THE AFRICAN JOURNEY OF 2016
…which begins in December 2015…
DAY 0. MONDAY DECEMBER 7th 2015. A BLAND IKEA-FURNISHED B&B, BRISTOL AIRPORT
One day, assuming I live long enough, I shall sit in my armchair-travel chair (hopefully in Rock Cottage, although I’m not sure how I’ll get the stair lift in…) and re-read my copious travel journals and count how many of them start with a sense of relief that the journey has finally started. I have come to dread the PROCESS of leaving. There is so much drudgery to overcome, bureaucratic details, domestic chores, tedious arrangements and the apparently endless trivia of leaving home for several months. But I will sit in my armchair in my slippers and know that ultimately it was worth it once I got moving. For all this dull stuff is the very antithesis of my free and easy life ‘on the road’ with the exhilaration of not knowing what tomorrow will bring – the emotion that keeps me going time after time. And these days it is SO simple to get to another part of the world. In my own travel lifetime it has become mundane and boring, the travelling to and fro; forgetting the magic that we can be on six of the seven continents within a little over half a day.
So to a faceless, tasteless B&B at Bristol airport full of cheap IKEA fittings, presided over by a kindly obese couple who watch endless television. But, as always, my eyes will be shut – not, sadly for eight hours tonight, but for six if I get my head down quickly in readiness for tomorrow’s early start, so who cares about tacky furnishings? Not me. I’m getting into my travel mode, where accommodation is no more than a practical necessity. So to sleep as I can until a 5.00am alarm.
…and a day that will bring me to Africa once again!
DAY 1. TUESDAY DECEMBER 8th 2015. JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA.
Only five days ago I flew for the 80th time across the Atlantic. Today, so boring has the wonder of international flight become, I counted that this was my 52nd time of flying across the amazing Sahara Desert, always for me the highlight of all my travels: those two occasions on which I motorbiked across that ocean of sand and rocks under the biggest skies it is possible to imagine.
I am so happy to be on my way; to have reached the beginning of the journey and the end of preparation. The inception of a long trip is a time of wearing insecurity and doubt: it’s the only time when all the ‘what ifs’ are almost overwhelming – those two worst words in the English language that limit so many dreams. ‘What ifs’ and lists dominated the last days. I give no brain-space whatever to the ‘if onlys’, two words that will never enter my vocabulary!
A ten and a half hour flight, trapped in another insultingly small seat, was cheered by the congenial company of Neil, an early-retired teacher and Scouser travelling for winter holidays to his daughter’s family in the Drakensburg area of South Africa. Released from the 10,000 metre high prison, I legged it fast with my small luggage past 100 passengers to be near the front of the immigration queue, to be frustrated by the inefficiency of the system. Why, when you know a plane with over 400 passengers is landing, would you put only three officers on duty..? With no luggage I was amongst the first released to the outside world and Louis, waiting to bring me back to the inexpensive guest house in a suburb of sprawling Johannesburg. But then I was stumped as we waited another half an hour for the unfortunately-named Professor Rotter and his wife from Edinburgh. I do hope it was a mis-spelling – for wouldn’t you change that name by deed poll before subjecting your children to a lifetime of abuse?
Now back to a quiet guest house, a welcome beer and an enfoldingly warm night once again near the foot of this astonishing continent.
The journey will be what it will, and I will deal with the ‘what ifs’ as they arise. Another journey has begun.
DAY 2. WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 9th 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
I am thankful for the modern delight of headphones and iPads. To be trapped on a long distance bus for five hours’ of Christian evangelical videos and cheap American ‘family’ programming would be tedious. The Intercape bus company does run a proud announcement (warning?) on its advertising that it espouses ‘Christian values’ on its buses – or religious indoctrination to my unbelieving cynicism. I wouldn’t even be able to read, with the soundtrack bleating in my ears. Well, I suppose that in my wide experience of ghastly bus journeys of the world, this one wouldn’t rank so high: it was, after all, a comfortable double-decker intercity coach.
