DAY 68 – 72. TUESDAY – SUNDAY MARCH 3rd – 8th 2020. KLOOF, DURBAN. SOUTH AFRICA
After meetings with the client in Golden Gate on Tuesday, we drove home to Kloof, about four and a half hours through expansive scenery. It’s such BIG country, so much of South Africa. We rode for hours through farming and grass lands, over rolling miles of big-sky country. Here and there we drove over high lands and then through the lovely steep green hillsides of the landscapes approaching Durban. Finally home to this odd white suburb in which I have stayed often now.
But I’m never comfortable here, not mentally at least, although my friends – and their friends – make me so warmly welcome. It’s just that I identify so deeply now with indigenous black Africans and find this separated, white enclave of some of the nine percent of South Africa – for the white population is about that size – so oddly unnatural. Here is a European style of life, imposed on the so much more natural African ways. And it never sits comfortably, as if the white people try too hard to keep the differentiation alive, maintaining that ‘safe’ distance from the ‘threatening’ multitude that seems always in danger of swamping their privileges. For there is no doubt that this small percentage enjoy a VERY privileged position in South African society. Despite their constant complaints. They would argue that it is they who have brought this European veneer of development and wealth through their innate entrepreneurism, superior knowledge and hard work. Maybe it is, but is that right? I don’t begin to try to argue the justice or injustice of all this. I merely feel extremely uneasy and always conscious of my white skin, unlike any time I am in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana or any other African countries.
This is not the crazy, chaotic, invigorating, smiling Africa I love so well. This is reserved, divided, racially uncomfortable, generally unsmiling and suspicious Africa. The division of wealth is startling. I see huge SUVs everywhere, driven by white people. I see boats, jet skis, sports cars, top of the range motorbikes, palaces, swimming pools, pet grooming parlours, acres of green lawns with no blade of grass out of place. I see shopping malls like those in the most exclusive parts of the so called developed world. I see razor wire barricades, security companies with ‘armed response’, electric fences, surveillance cameras. Why, even the multitude of churches – both black and white have strong streaks of religious conservatism – are ironically protected by ‘devil’s fork’ fencing! And I also see uniformed black domestic staff walking (walking…) home, or gathering in groups at street corners awaiting communal transport back to the basic villages in the hidden valleys beyond the hills. I see people scratching a living as car park attendants, dependent on small gratuities from wealthy white diners – who complain of the positive discrimination against the ‘pale male’ (women don’t get much mention. I said it’s a conservative white society…) and about their youth who cannot get jobs – the jobs given to less qualified black-skinned people. (“Who do you think they learned THAT from?” a broadminded Afrikaner asked me in a bar back in 2002). I am aware – all the time – that the staff who cook my food, clean the kitchens, transport the foodstuffs – are black, while we all out front – the customers, and often the waiting staff (on the whole, they relate better to white diners) – are white skinned.
I think of my families around this wonderful continent. I don’t think of them as black skinned – just my dear friends, some of whom I love as family. Yet here they’d be waiting on me, in all likelihood – not my equals. It makes me constantly uncomfortable. It’s two ethnicities, two vastly different ways of life, two almost opposed attitudes to life, meeting and trying – on the whole rather unsuccessfully – to rub along together in the same patch of the continent. The one resents the attitudes and behaviour of the other. The whites are ‘arrogant’ and ‘dismissive’, the blacks ‘lazy’ and ‘undisciplined’. I can’t see how these two extremes can ever live happily alongside one another. It’s just two totally opposed views of life – capitalist ethics of hard work and reward, material comfort and advancement; against a certain easy going way, a devotion to family, community, tribe; a laid back attitude in which the here and now is of supreme importance, planning is alien, outward show largely irrelevant, ambition modest and personal interaction the most important aspect of life. How can these two ever understand the other?
