AFRICA 2016 – Journal twelve

DAY 69. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 14th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

It’s been another astonishingly sociable day, taking a long walk, right through Roma and out into the countryside in the wide valleys. I was following a bumpy gravel road, I knew not where. All along the way I was greeted and welcomed by everyone I passed – a not inconsiderable hoard on a hot Sunday. It’s such fun to be able to jest with people as I pass and know I will raise a chuckle and a smile. It was wash day for many women, clothes hung gaily from the wire fences round their small houses. “Wow!” I exclaimed to one woman in her yard, “you have a BIG wash!” The biggest bowl imaginable was filled to the brim with soaking clothes. “Yes, daddy, a big wash…” she sighed with a wide white smile, hands dripping suds. I was delighted that one old man even raised his hat in returning my greeting. Now, when did I last see that?

At one time, out in the country, I was being chased by a young girl, somewhat provocatively dressed in short white dress and revealing polka dot top. Relebohile was on her way home from church. I guess the local Catholic church is relaxed about the sensuality of their younger adherents; more interested in getting them through the door no doubt. Very pretty, with a complicated light brown weave-on hairstyle and lovely light brown skin, and nicknamed ‘Weenie’ (which she spells Winnie), she is 21 and was walking to her distant village, somewhere out of sight in the folds of the mountains ahead. We walked together, she seeing the limitations of her rural village, that only just got electricity connected, and from which she dreams of escape, and me seeing the rural beauty. Life is always thus, I suppose. Her father works in the gold mines in South Africa and she and her mother live in a comparatively well-to-do bungalow – although the roof zinc is unlined – on a large compound in the midst of a village called Tloutle Ha Mpiti. The village sits in a natural amphitheatre in the mountainside, looking out across the fields and valleys to the Lesotho mountains. The house kitchen now boasts a four-ringed electric stove – doubtless a rarity in such a rural village, but drinking water still comes from a plastic container and originates from a spring on the hillside above.

Relebohile gave me peaches from one of the garden trees and a glass of water and I turned and began to walk back. Soon I fell in with Nteboheng and Lebohang, two more bright girls aged 17 and 18, beginning their Sunday journey back to school somewhere near Maseru. These kids are so charming and such fun, and able to chatter quite unselfconsciously with a middle aged white ‘daddy’. From houses 150 yards away children yelled “Bye-eeee! Bye-eeee!” and waved frantically. Many people were using that remote dust road, returning to the villages from church or visiting friends; others commencing their weekly journeys to work or school in the city; most dressed up for Sunday, and all ready with a big smile and a cheerful greeting for a stranger. These really ARE extraordinary people.

I chatted at length with Letima, a self-styled ‘businessman’ – Africa-speak for doing anything he can and trying to set up trading of one sort or another. His big plan seems to be to market disposable nappies… I can think of absolutely NOTHING Lesotho needs less than the filth and litter of disposable nappies, such a problem in landfill sites in the ‘developed’ world already. What problems they would produce here, where there is no refuse collection and sadly little awareness of littering – it pains me to see so much litter in every corner of Africa. Imagine soiled nappies everywhere too… But I didn’t question his dream, just hoped he never finds the financial partners to invest and moves on to some other scheme.

Many others passed the time of day. I fell into step with three tubby women and some toddlers. “Eh! I am looking for a man! Take me with you!” exclaimed a fat young matron.

“It looks as if you found a man!” I joked, indicating the small baby on her back.

“Yes, but he ran away.” Another irresponsible African man, as I wrote only yesterday, so very very common. They father babies and are never seen again. And just under half Lesotho’s 2.1 million people are under the age of 18. That’s a frightening statistic – most of them fecund in the extreme. There’s not much hope the future of mankind on this planet.

*

Since arriving in Lesotho I have seen no other white people, except a couple of itinerants here in the guest house. In Maseru I wandered for hours without seeing another white face. In this most friendly of African countries there are almost NO tourists. What a wonderful introduction to Africa this country would be – probably were it not overlooked as lost in the middle of all-enveloping South Africa. A few tourists do make it into the country for just a day or two if they are reasonably imaginative and have a hire car that allows them to cross the border. Otherwise it remains the best kept travel secret of the world – for which, I admit, I a happy. Out in rural areas I am a novelty – a welcome one.

