AFRICA 2016 – Journal four

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…

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AFRICA 2016 – Journal five

DAY 29. TUESDAY JANUARY 5th, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA

Still here… I happened to be riding past the bike place when the Sani Pass Courier van pulled in, so I veered over the road in some excitement, since Malcolm had been chasing up my parts and had been promised they had now been picked up. Huh. Were my sprockets on the van? No…

*

My goodness, I meet some rabidly racist people here. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue. And, you know what, the most racist of them all are the English who came here during apartheid years – when I was checking all those products in the shops to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently supporting the South African regime. I’ve just spent a couple of hours in the hotel bar with a couple of fellows – a not well educated racist Cockney who came here in 1975 and a local farmer who was born here and has a huge cattle farm milking 1500 cows. Of the two, the educated farmer was reasonably accepting of his lot, while the Cockney, who hasn’t any right whatsoever to call himself South African (40 years without even applying for citizenship) was appallingly racist. I find it so offensive, this ignorance, for that’s what it is.

“Oh well, humanity’s buggered anyway!” exclaimed the farmer, to vigorous nods from the Cockney, Peter.

“Of course it’s not!” I objected, vociferously nailing my colours to the mast as I could bear it no longer, listening to this nonsense. “Humanity is wonderful! 99.999% of people all want the same things from life – and it doesn’t matter what colour skin they have. We all want enough to eat, a bit of comfort, love of a few others, a place to live and security amongst others like us. It’s corporations and cynical companies and the media exploiting us all for profit that buggers us up. And anyway,” I retorted, irritation barely withheld, “I will talk to anyone. I probably talk to and greet more black people than white on these journeys and I always get a happy response. I LOVE living in a multi-cultural society. And, what’s more, I’ve travelled in this country for probably about seven months in all and I have never had anyone be unkind to me, or felt the slightest threat. It is all self perpetuated by white people here! People are always telling me to be afraid and I can’t find out what I am supposed to be afraid of!”

I could have gone on about equal opportunity, rebutted a couple of horrible comments about Muslims and Syrian refugees that had made me squirm, but I had probably said enough that they understood that I wasn’t compliant with all their views! The farmer was a decent man and he could see that I was holding back. The Cockney, with the true insensitivity of a bigot, hardly reacted.

How did all these racists end up in South Africa? Welcomed, I suppose during apartheid years to strengthen the regime’s power base. Still here, expecting privilege and superiority. The gravy train has moved on. It’s a pity it hasn’t run over some of them. Yuk! Aaaarghh.

*

Mike, my Kloof friend, agrees with me about so much of the perpetuation of fear and insecurity amongst the white people in this country; the proliferation of bad news; the spreading of anxiety; the razor wire and ‘burglar-proof’ (window bars and security grilles behind which all the whites live in this unequal society). He calls it the ‘Oscar Pistorious Syndrome’ after the cause-célèbre of the para-athlete who was so hyped up by this insecurity that he murdered his girlfriend by shooting through a closed door with a semi-automatic weapon he just happened to have lying around, claiming he feared an intruder – in his locked bathroom… A case, at least, (whatever the real story, which has yet to be revealed), of shoot first and ask questions afterwards…

*

It’s been intensely hot today. After a lovely conversation with Sebu, the wonderfully cheerful hotel maintenance man, whose picture will be on my wall soon after I reach home, and a cup of coffee with Mike, whose bicycle I am riding, I rode out of town, intending to reach the Sani Pass Hotel, sister to this one. I think I may have ridden most of the way there but at last I looked at another downhill slope and thought, I have to ride back up that if I go further, and decided to turn round and sit in the woods instead and read a book for a bit. What was I trying to prove, and to whom? That my obstinacy would get me to the Sani Pass Hotel, that was all. For what? A cool drink and the satisfaction of having done it! Better to read a book in the woods. My, I was exhausted when I returned. Enough is enough – especially when the temperature is about 100 degrees!

*

“Ah, maybe it will be here tomorrow!” said the courier driver with a big cheery smile. Yes, maybe… Maybe not… It’s a week tomorrow since the chain incident.

DAY 30. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 6th, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA

BMW Durban actually rang me this morning (causing a brief flurry of excitement that it was the garage along the road telling me my bike was ready!) to apologise for the long delay in getting the parts to me. It seems they use a courier who only delivers to Himeville once a week – on Thursdays. If they had informed us all of that on, say, Saturday, I would have bussed down to Durban and fetched the package myself – or Malcolm, at the Himeville Yamaha dealer, would have arranged for it to be brought by the local courier – who delivers twice a day!

So another day roasting in Himeville. It’s so hot that even I am restricted in my activity. Today I merely rode the mountain bike down to Underberg (7kms) and back to deliver a bottle of Jamesons Whiskey to be collected by kind Rollo, who rescued me – a whole long week ago!

*

Walking along Arbuckle Street, the main road of this very colonial village, I met Samukeliso (Blessing), a quietly spoken, neatly dressed and almost embarrassingly polite young Zulu fellow, perhaps in his mid-twenties. Tidy trousers and a clean blue-striped shirt, plastic folder under his arm; a plastic folder holding his qualifications and papers. He wanted to know the way to someplace and, inevitably, asked the only stranger in town. Mind you, I was also the only person – certainly with a white skin – walking with body language that suggested he could approach me. Samukeliso is unemployed, like so many here. He lives in the ‘low cost’ housing, an area of basic black-occupied dwellings separate from the large white-owned detached bungalows and verdant gardens of the town. He was looking for work and stopped to chat with me partly in the desperate hope that even I may have influence to find him a job to help him support his three children. There is such a divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in this country. Of course, there’s nothing I can do, but these people live with such hope and fortitude that he was even happy just to be talking with me, exchanging views and – of course – a phone number and photos. He had to have a picture of me in his phone before he left and I had to submit to a smiling ‘selfie’ with him too. Such a decent young man – overlooked and with so little real chance in this unequal country that troubles me so much; troubles my sense of FAIRNESS in life.

As I wrote that paragraph my phone rang. It was Blessing, just to wish me a good night. I find this loyalty and gentle warmth quite affecting. This is the level at which we SHOULD live life, just these small caring interactions between strangers. It happens so much in Africa – if you are open to the opportunity – an openness that is impossible with the central locking engaged, the security grilles fastened, the drawbridge up, the air-con turned up in your huge expensive 4X4.

The whites would argue that they brought prosperity to this part of the continent, but tell Blessing he lives in what was for decades Africa’s richest economy (it was overtaken last year by Nigeria as the South African economy weakened) and he would raise his eyebrows at the irony for he has no share of it. Ask him if he’d rather live in Africa’s second wealthiest country or have a simple job to feed his children and I think I know the answer he’d give.

*

Later I had an illuminating conversation with Alex, a Kenyan trader selling African souvenirs to passing tourists in Underberg: another intelligent and charming man who, in the course of our exchange, confided many of the small racist actions he suffers from unthinking whites. It’s almost unconscious, he suggests, a need to keep a distance from each other. It is, he agrees, a very South African phenomenon; not one he sees back in Kenya (or that I have seen anywhere else on my African travels). It’s a cultural and ethnic snobbery, to précis his observations: white Underbergians who will not send their children to schools with black pupils – even, he says, when they are cheaper and academically better achieving; white mothers who grab their children away from playing with his very cute daughter in the shop; the mall manager who waters the plants outside, soaking his wares in the process rather than moving them as she does outside white owned shops; maids forbidden to use the indoor lavatories they clean. It’s SO interesting to hear this from an African of another culture. I see the body language, but conformation from Alex was fascinating.

