DAY 74. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 19th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO
Days in Lesotho pass with a sort of blissful smile on my face and a patience and warmth that I can maintain like this in few other places. It’s all – ALL – to do with my interaction with the Basotho people whom I love so much.
The lodge likes to provide local guides but I much prefer to just walk by myself and see who I meet and what will happen. With a guide I might see the sights but I won’t meet the people. So, feeling guilty about rejecting the locals who stand around the gate in hope of hire, I lied that I was just going to walk around the village and headed off way out into the beautiful countryside that spreads before the eyes in every direction. I had no idea where I was going – just setting off to see what happened again. After yesterday’s rains, the morning was bright and wonderful, the skies blue and the air refreshed and clean. Paths were still muddy here and there, but it doesn’t take much African sun to dry them. I walked deep into the view, between red earth and roughly greening meadows with some maize fields trying to grow this late in the season after the drought. Everywhere the landscape was punctuated by small herds of cows and sheep tended by blanket-shrouded herdsmen with sticks over their shoulders. I soon fell into conversation with Ben, at seventy, an old man amongst the Basotho. He had good English with a heavy Basotho accent, but my ear is fairly attuned now. His herdboy wasn’t available so he was looking after his own six cows, with a young friend who had another four. Ben had such a gentle, polite manner and charming quiet smile. Blanket over his shoulder and stick in hand he told me he lives in Malealea and used to work in Mohales Hoek, fifty miles away to the south. I think that’s where he picked up his English.
I gave everyone a happy “Dumella!”, the Basotho greeting (actually spelled Lumella, for L is often pronounced as a D in Sesotho). Every herdsman replied with a broad smile, “Dumella, Nthate!”, ‘hello Daddy’. I walked into scattered villages, largely empty at that time of day, children in school and adults watching flocks, working or farming. In one small hamlet on the lip of the river escarpment that falls away steeply all around, I chatted with Mahatle, a mother whose children were at school over in Malealea against the endless blue mountain backdrop. Her sheep could be heard far below, bells clunking in the silence of the rocky valley. We stood together for some time, just gazing into the blue distances, before she started down the rocky slopes to her sheep. I congratulated her on caring for her own sheep while sending her children to school. “School important, Daddy,” she agreed, a common belief in Lesotho.
Walking on I met Bofokeng and the day took a funny turn. Sometimes I meet children who make me regret my childlessness – not that you necessarily get the children you wish for… Bofokeng, aged 12 and with scanty, idiosyncratic English, never stopped talking for the next couple of hours. He was an absolute delight – joyful, cheeky and full of 12 year old life. He tried so hard with his English but his gleeful chirpiness was at last so much that I agreed he could show me the Bushman paintings far below in the river valley. Filthy and dressed in rags, with trousers that had no crutch whatsoever, exposing orange underpants; a totally threadbare jumper in shreds tied round his waist by the bits that were left, a green gumboot on his right foot and the dirtiest imaginable plaster cast on the other, with parts of an old Wellie tied round the base with old string, he bounced about the rocks with a cheerful hobble. He told me he had broken his shin and ankle ‘playing boll’ and the pot was due to come off on Monday, when he intended to immediately start ‘playing boll’ once more. An irrepressible, playful kid, he made me laugh and smile widely, his attempts at English and his constant chatter endearing him to me as he seemed to not even notice the filthy plaster cast making his left leg so big, his utterly grubby toes wriggling in the red dust. He was so desperate to show me the Bushman rock paintings to earn a few Maloti for food, that I eventually agreed, more for his ebullient enthusiasm and company than in any expectation of the paintings being worth much – for I have seen a few and they are somewhat underwhelming. In fact, the paintings that bubbly Bofokeng and I clambered deep down the steep valley sides to see are the best I have seen, well preserved and easy to read. But for Bofokeng, the echoes across the narrow rocky defile provided more fun as he shouted into the rocky sunshine with such unconstrained delight. He gave off that smell that I know from the world over: a slightly animal, goaty smell, mixed with woodsmoke and general grime, not at all an unpleasant aroma, just a natural redolence. The grubby plaster cast constantly amused me, its scrap of green Wellie slipping about on the rocks and dust. His twelve year old bones have quickly healed and his boisterous energy makes the cast redundant now as he scrambled over the rocky slopes, chattering incessantly with a huge smile. What a tonic! How could I not react with delight to this small, ragged, slightly smelly bundle of energy and good humour who cannot walk to school far across the fields at the foot of the blue ridges?
