DAY 29. TUESDAY JANUARY 5th, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA
Still here… I happened to be riding past the bike place when the Sani Pass Courier van pulled in, so I veered over the road in some excitement, since Malcolm had been chasing up my parts and had been promised they had now been picked up. Huh. Were my sprockets on the van? No…
My goodness, I meet some rabidly racist people here. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue. And, you know what, the most racist of them all are the English who came here during apartheid years – when I was checking all those products in the shops to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently supporting the South African regime. I’ve just spent a couple of hours in the hotel bar with a couple of fellows – a not well educated racist Cockney who came here in 1975 and a local farmer who was born here and has a huge cattle farm milking 1500 cows. Of the two, the educated farmer was reasonably accepting of his lot, while the Cockney, who hasn’t any right whatsoever to call himself South African (40 years without even applying for citizenship) was appallingly racist. I find it so offensive, this ignorance, for that’s what it is.
“Oh well, humanity’s buggered anyway!” exclaimed the farmer, to vigorous nods from the Cockney, Peter.
“Of course it’s not!” I objected, vociferously nailing my colours to the mast as I could bear it no longer, listening to this nonsense. “Humanity is wonderful! 99.999% of people all want the same things from life – and it doesn’t matter what colour skin they have. We all want enough to eat, a bit of comfort, love of a few others, a place to live and security amongst others like us. It’s corporations and cynical companies and the media exploiting us all for profit that buggers us up. And anyway,” I retorted, irritation barely withheld, “I will talk to anyone. I probably talk to and greet more black people than white on these journeys and I always get a happy response. I LOVE living in a multi-cultural society. And, what’s more, I’ve travelled in this country for probably about seven months in all and I have never had anyone be unkind to me, or felt the slightest threat. It is all self perpetuated by white people here! People are always telling me to be afraid and I can’t find out what I am supposed to be afraid of!”
I could have gone on about equal opportunity, rebutted a couple of horrible comments about Muslims and Syrian refugees that had made me squirm, but I had probably said enough that they understood that I wasn’t compliant with all their views! The farmer was a decent man and he could see that I was holding back. The Cockney, with the true insensitivity of a bigot, hardly reacted.
How did all these racists end up in South Africa? Welcomed, I suppose during apartheid years to strengthen the regime’s power base. Still here, expecting privilege and superiority. The gravy train has moved on. It’s a pity it hasn’t run over some of them. Yuk! Aaaarghh.
Mike, my Kloof friend, agrees with me about so much of the perpetuation of fear and insecurity amongst the white people in this country; the proliferation of bad news; the spreading of anxiety; the razor wire and ‘burglar-proof’ (window bars and security grilles behind which all the whites live in this unequal society). He calls it the ‘Oscar Pistorious Syndrome’ after the cause-célèbre of the para-athlete who was so hyped up by this insecurity that he murdered his girlfriend by shooting through a closed door with a semi-automatic weapon he just happened to have lying around, claiming he feared an intruder – in his locked bathroom… A case, at least, (whatever the real story, which has yet to be revealed), of shoot first and ask questions afterwards…
It’s been intensely hot today. After a lovely conversation with Sebu, the wonderfully cheerful hotel maintenance man, whose picture will be on my wall soon after I reach home, and a cup of coffee with Mike, whose bicycle I am riding, I rode out of town, intending to reach the Sani Pass Hotel, sister to this one. I think I may have ridden most of the way there but at last I looked at another downhill slope and thought, I have to ride back up that if I go further, and decided to turn round and sit in the woods instead and read a book for a bit. What was I trying to prove, and to whom? That my obstinacy would get me to the Sani Pass Hotel, that was all. For what? A cool drink and the satisfaction of having done it! Better to read a book in the woods. My, I was exhausted when I returned. Enough is enough – especially when the temperature is about 100 degrees!
“Ah, maybe it will be here tomorrow!” said the courier driver with a big cheery smile. Yes, maybe… Maybe not… It’s a week tomorrow since the chain incident.
DAY 30. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 6th, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA
BMW Durban actually rang me this morning (causing a brief flurry of excitement that it was the garage along the road telling me my bike was ready!) to apologise for the long delay in getting the parts to me. It seems they use a courier who only delivers to Himeville once a week – on Thursdays. If they had informed us all of that on, say, Saturday, I would have bussed down to Durban and fetched the package myself – or Malcolm, at the Himeville Yamaha dealer, would have arranged for it to be brought by the local courier – who delivers twice a day!
So another day roasting in Himeville. It’s so hot that even I am restricted in my activity. Today I merely rode the mountain bike down to Underberg (7kms) and back to deliver a bottle of Jamesons Whiskey to be collected by kind Rollo, who rescued me – a whole long week ago!