Privilege accrues to the hard working ethic of the materialists. The laid back majority want the material wealth but don’t comprehend that in a capitalist society it comes from dedication and graft alien to their more relaxed ways. Resentment builds. Violence erupts. Retaliation ensues. Distrust is rife. And so it goes on. In an endless circle. Privilege, resentment, wealth, poverty, razor wire, security bars, robbery, disillusion, fear, anger, envy, division. Finally no one talks to the other. No one understands. The two sides become enemies. An uneasy truce becomes the norm. We whites put on the central locking and live behind bars. The blacks become service personnel, largely invisible to whites. Everyone devolves to them and us, ‘they’…
I’ve been so privileged to broach this divide so much in Africa. To be considered equal by so many from another, or many other, cultures. It enhances my deep discomfort to ‘served’ by this somehow invisible majority of people who happen to have black skins – and to think that they might be the Wechigas, Adelights, Scovias, Alexes of this continent if I knew them better.
And if white South Africans tried harder to understand their black neighbours, they might also find the of joy accepting equality, and love, with people of other cultures that enriches my life so much and directs my appreciation of this extraordinarily diverse, absorbing continent.
But they maintain their superiority. Keep their distance. Distrust their neighbours (I could say, hosts…). I don’t think I will ever be comfortable here. When you build walls, you can’t see your neighbours. And they can’t see you. How will you ever commune if you construct such high walls? Only by shouting simplistic slogans…
The weather back here in Kloof, where I have stayed many times in the past few years, is warm and sunny, 27-30 degrees, now that a period of unsettled weather has passed. Like many others, my friends are in the process of selling up. They’ll move back to Europe, as is the current trend amongst the more privileged with a choice of foreign passports. Two of their three children are moving also. I’m not sure it’s not a case of greener grass myself. Right now, the whole world is going through crises, wherever you live. We’re going through shameful political times of control by autocrats or self-interested political leaders. I don’t think Africa has the monopoly of this any more. Frying pans and fires come to mind. Yes, this country is desperately badly governed, there’s the rising tide of xenophobia on all sides and all parties, and employment is uncertain and frequently prejudiced by skin colour. Despite that, the sun shines and white people live a generally pretty good life, except it’s often behind self-erected bars and in fear – generated by a paranoia amongst their own community. Well, I guess I don’t live here and maybe I see only the surface, but I have to say it appears a comfortable surface… And leaving here, where the economy is poor, the Rand is weak, values low, to go to Europe with its eye-watering expense, and similar social inequalities is difficult indeed. And employment prospects really aren’t much better. (Mind you, there’s plenty of evidence that we in Europe, Britain at least, maintain a colour prejudice against ethnic minority applicants (ie. black and Asian) – just as they used to here..!) A large palace in these white suburbs will only really exchange for a small terrace, a flat in a suburban town, a place with no land – instead of wide lawns and tropical growth cared for by gardeners.
I could sell little Rock Cottage and buy a VAST mansion round here (as has often been suggested by white people here) and be looked after by cleaners, gardeners, drivers. Needless to say, my moral conscience and socialist ideals wouldn’t let me.
Well, moving away from South Africa is the choice of many white South Africans of this area of KwaZululand around Durban. For me, I’d just move to an area of this rather lovely country that was less white and paranoid, down towards the Cape perhaps, and start again away from the poisonous atmosphere of Durban – the Zulus have always been aggressive and bellicose. I never liked this part of the country. The Zulu resentment to the rich whites I find palpable. In my limited experience, the rest of South Africa rubs along better than here amongst the proud Zulu nation.
“They hate us,” say you white people, nominally South African. This is an accusation of ‘them’, the black people, the indigenous South Africans, the black ones. “They hate us…”
I think, but dare not say, ‘Why should they like you? You came here for a good life during the poison of apartheid, not with any political conviction to help repressed Africans, but for a good life in the sun, as a superior race. Why should ‘they’ feel sympathy, now they have a degree of self control, an ability to forge a life for their own race? Of course they will make life difficult for you. You didn’t show much sympathy, empathy, support during those vile periods. ‘They’ see the extreme division of wealth, your SUVs, swimming pools, huge homes, comforts. Most of ‘them’ live in meagre houses, little better than bothies and pick the crumbs from your tables’.