We emerged from the valley beside his crude homestead on a small ridge, his grandfather (much younger than me…) sitting on a rock listening to a trebbly transistor beside a small, much protected patch of spinach. His grandmother – looking about a hundred, but with Bofokeng’s father being only 28, she’s probably in her fifties or early sixties – sat on a threadbare blanket on the earth, a fat woman using a stick. The small money I gave to Bofokeng for food – about £1, he ran and gave to his grandmother. The family is probably quite genuinely undernourished. That report I noted last week claims that a third of Basotho have insufficient food after the drought. Bofokeng claimed his mother to be 23, which must have been a mistake in his English – but then, if his father is really only 28, he was only 16 when Bofokeng was born… Who knows..?
My diminutive, scruffy guide showed me the red dust path back to Malealea and we shared a few peaches scrumped from a tree as we passed, and I shook the lad’s hand, gave him the fist to fist greeting and went on my way delighted and laughing. He hobbled nimbly away with his puppy snatching at the string that tied the shred of old boot around his plaster cast. By now I was exhausted: I’d not meant to walk for five hours and had taken no water with me. Now a light shower was threatening as I walked back through the fields to the village.
Malealea Lodge has been less congenial tonight, the rest of the guests being an insular tour group of dour Germans, who just about nodded their acknowledgement of my presence and a Japanese fellow with rather basic English on a one month tour of southern Africa. I ate alone tonight while the Germans all sat together at a dining table, destroying the lodge’s attempts at forming a congenial conversational group of an evening round the brazier. All my Irish companions left at nine this morning to drive to Johannesburg to fly home tonight. I have a small thatched en suite room, basic but pleasant enough. The generator is only on from dusk till ten but at least now the water shortage has ended.
So, as the electricity dies away at ten o’clock, and total silence settles on Malealea, ends another Lesotho day full of charm, warm welcome and fine scenery. I’m going to stay in Lesotho a while longer. If I am to transfer my centre of operations to east Africa it may be a while before I get back to travel in my favourite corner of the world. I want to make the most of it.
I am a bit taxed as to how I will display all the new smiling portraits I have in my collection. I need many more walls at home! I just counted: I have a further fifty portraits worthy of framing on the wall – already…
DAY 75. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 20th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO
Seven hours, I walked today, scrambling down the rocks and staggering up the steep slopes, wandering through villages at will, and meeting the Basotho at home.
But I find my self increasingly ambivalent about this guest house and its isolation from the Basotho world. It is so firmly on the very confined tourist circuit of Lesotho, in every guide book and a place for unimaginative tourism for the masses. For many, this will be their only experience of the kingdom. I appreciate that sounds like travel snobbery, but with this sort of kcommercialism, however well meaning the lodge itself is in trying to create a community amongst the visitors, and to help the local economy, come some deteriorating relations with the community. My sixth sense for atmosphere is pretty well developed and the closer I am to the Lodge and its flood of foreigners, I feel a change of cultural behaviour: tourists seen as cash cows. The Basotho in the immediate vicinity of the lodge exude a certain distain, a business sense that is uncommon – and I have been asked for money seven times today. That is not in the Basotho culture at all, except where exposure to mass tourism is normal, and there’s not much of that in Lesotho. All those who asked were mere chancers, except one young woman who told me she had not eaten for two days. It is quite possible just now, so I gave her some money for food. For most people begging is a last resort.
But walk a mile or two beyond where the self-styled ‘guides’ are leading middle aged Germans by the reins on Basotho ponies and I am back in rural Lesotho, with excited greetings from children, polite old people and smiles and cheerfulness. The guides amble along prescribed circuits while I range independently wherever I will, meeting real Basotho people.
“Where’s your third leg?” an elderly fellow greeted me.
“I beg your pardon..?”
“Your third leg!” and he brandished his walking stick. “How old are you? I’m 72. My name is Vincent, pleased to meet you. You are from..?”
Vincent at 72, represents real old age in Lesotho. He was born and brought up in Malealea. “Now I’m on pension,” he told me with a grin.
“Yes, it’s good, eh? The government just gives us money every week without us having to ask for it!” Vincent chuckled, a boyish face for one so old here and full of charm. He went to school in Roma and continued to university to study Sesotho and English in what would have been colonial days in Basutoland. He became a teacher, graduated to head teacher of a secondary school in this valley and now he has returned in his retirement to his birthplace and owns a small grinding mill that makes corm meal and sorghum flour. His colleague, Thabang (be happy), dusty and lined, runs the machine. But business is slow this year as the crops suffer from the drought.
The further I got from the village and guest house the brighter and friendlier rural folk became. I met singing herdsboys; cheery men tending their cows; an old man in a green hard hat leading a huge ram to pasture; old women watching babies and mothers doing vast washes by hand, hanging the clothes on the wire fences to blow gaily in the breeze.