It’s about 250 miles to Bloemfontein, an uninteresting journey through a dead flat landscape dotted with the waste heaps of mining and with vast, spreading veldt to the horizon. Once out of the city sprawl, past the iconic painted cooling towers of Soweto and onto the toll motorways, this is South Africa showing you just how big it is. As the bus motored on at a steady sixty through the flat landscape I dozed in the sun on the upper deck, waking now and then in shock as the aeroplane jolted across sudden deep air pockets – or so it seemed to a mind that has spent so much of the last week travelling between continents. But actually, apart from the noise of the ‘Christian family entertainment’ all I had to do once again was sit and be transported, by now stiff and bum-sore, to Bloemfontein and be glad that I wasn’t continuing for another twelve hours to Cape Town.
And then the ultimate pleasure of meeting old friends, surely the reason for travel, were there no other persuasions. I met big, kindly, Afrikaans Steven in 2002. For those who didn’t read the story before, I’ll repeat it briefly. I had been riding my old African Elephant, my own old – (now 33 year old) English motorbike about the roof of Africa in Lesotho on appalling goat tracks for two days when the abused gearbox gave up in Maseru, the small capital. I limped back across the nearby border to South Africa and there met Steven on his motorbike. Kindness itself, he escorted me – my bike overheating on a warm day in my remaining second gear – to Bloemfontein, his home town and the nearest BMW dealer. On that hot day, cooling down in any small patch of shade at the roadside, a friendship was born in the five wearing hours it took to ride the 75 miles. He talks now of the ‘honour’ I do him when I come to stay – while I exploit his generosity and terrific mechanical skills. My motorbike has been stored here since I left in March.
You know you are back in the Orange Free State, home to the Afrikaans nation, when you eat out. We repaired to a chain fish restaurant, me revelling in the delight of stopping moving at last. Afrikaners just don’t recognise vegetables! The only vegetables come in the tiny pots of sauces: a scraping of garlic, a spoonful of mayonnaise and a trifle of pesto, that accompany the thick steaks – or rarer fish – with ubiquitous chips. On my first journey here I resorted to vitamin pills…
There’s a violent heatwave and drought across southern Africa. Daily temperatures are regularly above 40 degrees and everyone is complaining of the extreme heat. It’s going to be hot on that bike. Another reason (as if I needed them) to head for Lesotho’s altitudes quickly. But I will be able to afford any cooling that money can buy me. The Rand is at an all-time low. Yesterday it broke its own lowest record against the dollar and the pound is not far behind. When I left in March I was getting 17.5 Rand to my pound. Currently the bank rate stands at 22.86. South Africa has never been expensive for me, now it will be positively cheap. A fish meal for two tonight with three bottles of beer and a Coke was a meagre £11.20, including the ten per cent tip. Things will be a 25% cheaper than nine months ago.
DAY 3. THURSDAY DECEMBER 10th 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN. SOUTH AFRICA
The heat is violent here. Everyone complains. I love it! Mind you, I don’t have to work in it. I am here to relax and this climate relaxes every muscle in my body. Gone the clenched shoulders of autumnal Britain.
I appear doomed to troubles with my credit card recently. Modern life is so filled with the need to remember numbers and passwords, your mother’s maiden name, your favourite pet, first and last school and so many other stupid details. Having blocked the PIN number on my credit card in America and again in Totnes when I tried to unlock it, this afternoon I put it in an ATM, took out 600 Rand and didn’t retrieve the card within the thirty seconds allowed before it is retracted and later destroyed! The trouble is… habit. In Europe you take your card and then the cash is dispensed. In America and it seems (although I’d certainly forgotten the detail) in South Africa you get the money first. The logical thing then is to check it, fold it and put it away, all of which probably takes at least thirty seconds. In that time your card is sucked back into the ATM and the card, if it is local, cancelled. You then go to the bank and have another issued. If the ATM maintenance company (and it’s not the bank that operates most ATMs) finds a foreign card, they cut it up! I was HOT when I realised what I had done. I raced about – (I had retrieved my bike for some local errands) and eventually found a branch of the bank in a shopping mall a few miles away.
