DAY 56. MONDAY FEBRUARY 1st, 2016. KAKAMAS, SOUTH AFRICA
Faintly cooler today, probably not much over 40/ 42C (100-104F). Positively bracing!
I never use a guide book to find my accommodation. I reckon my instincts are much better and I love the chance nature of some of the places I find. I’d pretty much decided to stop at Kakamas, just because it was a long enough ride at about 170 miles from Springbok, and it would provide a base to visit the Orange River tomorrow.
Tonight I have a pleasant chalet – en suite and air-con – in the midst of a vineyard. Beside the iPad stands a glass of Chardonnay from a bottle of the estate; wine that grew as grapes about 100 yards from my table. Food doesn’t come more local than this. The wine is a gold award winner in a South African selection. I am on the Die Mas wine estate, one of the Orange River vineyards that produce excellent wines in the middle of the Kalahari. Established in 1970 and its name meaning, in Afrikaans, ‘The Mast’ of Kakamas, I have the place pretty much to myself and it’s very quiet. The great river flows by, quite fast, below my chalet, sixty yards away through trees and bamboo.
As I rode through Kakamas I spotted a sign to the wine estate, suggesting tastings, camping and chalets. There’s no food, but I dealt with that at the local supermarket – a good salad with blue cheese to accompany my very own wine tasting amidst the grape vines.
It’s such a wonder to look down into the vivid, flamboyantly green valley of Kakamas after three weeks or so of endless desert. Here the Orange River, South Africa’s longest and biggest, carves a sweep through the Kalahari Desert down to the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve seen a lot of the Orange River. It rises on the northern Lesotho/ Drakensburg mountain border 2320 kilometres to the east. It flows round the south of Lesotho in a big loop and exits into the Free State to begin its long journey through the parched lands to the ocean, where it enters the sea creating the Namibia/ South Africa border. Before Christmas this river was bone dry in northern Lesotho, and people were paddling across it, ankle deep, in the south of that kingdom even in the early part of the year. Now it’s picked up some water – Steven texted some days ago to say that it had hardly stopped raining in Bloemfontein from the day I left to the day I reached the west coast.
The vines grow thick and tidily around this town. Famous for many years for its raisins, it now has equal claim on the wine front, producing well regarded red and white wines. This vineyard also produces a number of desert wines and its own brandy. The aroma of drying grapes pervades the air as I ride through, large concrete drying pads dark with millions of grapes desiccating in the violent sun. I must buy some tomorrow to chew on the road as I ride eastwards in this baking climate.
A walk through the vines was airlessly clammy and uncomfortable. It’s still immensely hot, even if yesterday’s excesses will become something of a personal legend. My washing dried in minutes after I arrived and the shower water, stored in a big green tank above the three chalets was as hot as heated water, and about as refreshing. Once again, as I write, thunder is flickering on the distant horizons but rain is unlikely, except perhaps in a few isolated patches that will be deluged – such is the way of deserts. It’s JUST beginning to cool a little at 8.00, to bearable, pleasant warmth – so long as you sit still and wear as few clothes as decently possible.
Today’s was an uninteresting ride, without the variations of the desert scenery of the past days. This is just very, very, very big, covered in scrub and extremely flat. Only the quite uninteresting dorp (the most interesting thing is its name!) of Pofadder, breaks this long desert ride. Out here it’s not unusual for 100 miles to separate towns. I assumed Pofadder gets its name from the prevalence of puff adders, a nasty snake. Like cobras, they are numerous in these deserts – but I never see them. In all my African travels, now not inconsiderable, I have hardly spotted snakes. Scorpions too exist plentifully out in these desert regions. I’m always happy, though, to be wearing my big boots if I walk in the undergrowth and rocks when I take photos.
Pofadder is said to be one of the remotest settlements in South Africa (I can believe it!) and is the scornful butt of many jokes. It’s used as an analogy for the ends of the intelligent universe. It receives less rain in a year than most European towns get in a day. Actually, I find Pofadder got its name from a cattle rustler, Klaas Pofadder, in the 1860s, who was killed in a gunfight in 1875.