“But the blacks who get rich are even worse!” you exclaim. “They cheat, exploit, treat their fellows even worse!” Yes, some do. And who were their role models? Where did they observe how to exploit their fellow men?
‘“For goodness sake,” you say, “apartheid finished 25 years ago! It’s time they got over it!” But institutionalised racism and injustice on that scale, that lasted for most of the past century, doesn’t go away in a mere 25 years. We’ll be lucky if it disappears in another century. Such evil memories run very deep. Resentment festers. It’ll take generations’.
“You don’t understand!” you say. “Our children can’t get jobs. That’s why we’re leaving. This country is a shambles…” The jobs go to black youths instead. Positive discrimination. It’s not right, maybe not fair – but I recollect that liberal Afrikaans farmer all those years ago, who asked me with amused irony: “Who do you think they learned that from..?”
This township is ranged round the lips of the Kloof Gorge, a magnificent place of wooded hills and plunging cliffs. The white settlers have bagged all the best clifftop sites for extravagant homes – ostentatious house like something from Florida – only with better taste (and hills). And, like Florida, cheek by jowl live those in abject poverty. Nearby, local people live in shacks and small homes down the less accessible steep slopes, probably without services. The gorge is largely preserved as a nature reserve, and is pretty fine scenically. I’ve stayed here on many occasions, but this is the first time I have ventured to walk in the reserve – in search of strength for my damaged ankle. There are rough paths through the grasslands, uneven steps down the steep slopes and rill-filled gullies, terrifying rocky promontories over sheer drops of hundreds of feet into the even hotter valley bottom.
Felica is a charming ranger, sitting beneath a tree, passing the time on her phone at the entrance to the reserve this morning. She’s here to take an entry fee. I don’t tell her that last night I came in for nothing as she takes my £2.50. She’s handsome – so much more pretty than 99% of the washily pale white women I see here. Her smile alone marks her out for my admiration. Hair woven neatly into furrows, a khaki uniform. On the way in, she welcomes me. On the way out I ask if there’s any way I can get to the road on top of the hill, pointing upwards. “Is there any way I can avoid walking up that boring road between the big pretentious houses with their barking guard dogs and swimming pools?”
“I’ll walk up with you and open the top gate! My shift is just finishing and I live in the staff quarters up there.” Felica points out a path running steeply up the grassy slope. She packs up her receipt book, puts away her phone and walks in front of me. I feel she sympathises with my distaste for the houses up the slope, with the glinting pools, expansive shady terraces and expensive patio furnishings. I tell her that I have come from Kenya and Uganda and find this place uncomfortable.
She agrees, chatting over her shoulder. “Here no one sees one another. Fences and razor wire. Where I come from on the south coast, we are all extended families. Here, these people are private. We have a problem, we shout about it, and we share it. We help each other.”
That’s how life should be, not this tight-arsed fear and anxiety and division. She fetches a key and lets me out onto the top road. Wishes me well on my journey. “Oh, I love Lesotho too!” she exclaims. “I’ve been there twice.” She’s worked in various national parks across the country. A smart, intelligent woman, overlooked by many of the people living around us in this exclusive green suburb amongst the clipped lawns, aloes and palms.
I see no one as I walk home through empty streets past white people’s secretive, protected homes. In Uganda or Kenya, people would be greeting me and calling out, waving and asking how I do. Here, cars pass with the central locking on and windows rolled shut. Unsmiling white faces behind them. As I walk the silent, steamily hot roads, past high walls with spikes and razor wire where no one but me is on foot, a white car driver passes and waves at me. But I KNOW he wouldn’t acknowledge me if I had a black skin.
I’ve been relaxing on the porch, a slow visit. I’m looked after and have attended a few meetings with Mike’s museum team, provided a bit of sage advice and a few ideas and solutions. My foot, meanwhile, grows in strength. I hope I’ll get some rougher walking in Lesotho next week. It seems to be the rougher walking that helps the muscles – more than walking on the smooth roads of this suburban area, using the very narrow strip of pavements provided, it appears to me, for the legions of black staff to walk to their communal minibus stops.
