EAST & SOUTH AFRICA 2020 – TEN

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Lesotho. A magnificent land!

STOP PRESS! Jonathan is on his way home. With the current situation with the flu virus pandemic, it seems to me that the tail of the politicians’ is now being wagged by the dog of the media and governments are reacting chaotically. Things change hour by hour. South Africa is changing transport options hourly. I do not want to get stuck in South Africa with hotels and restaurants closed and transport cancelled. I could have managed in Kenya with my African family and Mosquito, but to be marooned here with many restrictions isn’t a pleasant option. I have bought an eye-wateringly expensive ticket home at short notice…

Back to the journal…

DAY 75. WEDNESDAY MARCH 11th 2020. BLOEMFONTEIN. FREE STATE. SOUTH AFRICA

A day in Bloemfontein reinforces the impression of a country with an economy on its last legs. It’s good for my budget that the Rand has dwindled away to over 20 to the pound – in days gone by it was about 14 or 15. A walk through the city centre shows plenty of evidence that things are bad. Every public fountain and pool is a turgid puddle filled with floating plastic bottles and packaging; a hundred empty office blocks are tired and shuttered, their lower windows plastered with posters for cheap abortions and penis enlargement; many traffic lights don’t work; the water supply goes off for days at a time – it’s been off these past two days, we flush the lavatories from the fortunately underused swimming pool. There’s rubbish and potholes, I’m the sole customer in a coffee house in the centre of the big, plush shopping centre, where most appear to be window shopping as sales staff stand about chatting. A coffee and snack (oh, I’d forgotten that I am in Afrikaner Land and portions match girth!) at £5 is more than most can afford.

The past government, Zuma’s, and doubtless the present one is no better, robbed the country bare, stole any money there was. Steven tells me that the water authority used to be first rate. They built systems and then leased them back to themselves, prompting a regular income and spare cash for repairs. Says Steven, “Then the new managers arrived and saw there was money in the bank! They bought cars and gave themselves raises. Now there’s no money left and the system is getting old. This current stoppage is caused because the pumps are old.” Of course, pumps only work when there’s power, and most of South Africa is now ‘power sharing’ – periods when the power is switched from area to area to share what’s still available. All this impacts on business and trade. It’s a downward spiral. A mess, in a word. Much of it from the greed and lack of control of the people at the top, filtering money away to their own pockets. The African problem. Lack of accountability from a largely uneducated and often coerced electorate. Sadly, gone are the exciting days of Mandela’s truth and honesty, his integrity and respect. We’re back to corrupt officials fleecing everyone for what they can get personally, not public service in the image of their great hero.

My walk through the crumbling, faded city centre wasn’t helped by rain. Gutters blocked by rubbish, puddles in the potholes, stains on concrete. Tonight the heaviest rain is coursing down noisily on the roof of Isabel’s bungalow out here on a northern hill. We are in a white Afrikaans estate of large homes in tree-filled gardens and driveways full of large bakkies and SUVs. No one’s about on the streets. It’s a South African life enclosed behind high walls and electric gates. How I miss places like Sipi! Where the village people wander the narrow mud lanes to look at and greet the mzungu. Where we can wander the shambas and chat to people, be invited for chai, investigate life and gossip readily. There’s none of that in white South Africa, with its fences and gates, security and surveillance.

The morning I spent at Isabel’s business, where Steven told me it was his honour to make me a new belt! It appears to be a thriving business and Steven is so happy, working between helping to manage the business, creating leather goods with considerable skill, and making his own engineering shop at the back of the property, where he has made his own computer-controlled cutter and is inventing a chipper for foam rubber, based on an old lawnmower, to use and sell the scraps for upholstery and manufacture. He’s a good engineer, with knowledge of electronics from his work in telecommunications, and of heavier invention from his love of machines. He’s in his element and the relationship with Isabel – both of them have a girl and boy, growing through teens to young adults – is warm and affectionate. I’m happy to see such a kind man content. His pleasure at my visit is fulsome. Like most Afrikaners, their horizons are somewhat limited by circumstances and the insularity of a minority amidst a huge majority. He’s worked in neighbouring countries, but he wants stories of my wider travels. Going back, remembering people, keeping in touch every now and again, is so important in life. I’ve discovered on my African travels just how much respect is shown by going back. I’ve been lucky to meet such kind, warm people on my journeys. Most days now I field a short text message from young Alex, back in Sipi.

Gdmorning jb. Lovely day in j’berg. Nice to know how your doing and because we love you. Yours alex.

Greetings from home. Gdnite and take gd care of yourself

Hi jb, hope your enjoying your stay in south. Am happy texting you. Love to you and enjoy urself sir jb:-)

Good afternoon, jb, are you okay? You make me believe that I can fulfil my dreams. P asked me to greet you. Loving family of sipi.’

This has been a journey of consolidating friendships. Not a bad alternative caused by a game of rounders on a beach and the subsequent incapacity!

My rondavel  at Roma

DAY 76. THURSDAY MARCH 12th 2020. ROMA, LESOTHO

What a pleasure it is to write ‘Lesotho’ at the top of my entry tonight. I am SO content to be here again. I just poured my first Maluti beer in four years: ‘barley malt, maize, hops and crisp pure water from the Maluti Mountains’. And you can bet, up here, that it is crisp and pure too. It’s such a delight to be back. It’s the antithesis of South Africa with its friendly smiles, sense of equality and cheeriness. Within moments of crossing the border – a simple formality in which no one even asked for papers for The Box, despite paying an extra £35 for that sheet of paper – my face had relaxed into a gentle smile. I can’t help it here. Children waved from the back window of a school bus, even to me in my box. On a motorbike this is one of the friendliest countries on the continent – rivalled by Uganda. These people are good looking, with their oval heads and light brown skin tones. A smile is their default and welcome the normal expression. Smartly dressed schoolchildren walked home in gaggles by the roadside. Within miles I was spotting herdsmen wrapped in colourful blankets, with their long woolly hats and white Wellies – the national costume. There’s a very strongly individual culture here in little Lesotho and it’s a scenically magnificent land, high, clear skies, few trees but that sensation of altitude and the clear, almost tangible light that goes with the soaring heights beneath a sparkling sky.

Mind you, I am writing more from memory than fact, when I talk of the blue brilliance, for today is heavily overcast and sadly grey. Autumn is approaching and these mountains experience deep snow in July. The South Africans – the few who deign to visit – come skiing here and have built what I think is the only ski resort in Africa. I might pass that way later in the week. I wonder if I will be remembered? Of course, I am now disguised as a mundane car driver…

I’ve spent many days and nights in Roma. It’s the university town of Lesotho, a small place, really not much bigger than a village. The Catholics brought their churches here, I suppose early last century, and the schools and university followed. It’s now the centre of intellectual culture within the small country. I have walked the region and ridden all the roads. I always stay at the Trading Post, a very long established place. It was originally developed by an English settler family, the Thorns, as just that: a trading post. It was also a farm and developed a guest house on the property, with simple rondavels and some smarter rooms in the old house. There’s still a supermarket and trading centre, machine shops and trades. The guest house operation has been leased out since I was last here, but that appears to be causing some renovation as well as something of a price rise. The rondavel that for a while became ‘nthate Jonathan’s’ (nthate means uncle or daddy) is now £24, so I’ve happily taken a charming rondavel called a ‘backpackers’ room’ – exactly the same but with the bathroom 30 yards away. Who needs to pay an extra £10 to be able to pee next door? I can pee outside after dark! Not a bad £10 economic strategy! Haha.

Every day in Harberton I am reminded of Roma, Lesotho. Ntsilane is one of the staff here. Her portrait appears three times on my walls, including a fine laughing portrait that is one of the first things I see at the end of my bed when I wake. I’ve partly come back to see Ntsilane. When I asked a new member of staff as I checked in, “Is Ntsilane here?” he gave a whoop of delight and literally ran down the corridor to the kitchen, where fat Ntsilane was preparing food. Soon all the staff were laughing as Ntsilane gave me a hug like a large mattress. “Oh, we have heard so much about Daddy Jonathan!” exclaimed the receptionist. You see? Fun to go back in Africa! Ntsilane is a large woman, round and well padded, quite young I think – no more than early 30s, with the best smile I know. Despite her bulk, she is dainty and light-footed. Infrequently I receive a brief email from Ntsilane. Last year, when this business went through the upheaval of new owners, she lost her job for a while. I’m glad they had the wisdom to reemploy this delightful woman. She told me in one email that her daddy had died. Asking her this evening, it seems he was a mere 55, but had worked in the South African gold mines, as do so many Basotho. “Eh, he was sick!” she exclaimed, doubtless describing the respiratory disorders from which so very many miners die in these countries. Probably with little or no compensation, working for mining companies probably owned by European conglomerates. (I haven’t checked that fact, but I reckon it’s probably the case…).

Steven wanted me to visit a small museum in Bloemfontein before I left town. It’s the house of a British settler, an architect, from the late 19th century. To me it was just an old late Victorian house dressed with many items I recognised. I mean, I’ve dressed just such historic houses during my career! Still, it was fun to be shown round by Shani, half English, half Afrikaans. She had such enthusiasm for the house and her job as guide, that she must bring it alive for many of her visitors (of whom I don’t think there are many). Steven and Isabel had done the tour a few weeks ago, and he had told her extravagant stories of his famous friend who designs museums all over the world! I came with a pretty powerful pedigree. However, the fame was actually borne out once again, when it turned out that Shani had strong, impressed memories of visiting the Jorvik Viking Centre way back in the mid 80s. Funny, forty years on, it still impresses people to meet the set designer of the original Viking Centre in far away York. It’s worked so frequently in America too. A one-stop CV for all these years.

