AFRICA 2016 – Journal seven

DAY 40 SATURDAY JANUARY 16th, 2016. BLEOMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

I’m missing Lesotho. I reckon I can ‘count’ my contentment in the number of portrait photographs I take on my trips. In the past week I captured the smiles of no less than 50 people, with all of whom I had some degree of interaction.

*

My impressions of that guest house: ‘one of the ten best places to stay in Lonely Planet’ certainly changed as I stayed there. For instance, I had to pay for fairly brief wifi connections, which is unusual in such places. Talking with the manager, I came to appreciate the reasoning: the guest house used to do free unlimited wifi and noticed that all the guests sat huddled over their devices ‘sharing’ everything on horrible Facebook, instead of with each other so they started charging, got large communal tables and a delightful evening brazier – and community resulted! I wish more places thought like that. Yes, they are trying hard that it shouldn’t become the usual bland Lonely Planet destination.

*

The entry to Bloemfontein from the south east, from delightful Lesotho, is one of the most depressing of any African city I know. First you pass two large prisons, wire and guard towers, security and that drear correctional look that tries to put a bland face on the side facing the world. Then it’s a couple of junctions of ring roads in the middle of nothing and then mile upon mile – and I don’t exaggerate – of ‘informal settlement’ with crude shacks made from rusty tin, old windows, scavenged doors, recycled sign boards, bent metal, with rocks on roofs against dusty winds, in a blasted desert of grit and wire fencing. Tens of thousands live here. It extends for square miles, not just acres. Mainly unemployed, I assume, or in menial work, they exist on the edges of the wealth of this ‘developed’ nation with one of the biggest economies in Africa. Across the highway are acres of billowing plastic bags, bottles, refuse and filth, much of it stuck to fences and thorn trees. A few miles away people – mainly with white skins (but not entirely, to be fair); mainly accusing these people of being lazy spongers on the system (I hear them constantly…) live in pleasant bungalows with swimming pools, electric security gates and large shiny 4X4s. This is the most divided nation I know and within an hour or two of being here I am upset by the inequalities. Lesotho is indeed a foreign country. A much more acceptable one with at least a veneer of fairness to the outsider and certainly without the palpable air of angst amongst its people. My tolerance for South African social disparity is getting very short – less forgiving each time I come and go. I begin to wish there was somewhere else I could keep my motorbike and still be able to reach Lesotho and Zimbabwe easily.

Well, maybe there is! An email from Rico in Kenya this morning, accompanied by smiling pictures of many of the family of girls that he raises:

‘…I have tried several times to return you some smiles. Internet
problems have confused me and I don’t know if any were actually sent.
Therefore this new attempt.
I hope to receive the piki-piki this weekend from Eldoret.
I still have no certainty about work, so it is difficult to plan (or
not to plan) your trip to Kenya.

Your WAB, Rico…’

So, from this I conclude that I now own another African piki-piki (motorbike)! By the way, we always sign off WAB – White African Brother. We discovered Africa at the same time, back on that Sahara crossing in 1987, the first occasion either of us saw sub-Saharan Africa, a life-changer for us both.

So perhaps Rico has found a way for me to vary my African safaris. Thank you my old friend and WAB, I hope we’ll be drinking a beer together in Kitale before long!! (RIco follows my journeys).

*

It’s only about 120 miles between the Malealea Valley in Lesotho and the Afrikaans city of Bloemfontein but they exist in different worlds. I am only here in the latter to see Steven and fix my rear brake before I set off to the west. I’m fond of him, enough to put up with a day or two in this strange place and its odd nation.

We’ve spent the evening at Steven’s girlfriend, Isabel’s, pleasant bungalow barbecuing and eating enough meat to cause a hospital-ful of heart disease. The nearest thing to vegetables on the table was the dried herbs sprinkled on the bread, literally the only green thing amongst huge steaks, ribs, sausage, kebabs, bacon-wrapped cocktail cherries (!), bread, mushrooms covered in melted South African orange processed cheese (so unaccountably popular here) and white, mayonnaise-ridden potato salad.