*

Houses range from small mud and stone rondavels to quite elaborate bungalows like Relebohile’s family home, with a few mansions of brick and tile, probably the money earned in the mines of South Africa, sent home to support families. Relebohile says her father comes home every month. Of course, the gold fields are not so far from Lesotho. Every house, without exception, has a tidy pit latrine, usually of zinc sheets but sometimes of block and even tile – this is where southern and eastern Africa diverge so distinctly from most of West Africa, where hygiene and sanitation are so woefully inadequate and apparently little considered. Roma is full of schools – one thing which even I have to credit to the Catholic church. There’s a nursing college and a fairly good-looking hospital and, of course, a huge Catholic mission area decorated with hideous grottoes and sentimental statuary. But they did plant trees too, that are now mature and impressive. Roma and its environs is a relaxing place to be stuck for a few days without wheels.

*

The only impoliteness I have suffered in Lesotho has been from Chinese shopkeepers. Grasping, distrustful and mean-spirited, they learn no Sesotho and are extremely unpopular with these gentle, good-hearted people, of whom they are the opposite. “Yes, and they try to sell us rotten food and are always selling out of date products!” complained Relebohile and Nteboheng, when I got them on the subject. One Chinaman had been very rude to me a short while before when I went into a supermarket to buy juice. He would not take my money because I refused to give up my small backpack, despite the fact that the fridge and the counter were almost adjacent and there were five people to watch me to be sure I didn’t steal his profits. I ranted a bit about the stupidity of his ruling and turned to leave. At that point he decided he would take my money after all. Too late for the stubborn Englishman though! “Keep it!” I exclaimed, dropping the juice on the counter. “I shall get it elsewhere!” Fortunately, just across the street was a Basotho shop that had juice, so I could maintain my pride and have the fun of standing outside the Chinese shop enjoying my juice, watched surreptitiously by the Basotho shopkeeper, laughing up her sleeve, for she too despises the Chinese traders who do nothing for the Basotho economy and run cartels with their supply of goods. Sadly, these small supermarkets are just the sort of businesses that local people with a flash of entrepreneurism could set up, but the Chinese have moved in, in even the remotest communities here.

*

Another smiley day in Lesotho. But later I sank into a crabby mood, caused by a combination of tiredness, heat, dehydration, and drinking too much beer under those circumstances. It was compounded by a young man begging money from me in a beer bar. That is highly unusual and under any other circumstance I would never donate – not in a private beer bar, restaurant and so on. The circumstance that made me relent and give him a pound was his honesty: he admitted he had misbehaved and spent all his money visiting his student friends and had no fare home!

Then I walked home, exhausted, and found that some member of staff had given the instruction that the English ’daddy’ had said he didn’t want dinner. Right then, it was what I really DID want! I had to go to a Chinese supermarket and buy three eggs, half an onion, a tomato, a loaf of bread, and two small ersatz yoghurts (75p) and knock up an omelette, feeling weary.

I felt better after I sought out lovely Mapokha, on duty here at the Trading Post tonight, and apologised for my bad temper, which she insisted she hadn’t noticed. Ill temper cannot be long maintained in the face of so much goodwill and I was ashamed of succumbing to it just because I couldn’t get my own selfish western way. Life in Lesotho is full of compromises for everyone. It is so seldom I see irritability amongst the Basotho that I should know better.

Now, the electricity has gone off – there have been isolated thunderstorms with their terrifying streaks of lightning and occasional gunfire rain showers around all afternoon – so I have to go to bed at 8.50. The battery on my iPad is low so I can’t even read. Bed it has to be. Oh well, I am tired from the hot day.

DAY 70. MONDAY FEBRUARY 15th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

It seems to be becoming a habit: being picked up by very pretty young women who want to walk and talk with me! I’m not complaining: Basotho girls are exceptionally easy on the eye and very charming too. First there was Nthatoua in Maseru, then Relebohile yesterday and today it was the turn of Tatho to ask if I would wait while she changed and walked with me, a lovely walk that continued for four hours through many rural villages in the Roma valley.

It’s been very easy to spend four days completely relaxed (I have never felt less stressed or physically fitter than I do at the moment, I realised today!) in Roma amongst such wonderful people. Each day I thought I might take a minibus to somewhere else and then ended up just staying local and wandering off with no direction and no plan – to see what happened.

