DAY 23. WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 30th, 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA
A charmed life? I don’t know, maybe. But I think it is down to smiling in most situations. Once again, an untoward event has supplied a story, even more faith in humanity and introductions to some good, kind people. People ARE good, almost all the time… My journeys so often remind me of that fact.
With my new bike battery sorted, I decided to leave for Lesotho, planning to take one of the more obscure entry points, one of the two I haven’t yet used. After breakfast I was on my way south. The first fifty miles or so are a sweeping ride on an empty highway between expansive, rounded hills of gentle greens, with the blue mountains lifting the magic of Lesotho in a ragged silhouette twenty miles to the west. The soft grey greens, the red and pink soils, the dark punctuation of a few dark-etched trees are all brushed onto the landscape beneath the vast blue and white of the midsummer southern skies. I was enjoying the ride.
About eighty kilometres from Underberg comes that forty mile gravel road that I travelled three weeks ago when I came from Matatiele (the town in which my spurious South African identity has me living at 15 Tayler Street!). It’s a road through huge farmlands, with herds of brown cattle grazing thousands of acres of rolling hills, dry now from the extreme drought, soon likely to be declared the deepest on record. On these gravel roads I can ride at a steady 50 miles an hour, slowing for bends and potholes. I had ridden about 18 kilometres and slowed for a badly corrugated bend when there came a ghastly grinding noise, a sound of suffering metal and my rear wheel locked in a nerve-rending fifty yard skid. I managed to control the bike and slowly bring it to a halt, arms locked on the bars, still ‘rubber side down’. The sun blazed down and there was no habitation or human being in sight – a condition that lasted for the next 40 minutes.
I put down the stand, stepped off and stood back to look at the damage..
My chain, a hefty piece of steel engineering, had twisted itself like Christmas tinsel around the rear sprocket, in the process stripping many of the teeth and curling the rest into fangs. The chain was wedged solidly, with some links perceptibly twisted and trapped by now misshapen nuts. Oddly enough, as one of the world’s worst mechanics, my initial reaction to such mishaps is usually a casual ‘Oh dear…’ rather than abject panic. After all, panic solves nothing. I off-loaded luggage and poked ineffectually at the scarred and twisted mess, trying to think of some logical action. Then I set-to with my basic toolkit, loosening the wheel nut and managing, after a battle, to extract the chain from its crooked fastness. Nothing moved around me except a few busy flies as the sun beat down.
Damage to the bike itself was superficial but the chain and sprocket weren’t going far. I would need a rescue truck or trailer. About forty minutes went by before a vehicle appeared, a young couple in a large 4X4, air conditioning blasting coldly from the window when they stopped. “Do you know the area? I need a rescue!” I asked, with a big smile to (always works and usually works on my own attitude as well!)
They lived some miles off but immediately phoned a relative in Matatiele, the next town, still 30 miles in front. “Hey, Uncle Pete! We’re on our way but we’re here on the gravel road from Swartberg and there’s a British oke (blokes are ‘okes’ in South African slang) needs help!” And he explained the situation. “He’ll see what he can do and call you back. Have you got water?” There was no point delaying them further and I had a bottle in my bag. They drove off in a pother of dust.
I contorted the chain back onto the remnants of the sprocket and shortly after, a call came from someone in Matatiele: “Hi! I’m James. My uncle tells me you need help? But you’d better not come to Matat, there’s no one here who can mend bikes. You’ll be better off getting back to May’s Yamaha in Himeville. I’ll SMS the number to you.” May’s in Himeville is the place I bought my battery yesterday.
A short while later I phoned May’s. (Just as well I equipped myself with the South African mobile…) Bruce, the boss, was riding his bike up in Lesotho and the only people at work were Cathy, the kind receptionist and a few mechanics. The world is on holiday. Cathy and I developed quite a phone relationship over the next hour and a half.
I decided to try to limp back towards Swartberg. By riding very slowly, ignoring the grinding noises and persevering, I managed to ride 12 kilometres, putting the chain back seven times. The last time it came off, I knew it was probably finished. By now the split link clip had been thrown off and some bent links were beginning to disintegrate. I was contemplating next steps and hoping Cathy would find help when a farmer passed in a red pick up, stopped, reversed up and rolled down his window. I explained the situation…
“I have to make one delivery; I deliver fertiliser to a lot of these farms. I can give you a ride back to Swartberg at least. If I drive into this ditch we can probably get the bike on the back. We’ll move a few bags of fertiliser… I’ll make the delivery down here and be right back.”