So many Afrikaners and white South Africans are hugely overweight, usually pear shaped. They smoke as no others I know and spread salt like snow-capping on their food. They must be horribly unhealthy. I soon long for vegetables. I have often heard Afrikaners joke that for them chicken is a vegetable… Hmmmm.

I must, for the first evening back at least, bite back my criticisms of thoughtless racism that pervades all of life here. Instead, I will say how welcoming and kind are the people I meet, especially my warm-hearted, generous friend Steven.

*

It was a blustery ride down from the hills and across the low, dry, rolling grazing of the Free State. Not much to look at and only the two down-at-heel towns of Wepener and Dewetsdorp to break the monotony – with a worse colourless quality all their own. Not much for it but to go head down into the wind and count the kilometre markers. I reached Bloem at lunchtime, not much more than three hours’ ride from the lost valley in the forgotten kingdom in the sky. It’s a very different world down here!

And still a very hot one.

DAY 41 SUNDAY JANUARY 17th, 2016. BLEOMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

I awoke at 3.30 this morning, my stomach still trying to understand the weight of red meat that had hit it – the first steak in several years, sausage, bacon, and pork – more than it has seen since, well, since I was here a year ago. It’s an odd way to be: vegetarian for nine months of the year and heavily carnivorous for the rest! When I woke I realised just how extremely hot it was under just a sheet. But at dawn the thunder and rain came, steady rain that the land and animals need so much.

One thing though, it saved me from a biker church meeting – which would doubtless have provided intriguing cultural insights, but which I didn’t relish much! The Afrikaners are very strong church-goers but VERY conservative too. Many belong to a brand of deeply conservative early Dutch Christianity, the equivalent to the narrowest Islamist – fortunately without the militancy but with all the bigotry. I’m really not sure where Steven stands in the range, but he, and everyone to whom I am introduced by him, are ardent church-goers, tee-totalers (I bring my own beer to the house, and the cans from early December were still in the fridge, except the two that exploded from getting too cold!) and all Steven’s biker friends are ‘Riders for the Son’. Steven is a person to whom I don’t mention my atheism; just let him alone with his belief. It’s OK by me, but on the whole, apart from the cultural insights, going off to Christian biker meetings – in Afrikaans – at 7.30 on a Sunday morning isn’t my best idea of entertainment. Happily, he went off in his bakkie in the rain and I turned over and enjoyed the best three hours’ sleep I’ve had in weeks until 10.30, the cool rain humming on the house. I found later that 26mm of rain, just over an inch, fell this morning. Trouble is, the whole week looks to be quite wet.

*

The afternoon and evening I spent with Steven back at Isabel’s bungalow, reading Northanger Abbey (yet again – these days, a free download to my iPad). Not much to write about! The temperature has reduced dramatically. So, tomorrow it’s westwards across the continent. I’ve been fighting with myself whether to go back to glorious Lesotho, but I think I will go later, not in a dull, damp week.

DAY 42. MONDAY JANUARY 18th, 2016. BRITSTOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

Of course, there are days when I wonder just what the hell I’m doing! There I was bashing across the Karoo Desert at sixty miles an hour for more than 250 miles – and this part of the journey is NOT interesting. I just have to sit and ride, watching the hands go round on the dashboard clock about the most interesting thing to do. South Africa is big, very big, and sometimes you just have to get across the expanses. There’s something impressive about the sheer scale of course, the apparently limitless quality of this giant landscape, the emptiness, the roads disappearing in perfect perspective to distant horizons. But it’s not very entertaining: few wild ostriches, a trio of rather elegant antelopes, a scurrying group of monkeys, a lone tortoise and a lot of rather large raptors, some with four foot wingspans; no giant tortoises the size of washing up bowls as I have seen here before. This is when I wish I had a talking book to listen to… Sometimes these journeys just have to have days like this, to get to the other side, to get to interesting places and meet interesting people. I am heading west right across the continent, across the pendulous curve that describes the bottom of Africa. In a couple of days I will meet the Atlantic.