*

The Trading Post and its guest house sits on a rise to the west side of the valley, backed by the steep slopes, on which perch many small houses, rising to the reddish cliffs of the valley sides. “Where shall I walk today?” I asked Tseliso, one of the outdoor staff that I have come to know. “Why not on the other side of the river?” he suggested, pointing across the valley to the other red/ pink wall. “You cross the road by the bus stop…”

So I did just that, crossing the road and surprising a woman who was pushing a heavy wheelbarrow loaded with two large tubs of something that rattled. She was struggling up a steep slope from the river valley to the road and was very astonished when I took the barrow and thrust it to the top of the gulley for her. She went away laughing. I went back down panting – but amused. Then I continued, with no idea where I would end up, wandering off through fields and rocky screes at the foot of the escarpment. One needs not the slightest concern about personal safety in Lesotho, a liberating feeling. And I need have no fear of causing offence by trespass, since if I end up in someone’s backyard they are invariably amused and talkative.

Meandering along behind some very crude and simple houses (it is remarkable what many Africans have to call ‘home’, sometimes little more than a heap of rocks and a zinc roof), I was invited into a family group sitting on scattered rocks before a small rock house. There are countries where I would think twice, but Lesotho isn’t one of them, for I know it is just open curiosity and welcome to a stranger, even though these people have so very little. Thato, as I came to find she was called, was sitting on the mud floor, her sister in law behind her, intricately weaving her hair with a fluttering halo of false golden curls. Her brother sat beside them on a paint can and a couple of small children played nearby. Another woman sat conversing. Thato, attractively inclined to fullness, was dressed in a pair of cycle shorts and had a headscarf wrapped around her rather generous bosom. She had fine light brown skin and a cheery way about her. Obviously the best educated, she became the spokesperson as they told me how hard life is right there and how the government does little to help. They have electricity but no water. Their water supply has been dry since August and they are forced to fetch grubby water from the brown trickle that forms the river.

Joking about Thato’s hair weave operation broke the ice. I asked for a picture and promised that it would only show her head and her sister in law, not her state of undress and the straining headscarf across her Rubenesque breasts. There isn’t much bashfulness in Basotho women! Fortunately, I am able to show everyone the picture I have taken on the screen on the back of my camera. It caused a good deal of amusement and then they all took me to see the dry spring, a concrete tank, now bone dry. The crops have failed and people in much of southern Africa are struggling for food, not least in remote communities like Ha Mokhitli.

We talked for some time, then Thato asked if she should come with me to show me the area? It’s easy to say yes in Lesotho. It took a while for her to wash and dress in the crude rock shack but at last she was ready and we walked away further into the wide valley. She was a great guide, cheerful and talkative, and knowing the remote area well to find paths and negotiate the irregularities of the landscape. People greeted her and she jested with most of them as is the Basotho way. We wandered through fields and villages for the next four hours.

Thato is unemployed – like so many – and an orphan of 24, losing her father at eight and her mother at twelve. It would have been impolite to ask from what they died, but one can guess so easily. She lives with the brother and sister in law and it’s always difficult for me to understand how anyone scratches a living at all out here in rural Africa. A vivacious, bright girl, it is sad to see the wasted potential of these delightful young people.

We visited the primary school that she attended in a bigger village in the midst of the valley. Four very basic classrooms ranged together down the hillside, each room only small and rock built. The teachers welcomed me and polite, excited children pressed to get to look at the white man. There are 70 pupils, lovely kids full of fun, smiles and vitality. What is their future, one wonders… An old man came rushing up with his fine woven grass hats in hope of a sale, but was philosophical when I explained I can’t carry souvenirs. We waited as a herd of cows descended a difficult rocky path steeply down to the river again, attended by a young herdsboy in the brightest red blanket, supplying me with a memorable and very Basotho photographic memory. The red and green have to be seen to be appreciated. We scrumped small dusty sweet peaches from trees as we passed, for they are everywhere just now. Thato stopped to chatter with people she knew and many she didn’t, all of them wanting to know why we were walking – without any purpose but to walk..? No one quite understood…

We arrived back in the town centre tired and thirsty. Offered a drink in town, all she asked for was a bottle of water. The Basotho take no advantage of their guests. Thato was still smiling as we parted after the best part of four hours, the both of us still with a half-mile or so to walk home.

*

Writing of tubby people, I had yet another photo session with probably my all-time favourite African subject, Ntsilane, again today. Ntsilane features on my living room wall (and the home screen on my computer) in two wonderful pictures already – and I now have a third. A big woman, she has the most exceptional smile and is extremely handsome, her eyes sparkling with fun, her teeth as white as my wildest dream. And for such a large woman she is so dainty, moving fluidly like a ballet dancer despite her size. She is a lovely woman and one of the reasons I love to return to the Trading Post at Roma. Whenever I arrive, ‘daddy Jonat’an’ gets such an enthusiastic, elephantine, soggy hug of screeching delight that warms my heart.