You may imagine my evenings to be lonely. However, the extremes of heat and the exertions of riding a motorbike often mean that I am in bed by nine! Supper, and an hour’s diary writing takes care of the rest of the evening. I sleep for ten or eleven hours a night on these journeys. It does make for a laid back, stress-free existence. The days generally have enough interest and casual conversations that loneliness is seldom a problem.
There seem to be no other touring bikers. In the weeks since I left Bloemfontein I have seen only four motorcycles on the road – and a Harley Davidson complete with fitted carpets, cocktail cabinets, drinks coolers, hifi and Tiffany lampshades (sorry, Kevin!). The rider of that showy penthouse took one look at me on my scruffy oil leaking machine and in my faded, patched trousers and dismissed me with few words. The others flew past on their huge ‘adventure’ BMWs.
Only sometimes, there are things that’d be fun to share – and I sometimes wish there was someone else there to take pictures of the adventurous bits! But then, what’s such a picture prove? Like a ‘selfie’, the most vanity-ridden recent invention: that I was there and can ‘share’ with my thousands of insignificant internet ‘friends’. Well, I know I was there and really, my friends have limited interest in seeing the proof! ‘Selfies’ are just that: self conscious, self congratulatory – and should be kept to yourself! I’ve taken one so far – and sometimes I give my camera to someone else – usually to put them at ease so I can get their portrait.
8.15. At the bottom of the glass, it could well be bedtime!
DAY 57. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 2nd, 2016. KAKAMAS, SOUTH AFRICA
The grape harvest is in full swing around me. This afternoon I wandered beneath the vines amongst the local pickers, for whom this sporadic work is a life saver. There will be three months of this hard work in the sun for them, days from 7.00am until 5.30pm. The grapes are cut with cheap scissors, dropped into waiting plastic boxes the size of fish boxes and constantly collected by a tractor and trailer circulating beneath the vines, placed just far enough apart and raised high enough for this efficient process. The Die Mas vineyard has 100 hectares under vines. That sounds like, and looks like, a lot. Most of its grapes are transported to the Orange River Wine cooperative, the biggest group of wine producers in southern Africa, up the road in town. A small percentage stays on the farm and produces good niche wines. A beer drinker by inclination, I did very much enjoy a glass of Cabernet sitting on the vine-hung wooden terrace above the vineyard this evening as the air finally cooled a trifle. Now I’m finishing yesterday’s Chardonnay. There are so few beers worth drinking in this country anyway, all produced in factories for uncritical mass consumption. There’s just a tiny, nascent craft beer taste developing; hardly enough to call an industry.
Today has been stiflingly humid. I awoke for almost the first time I can remember in recent weeks to a heavy overcast with dark clouds on most horizons. The wine makers certainly don’t want rain now and are hectically cropping the grapes. Of course, despite all the signs, there was no rain out here in this extensive desert, but the humidity was oppressive indeed. Kakamas gets only 30-50mm of rain in a year, relying on the irrigation schemes to succour the grapes.
Wandering the vineyard this afternoon, the best, tastiest grapes were, I found, destined to become sultanas. The dried fruit here is the biggest regional export. I stopped and bought half a kilo of delicious sultanas by the roadside (75p), fresh from the farms via the largest processing factory. I have seen them all day drying on their concrete pads in the burning Northern Cape sun. I bought them from a pretty young woman by the astonishing name of Siobhan (although she pronounced it more like ‘she-vonne’). She was amazed to know it was an Irish Gaelic name; she had no idea. Her elaborate woven hair had taken all day to perfect, she admitted, to my compliments.