Fifteen minutes later he was back. We loaded the bike, strapped it down and I got in the passenger seat. “I might as well take you right to Himeville. You’ll just have to go with me to another farm on the way,” said Rollo, the stocky fifty-something year old farmer. I couldn’t believe my luck. All the way to the bike place, sixty-odd miles away! You know, most people in this world really want to be generous and help one another. It’s all so spoiled by the insidious media, turning us against one another, poisoning our thoughts in their greedy cynicism, feeding our anxieties, separating us.
Rollo Cawthra Woodhead is of Welsh extraction, fourth generation South African and lives a few miles away (in the opposite direction), keeping a modest farm with cattle, and holding down a day job of selling fertiliser for a national company. He has a sickly wife, whose genetic disorder has called for a heart transplant, now in its tenth year. He has a lot of tensions in his life, it is obvious, but he found time to help a complete stranger. That’s inspiring.
We called at one of his biggest customers to drop off the remaining sacks of fertiliser, a farm of a vast 2000 hectares. This country is so big! But Rollo has only a small place. His family farm, up in the Midlands, was appropriated in the re-apportioning of land by a previous government. But in Rollo I felt a liberal sympathy with his black neighbours.
“I’m farming at much the same level as the smaller black farmers and we’re struggling. This is about to be the worst drought ever in this country and it’s the small farmers who will suffer.” Rollo waved a hand at a small field of half-hearted maize as we blew past. It should be feet higher by now. “The big farmers will clean up. They have the ability to raise loans to build dams and survive the drought. Prices are already shooting up, so they’ll make big money,” he said, as I glanced over my shoulder to check my red bike, strapped behind us, bouncing slightly, the tailgate down beneath it; imagining it jettisoned at 50mph onto the highway behind us.
“The small guys, the black farmers, will go broke. About three years ago a ton of maize fetched 950 Rand (about £43). Now it’s fetching over 4000! A hectare produces up to 8 tons…
“What chance do small farmers have? I have a degree, I have to keep a second job and I work my butt off, but I still don’t make money.” He spoke without apparent rancour, just accepting facts and resigned to his obviously difficult times. “How can the average African manage? The government gives them land but there’s no back up. They’re on their own. No support. The big industrial farmers will make a killing this year, the rest will suffer. The government is not fair on them. They work and they make nothing, then they have to sell their stock to survive, so they have even less…”
In Himeville three mechanics helped us to off-load the bike. Then Rollo carried me back to the Underberg Inn with my bags. Rollo would accept nothing from me, not even petrol money. (But having exchanged addresses I will buy him a decent bottle of whisky and deliver it when I am released).
Cathy was so helpful back at the bike workshop, getting Patrick, the self-effacing black mechanic to begin to look over the job. “As soon as Bruce is back tomorrow we’ll try to get the parts on order and get you on your way, Jonathan,” she promised.
Late in the afternoon she rang to say that Bruce had come back from his ride and pulled out the stops on my behalf and the parts were already ordered from Durban, “…but it could be Monday before they are here.”
So many kind, thoughtful people have made up my day – like the lovely Zulu hotel staff, all smiles to see the ‘daddy’ back. “You can join our New Year’s party tomorrow!” laughed Megan, a white South African who manages the accommodation; and more welcomes at the local Grind Cafe, where I have snacked the past couple of days. It feels like eating in a stadium or car showroom, but it is so friendly.
At least I avoided a soaking. Thunderstorms were threatening and later, sitting back in the cafe, rain suddenly coursed down for ten minutes. It won’t do much to alleviate the drought and most of it will just run away on the rock-hard dust, but I’d have been soaked on the bike! I was saved that – and my terror of lightning in Lesotho.
I can think of worse places to be stuck than in Underberg. Walking the dark street with one of the cafe waiters, Sfaneli, this evening, with his neat weave-on hairstyle and very handsome smile, he agreed that Underberg is not bad. “It’s safe here. You can walk the streets without trouble. It’s calm. It’s not a bad place…” Racism seems more understated than in many places. My instinct tells me it might be interesting to be part of the place for a few days. I have no choice anyway!
