Africa 2016 – Journal one.

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.

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AFRICA 2016 – Journal two

DAY 8. TUESDAY DECEMBER 15th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO

It’s such a pity, it seemed to me as I rode the high mountains of this extraordinary little country today, that I can’t rekindle the delight of my first discovery of Lesotho in 2002. Then it was no more than a tantalising space on the map of my footloose journey in south and eastern Africa, an excuse to ‘collect’ another country. For it to still weave its magic hypnotically thirteen years and perhaps ten visits later says so much about the beauty of the country and its charming people.

Riding those sky-high roads, sweeping this way and that, twisting beneath the unblemished deep blue of the high altitude skies, in chill pure air, with vastly expansive crumpled landscapes upturned and contorted by the forces of nature all around is a humbling and engrossing experience. On my insignificant little machine that occupies so much of my concern, I am just a speck of dust in this endless natural order. The infinite blue sky domes above me and drought-browned canyons open below, streams now dry. Huge cliffs of sedimentary layers tower to my side, with legible millennia-long stories carved carelessly through by modern road engineers. The narrow tarmac layer will one day be a minuscule part of a much bigger story. In these conditions tarmac lasts a decade or so, not millennia. It’s difficult to remember, as I ride along, my nose already sun-burned and reddening, that this rumpled, contorted mountain-scape will be deep in snow again in but a few months, for the Basotho are the only Africans who regularly live with sub-zero temperatures and metres of snow, a fact that explains the geological rawness of the little kingdom, up here under the African skies and stars.

My little 650cc bike struggles up there above seven or eight thousand feet, searching for air to combat the poor petrol that I put in at Thaba Tseka, the main straggling town of the interior of Lesotho, 100 winding, mountainous miles from Roma. During those hundred miles I must have gained and lost tens of thousands of feet of altitude, the maximum being a mere 2633 metres – eight and half thousand feet – for Lesotho, boasts Africa’s highest road at about ten thousand feet – (read on, around New Year!). I love this arid, dramatic landscape and ride along with a wide smile sun-blasted onto my face, always ready to respond to friendly greetings and waves as I ride by scattered hamlets and lonely shepherds, dodging sheep, Basotho horses, donkeys, wandering cows and tumbled rocks on the tarmac. Sometimes I can see my road, graphically sketched across the mountains far ahead and far above, or etched in sinuous curves and coils far below. It’s a feat of engineering, to stretch these skeins of road across Africa’s highest mountains. Traffic is light, a few almost stationary, fume-belching lorries and minibuses grinding their way into the heights, their passengers dozing over the interminable journeys through unregarded wonders that are so familiar and make returning home so tedious.

I rode to Thaba Tseka, 100 miles each way. At some point I reached a point of no return as the petrol required to return meant either turning or continuing to the next pumps at Thaba Tseka. So fine was the ultraviolet day that I opted to ride on, only the numbness of my bum even reminding me that all this was real, not fantasy. It really is indescribably wonderful up there – amongst one of my favourite world landscapes. And so little known…

*

I turned off the tarmac and shook my way over 20kms of rock and gravel to search for the mountainside of red hot pokers – form of aloe, of which so many are endemic to southern Africa – that was so wonderful early this year. But either it is too early, or the severe drought has caused them to stunt, for they were no more than grey-green shrubs without so much as buds. In a couple or three weeks’ time I am to bring Steven, and probably his friend, Sean (owner of Milo and Marmite) to Lesotho. Steven, who lives sixty or seventy miles from Lesotho and loves biking, has never been to Lesotho – like so very many white South Africans I meet. Encouraged and emboldened by me, he will make his first motorbike journey ‘overseas’ in the New Year, before I set off elsewhere. I shall be guide, so I need to select my favourite routes and sights. Not so difficult in this magical kingdom in the sky.

*

At breakfast I found myself with two black South Africans. The man was somewhat taciturn and I never found his name before he left me talking with the very charming, buxom and smiling Mavis. They are both bus drivers and arrived yesterday from Johannesburg, bringing a sporting group to compete at the university up the street. Mavis was disposed to chat. She is an animated, cheerful person, full of the curiosity and compassion I admire in so many African women. Filled with fortitude – attributed by her to to God’s influence in her life – she once again impressed on me how different this continent would be were it run by women, not the generally useless, feckless and lazy men. Mavis has a son of 20 and daughter of 14. She is the breadwinner, her irresponsible husband having done what so many African men do after fathering children: walked out and left her. “I can’t chase him, for he might kill my children…”

A cheery woman from Swaziland, she is obviously popular with the European tourists she often drives for a tour company in Johannesburg. But to provide for her children she works long hours and drives many miles about the south of this huge continent. “I live in a ‘project’ house now,” she told me proudly, describing one of the mean block dwellings that rise outside the smart white parts of so many towns and communities in South Africa. “Some of my European guests liked me so much they gave me enough money to buy a washing machine! My daughter, she can do the washing, clean the house and look after her brother, and I have a very good neighbour… but I don’t like to leave my children so much. But what can I do…? I have to provide for them. They must be educated. My son, he’s a bit slow and has memory problems; he was hit by a car four years ago and has difficulties since then. But he can draw! I want to find some way he can work with his hands.” She spread Marg and local jam on another slice of soggy British Empire sliced toast, her weaved hair framing a smiling, chubby, unlined face with dark-chocolate skin much younger than her 41 years. “No, I don’t look my age! Everyone says it! I don’t drink. I never touched alcohol in my life. You must look after yourself, and I have to care for my children. If they die, what is there? Some kind tourist from Holland, he wrote in the internet that if Mavis is your driver, you are LUCKY! I was proud! And now, when I collect passengers they know that with Mavis they will be safe! They are HAPPY! Sometimes they give me gifts; I want to extend my house. I dream of three bedrooms so some of my foreign friends can come and stay in my small house. Already I bought the geyser and pipes! I want to have a shower; now we must use the bucket…”

“We used to live in a shack!” She confided, and I saw in my mind’s eye the tens of thousands of crude zinc and firewood sheds in which so many of the poor South African black population live. “OH! In winter they are so COLD and in summer it is HOT, and my daughter, she suffers from asthma and I always had to be paying hospital bills for her. No, my house is small, but it is not a shack any more! I give thanks to God! I believe in God you know!” I changed the subject quickly, for disbelief is one area in which so many indoctrinated, devout Africans cannot come to terms with the western world.

Mavis was a delight to converse with. She was tired and drawn from her tiresome duties and being on call half the night to drive her charges back from bars. But she epitomised the fortitude and strength of African women, and an acceptance and gratitude for the things she has, rather than a tirade against the things she lacks. Give an African woman money and she will feed and educate her children: give it to the average man and he will drink it and go home and beat his wife – if he hasn’t already left her to her own devices… I know it’s a generalisation, and I apologise to any of my Ghanaian family who may read this, but it is a generally sad truth about so many poorly educated men on this endlessly fascinating continent. If the likes of Mavis ruled this continent, it wouldn’t be in the undoubted mess that it is…

*

Back ‘home’, weary but happy from the purest air possible and endless sun and concentration on serpentine mountain roads, I bought myself a six-pack of milk stout and joined the garrulous Chris with his wine and cigarettes and old stories of anti-establishment action, and later the privileged but engaging South African biker group around the dinner table, back, glowing and enthusiastic from energetic rides about the rough country around here. From a large, mainly but not exclusively, white public school in the ‘Midlands’ of Natal, they see little of the reality of the hard life around them, enjoying that especial white South African ability to keep their heads in the social sand. Decent teenagers, polite and fun, I couldn’t help thinking that their extracurricular credits would be better engaged by staying a couple of weeks in a rural village – or Mavis’s ‘shack’ – and seeing the life to which they have such an ability to be blind, rather than scoring points by ability to drive cars or ride motorbikes safely. The vast majority of people around their privileged bubble will never own or drive a vehicle, they are too busy trying to get through life. But then, I suppose that’s me expressing my political and social polemic in much the same lengthy way that Chris expounds his!