There I threw every on ounce of charm and all my persuasion onto the poor bank manager, an Afrikaner called Koos Smit. Normally, he said, my card would be retrieved on the next weekly visit by the ATM franchisee and cut up. He found the number and phoned the manager of that company, who agreed to try to get authorisation not to destroy my card. Koos suggested I return in half an hour – a tense half an hour. I found a cafe and had a sandwich, wolfing it down in my nervous state. I went back to the bank, mustering all the charm again. If I return tomorrow with my passport and my bike papers (that give me a spurious South African residence in Durban) I will get my card back.
“Oh well,” said Koos, “Things will be cheap for you now! Huh, the Rand dropped again today. The President sacked the Minister of Finance today. Where will it end?” So the Rand is now at a record low. Pity I don’t like shopping…
“Koos..?” said Steven this evening, for whom English is a second language. “It’s an old Afrikaans name. You don’t hear it often now. It means… What do you call those things..? You know? You keep them by the side of the bed when there’s no toilet..?”
“A piss-pot! A Gezunder! A Jerry!”
I won’t tell bank manager Koos of that conversation! Professor Rotter and Bank Manager Piss-pot in two days!
DAY 4. FRIDAY DECEMBER 11th 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN. SOUTH AFRICA.
‘What if’ number one successfully overcome. I have my credit card back in my wallet and am relieved to find that it wasn’t entirely my fault since the machines of that bank have been changed in the last five months, so it is a different system to that pertaining when I was here only nine months ago. Koos (piss-pot) had enough corroborative evidence to return my card confidently, coming with me to the ATM outside his bank to check that all was well. It’s worked a couple of times since so nothing has been changed by its night stuck in a South African cash machine. I have another credit card, but this one (useful tip here for anyone who travels abroad) is issued by the Post Office and charges no transaction fees on foreign payments. I reckon it saved me at least £300 on my last trip here. My own bank charges 3.75% on top of every purchase I make.
I’m taking these first few days pretty easily. I rode across the city to a pleasant art museum in a fine Dutch-style mansion set in sunny gardens. Some of the art is questionable but the coffee on a shady terrace was relaxing, despite the endless anodyne Christmas jingly music in the 40 degree heat.
In the afternoon heavy leaden clouds gathered to the north. “But rain doesn’t come from this side,” said Steven. For on such a large continent the patterns are well defined. Later came high dust-laden winds, blowing branches from trees. Strangely unseasonal weather, apparently, as is so common this year throughout the world. As I write it is blustery and noisy outside, but at least it will keep the irritating mosquitoes away tonight. The past nights have been very hot indeed and sleep fitful.
This Afrikaans tribe – for it feels and acts as one – is such a strange anomaly marooned in Africa, quite introspective and only just beginning to come to terms with the changes that the past decades have wrought on the nation that they once considered their own. They are now a small minority in the ‘rainbow nation’ that is South Africa. Bloemfontein is the capital of the Orange Free State, the major seat of the Afrikaans nation, sixth biggest city in South Africa and judicial capital but with a very distinct atmosphere, one in which Afrikaans is the major language, spoken even by most black people here. English is very much a second language for most Afrikaners. Panels in the art museum were in only Afrikaans, as was the menu in a cafe. Many people are reluctant to speak English, not through chauvinism or pride but from embarrassment at their ability. Steven, Afrikaans in looks, thought and heritage, but loosening up politically, attended a work event this afternoon. It was interesting to note that he now numbers a few black people amongst his work friends at least, and has some black bosses too. He becomes increasingly comfortable with this, having been brought up in a strong separatist state. Things are changing but it is very very slow and the old prejudices remain appallingly widespread, as do the economic divisions. Skin colour in South Africa still brings privilege – and danger too. The number of farm murders are seldom reported, for instance, mindlessly aggressive crimes that endanger Afrikaans farmers across the nation. The fact that the perpetrators have black skins encourages prejudice – although, of course, it is not skin colour that makes these people evil but lack of education, conscience and imagination, and a need to apportion blame for their own shortcomings (and frequently, laziness) and their divisive inability to partake in the material economy that is held so sadly high in most of the world as the only visible measure of success. There is a sense of beleaguered separateness here in Afrikanerdom. It will be a very – very – long time before that relaxes.