I clambered down into the deep river valley, dwarfed down there by the soaring scrub-covered slopes that rise against the deep blue sky far above. Bald rocks, expansive, pink and bleached, smooth as pillows, make a feature of the crazy landscape, undercut and hollowed by ancient rivers, interspersed with strange rock slabs that suggest that much of Lesotho, millennia ago, must have been boiling, molten rock, now set for ever in bubbly, frothy formations, cracked and split by natural forces into mad graphic patterns. Elsewhere the hundreds of complex layers of sedimentary formation make other intricate patterns as they break away.
In villages I was greeted; in one several small children grabbed my fingers and walked with me along the stoney track. It doesn’t matter where I walk, so long as I avoid crops. Now and again I stumbled into someone’s yard but was greeted with smiles.
In the mid afternoon, under a fine bright sun, the air cleaned by light rains last night and a cloudy morning, I drifted into the vast landscape of fields and grazing that spreads below the Lodge, determined get away from the less instinctively open villagers to the further villages that I saw from yesterday’s walk. An hour across the huge valley I walked through a long straggling village where a singing herdsboy with the biggest smile put the smile back on my face. It’s a fact of my nature that I obstinately have to see what is over the next hill – maybe that’s why I travel with such obsessive passion. Tired and weary, thirsty and sunburned, I had to go on. It was as if I knew there was a wonderful view ahead. And there was! To my surprise and delight the walk was worth every step when I breasted a small rise and found myself on the brink of a cliff. Four hundred feet below ran a brown river and I could hear the boys I could see, no bigger than insects, playing in the muddy water, their cries and shouts echoing up to where I stood before an enormous view of valleys, rocks, rivers, mountains and clear blue sky. I sat on a rock for some time, listening to their glee, before staggering back to Malealea, now worn out and ready for a pot of rooibos tea, spoiled by a German lighting up a revolting cigar that made me keep retreating further and further into the guest house garden. A tour group of middle aged Germans is a joyless thing to witness!
As I walked in the fields I spotted a small figure hurrying up the red track, wrapped in the brightest red blanket. I was trying to position myself to get a picture of the fine landscape with that vibrant red accent when I looked closer and saw it was my little friend Bofokeng galumphing towards me, all smiles and cheer. His vivid blanket was held by a rusty nappy pin over the top of his none-too-clean tee shirt, the same one as yesterday – and I suspect of many yesterdays before that. His little puppy sprinted along at his ankles. His plaster cast was just one day dirtier. This morning I ran across the Japanese traveller, the only person with whom I conversed in this now apparently German outpost last night. He asked me in his not very good English if I knew where to find the ‘paintings from past time’? I walked with him to where I could point him to the distant valley. Would he find them without a guide, he wanted to know. “Don’t worry, a ‘guide’ will find you, he has a broken leg!” and I pointed to my leg, miming a plaster cast for him. I’d have been amused to hear their conversation! Bofokeng talking fifteen to the dozen with a Japanese fellow with very basic English! I spotted the Japanese man as he climbed into a minibus to leave Malealea this afternoon. “Did you find the paintings?”
“Ha, yes! I met this boy!” And he mimed the broken leg.
The saving feature of this guest house for the past 48 hours since the energetic and inclusive Irish group left, are the senior staff, Mike and Debbie, the young owners and Glen and his wife, managers. I’ve struck up a relation with them, mainly through my knowledge of Lesotho and my enthusiasm for it. I suppose I just don’t like being so isolated from the real kingdom around me, but always outside the gates here…
DAY 76. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 21st, 2016. QUTHING, LESOTHO.
Today’s was a glorious ride, but tiring. It’s surprising how taxing sixty miles of dirt road, affected by the recent rains, can be. I’d meant to ride on to Mpahki, a small town still an hour from Quthing, but being weary I decided to stop. On finding a room, I dozed off for an hour, so strenuous had the early part of the journey been.
Yesterday, when I sat on that cliff edge and gazed down into that fine view, I saw a road curling through the fractured landscape. From up there it looked like a well graded road that must lead somewhere. It turned out to be my road today. Mountains have that effect; they confuse the geography to such an extent that these coiled ribbons of contact take the most convoluted form. It seemed completely counter-intuitive that this should be the road that I would take to go south from Malealea, for all that I could see last night went generally northwards. But that is mountain roads, sometimes you go the long way round. I did today!
For the first thirty miles or so I could still see the trees of Malealea, from whence I set out. By then I had circumnavigated whole mountains, yet I was still in the major valley of the Makhafeng River, that rises within a mile or two of the red hot poker field I intend to visit again in a couple of days, in the middle of Lesotho. Now I am in the far south of the kingdom, and the waters of the Makhafeng merge into the great Orange River not far away, just outside Lesotho, back in South Africa and will eventually flow past the vineyard at Kakamas, where I stayed a couple of weeks ago, on their way to the cold Atlantic.