*

It was an early start. Steven had promised to fix my rear brake – which is a rather ingenious invention of his, since BMW South Africa keeps almost no stock of parts, especially for a bike that is now 16 years old. BMW’s only interest is selling new vehicles… I tried to get a simple brass washer today, that fits on the oil drain plug – an item of routine maintenance. There isn’t one in South Africa – anywhere! It would have to be sent from Germany. So, in the absence of a master brake cylinder from BMW, Steven bodged brackets and bent pipes to fit a Chinese one. On first fitting it failed but he knew how to fix it, so I felt I had to show willing at least and get up early to hover over him, useless though I may be.

We said our goodbyes, he went off to work and I was on the road by nine for my long ride across the flat Free State, which I thank my lucky stars not to have been born to… This is the huge interior of the country, vast farms of grazing lands that can support only a few head of cattle or sheep per square mile. But there are a lot of square miles out there. It’s also diamond country, with Kimberly not far off my route and Jagersfontein, site of the discovery of the world’s biggest diamond so far, en route. Now it’s a faded one horse town whose time is past; a place of run down arcaded, tin roofed, single storey stores and decrepit early 20th century bungalows beside wide potholed streets. A few scruffy cars moulder on their rims in the dust and the unemployed populous sit disconsolately on stoeps and shop fronts. A threadbare square that once had grass but now boasts only red dust sits forlornly in the town centre. The glory days are long, long past in Jagersfontein.

Just as they are in Koffiefontein, Fauriesburg, Petrusville, Philipstown, Luckhoff, and all the other small towns so spread out, often fifty miles between them, along my road, ending in Britstown, much the same; another small town that makes me wonder what people actually DO here? There’s a church on just about every corner, a lot of run down bungalows from a century or so ago, wide dusty streets, a couple of petrol stations, no stores of any attraction whatsoever, a few booze shops. And the Transkaroo Guest Lodge – fortunately for me.

I stayed in this hotel fourteen years ago tomorrow and have always remembered the Karoo lamb, that I ate in the dining room. Now, as a mainly vegetarian, I cannot resist lamb on occasions. And Karoo lamb is the best in the world. I have passed thousands of these apparently under-nourished sheep scratching for something green in the landscape that is unremittingly brown and dead. But here and there I catch the aroma of a herb much like rosemary or sage on the air. This is what Karoo sheep feed upon. Imagine, the herb is infused into the meat as food!

*

Distances are huge; traffic almost non-existent. The sky domes overhead, overcast and with rain threatening today. Perhaps I am lucky: last week it would have been in excess of 40 degrees out here. Now, after 4020 kilometres, I had to get the waterproofs out for the first time for half an hour, but more for warmth than for the brief shower.

Watching the skies darken, I decided not to take the fifty mile detour to Orania. Pity, really; I’ve had it on my list for a while. But it would have made me angry if I’d gone there, so maybe the fact that it was in a deluge away to my left was just as well. For Orania is the town that has re-instituted apartheid! It says a lot for the tolerance of this odd ‘Rainbow Nation’ that they put up with it. No black residents are allowed and even the menial work is done by whites. This is an unabashed recreation of the evils of apartheid, remade in the twenty first century. There are even monuments to the shameful inventors of apartheid. And the saddest thing is that Orania is growing fast. It is pretty much self-sustaining, with the determination of fanatics, right wing politics and the belief that their very narrow version of god is on their side. I’d only meant to stop for a coffee and a look at the memorials but maybe it’s as well I didn’t, for my hackles are rising just writing about this self-declared ‘Afrikaner Volkstaat’ I missed by thirty kilometres!