My hosts, old friends of 40 years, make me very comfortable and welcome. I am at home. But I am not in Africa. Not the Africa I have come to know and love so much.
Mike begins to talk of inviting me back later in the year to make use of my skills and experience in installing and dressing the new museum exhibits. Last year, when I came for some creative brainstorming, his company paid my expenses. “This is South Africa,” he explained ironically, “we can’t really pay any fees, but we’d love your input if you’d come for a week’s holiday and attend a few sessions!” Well, that’s fine with this obsessive traveller. Next time, I suggested, they could pay me local rates as well as my expenses. It’d be another chance for a Lesotho visit, after all!
We drove out to look at the sculptures that a Zimbabwean, Lazarus, is creating outside Durban. “It was your input that persuaded us to take this route,” Mike says as we pull into Lazarus’s workshop, from which he generally makes and sells garden ornaments of considerable creativity. Welded steel, much of it recycled. All of it with very ‘African’ characteristics. Some of the dinosaurs are currently stored amongst his other wares in his extensive grounds. They are terrific! And the whole team, and clients are thrilled by the look of them, the African quality and the folk references. Lazarus has worked to sketches and briefs, his results signed off by the palaeontologists at the university. I’m happy I encouraged this lively, artistic sculptural solution. And I’m happy to help a skilful Zimbabwean too. I admire that nation above almost all other Africans.
DAY 73. MONDAY MARCH 9th 2020. HARRISMITH. FREE STATE. SOUTH AFRICA
Whatever next? Jonathan has rented a car! Don’t tell anyone else. And, my goodness, it’s boring driving about in a tin box, when you’re used to being out in the fresh air, part of the landscape, experiencing things so vitally, as you do on a motorbike. The bike is a tactile experience. The car is separate, isolated. Everything seen through glass. Set apart from the people I pass. It’s not for me, enclosed in a box, away from the stimuli of nature. Shaded. Cooled by ridiculous air conditioning instead of the wind. Sitting as if in relaxation. No sense of thrill. No sensation of movement. The landscape passing by, a divided thing. Like sitting in front of a screen. About as exciting as television. Not for me. I am a biker, through and through – especially when I travel. On a motorbike you are part of the process of movement. Your weight is crucial, balance, adjustment, man and machine together, making a dynamic force.
Still, not much I can do about it right now. I have no motorbike down here any more. And it’s funny, but these past days have almost persuaded me that I don’t want one here. I came here with half a plan to find another South African registered bike to enjoy Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Zambia some more. Now I begin to think perhaps my compromise might be to use the one I have, the Kenyan one, and to investigate air freighting it to more distant places instead of being forced to keep coming back to this country, to which I am reacting rather badly this visit. I’m not sure I want to be a white man here any more. I don’t mind being a white man in other African countries. Here it embarrasses me.
Yvonne drove me to the car rental place this morning. I’d done the booking online, assuring myself I can take The Box to Lesotho. I haven’t driven a car more than 100 miles in the last year (my own old banger having been lent to my old friend, John for the past 18 months and scrapped in October). I’d thought about renting in Johannesburg, but couldn’t bring myself to drive four wheels out of the capital city. Somehow, suburban Durban is easier, and I’ve ridden the roads I drove today a number of times, a big sweeping highway that South Africans think busy and dangerous, but to me is tame and empty! They warn me of South African driving – forgetting that I am accustomed to Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya… They know nothing of bad driving. Why, even the minibuses here have tread on their tyres, doors that close with a handle (not knotted wire), windscreens of glass (not flapping plastic sheeting) – and there’s not a boda-boda to be seen in the entire country! These people are so sheltered in their exclusive, bland version of Africa. It’s an exotic background to a comfortable life – with animals and sunshine – for many whites who moved here in the past half century. To me Africa’s a vibrant, vital, place of real life, in all its complexities, and a place with people for whom I increasingly care. People I hate to hear dismissed as ‘dangerous’, ‘aggressive’, ‘undisciplined’. There’s more life in the backside of an African village than in all the closed white suburbs around Durban!