*

A fun day. Tomorrow I must move on and try to sort out my bike tax. I received an email from Rico in Kenya this lunchtime. The money I transmitted by the efficient online company, Exchange4Free (good international tip number two!) late on Sunday afternoon reached his bank this morning. He suggests that my Kenyan bike will be registered in the name of his Kenyan wife, Adelight, and we then draw up a ‘hire’ agreement for me to use it outside Kenyan borders. Ah, African bureaucracy.

And the shameful thing is, we taught them to do it this way! The Empire has lasting ripples, some worse even than Kleenex bread…

DAY 9. WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 16th 2015. MATATIELE, SOUTH AFRICA

A year ago, to the day, I arrived in Matatiele, a town of little attraction, to find it in the grips of Reconciliation Day, a politically correct bank holiday that replaces some Boer War victory commemoration and later a religious festival, when both became divisive in the new ‘Rainbow Nation’. South Africa spends quite a bit of energy necessarily rewriting its history and myths to fit new social principles.

So history – mine that is – repeats itself. I came a twelvemonth ago and found the vehicle tax office closed; I came today and found the same. Huh.

*

The new road across the top of Lesotho cuts the country in half and saves the very circuitous communications that existed before. Now you can speed from one side of the kingdom to the other in 150 miles – allowing for the three dozen very irritating speed humps on the second half of the journey. It’s a Chinese road of course, built by the new colonisers of Africa, colonisers with even less interest in the rights and good of African peoples than all the previous invaders. China just wants the power over resources for future gain, at extreme cost to the ecology of our fragile planet. There’s not much hope for the long term future of mankind on this planet, having managed to rape it in the last two or three centuries pretty conclusively. Now the Chinese have entered the ring, I see precious little hope at all. It may be the only home we have, but we do nothing to respect that fact.

But the new road sweeps up and over the central mountains of the little country, not as high here in the southern half as they are in the north, but still pretty impressive crumpled terrain. It was a trying ride though, with gale force, blustery winds funnelling amongst the rocks and ridges. Wind is perhaps the most unsettling of conditions for riding motorbikes, at least on winding roads. A line selected through a bend visually may well have to be instantaneously adapted as gusts and blasts change the dynamics. It makes for concentration and wearing rebalancing, gear changing and observation. The noise of the wind is discomfiting too, as it whistles and buffets across my helmet. Add a spaghetti serpentine road and it’s tiring. But the scenery makes up for a lot, despite the streaming cold that has settled on me – as always in my second week in Africa. It must be the change in climate for it catches me here in southern Africa or in West Africa – every time. I am tonight completely full of cold, sneezing and sniffling and unable to breathe. Or it could just be air travel, for it happens on most visits to USA as well!

Somewhere high on top of Lesotho I almost fell off my bike in amazement as a Thwaites Beer lorry blew past on a long brown hill! At least it added a chuckle to my ride. The eastern side if Lesotho is quite different, with dry brown and red soils of all shades from Devon red to Sienna brown, pink, cerise and white. Expansive vistas are formed of patchworks of reds, browns and fawns of all hues beneath the huge deep blue sky. It’s a unique scene, with shadowed canyons carved into the rounded hills. But now it is dry and parched. Even the mighty Orange River, one of southern Africa’s biggest rivers, flowing from Lesotho’s heights westwards to the Atlantic, and here called the Senqu, is no more than a torpid brown dribble in this drought that has gripped the continent. In many places you could paddle across a few feet of turgid brown water only ankle deep, and here and there you could cross dry-shod – and this was a big flowing river, a hundred yards wide when I was last riding its banks in February. No water falls into the gullies and canyons and the few rowing ferry boats are upturned on cracked dry mudflats. The landscape is dusty and worn, the animals thin and desultory, crops looking bleak and the prospect of rising prices for foodstuffs pressurising these subsistence economies. This year even Victoria Falls, that fabulous wall of water where the great Zambezi plunges into that mesmerising gorge, has made the news for being virtually dry and the river emptier than it is in the dry season. You can walk across the mightiest falls in Africa.

*

Matatiele has no interest for me – and I rode eight kilometres round town looking for something, so I speak with authority! I was also looking for a place to stay since the quite pleasant guest house I used a year ago was not answering their phone. It’s probably the tidiest town around the region; the ugly Transkei, one of the cosily named but depressing ‘homelands’ of the apartheid era, starts immediately south of here. There’s nothing of cultural or architectural interest, just an administrative and commercial centre, some quite over-priced guest houses and a few fast food outlets as the choices for supper. Not so much as a restaurant, just cardboard burgers and floppy chips in a hard-surfaced boombox behind the petrol station.

The de Berg guest house is acceptable; quite comfortable in fact in my range of accommodations. In South Africa I carry a cheap phone with which to pull up outside and ask availability and rates, since everyone puts their numbers on the sign boards. It saves a lot of trundling round pushing bells and waiting, even if I have to pull off my helmet, gloves and goggles at every gate and switch off the bike. The de Berg had a couple of self catering rooms visible from the road behind a pleasant garden, rooms not unlike garages with patio doors into the garden. It’s quite a common form of guest house in South Africa, virtually always white owned, for I am in the old white part of town – the smart end. My room is clean, en suite, with a microwave, fridge, and terrace and costs about £19.50, just within my £20 maximum. Ah, I remember those dollar-a-night places I used to find. I do appreciate my relative wealth in my middle age! Glad I did it, but glad I don’t have to any more!

Well, I expect tomorrow to be a stressful day dealing with African bureaucracy; coping with road tax ten months out of date. We’ll see.

DAY 10. THURSDAY DECEMBER 17th 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA

It took a ghastly three and a half hours to re-tax my motorbike in Matatiele this morning. But it is done: legal for another twelve months. African bureaucracy gives the impression of taking some beating – but is vulnerable, just the same. A wide smile, talking enthusiastically at people and acting patience – however I may be feeling – wins through in most situations.

So I now seem to reside at 15 Tayler Street, Matatiele, the home of the manager of the road traffic department of the town! It appears that the law changed this year, and I now have to prove residence to tax my motorbike…

Determined to be done with this irritation as quickly as possible, I was at the vehicle tax office at 8.05 this morning, the five minutes being the time it took to obtain a photocopy of my passport in town as soon as the shops opened. Last year I had the frustrating experience of arriving at the tax office at 11.00 and being told, “No more forms, come tomorrow!” Why, I wondered then – and still – didn’t they just send someone to a photocopier? But that takes initiative and it’s so much easier just to say, “come tomorrow”… Actually, that’s one of the reasons my tax was overdue by eleven months! I lost patience and left a year ago.

“Oh, but you must have proof of residence,” said the young woman handing out forms – of which, at 8.05, she still had a large heap. I pointed out that that was a problem. “Go to the Municipal Offices; they will give you the proof.”