*

But of course racism has two faces. Derek is the (white) manager of the hotel. “Oh, there is racism on both sides! We had an incident just a few nights ago in the bar – over chips. A black couple ordered a bowl of chips but the restaurant manager (who’s white) told them he’d run out of chips. Then a few minutes later he served a white couple with meals with helpings of chips…”

It was unfortunate timing: probably the white couple had ordered earlier, before the chips ran out, but this was enough to inflame racial sensitivity, excited by alcohol, right to the point that the security man called the police from over the road. All over a plate of chips. The anger and tension is so close to the surface that it takes little to burst out.

It’s complicated by people’s sense of their rights – now, nominally at least, equal. Even the hotel swimming pool brings division. Many of the local whites see it as a ‘right’ to use the pool. They treat it as a public pool. But there are many, many black residents who’d love to use it too, living in the ’low cost’ housing, a sprawl at the edges of the tree-filled white village. To use it, visitors must eat and drink at the hotel. I watched one (white) woman bring her children for a day’s fun – and buy a cup of coffee. But for the manager such manipulation of the hotel rules is a minefield, for he has to apply them exactly equally, treading an uneasy line between accusations of racism and positive discrimination. I wouldn’t want to manage any business in this country

*

I sense that I need to get out of South Africa soon! My entries for the past evenings have dwelt on the inequalities if the ‘rainbow nation’; the arrogance of the whites and their hard work in maintaining the differential – or be overwhelmed by sheer statistics. Less than nine percent of this country are white – at present they own over forty percent of the assets. Their privileged way of life is threatened. They fight back by keeping the seclusion. Alex and Blessing know that.

I know I have reached that point on all of my South African journeys when I need to get to Lesotho and stop obsessing on the inequalities of this land.

I found a Xhosa proverb: ‘When the whites came we had the land and they had the Bible. They asked us to close our eyes and pray. When we opened them again, we had the Bible and they had the land.’

*

Thunder is rumbling around and a shower this afternoon has cooled the stifling night a little. The last nights have been HOT, yet in July in Himeville the temperature can drop to -18C, with frost thick as snow. I hope the rain and BMW Durban do not prevent my getting up to Lesotho tomorrow… I think I need to get back to Africa.

DAY 31. THURSDAY JANUARY 7th, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA

So, I didn’t get back to Africa today. My entrapment is reaching laughable proportions. This is now my eighth day stuck in Underberg/ Himeville. “If I’d known, I’d’ve driven down there and collected you!” said Yvonne, phoning today for news. The lousy couriers, called ‘Fastway’, an oxymoron if ever I heard one, didn’t make their weekly delivery in Himeville today as they only had one parcel! If it wasn’t so frustrating, it’d be funny.

I also found out today that ‘BMW Durban’, who promised last week that the parts would reach the garage up the road by Monday, is actually Ryder Motorrad, the same company that spent six hours a couple of weeks ago, charged me £40 and didn’t manage to fix the oil leak – that I repaired myself later for 25 pence. Add to that that in 2013 I had to complain to BMW Customer Services South Africa to get a fairly straightforward diagnosis and repair completed by Ryder that wasted over a week of my travels (they kept saying, ‘yes, we’re working on it’ but each time I visited, the parts were in identical positions on the workbench) and I become rather angry. Five wasted days.

*

Meanwhile a huge change in the weather as the temperature has dropped dramatically and heavy rain may well make my escape up Sani Pass impossible through mud. It’s astonishing how the climate can swing here. From nights of sweating on the bed, cursing the heat of a sheet to keep the mosquitoes off, I may even have to use the duvet tonight. And in this weather even diversion on the mountain bike is impractical, so a dreary day reading dog-eared novels gleaned off the hotel bookshelf – and I don’t read fiction!

Imagine if I was on a three week holiday like most people! Only the length of this trip (and the draft beer) makes this delay slightly less unbearable.

DAY 32. FRIDAY JANUARY 8th, 2015. HIMEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA

How will I ever work out the conundrum of this strange country that I love and hate so much? Maybe that’s why I keep returning… I have just spent an evening as friendly and warmly welcoming as I would have spent in my own locals’ night at the Church House Inn in Harberton this Friday night. And at the same time, I am listening to ingrained racism that upsets me. I have a man I consider to be a close brother, a young man I consider a son (and very soon I’ll be a ‘grandfather’) and so many dear friends who have skin as black as any of those these charming white people think and speak of as ‘them’ so demeaningly. It has become one of the most difficult things for me, to accept the prejudices of these charming people without wincing and thinking of Wechiga and Dennis described in the same dismissive terms: ‘they’, ‘the blacks’, ‘Africans’, the implication of inferiority and lesser intelligence… I know I write of this so often, and I apologise for my preoccupation. Perhaps if Dennis and Wechiga and all the others were not so close to me, it wouldn’t hurt so much. But then I think of delightful Blessing, who rang to wish me a good night; of Patrick who has been fixing my bike – quiet, personable, a good mechanic – but not formally trained because, “I don’t have money for the course…”, who walks five miles to work in winter snows and burning summer; I think of lovely Cornelia, who served us dinner; cheerful Sinazo, who likes her hot chips; Tumi who reckons racism will never be conquered in South Africa; Sthabile, the pretty front desk clerk; Clinton the smart, friendly barman – oh, and so many more, all of them somehow invisible in this rich white village where I have been made so very very welcome – and enjoyed the friendliness of black and white alike but never seen one black person in any management or professional role or seen black and white sit down to table together. The statistical odds are totally against that unless it is engineered socially and consciously.

I just can’t work it out. What do I think? I have a warm, amusing, congenial evening amongst hospitable people pretty much like me, except that they look upon nine tenths of their neighbours as something completely different to themselves because they have a different coloured outer millimetre of skin.

‘Oh, stop obsessing about it!’ I hear you say…

*

Tonight was ‘choir practice’ once again at the Himeville Arms, followed by dinner at the invitation of four of my new friends, Mike and Meg, and Barry and Jane, all I guess in their late sixties to mid seventies. The bar was busy, 90% white customers, all having Friday night fun. I had delivered a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky earlier to Meg and Mike who lent me the bicycle and was cordially invited to Friday night at the pub with their friends. And it was fun: good company, good conversation, good beer and amusing. I felt amongst friends and am sure I will take up the many invitations to return to Himeville as guests of the assembled crew, not as a hotel guest and outsider. Next time I take a safari down here I shall visit Himeville with pleasure. In fact, I shall miss my time here, despite the frustrations of my enforced stay. I’ve remained relaxed thanks to my warm welcome. These are decent people – white- and black-skinned .

*

At 11.00am ‘Fastway’ couriers (haha) finally arrived with a small package containing two sprockets. By close of business my motorbike was running once again. Tomorrow I should be able to get on my way – after 12 days.

It’s not often I lose my cool but when I do it is cathartic! This morning I phoned Ryder Motorrad and blasted Zulfi, the parts manager, venting nine days’ of pent up frustration and telling him I expected some gesture in return for their incompetence. In the end I think it will be about £9 – but maybe I made a sort of moral victory, they are a BMW dealer after all, only really interested in selling expensive new bikes. They like to mKe profits, and I will get the parts at cost price at least. I felt better for letting it all out in an eight minute rant!

Smiling Patrick set to work, under the eye of Malcolm the chief mechanic. Malcolm had a theory about the continuing oil leak: that it was a small loose hose that feeds the top of the engine and had filled all the tiny spaces in the radiator, from which it continues to drip. We are testing overnight, having thoroughly cleaned the bike of all remaining residue. In the morning we will all look with great interest to see if there’s a puddle of oil beneath the engine where the bike stands in the workshop for tonight.

*

It’s been a chilly, drizzly day, down as low as 12 – 14 degrees, and after 35 that feels positively cold and unpleasant. Tonight it’s the duvet.