It was 2.30 before I reached the border at Van Rooyens Gate. An effortless crossing, with no one showing much interest in the bureaucracy, more intrigued to hear that I was a returning visitor with so many memorable impressions of their country. I was soon in Lesotho. Smiling Lesotho. One thing I am enjoying about The Box is that I can pick people up and give them lifts. A couple of young men thumbed a ride to Mafeteng, the first town. They spoke little English, just enough to tell me they wanted to go to town but had no money for a fare. “God bless you, Daddy!” was a heartfelt greeting as they parted to go about whatever they had come to town for. Looking for girls, I imagine.

So back to Roma. Tomorrow I think I’ll leave The Box parked up and take to my feet to meet the Basotho folk in town and the villages around. That, after all, is the fun of this little country: warm, curious inhabitants who love to share their lovely land.

It’s just started to pour with rain again as I settle down to sleep. Somehow, rain on my thatched rondavel is comforting, more so than in a bungalow in Bloemfontein with a steel roof. And thanks to The Box, no prospect of drying wet boots, gloves and waterproofs. I’m trying to see the positive.

Homes in the Roma arena

DAY 77. FRIDAY MARCH 13th 2020. ROMA, LESOTHO

Four years. What a difference. An interesting day… Many of the reasons wrong ones.

Tonight I am exhausted from six hours’ walking in the Roma valley. I sauntered many miles, at least eight, I guess. And I didn’t sit down and rest once. I have to push this bloody ankle and try to rebuild the calf muscles in my right leg. Rough walking seems to be the best medicine, and reduces the swelling better than rest. I walked to town, a mile away, because I had no local money, although the Rand and the Loti are interchangeable and linked in value. Then I headed out into the arena of the Roma valley on dirt tracks amongst green fields of maize and vegetables and small homes and the bungalows of the upwardly mobile – probably those who have jobs in Maseru or the South African mines. Four years ago I took similar walks amongst the rural areas.

Four years is all it’s taken. I’ve just been rereading my enthusiasm and delight at walking in those villages in 2016: the calling children, the greeting matrons, the schoolteachers who welcomed me to a small village school where the children rushed about in excitement to have a foreign visitor, the children who ran to hold my hand as I walked, youths and herdsmen giving me happy “Dumella!”, the Sesotho greeting, the old man who raised his hat, the respect from youngsters. I came away with countless cheerful, smiling portraits, everyone happy to pose for me.

It’s gone! The excitement, the calling children, the happy greetings, the wonder of Lesotho. It’s died in four short years. If I measure in smiling portraits, I took one today, a pretty schoolgirl. I had to persuade her not to make silly faces and gestures – the sort everyone now makes for their ubiquitous selfies.

Mapaseka

I’ve come to trust my instincts pretty well after all these years and years of travelling. They’re well honed to atmosphere and the reactions of people I meet. On occasions it’s been a safety net, but it’s also become a measure of places I visit. For a few hours I began to doubt my instinct. Perhaps it was me? Had I expected too much? Had I held onto a romanticised memory of my visits to Lesotho, imbued them with a sort of magical glow? But the further I walked, the more I realised that people just weren’t showing much interest. Now I was making all the eye contact, the first greetings. And in reply I was getting a disinterested wriggle of a hand, a thumb up from children, a response of, “Hi…”

And children were responding with that vague, “Hi…” and sometimes laughing behind my back. Where was the legendary Basotho respect for elders? Where was the fascination? A few herders waved back with a shy smile of welcome, some older men reacted with sincere respect, some elderly ladies were polite and smiling. But youth and children..? The university students, who four short years ago showed interest, respectfully discussed their ideas for the future with me in a bar opposite the university gates? Made me comfortable with the only chair with four active legs. Now they just looked past me, or at their phones. It just wasn’t the Lesotho I have idealised for so many years – since my first revelation in 2002. A few children were actively rude, others insolent and disrespectful. A few even asked for money. This was not my fond memory of this perfect little kingdom.

The Roma valley

But why should I be surprised? I saw exactly this degradation in Ghana, the country in Africa I came to know best. It took less than a generation to lose all that I valued on my early visits: social warmth, mutual support, honesty, respect and generosity. As soon as electric power came, the first purchase was not a fridge or light, but TV. It overwhelmed households without the experience or media sophistication to question the fiction. What they saw must be reality. Soon everyone was hooked on the tawdry, lowbrow, populist, vulgarity of cheap soaps from around the world – and most countries make this exploitative crap. Or the inconsequential glitz and glamour and lewd international scandals of self made celebrities. Untruthfully named ‘Reality’ TV… 24 hour ‘news’. Then came phones. The internet. Finally, so called social media. Suddenly, youth knew more than the wisdom of their elders. Google became more valuable than long lived, hard won experience. Generally poorly educated youth had all the knowledge but none of the context or accumulation of skills and social interaction, none of the tact and sensitivity gained by time or deeper education. And with the flood of information came materialist ambition. After all, the media was just there to cynically disseminate desire and expose those without to all the ‘stuff’ they were missing. A godsend to capitalists: creating expensive tastes and ambitions. There was the ‘generosity’ of CNN, who ‘broadcast free as a service to the nation’ in Ghana. So they could sell people stuff they didn’t need for money they didn’t have. And it worked! Many Ghanaians began to judge people by what they had, or hadn’t, not what they were. People became acquisitive, greedier, counted the cost, kept things for themselves, retrenched to nuclear families and weakened the ties of the old extended families. Lost the old ways. They’d become old fashioned and valueless. Crime soared and we had to lock our doors. Communities split up as people became more mobile. Strangers lived around our compound. Shame, for centuries a harsh deterrent, was weakened. Why be ashamed when even your neighbours don’t know you, and mean little to you?

Even the meanest thatched rondavel out in the villages here in the Roma valley has its white satellite dish beaming in cheap TV from South Africa and the greedy world. Then there’s the stuff on their phone screens day and night. Lesotho hasn’t a chance.

In 2016, I wrote this, when walking with charming Thato, who had attached herself to me to show me her home:

We visited the primary school that she attended in a 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.’

I happened to find myself in the same small, poor village this morning. One room of the school has collapsed. I turned down the track to visit again. A number of small children crowded to the wire fence to watch me, shyly smiling. A teacher stood in the first doorway, thumbs scrolling her phone. She looked up briefly, and ignored me. Carried on with her phone. This is not Lesotho. The children were diverted just then by two elderly ladies bringing buckets containing their lunchtime porridge. At last, I had to direct a question right at the teacher to get her attention. Somewhat reluctantly, she palmed her device and came to talk, briefly. There are now only 50 pupils in primary one to three, three teachers, and the government ‘has promised’ help for the ruined room. I could tell she didn’t really want to engage with me.

I was thinking, as I walked, that I mustn’t judge on one day’s wanderings in a specific valley – in the vicinity of a popular guest house. I should hold my opinion until I have given it further testing this week. Then I met Motena…

Approaching the Trading Post guest house a boy rudely demanded money. I turned and blasted him angrily for his lack of respect and manners.

A group of women were passing nearby. One of them called to enquire what was the trouble? I apologised and told her this was an act I put on, a show of anger, in the hope that it might save other visitors from the same treatment.

“I’m sorry! We’ll deal with it. We will deal with it… Where are you from?”

And I found that Motena runs a community project nearby. Her mother was ambassador to USA and a representative of her country in London. Motena has lived in USA for twenty years, is educated and aware, and committed to her community. “I needed to come back to my country,” she explained. “I felt I needed to come home. I lived in a high rise, on the 37th floor! I didn’t even know my neighbours, just “Hi!” Not even, ‘Hi, how are you’, or ‘Hi, how can I make your day better?’ So I came home. I was pulled into this project, helping children and young people, providing support for child-headed families, a homework place, a safe place for young people here in the valley. I was sucked in deeper and deeper.” She spoke with conviction and warmth. Then her voice changed and she said, “Now I just want to leave…”

Motena was fascinated by my story of my day, and my growing disillusion from my earlier love of the valley. “Just now, twenty minutes ago, a young man came in to the centre,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “He was completely drunk. He started removing his shirt and misbehaving. This boy was one we sponsored and schooled. And he came back like this! Making an example to the younger children. Shameless! We gave that boy a future and he just came back like that. What will he get from it? I will have to ban him from the project for a year. No, I just want to leave now. But my colleagues and the sponsors – we get money from Rotary International in USA and others – they want me to stay. One day I will just have to walk out. I want to go to my house in Leribe (in the north of Lesotho) and be calm. I don’t think you are wrong in your instincts. My country has changed. I think it’s the exposure to social media…” And, of course, social media is virtually unregulated and exposes these previously rather innocent children to ideas that are utterly alien to the Basotho culture. Or were.

“One local problem we have is when the Roof of Africa rally comes to Roma.” The Roof of Africa is a big off road motorbike competition, based here in the valley. It brings many South African riders and their entourages. It’s big business. And the riders aren’t very interested in Basotho people, the landscape or culture. They’ve come for the competition and thrill. “When they leave, they just give stuff away to local people. Expensive boots, equipment they don’t want to carry home. Money too. To them it’s not much, but it creates a sense that visitors are just to be seen to bring money. We teach the children not to ask, to respect our visitors, but…”

Motena’s phone rang. She apologised and answered. It was her friends, with whom she had been walking when we met. “Oh, my friends are asking where I am! I must continue. I hope you’ll come and visit the project tomorrow? I’d like to talk more. You know, I dread going to work now. This morning at 8.30 I was still in my bed! I start work at nine… I want to leave…” She smiled wryly, a bit angry and upset. “I felt I needed to come home. Now I am tired and I wonder what I am doing here. Sorry, I must go!”