DAY 24. THURSDAY DECEMBER 31st, 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA
New Year’s Eve in Underberg. Well, my day here passed pleasantly enough, I suppose. I’m writing this in the evening, before the festivities at the Underberg Inn begin. As I write the rain is fire-gosing down; maybe at the last minute there will be enough rain to prevent this being the driest year on record in the district, but I doubt there will be appreciable rain this evening, probably just another sharp, hard shower.
With nothing else to do, I decided to walk to Himeville, about four miles away. “Yee’re goin’ to wark?” asked everyone in the hotel yard, incredulous. “Don’t ya know it’s het out thar?” It was, indeed, hot – and midday. But what else have I to do? I refused a couple of lifts and set out for what turned out to be an enjoyable hour’s walk in the splendid, hot sun. Had the road been quieter this holiday it would, admittedly have been more pleasant.
Lesotho rises on the horizon, that hard-edged cut out in blue; flat profiles of blue-shaded air creating the bulwarks of the tiny mountain stronghold. In the middle ground rounded green hills and outcrops of oddly shaped red rocks, and in the foreground tidy fields of young maize or potatoes. Beside me marched a long parade of mature oaks planted in 1970 in some commemoration of white settlers, patches of welcome shade for my hike, reaching a good deal of the way to Himeville as a gesture of peace between the two long-competing communities. I found that out in the little Himeville Museum, a display of love and enthusiasm by generations of amateur historians. The sort of museum I respect, an eclectic mix of artefacts collected for their local meaning; household items with worn handles; domestic bric-a-brac with stories to tell; old stiff photos of long dead colonial officers with black minions, visibly uncomfortable 100 years on, in European-imposed uniforms.
At May’s Yamaha, Patrick the mechanic had managed to unbolt the distorted nuts and extract what remained of my rear sprocket. I quietly slipped him 100 Rand for New Year. His wages are probably tiny and I need his enthusiasm, and appreciate his quiet work and smile. It was Bruce’s opinion that replacement was probably overdue anyway, although I did check the sprocket not long ago. It seems that corrugations are notorious for this damage, jolting the chain onto the top of worn teeth and splintering them from the sprocket. I know they will get onto the job as soon as the parts arrive from Durban. At any time but this, they would be here by tomorrow. Unlikely at New Year.
At the Himeville Arms, a smartish hotel, I sat under a thatched shade on a garden terrace and drank beer and read my book, joined by two couples and their three delightful small boys. I find people ready to talk in this country and always welcoming. I constantly surprise black people with my cheery greetings and smiles – and always get a happy response. They are inured to being ignored and invisible to so many white South Africans and their reaction often registers their surprise. Getting a ‘black taxi’ back to Underberg to avoid a wetting was further eccentric behaviour from a white man in this odd country.
Later. Right, that’s New Year. It’s only 9.45 but I don’t really want to ‘see in’ 2016 with a bunch of drunken South Africans. My, they can drink – and smoke. I sat at the bar listening to the drink orders and decided by eight o’clock that I was unlikely to be up at midnight. Cocktails of spirits seemed to be common and no one considered drinking less than doubles of anything. It’s almost exclusively white out there and I miss the black revellers. I’d rather see in 2016 in mixed racial company, not all these rather ugly white people. They are kind, it’s true, but I AM in Africa! Africa, to me, is a black continent and I’d like that to be reflected in a New Year’s party, other than lovely Tumi, the laughing waitress.
It’s not a very cultured local bar, I must say. Looking around, a short time ago, I was terrified by the thought of kissing anyone present for New Year as I’m sure I’d have turned into a frog! So I came to bed and put in the ear plugs. Afrikaans and white South Africans aren’t an elegant race: generally overweight, bad skin, heavy smokers, hairy – and of course, no black people – (who ARE SO much better looking) – were at the party in this odd country. I’d have stayed up to kiss the black girls if there were any but I think sleep is a better alternative! 2016 will be fine anyway, without having to greet it at midnight with a crowd of white South African strangers.