*

Today the Rand began another slide – and still going. It stood this morning at 23.33 to the pound. The longer I keep the hotel bill (now about £100 I should think) and the bike bills, the better! This trip is getting cheaper every day – and it wasn’t expensive to begin with.

DAY 33. SATURDAY JANUARY 9th, 2015. KHUKHUNE, LESOTHO

With a smile of contentment on my face for so much of today all the frustration is history. I am back in Africa, the Africa I love, a place of smiling people with a spring in their step and joy in their faces. I am in Lesotho and all the problems dissolve. I have had a very good day. Ears popping with altitude, my little bike panting for oxygen, we have returned to the roof of Africa and one of my favourite kingdoms.

*

By the time I was at May’s Autos, Patrick had put my bike together. There was the merest drip of oil on the workshop floor, probably from the drain plug that needs a new washer. The bill was made up, the company so decent that they have made no profit from my work. They totted up a ridiculous one and a half hours’ labour at a two-thirds rate (incidentally, the normal rate is 300 Rand an hour – about £13. The BMW dealer in Plymouth charges £85) and the parts they had discounted to cost price. I was, therefore, particularly happy that I had just bought Malcolm a bottle of Famous Grouse at the village liquor store (£7.60!!!) and palmed 150 Rand (£6.50) in cash to slip to the charming Patrick, whose wage is probably pretty minimal as a black mechanic. Considering that the delays were no fault of theirs, I respect their friendly gesture very much. So pleased I had the gifts ready.

Caught by Meg just before leaving, I have invitations to return to Himeville as their guest any time. Everyone made me very welcome and I am sure I will return, however odd I find this English village in Africa. You can understand my total confusion about the social mores of these strange white-dominated places… So openly generous to others like them: closed to the rest.

My goodbyes made at the hotel, a portrait taken of pretty Sthabile, the receptionist, and I was on my way to Sani Pass, the rocky track that screws itself into the sky up the steep escarpment to Lesotho. Famous in South Africa as an ‘adventure’ location, (perhaps the most over-used word in the South African tourist lexicon) most people just drive up, have a familiar South African drink and meal at the South African owned ‘highest pub in Africa’ and drive down again, seldom partaking in the ‘adventure’ of entering their neighbours’ country for the adventure of finding its beauties or what makes its people tick. It’s a 4X4 route that has dramatic views back down to the lowlands behind – or would have on a sunny day. Today all that was to be seen was thick mist swirling up the mountain face and visibility of about twenty yards of bumpy rock and wraiths of dampness encircling a tiny world of rock and heathery scrub. It was oddly quiet and disorientating. Happily, I have seen the views and enjoyed the rocky hairpins on several occasions so this was a novelty.

After an overpriced beer, I set off into Lesotho, pretty much on my own, leaving most visitors at the tame pub. Within a mile or two of the edge of the escarpment the clouds fell back and I was in the wonderful, subtle-coloured world of the high peaks and moorland on the new, smooth tarred road that has been completed since last year. Clouds of every density, shape and shade filled the endless sky. The air warmed up and there was a blustery breeze. A storm brewed, slate grey, scored by lightning – fortunately behind me, as I headed west towards the regional town of Mohotlong and on across the highest passes that seem to rise for ever. At the summit, past the ugly diamond mine, I am riding in clear air, colours washed out by the altitude; parched grasslands and rocky screes in vast sensuously modelled hills, the horizons etched hard against the high sky. Many miles go by above ten thousand feet, my engine struggling for air. It’s an exhilarating experience; expansive, limitless, crystal air and a sense of wonder to be riding along so alone and so high.

The afternoon advanced and the sun drifted down the sky, shadows lengthening and describing the shapes and contours, catching pretty thatched rondavels and spiky grey aloes in scattered villages as I slowly descended. Shadows began to fill the valleys and suddenly came an unforgettable view of layer upon layer of grey-blue cut out silhouettes of ridge after ridge, set between a dark foreground and the silver sky; a graphic image that seemed hardly possible in nature.

Then I was at the top of the Moteng Pass, Lesotho’s finest; a swooping skein of tarmac tossed casually over the vertiginous cliffs and slopes, visible far, far below contorted between plunging faces and soaring heights. Twisting this way and that, leaning and rushing downward, concentrating on the bends but watching the awe-inspiring vistas changing every moment. There’s almost no traffic, just a lot of cows and sheep to avoid as the road plummets to the valleys, the rivers mere dry beds, waterfalls a damp dribble clinging like a wet string to the brown rocks, the huge cascades of winter snows lost in this terrible drought.

*

I stopped for coffee at the ski resort, the only one in Africa with, almost inevitably, ‘Africa’s highest restaurant’, the Sky Restaurant. Astonishingly, I was recognised from my last visit – before Christmas – 2014! I suppose I just have to accept that there aren’t that many grey haired ‘older’ men riding the heights of Lesotho. I had a good conversation with the bar tender, a young Basotho fellow of intelligence and education. So good to talk on equal terms without the colour of our skins creating any reserve or significance. Lele studied tourism, has an easily intelligible British English accent and talked knowledgeably about politics and South African social unrest. He wants to get a visa for Australia to better his opportunities back here in Lesotho. Another kind chap, Mohapi, equally bright and articulate phoned ahead for me to Moruti, whom you may recollect, runs his lovely ‘cultural’ B&B, ‘Mamohase’, with his old mother. Warning them of my arrival would make it easier to get food supplies for supper and make my journey down more relaxed on this Saturday evening with the populous promenading the roadside, waving and thumbs-upping the passing motorcyclist cheerily.

*

The last two kilometres to Moruti’s place is awful! The final five hundred metres over bare bedrock punctured by round holes like a giant creamy-brown cheese grater. At the end of it, Mamohase B&B stands on a slope with a view across the now even drier valley to a ridge of mountain slopes. Around are small rural rondavels, cows, donkeys and waving children. Moruti has invested, in the last few months, in an electric supply to the main house. Of course, the first items imported are a radio and television, one or the other on from dawn until bedtime! I’ve seen this ‘progress’ all over Africa, bringing its materialist influences into rural homes, most of it here not even a home grown product but that of South Africa. Well, I cannot hold it back and must accept the disturbance of the nighttime peace and 24 hour ‘news’. After all, I have rejected it because I have always lived with this intrusion (well, of course, I’ve actually always chosen NOT to!) but as wise Wechiga once said, “We wanted to try sugar for ourselves. We’d seen you people enjoying it. By the time our teeth fall out it is too late!” And for Moruti and his neighbours, TV is a novelty and a wonder.

Mamohase cooked chicken and pumpkin, tomatoes and papp in her kitchen and Moruti and I ate together. That’s the habit in his ‘cultural’ B&B – with our fingers, a habit I never enjoy and am never able to accomplish as tidily as an African. Mamohase also makes a delicious refreshing ginger beer.

Then it’s early to bed in the silence of the night; the television finally quiet. The stars prickle in the dark sky, mostly unfamiliar to me in the southern heavens. A powerful evening wind blows a flickering storm behind the mountain wall, periodically blowing out the two oil lamps in my round thatched room; oil lamps formed from cow horn reservoirs fitted with a burner and glass chimney.

It’s been a grand day! And bodes to be a grand week, back in smiling Lesotho.

DAY 34. SUNDAY JANUARY 10th, 2015. KHUKHUNE, LESOTHO

There are days that just make all my travelling worthwhile. This has been a fabulous day, a day that has increased my delight in Lesotho, deepened my understanding of Basotho life and brought a new respect for the harshness of that life and the extraordinary fortitude of the people. What a country this is! How charming its people!

*

Moruti’s cousin, Moeti is a cheerful and happy guide to his culture. Three and a half weeks ago I hired him for that enjoyable morning walk around the local villages, so today I suggested a full day of his company and told him that what I always want to see is people; to meet local people and interact with them, see how they live, what makes them tick. We set off at nine and returned about six this evening – a very full day.