The road was not as well graded as it looked from that cliff, a kilometre away. The reality was different. It was quite degraded, rocky and broken. But I love these roads! They meander through spectacular scenery and remote villages where schoolgirls sing and dance at my approach. They wind past small houses of thatch and stone, zinc and block. They are the walk back to secondary school on Sunday afternoon for hundreds of waving children in neat uniforms; the walk home from church for matrons and grandchildren in their Sunday best. They provide a link for thousands of herdsmen and boys, standing staring into endless space beside their cows and sheep. They form the transport network of this rumpled country, and even on these bad roads minibuses pick their way slowly from village to hamlet, grinding up steep rocky hills and pitching about down broken, rutted slopes. Around it all spreads the fine mountain scenery and above the limitless sky is clear, bright blue. The air is crystal and I can see to every mountain-held horizon, clear and detailed in the brightness.
But it’s hard work, guiding a weighty machine, bucking from rut to rock, watching for surprises, concentrating on the surface despite the temptations of the scenery or the smiles and waves of the countryfolk, my road scratched out far across distant hillsides, impossible for my brain to put together as a continuous strip until I am at the other end.
About sixty miles after leaving Malealea I was back onto tarmac and the main circular road that sweeps in a huge loop round the bottom of Lesotho. The scenery is not so memorable, yet all things are relative: in any other place, this too would be a scenic drive. I am spoiled by the extremes.
Quthing is unremarkable and, on this Sunday afternoon, rowdy and somewhat drunk. Walking in the streets of the ugly small town, trapped in its steep valleys, I felt a roughness that is not Basotho in character. I remember this feeling back in 2002 when I rode here and I believe there is some tension in the fact that there is a different tribe down here, but maybe I am just tired and less receptive, giving out less warmth myself. I found an indifferent hotel, all frills and no knickers, with a vast, empty dining room where all the chairs are dressed with white petticoats like a wedding venue and a silly black and silver bar, attended by an uninterested young woman, serves over-priced beer to the only customer. Still, the rondavel room is fine for the night, the food edible and I am tired enough that I need no entertainment or diversion. It’s just a place to lay my head tonight.
The receptionist is cheerful and friendly though. Her name is Lerato (love) – or rather, WAS Lerato. It seems that on marriage Basotho women change not just their family name but their given name too. Her name now is Mankoloko, a name conferred by her mother in law, although she admits that to her own sisters and family she is still Lerato.
“So what happens should a woman become a widow and remarry?” I asked.
“Ho, she just has to get used to another name! It sometimes happens.”
The conversation came about as I filled the register. ‘Mr Bean’. Lerato/ Mankoloko laughed, as everyone does. “We call him Linaoa.” (Which, with L pronounced D, is Mr Dinaoa, with all the syllables sounded). “It means bean in Sesotho.”
“No one forgets my name!” I promised Lerato. “If I come back in some months, you will remember it!” If your name represents a figure of fun to the whole world, you might as well capitalise on it…
It’s much cooler now, with Lesotho’s altitude and the slow waning of summer. The past three or four nights I have actually slept beneath a blanket. In the evenings and early mornings I even need a light jersey. Riding or walking through the days is considerably more comfortable. That last day in Namibia will go down in my personal story archive!
DAY 77. MONDAY FEBRUARY 22nd, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO
Lesotho must be the finest place in the world to be riding a motorcycle! Much of the day I doubt I exceeded 30 miles an hour, until the last hour of the day, coming from Semonkong down to Roma, when I opened up a bit – as far as my small bike will allow at those altitudes, where it puffs and gasps for oxygen – and enjoyed the excellent road. It’s the new road I have been on now several times; fine smooth tarmac (albeit a few loose pebbles, and odd rock that has tumbled from the mountain to avoid, and some donkeys without much road sense), no other traffic and a wonderful range of bends and curves to sweep through in the fresh late afternoon air.
Road building here in this small country is pretty impressive. At times today I could see my road miles ahead, screwing itself in a multitude of bends and loops into the brilliant Basotho skies, stretched across apparently impossible semi-vertical territory, rocky screes, cliff faces and high sharply contoured mountain passes. And as I rode I appreciated my terrific fortune to be here seeing it all on a sparkling, sunny, fresh day in February, instead of watching rain dribble down my skylights at home…
Breakfast was bizarre in that very unremarkable hotel in Quthing. It consisted of a sheet of processed cheese pressed between two soggy slices of Kleenex bread, three small samosas, a puddle of baked beans, two fatty rashers of bacon and some oddly crumbly scrambled eggs. Some time after I finished, the waitress brought the bill to be signed to my table with its petticoated chairs. “Erm, any chance of some coffee, tea, juice, water…?” Somewhat surprised, she went away for ten minutes and returned with a pot of water and a jar of the revolting ersatz stuff called Ricoffy, so inexplicable popular in southern Africa. A distant relation to even instant coffee, it is made from Dextrose, Dextrins, chicory and ‘selected grains of (instant) coffee’. It’s foul.