The big local sight is the Augrabies Falls, famous in South Africa, and said to be sixth biggest in the world, where the Orange River plummets about 100 metres into a granite canyon in a turbulent boiling spray of brown water. It’s impressive but very commercialised now and bureaucratic, run by a government parks department. I saw it 14 years ago and enjoyed it much more without the attendant air-con bungalows, conference centre, smart hotel and all the gate houses, form-filling, safety warnings, rip-off surcharge for foreign tourists and carefully controlled walkways. Also, there was a lot more water in 2002. Well, it was there… Twice is enough.
Kakamas has a chequered history… It was founded in 1893 as a centre for the very introspective, narrow, Dutch Reformed Church to establish a colony for poor (white of course) farmers who had lost everything following periods of severe drought and an outbreak of rinderpest. The church strictly regulated the lives of the settlers and it was really little more than a labour colony for the church. It wasn’t until 1964 – yes, nineteen sixty four! – that people were finally granted property rights and the church’s interests were liquidated. Mind you, that was in mid-apartheid, so presumably only white people even got THAT concession. Grapes and raisins were introduced as a local industry. Hmmmmm…
Nowadays it is a relaxed, rural place of little interest beyond the vineyards and the river. The importance of irrigation has made the land fertile in the middle of the desert and the area has a quiet charm for a couple of days, helped by good wines from the vines that I can see all around me!
My credit card is valid almost everywhere in southern Africa, but a day or two ago, coming back into South Africa, I was running a bit short on ready cash. But it was the first of the month. Queues formed round the block from every ATM in every town, all day long. It’s a common phenomenon in Africa, and I always try to make sure I don’t run short of banknotes on the last day of the month and thereabouts. People who have little money like to get their cash out quickly on pay day, to pay debts and begin the slow downward debt-slope to next pay day. But in South Africa this is compounded by the fact that all the social security grant money is released to the enormous number of unemployed people – mainly black – from cash machines. So yesterday, being Monday the 1st saw a huge run on withdrawals and shopping. So much of Africa lives hand to mouth…
My small chalet is quiet and peaceful amongst the vines so I decided to stay here again. I am so much enjoying the pace of this journey: much more relaxed than my usual restless rush from place to place.
DAY 58. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 3rd, 2016. GROBLERSHOOP, SOUTH AFRICA
Groblershoop – what a name! Actually, it’s a very boring little dorp on the edges of the Kalahari and Karoo deserts, named after some minister of agriculture in the 1930s, when it was created as an agricultural centre. It brings to mind working in Indiana a few years ago. “Hey, you must see our historic qwarder!” instructed my Indianapolis colleagues. It was built in 1927! I forbore to point out that I had never lived in a house that young and my local church was the best part of a thousand years old and I looked out at old farm buildings four or five times older than their. Historic quarter’! Haha.
Groblershoop wasn’t my destination tonight but Upington, which was, seems to have a price of its own for accommodation, about fifty per cent higher than any I have found in the country. And I can assure you, Upington has NOTHING that would justify the high prices. It’s a steaming hot, ugly place of no history and not a lot of culture, little more than an administrative centre for the top left corner of South Africa. Unable to find anywhere worth staying, I just gave up and rode out. Of course, distances between settlements here meant that I rode another 75 miles.
But Upington will remain memorable for finding the best, friendliest and most helpful BMW dealer in South Africa (and I’d include England in that too…). “Is there anyone here who knows these bikes well?” I asked Istvan, who came forward to greet me as I stepped off my oily bike. He looked at the oil leak problem and called his maintenance manager, a delightful fellow called Ben. Soon Ben and his mechanic had the tank off and were removing hoses (I spent six hours at the Durban BMW place and they never removed a hose – or fixed the leak, although they did present me with a bill for almost 1000 Rand…(£42)). Ben inspected the hose, threw it away and replaced it, put new clamps on other joints, then the mechanic washed the bike. It was all done in such a friendly manner and took something over an hour. When it came to settling up: “No, let it be our good deed for the day! Travel safely and enjoy yourself!” This must be a first in history for a BMW dealer anywhere in the world! I will remember them. Afrikaners can be very generous and open-hearted.