It’s just as well that I am as fit and agile as I am! We crossed and recrossed the steep gorge below the family compound, making our way over completely natural rock and dust, clambering up and down steep escarpments to find old river-worn caves, balancing down steep bald rock slopes and wandering between several villages that I can see from the house, way across the plunging dry valley, balanced on desiccated outcrops in the sun-bleached distance. We sat with village people in the burning sun and everywhere I was welcomed warmly and generously, by people living on the edge of poverty in the harshness of African mountains, cut off from help except by tortuous 4X4 tracks or staggering down the steep rocks and up the other side to a distant road. They have little water, especially in this crippling drought, few possessions, no comforts, mean houses and dusty fields full of white and cream-coloured bald rock. Yet, for all this, they have an inspiring acceptance of their lot and thankfulness for the pathetically little they have. And as always with those who have so little, they have a humbling willingness to share their meagre wealth with a complete stranger – for even a bowl of maize porridge given away is a sacrifice.

We stopped for a time and chatted with a young woman in brightly colourful fabrics and a big, floppy hat, a splash of vibrancy in the dust-dry scene. She worked outside a stone and mud house – as they all are – on a high terrace, the mountain faces steep above. It is dry as a bone here now, a serious problem that entails much time spent carrying buckets of water from uncertain distant springs and water courses. I saw women washing and collecting water from a pond not much more than a large puddle of almost static water. The small fields are parched, the maize stunted for want of water.

At a scattered village called Masere we sat for an hour with a lively group of old people and their inquisitive grandchildren. Four elderly ladies and two old men, one in a fine Lesotho woven hat, the same shape as the thatched roofs on the rondavels, entertained us, answering my questions, telling of their hard life in this remote, thirsty place. Most of them were suffering from eye irritations and bad sight, the dust and an old age that hasn’t the privileges of western medicine to alleviate simple cataracts and vitamin deficiency. A couple of them hobbled with sticks. But this is Africa and they accept their lot and take comfort from their roles as elders, many small children around their knees. A young girl brought us earthy tasting water and later a bowl of slightly sour maize porridge that, mixed with a little sugar, was much more thirst-quenching than mere water. Sitting there, in the beating sun, on a chair respectfully brought from one of their elementary stone and mud homes, I valued the genuine simplicity of their warmth, their smiles, their generosity and their curiosity. They wore old, mismatched clothes and an assortment of headgear – Sunday hats with frills and bows, cotton sun hats, football team strip, ubiquitous baseball caps and that fine example of the traditional woven conical hat.

At last we said our goodbyes, shaking hands all round and receiving many wishes that we would return, and we picked our way down the expanses of almost bald smooth rock towards the dry river bed far below. It’s pretty much a canyon, with high undercut sides that here and there form enormous open caves that have been used for many centuries by shepherds and the original San Bushmen, who left their enigmatic, ritualistic rock art all over southern Africa in such open caves. There were some examples in one of the caves we clambered to – until they were vandalised by French contractors on one of the water schemes, cut from the rock face crudely by cutting discs and looted for valuable souvenirs.

Twice we stopped to drink locally brewed ‘beers’ – sorghum and maize. It’s much the same all over the continent, a somewhat sour, thick soupy drink, mildly alcoholic. We also stopped at a village beer bar for a couple of bottles of Maluti beer, watching Sunday afternoon loafers playing pool. We visited an elderly gentleman called Khokho and his wife, Makelibone, friends of Moeti’s late parents, keen gardeners who keep a grass roots nursery supplying seedling trees to the government. They scratch a living in their old age, watering and weeding, caring for tiny trees in lots of five hundred each. But this drought has so many consequences. Although they are the proud possessors of a tap – still running – the government department that purchases their trees cannot plant them with the lack of rain. Everyone is complaining of the terrible drought. We ended our walk by visiting the end of a deep tunnel that dives into the mountainside below Moruti’s house, deep in the valley. It conects to one of the long underground tunnels that delivers Lesotho’s usually fairly abundant water to greedy South African industry. It is the main income for this small country and the reason for opening up of so much of the ineterior for the big dams and water systems. At the gates of this access tunnel a narrow gutter is still supplying a pathetic trickle on which many local families are depending. Moruti has to carry all the water for the family – his mother, himself and a couple of his siblings’ small children – and any guests (who seem to be quite far between as so few know of his little business) from a quarter of a mile away down a steep dusty hill. When I got back I was desperate for a wash. It has been a hot dry day, almost all of it spent in direct African sun. I doubt I have ever washed in so little water in all my travels – a few pints, and they sufficed to wash my tee shirt, pants and socks too! When you see how Africa struggles for water, you understand the value of this basic resource, the privilege of turning on a tap and getting gushing – clean, treated – water. You also comprehend the appalling greed in privatising a basic human need so that corporate business can make profits for shareholders – but that’s a soap box I won’t mount right now…

At every stop as we walked the paths and trails, greeting and chatting, I was received with such gentle goodwill. Lesotho is a wonder, up there in my top two or three nations in the world. Laughing and joking makes the African world go round, nowhere more so than in lovely Lesotho where warmth and smiles are a national characteristic.

It’s been a wonderful day, unforgettable and profoundly satisfying to be so welcome by people without any pretence or other motive than human warmth. The sort of day that makes my travelling life so very rewarding.

My, I feel healthy and fit just now. This is the life to keep you in form. I have no idea how far we walked, probably not far in horizontal miles, but add the vertical scrambling and it was taxing. We had a light dinner – Mamohase offers a dinner, bed and breakfast package for £15.25 – and by 8.15 I was back to my round thatched room as a stiff wind blows around the hills, product of a rainstorm way up on the tops, that will do nothing to help the aridity down here.

Journal writing is a difficult duty tonight and I will sleep like the dead, I expect! (Indeed, I slept solidly for nine hours!)

DAY 35 MONDAY JANUARY 11th, 2015. KHUKHUNE, LESOTHO

I’m taking this trip at a much more relaxed pace than usual – and enjoying it more I think. This has been a calm day, riding back up to the high mountains just for the sheer pleasure and fun of riding the Moteng Pass again. I remember how it was a highlight of my trip way back in 2002. It has lost none of its thrill; the finest of Lesotho’s tarred passes.

Petrol pumps are well separated in this small country. There’s no pump between Mohotlong, the regional centre in the top right of the country, down to Butha Buthe, a surprisingly small but sprawling town in the top left, over 100 miles away. So before I could set off to the tops I had to turn right and head down 16 miles to a petrol station in Butha Buthe, a town in which the rules of the road seem to evaporate into a tedious, crawling free for all. Of course, a bike is oblivious to much of that!

Then it was off to the mountain heights, a glorious ride up the twisting and looping squiggles of tar, cur here and there into the rock faces to create wide enough turns and cantilevered out on bastions of rock walls elsewhere. High above, and you have to crane your neck, you can see the pass itself, marked by masts of telecommunications relays, the litter of modern landscapes. Between, you might catch glimpses of scratches of the road as it soars across scrubby rock faces in giddying perspective. These roads are little-known feats of engineering, largely created to open up the interior water projects that earn Lesotho a good deal of its income by selling water to South Africa’s industrial belts to the north. Far below, in dizzy views, the road paper-clips down the rocks, seemingly disconnected strips of order in the craggy chaos. This unknown country is biking heaven! You see, we love these roads on which we bend and weave, tilt and lean. For me, it’s not the speed, it’s just the joy of the fluid movements, a sort of mechanical ballet, transferring weight from one side to the other unconsciously, flipping the bike back and forth in a graceful dance so that this lump of ungainly steel engineering becomes a lively, animated cooperation of mind and machine. It’s such fun. It’s what keeps bikers on two wheels and makes cars such a sedate compromise. On my bike I am out in the elements, concentrating at a subliminal level on the technique of riding but enjoying the journey itself on quite another level. Over the years I have often found that the best way to unblock a creative hurdle was to get the bike out and take a ride. I’d find my brain working on two levels: the first a sort of autopilot that operated the machine by instinct, and above that my creative mind unconsciously, it always seemed, tackling the problem I had. Or maybe it was just that I returned relaxed and the problem had dissolved! I have often used my bikes to unblock creative channels.