So I rode across town to to the Council Offices, where a beleaguered receptionist agreed that that was just a way for the vehicle licensing office to pass the buck. “Why do they send you here? There’s nothing we can do!” She called across town and spoke with her counterpart back at the tax office, berating them for constantly sending people to her and making her seem responsible for their disappointment. “It’s better you go back and talk to Mr Paton,” the apologetic receptionist told me. “Mr Paton…”

Back to the tax office, the first hour gone. Mr Paton, it transpired, was the manager, a tall, cheerful white man – busy in a meeting for the next forty minutes. I entertained myself chatting to his receptionist. You never know how being friendly and charming to anyone anywhere will ease your passage! At last I was ushered into the chief and laid on my apologies, respect and charm with a trowel. I explained my situation and he chuckled at the absurdity of the new laws he is expected to uphold and after a while wrote a letter ‘to whom it may concern’, confirming that Mr Jonathan Bean was residing at 15 Tayler Street, Matatiele, signed it and stamped it with a flourish. Better still, he said, “Now, go and see the woman on the extreme right-hand desk in the front office. I think she’s wearing brown today. Don’t go to the one with glasses, she’ll make trouble, but with Busa, you should be alright!” We chatted at some length, the queue outside increasing, but I was determined to maintain my advantage as he copied my forms and certificates and finally said, “Right, these papers are all you need. Now take them to the public office, and remember, the woman on the right! Enjoy your travels!”

The public office, without air-conditioning, was hectic. Fifty people formed sort of queues for the three windows. At the licensing window on the right was a Chinese family, obviously changing ownership on several vehicles. The Chinese don’t enjoy any respect here. “Eh! Look at this! Even their writing is different!” said my neighbour, a rotund Xhosa man sporting a leather hat. “They have been at least an hour!” I was seventeenth in the queue…

Well, everything has its time. At last I was able to get to the window and smile frantically and joke with the woman I had been advised to see. Several minutes later, contorting myself to talk and listen through the letterbox hole at the bottom of her window, I was able to pay my £25 – penalty for the last year and tax for the next (British bike tax costs £81 per annum). It was now 11.32. It felt like a day’s work. But CLK 074EC rides for another year.

*

Buying medicine for my streaming cold and sun-stick for my nose in a pharmacy, the pharmacist, a pleasant white woman, suggested that next time I just ask any resident to lend me a utility bill and go to the Town Hall or a police station and sign an affidavit that I am living in their house. “That’s all I did. I’m not a resident either. I came here to live with my boyfriend. It’s a stupid law!”

*

I decided on an easy day then. After a leisurely coffee and sandwich I set off out of town, soon turning onto a gravel road that in forty miles cuts two sides off a long triangle of tar road. Bowling along trailing a great feather of dust behind me, I cut at least 100 kilometres from my ride. It’s a road I’ve used before, through expansive rolling farmlands that makes you understand the attraction that this land must have had for space-starved Europeans in colonial times. There’s so much land here – especially if you forcibly clear out the natives, of course. It’s greener down here on the east of Lesotho, vast undulating miles of grazing and arable lands dotted with small coppices of fir trees beneath the powerful sun. Far away rise the blue mountains of Lesotho.

But what do people do out here? What are their entertainments when they finish looking after the cattle or ploughing the vast acres of arable? Their neighbours may be miles away, the nearest towns tens of miles. Dusty roads separate the remote farms. Black workers live in basic dwellings separate from the white farmers’ families. A flutter of washing on lines in the far distance is the only sign of life. It’s a lonely life calling for simple tastes. Often you see the same surnames on widely scattered farm name boards.

*

According to my conversations with Mr Paton, there is a groundswell of disillusion with the present politics of South Africa. More and more people, he says, are questioning the ANC leadership. The ANC is the old party of the ‘revolutionaries’ who fought so hard and long for some measure of equal rights for the black majority in South Africa, and it seems to me that much of their popular support is through loyalty to the ideal and sentiment for the old personalities of the struggles rather than political judgement. But now, with Zuma, ill-educated and thoroughly corrupt, in power, alternatives are at last becoming viable and the population realising that they have choices and are ill served by the present administration. “How is it they can buy private jets but I still don’t have the clean water they promised at the last election? That’s the way people are beginning to think now,” said Mr Paton. Zuma has many times been accused of corruption but manages to ride out the storm with the thick skin of African politicians, building a lavish personal palace complete with huge swimming pool, explained away as a water supply for fire protection! There are local elections coming in April and Mr Paton thinks a message will be sent by the electorate to the incumbents. I wonder? This is Africa, after all. Many black voters are convinced that if they vote for some alternative party, the ANC will know and take retribution.

*

I’ve returned to the Underberg Inn, a faded hotel I have used on various occasions. Now I can even ask for the best room, with a decent double bed and a large old fashioned en suite room. I wonder if the management has changed since I was here last? Mind you, I notice the sheets are still gossamer-thin and holey as before. I commented a year ago that there were no black drinkers in the bar and that the place was undeniably scruffy. It seems improved and there are not only a few black drinkers now, but black bar staff too. Maybe the Underberg Inn is struggling into the 21st century at last. At £12.70, it suits my taste anyway.

The strong winds have continued, chilling my ride and making me tired. I shall sleep well.

(Incidentally, next day I found that the management of the Underberg Inn has indeed changed. I congratulated the new manager, saying that I had noticed the changes).

DAY 11. FRIDAeY DECEMBER 18th 2015. MAMOHASE, LESOTHO

Sometime – rarely – I seem to discover the absolute distilled essence of what travelling is about. It’s happened right now, as I write, sitting on a Lesotho hillside, deep in rural Africa beneath a bright half moon in almost total silence. I can hear frogs in the valley below, a distant barking dog and the cries of a few children playing in the gathering dark, but they are quietening too now. Voices carry across the deep valley before me and a flicker here and there shows where a Basotho family has lit a lantern in their distant rondavel. The moon casts hard shadows of the palm tree beneath which I am sitting on a plank bench. A few puffs of cloud hang still in the night sky above the cut-out black silhouette of the mountains. Stars are appearing. It is utterly, completely still. A spellbinding African evening.

Behind me the baked earth walls of my room tonight are etched with traditional designs and a couple of fine oil lamps formed from cows’ horns are casting a warm, gentle light through the door of my sleeping place, its walls painted in ethnic Basotho designs. It has a thatched roof and a beaten earth floor. The lamps flicker gently in the round room. Orion, my fond African star group has appeared, drifting up the eastern sky, sword pointing upwards in the odd displacement I sense when I am in this other hemisphere. A few cicadas scrape their night music. A plate rattles in the kitchen. I am at peace, with the slight aroma of fragrant local woodsmoke in the air as my supper is prepared. It’s worth the discomfort, the inevitable lonely spells, the hours of deep personal questioning and justification; it’s worth it when it all comes together like this in these rare moments. It is these moments that keep me so restless and questing. It’s this that keeps me travelling.

Yet a few hours ago, battling along on top of Africa, I was wondering what the hell I was doing it all for: I could be comfortable at home (in the inevitable rain, no doubt) with the prospect of a cheerful Friday pint at the Church House Inn amongst my own community. But here I was, fighting a stiff wind, surprisingly chilled and laboriously fighting my little motorbike through thin air that it didn’t appreciate. Mind you, even as I struggled I was deeply aware of just where I was: on Africa’s highest tarred road, right up there on the roof of the continent, twisting and leaning through countless bends – motorcycling heaven I suppose, had I not been chilled and tired. For the roads I took today are all the highest it’s possible to ride in Africa. First, the renowned ‘adventure route’ so beloved of South Africans, the Sani Pass, that drives straight up the side of the Drakensburg mountains from the Eastern Cape to high Lesotho. For most South Africans this is the limit of their Basotho experience, an ‘adventure’ drive up the twisting rock trail for lunch and a cool beer at ‘Africa’s Highest Pub’, the Sani Top Inn. From Sani Pass, I rode on, right over the top of Lesotho, up most of the time above nine thousand feet and topping out at ten and a half thousand, and then down perhaps Lesotho’s most dramatic serpentine road, the Moteng Pass. It was all magnificent, of course, but my bike was struggling with the thin air, I was cold and hungry and sneezing.

