AFRICA 2016 – JOURNAL THREE

DAYS 14 TO 20. DECEMBER 21st to 27th. 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

Christmas in South Africa. It’s been a time of enjoying old friendships and plenty of hospitality amongst Yvonne and Michael’s circle – but not a time of exciting stories to blog, so I’ll deal with the eight days briefly.

Two part-days were spent at a BMW dealer searching for my mysterious oil leak; four hours one day and another two the next, at a cost of £47. Neither day achieved anything much at all and in the end, having watched the bike taken to pieces time after time and new ‘solutions’ used to seal the leaking pipe, I applied half an hour of logical common sense and 25 pen’orth of materials and added a second Jubilee clip, and stopped the leak myself. Sadly, there’s another as well, but even one less felt like achievement after all the ‘specialists’ failed.

*

It was planned that I was to return to Steven after Christmas as he had agreed to take his first motorbike journey ‘overseas’ and come to Lesotho with me. I was looking forward to introducing him to the delights almost on his doorstep and riding with him for three or four days of his holiday time. When I left him he was complaining of shoulder pains. It transpires, from a text received, that he has torn a ligament and has been told not to wear his helmet and ride for at least three weeks. Bah! What a shame. Maybe we can go later. I had to rethink my vague plans.

*

One morning came an amusing email from Rico up in Kenya. I’ll copy it as it came in:

Now that you are in Kloof, you will have time and opportunity to check your email again.
I completed the preps of my car before travelling to Nairobi to check out the pikipiki’s I found on internet. Then a stroke of luck: I went to buy some oil to service the hydraulic bottle-jack that belongs to the car. While talking with the shop-owner, I mentioned going to Nairobi to look for a bike, when suddenly he froze! He raised his finger and asked if I knew Oscar? Well, I knew Oscar, but by the name of Sergio! He is a Spanish born, Italian-raised expat, married to a Somali woman with whom he sired 6 kids. After this feat, the woman left to Somalia, with the kids! For obvious reasons (and a few others, I assume) he didn’t follow her there and he now has left Kitale and lives in Eldoret. He is a mechanic and always travels by motorbike. My friend, the shop-keeper, suddenly remembered that Sergio had offered him his bike for sale and he immediately took his telephone to call him to see if it was still available. It took a while to get in touch, but once I got him on the line, it turns out that he is upgrading to a bigger bike and selling his current one.
It is a Honda XL 250 (S? L? R?) and has done just over 35k. He has bought it new and always serviced it himself. Also the documents are in order and in his name. He is asking 250,000/= Shilling for it, but I think I can negotiate it down a bit.

So maybe soon I will own my fourth current bike. As yet (December 28th) I haven’t heard from Rico, but internet connections – and electricity – are patchy in Kenya.

*

The weather was as bizarre as so much of the rest of the world this Christmas. One day it reached a singeing 41C/ 106F and the next few plunged to 17C/ 63F with pouring rain that felt chilly. I love the 41, when all my muscles just relax, but I hate the ‘chilly’ 17 degrees. What are we doing to our beleaguered planet? There’s deep flooding in northern England, desperate drought in much of southern Africa, bush fires raging in Australia, flooding in South America, twisters in Texas and in Washington DC my American family was indoors on Christmas Day with the air conditioning cranked up – when it should have been cold and maybe snowy.