I pulled away from Pinetown at 11.15. I’ve paid an extra sixty quid to return The Box to Bloemfontein airport in two weeks. I don’t want to see Durban again. I’m not very sorry that Mike and Yvonne plan to sell up and ‘escape’ to France. My Durban days are done – unless Mike gets me back for the final throes of the dinosaur museum later in the year. Assuming he’s still there himself. No, this short visit has been instructive. I have seen, with eyes refreshed by the reality of Africa, that South Africa falls short of all my moral beliefs and liberal views. Rereading some of my last South African journal from 2016, I can see my disillusionment setting in. On all my earlier visits I was always thankful to get across the borders into Lesotho, Zimbabwe or neighbouring countries. Now I am sad that Lesotho, that I love so warmly, is enveloped by this beautiful but socially unacceptable land.
And my distaste is only increased by my visit to the Mandela Capture Site museum as I drove today. I’ve stopped there on my red bike in the past, but there’s now a new museum on the site that makes you think, once again, about the appalling injustices to which so many white people turned a blind eye, or worse, were complicit in perpetrating. IN MY LIFETIME… I suppose my political awareness began a bit late, after I left art school in 1972 perhaps, encouraged by early travels (USA, Central and South America in 1973) and fanned by my long time friend and deeply politically aware friend, Tony Gibson, a huge influence – a tutor at Goldsmiths and later my mentor for more than forty years. His views of social justice shaped my increasingly liberal stance, an awareness I’ve never lost when I travel. Rico, reading my journal of my first African introduction – our journey together across the Sahara to West Africa in 1987, of which I gave him a printed copy at New Year – pays me a compliment in an email, in response to one of mine the other evening when large whisky had made me somewhat argumentative with white South African residents:
‘The way you write in 1987 during your discovery of black Africa, is basically telling me that you are very appreciative of what you find, there in Burkina Faso and in Ghana. You are not at all judgemental towards the people that you encounter for the first time in their own world. That is you! I think that your whisky has made you realise that you are more uncomfortable with the situation in ZA than you would normally admit to yourself. As I said the other day: “Drunks and Children speak the truth”’.
With a big Irish whiskey inside me, I had become argumentative with my hosts about entrenched attitudes and sweeping assumptions amongst the white settlers. I became offended by implications that black-skinned people are unreliable, criminal, opportunistic, aggressive. With your windows wound up and central locking on, fearful and obsessed by instant ‘news’ updates day and night, that increase anxiety, fear and distrust, how will you ever learn about your neighbours, beyond your paternalistic condescension to your domestic staff?
And it’s funny… Driving in The Box today, I began to look at people around me in a different way. I was detached. I saw threats. I locked the car whenever I left it. I had been made distrustful. When I am on my motorbikes, I smile and greet, chat to sellers in traffic jams, smile at drivers of every race and colour, joke with pedestrians in congestion, relate to parking attendants, have faith in people’s reactions, smiles, comments. Not in The Box, I didn’t. On my bike I have no central locking. I have only my default: trust that 99.9% of mankind is decent, trustworthy and wants much the same as I do from life. On my bike I’ve no choice but to trust. I am in the thick of situations, unprotected, not in my own isolation behind glass. My smile is my passport and my protection. It’s difficult to be aggressive with a man who smiles at you.
I’m back in the ghastly Afrikaans bar across from the jaded, faded, attenuated Grand National Hotel in Harrismith, the hotel about which all my (white) acquaintance have been ribbing me – for none of them would consider staying in a place so lacking in glamour. But it’s cheap, very unpretentious and perfectly adequate. The bed is comfortable and clean, there’s warm water, it’s quiet. Admittedly, the carpet would be better off in a skip, but there’s a door with which I can lock out the world for a few hours and relax. What more do I want or need? Tonight the bar – and the hotel – are thinly populated. The town’s calm in its workaday mode. I made a gesture at looking for another hotel. A brief gesture. The only other place was twice the price (£30), out of town and gloomier than this. And I couldn’t face an Afrikaans B&B. I know the mauve chintz furbelows and sentimental texts too well! So the dingy Grand National gets my business again.