Mind you, the oil still leaks although the flow is somewhat stemmed. There is still a leak no one has found… But I feel so much more confident now that a knowledgable mechanic has had a look and seen nothing to worry about. I wish I was more secure in my understanding of how my machines work.
I’ve been following the Orange River upstream for the last two or three days, back towards my much loved Lesotho. It brings life to these deserts for a few miles on either side, filled with vineyards and fruit orchards. But then the desert stretches to every horizon beyond, a low scrub-covered rocky scene to infinity under a burning sky, broken by a few rocky, arid hills and distant mountains. A few days and I will be moaning of the rain and wet, I expect, for I saw from the forecast (in Afrikaans) on TV as I ate dinner, that much of the eastern side of the continent is now in rain. It’s not uncommon, out in these scattered dorps, to find people who speak little English and even for the black population the first language is Afrikaans, an ugly-sounding language of which I can pick up few hints even of meaning.
The accommodation choices in Groblerhoop are limited and I think I am the only traveller here tonight. I’ve a pleasant but faceless garden-facing room in a self catering bungalow complex. It fits the bill for a night and a place to sleep. But, oh dear, these guest houses are the repositories of some dreadful ‘art’! Though, in my observation the Afrikaans nation hasn’t a good record in taste in art and craft: their ‘gift, shops filled with the most awful sentimental and whimsical tatt. Badly painted flowers, hearts, big eyed waifs and soppy dogs abound, plus, of course, a lot of slightly queasy moral and religious sentiments. Oh well, each to their own, it makes the world go round. Books are noticeably absent from all the Afrikaans homes into which I have been too.
A brief shower and thunderstorm passed over within minutes of my arrival, great heavy drops disappearing in moments into the parched sandy roads. It has cooled the temperature delightfully but enlivened the mosquitoes and midges to an over-friendly degree.
I’m glad my name’s not Grobler.
DAY 59. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 4th, 2016. KIMBERLEY, SOUTH AFRICA
The mosquitoes of Groblershoop – or whatever they were, for mozzies don’t usually have the effect upon me that these aggressive creatures did – were indeed wild ‘dangerable’ animals, as my brother Wechiga would have it. My night was disturbed and long, alternating between trying to sort out the bloody air-con, which I hate anyway (but having the sliding door open wasn’t an option with those marauding creatures fighting for my blood) and interruptions from intensely irritable bites that gave rise to lentil-sized wens in a moment. Why air-con, I ask? A fan disrupts the activity of the mosquitoes, cools the air and provides a comfort that the buzzing, artificially frozen atmosphere just never conjures.
I rented a room tonight; a slightly dingy but quite adequate chalet. Often I have joked about the book I could write, entitled ‘Repairing the lavatory cisterns of the world’ – no longer a thin volume… I mean, by odd coincidence, I mended one only this morning in Groblershoop! Then this afternoon I saw that the cistern was not filling. I poked about and saw that it needs new parts, so I returned to reception and a most embarrassed Afrikaans manager. She moved me to a much nicer room, “But there’s no air-conditioning! I’m so sorry, only a fan!”
Funny how life always works in my favour!
Today’s was a glorious ride. Not interesting, but a lovely fresh day, not excessively hot, and not a cloud in the entire sky, just a great day to be batting along on a good B road across the Kalahari. What a privilege! Were it not for the slightly alarming trail of oil I spin out behind me, I would be smiling from ear to ear. As it is, I am headed back to Bloemfontein and I rely upon my supportive friend, Steven, and his friends, to help me. I shall not continue until we have discovered the problem. In a text message yesterday I apologised for exploiting his generosity. His reply was very Afrikaans (which is why I find so much confusion about my relations with this nationality): ‘No. problem J, I love to help a special friend like you’.