*

The Transkaroo Guest Lodge is not a bad hotel. With the choice of an en suite room for £27 or a pleasant corner room looking down the faded main street of Britstown, but with a bathroom down the corridor of the empty hotel, at £11, there wasn’t much mental argument! I tell you, I am travelling here this year and actually still making a very slight profit on my British income! How’s that? Sunshine, interest – and breaking even. It’s what pensioners used to do in Benidorm – but a bloody sight more interesting! And I’m pretty sure this isn’t what they had in mind in 1947 when they invented the Welfare State and universal pensions! I am fortunate indeed. I would like to shoot some of the dogs down the street though.

And the lamb didn’t disappoint. So good I am following it with a measure of Jamesons whiskey. Well, why not at £1 a shot?! Haha. Life’s pretty good.

DAY 43. TUESDAY JANUARY 19th, 2016. WILLISTON, SOUTH AFRICA

Without the chances that travelling brings me, I doubt I’d be here. I do LOVE not to know what tomorrow will bring, and my greatest pleasure is just the odd things that happen. Tonight finds me in a memorably odd place at the end of rather a good day.

Williston – a small ‘dorp’ on a road from nowhere, to nowhere. But it was time to stop. It was, by 3.15, so oppressively hot and steamy that my eyelids were drooping – even on the bike! That’s the time to call it a day! I’d stopped for coffee and a couple of freshly baked – just out of the oven in fact – sausage rolls (minced lamb of course!) in an inexplicable village called Loxton – baffling that it should exist at all out there in the empty Karoo – and the owner, a spindly Afrikaans man, on hearing that I might not get beyond Williston – for that was my estimation at that point – told me to look for signs to ‘Dei Ark’. “You’ll see the signs on the road. They may be only in Afrikaans, but you’ll see it. Williston isn’t very big. ‘Williston Mall’. Look for it. It’s a good guest house.”

Williston is as obscure a place as I might hope for. It’s a small Karoo town providing for the area, its farms and – well, I have no idea why it’s here, really, full of immensely overweight Afrikaners and skinny as sticks coloured people, quite a few of whom appeared to have a drink problem. Gosh, Afrikaners are an ugly race! A bevy of young women just walked into the bar. I bet the three of them weigh six times what I weigh; shapeless, soggy-skinned, baggy, astonishingly inappropriately dressed, dyed hair, floorboard saggingly HUGE! Okay, so the litre of milk stout is perhaps making me a bit over-candid, but… Oh my goodness, a young lad of perhaps 15 has just come in. I think it’s his birthday. He’d better make the most of it: at that size he may not enjoy many more. He darkened the bar by his enormous bulk – a waistband that must be 60+ inches. And what are they all eating? Vast quantities of meat and chips… My god, another beer belly walked in, followed, many waist inches later by some hairy fellow in a camouflage baseball cap! (This is a blow by blow account!). The black – well, Cape Coloured actually, waiting girls flash back and forth, shapely, pretty, smooth-skinned – probably almost invisible to the hairy white customers, blinded by the racist spectacles they wear. Gosh, it’s odd, as I sit here, slightly pissed, watching it all play out around me in this bizarre bar…

Which is where I came in, a paragraph back… Sorry for the diversion. Blame the stout.

Williston is a small grid of bungalow plots, dating back to Victorian roots, with a black township or two on the hills outside. A wide main drag, that if this were a Western, would have cotton bolls blowing down the empty street to Ennio Moricone music; a stern Germanic rock church at the geographic centre, a few unattractive shops selling things like agricultural supplies – and lots of liquor stores. That’s Williston. A few stumbling drunks, a lot of black people sitting on the kerbs, an endless desert wasteland lapping at the street ends. No more.