How sad. This intelligent, driven woman disillusioned so deeply by the uncontrolled behaviour she now sees around her. Conduct that even I can see has changed. In four years.

Motena hurried away to meet her friends. I hobbled on, stopping wasn’t helpful to my joints after eight or nine miles of rocky paths and high sunshine.

In the next hundred yards three boys asked me for money. That’s not the Lesotho I knew four years ago. They’d have wanted to shake my hand.

Another big storm flashes and pours as I get ready to sleep. Thunder drums stereophonically about the mountain arena amongst the steep rock faces. I don’t mind rain at night. It’s atmospheric as it hisses on the thatch. I do like to sleep in round thatched rondavels.

Perhaps tomorrow, away from the environs of the guest house, I’ll find the Lesotho I loved. If it’s still there…

Walking above Roma

DAY 78. SATURDAY MARCH 14th 2020. ROMA, LESOTHO

Drunk driving in boom-box cars seems to be the Saturday evening entertainment in Roma. Walking back from town earlier this evening I saw appallingly unsafe driving on the narrow road with its broken edges. As I write noise pounds from a car on the dirt road outside, not even the tar road below the guest house. The beer bars in town were crowded and noisy. It looked like a good night to stay home with a couple of cans of milk stout.

I’ve always maintained that one of the reasons I keep travelling is that I love not to know what tomorrow will bring. Today brought a lunch invitation from Motena and her close friend, Jenny, an eccentric white South African-born woman about my age, who escaped to Lesotho in the evil days of apartheid as persona non grata from the regime, against which she was fighting. She came in 1975 and stayed. She’s still got various family in South Africa but her allegiance is obviously to Lesotho, where she runs a kindergarten in Roma and has many adopted family members. Small, bustling, white haired with various piercings and some small tattoos, lots of bangles and a professed ‘sensitivity’ and witch doctor sympathies. “I was born with depression! I’m on all sorts of drugs. I’ve ADHD as well!” she declares brightly.

Motena said, as we sat in the compound of her community house, children playing around us noisily on seesaws, a slide and climbing frames, “I want you to meet Jenny! She’s my closest friend.” She pulled out her phone and dialled. “Where are you? What are you doing? I want you to come here. I want you to meet an Englishman. He’s called Jonathan. It’s no good telling you. You won’t believe it! You have to come yourself!” In minutes, Jenny appeared. “I was asleep late and I thought I’d go back to sleep. But my senses told me something was going to happen! So I got up, and then you rang me! You see,” she turned to me, “I have this ability. It’s nothing religious, it’s just there.”

Jenny, with her depression drugs and attention deficit disorder is never still or quiet. If opposites attract, that’s why she and Motena are such bosom friends. With Jenny’s arrival, Motena went quiet, as if she just couldn’t compete – which she probably couldn’t! But Jenny’s animation was good willed, if a little didactic. I’ve met others like this, eccentric expatriates who have difficulty fitting in any conventional society, but thrive where they aren’t judged by the standards of their own culture. In a foreign culture those eccentricities just become who they are, frequently exaggerated, a bit larger than life. She comes of well-heeled South African stock, originating from Latvian/ Estonians Jews, but rejected most of their values early on, rebelled politically and socially – and appears to live happily in her own world here in Lesotho, with informally adopted children and her somewhat opinionated ways. Her school takes 37 pupils. “Eighteen of them I charge for – their parents have jobs in Maseru or South Africa, they can afford it. The rest I pick from the streets. For them it’s free.”

“Well, shall we ‘Motiffer’?” It’s her word for ‘chilling’ with her friend Motena. “I want to eat meat! Jonathan, we invite you, if you’d care to come with us?” So we piled in to her ancient bakkie and drove (me reclining on a mattress and spare wheel in the back compartment) bruisingly to a smart restaurant ten miles away for a large lunch.

We bounded back to Roma, dropped Motena at home to rest and had a hectic tour of the university campus and forceful description of the town, before she delivered me home. I was bit breathless by now and needed a long rugged walk in peace! I hiked to the top of the cliffs that hang above the town and sat for a while on a rock gazing over the Lesotho landscape, rolling green valleys before me, in which I could espy people everywhere when I studied the apparently empty view. It’s a feature of the Lesotho landscape that it hides herdsmen, horsemen, women and children walking endless miles to and from their homes, standing silently, wrapped in a blanket watching their wealth – a few cattle. All day long herdsmen and boys stand and stare into the unchanging views of mountain faces, meadows and huge blue skies. Watch for long enough, and what seemed to be a dead tree moves. It’s a herdsman in blanket, dangling balaclava and wellies. The dull notes of bells hung around the necks of woolly sheep filled the landscape, reverberating into the cleanest air that I know anywhere in the world.

At last I drew myself away from the wonders of the Lesotho mountain landscape, stumbled back down the stony tracks to the town, now filled with the beat of loud music from bars around the university gates, bought some cans of stout and a disgusting red sausage and forced myself the last mile home. From three months of enforced sedentary life, I am determined to recoup the muscles in my calf, but my hips now suffer from all the unaccustomed exercise. I won’t let it beat me!

The Box at altitude

DAY 79. SUNDAY MARCH 15th 2020. THABA TSEKA, LESOTHO

Today Lesotho absolved itself to a fair extent. I’m now high in the centre of the small country. I never stopped in Thaba Tseka before. I always rode through on my motorbike; it’s not a particularly attractive town, sprawled across a wide valley, backed by distant mountains. It’s high though, but then so’s pretty much everywhere in Lesotho; the lowest point being 1400 metres – over 4500 feet. Someone said they’d tarred the road to Mohotlong now. They haven’t! So I’ll probably have to return by the mountainous road to the lowlands. I remember riding the A3 from here to Mohotlong a few years ago. It was an appalling rocky track. I remember wondering how the heck a minibus had made it, and took photos of the extreme conditions of that track, that in places taxed even me on my motorbike. Certainly it’s nowhere I can take something called a Ford Figo, a rental one at that. The other road out of town isn’t much better, 40 miles of dirt and dust that I rode on my last visit, corrugated and now almost certainly damaged by the rains – and then another 30 miles to a place to stay, an affordable place that is. It seems to me that the government has set new targets for accommodation prices. Prices of rooms have risen sky high. I tried all the guest houses in this pretty remote town, and all wanted £25 or more, my ‘Africa budget’ being £15. I was about to give in when I visited the Sisters of Charity guest house. I knew I might have to hold in check my religious position, and then found even they too wanted £25. A bit of charm on a sister of charity produced just that – some charity! The convent guest house was closed anyway for renovation, but she pointed down the hill to the hospital. “There’s a place behind the hospital! The nursing school. I think they charge 130 Maloti.”

“Do I have to stay with the nurses, then?” I joked. She was a broadminded sister – I guess most African sisters have to be. She chuckled and pointed down the hill to a gate by the hospital. “Just ask the guard, he’ll tell you where to go!”

I pulled up in the hospital grounds by the nursing school. A couple of young men greeted me with big Basotho smiles, found the matron for me, and I was soon the holder of keys to a basic room for the grand price of £6.50. It’s absolutely fine! Two beds, an electric heater, kettle and coffee and a bathroom just next door. A nasty purple carpet and yellow walls is the only complaint I have.

Thuso and John were my two guides. Nursing students, they are training to be auxiliary nurses. If opposite attract, as I wondered yesterday about Motena and Jenny, then it’s the same for these two young men. Thuso is 21, utterly feckless, vain, but a charmer. He proudly breaks any rules he can, smokes dope, drinks, loves dancing and has probably tried to bed half the girls in the school – so far evading the ire of the nuns in charge. I’d think it’s a matter of time… Then there’s John, more stable, more mature at 24 and also charming, but with a steady take on life. They piled into The Box to show me where I could eat later, and I bought them both a beer in a rough local bar. They insisted that I sit on a beer crate, ‘to be local’. No problem for this old nthate. Fortunately they must be in the nursing school compound by 7.00, or it’s the wrath of nuns, so I was spared their honest, ebullient company for the evening, although they both showed up at my table in the hotel restaurant that they’d shown me to check that I was looked after. So, yes, thanks to Thuso and John – two youngsters willing to engage with an old nthate, I’ve recovered some of the Lesotho I admired so much, them and many more waving children, although the youth still react rather haughtily, just about allowing an unconcerned, “Hi…” as they fiddle with their phones.

Thuso

But, oh, I miss my motorbike up here! This is one of the world’s most magnificent landscapes and the road I drove today is a feat of engineering, clambering in spaghetti twists and whirls well over 10,000 feet. It’s the most invigorating bike ride, leaning and swooping, shifting my weight from side to side, dancing on the tarmac in a sort of ballet of weight and space. It’s exciting, lively, immediate, the sense of risk – on these barrier-less heights above dramatic drops – adding thrill and danger, but controlled by skill and experience. It’s such fun! Maybe the best riding thrills there are. I’m part of the wondrous landscape, chilled by the extreme altitude and speed, dodging donkeys, dreadlocked sheep and nimble horses. The sun beats down. The hills are denuded of trees far up here, just the highest moorland, baked beneath the big blue sky. Low scrub interspersed with bright flowers that glow beneath the bright sky. A wonderful sense of freedom and space. A top of the world sensation. The air clear, the vistas unimaginably huge, the landscape curvaceous and immense. The sky filled with drifting snow white clouds against the deepest blue of high altitudes. It’s just wonderful. Utterly spectacular, a superlative I try to limit, but one of the few that does justice to this soaring landscape.