There’s a lovely brush of green over the desert floor now. And these were BIG landscapes once again, a refreshing dull green scrub from side to side of my visible world, the blue sky pale today over it all; always so utterly vast above. Mile upon mile rushes by. Not a lot to see really, just more of the same, but so impressive in its enormity. For someone from England, not even to mention Devon – this is all just so incredibly HUGE. ‘Next petrol 150kms’, warns a sign. That’s almost 100 MILES! Most places in England I would reach the other EDGE in 100 miles! Here I just get to the next insignificant dorp with a petrol pump. Scale, in Africa, is on another level to anything that is within my instinct.
A tumble-down mud ruin signed the ‘Kalahari Shopping Centre’ brought a smile; a large tortoise bustled determinedly across the tarmac; the sun bathed down, not far off vertical; I blew along at a steady 60mph, at one with the world around me, surprisingly content. A VAST raptor took off, ponderous as a 747, and flew low over the road, soft duvet white underneath, grey-rust at the edges; a wing span at least six or seven feet. A million sociable weaver birds busied themselves around magnificent complex homes appended to telegraph poles, people’s conversations pulsing through a hundred intricate nests and between a thousand preoccupied little fluttering birds. The earth was bright copper red, the sky blue, the bushy scrub dull green, the fences beside the road – a wonder of South Africa – apparently totally endless.
It was a glorious ride.
Stopped by polite policemen for my papers in Campbell, I asked where I would find the old church. Just as well I asked, for I had already missed it, not far from their checkpoint. With many wishes for a safe journey, I rode off down a dirt road to find the old stone church, behind an almost illegible, sand-blasted signboard. Built in the 1830s by John Campbell, it’s a simple thatched building. John Campbell was a friend of David Livingstone, explorer/ missionary, one of those names that conjure ‘Africa’ so vividly. Livingstone himself preached beneath the stand of trees where I parked my red motorbike for some shade. How remarkable! David Livingstone and my little red BMW! The fame of one will outlive all the oil leaks of the other…
And then, Kimberley, famous for its diamonds. Tourist sights tomorrow. For now, just an impression of a biggish modern city interspersed with preserved Victorian buildings, its diamond industry still important – and a lot more formalised and global than its days of diamond-rush. First task for me – and it can be a task – is to find a bed for the night. From the tourist office, a booklet with phone numbers and GPS data. Great: I am analogue; I have a map! Paper and ink. But I’m resourceful and have wheels – and soon found the Gumtree Lodge on the outskirts of town, within budget, with bar, with simple restaurant, with defunct cisterns but friendly staff.
Kimberly boasts a ‘Bean Street’. I doubt there are many of those around the world. I rode by for a look but it wasn’t captivating, just a town street of not much distinction. Still… It must have got its name from a Bean.
The place where I am staying, the Gumtree Lodge, has an interesting history. It was opened in April 1926 as the Bultfontein Convict Station, to house convicts who were put to work in the De Beers diamond mines, mainly in the washing plants, in place of free employees (cheap labour…). There were 25 large cells and 20 solitary – and a detention house where miners suspected of swallowing diamonds were kept naked, their hands encased in steel gloves until they had ‘passed’ whatever diamonds they may have swallowed!
Use of convict labour was discontinued in 1932 as a result of the Great Depression (even cheaper labour, one wonders?). The convict prison became quarters for mine employees and then, in 1982 a youth hostel. Later it became the loose, very quiet, relaxed guest house it is today, with everything from youth hostel dorms to family chalets – few, no doubt, with fully functioning plumbing! It’s an attractive place, its prison connotations forgotten as it stands, a quadrangle of tin-roofed, decoratively verandaed bungalow rooms round mature shady trees in the central garden.
A delightful, cool evening, just tee shirt and shorts, tonight. Not bad February weather! I’m writing out in the guest house yard at a bench table. Francois, the chef and his partner, Elra,have been warm and welcoming in the Afrikaans manner. As I left the warm yard, where I’d eaten, Elra engaged me in conversation.
“What do you think of South Africa, then?”
“Well, I love it and I find it difficult! It’s so beautiful but so socially uncomfortable.”