Except Die Ark and Doppie’s Bar. What oddities THEY are. A guest house with character. The entire place – rooms, bars, dining room, yards, terraces, verandahs – are filled from floors to ceilings with utterly eclectic JUNK! It’s fun and very individual. The bar, in which I am writing, is festooned in old hats, signs, advertising boards, tee shirts, suit jackets, caps, old suitcases, piles of books, jugs, empty bottles (of no intrinsic value), photos, number plates, kitchen gadgets, an alarm clock, shaving kit, torch, funnels, busts, sewing cabinets, hubcaps, brooms, a surf board, a fish tank, tin toys, jars of coloured sand, a bra, tin trays, trophies, old telephones, boxes, cans, a pair of running shoes, a brief case, and enamel buckets. (Gosh, a woman with tattoos, dressed in a marquee has just walked through the bar. She’s taking home a doggy bag in case she gets hungry in the night). There seem to be several dogs and lots of cats. It is a one-off and a fun discovery. My (en suite) bedroom is filled with similar junk and even has a fitted Aga, old kettles, colanders and bowls. The yard has car hulks, bicycles, tin trunks, wheelchairs, signs, buckets, bowls, hub caps galore – well, you get the picture.

*

I left Britstown this morning, heading south on the highway. I could have gone by a direct route. That’s a road I took exactly – to the day – fourteen years ago, in the opposite direction. But if the highway is empty (less than one vehicle every minute – and this is the N12 from Cape Town towards Johannesburg), those gravel roads are without any traffic. I well remember that in 2002 I took that connecting gravel road and in over 85 miles met not a single living being. Now, my motorbike is getting a bit old and perhaps I am getting just a bit more wary? I decided, for peace of mind, to stick to the tarred roads today. This is very remote country. When I turned off the highway, after fifty miles, onto tarred roads that wind across the Karoo, it wasn’t uncommon for ten or fifteen minutes to go by without seeing another vehicle – on national tar roads. Between Loxton and Carnarvon – fifty miles and about 45 minutes, three vehicles passed.

As I motored along on the highway, a steady 60mph, there were tens of thousands of sleek, dark brown caterpillars or slowworms crossing the tarmac. At first I did my best to avoid them, then they were so numerous that it wasn’t possible, and, I reasoned, with traffic that light, the majority had a pretty good chance of making it to the other side. I suppose the recent occasional rain showers were responsible.

It was a lovely morning, sunny and bright, with a million small clouds decorating the deep blue sky. There’s a strange beauty all of its own about the Karoo. It works its way into my consciousness each time I ride here. On a morning with all those small patchy clouds the interplay of sharp shadows and bright sun on the grey, browns and yellows of the landscape made for attractive vistas. I rode the empty roads with a mental smile.

*

Then, at Victoria West, a small elegant town with a lot of Victorian and early 20th century cottages with pilastered verandahs and curving tin roofs – and a lot of visible poverty and begging amongst the black population – I turned onto the R63, a rural tarred road that continues west across the Karoo. This road was even more lightly used and here the minutes passed, me the only thing moving in the immensity of the lonely landscape.

Around the horizon – here far distant across the scrubby desert – clouds were thickening and darkening. At one point, on the long empty road from Loxton to Carnarvon, I had to get into my waterproofs for a ten minute sharp shower that cooled the air dramatically, making me chilled for those minutes. But as the afternoon wore on – and it was wearing by then – my eyes were heavy, perhaps from the lamb sausage rolls that I’d eaten – and I knew that Williston would be the limit. When I reached the insignificant little habitation I was completely worn out from the 250 mile ride on this hot, stuffy day. When Elmarie, the artist owner of Die Ark, assured me that an en suite, characterful room was waiting for me for £13, the decision was made. And happily too! For I am delighted by the random and fortuitous nature of my night’s accommodation, my lamb burger supper and the beers to settle the weight of the day’s desert intensity. It’s been a long, hard slog of a day across the apparent monotony of the Karoo, to which I am oddly attracted.

I am amongst different indigenous people, lighter skinned and smaller of stature. These are mainly ‘Cape Coloured’ people, with a discernible mix of Portuguese features. Oddly, though, across the Free State and Karoo regions, almost everyone, black or white speaks Afrikaans, a totally unintelligible – to me – language.