DAY 25. FRIDAY JANUARY 1st, 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA
What nice people I meet! How happy I am to have such faith in the general goodness and generosity of humanity. I’ve had a good day that could have turned out so boring but for my willingness to trust and engage.
New Year’s Day in Underberg threatened to be pretty grim. I woke quite late, ear plugs still in place after the noise of last night’s party, which continued sometime after 1.49am, the last time I woke and felt the base beat still pulsing through the fabric of the old building. Few staff had reported for duty by the time I was having a cup of coffee with the hotel keeper. Breakfast was unavailable anywhere – except a yoghurt and bun from the supermarket down the road. Everything else was closed for the holiday.
What to do? The fellow across the road had no walking tours scheduled; there are no bicycles for rent; the shops are shut; restaurants closed; I have no transport to even get to the start of walking trails; there is no culture in this small rural town – and I have probably three more days to fill…
Well, yesterday I quite enjoyed my walk to the pub in Himeville, so why not set off again? At least the beer’s good there! I started walking, half-heartedly putting out my thumb as there were even no taxis on the road today. That tells you how dead South Africa was today if nothing else! I’d walked most of the four miles when a woman and her mother stopped and took me as far as the Himeville Arms, fast becoming my favourite pub in Africa – probably because it’s the only place I’ve found that is actually pub-like.
Earlier, I’d met Barry, running a shop in Underberg and sometimes organising walking tours. A Yorkshireman, he had told me about ‘choir practice’, a gathering of local men of our uncertain age on Friday nights at the Himeville Inn. “If you’re still there, we all tend to be leaving about 7.30; we aren’t like the young fellas!”
“Sounds fun, but there’s no way I’ll still be there at 7.30 tonight!” I promised. Huh!
Only about three men gathered for their regular ‘choir practice’ this holiday. “Are any of you gentlemen driving back to Underberg this evening?” I asked.
“I’ll give you a ride,” said Mike, a retired anaesthetist. It turned out he lived about 300 yards from the Himeville Arms past the Yamaha bike garage and I didn’t see him go out and phone his wife, Meg, to bring her car to drive me back to Underberg! How very kind people are. He even offered me the loan of a bicycle tomorrow to entertain myself. So I shall move to Himeville, where the beer is – and a hundred yards from my motorbike.
While sitting, by now in the bar, as a violent thunderstorm passed over, a biker came in, stripping off waterproofs. Pieter is from up north somewhere in Mpumalanga Province, a keen biker and traveller in his times off work for Eskom, the national electricity giant. He joined me and we talked, joining the ‘choir’ when they arrived. By now I was on my fourth pint of ‘craft’ beer, an industry enjoying the revolution that is to be seen in USA and England too. Thank goodness for an alternative to the South African corporation that produces all the tasteless, gassy beers otherwise available. If not the very rare craft ales, I drink Namibian beer.
So a day passed very congenially amongst locals and holidaymakers from around this huge country, all welcoming and conversational – and white… But I did get a New Year kiss from the delightful Zulu waitress, Tumi, very charming, effervescent and lively, her qualities no doubt largely overlooked by the managers and most of the customers here at the Underberg Inn because she has black skin. What an odd country: so warm; so blind.
DAY 26. SATURDAY JANUARY 2nd, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA
I’ve come to where the beer is. I felt I had exhausted the ‘charms’ of Underberg and have moved four miles to the quaintly English village of Himeville, full of trees, wide swards and pleasant bungalows – exclusively white-owned, of course. The hotel is a cut above the Underberg Inn, which lacks class of any degree, and my room, while basic, is actually cheaper but enjoys all the luxuries of a smart hotel: restaurant, pub, swimming pool, gardens and terraces and soft lounges. I have to forego the en suite bathroom – with its vast cast iron bath but scalding water, but that is choice. I could pay almost three times as much and enjoy that too here in the Himeville Hotel. Instead I have a basic shed of a room, a comfortable, cleanly laundered bed with fine starched sheets and a settee; a corner room with two windows looking over the gardens – but I must share a basic ablutions block with half a dozen other rooms, most of which seem unoccupied tonight. The price of this peace is £10! Being in a ‘backpacker’ room I don’t qualify for room service!