*

I got to reflecting on everyone’s obsession with 24 hour news, the internet and bloody Facebook with all its awful trivia and self-promotion that I find unhealthy. Endless, wall to wall, tedious news channels are feeding so much insecurity to people. There’s an unpleasant titillating quality to all the melodramatic and salacious presentation of so-called news, repeated and shouted at us all the time, camera angles manipulated to the most exploitative and provocative possible. Then there’s the even less trustworthy sharing of information, and just as often, misinformation, on social media. With this bombardment of manipulative thrill and licentiousness our fears are enhanced, our prejudices strengthened and our security undermined. Sky News, CNN and all the others preoccupy TV screens, endlessly repeating horrors made meaningless by repetition, the cameras rushing on to more ‘exciting’ news, leaving the injured and dead and bereaved without a thought the moment the ‘news’ becomes repetitive; racing on to novel vicarious horror to keep us entertained and titillated. Smart phones now occupy every palm in an obsessive twitch of fingers and covert glances, real conversations interrupted by others’ trivia; experience of the ‘now’ subjugated to be seen through photographs and the appalling ‘selfies’ to boast where we are. I wonder where it will all end? Will there be a backlash or will we lose the ability to talk to one another? As I write this, a man and wife sit at a nearby table, engrossed – apart – in their phone screens instead of looking at the pretty good view or, heaven forbid, interacting with strangers like me, let alone each other.

*

On Boxing Day we attended a cheerful lunchtime party – a typical Boxing Day event anywhere in the western world. But of course, this is Africa, however divorced from the continent these gatherings may feel, with an atmosphere of an ex-pat community, a somewhat insular unit on a foreign continent, creating their own social life, separated within a much larger, apparently alien, community. However, the majority of these people were born and bred in South Africa. They are South African: it says so on their passports.

I always feel a self-created reserve when I think that these people lived under – and some may even have either abetted or tacitly enabled – the poisonous apartheid system, to me perhaps the worst injustice visited by man on man during my lifetime. I find my attitudes very divided: on the one hand cheerful, kindly people; on the other privileged invaders on someone else’s land. I do hear a lot of unconscious prejudice when I converse with groups of white South Africans, in the terminology, assumptions and generalisations they sometimes express. There’s a corrosive self-perpetuating fear that passes between so many whites here, retelling old stories of theft, attack and aggression, often lumping the huge majority population (‘them’) together as ‘the Africans’, as perpetrators of all that is evil. In actual fact, of course, a tiny, tiny minority of ‘the Africans’, ‘the blacks’ are evil – just as are a tiny minority of whites and every other shade of skin colour. But ‘they’ are always to blame for any ill, political idiocy and social trouble. Bad news travels so fast in a small, insular community and becomes out of all proportion to the actual threat. Times have changed in South Africa, but the minority whites (8.9% of the population – owning over 40% of the nation’s assets) still talk of the old times, frightening one another and keeping stress levels up and the security grilles and bars tightly bolted and their cars centrally locked. In a land of such obvious disparity of wealth, there will always be envy and crime, but it’s not a black skin that makes you bad; it’s envy, lack of imagination, poor education and the need to apportion blame for your own ills. This is still a hugely divided nation, and the white population, rather than embracing and celebrating the cultures around them, maintain their imagined superiority, separation – and wealth.

At what point do invaders become indigenous people? For most of us descend from some form of invader. The Afrikaans people..? They’ve been South African for several hundred years, fighting for their country and guiding it through modern history. So where do the later settlers, amongst whose descendants I mix so often, fit in? Most of them are probably second or even third generation, children probably of white Europeans who emigrated after the war to this big, open land of opportunity – peopled by ‘backward’ tribes that it would be a favour to ‘modernise’ and educate into the modern world. Many of them know no other home – although those with the slightest opportunity manipulate their heritage to qualify for European passports, which always – to me – shows less than total commitment to modern South Africa. It is rare to see inter-marriage and there’s very little social contact between white and black South Africans. Considering that the last legal apartheid rules of racial separation ended twenty years ago, there’s a powerful inbuilt reluctance to mix, even in the 21st century.

*

In eight days I have done little, but it’s always good to be with old friends, even if it doesn’t make for very interesting journal entries. Tomorrow I set off again and then, no doubt, the stories will begin again.

DAY 21. MONDAY DECEMBER 28th, 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA

Let the journey begin! Something more than three more months of free and easy travel lies ahead tonight as I make a proper start to my 2016 African journey at the end of three weeks of settling in.