How moods can change! Now the stars are twinkling, oh, and one just streaked down the sky, a dying ember of star-dust! It’s delightfully warm, the frogs are singing, and no element – except perhaps the intrusion of my iPad (brightness turned to minimum) – is out of place in this perfect evening.

*

A year ago I stayed at Mamohase B&B, probably the most contented stay of my journey. An insignificant signboard points off the curling Moteng road and the approach is amusing, a gravel track that deteriorates after half a mile into a rutted path, that in turn brings me across pitted bedrock for the last four hundred yards. At one point, Moruti, the gentle, entrepreneurial owner, has written a sign: ‘Don’t give up! Almost there!’ Last year I had one of those chance recommendations from a barman in a coffee bar in the mountains and I enjoyed a delightful family evening with Moruti’s Basotho cousins from Johannesburg. His cousin Thabiso and I sat in this very garden drinking Glenmorangie beneath the stars. I took several portraits that now adorn my walls at home and determined that sometime I would return. A few days short of a year later I am here – and not disappointed.

*

I slept fitfully, the tissue thinness of the Underberg Inn’s sheets causing the coarse blanket to itch until I made mid-sleep adjustments, something I have to do frequently in the cheap hotels I frequent! I am adept at remaking African beds, just as I am at repairing African lavatory cisterns…

Over breakfast at a nearby cafe I met Gary, extensively tattooed and dreadlocked but part of the biker fraternity that knows no bounds of class, age or culture. He has returned to Underberg to look after his ageing father, having lived the past several years in east London, importing restored XT500 motorbikes (second favourite of all the bikes I have had, after only my Elephant) from South Africa, where they are cheap to London where are very expensive. Be sure I got his contact details, for I know a fellow in Middelburg, somewhere in the Karoo Desert the other side of Lesotho from here who restores old BMWs, particularly the same model as my old friend, the African Elephant. Seems you take them to bits and send all the bits in different crates to avoid duty, importing them as ‘spares’. Clever… He sent me to see Malcolm in Himeville, on my route to Sani Pass, another English passport holder and biker. My red bike has been leaking oil since its service, so I took it to Malcolm, owner of a smart repair garage. But it still leaks, despite his efforts. No matter! I just may have to top it up now and again…

“You’d better get going before a storm comes,” said Malcolm. “The storms here can be vicious. The lightning… When it’s as hot as this, the storms build up,” he said, thoroughly frightening me. “Ya, last year five people died from lightning strikes in Himeville.” Himeville is a small scattered community no more populous than Harberton. “Ja, only a couple of weeks ago five cows were killed. Hey, Patrick, you saw those cows,” he called across to his black mechanic, struggling to release a huge, worn tractor tyre. “I say, you saw those cows…”

“They were five, lying like this,” said Patrick, laying five spanners parallel on the cement floor of the workshop. “All in a line, heads facing the same way. A piece of barbed wire across their necks. Three dead. Dead…”

It put the fear in me as I gazed up for the next hour at the clouds slowly gathering high above the mountain wall ahead of me as I bounced and fought up the track, watching with grim attention. For it reminded me of my most frightening day on my 2002 trip. That time I entered Lesotho through one of the most remote entry points and rode over ‘roads’ no better than goat tracks across passes ten thousand feet high. It was incredibly remote. For two whole days I was off-road on rock, mud and gravel – on my own. During the morning of the second day I was approaching Sani Top across what was then still tough ground. The clouds gathered; the sky darkened; a storm brewed – a storm such as I have never seen before or since. I was out in the absolute middle of nowhere, no shelter, nothing. Just me on a large metal object filled with highly flammable propellant. I was terrified.

Crashing along in mud and puddles, soaked by now to my underpants, there was an almighty crash that seemed right over my head and almost threw me off my bike in shock. I turned and looked across the sopping bush land about me. Three hundred yards away the sodden grass was burning. It’s the most frightening hour of my life. At last I splashed into the Sani Top Inn, spreading a puddle of muddy water about me. An elderly woman looked me up and down. She was on an ‘adventure tour’ by Land Rover, up in bumpy comfort for lunch at the top of the Sani Pass. “Oh, goodness,” she fluted in an accent straight from Surrey, “have you just come up that awful pass?”

No, lady, I felt like saying. I just came through the jaws of hell!

So just the mention of lightning puts the fear in me.

*

Sani Pass, now at midday, at the height of the sun and heat, a tiring bumpy ride up the semi-vertical trail into the sky. I’ve often reflected how much I enjoyed trail riding until I began to ride about Africa. Somehow, a few miles of mud and rock in Yorkshire or Devon just don’t hold the attraction any more. Here in Africa so many of the roads I have to take to get from one place to another involve trail riding! It’s not sport, but the normal way to ride. The last few kilometres of Sani Pass satisfy any trail riding ambition as it zig-zags in rocky steps and inclines up to the clear, infinite Lesotho sky.

The pub at the top, bathed in sun today, the heat tempered by the altitude, provided a break, a beer and soup – and conversation with a hiking Finn. Then the road has been tarred since last year, making for an easy ride across the top to the small town of Mohotlong, where I thought I might stay. But there’s not much attraction in Mohotlong so I turned left instead and headed for the heights. Here,too, the road has been tarred since my last visit. It’s remarkable up there; a limitless contorted landscape without a single tree. The mountains recede in shades of blue and grey until they touch the clear, brittle blue sky. The road sweeps this way and that, new vistas revealing themselves at every turn and tweak of the bars. I have to concentrate; there are wandering sheep, pebble scars, odd patches of newly raked gravel and chippings – and the views, the incredible, world-class views of the heights of Africa, dry, barren and uncompromising; mounded and twisted, softly curvaceous and fissured; stubbly coated and rock strewn. It’s terrific, wonderful and perhaps even ‘awesome’, the most overused superlative in modern language.

*

So to the top of the twisting Moteng Pass, the road strewn like a carelessly thrown thread across the cliffs, ravines, slopes and escarpments, often visible thousands of feet below, incredibly attached in a single sinuous strip of semi-vertical tar. Then, as the road levels into wider valleys leading to the lowlands, I look for the sign to Mamohase B&B, named after Moruti’s mother (mama of Hase, the senior and now late, brother of Moruti, himself last but one of eight brothers).

I was immediately recognised and warmly welcomed and shown to a large rondavel, the original family house in which Moruti and all his brothers were born – built in 1969. It’s a thatched house about 25 feet around, the outer walls decorated with fine scratched shapes in the mud plaster. Moruti’s late father worked in the South African mines and sent money home to build other structures for his expanding family. Later, after their father’s death, the brothers decided to make the house into a bed and breakfast venture with a cultural bent and Moruti sensitively manages it. He has education to high school and a quiet sincerity that works well with visitors, the ones who find this remote place – usually through recommendation. He has three cows, a donkey and goat and grazing rights in distant parts of the mountains. All land in Lesotho belongs to the king. The difficulty now is that water has not flowed for three months. His vegetable garden is dead and my bath water had to be carried up from far below the house. I took the traditional ‘Basotho bath’ to which Moruti introduced me a year ago: a large bowl on the floor, a mat, and bucket. You kneel on the mat and wash the top half, then stand in the bowl to wash the rest. It’s surprisingly efficient – and of course I am well used to bathing in a bucket! The lavatory is perhaps the cleanest long-drop earth closet in the world, in a stick-enclosed corner of the property. Moruti certainly runs an attractive, notable bed and breakfast.