She smiled, anticipating my quandary. “Look,” she said. I have black friends and white! We’re all the same, just different coloured skin – and different cultures, of course. But, yes, some of us are SO prejudiced! It’s going to take a long time. A very long time, I’m afraid.”
I am always happy to meet such nice Afrikaans people, for I really DO like them – most of them.
“Will we see you tomorrow?”
“Yes! You will!”
“It’s Francois’ birthday! You will be welcome! We look forward to seeing you!” And she meant it.
DAY 60. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 5th, 2016. KIMBERLEY, SOUTH AFRICA
This is becoming one of my most enjoyable trips, certainly of the southern African ones. It’s being taken at such a relaxed pace that more chance things happen and it becomes so much more sociable.
This morning, after a leisurely breakfast I met Mr Shuttleworth and the lady who drives him about. He seems to be the sort of mascot and patron of this guest house, which I think is run as a not-for-profit organisation with links to Hosteling International, although it lets a selection of room standards. Mr Shuttleworth is 101 and has been involved with the place for many years. He’s one of the people who may well have set it up as a Youth Hostel in its earlier manifestation, a keen Rotarian (very impressed to hear that I am Paul Harris Fellow – the award given by Rotary for enhancing world understanding) and one of those sort of men who would have wanted to encourage youth and diversity. Drinking tea with a one hundred and one year old (born early in World War One!), who has all his faculties and plenty of zest for life and interest in the world is a privilege. ‘What did I think of Jeremy Corbyn? Who did I want to win the US presidential nominations? What about Robert Mugabe?’ These and many other questions kept us talking for an hour.
Then tonight I drifted into the guest house bar yard with my beer and was immediately invited to join Francois’ family party. I really do find the Afrikaans people friendly and generous. It makes it all so difficult. My liberal views of life and the world would make it much EASIER if they were unlikeable and mean! But few of them are. I was included, fed a couple of good helpings of stir-fried beef, bought another beer and involved in the chatter in the party – Francois and Elra, his mother and father and sister, some children and a couple of others. Francois’ father and I bonded well with biker conversation and I was most comfortably part of the family for a couple of hours. I appeared to be the only guest of the place tonight, so I suppose it also meant he didn’t have to go to the kitchen as chef and cook me dinner! But it wasn’t done for such paltry reasons; just welcome to a stranger. Decent, warm hearted people. And I am sure that this weekend, in Bloemfontein, heart of Afrikanerdom, I will meet the same thoughtfulness and kindness all around.
The rest of the day was spent being a tourist, visiting the Big Hole of Kimberley, the largest excavation by man, using picks and shovels, in the world. And it IS big! It is astonishingly huge.
The 1870s diamond rush brought hordes of unruly prospectors to Kimberley, the first diamond having been picked up as a plaything by children some years before. Huge dusty shanty towns of tents and shacks grew up as as many as 30,000 itinerant miners scoured the earth, the river beds, the hills, and finally the Big Hole in the hope of striking it rich. Some did; many more lived a life of misery and desperate dreams. Gambling, prostitution, disease, accident, crime – and fabulous wealth too, for some. This was a town that for a time had more millionaires than anywhere in the world, and many more broken men and women.
The Big Hole is a vast crater from which, with primitive hand tools, crazed men – and women – removed twenty two and a half MILLION tons of earth and a mere three tons or so of diamonds. It made fortunes, spawned corporations that still rule financial empires 150 years later and ruined thousands more. Some men arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs and by luck and astute dealings made millions. Most famous – infamous? – of them all was the weak and sickly Cecil Rhodes, sent to Natal for his weak constitution, who by good business sense, quite a bit of sharp practice and a good deal of ruthlessness – and a lot of abuse of native labour – made a vast fortune, became the figurehead of British African expansion and formed the still all powerful De Beers diamond company, now a vast, rich multinational. As always, the people who suffered most were the indigenous Africans, confined in labour camps built by the emerging mining companies as the industry formalised and bought up all the individual mining claims. These camp compounds were home to thousands of black workers, with even close woven netting overhead to stop the throwing out of any secreted stolen rough gems. Men were kept sufficiently long after their contract ended to recover those swallowed stones! It was little more than a concentration camp life, locked in and totally controlled by the emerging companies, intent on their fortunes.