And with the start of my safari, breakdown! Another ‘what if..?’ occasion occurred this afternoon three quarters of the way up the remote, rocky Hella Hella Pass when I stopped to take a photograph. Preparing to set off again, part way up a rocky, dusty mountains, all the electrics on my bike failed entirely. I checked fuses and cables to no avail and was standing there rather bemused by the mysteries of mechanics when a couple of bakkies appeared round the top of the hill. I waved to the lead driver, a scrawny, weatherbeaten Afrikaans fellow of about 40. He leaned out of his window. “Trouble..?” he called.

“Do you know anything about bike electrics?” I asked with a big engaging smile.

“Yaaaa…” And he got out of the car and came over to peer under my seat with me. Within perhaps four minutes he said, “here you are, see, it’s this cable. Look it’s chaffed through and shorted on this nut.” He pointed at a cable that had indeed got a small hole showing copper wires where it had been worn against a frame nut. “It’s shorted out your starter relay. The bike should start if we give you a push, and we’re on a hill at least! Turn round…”

Moments later my engine was running and I was able to load up and ride on, with a big thank you and wave to Gareth and his mate. You see, once again a smile, an appeal for help and some good luck and I overcome! No point worrying what might happen. I was able to ride on to Underberg so long as I didn’t stop the engine.

I rode straight to the old, jaded Underberg Inn and took a room, leaving the engine running outside, and then set off round town to try to find an auto electrician. Here I wasn’t so successful and time ran out as five o’clock crept round the clock face. It’s also holiday time but I am sure tomorrow will bring some aid from somewhere. For now, the bike sits in the hotel yard, where I just had the most delightful twenty minutes with Emmanuel and Norman.

Emmanuel is cheerfully drunk, a local lad with a most engaging smile, shaven head and not an ounce of malice apparent. He tells me, giving me the clenched fist to fist African greeting, that he works in tourism but the alcohol was not helping me to decipher his quite broad, probably Xhosa accent. He had just met Norman, whose clear English accent and erudite speech soon identified him to me as Zimbabwean. He comes from the north of that country, around Kariba, but has emigrated to South Africa thanks to the bad politics and ailing economy of his lovely country. But it’s a feature of all the expatriate Zimbabweans I meet that they have a powerful allegiance to their country. Norman dreams of the time when his country settles down and he can go home. Smart, intelligent – (sober) – and cultured; another exile from that fine country. Another valuable export…

It struck me as I was laughing with them, Emmanuel slurring his words with a huge white smile, fist greeting me time and again, that this is what the frightened white South Africans miss, for there was no way any of them would have given these two fellows even the time of day in a shadowed corner of the pub yard, let alone have stood and chatted equally with them. The was no harm in Emmanuel, inebriated as he was, and Norman was charming and polite. Two decent young men living life as best they can against considerable odds, and willing to share chatter and laughter with a ‘daddy’ from another culture. The short meeting cheered me on my way to bed with a broad smile.

*

It was lunchtime before I rode away from Kloof, summoning the energy to start the journey again. I rode west away from Durban, an impressive exit through the steep, rounded green hills and slender eucalyptus trees and extensive hills carpeted in waving grey-green sugar plantations. A few miles of highway and then off to the south west on country roads to Richmond and curling up through plantations into the increasingly dramatic wooded mountains and the Hella Hella Pass. It came as a complete surprise, the first time I rode this way, about three years ago, when the tarmac suddenly stopped and the road twisted on grey rock and gravel deeply into a big valley and later across high slopes and over the wooded peaks. The map shows this as a main road, and reminds me of that statistic that only ten per cent of the country’s roads are tarred. It cuts scores of miles off the main tarred route, but I was surprised when Gareth spoke of rhinos inhabiting the area – one of the three most dangerous animals in the country. Hmmmm.