Supper was delicious, cooked by Mamohase herself, grilled chicken with a lot of dishes of vegetables – pap, potato, butternut, tomato and pumpkin leaves in place of the spinach that has died by the drought. Moruti and I ate with our fingers. That’s not a habit I enjoy, but when in Rome I forget my distaste of greasy fingers. Pride would never let me request a fork.

*

And so back to my silent room with its stars and moons painted on the brown earth walls. I’m sitting by the cow-horn lamp with the sound of my own blood the loudest thing I can hear, all other sounds deadened by the earth structure, the attractive pointed thatch on natural poles and the deep rural night. It is silent, warm and utterly peaceful. All’s right with the world and I reckon I will sleep like the dead, my face flushed from many miles of high altitude blustery wind.

*

Sometime around three I went out and looked up at the velvet mantle of the southern skies, punctured by a million stars. I haven’t experienced silence like this since I slept somewhere in the Great South of the Sahara 25 years ago. It is the deepest silence, the blood pumping in my ears the only auditory sense. Nothing moved except the gently wheeling stars far above in the infinite night sky. It is perfect. This is why I continue to travel when most of my contemporaries have long given up! For a time it is possible to feel at one with the world, content and satisfied, needing nothing more.

DAY 12. SATURDAY DECEMBER 19th 2015. HARRISMITH, SOUTH AFRICA

What Moruti and his mother, Mamohase, have created with their ‘cultural experience’ B&B is remarkable. It’s a brief chance for people like me to see something of the inside of Basotho culture.

Well rested, I joined Moruti for breakfast, his mother having gone away to ‘visit a funeral’ as we would say in Ghana. Some hours away, she would still be expected to pay her respects to a distant relative who died a week or two ago. It’s a way of showing solidarity in a non-materialist culture. So Moruti cooked breakfast, a bowl of starchy, gloopy sorghum porridge, scrambled eggs and home made steamed bread.

Moruti offers a few extras from his B&B, and I opted to go for a village walk with his charming cousin Moeti. A well educated young man, but unemployed as is so common, he keeps some cattle, looks after an aged mother and helps out when Moruti needs a local guide, the tour that lasted well over three fascinating hours, costing a paltry couple of pounds.

This has been a stiflingly hot day, up around 40 degrees, I should imagine. A hot day to walk the bone dry dusty paths of the local area but a delightful thing to do amongst such friendly villagers. Moeti is a cheerful 35 year old and knows his culture well enough to answer my questions and assess my interests. It’s an area of straggling habitations dotted about the thin soil on rocky slopes down to a deep river canyon with steep pink and white water-sculpted cliffs. Everything is dust-dry now though; everyone complaining that they haven’t seen drought like this in their lifetimes. No water flows anywhere, nor has it done for three months.

Many houses are still rondavels with neatly thatched roofs, topped by a circular cap of flattened zinc sheet. I love the sturdy, earthy proportions of these traditional dwellings, so well insulated against both the intense summer heat and the below-freezing temperatures of winter. Increasingly, however, as money becomes available, rectangular blocks with red zinc roofs and ugly top-hung windows are replacing the traditional, as in so much of Africa. On one hand cement block and zinc needs less maintenance; on the other, they are part of the material economy that is so hard on rural peoples.

We stopped at one old brown rondavel and took local sorghum beer with an old lady, whose work is to produce the thick, slightly sour fermented beer. An elderly neighbour drank there too, with a lot of goodwill and laughter. I felt completely welcome – as a person, not as a source of income. That’s what’s so fine about the Basotho: they want to relate on a very immediate personal level, their smiles and jokes conveying so much warmth. The ‘beer’ was served in an old plastic drugs’ container, about a pint of the interesting liquid that Moruti and I shared. Next he took me to see the sangoma, the traditional healer and soothsayer, a jocular woman in her seventies, with great good humour by the name of Malehloma. For twenty Rand (under £1) she would tell my fortune from a handful of shells, bones and small items that I should blow on and then scatter on the floor. Nonsense, maybe, but harmless and intriguing. I squatted on a mat while she intoned a long prayer or incantation, that seemed to be both Catholic and in praise of her ancestors. (One thing you can say about the Catholics is that they are pragmatic about allowing the old faiths to continue so long as they make their millions from their organised one…) I blew on my cupped hands filled with objects and threw them onto the beaten earth floor. The old woman, white beads strung round her greying hair, rocked back and forth and declaimed her wisdom. I have frequent stomach problems (completely wrong! My guts are tough as stainless steel – they have to be to share scruffy plastic containers of not very clean local beer!), but, she assured me, everything in life will be alright (probably completely true, but she could see that from the wide smile on my face)! Cynic I may be, but I enjoyed the experience and seeing inside her bare rondavel, with a double bed, a heap of winter blankets – the national dress of this little kingdom, a few piled food containers, two big tin cabin trunks and a couple of hard chairs. This could describe the home of a vast majority of rural Africans, and people all across the world outside our ridiculous material existence.

We called to pay our respects to the village chief, Mobeli, a friendly elderly man with not many teeth and an unusually elaborate bungalow. He introduced his rotund wife, Masekhobe, ‘the real chief around here!’ Before calling out the grandchildren to meet ‘Mr Bean!’, the character as popular here as anywhere around the world.

The village bar was a respite to share a warm beer (and ‘tip’ Moeti with a small, £2 bottle of local brandy). An old Western played on a TV on the counter behind a ceiling-high steel grille and entertained a selection of under-occupied village youth and a middle aged man whose floppy cotton sun hat had only brim, no crown whatsoever.

The sun beat relentlessly down, almost exactly overhead at noon, two days from the equinox and only a couple of degrees or so south of the tropic. I still had 100 miles or more to ride, for I told Yvonne that I would reach Durban tomorrow. After a rest in Moruti’s compound, I loaded up my horse once again and rode back over the appalling approach, down to Butha Buthe, a small busy town at the junction to the South African border and within an hour was back in the Republic.

South Africans rave about the Golden Gate Park, the steep escarpment of the Drakesburg mountains. But it’s all a bit bland and commercialised to those who know the real mountains on the other side, in tiny, encircled Lesotho. In Lesotho there are few smart hotels, coffee shoppes, souvenir shops and little attempt to tame the landscape as in South Africa. Here people cruise in flashy polished cars, windows wound up, and stop in car parks to wonder at nature. A few miles away as the crow flies, people ride sure-footed horses, tend sheep, live and work these dramatically high mountains and cook over aromatic wood fires in thatched rondavels. Down here on the South African there is even a ‘Basotho Cultural Village’ – a fake of what’s across the high border and a place I have given wide berth every time I pass – the reality is so good, with sorghum beer, laughing sangomas, village bars with warm beer and smiling people everywhere.