Walking along Arbuckle Street, the main road of this very colonial village, I met Samukeliso (Blessing), a quietly spoken, neatly dressed and almost embarrassingly polite young Zulu fellow, perhaps in his mid-twenties. Tidy trousers and a clean blue-striped shirt, plastic folder under his arm; a plastic folder holding his qualifications and papers. He wanted to know the way to someplace and, inevitably, asked the only stranger in town. Mind you, I was also the only person – certainly with a white skin – walking with body language that suggested he could approach me. Samukeliso is unemployed, like so many here. He lives in the ‘low cost’ housing, an area of basic black-occupied dwellings separate from the large white-owned detached bungalows and verdant gardens of the town. He was looking for work and stopped to chat with me partly in the desperate hope that even I may have influence to find him a job to help him support his three children. There is such a divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in this country. Of course, there’s nothing I can do, but these people live with such hope and fortitude that he was even happy just to be talking with me, exchanging views and – of course – a phone number and photos. He had to have a picture of me in his phone before he left and I had to submit to a smiling ‘selfie’ with him too. Such a decent young man – overlooked and with so little real chance in this unequal country that troubles me so much; troubles my sense of FAIRNESS in life.
As I wrote that paragraph my phone rang. It was Blessing, just to wish me a good night. I find this loyalty and gentle warmth quite affecting. This is the level at which we SHOULD live life, just these small caring interactions between strangers. It happens so much in Africa – if you are open to the opportunity – an openness that is impossible with the central locking engaged, the security grilles fastened, the drawbridge up, the air-con turned up in your huge expensive 4X4.
The whites would argue that they brought prosperity to this part of the continent, but tell Blessing he lives in what was for decades Africa’s richest economy (it was overtaken last year by Nigeria as the South African economy weakened) and he would raise his eyebrows at the irony for he has no share of it. Ask him if he’d rather live in Africa’s second wealthiest country or have a simple job to feed his children and I think I know the answer he’d give.
Later I had an illuminating conversation with Alex, a Kenyan trader selling African souvenirs to passing tourists in Underberg: another intelligent and charming man who, in the course of our exchange, confided many of the small racist actions he suffers from unthinking whites. It’s almost unconscious, he suggests, a need to keep a distance from each other. It is, he agrees, a very South African phenomenon; not one he sees back in Kenya (or that I have seen anywhere else on my African travels). It’s a cultural and ethnic snobbery, to précis his observations: white Underbergians who will not send their children to schools with black pupils – even, he says, when they are cheaper and academically better achieving; white mothers who grab their children away from playing with his very cute daughter in the shop; the mall manager who waters the plants outside, soaking his wares in the process rather than moving them as she does outside white owned shops; maids forbidden to use the indoor lavatories they clean. It’s SO interesting to hear this from an African of another culture. I see the body language, but conformation from Alex was fascinating.
But of course racism has two faces. Derek is the (white) manager of the hotel. “Oh, there is racism on both sides! We had an incident just a few nights ago in the bar – over chips. A black couple ordered a bowl of chips but the restaurant manager (who’s white) told them he’d run out of chips. Then a few minutes later he served a white couple with meals with helpings of chips…”
It was unfortunate timing: probably the white couple had ordered earlier, before the chips ran out, but this was enough to inflame racial sensitivity, excited by alcohol, right to the point that the security man called the police from over the road. All over a plate of chips. The anger and tension is so close to the surface that it takes little to burst out.
It’s complicated by people’s sense of their rights – now, nominally at least, equal. Even the hotel swimming pool brings division. Many of the local whites see it as a ‘right’ to use the pool. They treat it as a public pool. But there are many, many black residents who’d love to use it too, living in the ’low cost’ housing, a sprawl at the edges of the tree-filled white village. To use it, visitors must eat and drink at the hotel. I watched one (white) woman bring her children for a day’s fun – and buy a cup of coffee. But for the manager such manipulation of the hotel rules is a minefield, for he has to apply them exactly equally, treading an uneasy line between accusations of racism and positive discrimination. I wouldn’t want to manage any business in this country
I sense that I need to get out of South Africa soon! My entries for the past evenings have dwelt on the inequalities if the ‘rainbow nation’; the arrogance of the whites and their hard work in maintaining the differential – or be overwhelmed by sheer statistics. Less than nine percent of this country are white – at present they own over forty percent of the assets. Their privileged way of life is threatened. They fight back by keeping the seclusion. Alex and Blessing know that.
I know I have reached that point on all of my South African journeys when I need to get to Lesotho and stop obsessing on the inequalities of this land.
I found a Xhosa proverb: ‘When the whites came we had the land and they had the Bible. They asked us to close our eyes and pray. When we opened them again, we had the Bible and they had the land.’
Thunder is rumbling around and a shower this afternoon has cooled the stifling night a little. The last nights have been HOT, yet in July in Himeville the temperature can drop to -18C, with frost thick as snow. I hope the rain and BMW Durban do not prevent my getting up to Lesotho tomorrow… I think I need to get back to Africa.