Then it’s over rolling high hills and ridges to scruffy Underberg with its untidy wide street, petrol station, supermarkets and businesses, all a little faded, the verges of the tarred town roads broken and ragged. It’s a busy little town, focus of the huge farming district around it and of tame white tourism to the eastern flank of the Drakensburg mountains that hold up Lesotho just a few miles to the west.

*

Two of Yvonne and Michael’s closest friends, whom I always enjoy meeting, are Mark, Yvonne’s painting teacher and Di, Mark’s landlady. Coincidentally, they drove to Underberg today to use the holiday house of one of Mark’s students for a few days. We had a cheerful supper together in a big cafe nearby, with the atmosphere – or lack of atmosphere – of a football stadium. I’ve visited so often now that I begin to make my own circle of South African friends. That, of course, is an advantage of a small separate community like the white South Africans.

*

So back to the faded old Inn with its adequate but tired en suite for £11.30. My eyes will be shut – quite soon – for the next eight hours, so who cares about the chipped paintwork and the old brown carpet? Not me… Tomorrow I will sort out my mechanical problem. There’s a lot of goodwill and generosity open to me as one of the white community and a tourist, or does that sound ungracious?

DAY 22. TUESDAY DECEMBER 29th, 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA

It took until lunchtime to sort my mechanical problem, so I decided to just relax and stay here in oddly engaging Underberg again.

I met Gary for breakfast. You may remember, I met a dreadlocked, tattooed British South African biker/ barber here a couple of weeks ago – the fellow who exports old XT500 motorbikes in bits to the UK for sale at profit. We exchanged phone numbers, so yesterday, on arrival, I rang him. It’s partly this fraternity amongst bikers that keeps me on two wheels, and it certainly gives me so much confidence on these journeys, just knowing that any other biker will help me out if I have difficulties. We always stop and talk, exchange information and pass the time of day.

You should never judge a book by its covers, or a person by their personal preferences and style! (and certainly not by the colour of their skin). I thought that when I was sitting in a rather smart resort hotel enjoying a beer and sandwich (amongst almost exclusively white people) served by a delightful, pretty black girl called ‘Sweetness’. “Oh, I love your name!” I exclaimed – the sort of thing and old ‘daddy’ like me can get away with so easily!

“Haha! And I hope I am well named!” she laughed as she took the tray away, leaving me in possession of a mediocre tuna mayonnaise sandwich and a bottle of cool, gassy beer. But I was thinking about covers and looks, a bit conscious that I was the scruffiest person around in my totally faded old motocross trousers that were once red and white but are now faded to a patchy pink and brown, my dusty boots, scruffy old backpack and tee shirt that has been on three of these safaris and been washed by hand in washbasins, at a conservative estimate, probably 75 times! But, you know, my smile makes up for a lot of my lack of sartorial style. It’s such fun to joke with the Sweetnesses, the Curiosity’s, the Innocents, Specials and Precious’s of Africa. And the Normans and Emmanuels as well.

Gary looks a little crazy: dreadlocked wiry greying hair, tattoos all down both arms and a cannabis-leafed tee shirt. But what a decent fellow, and kind too. He rode away to negotiate with Tyrone and Luke, auto electricians up the road, then led me there, having given me a bump start across the Underberg Inn car park. Luke, a pale, skinny young man with fluffy blond beard and curly hair, took one look at the bike and declared that it was unlikely that the starter solenoid had burned out (memorably replaced in Ndola, northern Zambia two years ago, swapped off a derelict Suzuki by a happy fellow called Herbert). “No,” said Luke, “your battery’s ****ed!”

And it was. Probably the chafing wire just shorted out my battery all the way up that pass yesterday, such that when I tried to restart the bike it had no power left at all. Maybe it would have lived a bit longer, but when I took it off later I found the date 04.2.98 scratched on the top. The battery was the original one and has driven that bike 118,030 kilometres! It was probably time to spend £25 on a new one, and peace of mind.

There’s only one bike shop here, a few miles up the road at Himeville. Not only were they open, they even had a battery that would fit! My luck, as always, was in. In hot sunshine I bolted it in.