Selling my bike in a few weeks will be a wrench for only one reason: cutting myself off from travels in Lesotho. But I have a feeling that I will still find ways to come to this VERY special little kingdom in the future. It must be very obvious that my reaction to this country and its universally charming people is out of the ordinary.

A noisily dramatic stereophonic thunderstorm is passing overhead as I write. Tonight the power hasn’t failed, but a sharp rain shower has reduced the temperatures. A Basotho pony is munching outside the door of my round room as the pointed thatch drips gently. Having conquered the mosquitoes with spray, I have enjoyed three of the soundest nights imaginable. In Lesotho even my sleep is better than usual!

Tomorrow my motorbike will be ready, said Johan when I rang him this evening. So I will return to Bloemfontein, the ugly Afrikaans city tomorrow. But I doubt it’ll be long before I am back in the Kingdom in the Sky. I am utterly hooked by its charms – more so this year than ever.

DAY 71. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 16th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

It’s funny, a few minutes back in the Free State and I feel my hackles bristling at this odd white imposition on Africa. And I feel the reserve, the lack of eye contact, the undercurrents of resentment – and the almost complete want of smiles. I’m less than a hundred miles from Roma in a different world. I walked to the border post at Maseru Bridge, greeting and being greeted, smiling and making constant eye contact with everyone I passed. I exited the gate into South Africa and it all stopped in a yard or two. Suddenly I am a white man again in a black land. No longer ‘Ntate’ or ‘daddy’, I represent something quite different, seen as a usurper, a conquerer, an outsider – unequal.

*

On this, my return trip, the wait for the bus to fill was a horrible two and a half hours’ long, sitting on a plastic seat in a bus in the sun and filled with the smell, from somewhere round the back of the bus, of dried urine. When at last we got going, about three o’clock, we pulled away heading west and from the first gear shift to the crowded bus station in downtown (black and terrifying – not!) Bloemfontein we were entertained by pumpingly loud, hideous music, and I knew I would be too late to collect my bike this afternoon. Thank goodness for ear plugs, which reduced the caterwauling clamour by 35 decibels, still audible but a little less painful and less likely to reduce me to foul moods. It reduced the discomfort of the repetitive, trite, sentimental philosophy of American ballads played at stadium-sized amplification. Horrid soggy, sentimental tosh! What is it about modern life, that we are afraid of silence and thought?

Talking of which… to be thoroughly curmudgeonly tonight! I took Steven, Isabel and the three children for supper tonight and the phones came too again. I do wonder what this obsession with ‘social’ media is doing for their welfare – health, social and ability to communicate. I was reading of a study being done in England of the effects of many children now playing online games through the night with people in other time zones, causing sleep deprivation and inability to study. Many school children in Britain now regularly go to bed after midnight, busy with ‘social’ media and the internet. They may have very dexterous thumbs, but it seems a high price to pay. Isabel’s daughter, a bright girl of 14, spent dinner with the bright light of her screen glaring at her face and the two boys’ thumbs whisked manically across their screens in games. A couple of nights ago I was in the bizarre situation of sitting at the small round dining table at the Trading Post eating my dinner, looking at the open lid of a young German volunteer’s computer. A nod had sufficed for greeting as I sat down. Now, one of the things I appreciate at the Trading Post is the communal nature of meals there. I would hazard that talking to me would be of greater benefit than telling his Facebook ‘friends’ where he is. In the end, I forced him into conversation! The young lad has been in Roma for a month already and will be down here until August. So far he has walked between the school where he volunteers and the guest house and was astonished to hear that wandering alone is safe and that he might even be able to see other parts of Lesotho – let alone southern Africa – by himself. I do hope I changed his conception enough to make the experience he can potentially have a life-changer! This is Roma, full of friendly, charming students his own age – and he sits at his computer in a guest house! This is Lesotho, perhaps the most beautiful and stimulating little country on the African continent – and he relies on Facebook for his ’social’ circle. No, there’s a lot to be said for limited internet access!

And Isabel’s daughter ate her steak again. Not the quarter of tomato, the shred of lettuce leaf or the vegetable side she had ordered. This time I overcame any scruples and made her pass it to me. No way was I letting her leave a helping of very good spinach – in this Afrikaans diet where green is unseen on plates and chicken is considered the nearest to a vegetable that anyone will eat.