DAY 31. THURSDAY JANUARY 7th, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA
So, I didn’t get back to Africa today. My entrapment is reaching laughable proportions. This is now my eighth day stuck in Underberg/ Himeville. “If I’d known, I’d’ve driven down there and collected you!” said Yvonne, phoning today for news. The lousy couriers, called ‘Fastway’, an oxymoron if ever I heard one, didn’t make their weekly delivery in Himeville today as they only had one parcel! If it wasn’t so frustrating, it’d be funny.
I also found out today that ‘BMW Durban’, who promised last week that the parts would reach the garage up the road by Monday, is actually Ryder Motorrad, the same company that spent six hours a couple of weeks ago, charged me £40 and didn’t manage to fix the oil leak – that I repaired myself later for 25 pence. Add to that that in 2013 I had to complain to BMW Customer Services South Africa to get a fairly straightforward diagnosis and repair completed by Ryder that wasted over a week of my travels (they kept saying, ‘yes, we’re working on it’ but each time I visited, the parts were in identical positions on the workbench) and I become rather angry. Five wasted days.
Meanwhile a huge change in the weather as the temperature has dropped dramatically and heavy rain may well make my escape up Sani Pass impossible through mud. It’s astonishing how the climate can swing here. From nights of sweating on the bed, cursing the heat of a sheet to keep the mosquitoes off, I may even have to use the duvet tonight. And in this weather even diversion on the mountain bike is impractical, so a dreary day reading dog-eared novels gleaned off the hotel bookshelf – and I don’t read fiction!
Imagine if I was on a three week holiday like most people! Only the length of this trip (and the draft beer) makes this delay slightly less unbearable.
DAY 32. FRIDAY JANUARY 8th, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA
How will I ever work out the conundrum of this strange country that I love and hate so much? Maybe that’s why I keep returning… I have just spent an evening as friendly and warmly welcoming as I would have spent in my own locals’ night at the Church House Inn in Harberton this Friday night. And at the same time, I am listening to ingrained racism that upsets me. I have a man I consider to be a close brother, a young man I consider a son (and very soon I’ll be a ‘grandfather’) and so many dear friends who have skin as black as any of those these charming white people think and speak of as ‘them’ so demeaningly. It has become one of the most difficult things for me, to accept the prejudices of these charming people without wincing and thinking of Wechiga and Dennis described in the same dismissive terms: ‘they’, ‘the blacks’, ‘Africans’, the implication of inferiority and lesser intelligence… I know I write of this so often, and I apologise for my preoccupation. Perhaps if Dennis and Wechiga and all the others were not so close to me, it wouldn’t hurt so much. But then I think of delightful Blessing, who rang to wish me a good night; of Patrick who has been fixing my bike – quiet, personable, a good mechanic – but not formally trained because, “I don’t have money for the course…”, who walks five miles to work in winter snows and burning summer; I think of lovely Cornelia, who served us dinner; cheerful Sinazo, who likes her hot chips; Tumi who reckons racism will never be conquered in South Africa; Sthabile, the pretty front desk clerk; Clinton the smart, friendly barman – oh, and so many more, all of them somehow invisible in this rich white village where I have been made so very very welcome – and enjoyed the friendliness of black and white alike but never seen one black person in any management or professional role or seen black and white sit down to table together. The statistical odds are totally against that unless it is engineered socially and consciously.
I just can’t work it out. What do I think? I have a warm, amusing, congenial evening amongst hospitable people pretty much like me, except that they look upon nine tenths of their neighbours as something completely different to themselves because they have a different coloured outer millimetre of skin.
‘Oh, stop obsessing about it!’ I hear you say…
Tonight was ‘choir practice’ once again at the Himeville Arms, followed by dinner at the invitation of four of my new friends, Mike and Meg, and Barry and Jane, all I guess in their late sixties to mid seventies. The bar was busy, 90% white customers, all having Friday night fun. I had delivered a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky earlier to Meg and Mike who lent me the bicycle and was cordially invited to Friday night at the pub with their friends. And it was fun: good company, good conversation, good beer and amusing. I felt amongst friends and am sure I will take up the many invitations to return to Himeville as guests of the assembled crew, not as a hotel guest and outsider. Next time I take a safari down here I shall visit Himeville with pleasure. In fact, I shall miss my time here, despite the frustrations of my enforced stay. I’ve remained relaxed thanks to my warm welcome. These are decent people – white- and black-skinned .
At 11.00am ‘Fastway’ couriers (haha) finally arrived with a small package containing two sprockets. By close of business my motorbike was running once again. Tomorrow I should be able to get on my way – after 12 days.
It’s not often I lose my cool but when I do it is cathartic! This morning I phoned Ryder Motorrad and blasted Zulfi, the parts manager, venting nine days’ of pent up frustration and telling him I expected some gesture in return for their incompetence. In the end I think it will be about £9 – but maybe I made a sort of moral victory, they are a BMW dealer after all, only really interested in selling expensive new bikes. They like to mKe profits, and I will get the parts at cost price at least. I felt better for letting it all out in an eight minute rant!