DAY 5. SATURDAY DECEMBER 12th 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN. SOUTH AFRICA.
I am surrounded by goodwill here in Bloem. I have come to expect this from Afrikaner people, a people I originally came, back in 2002, ready to dislike. It’s odd that: I imbued them with all the qualities that I associated, as a student during the late 60s, with all that was evil about the South African regime. I readied myself for prejudice, illiberality, and right wing religiosity. Oddly, I found all those in varying degrees but liked most of the people with whom I interacted. It has been one of the confusions of my travels in southern Africa: a liking for people whose natural attitudes are so different from mine. Often it has been the later incomers that I have despised, people who settled here during the poisonous apartheid era; who came for good times on the cheap despite the iniquities of the politics. With Afrikaners I found some patience for their prejudices: after all, they are South Africans through and through, have inculcated that prejudice and superiority over generations, having fought and died alongside indigenous black tribes for several hundred years. The same can’t be said if those who now shout loudest about the new ‘unfairness’ of the belief that black people are entitled to the same privileges – later immigrants, largely from Britain.
So I always enjoy my sojourns in the Free State, amongst kindly people of whose language I understand not a word – except those close enough to the few Dutch and Germanic words with which I am familiar.
Steven and his friend Mike have completely serviced my motorbike over the past week or two, doubtless much more thoroughly than if I had paid a garage, as in previous years, and at half the cost too. So, apart from the fact that I now have to ride a couple of hundred miles to hassle with licensing authorities – for my road tax is now many months out of date, despite my attempts to update it before leaving in March, it’s ready to go. For the tax I have to ride back to Matatiele, the other side of Lesotho and try to persuade them that I am a sort of resident… I hate African bureaucracy, even in relatively westernised South Africa. But that’s for next week, and my backstop is to ride back here and register myself as resident here with Steven’s help.
For now, it’s a few easy days of settling back in to travel mode. This evening we visited Steven’s friends, Sean and Mark for a ubiquitous braai, the South African barbecue. I’ve been vegetarian since leaving here in March, but you can’t be vegetarian in Africa! Tonight we ate cow, cow and cow, with nothing missing but the moo. I just have to adapt to this, as to many things in the next months.
Young Steven, now a charming 15 year old, and Juvan, 21, his sister, seem to accept me easily as part of the household and big Steven happily agrees to keep storing my little red BMW as: “Man, it means you will have to visit us again!” Such goodwill is humbling. But such generosity is also what I have found all around the world. Strangers can be so warm. The world’s a good place, a fact we should remember in the face of the media’s never-ending tabloid portrayal of evil, greed and anger. Almost everyone wants to be happy.
Sean has a couple of large, good looking dogs, a cross between the Boer farm dog with it’s huge square head, strength and power and the gentler qualities of Labradors. I’m not much of a dog lover – well, I like some other people’s dogs – but they are attractive animals. Their names, I was delighted to find, are Milo, the brown one, and Marmite, the black one!
DAY 6. SUNDAY DECEMBER 13th 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
Today l committed myself to a more complex but no doubt fascinating journey, having tragunsmitted money to Rico in northwestern Kenya to research and find me another motorbike in Africa… This means that my journey will almost certainly be a two-centre one, with Kenya and Uganda appended to my southern African travels. Watch this space.
I’ve had a lovely day. After a leisurely start we – being Steven on his big 1200 BMW, Juvan and her boyfriend on their motorbike and me on my newly serviced machine – rode out of the city into the low, dry countryside on gravel roads to visit a Boer War fortification that Juvan’s boyfriend found a few weeks ago, hidden in trees beside the railway bridge that it was built to protect over a century ago. It was a hot day and the dust rose in clouds as we rode the grey roads. I read somewhere that only 10% of South Africa’s roads are tarred, a figure that becomes less astonishing when you understand the sheer size of the country and the networks of graded gravel roads that form pretty much all but the main highways.