The kindly (but a bit detached – I’m not sure she entirely approves of her husband’s generosity to complete strangers met in pubs!) Meg collected me from Underberg and brought me to Himeville, later lending me a pretty fancy mountain bike for the next few days. She and Mike have a thatched bungalow a block away, with colourful gardens and three large labradors. White South Africans love dogs. Sadly, I have to say this may not be an intrinsic warmth for the animals in all cases. It is a well-known fact that many (black) Africans are afraid of dogs. Ergo…
There’s little to say about days like this. I am ‘killing time’, an activity I resent but to which I am resigne for now. There’s nothing I can do but wait, at the earliest until Monday. I walked about the village and out a few kilometres along the road towards Sani Pass but it’s not rewarding, just sunny and views of extensive farmland and upmarket tourist ventures with pretentious names: ‘-manor’, ‘-castle’, ‘-cottage’.
The hotel is pleasant even if the customers are almost entirely white. There are a few black folks down here in the ‘backpackers’ rooms – so much more affordable. It’s illuminating to watch body language in the bar, where, of course, the customers are white South Africans and the staff are black South Africans. So many whites appear to have an ingrained rudeness and superiority. They seldom smile or greet those serving them with anything other than a presumptuous arrogance. They seem to think it acceptable to express their irritation to a black waiter that there is no salami to go on their pizza, as if it is the fault of the waiter. I find them insensitively and offensively impolite. I never witness reaction from the black ‘servants’, nominally but not actually equal citizens of this ‘Rainbow Nation’. There’s seldom eye contact between the races.
Often I see local black people, here mostly Zulus, walking along the roadsides. Sometimes these people are walking on remote gravel roads miles from anywhere, stolidly walking in the hot sun, their destinations and origins a mystery. I have never seen any white-driven car offer a lift. What threat can an elderly Zulu woman with a cloth bag, or a single young man, with no baggage for that matter, present? Why not offer a ride? I always give them a wave and a smile, and I always get a response. But White South Africans want to preserve the difference, the superiority, the distance. Yet they all – nominally at least – belong to one nation. One nation of two parts… It’s all in the body language.
Little Tumi, the cheerful waitress at the Underberg Inn confided in me on New Year’s Eve as she brought my supper in the heavy-drinking, smokey bar. “I don’t think racism will ever go away in this country,” she whispered.
“I think it’ll take a hundred years!” I agreed. She laughed and flounced out, squeezing my arm, a gesture of friendship for my willingness to engage with her at all.
DAY 27. SUNDAY JANUARY 3rd, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA
What a good day! I feel 36.
I’ve so often told the story of my friend who said, from aged about 45, that he was “too old to do that sort of thing” but was old enough to die at 63. It’s been a lesson to me, along with my mother’s mantra, maintained until almost the end at 94, “there’s no point giving in”.
My skin is glowing from several hours’ sun on a hot, clear day. My legs are throbbing pleasantly. At present my varicose veins (oddly, right knee only) feel the best they’ve been in weeks. I feel healthy and alive. I rode 30 kilometres on a mountain bike on a dirt road and walked for a couple of miles at the foot of the Drakensburg Mountains that lift Lesotho into the sky. It’s probably four or five years since I rode any distance; my trips to Navrongo being the only times I usually cycle. I’ve NEVER ridden a mountain bike at all, let alone in the Drakensburg Mountains. Haha! It’s good to be alive.
There aren’t many places to go on a bicycle round here. I could go up Sani Pass, but it’s about 35 kilometres each way and rises by thousands of feet, and is described in the bike tour language as ‘technical’. Technical, my mountain bike riding isn’t. So, apart from riding the road back to Underberg or one or two other roads to other small towns, my choice was restricted to a ride to Cobham Nature Reserve, a rock and gravel road to the foot of the escarpment.
It’s a quiet, pale, dusty road through extensive farmland without too many hills and with lovely views. There was a refreshing breeze in the elegant eucalyptus plantations, birds sang – and I panted! The sun beat down but I was absolutely determined to get to Cobham.
Once there, I left the bicycle in the care of the park warden and walked for a couple of hours in the pretty valley with the mountains rising steeply behind. There was a lonely, shallow bubbling river, so refreshing that even I, who hates water, took off my clothes and sat in the cool water on this glorious day. The mountains on this side have had enough rain to be freshly green. It was peaceful, remote and delightful. And I managed to ride back without stopping to walk up any of the hills.