Smiling Patrick set to work, under the eye of Malcolm the chief mechanic. Malcolm had a theory about the continuing oil leak: that it was a small loose hose that feeds the top of the engine and had filled all the tiny spaces in the radiator, from which it continues to drip. We are testing overnight, having thoroughly cleaned the bike of all remaining residue. In the morning we will all look with great interest to see if there’s a puddle of oil beneath the engine where the bike stands in the workshop for tonight.
It’s been a chilly, drizzly day, down as low as 12 – 14 degrees, and after 35 that feels positively cold and unpleasant. Tonight it’s the duvet.
Today the Rand began another slide – and still going. It stood this morning at 23.33 to the pound. The longer I keep the hotel bill (now about £100 I should think) and the bike bills, the better! This trip is getting cheaper every day – and it wasn’t expensive to begin with.
DAY 33. SATURDAY JANUARY 9th, 2015. KHUKHUNE, LESOTHO
With a smile of contentment on my face for so much of today all the frustration is history. I am back in Africa, the Africa I love, a place of smiling people with a spring in their step and joy in their faces. I am in Lesotho and all the problems dissolve. I have had a very good day. Ears popping with altitude, my little bike panting for oxygen, we have returned to the roof of Africa and one of my favourite kingdoms.
By the time I was at May’s Autos, Patrick had put my bike together. There was the merest drip of oil on the workshop floor, probably from the drain plug that needs a new washer. The bill was made up, the company so decent that they have made no profit from my work. They totted up a ridiculous one and a half hours’ labour at a two-thirds rate (incidentally, the normal rate is 300 Rand an hour – about £13. The BMW dealer in Plymouth charges £85) and the parts they had discounted to cost price. I was, therefore, particularly happy that I had just bought Malcolm a bottle of Famous Grouse at the village liquor store (£7.60!!!) and palmed 150 Rand (£6.50) in cash to slip to the charming Patrick, whose wage is probably pretty minimal as a black mechanic. Considering that the delays were no fault of theirs, I respect their friendly gesture very much. So pleased I had the gifts ready.
Caught by Meg just before leaving, I have invitations to return to Himeville as their guest any time. Everyone made me very welcome and I am sure I will return, however odd I find this English village in Africa. You can understand my total confusion about the social mores of these strange white-dominated places… So openly generous to others like them: closed to the rest.
My goodbyes made at the hotel, a portrait taken of pretty Sthabile, the receptionist, and I was on my way to Sani Pass, the rocky track that screws itself into the sky up the steep escarpment to Lesotho. Famous in South Africa as an ‘adventure’ location, (perhaps the most over-used word in the South African tourist lexicon) most people just drive up, have a familiar South African drink and meal at the South African owned ‘highest pub in Africa’ and drive down again, seldom partaking in the ‘adventure’ of entering their neighbours’ country for the adventure of finding its beauties or what makes its people tick. It’s a 4X4 route that has dramatic views back down to the lowlands behind – or would have on a sunny day. Today all that was to be seen was thick mist swirling up the mountain face and visibility of about twenty yards of bumpy rock and wraiths of dampness encircling a tiny world of rock and heathery scrub. It was oddly quiet and disorientating. Happily, I have seen the views and enjoyed the rocky hairpins on several occasions so this was a novelty.
After an overpriced beer, I set off into Lesotho, pretty much on my own, leaving most visitors at the tame pub. Within a mile or two of the edge of the escarpment the clouds fell back and I was in the wonderful, subtle-coloured world of the high peaks and moorland on the new, smooth tarred road that has been completed since last year. Clouds of every density, shape and shade filled the endless sky. The air warmed up and there was a blustery breeze. A storm brewed, slate grey, scored by lightning – fortunately behind me, as I headed west towards the regional town of Mohotlong and on across the highest passes that seem to rise for ever. At the summit, past the ugly diamond mine, I am riding in clear air, colours washed out by the altitude; parched grasslands and rocky screes in vast sensuously modelled hills, the horizons etched hard against the high sky. Many miles go by above ten thousand feet, my engine struggling for air. It’s an exhilarating experience; expansive, limitless, crystal air and a sense of wonder to be riding along so alone and so high.
The afternoon advanced and the sun drifted down the sky, shadows lengthening and describing the shapes and contours, catching pretty thatched rondavels and spiky grey aloes in scattered villages as I slowly descended. Shadows began to fill the valleys and suddenly came an unforgettable view of layer upon layer of grey-blue cut out silhouettes of ridge after ridge, set between a dark foreground and the silver sky; a graphic image that seemed hardly possible in nature.
Then I was at the top of the Moteng Pass, Lesotho’s finest; a swooping skein of tarmac tossed casually over the vertiginous cliffs and slopes, visible far, far below contorted between plunging faces and soaring heights. Twisting this way and that, leaning and rushing downward, concentrating on the bends but watching the awe-inspiring vistas changing every moment. There’s almost no traffic, just a lot of cows and sheep to avoid as the road plummets to the valleys, the rivers mere dry beds, waterfalls a damp dribble clinging like a wet string to the brown rocks, the huge cascades of winter snows lost in this terrible drought.