Lesotho, a high land

When I first discovered Lesotho, many of these roads were even more adventurous – gravel and stones, sweeping across enormous mountainscapes, sometimes teetering on the very ridges above vast curving valleys of moorland vegetation. It was more enlivening than sitting in a Ford Figo Box. Even with the windows open and the chill breeze rushing through the boring Box, the temperature reducing by eight degrees from lowland to summits. I can’t conjure the thrill of those rides – the first of which I took 18 years ago on my African Elephant, of which I have specially fond memories.

Adolfina

My rotund favourite, subject if three photos on my wall at home, Ntsilane, has a junior sister, Adolfina. She too is built like a large pillow and shares a wide, happy smile with her sister. Cheerfully, she submitted to a laughing photo before I drove away mid morning. Then it was a slow climb to the heights, often driving at 25mph on empty roads, curling higher and higher over the passes and into the treeless altitudes. I eventually arrived at Thaba Tseka about 3.30 and drove the first couple of kilometres of the road to Mohotlong before accepting that it had not been tarred, as have so may fine roads in this semi-vertical kingdom. Maybe it was as bad as it was when I couldn’t believe that I was riding the A3 of Lesotho. I saw that in The Box I hadn’t the freedom that I have on my motorbikes, turned around and began my search for lodgings, it now being too late to start down the serpentine highway again.

Great roads! But better on a motorbike!

After three quarters of a litre of stout, I abandoned The Box in the hospital grounds and walked to the restaurant of the hotel that had asked £30 for pretty much what I have here in the nursing school. Maybe the bedcover doesn’t have ‘Parray School of Nursing’ scrawled across it in felt pen. I just returned in pitch blackness under a deeply black sky with an array of stars such as we seldom witness in more developed places. It’s silent and infinite, the stars still ‘upside down’ to my northern sensibilities, down here in the southern hemisphere.

It’s great to be here. Great to be ‘on the road’. Great to be in Lesotho, even if some of its social mores have changed. Said Annah, receptionist at the Roma guest house this morning, when I commented on the changes I was sensing, “You see, if the head is sick, the body will certainly be ill. If the government doesn’t look after us, we become angry. I think that’s what you are seeing. People are unhappy…” Which, of course, brings me to mention the big scandal that has even brought Lesotho to the international news this year – the accusation against the prime minister and his second wife of the murder of the first wife! He has been claiming diplomatic immunity and causing huge unrest in this rather peaceful little kingdom. Not surprisingly, few Africans, of any country, have much faith in or respect for their leading politicians.

But why do I single out ‘Africans’?

Roads on ridges

DAY 80. MONDAY MARCH 16th 2020. QUTING, LESOTHO

I drove too far today, got tired and grumpy. Trouble is, there aren’t many places to stay in Lesotho. For some reason, no rural people seem to have taken the initiative to open any B&Bs – just not in the culture, I suppose. It meant I had to drive about 100 miles more than I like, and now am being ripped off in a sub-standard overpriced hotel with pretensions. I’m paying £25, having beaten the owner down from £32.50, for a small room in which there’s not even room to walk around the bed (with multiple stupid pillows!). I had to apologise to the manager for my mood just now.

But what a magnificent drive. Happily, the loops and swirls of the extraordinary landscape look completely different in the other direction, for my first 100 miles were those I covered yesterday. I’ve ridden all the roads before, but no amount of preparation can weaken the wonder of those treeless heights and the plunging valleys. Dodging flocks of curly sheep, dogged plodding donkeys, horses and meandering cows, and the rocks that have rolled down the steep hillsides onto the road needs concentration, but I drive slowly to enjoy the ride.

I drove 250 miles today, coiling and twisting up and down these most impressive roads, a low yellow shrub cloaking green mountainsides, bright against the orangey brown sandstone ridges. Here and there in lower valleys, fields of cosmos blew pink, white and maroon amidst the bright greens, beneath the endless clear skies.

Cosmos is supposed to have been introduced from Ireland in horse fodder and subsequent shit!

My plan was to come down the mountains and turn right to visit Teyateyaneng – conveniently called TY by even Basotho people. It’s from there that I have bought my several colourful mats, a distinctive craft of this country. But it meant driving right through Maseru, the small but busy capital, and on north on some tedious roads.

Gathering clouds

Then I saw that a huge storm was building in that direction, and thought to myself, ‘honestly, where can you reasonably put ANOTHER Basotho mat in tiny Rock Cottage?’ and turned left instead to drive right over the centre of Lesotho via Semonkong to the south east corner of the country. Sadly, the storm soon overwhelmed most of Lesotho and I was eventually driving in thick cloud and pouring rain.

For once, The Box felt quite welcome. I was high in the mountains in torrential rain, thick in the grey chilly clouds. The temperature dropped to 9 degrees at one point, reminding me that for all its sunny splendour Lesotho is a harsh place, one of the few places in Africa that experiences heavy snow in July. The amazing landscape is still impressive, even in scudding cloud and lashing rain. The play of light amongst the varied densities of a million swirling and dashing clouds; the shafts of light that penetrate and spotlight patches of intense green; the wind that turns grasslands into oceans of rippling waves; the flash of puddles and the fast flowing brown of rivers – it’s a visual feast, even in rain. This evening I have taken some of my best landscape photographs.

It was after sunset by the time I reached Quting. I knew from other trips that there were hotels here, but the first two were full, with conferences, and the third, that I found after dark – an activity I hate when travelling – was expensive and argumentative. But by then they had advantage of me, as I could go no further. On principle I bargained and won a concession of £7.50!

And I may need those concessions! It looks as if my 2020 journey has just been extended by an unknown amount. I’ve refrained from any comment of the hysteria and madness that is currently gripping the world about a dose of flu. It seems to me that the excitement is fuelled entirely by social media and the press (it’s selling vast amounts of advertising…) rather than rational planning. Yes, it’s a pandemic, but I am told over 11,000 people regularly die in South Africa of ordinary flu every year, and as for TB, AIDS, malaria – well, they’re all contagious one way and another, but we don’t close down the world. Even the good old Guardian had a headline one day recently that ‘Coronavirus cases surge in UK’. Read further and they’d gone from 66 to 110 in a population of 65 million. ‘Surge’. The same day the first Briton died, causing huge thrills for the media. Read on, and you found that the doctor treating her said, ‘she had been in and out of hospital with underlying health issues’. In other words, she’d probably have died quite soon of pneumonia or a urine infection… Ten Britons have died so far, I find today, all of them had ‘underlying health conditions’.

Rico has been monitoring the African news and keeping me up to date when I get an email connection. He tells me tonight that South Africa just closed all its borders with immediate effect. Whether that includes Lesotho, I will find out tomorrow. And Kenya Airways has stopped all flights to Europe and to countries with any virus cases. Since South Africa has its first few, that means I may not even get back to Kenya, let alone Europe! I am trapped. How long for, and how it will be resolved I have no idea at all. And no information. I’ll try to get to South Africa, only 10 miles away now, tomorrow morning and work from that. What I do until perspective prevails, remains to be seen, since public transport is also heavily reduced. Airlines are in difficulties and economies plunging all around the world. If it does nothing else, the flu proves how flimsy and vulnerable are the foundations of our world capitalist economy!

I’ve made the decision not to listen to the hype and hysteria but see what happens.

So my immediate future is unknown. Just as well I am so adaptable. How I spend a month, or whatever the time may be, and where, remains to be seen. It doesn’t look as though it’ll be at home however.

DAY 81. TUESDAY MARCH 17th 2020. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

One hurdle is jumped: I managed to exit Lesotho through what I think may have been the only open border post at Van Rooyens Gate, where I entered a few days ago. No one took much notice, and apart from having my temperature taken, I was through in ten brief minutes. I drove on, back to Wepener, and stopped for coffee and a look at my book of maps to decide on the next destination. I decided to head south west into the Karoo Desert area, one of my favourite bits of the country.

Two kilometres down the road, I stopped, thought for some minutes and turned about, rang Steven and headed back to Bloem. It seemed sensible to try to get information, even maybe to drive to the airport and ascertain, if I could, just what’s going on. In fact, I am little more informed, but Isabel has put a travel agent onto my case for me. My goal is to get the next hurdle out of the way as soon as I can, if it’s possible. Rumours and stories are rife, and ‘social media’ having a field day with falsity and hysteria.

The border near Quting was already closed, I found over breakfast. I’d have to drive to Mafiteng, 60 miles away. Van Rooyens, they said, was still operating. South Africa has closed 34 land border posts between all the neighbouring countries. My flights to Nairobi and on to Amsterdam both left yesterday and today. But for how long will South Africa let people out of the country?

But what so I do now? That is the big question… Normally so resourceful, I am utterly without ideas of which way to move.

There’s heavy rain again tonight. It doesn’t do much for the idea of being trapped in this country for weeks – with hotels apparently closing and travel restrictions increasing. I have to make decisions but there’s precious little information available…

I’ve discovered one advantage of The Box. I can dry my washing on the headrests with the windows open to the breeze!