But here there’s no creative blockage to unstop – just fun to be had, the crystal air to enjoy, the views to wonder over and the ultimate exhilaration – for me – of being in high mountains. You can keep your boring seashores: give me the mountains, especially such high, empty ones as the Maluti.

*

The ‘Highest restaurant in Africa’ provided a good cup of coffee and yet two more people who recognised me from over a year ago. I must have made quiet an impression: three members of staff who noticed that I had been there before, one of whom, Mots, it was who sent me to Mamohase B&B before Christmas 2014. Then I turned west again from the rather ugly ski resort, with all the usual imposition of metalwork and artificiality on the natural landscape; alien Swiss chalet architecture and South African commercialism despoiling the Basotho heights, and headed back towards gathering storm clouds and the lip of the escarpment.

There’d been a gesture of rain here in the lower west side of Lesotho. Much needed by the populous, but not welcomed by me, it was as yet little more than a dust-settling shower that had reduced the temperature quickly. I think it probably rained in much of the western lowlands, which is where most of the population live – and through which I have to ride tomorrow.

*

The Lipophung Cave is a celebrated archaeological site with its (somewhat underwhelming) cave paintings. The cave is like so many in these mountains, carved by water in eons past, just a deep overhang that has been used for centuries by mankind as shelter. The San bushmen left their mark – literally – by painting on the rocks: antelopes and stick figures often representing shamans in trances. These ritualised, graphic stick figures and stylised animals have been painted for thousands of years, right into the eighteenth century. I have to say, it’s quite difficult for the casual visitor to make out just what’s what, but my duty was done in seeing the local historical site…

*

More enjoyable to my mind, was the conversation in the here and now with Lerato (‘love’), security man with S4C, who appear to have the contract for security at all the Lesotho Highlands Water Projects. I had taken a side road and found it, after four or five miles, blocked by a barrier across the entrance to a declining tunnel into the depths of the mountainside. It’s an access shaft to a turbine hall that operates on one of several long tunnels that exit the other side of the range in South Africa. Lesotho – and South Africa – are fortunate that these mountains, the Maluti/ Drakensburg, depending on which side you are, are so stable geologically since they are now punctured by many water tunnels.

Lerato, like so many Basotho, has an easily intelligible English accent and a good education. It’s so easy and pleasant to be able to communicate so equally in this little island surrounded by the reserve and discomfort of South Africa. I told Lerato how welcome I am made to feel in his country.

“Ah,” he said, “from a tender age we are taught that we should greet strangers with respect and a smile!” It’s a lesson well learned by almost every Basotho. I spend much of my time waving and smiling at everyone I pass. It appears that people are actually pleased to see me riding through their spectacular landscapes and enjoying their hospitality.

*

The Rand is spiralling out of control, now reaching stratospheric heights of 24.42 to the pound. When it reached 22.86 a month ago it broke its own record. My trip gets cheaper every day – and it wasn’t expensive at 17.5 to the pound last March. But how hard it is for this small country, with its currency pegged to the Rand. Through no fault of theirs – in fact, entirely through the fault of the least educated president in Africa, Jacob Zuma (he has no formal education whatsoever) – their economy is plummeting alongside their neighbour’s. People here are beginning to ask why they should suffer this way.

*

At last, as I write, it is raining; a steady, wetting rain. The gasp of the soil is almost audible. I am happy for all my Basotho friends, but I have to say, I hope it doesn’t last into the morning! There is an unpleasant chill as the rain whispers on the thatch of my round room. Perhaps this will begin to put green on the landscape and crops in the fields and water in the taps. But I fear it will not be enough. Moruti, over supper, told me it hasn’t rained even like this for more than three months. These are hard times in Lesotho.

DAY 36 TUESDAY JANUARY 12th, 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO

To everyone’s delight, it rained through much of the night, at least ten hours of steady relieving wetness. It’s freshened the weather and as I rode today I saw many farmers taking to their fields after the long wait.

And it led to a sparkling, sunny day without the oppression of the recent heat. I have ridden anti-clockwise down the left side of Lesotho. This is the least scenically interesting part of the little country, where the majority of the population live. It is relatively low – although no point in Lesotho is below 1400 metres (4500 feet) and the road rolls through many small, not very pretty towns and villages.

But I am coming to know Lesotho rather well. Maseru, the small but hectic capital, sprawls across hills at about nine o’clock on the oval map of Lesotho. Now I know that by turning ‘inland’ at TY, Teyatyenang, and following a minor road for fifteen miles, I can join another road that deteriorates to rock for about five miles and then joins a sweeping tar road that enables me to completely bypass Maseru, in the process enjoying views of a lovely spreading valley below, contoured in red and brown earth terraces. Everywhere people wave and smile as I pass.

*

I was heading for a place called Malealea, but could not pass within ten miles of Roma, one of my favourites, without stopping the night in ‘my’ rondavel at the ‘Trading Post’ guest house, where I am instantly recognised and made very welcome. I am the only guest tonight so the kitchen wasn’t able to feed me this evening, resulting in an odd travel meal of sardines on toast, tomatoes and yoghurt. It feeds the body and the soul is well catered for by Lesotho magic.

Chris, the elderly communist, gay, English administrator of the university drama department was delighted to see me reappear so that I could join him as he drank his nightly bottle of white wine (with a second for take away)that he takes here in the garden, desperate, I suppose, for out of town company. Again, he repeated his hope that his department will be able to invite me to the University of Lesotho as a visiting lecturer to expound my historical and heritage take on story telling. Seems to me unlikely to happen, but I wouldn’t object to a paid trip back to Lesotho so I make the right enthusiastic noises! His department works with an New York based advisor. She and I bonded and exchanged addresses last year – so who knows?

One of the staff that I have come to know here, Tseliso, cares for a number of children with his wage as a Jack of all trades at the Trading Post. From him I got warm welcome. Next week the schools go back after the long summer break and he was telling me how difficult it is to pay fees for the children, some of them those of his late brother and wife. One doesn’t enquire too much into the reasons for the decease of young parents here: the chances are that AIDS, with its sad statistics, has taken its toll on his family. High school fees for the year for his own 18 year old are 1200 Maloti (about £53); for the 15 year old about 900 Maloti (about £39). To put it in perspective: he is worrying and stressing about finding that money from his wage while I pay about £40 a day to ride about his country somewhat aimlessly… Africa often makes me guilty about my own rather easy life.

*

The more I come to and travel about in Lesotho, the deeper I understand and appreciate its strong culture. Each time I admire it more. It’s overtaken my love for Ghana as a country for these people are maintaining their very rich Basotho culture while Ghana is apparently avidly divesting itself of theirs and espousing western ways with a will. The Basotho really celebrate their culture as a living thing. I can see it all around me.