I stopped for coffee at the ski resort, the only one in Africa with, almost inevitably, ‘Africa’s highest restaurant’, the Sky Restaurant. Astonishingly, I was recognised from my last visit – before Christmas – 2014! I suppose I just have to accept that there aren’t that many grey haired ‘older’ men riding the heights of Lesotho. I had a good conversation with the bar tender, a young Basotho fellow of intelligence and education. So good to talk on equal terms without the colour of our skins creating any reserve or significance. Lele studied tourism, has an easily intelligible British English accent and talked knowledgeably about politics and South African social unrest. He wants to get a visa for Australia to better his opportunities back here in Lesotho. Another kind chap, Mohapi, equally bright and articulate phoned ahead for me to Moruti, whom you may recollect, runs his lovely ‘cultural’ B&B, ‘Mamohase’, with his old mother. Warning them of my arrival would make it easier to get food supplies for supper and make my journey down more relaxed on this Saturday evening with the populous promenading the roadside, waving and thumbs-upping the passing motorcyclist cheerily.
The last two kilometres to Moruti’s place is awful! The final five hundred metres over bare bedrock punctured by round holes like a giant creamy-brown cheese grater. At the end of it, Mamohase B&B stands on a slope with a view across the now even drier valley to a ridge of mountain slopes. Around are small rural rondavels, cows, donkeys and waving children. Moruti has invested, in the last few months, in an electric supply to the main house. Of course, the first items imported are a radio and television, one or the other on from dawn until bedtime! I’ve seen this ‘progress’ all over Africa, bringing its materialist influences into rural homes, most of it here not even a home grown product but that of South Africa. Well, I cannot hold it back and must accept the disturbance of the nighttime peace and 24 hour ‘news’. After all, I have rejected it because I have always lived with this intrusion (well, of course, I’ve actually always chosen NOT to!) but as wise Wechiga once said, “We wanted to try sugar for ourselves. We’d seen you people enjoying it. By the time our teeth fall out it is too late!” And for Moruti and his neighbours, TV is a novelty and a wonder.
Mamohase cooked chicken and pumpkin, tomatoes and papp in her kitchen and Moruti and I ate together. That’s the habit in his ‘cultural’ B&B – with our fingers, a habit I never enjoy and am never able to accomplish as tidily as an African. Mamohase also makes a delicious refreshing ginger beer.
Then it’s early to bed in the silence of the night; the television finally quiet. The stars prickle in the dark sky, mostly unfamiliar to me in the southern heavens. A powerful evening wind blows a flickering storm behind the mountain wall, periodically blowing out the two oil lamps in my round thatched room; oil lamps formed from cow horn reservoirs fitted with a burner and glass chimney.
It’s been a grand day! And bodes to be a grand week, back in smiling Lesotho.
DAY 34. SUNDAY JANUARY 10th, 2015. KHUKHUNE, LESOTHO
There are days that just make all my travelling worthwhile. This has been a fabulous day, a day that has increased my delight in Lesotho, deepened my understanding of Basotho life and brought a new respect for the harshness of that life and the extraordinary fortitude of the people. What a country this is! How charming its people!
Moruti’s cousin, Moeti is a cheerful and happy guide to his culture. Three and a half weeks ago I hired him for that enjoyable morning walk around the local villages, so today I suggested a full day of his company and told him that what I always want to see is people; to meet local people and interact with them, see how they live, what makes them tick. We set off at nine and returned about six this evening – a very full day.
It’s just as well that I am as fit and agile as I am! We crossed and recrossed the steep gorge below the family compound, making our way over completely natural rock and dust, clambering up and down steep escarpments to find old river-worn caves, balancing down steep bald rock slopes and wandering between several villages that I can see from the house, way across the plunging dry valley, balanced on desiccated outcrops in the sun-bleached distance. We sat with village people in the burning sun and everywhere I was welcomed warmly and generously, by people living on the edge of poverty in the harshness of African mountains, cut off from help except by tortuous 4X4 tracks or staggering down the steep rocks and up the other side to a distant road. They have little water, especially in this crippling drought, few possessions, no comforts, mean houses and dusty fields full of white and cream-coloured bald rock. Yet, for all this, they have an inspiring acceptance of their lot and thankfulness for the pathetically little they have. And as always with those who have so little, they have a humbling willingness to share their meagre wealth with a complete stranger – for even a bowl of maize porridge given away is a sacrifice.
We stopped for a time and chatted with a young woman in brightly colourful fabrics and a big, floppy hat, a splash of vibrancy in the dust-dry scene. She worked outside a stone and mud house – as they all are – on a high terrace, the mountain faces steep above. It is dry as a bone here now, a serious problem that entails much time spent carrying buckets of water from uncertain distant springs and water courses. I saw women washing and collecting water from a pond not much more than a large puddle of almost static water. The small fields are parched, the maize stunted for want of water.