Then I was on my way, heading round in an arc at the bottom right of Lesotho through increasingly majestic scenery and up into the heights with vast views of crumpled mountains, small green meadows, plunging valleys, the wide brown Senqu River – that later becomes the Orange River when it changes country and language – tumbled rocks and dramatic cliffs and slopes. This scenery is unbeatable. It is all so unimaginably BIG and I ride along wide eyed and amazed – even though I have ridden these roads, in both directions, on various occasions.
High on one mountainside, as I swept round a sharp bend, a limitless yawning valley to my left, I spotted a group of people selling fresh local peaches at the roadside and pulled over to buy some, a handful for eight pence. Whenever I stop like this, everyone tries to make conversation – not always easy if education levels have been light out here in the deep country. But there’s a wealth of goodwill and laughter and often some great photos to be taken too. The peaches were grand, juicy, tasty and right off a tree in one of the valleys below.
Since I rode here in December, when the drought was at full strength, the landscape has taken on a wonderful range of deep greens. There’s been a lot of rain, too late for the crops, but it has made the countryside dazzling in the southern sun. In the late afternoon it was wonderful to behold, magnificent green slopes beneath the unblemished sky. It is a great privilege to be here.
Roma being my favourite, it seemed as good a destination as any. I am so welcome here now; hugs from the staff and warm greetings. I’m back to the room in which I spent five peaceful nights only last week. My companion for supper was a Swedish opera singer from Stockholm. He knew nothing of Lesotho until a day or two ago, when his friends were all heading to Cape Town, where he has been before and decided to break away for a a couple of days and fly to the little ‘international’ airport fifteen miles away. Tomorrow he flies to Livingstone in Zambia to see Victoria Falls. Soon he’ll be back in chilly Stockholm. Rather him… “Why are there no tourists?” he asks with a puzzled frown. Well, the answer is, of course, that the perception of most of Africa is of danger and distress – fed by a voracious Western media.
I’ve suffered a small domestic disaster today in losing my small ‘log book’ in which I keep all the statistics of my journey, notes and, more importantly, a record of all my photographs, now numbering almost 800. It’s irritating to lose anything when you travel as lightly as I do, and I like to keep these records for future reference. I’m usually so careful to check rooms as I leave. Now I have to try to reconstruct my photo notes using the rough notebook I keep in my pocket as I ride. Most of the names are there I think but I have to find them and put them to the faces of the many, many smiling people I have photographed – before the details are lost to my memory. It’s quite a task. But really, that log book is only an indication of the obsessive side of my nature, that likes to count things. What does it matter to know how many litres of fuel, the cost of fuel and the cost of accommodation? Maybe it’ll do me good to lose it. And why the future reference if I am going to Kenya and surroundings next year?
I do know that tonight I have clocked up my ten thousandth kilometre on this trip.
There’s a definite chill in the air tonight – to one used to the high temperatures of recent travels. Like a summer’s night in Devon. Haha.
DAY 78. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 23rd, 2016. HA LEJONE, LESOTHO
Some days test my resolve. What an utterly disastrous day! But I expect I will bounce back – when I have had time to recover and rest. This has been a ghastly day, worst of this trip – but, oddly, I am not particularly downhearted since I have coped with all the day threw at me.
Well, in order…
I have prided myself on this trip on travelling EVEN lighter than usual. I mean, I have survived on only TWO tee shirts for 78 days! That’s a record even for me.
But now I am travelling a lot lighter still. And tomorrow I shall be leaving behind some of what is left!
I left Roma about 9.30 and turned right at the junction onto the road that winds and bends its way up into the highlands, high into the Lesotho sky. The Blue Mountain Pass brings you over the steep escarpment after fifteen miles or so and then you are out onto the high moorland at an altitude of eight or nine thousand feet for mile after mile, to the provincial town of Thaba Tseka. At the top of the pass I turned onto a dirt road that I know quite well, to look for the hillsides covered in red hot pokers that I found last year. They are just a little past their best now: I must have been a couple of weeks earlier last year, but they are still a spectacle, spreading brightly across the scrubby slopes with cows grazing between them, and the whole backed by the blue-shaded mountain ridges of Lesotho’s roof.
It was a decision: carry on on the gravel road or retrace my tracks to the tar. Last year I had a terrific ride all on my own for many miles up there. Well, that was last year and it was fun, but today I meant to ride to Thaba Tseka and on to Katse, in the middle of the country, so I rode back to the tar road and meandered my way across the highlands, treeless, rocky moorland with the road a feat of planning and engineering. I often wonder just how road planners begin their task, especially in terrain such as this on the top of Africa.