It’s dry out there, especially in this year’s drought. As third in line I gathered most of the dust of the other two bikes. I ride a good deal slower than Steven and most of his friends, always conscious of how vulnerable I am on these journeys: usually on my own, a very long way from home, lacking any medical insurance and aware how my journey would be changed by even the smallest tumble and sprain or injury. It’s fun, though, to speed along on these hard roads with the pebbles clicking and spinning beneath the wheels and the expansive, drought-affected landscape rushing past beneath the vast South African sky, disconsolate cattle huddled around infrequent metal windmills and water troughs. As always, my directional instincts are totally confused by the upside down nature of the sun and stars down here in this other hemisphere where the sun rotates in the northern sky and Orion’s sword points up the heavens, not down.
This evening visited Jappe and Marra, Steven’s parents in law, with whom he is still close, despite the divorce from their daughter, Judy. We had fun times together in 2002 when I first visited, enjoying braais and conversation. Tonight we sat under the stars drinking whisky and sodas in the still-warm night air. I am privileged to be so warmly welcomed here amongst Steven’s circle.
I am getting richer by the day. The Rand is spiralling out of control. It appears to have been caused by President Zuma, who enjoys astonishingly little respect amongst the majority of the people and who is not well educated, sacking the Minister of Finance and replacing him with an inexperienced back bench Member of Parliament. This to the consternation of international investors and money markets. The country is already battling falling commodity prices, unemployment of over 25% and the threat of its credit rating being downgraded to ‘junk’ status.
One correspondent puts it plainly: ‘the ousting of the minister will go down as one of the costliest blunders ever made by the current administration… devoid of any logic… his successor is a big unknown, a low key MP’.
When I left in March there was an exchange of 17.5 Rand to the pound. On Wednesday, the day of my arrival, the rate had risen to 22.87, a new record. At the last market close it had continued to soar to no less than 24.16 and still climbing stratospherically. Everything will now be 27% cheaper than it was in March – when South Africa really wasn’t very expensive. It really does seem a pity I don’t like shopping! Well, it’s an ill wind that seems to favour my travels.
DAY 7. MONDAY DECEMBER 14th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO
Some places take on special significance on my footloose journeys, and Roma, a small university town amongst steep cliffs in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains in the Kingdom of Lesotho is one of them. I have stayed here contentedly on many occasions now, usually lucky enough to get ‘my room’ as the staff term it – a cosy small thatched rondavel with attached bathroom. But best of all is the excited welcome from the wonderful fat cook, Ntsilane, whose face is that of my computer home screen and whose wide laughter and beautiful face greet my every morning in Harberton, her portrait being one of my favourite photographs and displayed prominently in my living room. When she realised I had arrived, she came running, throwing her considerable but graceful bulk into an enveloping hug and noisy dance. “Eh, Daddy Jonat’an! You are back! Welcome, welcooome!!” I do love the Basotho people so much: they have so much capacity for welcome and open warmth and they have become an important motive for all my returns to southern Africa. There’s no place quite like Lesotho.
It’s the best start to a journey: a happy welcome, comfortable lodging, and the delights of one of the world’s greatest beauty spots – known to so few.
It was a blustery day as I headed into a stiff cool wind out of Bloemfontein to the south east. Clear of the modern city, you pass tens of thousands of shanty dwellings that stretch for miles outwards into the dusty, treeless, unattractive landscape, thorn trees and fences draped by flapping trash. The ride’s not enhanced by passing a couple of large prison facilities before rolling out into a vast, undistinguished landscape of drought-browned veldt punctuated only by spinning skeletal water pumps and cisterns around which cluster desperate cattle, snuffling at the denuded earth. Each truck that passes raises a sandpaper blast of grains against my already burning cheeks.
The dull town of Dewetsdorp is every bit as dingy as it sounds: a grid of wide, rutted and potholed dust streets with a few scruffy supermarkets and dry shrubs behind spiked fences around run-down colonial era bungalows. A heavy Germanic church dominates the town – doubtless as much morally as physically. The Dewetsdorp Golf Club has dry greens and a dowdy tin-roofed clubhouse that looks to be the last beleaguered bastion of white social taste. The iron-pipe gates hang forlornly between ragged cedars and barbed wire. The letters ‘sdorp’ have fallen from the faded brick monument at the entrance to the town. It’s a half-dead town with half a name. A place to buy water and ride on.