At a scattered village called Masere we sat for an hour with a lively group of old people and their inquisitive grandchildren. Four elderly ladies and two old men, one in a fine Lesotho woven hat, the same shape as the thatched roofs on the rondavels, entertained us, answering my questions, telling of their hard life in this remote, thirsty place. Most of them were suffering from eye irritations and bad sight, the dust and an old age that hasn’t the privileges of western medicine to alleviate simple cataracts and vitamin deficiency. A couple of them hobbled with sticks. But this is Africa and they accept their lot and take comfort from their roles as elders, many small children around their knees. A young girl brought us earthy tasting water and later a bowl of slightly sour maize porridge that, mixed with a little sugar, was much more thirst-quenching than mere water. Sitting there, in the beating sun, on a chair respectfully brought from one of their elementary stone and mud homes, I valued the genuine simplicity of their warmth, their smiles, their generosity and their curiosity. They wore old, mismatched clothes and an assortment of headgear – Sunday hats with frills and bows, cotton sun hats, football team strip, ubiquitous baseball caps and that fine example of the traditional woven conical hat.
At last we said our goodbyes, shaking hands all round and receiving many wishes that we would return, and we picked our way down the expanses of almost bald smooth rock towards the dry river bed far below. It’s pretty much a canyon, with high undercut sides that here and there form enormous open caves that have been used for many centuries by shepherds and the original San Bushmen, who left their enigmatic, ritualistic rock art all over southern Africa in such open caves. There were some examples in one of the caves we clambered to – until they were vandalised by French contractors on one of the water schemes, cut from the rock face crudely by cutting discs and looted for valuable souvenirs.
Twice we stopped to drink locally brewed ‘beers’ – sorghum and maize. It’s much the same all over the continent, a somewhat sour, thick soupy drink, mildly alcoholic. We also stopped at a village beer bar for a couple of bottles of Maluti beer, watching Sunday afternoon loafers playing pool. We visited an elderly gentleman called Khokho and his wife, Makelibone, friends of Moeti’s late parents, keen gardeners who keep a grass roots nursery supplying seedling trees to the government. They scratch a living in their old age, watering and weeding, caring for tiny trees in lots of five hundred each. But this drought has so many consequences. Although they are the proud possessors of a tap – still running – the government department that purchases their trees cannot plant them with the lack of rain. Everyone is complaining of the terrible drought. We ended our walk by visiting the end of a deep tunnel that dives into the mountainside below Moruti’s house, deep in the valley. It conects to one of the long underground tunnels that delivers Lesotho’s usually fairly abundant water to greedy South African industry. It is the main income for this small country and the reason for opening up of so much of the ineterior for the big dams and water systems. At the gates of this access tunnel a narrow gutter is still supplying a pathetic trickle on which many local families are depending. Moruti has to carry all the water for the family – his mother, himself and a couple of his siblings’ small children – and any guests (who seem to be quite far between as so few know of his little business) from a quarter of a mile away down a steep dusty hill. When I got back I was desperate for a wash. It has been a hot dry day, almost all of it spent in direct African sun. I doubt I have ever washed in so little water in all my travels – a few pints, and they sufficed to wash my tee shirt, pants and socks too! When you see how Africa struggles for water, you understand the value of this basic resource, the privilege of turning on a tap and getting gushing – clean, treated – water. You also comprehend the appalling greed in privatising a basic human need so that corporate business can make profits for shareholders – but that’s a soap box I won’t mount right now…
At every stop as we walked the paths and trails, greeting and chatting, I was received with such gentle goodwill. Lesotho is a wonder, up there in my top two or three nations in the world. Laughing and joking makes the African world go round, nowhere more so than in lovely Lesotho where warmth and smiles are a national characteristic.
It’s been a wonderful day, unforgettable and profoundly satisfying to be so welcome by people without any pretence or other motive than human warmth. The sort of day that makes my travelling life so very rewarding.
My, I feel healthy and fit just now. This is the life to keep you in form. I have no idea how far we walked, probably not far in horizontal miles, but add the vertical scrambling and it was taxing. We had a light dinner – Mamohase offers a dinner, bed and breakfast package for £15.25 – and by 8.15 I was back to my round thatched room as a stiff wind blows around the hills, product of a rainstorm way up on the tops, that will do nothing to help the aridity down here.
Journal writing is a difficult duty tonight and I will sleep like the dead, I expect! (Indeed, I slept solidly for nine hours!)
DAY 35 MONDAY JANUARY 11th, 2015. KHUKHUNE, LESOTHO
I’m taking this trip at a much more relaxed pace than usual – and enjoying it more I think. This has been a calm day, riding back up to the high mountains just for the sheer pleasure and fun of riding the Moteng Pass again. I remember how it was a highlight of my trip way back in 2002. It has lost none of its thrill; the finest of Lesotho’s tarred passes.