Riding round one bend quite slowly, I smelled burning. There were some Basotho at the roadside and I imagined they had made a fire of paper. A bit later I smelled it again, but I had just passed a straining old truck. Ten minutes went by. I got another whiff of smouldering paper. It was, I suppose, fifteen minutes before the realisation dawned that it was following me up the mountain. And another minute or two passed before I thought, ‘I wonder if it’s me..?’ I pulled over…
It’s just as well I had been riding slowly! Had the wind fanned my left side pannier, it would have burst into flames. As it was, it was smouldering merrily against the exhaust. Since this once happened to me racing up the A1 (the English one) years ago – the contorted melted pannier may still be there down the embankment near Doncaster for all I know – I’ve been aware of the danger and packed less valuable, non-essentials on that side. Personal stuff, less replaceable, travels on the right. I’ve ridden almost 50,000 kilometres with this discipline. Then last night, searching all nooks for my little log book I must have changed the weight distribution and contents of the pannier.
Pulling everything out on the roadside, it took ten minutes and all my water bottle to extinguish the shreds that were left of my small towel. My ‘best’ trousers were charred right through in holes, as were my smart shorts and shirt. The owner’s manuals for my motorbike were smouldering brightly. The pannier itself had ridden its last. It now resides, filled with charred clothing, amongst some rocks beside the road to Thaba Tseka! By good fortune I carry a long adjustable strap. I used it to secure the right pannier and the small top bag onto the bike behind me – for of course I can’t have just one pannier on one side. My old backpack, stuffed into the burning pannier was unaffected, as were my waterproofs. I jury rigged my luggage and rode to Thaba Teska, where I managed to procure a long bungee elastic. The burned clothes can be replaced in due course in South Africa. Pity, I liked the shorts! They were ‘broni wawo’ (white man dead clothes) from Ghana, already second hand. They’re half way up a Lesotho mountainside now, what’s left of them, burned right through the middle.
At Thaba Tseka, an unattractive town that unwinds untidily through a high valley, I filled up, drew out cash and retied my miscellaneous baggage. Now I was continuing to Katse on a fairly level gravel road about 40 miles long. But the road turned out to be corrugated and I was soon re-securing my bags. By now it was late afternoon. I should have just called it a day and stayed in Thaba Tseka, of course. But I didn’t. My obstinacy again. I had decided on getting across the gravel road in case there’s rain tomorrow (frankly unlikely, looking at the skies) and it turns to mud. So I rode on. Actually, it was a gorgeous ride with the shadows lengthening and describing the terrain so wonderfully. The Maliba Matso River was FAR below in its canyon and the small villages of thatched rondavels looked their very best, perched on ridges and promontories high above the river.
Five kilometres in, there was a horrible grinding noise from my machine. A colourful expletive escaped my lips. I stopped. It sounded like when the chain flew off in Natal, but it didn’t lock the wheel this time. The rather useless plastic faring that guards the chain had completely disappeared, except for the scrap now trapped in the chain and wheel making music. I walked back along the track but I didn’t find more than a few bits and pieces, minced efficiently, shreds of the Union Jack sticker the only bits visible. Where the rest is I have no idea. The scraps ended up down another embankment, hidden by the scrub. Well, when I sell the bike it’d have had to be replaced. I mangled it a couple of years ago when I didn’t spot a speed hump in time and it was held together with pop rivets and wire staples. In fact, the bike looks better without it.
I rode on. The day wasn’t going too well so far.
I reached Katse, site of the huge dam project that supplies South Africa with water and supplies electricity to both countries. I knew the Katse Lodge was way out of my budget, but it’s always worth a try: a sob story about being late because half my luggage had immolated itself some miles back. But it didn’t work; the receptionist wasn’t sufficiently senior to make those decisions and bargain with weary international bikers. The price remained high beyond proportion.
The next place I could stay would be at Ha Lejone, another fifty five kilometres to ride. Now I was very tired.
Which may explain the complete illogicality of turning right instead of left..? Onto a gravel road. I rode the road from Katse to Ha Lejone last year and I knew it was good tar. But weariness and the thought that these roads are always being rebuilt, made me convince myself that the road was being reconstructed. I rode on. I rode over ten miles before I understood that I was on the wrong bloody road! By now it was going to six o’clock and the light was waning. I turned around, very angry with myself and hammered back over the gravel and rock to Katse.
The next ride should have been magnificent. My irritation focussed my riding and the road is one of the best in the world. I’ve ridden it a few times just for the pleasure of the smooth tar, the sweeping bends and the motorcycling fun of it. But now I wasn’t confident of finding accommodation and the sun was sinking fast behind the high ridges. It WAS fun, that ride, even shocking myself as my boot scraped the tar on a very tight bend. I was riding well – fortunately!