I have to stop writing and sleep. My bike’s across the road in someone’s garage and I am quite exhausted. Tonight’s has been a sort of flow of consciousness (or semi-consciousness) journal entry. Not sure what I’ll make of it in the morning – but I do think it’s important to write however I feel, when I feel it! Must sleep…

DAY 44. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 20th, 2016. CLANWILLIAM, SOUTH AFRICA

For half an hour this afternoon I am sure I rode my bike in the hottest conditions I have EVER ridden through. The general temperature today has been in the upper 30s (up to about 100F), but for that brief period I am certain the thermometer must have been well in the 40s! I had just descended a long pass, a complete surprise, actually, as I had been bowling along on the tops of the Karoo Desert for hours when I suddenly came to the lip of a great escarpment that led down to the coastal shelf a thousand or more meters below. At last I had almost crossed the continent. As I spun down that pass into the great bowl of landscape below, the air hit me like opening an oven door. It’s the most extreme heat I ever felt on my poor bike(s).

*

Right now I am sitting sweating on a delightful, rather smart, terrace beneath a shady mango – and the heat is still oppressive. Quite without shame, I have a room at half the price others here are paying! I am NEVER above a bit of bargaining but tonight I have been sworn to secrecy at getting this VERY smart room for less than £17.50, when it should have been more like £30 plus!! Well, I have the ultimate bargaining power – a motorbike on which I can ride away and find something more economical. And every hotel owner would rather have a full room for £17.00 than an empty one for £0! This room and hotel is FAR above my usual standard: a lovely olde world feel, air conditioning, TV, two swimming pools, gardens, smart restaurant, a huge bed in a ‘heritage’ room, fridge, en suite – well, it’s a pretty smart place! It’s fun, blagging my way through Africa! Haha.

*

I’ve ridden another couple of hundred miles across the Karoo today, a place of singular attraction despite its huge, empty spaces and dry vegetation. I’ve enjoyed my ride from Bloemfontein, although it has taken a certain amount of my legendary obstinacy to get here. Of course, I still have to get back – but I shall have the prospect of Lesotho to spur me on in that direction.

It was eleven before I left the bizarre eccentricities of the Die Ark guest house, enjoying a leisurely breakfast with the welcoming family, Pieter, Elmarie and her brother. It’s such a confusion for me, these kindly, warmly welcoming Afrikaans folk, with their elephantine racial blind spot. I actually LIKE them, but I can never forget that they can’t see ninety per cent of their neighbours. We have good conversation and I bite my tongue at thoughtless references that come up and hit me in the face.

*

The roads are long and riding hot. There’s not much to break the monotony, although the desert has its own beauty in the very subtle changes that occur in light and colouration of the soils and vegetation and the extreme scale of the landscape. I sit and watch the kilometres count off towards each interim destination. I fill up with fuel at every station, for they are few and far between out here. I stopped for coffee and cake in a smart heritage building in one town and here and there I pull up to take photos. Otherwise it is just riding, thinking, counting the kilometres.

A very brief shower was just a cloud emptying itself and I didn’t even stop for my waterproofs: I knew I’d be dry in moments. Clouds gathered behind me but the rains are very localised indeed.

*

Clanwilliam is an expensive centre for tourism; a tidy, wealthy town (with the customary spreading wens of the black townships around of course); a place of up-market guest houses and hotels – like the one I am in tonight at my cut rate deal, about which the management have sworn me to secrecy. And oddly I have bumped into a Swiss couple I met and chatted with for some time a couple of weeks ago when I rode the mountain bicycle to Cobham nature reserve near Himeville on the 3rd. Not far behind me in years, Hilda has been travelling for much of her life; a rolling stone with whom I can compete in places visited and stories to tell. Her husband, Bernhard – of just a year or so – is new to it all. We have sat long tonight – even finding that we are the only two people we know who have both been to Sikkim in the eastern Himalayas. A congenial evening.

Now I need to sleep again. It is so tiring, being exposed to this extreme heat on the bike all day long. I’m forced to use the air-con tonight, something I never like. But without it, it is the mosquitoes as there is no fan. When I investigated the air-con settings, I found that the last inhabitant of this room had the chiller set to a ludicrous 18 degrees. It is still near to 30 outside this late evening. I reset the nasty machine to 28! Quite cool enough for me.

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