*

I rode to Harrismith, a beat-up sort of town at the junction of two major highways, linking Durban, Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. The Grand National Hotel is a gloomy, run down place with the right price. With my eyes shut, it’s fine, despite thin sheets, chipped furnishings and walls that didn’t see a paintbrush in about twenty years. But for £9, what do you expect? It was once quite a smart hotel, I imagine, and doubtless whites only in those days. It stands beside a wide pot-holed boulevard at the edge of town. Across the road is a dreary bar that is the antithesis of Lesotho: a handful of overweight, pot-bellied, tattooed, hair-covered, extraordinarily ungraceful Afrikaans people, smoking like chimneys, inappropriately dressed and unsmiling. Bad rock music played, a TV showed inevitable rugby; there’s not a black skin in sight and it feels just like the bad old days…

Better a chain restaurant at the motorway services half a mile away than that for supper. At least the cheerful black servers smiled at me as if I was a person, passing the time of day with wide smiles and shining eyes. The bar, by contrast, felt like the last stand of a dying culture, with the small breeding stock a not insignificant problem. I did wonder, looking at those dull people in small-town Harrismith if the white gene pool wasn’t getting rather shallow… Grim indeed.

It’s 300 kilometres from here to Durban by the highway. I’ll probably take the side roads and be a bit longer over the journey. Then I will stay a week in Durban with my old friends Yvonne (my Ilkley neighbour all those years ago) and Mike, her husband. That’ll be Christmas 2015.

DAY 13. SUNDAY DECEMBER 20th 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

It’s only ten months since I left Kloof, a rather white suburb of Durban, up in the hills behind the big city. It’s become very familiar over the past visits to southern Africa. Home of Yvonne and Mike, I’ve used it as a bit of a home from home on all my visits. I’ll stay a week for Christmas before I continue my travels.

From Harrismith to Kloof is about 200 miles, a fairly tedious journey, starting out with 60 or 70 miles of highway, the N3, busy this Sunday before Christmas. Incredible to see how loaded people’s vehicles are! Literally, the kitchen sink goes along on holiday. It’s as if they are all going deep into the African bush – while most are probably going to camp sites in the Golden Gate Park, roof boxes, vast trailers, festooned belongings. As one who increasingly appreciates travelling light, I wonder at it the way I do when I am in airports with my tiny backpack watching people go on two weeks’ holiday to Spain…

Then it’s through the ‘Midlands Meander’ a touristic area full of people living as much a self conscious colonial lifestyle as they still can with the arrogant white privilege that irritates me so much. I’ve stayed in hotels along that road where white people in panelled bars, decked out with baronial shields and stuffed game, talked of the etiquette of the next fox hunt; whether women riders should wear stocks or ties, and whether maids of honour at the next weekend’s wedding preceded or followed the bride; conversations that upset my every liberal principle. As they trilled and fluted I sat in my grubby bike clothes and then went out to talk to the (black) security guard, a charming young man dreaming of attending college, paid peanuts and small tips and living his nights in a tin shack in the yard, reading old text books by candlelight, born with the wrong colour skin. Happily that privileged life has died a natural death just about everywhere in the world except pockets of white South Africa. To me the ‘Midlands Meander’ is one of those, lined with white-owned businesses selling sentimental ‘stuff’ that purports to be ‘a taste of Africa’. Huh.

And so to Kloof on its cool hill, a warm welcome from old friends and waiting chilled craft beers. Yvonne was my scatty neighbour in the flat upstairs in Yorkshire almost 40 years ago. And with Mike I have bonded very fondly, even making the introduction to the British museum design company under whose flag he now flies his South African business. A company from whom I got nothing except the most stressful nine months of my life, when they took me on as a ‘consultant’. But that’s another story, thank goodness.

So, a calm few days before I plan the next parts of my journey.

AFRICA 2016 – JOURNAL THREE

DAYS 14 TO 20. DECEMBER 21st to 27th. 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

Christmas in South Africa. It’s been a time of enjoying old friendships and plenty of hospitality amongst Yvonne and Michael’s circle – but not a time of exciting stories to blog, so I’ll deal with the eight days briefly.

Two part-days were spent at a BMW dealer searching for my mysterious oil leak; four hours one day and another two the next, at a cost of £47. Neither day achieved anything much at all and in the end, having watched the bike taken to pieces time after time and new ‘solutions’ used to seal the leaking pipe, I applied half an hour of logical common sense and 25 pen’orth of materials and added a second Jubilee clip, and stopped the leak myself. Sadly, there’s another as well, but even one less felt like achievement after all the ‘specialists’ failed.

*

It was planned that I was to return to Steven after Christmas as he had agreed to take his first motorbike journey ‘overseas’ and come to Lesotho with me. I was looking forward to introducing him to the delights almost on his doorstep and riding with him for three or four days of his holiday time. When I left him he was complaining of shoulder pains. It transpires, from a text received, that he has torn a ligament and has been told not to wear his helmet and ride for at least three weeks. Bah! What a shame. Maybe we can go later. I had to rethink my vague plans.

*

One morning came an amusing email from Rico up in Kenya. I’ll copy it as it came in:

Now that you are in Kloof, you will have time and opportunity to check your email again.
I completed the preps of my car before travelling to Nairobi to check out the pikipiki’s I found on internet. Then a stroke of luck: I went to buy some oil to service the hydraulic bottle-jack that belongs to the car. While talking with the shop-owner, I mentioned going to Nairobi to look for a bike, when suddenly he froze! He raised his finger and asked if I knew Oscar? Well, I knew Oscar, but by the name of Sergio! He is a Spanish born, Italian-raised expat, married to a Somali woman with whom he sired 6 kids. After this feat, the woman left to Somalia, with the kids! For obvious reasons (and a few others, I assume) he didn’t follow her there and he now has left Kitale and lives in Eldoret. He is a mechanic and always travels by motorbike. My friend, the shop-keeper, suddenly remembered that Sergio had offered him his bike for sale and he immediately took his telephone to call him to see if it was still available. It took a while to get in touch, but once I got him on the line, it turns out that he is upgrading to a bigger bike and selling his current one.
It is a Honda XL 250 (S? L? R?) and has done just over 35k. He has bought it new and always serviced it himself. Also the documents are in order and in his name. He is asking 250,000/= Shilling for it, but I think I can negotiate it down a bit.

So maybe soon I will own my fourth current bike. As yet (December 28th) I haven’t heard from Rico, but internet connections – and electricity – are patchy in Kenya.

*

The weather was as bizarre as so much of the rest of the world this Christmas. One day it reached a singeing 41C/ 106F and the next few plunged to 17C/ 63F with pouring rain that felt chilly. I love the 41, when all my muscles just relax, but I hate the ‘chilly’ 17 degrees. What are we doing to our beleaguered planet? There’s deep flooding in northern England, desperate drought in much of southern Africa, bush fires raging in Australia, flooding in South America, twisters in Texas and in Washington DC my American family was indoors on Christmas Day with the air conditioning cranked up – when it should have been cold and maybe snowy.