Kimberley Big Hole mine ceased operation in 1914, by which time it had become very dangerous and the large mining companies had developed other ways to get to the ‘Kimberlite pipe’ of diamond-bearing rock – the hardened volcanic core, named after the discovery that it was ancient volcanoes that gave rise to the formation of diamonds. The total depth of the mine, virtually all hacked out by hand, was over a thousand metres deep. Today bright blue water has filled the mine and rests tranquilly 215 metres below the surface, flat and shiny like a blue ceramic surface beneath steep scree and vertical rock faces, over which, 150 years ago, ran extraordinary depths of ladders, pulleys and thousands of men like a gigantic inverted termite mound.
The Kimberley Mine Museum does an efficient job of explaining the mine – a good introductory film, a noisy recreated mine working that will fool most of the visitors (but not me!) and didactic displays, including a dramatic bank vault displaying real diamonds. Then, around the museum is a recreation of the sort of scenes of the era, with replica shops, bars, banks, and businesses making a social history museum of the time. I could make it ‘live’ a bit better, but it’s a creditable effort (said as a professional in this sort of faked history). They need my story-telling skills to bring it alive.
From there to the rather staid and dry city museum and later to a fine art gallery with the most interestingly curated and selected art works I have seen in Africa, an interesting mix of rather tedious old Dutch burgers and anti-apartheid art (that appealed to me for its political sensibilities) and contemporary art and some excellent modern pottery. The Humphrey gallery. Worth a visit.
From the main museum, rather traditional and old fashioned, I learned that the 1913 Native’s Land Act, which probably sparked off later political ructions, ‘gave’ the white population of South Africa, then a meagre 1.5 million people, NINETY percent of the land. The indigenous African population of then 5.5 million people, got all of seven per cent, in the early native areas, that became the ‘Bantustans’ and later ‘Homelands. You know, those statistics spelled trouble a hundred years ago. This inequality, legally upheld for almost a century, will take a long time to disappear from the collective memory of increasingly educated, politically active people.
Nelson Mandela said, ‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can learn to love – for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’ I can’t help but think that the white men gave many reasons for Africans to learn to hate…
I wonder if obsession with Facebook and social media is a recognised addiction yet? Enjoying a very good lunchtime beer – something I seldom do, but there was a decent craft beer on tap in one of the recreated miners’ bars – I realised that the table next to me had fallen silent. Three middle aged Afrikaans women sat there, each totally ENGROSSED in their phones, swiping and tapping as if there would be no tomorrow – or later – to communicate with those distant from them. They were obviously old friends who infrequently met, for they asked the waitress to take their photo (maybe so they could immediately ‘share’ it with myriad ‘friends’?). Feeling a little censorious, I looked around the bar – and realised that I was the ONLY customer not staring at or tapping a mobile device! Some were sharing their screens, filled with those awfully boring internet jokes and aphorisms that spin around the world so fast.
I’ve stopped in a couple of places with signs: ‘No, we DON’T have wifi! Talk to each other.’ Amen to that. I’ve had no connection for five days. On my early travels I would have no connection, and no way of connecting, for weeks and even months on end. I enjoyed the world being bigger then.
And as for loud phone conversations (always slightly less disruptive in a language I don’t understand like Afrikaans, thankfully), well, I don’t know, I am still in the phase of embarrassment should my phone happen to ring and I am expected to answer in public! How quaint I am.