There’s a sort of holiday village at Ha Lejone. I have no idea what it’s for. Spreadeagled across a hillside down to the Katse Lake are odd Butlin’s bungalows and chalets and a bar and restaurant. I stayed here once before. It’s very strange. But it is the only option and the rooms very badly designed, basic but acceptable. And the only option anyway.
The complex is down a gravel road about a kilometre from the small town. Weary as hell, I rode down and then somehow – I have no idea how – I right-sided the bike in grit and gravel spread thinly and dangerously on thin tar. Down I went, my knee hitting the ground first, my cheek grazing into gravel, my foot trapped under the bike, now with the baggage piled high on the pillion and rack.
I pulled myself out with difficulty and hobbled down to the gate of the holiday village: that’s how close I was to my destination – about 50 yards. I needed help to lift the bike. No way could I do it in my present condition! A security man came – wordlessly throughout – and lifted it up. Little damage done fortunately. The indicator glass knocked off, the bars bent and my knee already growing in size inside my old, faded motocross trousers. It is now large and puffy but nothing is broken and I was within minutes of a shower. Ironically, my room feels like a mile hike uphill to the bar and restaurant, but doubtless a night in bed will settle the swelling. It’s badly grazed, but hardly the first time I have had grazed knees! I reckon on being somewhat stiff in the morning though. I sprained my thumbs too, annoyingly. In the morning I have to correct the handlebars and check the bike over, but apart from another graze that seems to be exactly where the previous one was, three years ago, no real damage. But I do think it’s time to cash in this poor old bike.
A testing day indeed! But no permanent harm done, by good fortune. My valuables – camera, iPad, etc are unharmed and I will bounce back, and even I saw the humour of the conflagration of a quarter of the meagre belongings I have with me. I’ve spent almost three months with this small collection of possessions. I do like to travel light in life but I am now stretching the concept to new limits. Still, I always think of Wechiga accompanying me on a trip round Ghana years ago with a carrier bag containing a clean pair of underpants, a spare tee shirt, a pair of gym shorts, a toothbrush and comb and a book on pig keeping. If my brother can do it, so can I!
I need some rest, very desperately. I have to face the long hike – limp – back to my room down by the lakeside. Right, no time to be feeble… Get walking! My knee is VERY stiff.
Downhill was hell. And here I am in a room that is pervaded by the aroma of scorched plastic. Huh. There are times when I wonder why…
DAY 79. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 24th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
The list of place I would rather NOT be tonight would be very short indeed! I suffered a very indecisive day, with no real plan or purpose; no idea even where I was going. Maybe I should have stopped at Butlin’s, Ha Lejone, but that prospect was fairly grim and after a while my knee was up to being eased over the bike – without the usual energy of being thrown over, but I was able to bend it into the sitting position and it was more comfortable than walking up and down that damned hill at Butlin’s… (For my American readers, Butlin’s was a very popular holiday camp company from the post war years, known for their organised activities and fairly basic chalet accommodation).
I left the top bag of my pannier set on top of a dustbin with some expendable items for the staff to pick over; some of the rest of my luggage went in the bin beneath. I have managed to pack everything into one pannier bag with my day stuff in my small backpack. This is the lightest that even I ever travelled. Then, leaving a general oil slick behind me – no need for chain lube – I set off, somewhat gingerly, into the Lesotho mountains and eventually, after climbing to the high passes, down through the impressive engineering feat of the road to the western lowlands – well, they’re still above 1400 metres (four and a half thousand-odd feet). At one point, so steep is the decline, the road extends out onto a hairpin built up from the steep slopes below in concrete. The road is spectacular, the views stupendous. My mood not worthy of it.
All the way down I had no real idea where I was going or why. I hate this mood. It was probably brought on by my mild depression and pain from my knee. I do like to have a plan! But the state of my little red bike has been bugging me. I have so little mechanical ability that I feel totally inadequate about it. The engine was struggling this morning. Since the tumble last night, it has been unable to idle or to work at low speeds. Or maybe it was the petrol filled from old oil containers at Ha Lejone, where there’s no petrol station? What to do? What to do? How will I spend the rest of my time here? What will I do about the fact that my tourist permit runs out in less than two weeks? I need to leave the country – and Lesotho won’t do. It will have to be England or Zimbabwe. But how can I ride (the exceptionally boring ride from here to the border) to Zimbabwe on a bike that is spraying oil like this? Should I go back to Bloemfontein and take it back to Johan, who supposedly ‘fixed’ it, or ride to Durban for some home comforts with Yvonne and Michael and get someone there to fix it? Questions; questions that revolved uncharacteristically indecisively all morning. I stopped for coffee, putting off the decision, grumpy with the waitress about the lousy music playing too loudly in the cafe garden. Yvonne hadn’t switched in the ringer on her phone, and Johan was on answerphone. No one else was going to make a decision for me in my downbeat mood. My knee was stiff and swollen.