As does the awful Afrikaans bar. Smokey and loud. Rough and brash. Amusing to observe. The exercise ball, white bearded hulk still sits and downs his litres of Carlsberg, still wears the same faded green vest and baggy grey track suit shorts that he wore last Saturday, his vest hanging from the generous curve of a wobbly belly, nicotine stained moustache, loudly greeting me, recognised. No doubt classified as the effete Englishman. Friendly though in his way.
White South Africans, British by origin or Afrikaans, are amongst the last bastions of unconverted heavy smokers in the world, the last to ignore those dire warnings and stomach churning illustrations on the packets. Yvonne and Micael included. What will they do when they return to Europe, as currently planned? Cigarettes will be five or six times the price of those here. Five or six times… Imagine… 40 a day in France will be a serious consideration. A serious alternative to compromising and staying here, I’d have thought.
I’m glad I’ve made this trip. I haven’t committed much to it, just 24 days and a limited expenditure. Better that, than committing to purchasing another expensive motorbike – and I could expect not less that £2000 for only a half-decent machine that would probably eat up another several hundred to fettle it for more journeys. No, I shall investigate what it takes to air freight the little Mosquito, for all its faults (lightweight and underpowered) to some of the places I appreciate so much: Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, even Lesotho. My allegiance is now securely to East Africa, my families there and the lifestyle and acceptance of East Africans, without the tension and jealousies of this uncomfortable juxtaposition of black and white at the foot of the continent. I’ve bitten back my opinions too often. I want to interact honestly with cheerful, smiling Africans again.
Happily, I’ll be in Lesotho in a day or two. Back in Africa. Where so few South Africans venture…
DAY 74. TUESDAY MARCH 10th 2020. BLOEMFONTEIN. FREE STATE. SOUTH AFRICA
Bloemfontein, capital of the Afrikaans nation. A place apart, in Africa. It’s a bit like being in – aggressively white – middle America. One of the oddest cities on earth. But, as is the way on this different journey of 2020, I am here to visit my friend Steven, one of the kindest of men, with whom I’ve stayed on various occasions since 2002.
In 2002, on my major five month trip with my African Elephant from South Africa to Rico in northern Kenya, I first discovered Lesotho, drawn there by the mountainous shades of my relief road map, and a note: ‘highest road in southern Africa’. I had to investigate. I can’t remember which way into the country my bike and I used, maybe the supposedly infamous Sani Pass, a relatively tame rocky zigzag that counts for ‘adventure’ for so many South Africans, and the limit of their experience and knowledge of Lesotho for very many more. Lesotho is, of course, completely landlocked by South Africa. It comprises a single range of mountains and is about one and a half times the area of Wales – every inch mountain. It has the highest lowest point of any country in the world, at 1400m above sea level. My first ride was a revelation. I fell in love with the small country and its delightful people. If you’ve followed these journeys, you’ll know I’ve been back many times and gushed enthusiastically every time. Several pages of my passport are filled with stamps between the two countries.
Sometime on that trip, I entered by one of the remotest border gates, so unused I had to look for an official to stamp me into the country, a young woman coming from her house to check my papers. Then I rode a goat track for many miles over the roughest ground and narrow passes. After some miles I came to a fast, wide, but not very deep river. An old bridge stood marooned in the middle of the water, which had long found a way round its stanchions. My approach was down a ten foot muddy embankment that would prevent any chance of return. I had no idea how the track would deteriorate later so had to take a gamble when I crossed the river. For the next hundred and fifty miles perhaps, I rode on rock, mud and dirt over the highest mountains in the little country. It was magnificent – and one of my favourite riding memories. The air was crystal, the scenery astonishing, what people I met laughing and smiling – and I’d overcome my fears too. That’s a heady mix.