Petrol pumps are well separated in this small country. There’s no pump between Mohotlong, the regional centre in the top right of the country, down to Butha Buthe, a surprisingly small but sprawling town in the top left, over 100 miles away. So before I could set off to the tops I had to turn right and head down 16 miles to a petrol station in Butha Buthe, a town in which the rules of the road seem to evaporate into a tedious, crawling free for all. Of course, a bike is oblivious to much of that!
Then it was off to the mountain heights, a glorious ride up the twisting and looping squiggles of tar, cur here and there into the rock faces to create wide enough turns and cantilevered out on bastions of rock walls elsewhere. High above, and you have to crane your neck, you can see the pass itself, marked by masts of telecommunications relays, the litter of modern landscapes. Between, you might catch glimpses of scratches of the road as it soars across scrubby rock faces in giddying perspective. These roads are little-known feats of engineering, largely created to open up the interior water projects that earn Lesotho a good deal of its income by selling water to South Africa’s industrial belts to the north. Far below, in dizzy views, the road paper-clips down the rocks, seemingly disconnected strips of order in the craggy chaos. This unknown country is biking heaven! You see, we love these roads on which we bend and weave, tilt and lean. For me, it’s not the speed, it’s just the joy of the fluid movements, a sort of mechanical ballet, transferring weight from one side to the other unconsciously, flipping the bike back and forth in a graceful dance so that this lump of ungainly steel engineering becomes a lively, animated cooperation of mind and machine. It’s such fun. It’s what keeps bikers on two wheels and makes cars such a sedate compromise. On my bike I am out in the elements, concentrating at a subliminal level on the technique of riding but enjoying the journey itself on quite another level. Over the years I have often found that the best way to unblock a creative hurdle was to get the bike out and take a ride. I’d find my brain working on two levels: the first a sort of autopilot that operated the machine by instinct, and above that my creative mind unconsciously, it always seemed, tackling the problem I had. Or maybe it was just that I returned relaxed and the problem had dissolved! I have often used my bikes to unblock creative channels.
But here there’s no creative blockage to unstop – just fun to be had, the crystal air to enjoy, the views to wonder over and the ultimate exhilaration – for me – of being in high mountains. You can keep your boring seashores: give me the mountains, especially such high, empty ones as the Maluti.
The ‘Highest restaurant in Africa’ provided a good cup of coffee and yet two more people who recognised me from over a year ago. I must have made quiet an impression: three members of staff who noticed that I had been there before, one of whom, Mots, it was who sent me to Mamohase B&B before Christmas 2014. Then I turned west again from the rather ugly ski resort, with all the usual imposition of metalwork and artificiality on the natural landscape; alien Swiss chalet architecture and South African commercialism despoiling the Basotho heights, and headed back towards gathering storm clouds and the lip of the escarpment.
There’d been a gesture of rain here in the lower west side of Lesotho. Much needed by the populous, but not welcomed by me, it was as yet little more than a dust-settling shower that had reduced the temperature quickly. I think it probably rained in much of the western lowlands, which is where most of the population live – and through which I have to ride tomorrow.
The Lipophung Cave is a celebrated archaeological site with its (somewhat underwhelming) cave paintings. The cave is like so many in these mountains, carved by water in eons past, just a deep overhang that has been used for centuries by mankind as shelter. The San bushmen left their mark – literally – by painting on the rocks: antelopes and stick figures often representing shamans in trances. These ritualised, graphic stick figures and stylised animals have been painted for thousands of years, right into the eighteenth century. I have to say, it’s quite difficult for the casual visitor to make out just what’s what, but my duty was done in seeing the local historical site…
More enjoyable to my mind, was the conversation in the here and now with Lerato (‘love’), security man with S4C, who appear to have the contract for security at all the Lesotho Highlands Water Projects. I had taken a side road and found it, after four or five miles, blocked by a barrier across the entrance to a declining tunnel into the depths of the mountainside. It’s an access shaft to a turbine hall that operates on one of several long tunnels that exit the other side of the range in South Africa. Lesotho – and South Africa – are fortunate that these mountains, the Maluti/ Drakensburg, depending on which side you are, are so stable geologically since they are now punctured by many water tunnels.
Lerato, like so many Basotho, has an easily intelligible English accent and a good education. It’s so easy and pleasant to be able to communicate so equally in this little island surrounded by the reserve and discomfort of South Africa. I told Lerato how welcome I am made to feel in his country.
“Ah,” he said, “from a tender age we are taught that we should greet strangers with respect and a smile!” It’s a lesson well learned by almost every Basotho. I spend much of my time waving and smiling at everyone I pass. It appears that people are actually pleased to see me riding through their spectacular landscapes and enjoying their hospitality.
The Rand is spiralling out of control, now reaching stratospheric heights of 24.42 to the pound. When it reached 22.86 a month ago it broke its own record. My trip gets cheaper every day – and it wasn’t expensive at 17.5 to the pound last March. But how hard it is for this small country, with its currency pegged to the Rand. Through no fault of theirs – in fact, entirely through the fault of the least educated president in Africa, Jacob Zuma (he has no formal education whatsoever) – their economy is plummeting alongside their neighbour’s. People here are beginning to ask why they should suffer this way.