*

I got to reflecting on everyone’s obsession with 24 hour news, the internet and bloody Facebook with all its awful trivia and self-promotion that I find unhealthy. Endless, wall to wall, tedious news channels are feeding so much insecurity to people. There’s an unpleasant titillating quality to all the melodramatic and salacious presentation of so-called news, repeated and shouted at us all the time, camera angles manipulated to the most exploitative and provocative possible. Then there’s the even less trustworthy sharing of information, and just as often, misinformation, on social media. With this bombardment of manipulative thrill and licentiousness our fears are enhanced, our prejudices strengthened and our security undermined. Sky News, CNN and all the others preoccupy TV screens, endlessly repeating horrors made meaningless by repetition, the cameras rushing on to more ‘exciting’ news, leaving the injured and dead and bereaved without a thought the moment the ‘news’ becomes repetitive; racing on to novel vicarious horror to keep us entertained and titillated. Smart phones now occupy every palm in an obsessive twitch of fingers and covert glances, real conversations interrupted by others’ trivia; experience of the ‘now’ subjugated to be seen through photographs and the appalling ‘selfies’ to boast where we are. I wonder where it will all end? Will there be a backlash or will we lose the ability to talk to one another? As I write this, a man and wife sit at a nearby table, engrossed – apart – in their phone screens instead of looking at the pretty good view or, heaven forbid, interacting with strangers like me, let alone each other.

*

On Boxing Day we attended a cheerful lunchtime party – a typical Boxing Day event anywhere in the western world. But of course, this is Africa, however divorced from the continent these gatherings may feel, with an atmosphere of an ex-pat community, a somewhat insular unit on a foreign continent, creating their own social life, separated within a much larger, apparently alien, community. However, the majority of these people were born and bred in South Africa. They are South African: it says so on their passports.

I always feel a self-created reserve when I think that these people lived under – and some may even have either abetted or tacitly enabled – the poisonous apartheid system, to me perhaps the worst injustice visited by man on man during my lifetime. I find my attitudes very divided: on the one hand cheerful, kindly people; on the other privileged invaders on someone else’s land. I do hear a lot of unconscious prejudice when I converse with groups of white South Africans, in the terminology, assumptions and generalisations they sometimes express. There’s a corrosive self-perpetuating fear that passes between so many whites here, retelling old stories of theft, attack and aggression, often lumping the huge majority population (‘them’) together as ‘the Africans’, as perpetrators of all that is evil. In actual fact, of course, a tiny, tiny minority of ‘the Africans’, ‘the blacks’ are evil – just as are a tiny minority of whites and every other shade of skin colour. But ‘they’ are always to blame for any ill, political idiocy and social trouble. Bad news travels so fast in a small, insular community and becomes out of all proportion to the actual threat. Times have changed in South Africa, but the minority whites (8.9% of the population – owning over 40% of the nation’s assets) still talk of the old times, frightening one another and keeping stress levels up and the security grilles and bars tightly bolted and their cars centrally locked. In a land of such obvious disparity of wealth, there will always be envy and crime, but it’s not a black skin that makes you bad; it’s envy, lack of imagination, poor education and the need to apportion blame for your own ills. This is still a hugely divided nation, and the white population, rather than embracing and celebrating the cultures around them, maintain their imagined superiority, separation – and wealth.

At what point do invaders become indigenous people? For most of us descend from some form of invader. The Afrikaans people..? They’ve been South African for several hundred years, fighting for their country and guiding it through modern history. So where do the later settlers, amongst whose descendants I mix so often, fit in? Most of them are probably second or even third generation, children probably of white Europeans who emigrated after the war to this big, open land of opportunity – peopled by ‘backward’ tribes that it would be a favour to ‘modernise’ and educate into the modern world. Many of them know no other home – although those with the slightest opportunity manipulate their heritage to qualify for European passports, which always – to me – shows less than total commitment to modern South Africa. It is rare to see inter-marriage and there’s very little social contact between white and black South Africans. Considering that the last legal apartheid rules of racial separation ended twenty years ago, there’s a powerful inbuilt reluctance to mix, even in the 21st century.

*

In eight days I have done little, but it’s always good to be with old friends, even if it doesn’t make for very interesting journal entries. Tomorrow I set off again and then, no doubt, the stories will begin again.

DAY 21. MONDAY DECEMBER 28th, 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA

Let the journey begin! Something more than three more months of free and easy travel lies ahead tonight as I make a proper start to my 2016 African journey at the end of three weeks of settling in.

And with the start of my safari, breakdown! Another ‘what if..?’ occasion occurred this afternoon three quarters of the way up the remote, rocky Hella Hella Pass when I stopped to take a photograph. Preparing to set off again, part way up a rocky, dusty mountains, all the electrics on my bike failed entirely. I checked fuses and cables to no avail and was standing there rather bemused by the mysteries of mechanics when a couple of bakkies appeared round the top of the hill. I waved to the lead driver, a scrawny, weatherbeaten Afrikaans fellow of about 40. He leaned out of his window. “Trouble..?” he called.

“Do you know anything about bike electrics?” I asked with a big engaging smile.

“Yaaaa…” And he got out of the car and came over to peer under my seat with me. Within perhaps four minutes he said, “here you are, see, it’s this cable. Look it’s chaffed through and shorted on this nut.” He pointed at a cable that had indeed got a small hole showing copper wires where it had been worn against a frame nut. “It’s shorted out your starter relay. The bike should start if we give you a push, and we’re on a hill at least! Turn round…”

Moments later my engine was running and I was able to load up and ride on, with a big thank you and wave to Gareth and his mate. You see, once again a smile, an appeal for help and some good luck and I overcome! No point worrying what might happen. I was able to ride on to Underberg so long as I didn’t stop the engine.

I rode straight to the old, jaded Underberg Inn and took a room, leaving the engine running outside, and then set off round town to try to find an auto electrician. Here I wasn’t so successful and time ran out as five o’clock crept round the clock face. It’s also holiday time but I am sure tomorrow will bring some aid from somewhere. For now, the bike sits in the hotel yard, where I just had the most delightful twenty minutes with Emmanuel and Norman.

Emmanuel is cheerfully drunk, a local lad with a most engaging smile, shaven head and not an ounce of malice apparent. He tells me, giving me the clenched fist to fist African greeting, that he works in tourism but the alcohol was not helping me to decipher his quite broad, probably Xhosa accent. He had just met Norman, whose clear English accent and erudite speech soon identified him to me as Zimbabwean. He comes from the north of that country, around Kariba, but has emigrated to South Africa thanks to the bad politics and ailing economy of his lovely country. But it’s a feature of all the expatriate Zimbabweans I meet that they have a powerful allegiance to their country. Norman dreams of the time when his country settles down and he can go home. Smart, intelligent – (sober) – and cultured; another exile from that fine country. Another valuable export…

It struck me as I was laughing with them, Emmanuel slurring his words with a huge white smile, fist greeting me time and again, that this is what the frightened white South Africans miss, for there was no way any of them would have given these two fellows even the time of day in a shadowed corner of the pub yard, let alone have stood and chatted equally with them. The was no harm in Emmanuel, inebriated as he was, and Norman was charming and polite. Two decent young men living life as best they can against considerable odds, and willing to share chatter and laughter with a ‘daddy’ from another culture. The short meeting cheered me on my way to bed with a broad smile.

*

It was lunchtime before I rode away from Kloof, summoning the energy to start the journey again. I rode west away from Durban, an impressive exit through the steep, rounded green hills and slender eucalyptus trees and extensive hills carpeted in waving grey-green sugar plantations. A few miles of highway and then off to the south west on country roads to Richmond and curling up through plantations into the increasingly dramatic wooded mountains and the Hella Hella Pass. It came as a complete surprise, the first time I rode this way, about three years ago, when the tarmac suddenly stopped and the road twisted on grey rock and gravel deeply into a big valley and later across high slopes and over the wooded peaks. The map shows this as a main road, and reminds me of that statistic that only ten per cent of the country’s roads are tarred. It cuts scores of miles off the main tarred route, but I was surprised when Gareth spoke of rhinos inhabiting the area – one of the three most dangerous animals in the country. Hmmmm.