*

New battery fitted, I asked Bruce, manager at the bike garage, where to go for a ride, for by now I had rebooked at the Inn for tonight. He suggested a pleasant ride up a long valley towards the blue mountains that form a great wall along the eastern edge of the range. At the claustrophobic end of the valley is the Garden Castle Hotel and Leisure Resort, an ugly place of pretentious chalets, a hotel, bowling green, swimming pools, caravan parks and general diversion; an upmarket holiday camp set in a fold of the steep hills. The ride was gentle and pretty and a beer and sandwich provided a relaxing hour. And Sweetness provided a cheerful chance meeting that lifted the spirits.

*

I took supper and few beers at the bar in the dingy Inn tonight. I suppose it’s the nearest thing to a pub around here, and it is so improved from the racist place that it was only last year. After my excellent chicken burger, over a couple of stouts, I fell into conversation with Moife, a personable Sesoto from Potchefstroom across in the Free State. He’s a driver for a seed company and is staying over at the Inn tonight after a ten hour drive. Politely, he asked me if I minded him smoking while I ate and then, when I finished my meal, drinking a Castle beer, chased with a double Bells with Sprite, he moved to a stool nearby. We had a very memorable exchange…

“Why are you in Underberg?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m just a tourist. That’s my red motorbike out in the yard.”

“Ah… A tourist?” His face registered some confusion as he decided to ask a question that obviously has troubled him. “My girlfriend went and studied tourism…” He poured fizzy pop into his whisky and took a sip. “What do tourists DO?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled, for as yet I’d never considered that tourism was a mystery to anyone, seen from my privileged perspective. Then I saw that he was genuinely mystified. Haltingly, I tried to explain – seeing how other people live, meeting new people, seeing new places, finding out… But I realised that to him, in his virtually subsistence economy, effort needs to have tangible results. He’s driven ten hours to deliver a van full of mealie meal seeds. There’s an obvious outcome. I shall ride a motorbike to Lesotho with no discernible benefits.

“Does someone pay you?” he pondered. “Are you paid to be a tourist..?”

The questions stopped me in my tracks. In a way it is wonderful that in this day and age someone should ask me if I am paid to be a tourist, and I tried to explain as well as I could to someone to whom the concept was so alien and baffling, what it is that makes me earn money to spend on something so frivolous and immaterial. It’s not easy to articulate…

*

Then Gary and his entire family arrived for a drink and I had to say goodbye to Moife and chat beneath a throbbing loudspeaker in a dark corner of the smokey bar to Gary’s Leeds-born, dour, father, Stan, who used to work on the railways. Then there was Gary, with his present wife, a 20 year old son by wife one, a spoilt teenage daughter by wife two. It was one extreme to another. But I like Gary, for all his hippy ways: a good-hearted man with a depth of understanding that is unusual amongst white Africans. But then, he’s lived in east London, a melting pot of race and culture, unlike the parochial Afrikaners and white South Africans who, let’s face it, seldom even go ‘abroad’ to Lesotho right in their backyards. Stan, the deeply gloomy Yorkshireman, went there once and hated it, spending most of his time, by the sound of it, not looking beyond the preoccupation if his own discomfort.

‘Smokey bar’, did I say? Wow, the white South Africans smoke heavily! From youth to death, this is a smoking society – in pubs, bars, restaurants and everywhere else. I just have to resign myself to it. That, after all, is the essence of being a tourist.

“What do tourists DO..?” I won’t forget that for a while.

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2 thoughts on “AFRICA 2016 – JOURNAL THREE

  1. I am enjoying your travelogue back in wet, windy, soggy Harberton, Jonathan. We’ve had a good Christmas here – super Carol Service choreographed by Carole Oldfield, over 150 singing carols in the Square & cheerful decorations and lights to be seen in most houses. We’ve had lots of our family around, which has been lovely.

    Our very best wishes for the New Year,
    Philip & Caroline

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