At last, as I write, it is raining; a steady, wetting rain. The gasp of the soil is almost audible. I am happy for all my Basotho friends, but I have to say, I hope it doesn’t last into the morning! There is an unpleasant chill as the rain whispers on the thatch of my round room. Perhaps this will begin to put green on the landscape and crops in the fields and water in the taps. But I fear it will not be enough. Moruti, over supper, told me it hasn’t rained even like this for more than three months. These are hard times in Lesotho.
DAY 36 TUESDAY JANUARY 12th, 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO
To everyone’s delight, it rained through much of the night, at least ten hours of steady relieving wetness. It’s freshened the weather and as I rode today I saw many farmers taking to their fields after the long wait.
And it led to a sparkling, sunny day without the oppression of the recent heat. I have ridden anti-clockwise down the left side of Lesotho. This is the least scenically interesting part of the little country, where the majority of the population live. It is relatively low – although no point in Lesotho is below 1400 metres (4500 feet) and the road rolls through many small, not very pretty towns and villages.
But I am coming to know Lesotho rather well. Maseru, the small but hectic capital, sprawls across hills at about nine o’clock on the oval map of Lesotho. Now I know that by turning ‘inland’ at TY, Teyatyenang, and following a minor road for fifteen miles, I can join another road that deteriorates to rock for about five miles and then joins a sweeping tar road that enables me to completely bypass Maseru, in the process enjoying views of a lovely spreading valley below, contoured in red and brown earth terraces. Everywhere people wave and smile as I pass.
I was heading for a place called Malealea, but could not pass within ten miles of Roma, one of my favourites, without stopping the night in ‘my’ rondavel at the ‘Trading Post’ guest house, where I am instantly recognised and made very welcome. I am the only guest tonight so the kitchen wasn’t able to feed me this evening, resulting in an odd travel meal of sardines on toast, tomatoes and yoghurt. It feeds the body and the soul is well catered for by Lesotho magic.
Chris, the elderly communist, gay, English administrator of the university drama department was delighted to see me reappear so that I could join him as he drank his nightly bottle of white wine (with a second for take away)that he takes here in the garden, desperate, I suppose, for out of town company. Again, he repeated his hope that his department will be able to invite me to the University of Lesotho as a visiting lecturer to expound my historical and heritage take on story telling. Seems to me unlikely to happen, but I wouldn’t object to a paid trip back to Lesotho so I make the right enthusiastic noises! His department works with an New York based advisor. She and I bonded and exchanged addresses last year – so who knows?
One of the staff that I have come to know here, Tseliso, cares for a number of children with his wage as a Jack of all trades at the Trading Post. From him I got warm welcome. Next week the schools go back after the long summer break and he was telling me how difficult it is to pay fees for the children, some of them those of his late brother and wife. One doesn’t enquire too much into the reasons for the decease of young parents here: the chances are that AIDS, with its sad statistics, has taken its toll on his family. High school fees for the year for his own 18 year old are 1200 Maloti (about £53); for the 15 year old about 900 Maloti (about £39). To put it in perspective: he is worrying and stressing about finding that money from his wage while I pay about £40 a day to ride about his country somewhat aimlessly… Africa often makes me guilty about my own rather easy life.
The more I come to and travel about in Lesotho, the deeper I understand and appreciate its strong culture. Each time I admire it more. It’s overtaken my love for Ghana as a country for these people are maintaining their very rich Basotho culture while Ghana is apparently avidly divesting itself of theirs and espousing western ways with a will. The Basotho really celebrate their culture as a living thing. I can see it all around me.
Another thing I notice, and I don’t think it is disconnected, is the discreet level on which religion seems to operate. Lesotho is nominally a Catholic dominated society but it appears much less aggressive and zealous than elsewhere in Africa. I don’t see many churches but everyone professes belief in god (although a few tell me of their doubts. Moruti, whose name, well, it’s a nickname in fact, ironically means ‘priest’, is one). Many people attend services in ordinary houses and priests will travel to those places. Roma is a Catholic town, dominated by large, obvious churches that make a cultural statement of their own. And I noticed, as I took a walk about the area of the Trading Post, that the dotty Jehovah’s Witnesses are here too – doubtless, they saw it as a competitive exercise in this Catholic dominated town. I cannot ever accept the Catholic church in Africa. The fact that the single richest, and one of the most powerful political, organisations in the world has the poorest congregation is a fact that I despise deeply. In Ghana this alien religion pervades the culture – with all its converting fervour and trampling of indigenous culture. In Ghana the construction of vast churches is becoming a very ambitious, cut throat tournament. The money could be spent improving the lot of the population.
In Basotho villages there are not many obvious signs of organised religion. I find it much healthier that people practice in communities if they wish, not in formal places of worship. There’s a small Anglican following, and a scattering of Moslems and the evangelical churches are beginning to see the commercial and business rewards too. Give them time…