Wepener isn’t any better, 45km down the road. But at least here you are entering the low hills that signal the nearness of Lesotho and a lazy border crossing of scant business, just a couple of passport stamps and a £1.40 fee. Then it is back to waving children and the pleasures and smiles of Lesotho and a windy ride to Roma, fifty miles away.
In Morija I pulled in for petrol at a scruffy station and bought a bun from the station shop, a few glass-fronted counters set in a rectangle and backed by scantily filled shelves of tinned beans, lurid soft drinks, soap, paraffin lamps and basic essentials. While I ate my bun I spotted Alex, an enthusiastic young American who has fallen under Lesotho’s spell and is based here attempting to set up music and education projects with deep commitment. As he put air in the tyres of his battered trail bike we struck up a conversation that extended to lunching together in a local acfe across the quiet highway. I so much enjoy these chance encounters that happen when travelling; ships that pass, hoisting our flags to salute and signal our enthusiasms, facts, opinions and to exchange information. Maybe we’ll meet again: I may visit the lodge where he is based, filming and recording local music and getting to know the life of Lesotho. We ate surprisingly tasty beef, vegetables and pap – the ubiquitous maize-meal stodge eaten in one form or another throughout this continent.
Then we rode on, parting with a wave at a junction a few miles north, he on his way to Maseru, the small, hectic capital city – no bigger than a medium sized provincial European town, and me a few more miles to the turn off for Roma.
Arrived in Roma, extricating myself from the enveloping hugs of large and cheerful Ntsilane, I was hailed by Chris, an elderly, gay lecturer at the local university, an interesting eccentric and rolling stone. He now administers the drama in education department of the national university. Hailing from Dorset originally, he is the archetypal restless academic and old ex-pat, downing his bottle of white wine as he smokes, and telling a range of stories of his political activism as an old communist and liberal academic. He’s been here in Lesotho for some years and will, I expect, end his time here. I joined him with a can of local Maluti beer as the sun slowly sank and the butts grew in the ashtray and the wine drained from the bottle. He took my card, saying, “We need people like you here to lecture and join our drama team. We like wild-cards, people who think for themselves, independent! We can’t pay a lot, but we have budgets! We could pay travel and accommodation. I will be in touch. I think your experience would be very good for us to tap!” On my last visit I met his interesting American colleague, Kat, a visiting lecturer and leader of the project and spent a couple of evenings here chatting over supper.
Well, I’m on. Any excuse to return to charming Lesotho, one of my world favourites. Maybe looking at my website will inspire him to invite me!
My sociable day continued over supper with Darren, a competitive off-road biker from Pietermaritzburg, who trains teenagers in off-road motorbiking on short trips here in Lesotho. He recently competed in the Roof of Africa bike rally – that I fortunately missed by a week or two, for accommodation becomes impossible and crazy bikers and their support vehicles fill bits of this small country. With three young lads, largely glued to their tablets and phones, exchanging every detail of their day on Facebook (but that’s the way of travelling now!) we ate supper and exchanged stories. I am pleased that I now have such a fund of biking stories that appear exotic enough to overcome any generational differences. I doubt those lads thought of me as being as old as their grandfathers. Well, I hope not. It would dash what’s left of my vanity!
Darren gave me an introduction to a fellow in Matatiele, where I am headed to re-tax my red bike. This chap runs bike tours and is considered a bit of a fixer in Matatiele. If renewing my tax becomes an issue, it’ll be good to have an adviser – and one who knows everyone in that tax office!
This is the shortest route to Matatiele – or that’s my story! As I rode here I decided to be disciplined and just stay overnight. Now I am back in ‘my’ room at the foot of the wonderful mountain passes that stretch up to the sunny Lesotho skies I am weakening and have decided already to stay here tomorrow. It’s so good to be back in Lesotho once again.