DAY 82. WEDNESDAY MARCH 18th 2020. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

It’s been an anxious day. What to do? Hysteria reigns in the international media and I am stuck in South Africa, a country going into winter, which will fuel the rapacious flu virus, causing, I suspect, ever increasing restrictions on travel. There’s no advice available for tourist in this situation, except the panic advice ‘get home NOW!’ In the end I may have joined the It’s quite possible they’ll soon prevent any travel even out of ZA, they closed 34 land borders, so I guess if I have to be trapped anywhere, it may as well be Rock Cottage! At least I can self isolate on my bike a bit. I fear I will be made to do that – being also over 70 and an incoming traveller…

So tomorrow I will drive the car to Johannesburg and leave it there instead of Bloemfontein airport on Monday. Pick up my boots from a hotel near the airport and hopefully fly out tomorrow night, unless things change again!

So, it’s a mad world. Admittedly the fears here are also fuelled by the fact that the southern hemisphere is going into winter and cooler weather, which will help the bug. More than that though is the appalling statistics on HIV/AIDS here – no one really knows, but 20% is a low estimate. And the flu will affect them unequally.

The perception around me is either, “It’s crazy, out of all proportion. It’s flu!” or “This corona, Eh, it’s killing us!” In about equal proportions. The latter from people who’ve only read the headlines (amongst whom we have to include trump, johnson and many other populist leaders controlled by social media). The young woman immigration officer at Lesotho border won’t die. She may get ill for a few days, as we do with flu, but she won’t die. But it’s on everyone’s phone 86,400 seconds a day, hysterically screaming out of context sound bites, to people who don’t rationalise the situation or read beyond the headline. I don’t want to get flu, but I’m not likely to die if I do.

Schools have been closed in South Africa, which so far has about 100 people with flu – so all the children congregate in the shopping malls instead. It’s very difficult to find out what the rational situation is, all I can find is the hysteria and thrill of the media. Where have rational commentators gone?

Well, I just received an email from KLM to check in, so, so far it’s going OK, this most expensive flight of my lifetime. £1600 – ONE WAY!!! Business class prices for cattle class. Just as well I flew out for £1.46! I should be eligible for a refund on half that ticket and maybe the Kenya Airways return half to Nairobi too. Whether South African Airways will refund my £54 from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg I don’t know.

So tense has been my day that it ended, despite a couple of beers with Steven and Isabel (she’s had the influence of him occasionally submitting to a beer in her company!), with a hammering headache. I’m not prone to headaches. In the current hysteria, you immediately look up the symptoms of the new flu!!

So, my journey is cut cruelly short, just a few days from ending it as planned. I guess I’ll always wonder if racing out was impetuous or sensible…

 

 

EAST AND SOUTH AFRICA 2020 – NINE

 

Golden Gate National Park

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!

Lazarus’s dinosaurs

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.

Life size early life

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?

Golden Gate again

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.

The Grand National Hotel. This makes it look quite grand!

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.

Sad Harrismith

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.

East Free State scenery

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.

Eastern Free State

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.

Beauties of the Free State

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.

Steven makes me a belt

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!

A fiery dragon by Lazarus, the Zimbabwean artist

EAST – AND NOW SOUTH – AFRICA 2020 – EIGHT

 

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Maria – an ever-cheerful child

 

 

DAYS 58-63. SUNDAY 23rd – THURSDAY 27th FEBRUARY 2020. KITALE. KENYA

Lots of things different on this journey, even my diary writing. Not my daily discipline, but written in batches as activity dictates.

And activity didn’t change a lot this week! A pleasant, homely time with my Kenyan family, who accept me as part of their extended family. I’ve so often written that the most admirable single element of life all over Africa is its continued adherence to the extended family system. Blood relations mean less than proximity and an ability to adapt to one another. Here am I, from another culture completely, accepted as a brother and uncle figure to these fine people, some of whom are themselves not related by blood. In the West, we put so much emphasis on that close blood relation, defining our families, dividing our wealth and possessions, our loyalty and support in much narrower confines. Some of the ‘sisters’ in this household are indeed Adelight’s direct sisters, but frequently there are other young women and girls around. They have no actual blood line in common, sometimes even arising from other tribal roots, but they act as much sisters as any nuclear family. Rico’s flexible family is a unit to be admired, as is he, for his commitment to these girls and young women, brought up at his own considerable personal sacrifice of money and comfort, but to his greatest satisfaction in his large and lovingly warm family who look on him as their father.

It’s been amusing this week to give Adelight some bread lessons. She told me that she’d been trying to make her own bread but had produced only bricks. I diagnosed flour with insufficient gluten and went with her to peruse the available selection. Somewhat nervously, I made bread one afternoon – the very afternoon I had elected to provide the wherewithal for a family barbecue party before I left. Thankfully, my baking impressed. A second batch the next day confirmed my ability! The Joy Bean bread technique has now a foothold on the continent of Africa! She’d be happy to know that.

Joy Bean’s bread recipe reaches Kenya

On Sunday, from Kessup I headed back by the Cheringani Highway again to Kitale – the newly tarred and magnificent road that now sweeps through fine scenery, where once I bounced and struggled on the dusty track that wound its way over these magnificent hills – and, truth be told, I loved much more. I knew it is always quite chilly in those hills, formerly kept at bay by the exertions of the bumpy road, but now the empty, smooth tar road takes little physical effort and the chill is apparent. I looked up the road on the map and find that it climbs as high as 2900-plus metres (nine and a half thousand feet). At that altitude, even on the Equator, you need some exercise to keep warm. It’s a glorious ride, huge views down to the north on the latter part and extensive vistas over plunging valleys and forested mountainsides elsewhere. Small villages scatter along the roadside, rough places of earth and rusty iron sheeting. The farmlands are green and fresh, the clouds scudding high in the blue dome above. It’s good to be alive on such a ride. And good to be on a motorbike, out in the freshness, experiencing the changes of temperature, the scents of the forests, the occasional scattering of light raindrops from the high, unseasonal slate clouds that drift past above; to wave at the surprised populous and the calling children; weaving my way between errant donkeys and goats and matted sheep with Rasta dreadlocks from mud and shit. Birds, some of them spectacularly sequinned flashes of iridescent feathers, others large lazily floating raptors, their eyes peeled onto the ground below for vermin and carrion, soar and wheel about on the wind. Joyful yellow sunflower-like bushes line the roads, happy against the red earth embankments. The road winds and rolls over the glorious hills. People wave. I am happy and content, riding along at often no more than 25mph, stringing out the pleasures. These Kenyan highlands are some of the finest scenery in Africa.

So back to Kitale and family warmth and a few final days of organising the last part of the 2020 safari and preparing the bike and belongings to be stored in Kitale until my promised return next Christmas. Uncle Jonan (Maria’s delightful diminutive for me) is now a fixture! And next year maybe I’ll be less restricted by ridiculous leg injuries and be more fully active. Precious and Alex want to take me to stay with her parents, in the far western part of Uganda (the part I have admired most) on an island on the very scenic, large Lake Bunyoni, one of the beauties of Uganda.

Family barbecue

By the time I return, delightful little Maria, a bundle of ever cheerful energy and charm, with her idiosyncratic three year old chatter, will have grown to be a four year old. She’s been a highlight of my stay. I’ll miss the family unit. It’s been easy. Adelight said one day that I felt like a brother, and we certainly enjoy one another’s company. I’ve the patience to actually enjoy going shopping with her! In the evenings we are Scrabble opponents, a game at which she quite often beats me, a testament to her intellect, since she is playing in her second language against a native speaker with a large vocabulary. Marion and Scovia brighten our days and the other various girls who come and go, do so with a cheerful positivity and joie de vivre that is engaging. I hope I can be part of this happy family again in nine or ten months’ time.

Well, that’s all in the future. ‘Who knows tomorrow?’ they ask in Ghana. Who indeed? Still, good to have future ambitions!

My Kenyan family says goodbye at Kitale airstrip

AND SO TO SOUTH AFRICA

DAY 64. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 28th 2020. JOHANNESBURG. SOUTH AFRICA

Culture shock can be just as disorienting within this continent as coming from Europe to Africa. In a matter of four hours I am in a totally different African atmosphere. I’m in a cheap hotel rather close to the end of the Oliver Tambo International Airport runway in Johannesburg. Of course, this is not a new experience. I’ve been here in Johannesburg at least a dozen times. But it’s the first time I flew in from another part of Africa. It’ll be interesting to see how it measures up. It’s also going to be different in that I have no motorbike in this country at present.

I’d been considering the possibility of a ‘two centre’ trip this year for some time. Then the restrictions of my Achille’s tendon injury, the reduction in realistically feasible bike miles, the fact that back in April I came down here as a ‘consultant’ on a new museum project, and then the happy coincidence of Kenya Airways emailing me as a ‘valued client’ about their special 40th birthday offers, all coerced me into purchasing this ticket and travelling on down to the bottom of my favourite continent. If I’d booked my flight when I first considered the idea, it would have cost me £523. By the happy chance of that email a few days later, my ticket cost £414. Considering I got my return flights from Bristol to Nairobi for the grand sum if £1.46 (see day one), it seemed a lucky opportunity. Here I am in South Africa.