At last I sent a text message to Steven: ‘So sorry. On my way back. Johan’s weld leaking like a fountain. Carb problems too. See you later. Very sorry! Oooooohhh!’ And back came the generous reply: ‘call me when you get here’. So I turned and headed for Bloemfontein yet again, more than 100 miles away. At least it was a decision and a destination. The final 40 mile thrash down the N1 highway seems to have solved the carburettor problem – temporarily at least. I left a message on Johan’s phone that I was bringing the bike back. I’d have liked to stop and stay somewhere on the road, but if I did, I’d have arrived back in Bloem tomorrow and he’d say he couldn’t look at the bike till Monday. I cannot face another weekend in Bloemfontein, despite Steven’s kindness.
So, I need to make decisions about my journey. Maybe I booked too long this time, considering I have been to all these places before? Perhaps three months would have been better? But I promised Vicky and Scott, who have been paying the bills and living in Rock Cottage that they’d have as long as possible with a temporary home of their own, and I really would like to avoid March in England! If Rico hadn’t landed a contract that will take him out of Kenya, that was going to be my destination this year. But fortunately for him, he did. Mainly, though, I need to be confident about the bike, and it’s been leaking oil now for almost eleven thousand kilometres…
Meanwhile, back to this strange country within a country where the big shiny white 4X4s are driven by white people and the old bangers and delivery trucks by black people; smart bungalows owned by white and shacks and hovels by black; coffee shops owned and used by white and staffed by black, and ‘devil’s fork’ fencing and razor wire keep the two apart.
But I’ll refrain tonight!
The last two days have been difficult. Testing times. I hope things buck up soon. First is to see if Johan can fix the leak – or buy the bike and I’ll revert to my old travel style: local transport for a bit.
Right now I’d LOVE a malt whisky! But this is a teetotal household so I have to make do with the gassy lager I left in the fridge against my return.
DAY 80. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 25th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
Decisions made – and, of course, now I wonder if they were the right ones… I am to return after three months, not staying until after the clocks change, as had been the idea. Still, thirteen weeks isn’t a bad holiday…
Johan, the mechanic, virtually condemned my bike. It needs a complex welding job to fix it and would take, he said, two days (for which I read four, even five) and cost £100 (for which read £150). Then I’d need a new tyre, another £100, and then I’d have to ride the very boring miles to Zimbabwe (probably at least four long days each way) in order to get the renewed tourist permit on my return. Most importantly, though, I have lost confidence in the little red bike. I am no longer sure that taking it another 2000 miles will be feasible with my mechanical aptitude. So I have cut my losses. Johan offered me a paltry 8000 Rand (£375) for the bike (worth at least £750, repaired). I have decided I would rather give it to my good friend Steven for him to repair for ‘little’ Steven, who will be getting his own licence in a year or so and who, like his sister, has been brought up on bikes since a toddler. If they make a good bike from it, he can pay me the 8000 Rand in due course. But, as with all such gestures, I have to be prepared not to see any money in the future. The Stevens are so charming and kind and have been such good friends to me over my five southern African journeys that I think this is the best I can make of the whole situation. I am fond of them both and have watched young Steven grow from a shy kid who wouldn’t talk to me in English into a delightful teenager, considerate, polite and cheerful. Every night I stay here, he sleeps on a settee in his father’s room without any complaint. He’s a charmer and very excited about our agreement. And the little bike owes me nothing. I have used it for four great trips, put almost 50,000 kilometres on it and have many happy memories and good stories.
Trouble is, I will get home to dismal late winter and wish I was back here in the sun. But that’s been a recurring feature of my life – always wishing I was somewhere else. I already started browsing for flights to warmer climes for March 9th, the day after I get back!
My other option was to abandon the bike here and take flights and buses back to Zimbabwe. But I have been to all the places I would visit there several times now and part of my enjoyment has always been the freedom that the bike has given my journeys.
Changing my flight dates was only a matter of £35 and KLM seem to have made a mistake and credited me with an extra 30,000 air miles in the process! You may remember that my flights that should have cost £710 cost me a mere £240 plus 60,000 air miles – all earned on business trips to USA.
Well, right or wrong, the choices are made. And by cutting my losses thus, I have opened up opportunities for more journeys since I will have more money to spend. The only regret is not avoiding all of winter – but I’ll have missed three of the worst months!
By the by, my knee is getting back to normal size and healing well.