Then it’s over rolling high hills and ridges to scruffy Underberg with its untidy wide street, petrol station, supermarkets and businesses, all a little faded, the verges of the tarred town roads broken and ragged. It’s a busy little town, focus of the huge farming district around it and of tame white tourism to the eastern flank of the Drakensburg mountains that hold up Lesotho just a few miles to the west.

*

Two of Yvonne and Michael’s closest friends, whom I always enjoy meeting, are Mark, Yvonne’s painting teacher and Di, Mark’s landlady. Coincidentally, they drove to Underberg today to use the holiday house of one of Mark’s students for a few days. We had a cheerful supper together in a big cafe nearby, with the atmosphere – or lack of atmosphere – of a football stadium. I’ve visited so often now that I begin to make my own circle of South African friends. That, of course, is an advantage of a small separate community like the white South Africans.

*

So back to the faded old Inn with its adequate but tired en suite for £11.30. My eyes will be shut – quite soon – for the next eight hours, so who cares about the chipped paintwork and the old brown carpet? Not me… Tomorrow I will sort out my mechanical problem. There’s a lot of goodwill and generosity open to me as one of the white community and a tourist, or does that sound ungracious?

DAY 22. TUESDAY DECEMBER 29th, 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA

It took until lunchtime to sort my mechanical problem, so I decided to just relax and stay here in oddly engaging Underberg again.

I met Gary for breakfast. You may remember, I met a dreadlocked, tattooed British South African biker/ barber here a couple of weeks ago – the fellow who exports old XT500 motorbikes in bits to the UK for sale at profit. We exchanged phone numbers, so yesterday, on arrival, I rang him. It’s partly this fraternity amongst bikers that keeps me on two wheels, and it certainly gives me so much confidence on these journeys, just knowing that any other biker will help me out if I have difficulties. We always stop and talk, exchange information and pass the time of day.

You should never judge a book by its covers, or a person by their personal preferences and style! (and certainly not by the colour of their skin). I thought that when I was sitting in a rather smart resort hotel enjoying a beer and sandwich (amongst almost exclusively white people) served by a delightful, pretty black girl called ‘Sweetness’. “Oh, I love your name!” I exclaimed – the sort of thing and old ‘daddy’ like me can get away with so easily!

“Haha! And I hope I am well named!” she laughed as she took the tray away, leaving me in possession of a mediocre tuna mayonnaise sandwich and a bottle of cool, gassy beer. But I was thinking about covers and looks, a bit conscious that I was the scruffiest person around in my totally faded old motocross trousers that were once red and white but are now faded to a patchy pink and brown, my dusty boots, scruffy old backpack and tee shirt that has been on three of these safaris and been washed by hand in washbasins, at a conservative estimate, probably 75 times! But, you know, my smile makes up for a lot of my lack of sartorial style. It’s such fun to joke with the Sweetnesses, the Curiosity’s, the Innocents, Specials and Precious’s of Africa. And the Normans and Emmanuels as well.

Gary looks a little crazy: dreadlocked wiry greying hair, tattoos all down both arms and a cannabis-leafed tee shirt. But what a decent fellow, and kind too. He rode away to negotiate with Tyrone and Luke, auto electricians up the road, then led me there, having given me a bump start across the Underberg Inn car park. Luke, a pale, skinny young man with fluffy blond beard and curly hair, took one look at the bike and declared that it was unlikely that the starter solenoid had burned out (memorably replaced in Ndola, northern Zambia two years ago, swapped off a derelict Suzuki by a happy fellow called Herbert). “No,” said Luke, “your battery’s ****ed!”

And it was. Probably the chafing wire just shorted out my battery all the way up that pass yesterday, such that when I tried to restart the bike it had no power left at all. Maybe it would have lived a bit longer, but when I took it off later I found the date 04.2.98 scratched on the top. The battery was the original one and has driven that bike 118,030 kilometres! It was probably time to spend £25 on a new one, and peace of mind.

There’s only one bike shop here, a few miles up the road at Himeville. Not only were they open, they even had a battery that would fit! My luck, as always, was in. In hot sunshine I bolted it in.

*

New battery fitted, I asked Bruce, manager at the bike garage, where to go for a ride, for by now I had rebooked at the Inn for tonight. He suggested a pleasant ride up a long valley towards the blue mountains that form a great wall along the eastern edge of the range. At the claustrophobic end of the valley is the Garden Castle Hotel and Leisure Resort, an ugly place of pretentious chalets, a hotel, bowling green, swimming pools, caravan parks and general diversion; an upmarket holiday camp set in a fold of the steep hills. The ride was gentle and pretty and a beer and sandwich provided a relaxing hour. And Sweetness provided a cheerful chance meeting that lifted the spirits.

*

I took supper and few beers at the bar in the dingy Inn tonight. I suppose it’s the nearest thing to a pub around here, and it is so improved from the racist place that it was only last year. After my excellent chicken burger, over a couple of stouts, I fell into conversation with Moife, a personable Sesoto from Potchefstroom across in the Free State. He’s a driver for a seed company and is staying over at the Inn tonight after a ten hour drive. Politely, he asked me if I minded him smoking while I ate and then, when I finished my meal, drinking a Castle beer, chased with a double Bells with Sprite, he moved to a stool nearby. We had a very memorable exchange…

“Why are you in Underberg?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m just a tourist. That’s my red motorbike out in the yard.”

“Ah… A tourist?” His face registered some confusion as he decided to ask a question that obviously has troubled him. “My girlfriend went and studied tourism…” He poured fizzy pop into his whisky and took a sip. “What do tourists DO?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled, for as yet I’d never considered that tourism was a mystery to anyone, seen from my privileged perspective. Then I saw that he was genuinely mystified. Haltingly, I tried to explain – seeing how other people live, meeting new people, seeing new places, finding out… But I realised that to him, in his virtually subsistence economy, effort needs to have tangible results. He’s driven ten hours to deliver a van full of mealie meal seeds. There’s an obvious outcome. I shall ride a motorbike to Lesotho with no discernible benefits.

“Does someone pay you?” he pondered. “Are you paid to be a tourist..?”

The questions stopped me in my tracks. In a way it is wonderful that in this day and age someone should ask me if I am paid to be a tourist, and I tried to explain as well as I could to someone to whom the concept was so alien and baffling, what it is that makes me earn money to spend on something so frivolous and immaterial. It’s not easy to articulate…

*

Then Gary and his entire family arrived for a drink and I had to say goodbye to Moife and chat beneath a throbbing loudspeaker in a dark corner of the smokey bar to Gary’s Leeds-born, dour, father, Stan, who used to work on the railways. Then there was Gary, with his present wife, a 20 year old son by wife one, a spoilt teenage daughter by wife two. It was one extreme to another. But I like Gary, for all his hippy ways: a good-hearted man with a depth of understanding that is unusual amongst white Africans. But then, he’s lived in east London, a melting pot of race and culture, unlike the parochial Afrikaners and white South Africans who, let’s face it, seldom even go ‘abroad’ to Lesotho right in their backyards. Stan, the deeply gloomy Yorkshireman, went there once and hated it, spending most of his time, by the sound of it, not looking beyond the preoccupation if his own discomfort.

‘Smokey bar’, did I say? Wow, the white South Africans smoke heavily! From youth to death, this is a smoking society – in pubs, bars, restaurants and everywhere else. I just have to resign myself to it. That, after all, is the essence of being a tourist.

“What do tourists DO..?” I won’t forget that for a while.