Up early and a prompt breakfast (homemade bread) and a short ride to Kitale airstrip, with the whole family to see me off. An hour’s flight to Nairobi airfield and the inevitable taxi negotiation to the main international airport. Few airports in Africa are accessible by any means of public transport. The rapid transit railway DOES actually reach the Johannesburg international airport these days, but the fare is £9 from the nearest station. It’s £8 from much further away by taxi. It smacks of efficient lobbying by the taxi companies! Fred, a friendly driver, conveyed me from the Nairobi airfield busy with small aircraft to the anonymity of the vast airport. Gladly, I have my frequent flyer lounge access that makes flying such a much more pleasant experience.

We landed into pouring rain – there was over 12mm, half an inch, of rain forecast for Johannesburg today – and a second taxi (in one day! This is NOT JB travel!) to a cheap hotel in a wasteland of car dealerships and garages. But at £15 in South Africa’s most populous city, it’ll do for the night.

As darkness fell, I walked out to seek supper. I am in Kempton Park, by the looks of it, a fairly run down suburb of this huge city, of which most travellers are fearful or at least apprehensive. I had to walk a mile or so, on broken pavements on this rainy night. Coming from another part of this wonderful, absorbing continent, I suddenly realised, as I walked the scruffy streets amidst noise, people and incessant activity, that I wasn’t in the least nervous. How well I remember my first visits to this country, when everywhere I went people – almost exclusively white people – enumerated all the things I shouldn’t do and all the things of which I should be frightened. The word used was always the perfidious ‘they’, the threatening ‘others’ – aka black people. I’ve just spent two months amongst black-skinned people. My friends. In fact, I spend a quarter of every year now as the conspicuous ‘other’, the odd man out. I have completely stopped seeing people as black-skinned. It’s odd, I just see ‘people’.

Walking through the wet streets, I thought to myself that most of my white acquaintance here would be having kittens to see where I was! It was noisy and boisterous. And very human. It was extravagant and natural. A few youths called out, not taunting, just perhaps surprised, rather loud greetings. Much more brazen than in East Africa, but not unfriendly or disrespectful. They hung about outside ‘bottle shops’, noisy, bumptious youths. I even entered a ‘bottle shop’ to buy myself a couple of long-missed Castle Milk Stouts.

Assuredly, I wouldn’t walk down those dimly lit streets late at night with my camera over my shoulder, or my pocket bulging with money. But then I wouldn’t do that in Leeds, Plymouth – Totnes, for god’s sake, any more. I felt no threat whatsoever. It’s all in the mind. And when you look frightened, you are the most vulnerable.

I remember my first visit. 2002. My Elephant was stuck in a crate, bobbing around in a cargo ship outside Durban harbour, beleaguered in a dock strike. My poor motorbike, in a crate, inaccessible. The dock strike lasted three weeks. Though I had friends to generously host me, neither they nor I had expected that hiatus. So I took off on buses to see a bit of South Africa while I waited. I rode south and on the first night of my short solo tour, I ended up in the coastal town of East London. It’s a large regional town and something of a black seaside resort. I found a hotel, of sorts. My room had a balcony (!). I leaned on the railing looking down towards the sea and over the streets. I didn’t dare to adventure into town.

I stood for half an hour looking out. It was just a pleasant seaside sort of city, the usual restaurants and cafes visible, the Indian Ocean tossing along the shore. Suddenly, and I can remember this now as I write, I thought to myself, ‘What are you afraid of? Think of the very dodgy places you’ve travelled all over the world! The backsides of Asian and Latin American cities, in the cheapest hotels known to man!’ The roughest villages in the Hindu Kush, the Andes, North Africa, Middle East you name it, I’d seen the seamy sides of those places. I’d travelled on the most impecunious budgets in the toughest, roughest places. And here I was, in semi-westernised South Africa, in a pleasant seaside city – a sort of Yarmouth or Cleethorpes of the southern hemisphere, and I was AFRAID?

I was afraid because every white person I had met in the previous two weeks had insisted I should be afraid! Stuffing my valuables under the bed, I walked out with a few pounds in my pocket and a smile on my face. I walked confidently down the centre of the pavement, greeting people (rather surprised people, it must be said) and smiling broadly. From that day – to this, walking through a run down black suburb of the ‘evil’, ‘dangerous’ city of Johannesburg – I have had NOT ONE moment of apprehension in all the time I have spent in South Africa! And I have spent months here all told, riding my motorbikes through townships, cities, villages and remote countryside. And I’ve come to enjoy the place and I respond to noisy youths with a big smile and a raised thumb. They love it! An old white-bearded bloke giving as good as he gets from them. It’s all they want. They are so unused to it.

It’s not so frequently that people smile at me here in South Africa. There’s always this distance, this suspicion, this inferred inequality. I don’t feel that in Kenya or Uganda. There, we’re equal. My fast food supper was served by a pretty young woman. She reacted to MY smile so happily. I felt I had scored a victory. I had made a young black South African woman respond with the attractive warmth of her smile. It’s not something that you witness often in this strange, unhappy land. I have to work harder for smiles here.

Most people around me now are lighter complexioned than in East Africa, and they do things with a certain bravado and lack of respect or modesty. It’s noisy, brash, flashy, more competitive, a trifle more aggressive. Faces are ‘deader’, less expressive, less eager to engage. Eyes look away, they don’t return my smile. It’s more like being at home than in Africa, where everyone loves to talk. There’s a wall, a barrier, a doubt, reluctance. A slowness to smile, to laugh, to make human contact.

I’d forgotten the South African propensity for kitsch and sentimentality – and for trying to hide paucity of taste and luxury by adding numerous silly pillows to the beds. Pillows that then have to be stored somewhere when I actually get into said bed – the usual place being flung in a corner, where I fall over them if I get out of bed in the night. This rather basic, ostentatiously unpretentious hotel has pillows everywhere to try to disguise the utilitarian furnishings and the camouflage-green emulsioned walls. Two of the pillows have the silliest text imaginable: ‘wifi + food + my bed = perfection’. Those two stupid pillows had an extra energetic trajectory into the corner of this militarily green room.

This is a land of appalling fast foods, with attendant obesity problems, often exaggerated in black races, as with African Americans. The South African diet has to be one of the least healthy in the world. Those with money eat red meat and starch, those without eat dire junk food – fat, salt, sugar. South Africa appears to take all its foodie influences from USA… The queues for McDonalds go round the block… There’s KFC, Chicken Shack, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Debonair Pizza, Burger King, all the rest. Hardly a scrap of food I want to put in my mouth!

DAY 65. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 29th 2020. HARRISBURG. SOUTH AFRICA

So, the choice was Kentucky Fried Shite or an Afrikaans rugby bar at the back of a petrol station. In the interests of travel experiences, the latter won hands down.

I think…

This is a country that brings out all the prejudices in me, all the ones I pretend I don’t have, with my extreme exposure to the world in all its glories. This is a country, the only one in Africa, this astonishing continent, that makes me conscious of my skin colour. It’s a country that confuses me as much as did Japan – the country I still sum up, when asked, by: ‘I had preconceptions when I arrived. When I left, even those were wrong!’

Anyway, I chose the smoky (yeah, this is South Africa) Afrikaans bar across the road from the deadbeat Grand National Hotel, in which I have stayed on my motorbike journeys on several occasions, Harrismith being a convenient staging post to and from Lesotho and my friends in Durban and Bloemfontein. It’s a tired sort of town, dating back to colonial times and Harry Smith, who founded the place. There’s a bizarre war memorial with an obviously English soldier bowing over his rifle in respect to the fallen of World War One; another commemorates those who fell ‘in the service of South Africa’, in the Boer War. I could find no memorial to the many thousands of black African soldiers and support staff slaughtered in the causes of those foreign wars. There are odd colonial overtones, utterly at odds with the brashness of this tired African town. I wandered into the town centre, such as it is, and found the end of a street market, noisy, incredibly littered, with an undisciplined, down at heel atmosphere that, on one hand I rather enjoyed but could also be read as pretty deeply depressing or threatening. This is a town down on its luck. In fact, it probably never had a lot of luck. It’s here perhaps as a junction on highways. Maybe it always was. The major toll highway from Durban to Bloemfontein and south to Cape Town passes by. Much of South Africa passes by. It’s a backwater going increasingly stagnant. The old colonial Grand National Hotel echoes the turgidity of the town. Electric security gates on the doors. Worn cord carpeting, scuffed furnishings, metal framed windows, empty corridors and a sense that life has passed by. Without taking much notice.

There are bottle shops everywhere and a lot of drinking going on, exacerbated by the end of the month pay day. Men are gathered noisily around the bottle shop doorways, getting drunk. Empty and broken bottles litter the streets: the usual African problem of low employment and lack of self discipline. Rico blames African mothers. He explains how they treat male children in a completely different manner to their daughters, cosseting the male babies, spoiling them, respecting them and teaching them to believe themselves to be more worthy than their sisters, the also-rans of Africa. It’s deep set prejudice, centuries of male privilege. And it manifests itself here on a Saturday afternoon like this. Men drink; women work. A few drunks lie already in doorways and the wide main street, Warden Street, resounds to the noise of young male revellers in cars with short exhausts and huge boombox speakers. There’s considerable drink driving around poor, forgotten South African towns like Harrismith. My solution to many – most – of Africa’s ills remains the same: put the women in charge and ban the production or sale of all alcohol over 4%ABV.

While the men drink away their meagre salaries and ruin their health, the women sell or shop, filling a million plastic carrier bags (South Africa hasn’t banned bags like Kenya) with groceries, often the products in the most lurid packaging, as if there’s a siege coming.