In the late afternoon of the second day I reached the little capital city, Maseru. It wasn’t much bigger than Otley or Totnes, sprawled about lower hills, friendly and to me exotic. I found a hotel, took a rest and decided to ride out for supper. It was then that I found I had only second gear left to select in my gearbox. A tiny spring had broken, thankfully not in the remote fastness of the high mountains, but in the little capital. Finding repair for anything much more complex than a donkey cart wasn’t an option in Maseru in those days, so next morning I limped back over the South African border to Ladybrand. Making a call from a street-side phone booth I heard a BMW pass. And that was how I met Steven, big, shaven-headed, rally badges all over his jacket, Afrikaans accent that would curl your toes, generosity personified.
It was New Year. All his friends were away or busy. He couldn’t raise a trailer to get my injured bike to the nearest BMW workshop in his hometown, Bloemfontein. “Well,” he said with a laugh, “we’ll have to ride there!”
“How can I ride 75 miles in second gear?” I wondered, reasonably.
“Slowly!” And we did. It took five very companionable hours, sheltering under any scrap of shade to let my overheating engine rest, talking and chattering. Even this evening, Steven tells me how warmly and in what detail he still remembers his slowest ever journey from Ladybrand to Bloem. I stayed with Steven and his (then) wife Judy for several days. The BMW dealer mended the gearbox, serviced the bike, asked for stories of my journeys – and charged me very little for their kindness. My opinion of Afrikaners rose high. Steven became a friend. A friend with whom I have stayed on many occasions now. And a friend I deemed it fun to come and visit again on this tour of my African friends. Here I am.
The Box and I meandered across the eastern Free State on backroads all day, some 250 scenic, rural miles. I passed right through the Golden Gate park once again, past the doors of the new museum, where I was ten days ago. I drove on empty, sweeping roads through big landscapes, red and cream bluffs and cliffs, worn volcanic plugs against the blue skies, blowing grasslands rising over the heights, a few antelopes and wildebeest grazing in the distance. The roads were quiet and I drifted along at 50mph enjoying the scenery. Doubtless, my white acquaintances would have been horrified when I picked up a couple of farm workers in the middle of nowhere and gave them a ride, and later an elderly woman with a shopping bag, waiting patiently for a lift by a remote road on which a car might pass every ten minutes. I stopped for coffee in an old town with early 20th century houses, and rode past rolling farmlands for hour after pleasant hour. For fifty miles or more I took an old potholed road that I have used before – in fact, I had ridden all today’s roads on my motorbike in other years – through remote farms and cattle ranches. The landscape of South Africa is huge, and this central portion expansive beyond imagination. I hope next week that I can get a ride over the Karoo Desert, my favourite landscape of this country – limitless expanses of low, bush-covered emptiness, the road cutting across it apparently endlessly, horizons far distant, the sense of space and freedom energising.
Some of the remote towns are sad places out here. Run down by crippling poverty – both black and white residents – streets more holes than tar; cheap Chinese-owned supermarkets supplying the only goods, while tying up one of the few entrepreneurial opportunities; broken down tin-roofed houses and battered vehicles. People sit on street steps and gaze at nothing. The only life revolves around the drink-wankels – bottle shops. I get the feeling people would leave, if they had somewhere to go and some money to take them. Instead, they are trapped within an endless cycle of poverty and dependence on some poorly paid farm work or booze. It’s depressing out there. The endless expansive scenery, filled with delights for me as I pass through and go on my way, doesn’t do much to support modern human life. Especially if you have no land and no rights to those tied up in huge white-owned farms and ranches.