Another thing I notice, and I don’t think it is disconnected, is the discreet level on which religion seems to operate. Lesotho is nominally a Catholic dominated society but it appears much less aggressive and zealous than elsewhere in Africa. I don’t see many churches but everyone professes belief in god (although a few tell me of their doubts. Moruti, whose name, well, it’s a nickname in fact, ironically means ‘priest’, is one). Many people attend services in ordinary houses and priests will travel to those places. Roma is a Catholic town, dominated by large, obvious churches that make a cultural statement of their own. And I noticed, as I took a walk about the area of the Trading Post, that the dotty Jehovah’s Witnesses are here too – doubtless, they saw it as a competitive exercise in this Catholic dominated town. I cannot ever accept the Catholic church in Africa. The fact that the single richest, and one of the most powerful political, organisations in the world has the poorest congregation is a fact that I despise deeply. In Ghana this alien religion pervades the culture – with all its converting fervour and trampling of indigenous culture. In Ghana the construction of vast churches is becoming a very ambitious, cut throat tournament. The money could be spent improving the lot of the population.

In Basotho villages there are not many obvious signs of organised religion. I find it much healthier that people practice in communities if they wish, not in formal places of worship. There’s a small Anglican following, and a scattering of Moslems and the evangelical churches are beginning to see the commercial and business rewards too. Give them time…

AFRICA 2016 – Journal six

DAY 37 WEDNESDAY JANUARY 13th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO

“What are you waiting for?” asked a young girl, about fifteen, this afternoon, seeing me standing, gazing into the distance beside my motorbike.

“I’m looking at the beauty! Your country is SO beautiful; one of the most beautiful places in the world!”

“Oh, not that much…” she replied, with a world weary shrug.

Beauty surely is in the eye of the beholder. I was enthusing over a wonderful vista of an expansive valley, lined in red soils and brown rocks; a dust track meandering down into the distance; blue mountains ranges rising in the background and the endless African skies filled with buoyant, foaming white clouds. I could see for many miles; a rural idyll; a wonder to behold. ‘Oh, not that much…’

This was the view said to have inspired JR Tolkien in his vision of Mordor, the fantastical worlds of his stories, once sent in a sketch by his son, who had stood in awe at the same place that I found myself: a low pass between brown rocks forming a sort of gateway, a frame, a picture mount to the beauties of Basotho nature.

“Oh, not that much…”

But to me, it certainly had that fictional ‘lost kingdom’ appeal.

*

It always takes me time to leave Roma and the friendly Trading Post. I have made friends with many of the staff there now. That’s the advantage of returning to places. I will be there again, I am sure.

Then I had an invitation for coffee (“It’s the only decent coffee you’ll get in Lesotho!”) from Chris, the administrator of the theatre department, at his staff bungalow on campus – an interesting opportunity for me to see the University of Lesotho. It’s quite an impressive place, too. A university with 10,000 full time students, bringing a lot of vibrancy to the small, isolated town of Roma. But what an odd life to be an ex-pat professor. Chris, elderly, not in good health, abandoned in remote Roma in a gloomy faculty bungalow with lino tiles and grease-stained ceilings of hardboard panels – and paid in Basotho Maloti. Still, not a bad cup of filter coffee..! And a warm welcome with a repeat of his hope to be able to invite me at the university’s expense to Lesotho. Suits me!

*

The journey south is not so interesting. These are the relative lowlands of the country, rolling dry arable lands backed by distant sandstone outcrops beneath the bright Lesotho skies. Shepherds stand and stare into space watching their sheep and cows, shrouded in colourful blankets, disguised by a thick dark balaclava despite the heat, sometimes surmounted by a tall woven Basotho hat, raising a hand in a cheerful wave as I blow past. Traffic is light, the road sweeping ahead, visible for miles; straggling villages beside the highway. Children wave; donkeys have to be avoided; the sun makes a dancing black shadow almost directly under my rushing machine. But I seldom ride faster than sixty miles an hour, often no more than forty.

Riding through a congested town, a Basotho rider pulls alongside, engaging me in a cheerful conversation over the noise of two engines. Where am I going? How big is my tank (always a strange obsession)? Where am I from? “Welcome!” And he rides away. I stop in town, for I need a lead for my camera battery charger, having left it in Harberton. I find my way through narrow dusty footpaths between crowded market stalls, riding over debris and litter, laughing with stall holders and shoppers; parking the bike on a pavement and being accosted by cheerful voices from all around, jokes, greetings, laughter. “I need your motorbike! Give it to me!” It’s an outpouring of goodwill unlike any in the world – happy, smiling, utterly unthreatening, totally engaging.

Unusually, the girl in the general dealers, that has the lead I need, is Moslem, wearing a headscarf.

“How much?” I ask.

“Eighty Maloti!” she replies. (About £3.30)

“Wow!” I exclaim in mock horror, ”I bought one yesterday for twenty five Maloti!” (Mind you, it didn’t work.)

“Oh, give me fifty!”

This one works. We test it in the shop before I leave with a handshake and laughter.

*

Then onto a side road. Signpost: ‘Malealea 33km’. I had expected gravel but it’s tarred now, like so many roads here, swinging this way and that into a wide valley, the brown escarpments hiding blue mountains behind. The last few miles, a gravel road rising slowly to a low ridge, the hills closing in… And then, breasting the rise, a dramatic, theatrical reveal – dismissed: “Oh, not that much…” All the wonder of Lesotho’s spectacular scenery cut to size by a bored teenager.

*

Malealea Lodge is five miles or so down rocky tracks in the midst of that fabulous bright brown valley, the earth as red as copper. ‘Voted one of the ten best destinations in the world by Lonely Planet Guides’, it says at reception. For me, that’s the kiss of death for any location. It means unimaginative tourism, local ‘guides’, ‘cultural performances’, western rock music, European food, a lot of Europeans on their electronic devices, not interacting with the locals unless by arrangement and payment. I missed Mamohase and Roma, low key places where I talk to Basotho people.

The food is a compromise – nothing much of Lesotho about it, but my room is comfortable. I’d paid for a ‘Basotho hut’ with shared facilities but it’s so quiet now the receptionist gave me an en ensuite room for the same tariff. I dined communally with three Brits and a young American and I could be anywhere in the Lonely Planet version of the world. “This is number fifteen in your Book,” as the minibus driver called to his passengers outside a bland hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam. “No, we want number 7!”; “…and I want number 9!” came voices from behind. I sat next to the driver, older by a couple of decades than any of the passengers, and whispered to him, “take me to a hotel that’s not in ‘The Book’, will you?” He gave me an appraising look and a sort of mental wink, and took me to a delightful place, cheaper, with a garden and run by Vietnamese, with Vietnamese guests. No, getting in Lonely Planet is a complete sellout to hackneyed conformity. You could be anywhere. I like the individuality of Moruti’s ‘cultural’ B&B – because the culture is Basotho, not humdrum backpacker travel.

*

It’s raining again tonight. I took a wander through the local village – spurning the proffered guide since I prefer the chance encounters and just seeing what will happen to seeing the same as every other visitor, as expounded on Page 234 in The Book. This is rural Lesotho (with a veneer created by the adjacent Lonely Planet top ten destination lodge). The dwellings are crude, from red stone and red mud, surrounded by tall spiky grey aloes and red dust. But people still greet me and welcome me, walk along with me asking questions.

Some of the homes are little more than shacks, home sweet home surrounded by bare red dirt. Some of them have a tall pole standing nearby, a strip of old dirty cloth or a plastic bag billowing in the breeze at the top. They are signals: a white flag means a provider of sorghum beer; yellow means sour local corn beer; green is for vegetables for sale and red, meat for sale. Here and there people are busy wheelbarrowing containers of water from the valleys and wash-outs in the red and brown rocky scene. All are affected by this deep drought, numerous man and woman hours spent in fetching water. Grubby sheep chew at desiccated grass, some with clunking bells around their necks to keep away jackals in the hills. No one has much in the way of material possessions, just what they need to get through a hard, probably short life. There are children everywhere; the birth rate still enormous despite the privations.