One thing about staying a few days in the same place is that I manage to get to know some of the staff, whom I have no trouble as treating as equal… Sinazo is a tubby Zulu woman who fills her white blouse and black skirt rather generously. She has a quick smile, perhaps because I took the interest to find her name, which means ‘we have’. Last night I ate a good mutton curry, and tonight a chicken and prawn curry. “I could eat curry every night!” I told Sinazo. “What could you eat every meal?”
She thought for a moment. “Hot chips!” That maybe explains her ‘traditional’ proportions! Funny how ‘large’ black women remain so graceful while fat white South Africans just look out of proportion and ungainly.
Here at Himeville I have all the advantages of a ‘proper’ hotel (not least, draft real ale!) with the economy of a basic room for a tenner! It’s a great deal. Add to that, a generous villager who trusts me with a multi-geared bicycle (I never found out how many – but lots) and a spectacularly calm, mild evening with a good curry, eaten on the terrace beneath a sparkling starry sky and life really is pretty good!
Admittedly, though, in the morning I might feel 66!
DAY 28. MONDAY JANUARY 4th, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA
Day 28 – four weeks – and still little movement. A week ago I wrote, ‘let the journey begin’. Well, I got as far as Himeville, 230 kilometres from Durban..! It’s the nature of my journeys that they have little planned shape and normally I would be so frustrated by now, but I appear to be in a completely relaxed and resigned state so far. Maybe it’s age? Maybe it’s just a general peace with life that seems to have overcome me these past two or three years? Mine is now a life with not many stresses: about enough money or income-generating ability for my purposes, a comfort in having at last found a place to call home (which I think I had been seeking for a long time), and a satisfaction with being 66! I know that last one is an odd thing to say, but at this age one can just be oneself, without any pretence; no pressure to conform; no ambition to achieve; no real reason to regret. One can just BE. That’s not a bad state in which to be! Life is good.
I feared that I might wake this morning feeling all my 66 years after my hot, hard day bicycling to the foot of the mountains. Guess what? I awoke and felt 35, not even the 36 I felt when I retired to bed!
No sign of the sprocket-courier from Durban yet. The bike garage down the road was chasing them but I had no further news by the end of day. The hotel manager summed it up: “Well, you could be here till Friday! It’s still ‘silly season’…” I do hope not. But there’s no choice. I just have to be patient.
Fortunately everyone is very friendly and the hotel staff delightful. Of course, I tend to get along best with the black staff rather than the aloof white managers, just as I do with waitresses in the cafes rather than the stuck-up white owners. I find that I am staying with some of the staff of the hotel, who are relegated – with me – to the ‘backpackers” block down the garden. Fine by me; we are beginning to strike up a certain camaraderie.
In fact, I might even miss this place when I get going again…
A ride to Underberg provided the entertainment of the day – both ways without walking up hills. I’m now on chatting acquaintance with a number of the townspeople, this being my eighth night in the area. It was, though, a bizarre experience to eat scones, jam and cream in Africa. More evidence of the awkwardness of the white separation: eating cream teas as if I were in a traditional English tearoom – in Africa… I doubt I’ll ever quite understand this place.
When release will come I have no idea. I did decide to change my route, having done some online investigation of the pass that I planned to use to get into Lesotho – one of the only two I didn’t yet take. I find it to be one of the most severe trails in southern Africa, rated for bikes as ‘red’ (whatever that means – but obviously rather dramatic!) and with sections said to be the ‘end of many off road motorcyclists’ dreams’; one of the steepest in southern Africa and frequently totally impassable, and when not, severe. I’d probably have done it on my old African Elephant, but maybe in this case consideration should get the better of foolhardiness. Perhaps my breakdown saved me from an embarrassing defeat on a trail that is said should be approached by not less than three vehicles together. The internet can destroy innocence.
It was 37 degrees (99F) today as I bicycled the rolling hills to Underberg. Well, it’s why I’m here. 10 degrees (50F) with yellow warnings of heavy rain in Harberton. I’ll stay where I am for now. No choice until the sprocket-wagon arrives…