I had forgotten it was the end of the month. A mistake worth avoiding in South Africa. People are paid at the end of the month and ATMs have lines round the block. By good fortune, I had just enough cash from last April’s visit to tide me to Harrismith. Most Africans live hand to mouth and here, where the infrastructure is developed and people paid automatically into bank accounts, the end of the month is an important time. It fills the shops to capacity. Families shop as if the stores will be closed for the next month – as for many, without further economic support for four weeks, they will. All I wanted was a plug adaptor… It took 15 minutes at the tills to pay my £1.50. The hotel is aged enough to utilise the old three round pin 15 amp sockets that were once the norm in South Africa – and still are in backwaters like Harrismith.

Harrisburg and its peeling hotel suits my budget at £15, and it’s convenient to meet Michael, my old Durban friend, who is on his way to the national park nearby tomorrow. It’s also a stop on the long distance bus route from Johannesburg.

This Afrikaans bar shakes to the volume of rugby on multiple TV screens. This is a sport played by 90% white men, watched by almost all white South Africans. Soccer, meanwhile, is a game played by increasingly numerous very good black players; a game adored by every black African I ever met. The game that roars about this bar: “AAAAAHHHH! Kick the fucking BALL, you stupid oke!” yells a mountainous Afrikaner with pendulous flesh that is difficult to appoint to any known physiological map. He rises from his bar stool in necessarily slow motion; folds of flesh slumping knee-wards by gravity. He wears sloppy grey track suit shorts dangling about his knees. His Xtra Large tee shirt hangs like old theatre curtains from the cantilever of his vast wobbly stomach. While I have been here, he has downed three one litre bottles of Black Label lager. He must be three times my girth, with a long white beard. He scratches his crotch and waddles to the gents. Pasty faced, vastly obese, coarse, tattooed, probably horribly prejudiced about most of his neighbours…

And yet… He welcomes me warmly, as do those around the bar. Of course, my prejudices (that I don’t think I have) ponder whether they’d make the same welcome if the outer half millimetre layer of my body was black.

This is the ugliest nation on earth. You see, I said I have to accept that I too have prejudices! Fat, immensely fat, gigantically, waddlingly fat, pasty faced, unhealthy, bad skin, covered in tattoos. Or sharp featured, pasty faced, unhealthy and bad tempered like the witch who accused me of sitting in her seat on the bus. Happily, I had an upstairs seat at the front of the bus and a view of the wet road. At Vereening, up came a sour-faced Afrikaans woman of very acid demeanour, insisting that I was sitting in her seat. “It’s disgusting, I paid for this seat! It’s MY seat. I have seat 5A!”

“Yes, and this is seat 5B!” I pointed out reasonably. But she was so bad tempered she wasn’t listening. All the young (black) men around me pointed out that the alphabet generally held to a norm of A-B-C-D, but her anger was burning. The young man in the window seat – seat 5A – should have been sitting in seat 16D, down the back somewhere. I explained to him, but he seemed to have some sort of learning difficulty or perhaps he’d burned his brains on something earlier today. I pointed out to the screeching woman that I was in the seat assigned to me. Other neighbours spoke to the man in seat 5A in his own language but he either didn’t comprehend or wasn’t bothered. The Afrikaans woman fumed and spat behind me. “It’s disgusting!” she harrumphed. “It’s MY seat! Quite disgusting! You’re in my seat.” But I wasn’t. She’d picked her argument with the wrong passenger. She should have been railing at the (black) passenger next to me. Maybe I read more into her disgust at me, a fellow white passenger, not him? I stayed put and replaced my headphones. One thing Africa has taught me is that argument and bad temper solve no problems at all. Politeness is natural for most in this continent.

Looking for non meat food in South Africa is a generally pointless task. Especially in an Afrikaans sports bar. I ordered lamb curry. “What’s skilpadjies?” I asked the overweight Afrikaners at the bar as I searched the menu in vain for the vegetarian option.

“It’s liver,” replied my neighbour in a friendly manner. “Coated in… In…” He dried up as he tried to think what the coating might be in English. “Hey,” he called to one of the bar women, “you speak English. What’s XXXX? (I cannot begin to write whatever the word was).” The bar began to discuss how to describe the filth in which the liver might be coated. “Well, it’s like haggis…” said one. “No, it’s a sort of bacon!” said another. They compromised that it was liver wrapped in something unspeakable from a lamb’s intestine. “Oh! I think I have eaten it!” I exclaimed, remembering the time I attended an Afrikaans motorbike rally (!!) with Steven. I made the mistake once, and ate what I can only politely call ‘fat on a stick’. It’s one of the most repulsive things I ever ate (and that’s a pretty long list). “Yes, it’s VERY good! Good food,” said my immensely overweight, tracksuit shorts friend at the end of the bar, scratching his crotch again. “You should try it!” Hmmmm.

At the back of this bar is a small room. It’s lined with ‘slots’ – slot machines, one-armed bandits. It’s glittering with flashy lights and incessant visual interference. Six addicted gamblers – black – sit, glassy eyed with fatigue and tedium, unable to stop… They are the only black customers in the bar.

At the corner table sit a band of middle aged people. Smoking heavily. Bad skin. Beer guts. Tattoos. Three women, four men. Huge beer bottles in front of them. Bike helmets on the table between us. Their bikes are outside, fat, slobbish motorbikes that make a lot of noise and probably go fast, but don’t really go far and certainly never leave smooth tarmac. I’d put £100 on the fact they’ve never been to nearby Lesotho, best biking country in the world. Afrikaans people don’t go there, despite the fact it’s usually less than 70 miles away. Actually, I’d safely wager ten time that! One of the women is getting up to go. She’s pulling on a jacket and leather waistcoat. Free State bikers all belong to clubs. They have big embroidered badges emblazoned across their jacket backs. This dumpy lady has badges all over her waistcoat. Most are in Afrikaans. The only one I can read in English boasts the recommendation, ‘100% bitch’. I wouldn’t tempt fate that far, if I were her.

Afrikaners tend to hug a lot. Men and women. Imagine, if you can, two large rubber exercise balls trying to hug one another. You’ll see what I am seeing as I write!

So, you see, all my prejudice comes out here! Is it my age and conditioning? I grew into my political awareness at a time that we believed that apartheid was one of the biggest evils in the world of the sixties (as it was). Am I projecting that onto these people? These people who are at the same time immensely friendly and often generous too? I suppose we all see the world through our own filters. Mine are predisposed to sympathise now with indigenous black African people, from whom I have received more love and generosity than anyone else. Perhaps my prism is skewed here? Yet these people too, after 300 years or more, are indigenous African people. Just another colour and tribe. Another race. Yet they’ve fought alongside black Africans for their freedom. They qualify as African as much as anyone.

So why are they in their own bar? Separate, in this ‘rainbow nation’ that’s supposedly been united for 25 years?

The lamb curry wasn’t bad, however. But I had to resort to the jar of pickle to find some vegetable. I am in Afrikaans South Africa, where chicken is considered a vegetable!

What of the rest of my day, before I sat here with my three Castle Milk Stouts? (Small bottles!).
It was a half hour walk from last night’s cheap hotel to the efficient, relatively expensive rapid transit railway that brings the population – those that can afford the luxury – into the centre of Johannesburg. The rest (mainly black) go by minibus. The line is speedy, the distance surprisingly long, past mining exploits (gold is the reason for Johannesburg’s existence) and sprawling suburbs with a dotty pox of satellite dish disease, separated by wide greenswards and green-fringed motorways. The train deposits me into the heart of this seething city and to the main bus transit hub. “Do take care! Everyone wants to rob you here,” warned one kindly paranoid white woman as I stepped from the train. I felt no threat whatsoever, beyond normal city centre watchfulness in a rather run down area round the bus stations.

The road south from Johannesburg is through South Africa’s most boring landscapes. This is a huge area of gently undulating grasslands and farmland, split by occasional motorways. It rolls on and on, and then on. I recollect interminable tedious bike journeys here in the Gauteng region. From Harrismith the scenery becomes more stimulating. I’m approaching the magnificent Drakensburg Mountains that hold wonderful Lesotho so far up into the sky, where the range is called the Maluti Mountains. It’s Lesotho that has brought me back to the foot of this extraordinary continent.

“Oh, you’ve put the prices up!” I told Rose, the receptionist, as she processed my £15.38 on my credit card. “I hope you’ve repainted the rooms since I was here four years ago!”

“Noooo, I don’t think so…” she pondered with chuckle.

Correctly.

Golden Gate National Park. The view over my beer glass.

DAY 66. SUNDAY MARCH 1st 2020. GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL PARK. SOUTH AFRICA

Perhaps my greatest stimulation in travelling is not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Tonight I am staying in the middle of the Golden Gate Park in the Drakensburg Mountains, close to the new museum building being constructed in the valley below, a museum about the dinosaurs who roamed this area a couple of hundred million years ago. A museum on which I acted as a consultant (at last! It took me until I am 70! Haha) on a trip to South Africa last April.

My friend Mike is a facilitator of projects, mainly in museum conception now. He works out of Durban but we’ve known one another for many years, originally through his wife, Yvonne, long long ago my neighbour in the flat above mine in Ilkley, Yorkshire. They’ve lived in South Africa for over 30 years, and been my hosts and base for five motorbike trips. The fact that Mike and I work in the same field is coincidental, but fortuitous for me as it now provides a few days (unpaid) consultancy with my peers, in another culture. We’re here with Kath, researcher and writer for the project, for some creative meetings tomorrow and Tuesday.