But these kids are respectful, friendly and well mannered and charming in their way, just blinkered by privilege, all with maids – probably in perpetuity – to clean up after them and black people to serve them. Invisible black people in this utterly bizarre place, that gets odder with every visit, where I have to walk in the ‘dangerous’ downtown areas to see black people catching buses, doing their grocery shopping, doing ordinary things, going home from workplaces often dominated by bosses of another skin colour.

So, you see, a few hours back here and I am sententious and grumpy. Walking through very unalarming central Bloemfontein, where whites don’t go, I missed the capacity of the Basotho for joy and laughter, for catching my eye and sharing a jest or a smile. Black people in Bloemfontein, capital city of the Afrikaans Nation, are inured to have no social contact with ‘my type’ so they look away. Their history will not go away easily.

Yes, I think a change of region, having bought the motorbike up in Kenya, for the next few African safaris, will be good. It’s obvious that my time in South Africa is coming to a natural end. A very beautiful country but too socially uncomfortable for me to visit much more. But, oh, I will miss the easy access to Lesotho, to which so very very few South Africans go. “Oh, but they’re all bleck, aren’t they?” as a rabidly xenophobic guest house owner in Bethlehem, forty miles from Lesotho, once asked me unforgettably, perhaps three trips back, before warning me about hanging my washing in the back garden because there was a Basotho family camping out there. She had never been to Lesotho, on her doorstep. “They’re all poor, aren’t they?”

Of course, I went into the garden with my washing and chatted to the Basotho family! No, lady, you are the poor one. Poor indeed. My wealth is on that scale immeasurable.

DAY 72. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 17th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

What is it about motorbike mechanics? Lack of communication seems to be their way. “Yees, your bike’ll be ready tomorrow,” said Johan, the mechanic, on Monday. So I returned from Lesotho on Tuesday, sending him a text that I was delayed and wouldn’t get there until this morning. This morning I packed all my panniers and walked round to collect the bike. It wasn’t even there, but in town getting the oil tank mended. The rest of it was in pieces around Johan’s yard. It would obviously be some hours before it was ready. He lent me a small scooter to do my errands. “I’ll call yew whin it’s ready.”

Frustrated to screaming point, I went back at 3.00 to find he’d another problem he hadn’t called about. A missing bolt – that I managed to find in Steven’s back yard from when he replaced the brake cylinder. So it will be tomorrow. Another day bored out of my head reading in suburban Bloemfontein amongst the razor wire and ‘devil’s fork’ (spiked fence railings) and electric security gates round white bungalows, their windows covered by ‘burglar-proof’ welded bars, and filled with consumer goods and big shiny 4X4s, motorbikes, mountain bikes, swimming pools, barbecues, boats… while a black destitute goes through the bin bags on the kerb and others wait resignedly for minibuses back to their shacks in sprawling, dust-ridden shantytowns on the outskirts. It’s the social inequality that is getting under my skin now, that and unthinking privilege. (Out of fairness, I have to add, that isn’t a description of Steven’s bungalow, which is relatively modest, but still ten times the size of any black ‘project’ two-roomed home – let alone the shanties of old timber, car parts, zinc and plastic).

*

Johan did lend me a small scooter, so I was able to do a couple of errands, knees stuck out sideways in order to steer the handlebars, perched on the little thing. Better than nothing to get to the bank to draw out the £290 the repairs will cost. It has cost me the best part of £900 to keep the bike running this year, plus petrol. New battery, chain and sprockets, brake cylinder, head gasket, tyre, water pump and a couple of full services. Time to sell. I don’t expect to get any more than that for the bike anyway. Still, I have had four great trips with it. I followed the two Stevens across town on big Steven’s 1200 BMW, me whirring along atop the tiny moped, to Isabel’s home for supper, missing a huge rainstorm while we ate.

*

So much for one night in Bloemfontein. But as Johan has texted me the bill, I think I can assume the bike is ready at last – ready for the last phase of this year’s safari…

DAY 73. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 18th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO

Almost eleven weeks, and this is pretty much the first time I got seriously wet. I am afraid we are getting past high summer now. Last night 85mm (that’s about 3.5 inches) of rain fell on Malealea. You should see the approach track over the mountain. MUD and slithery filth for five miles. Well, it cannot be denied that Lesotho desperately needed rain.

