand cement block and zinc needs less maintenance; on the other, they are part of the material economy that is so hard on rural peoples.
We stopped at one old brown rondavel and took local sorghum beer with an old lady, whose work is to produce the thick, slightly sour fermented beer. An elderly neighbour drank there too, with a lot of goodwill and laughter. I felt completely welcome – as a person, not as a source of income. That’s what’s so fine about the Basotho: they want to relate on a very immediate personal level, their smiles and jokes conveying so much warmth. The ‘beer’ was served in an old plastic drugs’ container, about a pint of the interesting liquid that Moruti and I shared. Next he took me to see the sangoma, the traditional healer and soothsayer, a jocular woman in her seventies, with great good humour by the name of Malehloma. For twenty Rand (under £1) she would tell my fortune from a handful of shells, bones and small items that I should blow on and then scatter on the floor. Nonsense, maybe, but harmless and intriguing. I squatted on a mat while she intoned a long prayer or incantation, that seemed to be both Catholic and in praise of her ancestors. (One thing you can say about the Catholics is that they are pragmatic about allowing the old faiths to continue so long as they make their millions from their organised one…) I blew on my cupped hands filled with objects and threw them onto the beaten earth floor. The old woman, white beads strung round her greying hair, rocked back and forth and declaimed her wisdom. I have frequent stomach problems (completely wrong! My guts are tough as stainless steel – they have to be to share scruffy plastic containers of not very clean local beer!), but, she assured me, everything in life will be alright (probably completely true, but she could see that from the wide smile on my face)! Cynic I may be, but I enjoyed the experience and seeing inside her bare rondavel, with a double bed, a heap of winter blankets – the national dress of this little kingdom, a few piled food containers, two big tin cabin trunks and a couple of hard chairs. This could describe the home of a vast majority of rural Africans, and people all across the world outside our ridiculous material existence.
We called to pay our respects to the village chief, Mobeli, a friendly elderly man with not many teeth and an unusually elaborate bungalow. He introduced his rotund wife, Masekhobe, ‘the real chief around here!’ Before calling out the grandchildren to meet ‘Mr Bean!’, the character as popular here as anywhere around the world.
The village bar was a respite to share a warm beer (and ‘tip’ Moeti with a small, £2 bottle of local brandy). An old Western played on a TV on the counter behind a ceiling-high steel grille and entertained a selection of under-occupied village youth and a middle aged man whose floppy cotton sun hat had only brim, no crown whatsoever.
The sun beat relentlessly down, almost exactly overhead at noon, two days from the equinox and only a couple of degrees or so south of the tropic. I still had 100 miles or more to ride, for I told Yvonne that I would reach Durban tomorrow. After a rest in Moruti’s compound, I loaded up my horse once again and rode back over the appalling approach, down to Butha Buthe, a small busy town at the junction to the South African border and within an hour was back in the Republic.
South Africans rave about the Golden Gate Park, the steep escarpment of the Drakesburg mountains. But it’s all a bit bland and commercialised to those who know the real mountains on the other side, in tiny, encircled Lesotho. In Lesotho there are few smart hotels, coffee shoppes, souvenir shops and little attempt to tame the landscape as in South Africa. Here people cruise in flashy polished cars, windows wound up, and stop in car parks to wonder at nature. A few miles away as the crow flies, people ride sure-footed horses, tend sheep, live and work these dramatically high mountains and cook over aromatic wood fires in thatched rondavels. Down here on the South African there is even a ‘Basotho Cultural Village’ – a fake of what’s across the high border and a place I have given wide berth every time I pass – the reality is so good, with sorghum beer, laughing sangomas, village bars with warm beer and smiling people everywhere.
I rode to Harrismith, a beat-up sort of town at the junction of two major highways, linking Durban, Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. The Grand National Hotel is a gloomy, run down place with the right price. With my eyes shut, it’s fine, despite thin sheets, chipped furnishings and walls that didn’t see a paintbrush in about twenty years. But for £9, what do you expect? It was once quite a smart hotel, I imagine, and doubtless whites only in those days. It stands beside a wide pot-holed boulevard at the edge of town. Across the road is a dreary bar that is the antithesis of Lesotho: a handful of overweight, pot-bellied, tattooed, hair-covered, extraordinarily ungraceful Afrikaans people, smoking like chimneys, inappropriately dressed and unsmiling. Bad rock music played, a TV showed inevitable rugby; there’s not a black skin in sight and it feels just like the bad old days…
Better a chain restaurant at the motorway services half a mile away than that for supper. At least the cheerful black servers smiled at me as if I was a person, passing the time of day with wide smiles and shining eyes. The bar, by contrast, felt like the last stand of a dying culture, with the small breeding stock a not insignificant problem. I did wonder, looking at those dull people in small-town Harrismith if the white gene pool wasn’t getting rather shallow… Grim indeed.
It’s 300 kilometres from here to Durban by the highway. I’ll probably take the side roads and be a bit longer over the journey. Then I will stay a week in Durban with my old friends Yvonne (my Ilkley neighbour all those years ago) and Mike, her husband. That’ll be Christmas 2015.
DAY 13. SUNDAY DECEMBER 20th 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA
It’s only ten months since I left Kloof, a rather white suburb of Durban, up in the hills behind the big city. It’s become very familiar over the past visits to southern Africa. Home of Yvonne and Mike, I’ve used it as a bit of a home from home on all my visits. I’ll stay a week for Christmas before I continue my travels.
From Harrismith to Kloof is about 200 miles, a fairly tedious journey, starting out with 60 or 70 miles of highway, the N3, busy this Sunday before Christmas. Incredible to see how loaded people’s vehicles are! Literally, the kitchen sink goes along on holiday. It’s as if they are all going deep into the African bush – while most are probably going to camp sites in the Golden Gate Park, roof boxes, vast trailers, festooned belongings. As one who increasingly appreciates travelling light, I wonder at it the way I do when I am in airports with my tiny backpack watching people go on two weeks’ holiday to Spain…
Then it’s through the ‘Midlands Meander’ a touristic area full of people living as much a self conscious colonial lifestyle as they still can with the arrogant white privilege that irritates me so much. I’ve stayed in hotels along that road where white people in panelled bars, decked out with baronial shields and stuffed game, talked of the etiquette of the next fox hunt; whether women riders should wear stocks or ties, and whether maids of honour at the next weekend’s wedding preceded or followed the bride; conversations that upset my every liberal principle. As they trilled and fluted I sat in my grubby bike clothes and then went out to talk to the (black) security guard, a charming young man dreaming of attending college, paid peanuts and small tips and living his nights in a tin shack in the yard, reading old text books by candlelight, born with the wrong colour skin. Happily that privileged life has died a natural death just about everywhere in the world except pockets of white South Africa. To me the ‘Midlands Meander’ is one of those, lined with white-owned businesses selling sentimental ‘stuff’ that purports to be ‘a taste of Africa’. Huh.
And so to Kloof on its cool hill, a warm welcome from old friends and waiting chilled craft beers. Yvonne was my scatty neighbour in the flat upstairs in Yorkshire almost 40 years ago. And with Mike I have bonded very fondly, even making the introduction to the British museum design company under whose flag he now flies his South African business. A company from whom I got nothing except the most stressful nine months of my life, when they took me on as a ‘consultant’. But that’s another story, thank goodness.
So, a calm few days before I plan the next parts of my journey.