We’d arranged to meet in Harrismith at 1.30. They have to drive within ten kilometres of the town to travel from Durban to the museum site and the well equipped national park campsite and the chalet in which I find myself tonight. I’ve a room with a view of the very scenic mountain ranges, curving walls of red and yellow rock rising in bluffs to oddly mushroom-like tops across the narrow defile. I’ve ridden here before, but never understood the geology and significance of the fossil beds that abound. It’s a geologically remarkable area, thick ancient mud layers topped ancient sand dunes, then topped and burned and pressed by volcanic waste. The rocks contain a plethora of fossils of great interest and amazing preservation. Fifty years ago a palaeontologist discovered a rich seam of dinosaur fossils marking the birthplace of thousands of dinosaur eggs. The great prize of the region is a fossilised egg, complete with hatching tiny dinosaur. The artefact is only palm sized, but of extraordinary detail – enough that the park service is spending millions to build a museum and interpretation centre in the valley below the discovery site. Of course, there could be hundreds more fossilised hatchlings in that ancient mudstone layer.

Harrismith is not a place to be stranded on a Sunday. “Where can I get breakfast?” I asked the Grand National receptionist about 9.00 this morning. She pondered my strange request for a moment. “There’s KFC and Wendy’s.” I consider neither of those purveyors of food. I spent a couple of hours criss-crossing the decrepit town, but sure enough there was no place open with so much as a cup of coffee. I was forced to purchase items in a supermarket to make my own scratch breakfast, eaten without cutlery or crockery. It was also impossible to find a single place to sit, until the same Afrikaans bar of last night opened its doors late morning and provided a bench for the final hour if my wait. Not so much as a public bench in town…

“This used to be a thriving town,” said Mike as we drove away, swinging down litter-strewn streets of decrepitude. “It was a centre for the Free State agricultural life. Now the citizens have taken over their own repair of roads and infrastructure from the municipality as it’s so inefficient.” I’d noticed that the town had very little civic pride and diagnosed that there was probably very little civic money either. It’s a sad place, thickly littered and scruffy. Residential streets lined with torn bin liners, from which vermin and birds have scavenged food scraps, and ditches and roadsides strewn with fast food packaging and plastic bottles. Afrikaans residents live behind electric fencing, spiked railings, razor wire, security bars and signs emblazoned with warnings of armed response from security companies. It’s grim. These are a people buttoned up, separate, enclosed, barricaded from the world around them, embattled in their own country. Why, even the churches, on just about every corner, are segregated – black churches and white churches. Could there be a greater contrast? Friendly, loose limbed, freewheeling East Africa to the Orange Free State in 36 hours?

I’d repaired to the Afrikaans bar by about noon. I don’t often take beer at lunchtime any more, but really, what else was there to do? I’d hiked three or four miles about this faded town looking for little more than a public bench, to no avail. At least there was a table on the pavement outside the bar. Mike and Kath rolled up about one, and we set off to drive another hour or so into the mountains. High above me now, the mountains hold up Lesotho. Later, touring some of the local sites that Mike wanted to show me – the rocks where the eggs were found, and that still contain many more clutches, a ridge of dinosaur bones visible in the mud layer, the fossilised sand ripples of an ancient dune – we ran into four cheerful dumpy Basotho young women. Seeing their smiles, their delight and excitement of a day out together by car, I realised how much I have missed Lesotho these past four years. These girls came not from Lesotho itself, but from one of the three South African Basotho tribes, each with their own royal family, some of whom we are here to meet tomorrow. These tribal offshoots live in the high regions of the Free State here on the edges of Lesotho and the mountain range.

My idiosyncratic ‘career’ has brought me many treats, not least the ability to work on four continents. I am content to be in the Drakensburg Mountains tonight, learning some ancient Basotho lore and a bit about the origins of diverse dinosaurs. I didn’t expect THAT a couple of days ago.

200 million year old dinosaur vertebrae

It’s cold and silent. Around me stand the silhouettes of the jagged dragons’ mountains, guarding the bones of legions of dinosaurs huge and tiny. I’m happy for a radiator in my room. It’s also drying my washing – for I have travelled perhaps the lightest yet to be here. One small backpack about two thirds full. It weighs less than seven kilos and will suffice for the next three and a half weeks. I can put my luggage on my back and just go whenever and wherever I want. I relish that freedom!

The view from over my breakfast coffee cup

DAY 67. MONDAY MARCH 2nd 2020. GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL PARK. SOUTH AFRICA

I do have – and appreciate – a lot of good fortune in life. For nothing more than any advice and ideas I might have for this team, I have two days accommodation and food and drink in this fine national park. I’ve paid for that with a few (informed, I suppose) opinions on museum design and concepts, and perhaps three new design ideas. I can swan in, sound wise and clever, and swan away again without the least responsibility. I don’t have to carry out those apparently clever ideas, only to suggest them and retreat. That’s consultancy for you! Haha. I wish I’d discovered this earlier in life.

The museum will be a magnificent affair. It’s the usual over-pretentious architectural vanity statement with exhibits added as an afterthought by the clients and planners. I’ve seen this so often in my career as a museum scenery designer. Architecture and ducting, bricks and paving, windows and floor coverings can be quantified by number crunching surveyors. Fascinating exhibits rely on creative minds and intellectual concepts. Most clients, especially government or corporate, understand buildings and are keen to make a proud impression by over-designing structures. Yet it’s the content that the visitor will come to see, the majority never noticing the ridiculous feature brickwork and vastly extravagant sloping curved glass window walls. Sometime late in the process the clients usually remember that they must commission the exhibition, at which point poor suckers like me are asked to fit exhibits into totally unsuitable gallery spaces for a minuscule portion of the overall budget. It’s happened on every new museum with which I have been involved – apart, oddly enough, from the last one: the Collings Foundation collection of military vehicles in rural Boston. They very sensibly built a vast dark hangar and allowed us to spend the money on displaying their fine collection. It was an uncommon approach.

This morning we toured the semi-complete museum building, all curved brickwork, glass curtain walls and soaring columns. The team (with just a very few days’ input from me) have done well to plan an engaging exhibition within this pretty unsuitable building, which will be filled with African sunlight that gives so many display headaches. Doubtless the architect will preen about his sloping curtain walls of curved glazing, more suitable for a smart hotel dining room or conference hall… But the public will come to see the dinosaurs. There will be life sized models – formed in reclaimed steel in a very African fashion by a team of Zimbabwean metal sculptors. I encouraged this concept last April and look forward to seeing the work in progress this week back in Durban. There will be replica rock outcrops with dinosaur bones, an infinite storeroom of bones like the stores of Witwatersrand University (an idea I threw up, using a wall of mirrors). There’ll be timelines and artefacts, a replica landscape of 200 million years ago, with dinosaurs, flying pterodactyls and a final exhibit telling the folkloric tales of the local indigenous Basotho people and their myth of a great monster that swallowed villages alive, after which the museum is named – Khudomodomo. This important gallery is being guided by the royal households of the local tribes. We were joined today by a charming, delightful couple, Mpho and Tsolo, wife and husband, members of some part of one of the royal families. Their enthusiasm was infectious, providing us with an enjoyable day, brainstorming, touring local sites, lunching in the smart park hotel and joining us for a presentation by Mike to his clients. The project is well advanced, and the building – as usual in my experience – increasingly behind schedule, almost a year – so far. Also as usual, the deadline for the installation of exhibits doesn’t extend, but squeezes inexorably tighter. I really HAVE seen it all before, having now been involved in some 30 or so major projects of this sort. The exhibit designers always draw the shortest straw and make the most compromises. Ho hum…

 

Well, as I said, I can wander in and out with no responsibility. I have no fee but receive my ‘payment’ in kind – the chance to visit South Africa as a guest and meet my peers, and enjoy the perks of seeing great places of the world. That suits me as much as being paid a fee!

Golden Gate National Park

Changeable weather rolls about these high places. We’re at 2000 metres. Oddly, I’ve spent most of the past nine weeks or more at that sort of altitude: the Kenyan highlands, around Mount Elgon, Nairobi and Johannesburg and now the Drakensburg. From here I’ll also go up to Lesotho in due course, also at altitude. Tonight there’s heavy rain after a day of scudding clouds, bright sun, sharp breezes, rainbows and chilly winds. It’s a fine landscape. And close by is Lesotho, most magical heart of the globe.

An odd coincidence this morning. In January 2012 I bought a motorbike down here. I found it on the internet and negotiated by email with the seller, a kindly fellow in East London, down the Indian Ocean coast. I flew down and stayed a few days with Garvin and his wife, Mia. Then I rode away. I kept in very sporadic touch, enough that Garvin has my email address. I haven’t heard anything from him for probably four years. This morning I got an email from him, just down the road, in relative terms. He’s Cape Coloured – there are so many racial diversities and hierarchies in South Africa – a biker and a keen rock climber and is about to undertake a fund raising challenge to help purchase equipment for poverty stricken local hospitals where his Belgian wife works as a paediatric trauma surgeon. I was relating the odd fact that he had included me in his email, after several years’ silence, to Kath over coffee this morning. “Oh, I know Garvin! We’ve climbed together. He’s stayed in my house!”

I am in South Africa, maybe 7000 miles from home. I am acquainted with perhaps fifty people in this part of the world. The old cliche is so true, the world IS small, and maybe we ARE all related within seven removes.

Changeable weather – at 2100 metres