Every town in this Free State region, the toughest bastions of apartheid back in the day, has a satellite town of black-dwelling shacks and shanties of zinc, timber, plastic sheeting, car doors and recycled materials. The towns have separate names to the wealthier white neighbours. Yet they are cheek by jowl, the last few white homes on the edges of the smarter white townships encircled with barbed wire and steel grilles, then a couple of hundred yards of grassless scrub to the start of the informal settlements of the black neighbours. To say apartheid is gone is a simplification. It exists in all but law: in unequal distribution of wealth and resources, in housing, services and transport. The mean houses sometimes provided by the State, in row upon row of small two-roomed concrete and zinc homes, each with a solar water heater and tank, the inevitable satellite dish, a few yards of barbed fencing enclosing a dusty compound bereft of life, are a gesture to equality. But to my cynical eyes, passing through the excessive dinkiness and ‘gentility’ of a town like Clarens (god, it’s ghastly! Twee cottages filled with Afrikaans and white South African tatt, ‘art’ galleries of the worst sentimental and meaningless kitsch, and ‘tea shoppes’ of the nastiest racial exclusivity) and out the other side to the more populous shack community hidden behind the trees and lilies of Clarens, brings out the worst in me! This time, I gave Clarens a miss, as wide a berth as is possible with so few roads. Despite the fact that I’d still had no breakfast, I knew I’d just get irritable if I drove into Clarens’ exclusive ‘village’ atmosphere and saw black people doing the washing up and cleaning for white B&B, tea shoppe owners and elderly ‘South African’ holidaymakers.
Of course, Harrismith had no breakfast worth eating. Like last week, the choice was Kentucky Fride Shite and Wendy’s junk. I drove away, thinking I’d find sustenance en route. But my route was remote and it was lunchtime before I could break my fast. Travelling makes me very adaptable.
By late afternoon, rainclouds filled the huge skies, and soon after hitting the main N1 expressway, that hurries from Johannesburg to Cape Town, still more than 1000 kilometres on the signposts, I ran into heavy showers. It always brings a little frisson to see names of places as fabulous as Cape Town on road signs, even now, when I’ve ridden all the seriously many miles to Cape Town three times I think. But now I had only to reach Bloemfontein, fifty miles of highway and the problem of finding Steven and Isabel in their suburb. The instructions I’d written for myself got me within a few hundred yards but Steven had to run out to find me in the end.
It’s been a warm reunion. I am so fortunate to be accepted all around my travelling world by so many very diverse friends and acquaintances. So lucky. Steven and Isabel have been together four or five years now. She’s a good businesswoman with her own leather supplies business – a long-established business she bought some years ago as an opportunity. Steven, run ragged by his employment for a huge mobile phone company, for whom he fitted the equipment on relay towers, at last resigned and works now with Isabel. He’s always loved leatherwork; I remember him repairing things for me in the past – pannier bags, belts, camera bags – and now, for half the money he made as a telecommunications engineer, but double the personal satisfaction, he loves his work, creating and repairing leather goods.
We ate a huge meaty meal cooked on the braai (these are Afrikaners!) as the rain poured down onto the chill waters of the swimming pool. Stevens’s son, Steven, came to join our reunion. I have known him since he was less than two years old. Now he’s a strapping 20 year old, enjoying life working as a tyre fitter. I gave him my last motorbike at the end of my 2016 travels, when the maintenance required became impossible for my short-stay visits. And perhaps my enjoyment of South Africa was on the wane with its constant conflict with my social and moral ideals…
The little red BMW 650, on which I rode so many miles about southern Africa, sprang a leak in the oil system back in 2016. The bike uses the frame as an oil tank and a crack developed in the top of the frame. Steven bought a new frame and his daughter, Juvan’s, boyfriend rebuild the bike. They took it for its government test – to discover that the frame Steven had bought (for £250) had been registered as stolen! Fortunately, Steven knows the tester and wasn’t prosecuted for receiving stolen goods, but the frame had to subsequently ‘disappear’. They’ve put back the original frame and come up with a clever refit, using an oil tank from a quad bike with a similar engine. But these things take time, and Juvan’s boyfriend has other priorities. That’s why I can’t ride the bike to Lesotho, Steven says regretfully.
So The Box will have to do!