Then the rain began to spatter and I turned for home: the insipid guest house – but good company for an evening, ending round a brazier as the rain gunned on the tin sheets overhead – three of my countryfolk and the young American. Interesting people that I encourage to get off the beaten track of ‘The Book’ and see for themselves. Two of them are seeing South Africa, with a short diversion into Lesotho, by minibus, the ‘black taxis’ that so terrify white South Africans, who expect robbery and murder from the black-skinned travellers. We all wonder at the fear of the whites for black people, for none of us has found out what it is we are supposed to be afraid of yet; all of us experiencing nothing but welcome, even in deepest downtown taxi stations. We all agree that Leeds/ Nottingham/ even the Isle of Wight, on Friday night are more threatening in tone, more vulgar in manner and infinitely more drunken.

*

Water is rationed here to a couple of brief possibilities for showering, flushing and washing. Electricity is only available from six to ten, provided by a generator for the guests alone. There’s no power in the village. In Africa one must try to leave a small footprint on the strained landscape. But the birthrate still rockets and most of the valuable resources feed corrupt politicians, western corporations, South African industry and The People’s Republic of China. Not much is left for the rural people and the beauty of the views doesn’t put food on the table – except in white-owned guest lodges… And I pay as much for a bottle of beer as many of the people in the red rock and earth shacks outside the fence probably earned today – if they had good fortune. It’s an unequal world and we do well to remember that when we complain at the trivial irritations of our privileged lives.

Beauty, for a bored fifteen year old is probably in escape; in the material possessions pushed at her as a measure of success in the world; in getting away from Malealea and the lives of generations of her family.

“Oh, not so much…”

DAY 38 THURSDAY JANUARY 14th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO

“Hey, I like your hair!” I said to a young woman, her elaborately woven style running in braids close to her scalp, radiating backwards from the forehead.

“Oh,” she smiled, pleased, “it was just done yesterday!”

“It must have taken a long time…”

A beat for thought… “No, not so long. Only about three hours.”

The things people do for fashion and adornment. Three hours!

*

Lesotho days just get better. This has been another wonderful day, endearing me so much to the Basotho and the fine landscape of the mountain kingdom. I set out on a dirt track out of the village that would take me round the other side of the valley, roughly contouring the mountainside. You can see the track scratched indistinctly across the steep slopes from over this side. In the end, I rode all the way back to Roma – the direct, cross-country route! And it was tough and rough in places. I am exhausted, pleasantly exhausted. Controlling the bucking bronco of my motorbike across more than fifty miles of trail riding uses a lot of different muscles! Having no rear brake makes for extra concentration and the trail was, in places pretty rough. I had intended to ride about twenty kilometres to a viewpoint that overlooks this fine valley, but by the time I got there I looked at my map and thought, ‘why go back the same way?’ It couldn’t be worse in front, than the pass I had just negotiated. I had run out of car tracks in the dust some miles back, always a bad sign. It was another three or four miles before I found them again, coming up from the other side of the mountain range. It always gives me confidence to see fresh tyre prints: it means that four wheels have been able to make the grade, so on two I have twice the chance, for I need only six continuous inches of clear track to keep moving while a 4X4 needs five feet width and has four points of contact with the rocky track.

The road contoured for the first ten miles then turned right and virtually fell down the mountain slope into a deep, steep valley, twisting this way and that, loose stones and rocks sliding beneath my wheels. Going down is always harder on a motorbike, and you really need rear braking! I had to rely on my engine braking… I could see the track continuing just as steeply up the other side. There was evidence of a bicycle having gone this way but no other vehicle was evident. In places the road width reduced dramatically, the scree tumbling down the mountainside rather dramatically.

Then I was on the level again, high above the valley on a rocky shelf carved from the plunging slopes. I made a guess that the worst was behind me and that in front I would again find villages and a continuous track to the main road far ahead.

Two years ago I rode the A3 of Lesotho, little more than a goat track across the mountains. Imagine then the B251! But, oh what magnificence! I cannot fully describe the sensation of being in this astonishing landscape, the space, the freedom, the light – and with every person I met, walking or in villages, ready with a warm white smile and a happy greeting. I had to concentrate on the surface, but I also had to wave at hundreds of Basotho – and enjoy the breathtaking beauty of this high, craggy highland nation. There’s nowhere like it.

*

A remote secondary school, really at the end of the motorable road – from the northern end, barely accessible except on foot or motorbike – and that bicycle – from the south, stood on a bluff. Term starts next week. Here I met the first vehicle for quite a few miles, driven (rather inexpertly on the dust and rocks) by a cheerful, laughing woman, with three passengers, two women sitting under supplies and sheets in the back and a fat passenger in the seat beside her.

“Eh, daddy, I am looking for a white boyfriend!” exclaimed the passenger, with a huge white smile.

“OK,” I replied, laughing happily, as is so easy here, “jump on my seat! We go!” And I patted my pillion, to much amusement from them all. The driver accelerated, sliding sideways on the dust, accompanied by waves and laughter from all of us as she slipped and skidded uphill to her village. At least now I knew that if she could drive as badly as that from the tar road, I certainly wouldn’t have too much problem!

Mind you, I know not how early they set out… I was still tens of miles from the tar road down to Roma. I had no idea from my map that I had undertaken quite such a journey! They must have been on the road for hours. I had another two and a half to go! For at least an hour and a half I kept expecting to see the new tar road from Roma to Semonkong somewhere in front but it never appeared. I bounced and bashed through a dozen small widespread villages, asking my way here and there; clattered over hills and zigzagged round hairpins, waving in reply to a thousand greetings. Hundreds of miles later – which was, of course – less than fifty, I finally saw the smooth blacktop ahead, a junction I have seen on several previous occasions and wondered what would happen if I turned there. Now I know: I would hammer and bash my way for half a day through some of the world’s finest scenery, round mountain ridges and across plummeting slopes to the Malealea Valley with its rich brown soils, copper red terraces and cream coloured river cuttings.

*

Once on the tar road it was a matter of minutes to ride back to Roma, and on through the town onto the main highways back to Malealea, sixty or seventy miles away. I was tired but enlivened by my long, challenging ride through the beauties of central southern Lesotho, a region of the country previously unknown to me. Back at the guest house I took a walk down the village to espy the smear of a track that had been so familiar to me in close detail just a few hours earlier. I could see the line of that trail, a faint mark pencilled across the steep slopes that line the big valley. From where I stood, a couple of miles away, it looked innocent and simple, visible only by virtue of its continuity in the jumbled landscape.

*

On a mild evening with lightning splashing about the horizon far off behind the mountains, supper was good on the open terrace of this rough and ready guest house. I have found agreeable company with the Isle of Wight couple (almost my age, working in the arts organising festivals) with some broadly coinciding views of life, and later in David from Amsterdam. He’s obsessed by travel and making his way about southern Africa as I am for a few months, travelling by local minibuses and camping here and there. He uses a guide book that is years out of date like me, for he wants the general information, not the slavish following of conventional routes. He prefers to get lost and see what happens than take guides in places like this. I agree, that’s all part of the fun, just seeing what happens. We chatted long after the generator died, sitting beneath a wondrous spray of jewel-like stars across the velvet-black skies, the milky way a broad daub of light arcing overhead. I liked his attitude to life and travelling. Trained in marketing but self confessed unemployable, he is lucky that he inherited a house in Amsterdam and can live off the rent. He was surprised to discover, after a couple of hours’ chat, that I am the age of his father but we talked without any generational reserve, exchanging views learned from our travels. An enjoyable evening.

I misjudged Malealea Lodge to some extent. It seems to be on the tourist ’taste of Lesotho’ circuit, with many guests arriving on a self-guided itinerary, created for them and booked from Europe – Jo’burg/ Kruger/ Malealea/ Cape Town – but it does seem to attract fairly independently-minded, slightly older travellers. Trouble is, most of them are only in Africa for a couple of weeks so only get the précis view and are directed by their tour company, missing out on many even better locations – like the northern Maluti Mountains. Still it’s making for fairly open conversation and they do much to promote the local community, raising sponsorship for new schools, handicraft ventures and other very worthy development causes around this beautiful valley.