*

My little red bike feels about ten years younger – so do I, for getting back on my journey. There’s no oil leak, the coolant is still there (I was putting in about 400mls every day and yet when Johan took apart the radiator there wasn’t a drop of water in it) and the rear brake works again – but after 5000 miles without one I keep forgetting it’s there. Johan says he will negotiate around the 16,000 Rand mark (£700) for the bike when I get back. I might push him up to £800. But meanwhile, I went to see Nicky, who works for BMW in Bloemfontein, an acquaintance of Steven’s, for advice, for he knows about selling second hand bikes. What a nice fellow – he has put my bike on OLX, the South African sales site (like Ebay). “Let’s take some pictures and put it up now. At least you’ll get an idea! See what happens.” So he did just that, from the computer in the fancy BMW showroom. It’s up at 26,500 ‘negotiable’. It’d be good to get 22,500 as that’s a straight £1000, but I may have to settle for a dealer at 18,000 (£800) or less. It cost me £1750 in January 2012.

*

So what did I do as soon as I got back on my bike? Headed for Lesotho. Looking through my old log books I find this is the 43rd night I stayed in the kingdom. It has certainly grown in my affections with just about each day I have spent here. Tonight I am back at Malealea, where I stayed in early January, but it’s a bit busy. There’s an Irish school party here – 60 of them. Wow, when I was at school France was exotic! How times have changed. School trips to Lesotho…

*

I’ve said so many times that the fun of travelling is NOT to know what tomorrow will bring – proved yet again. Would I ever have thought I’d end up amused and very entertained by a party of sixty Irish folks on the last night if their two week trip to Lesotho? What a lovely evening! These are a large party of Irish gap year students of around 18 years old, with various teachers, parents and skilled people of all sorts volunteering their time with an Irish charity to come and improve schools, hospitals and nursing schools with practical work in this area and in Roma. David, an English ex-doctor who now teaches in Bahrain, first pulled me into the group on the terrace of the big guest house. He has brought four Bahraini students, two medical and two nursing, to join the Irish group.

This guest house is well set up and can cater for such large groups. It’s something of a Basotho institution, the Malealea Lodge. I dismissed it at first as a Lonely Planet isolationist cop-out but I now understand that it has a real heart and it works to develop Lesotho and to introduce visitors as much as possible to the culture. It tries hard to foster a community amongst its visitors and encourages interaction with the villagers. Spotted amongst the crowd of white faces tonight (me the only one in jersey, body warmer and wearing my long trousers for the first time in about six weeks) I was recognised by the manager, Glen, with a warm welcome. He even remembered my name. Last time I was here I was drinking till late with those Scotsmen, tonight amongst sixty Irish – a lovely nation to be marooned amongst for a few hours.

I chatted for sometime with the head of the school, Ethra, and various others, David, the doctor, an electrician and builders, all of whom volunteer to come here for two weeks every year. They all fly home tomorrow from what must, for young people, some of whom have never left Ireland, be a wonderful experience and a great eye-opener for these privileged kids, who raise money for their fares and come and work in schools and clinics, fixing them up, connecting computer laboratories and so on.

Tonight was their last night and the guest house provided barbecued T bones for all of us – I take dinner, B&B here where the eating choices are limited. Then the Irish singing began; a couple of the girls had fiddles, a young lad a whistle, and one of the adults a guitar and various people had their party pieces to entertain the crowd. Full of merriment, music and laughter, it developed into a most entertaining evening – and totally unexpected! And of course, the ‘Oirish’ can sing.

*

How different the area is from early January, when all was parched dry and sunburned. It’s a three hour journey from Bloemfontein, boringly across the Free State to the distant mountains, passing ugly Dewetsdorp and Wepener and into Lesotho at a small border post and on through the small straggling town of Mafiteng. But as soon as I am over the border the waves and smiles begin.

It rained hard in Bloemfontein last night and continued drearily into the morning, but by the time I left, it was dry again, even managing weak sun for some of my ride. But ahead I could see that the mountains were wreathed in rainclouds. What a mess the approach road into the valley has become with so much recent rain. It’s only about five miles of off-road riding but slippery and deep in mud. And at the top of the last hill, about three kilometres from Malealea the rain began in earnest. It threw it down for those last minutes. I’d already put on my waterproof jacket for the chill and decided to ride the rest of the way without bothering with my waterproof trousers. Goodness, was I sodden from the waist down in those couple of miles! But it’s the first time in eleven weeks. I look at the forecast now and again from Totnes and know I am in the better place for now!

And I have the delights of the Lesotho scenery and the Basotho people to enjoy.

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