Tomorrow it’s down to Bloemfontein again, with a list of mechanical questions – for a new brake (which I will probably forget to use, but might be useful in emergency), two new tyres of the kind I like, and an attempt to find out why I have spayed engine oil all the way around my recent safari…
DAY 61. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 6th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
Full circle again for a couple of days at ‘base’ and then to plan the next phase of my journey – which just changed with two emails from Rico, up in Kenya. The first told me that he has landed a one year contract and has to be in Spain by next week, so a visit to him will be impossible until next year. Happy for him; disappointed for me. Then a second email two days later to say that his dates have changed to March 7th, so he is at home if I can visit soon. So next time I get an internet connection I have to try to make plans for a quick diversion to Kenya. Better that than the one I should have made this week: for I should have been going to Pennsylvania to film out of doors in replica WW1 trenches with Boston Productions. Frankly, despite the money, I am so thankful that Bob wrote me out of that plan! I cannot imagine the discomfort of going from 50 degrees to minus degrees to film in frozen American mud…
It’s less than a couple of very flat hours on a good secondary road from Kimberley to Bloemfontein, quite close in South African terms, passing through just two sleepy dorps and a lot of extensive farms. There’s also a lot of game visible from this road, ostriches, kudu and oryx. The land has at last had some rain since I left and is tinged with green but the effects of the prolonged drought will be far-reaching as food prices continue to rise for the poor.
Sometimes foreign travels can be very tedious. I have to pay for the moments of wonder and thrill with some pretty boring activities – amongst which has to figure attending parties amongst crowds of non-English speakers. I’ve done it many times. Tonight I was included in an Afrikaans birthday braai with thirty or forty people who don’t speak English as a first language and often are uncomfortable to speak it at all. By the time we were able to eat the heavy meat meal we had been waiting for the braai fires to die down sufficiently to cook for at least two hours. It was a very long time since my light breakfast in Kimberley and I drank too many beers while waiting. Once again, the Afrikaans are very kind and warmly welcoming – but just forget that the stranger in their midst hasn’t a clue what’s going on. And Afrikaans is perhaps the least intelligible (and one of the ugliest) languages I have come across. Normally, with any vaguely European-based language, I have a clue at least to the context, for our languages share many common roots in Greek and Latin, or habitually use a sprinkling of English words. Afrikaans is a completely closed book. Utterly incomprehensible. As, in many ways, are the people for I seem to have few points of cultural contact with these very insular, individual people. Doubtless they have developed this invisible, obsessively inward-looking cultural wall to protect their tiny social world amongst the far greater black African world around them. They will NEVER integrate in any way, even if they have come to tolerate to a mild degree (more at least than the British South Africans can do). The idea of Afrikaans and black interracial socialising is anathema. I mean, over twenty years after the creation of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and there is NOT ONE black (or even brown) person at a birthday gathering of work colleagues? A strange tribe indeed.
Steven is his welcoming self, however, and his house my base for a couple of days; his introduction to motorcycle tyre fitters, mechanics, and technical knowledge and so forth, my lifeline. He’s just explained the benign presence of some water in my oil tank, about which I have been worrying, listening for the engine seizure preludes, for a thousand miles! How is it I like to ride so much – and still comprehend so little of this mechanical mystery that is my motorbike?
DAY 62. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 7th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
I was disproportionately proud of myself for tracing – at last – the oil leaks this morning but by tonight feeling rather depressed about my poor motorbike! Why? Because Steven thought it’d be a quick fix with a small weld but it got worse and worse until we did what we should have done to begin with and used some epoxy. Now we have to wait and see if the tiny leak has been stemmed – or grown. So once again I am grounded for a few days. Maybe this little bike is really getting beyond the hammer that I continue to give it? It has done 125,000 kilometres (47,000 pf them mine) and had a hard time of them. It may be that a water seal has gone now too for the water in my oil is more than is benign…. Perhaps, after four trips it’s time to consider changing to the Kenyan bike next year? I had thought to keep the red one, just for access to Lesotho. I need to think about it… Next winter, all being well, I shall probably visit Kenya and Uganda anyway. The time to make that decision is coming soon, I feel.
With bike maintenance and lunch at Steven’s friend Isabel’s house once again, that’s Sunday done. Poor Steven is very busy right now and I feel guilty for adding my trivial holiday woes to his caseload. He’s a generous friend.