I am tired now, ready to stretch out flat for a few hours after a strenuous but very satisfying day.

DAY 39 FRIDAY JANUARY 15th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO

It’s official. Lesotho is my favourite country in the world. It is spellbinding, glorious and unique.

*

I checked out of the guest house here this morning and rode away. As I rode I was already wishing I was not leaving Lesotho back to South Africa today. It’s been a wonderful week and I didn’t want it to end, returning to unhappy, divided, reserved South Africa. I rode out of the lovely valley with its lost world feeling and turned onto the tar road, crawling unwillingly towards the west at 40mph. In front the sky was going a strangely misty brown colour and the wind was rising in blustery blasts. Far away, probably over the Free State, where I was headed, clouds were building in towering storm heads. I had seen a forecast for 9 or 10 millimetres of rain in Bloemfontein today.

Everyone was smiling and waving – and I was returning to the cold country next door…

I turned in the road and headed back to the lost valley and checked back in! I have no time pressure (except to visit Steven at a weekend) and I hate to be drawn away from Lesotho. Why not stay tonight and go to Bloemfontein tomorrow? It was meant to be, as when I returned to the guest house, Glen the manager, worked out that I had been overcharged when I booked on the internet for my New Year stay, the one I didn’t make, and tonight is free! Lots of very convincing reasons to stay…

*

Lesotho and the Basotho. Just what is it about the place and the people? Without doubt, it’s the friendliest, most naturally welcoming country I have visited in my 95 countries, or whatever the number is now. The landscape is spectacular; the sense of exploration that one can get is addictive; the altitude makes for crystal clear skies and cloudscapes that are unequalled… But it’s the people, the people, and the people that make the country irresistible.

These are people who, in our material terms, on which we base so much of our social judgement, have nothing. They live in shabby huts made of misshapen rock, red mud, zinc sheets and thatch; the fortunate ones own a few cattle, sheep and donkeys – all land in Lesotho belongs to the crown. They dress in mismatched second hand clothes and in hard times like this, they are on the edge of poverty. Yet they have warmth, welcome, friendship, identity, community and fortitude in spades. “Oh, from a tender age we are taught to greet strangers with a smile,” as Sophie in Roma said.

Perhaps a confident identity is the defining quality the Basotho enjoy, and from which springs all the rest of their cheerful welcoming natures. The two million or so Basotho people are all of one tribe, have been a nation for a couple of hundred years (achieving independence in 1966) and are internally peaceful, without the tribal rivalries that cause so much of Africa’s conflict and distress – and, of course, no history of the poison of apartheid. Basotho are proud of their kingdom, assured in their cultural identity, comfortable together, independent, respectful of education and mutually supportive. These things are more valuable than all the ‘stuff’ and riches in the world. We, with all our obsessive material ambition, greed and fractiousness would do well to learn from the ‘undeveloped’ Basotho. They possess poise and contentment, in the face of privations most of us could not conceive. Surely to possess happiness together is more valuable than all the stuff for which we strive?

The ability to be able to stand and gaze into space and be one with the landscape, a blanket thrown casually across a shoulder, white Wellies and a big home-woven grass hat – to be content with tradition while tending a flock of greasy sheep – that is the unique quality of the Basotho.

*

Walking down through the village I found the handicraft centre; four cheerful women and a man sitting making mats from grass, dolls from scraps, table mats from bottle tops and beaded belts. The nearby tourist lodge has created some small cottage industries in the village. I stopped to chat, for this is why I travel, and perhaps why I find Lesotho so special. And of course, I always see my chance to add to my rather large collection of photographic portraits. These are such outgoing sociable folk, always with time for strangers.

Eventually I wandered on, down the dusty paths to the lower village, greeting and waving to all the inhabitants. Behind the village the deep valley of the lower gorge drops aways steeply and here I sat on the lip for a long time, gazing in awe at the enormous view around and below me, a vista of rock and scrub, cliff and scree, cream and brown, bald bare rock domes and undercut caves. Around my head soared swallows, maybe the same ones that sit on the wires outside Rock Cottage and shit on my car in another world and another season. Behind me a threadbare, skin and bone horse, its ribs like furrows, nibbled determinedly at the dusting of crackly dry grass searching for some sustenance. The sun beat down as I sat on the pale rock.

The longer I sat there, I slowly became aware that this vast empty landscape was actually hiding people all over the view. No more than elongated dots, I began to see shepherds standing about the landscape. One dot was still for so long, with what I thought were white Wellies, far below in the curve of the totally dry river bed that I doubted it was more than a post until, looking away for some moments at other human commas that I began to make out, I looked back and the still shepherd was gone. The tuneless metallic clank of the sheep bells rose from all around and far below and I could hear incongruous modern music drifting from somewhere on the wind. I took it to be coming from a small village of thatched rondavels that stood outlined on a distant ridge at least a mile and a half away. It was a magical time of deep peace.

*

Returning up through the scattered village houses, children came running, sometimes to take my hand and walk with me, always to greet me very charmingly. I turned off to walk across the hillside to bring me into another parts of the straggly village and was all of a sudden surrounded by little girls, aged six to twelve as I found out. Their leader, a fabulously pretty twelve year old called Anaclettar, was quite charming. “You have come to see our museum?” she piped. “We will take you to our museum.” And they all gathered round and guided me across the hillside to a couple of fine rondavels, one of which contained artefacts of everyday use in the village – until the arrival of the Chinese plastics and enamel. I left a donation in an open basket – that no one will steal, and gave Anaclettar 40 pence to buy biscuits for all the six or seven little girls. They were all tiny in comparison to children of the same age in Europe, so much so that I had pegged them all as about three years younger than their ages. But what a beauty is Anaclettar! More happy photos… I have learned that the Sesotho word used to make people smile, as we would say ‘cheese’, is ‘lisilise’, which amuses everyone enough for a good smile! Lisilise is a sorghum porridge.

*

This turned into such a lovely afternoon. I am so happy my instincts made me turn round. If I didn’t have a date with Steven soon, I would be staying longer and just wandering – without local guide as advised by ‘The Book’ – and sitting in the villages to see what would happen and whom I would meet. As it is, I shall be back in Lesotho at the slightest opportunity!

*

Certainly, this lodge, although so well known and busy with people passing rather quickly through, attracts an eclectic selection of foreigners – and thankfully few racially blind South Africans. Tonight I have sat until long after my travelling bedtime by the brazier drinking at length (midnight, long after the generator died) with two Scots and David, the Dutch traveller. The elder Scot, another David – and I am surprised by how many of my generation are about in Lesotho – has worked in many African countries. Born in South Africa, but living on the west coast of Scotland, he was imprisoned and deported in 1975 for activities with the rebel ANC party that was fighting apartheid. So of course his left wing politics are still strong – and generally in accord with mine. His family, for whom he has little time, are still in Natal, living a wealthy ostrich life moaning about their servants. His own father disclaimed him in his political years and the rift with them all is pretty conclusive, to judge by his comments. He reckons nothing will change until all those whites, especially those who moved to South Africa durning the apartheid years, die. But I wonder how many of their children will carry on the unthinking prejudices, many of them having been educated at exclusive, and almost entirely white, public schools modelled on the old British ones, straw boaters and all. One generation won’t do it. About four might.

My first impressions of Malealea certainly changed and I’m actually quite sorry I must leave for Bloemfontein in the morning, but it’s best for me to go there at the weekend to visit Steven. So this is my last night in Lesotho for now. It won’t be long before I am back.