2015 – SOUTHERN AFRICA JOURNAL – 16

DAY 89 SATURDAY MARCH 7th 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

This afternoon my journey effectively finished as I arrived back in Bloemfontein, for now my destination. Here I will leave my bike and fly out on wednesday.

Coming back from Lesotho to South Africa always enhances the social divisions of this strange country. The smiles and waves stop and suddenly my skin colour is relevant again. I continue to wave for a while – until I just give up because the return waves are cursory and given with a blankly cold expression.

I diverted to look at Dewetsdorp, as unattractive as it sounds, I soon discovered: a dreary little town with an elegant church and town hall but otherwise a collection of dingy businesses alongside dusty streets. It all had a down-at-heel look about it and my idea of coffee dissolved quite rapidly. Outside the little dorp with its security-conscious bungalows and fences, was a sprawling informal township of shacks and sheds like a refugee camp – outside, separate.

The same is the entry to Bloemfontein, one of South Africa’s largest cities, home to its judicial government and a place of considerable wealth. For miles I drove by a vast encampment of squatter huts and sheds, little better than animal shacks of tin sheets, bits of old lorries, pallets, re-claimed doors and windows with cracked glass, even a pair of re-used patio doors, all lashed together into meagre dwellings surrounded by blasted earth with plastic bags and debris flapping forlornly from the encircling barbed wire. Few shacks were connected to services. Not a tree was to be seen, just a wasteland informally occupied by the desperate. This in a country with so much visible wealth elsewhere – in other hands; largely other coloured hands.

I am fed up with living behind and looking through bars, ‘devil’s fork’ spiked fencing, security gates and with consciously locking everything up. ‘Come her and live like a millionaire’… No thanks. I look forward to living in relative simplicity but calm confidence in a place where I leave my door unlocked, and often open to the street – called Harberton. I just couldn’t live in comfort with maids and gardeners and drive past that poverty and squalor a few miles away.

*

I took a leisurely departure of Roma and rode southwards again towards one of the smaller South African border posts. On saturday, I reasoned, the Maseru Bridge border would be busy, nearest to the small capital and the shortest route to Bloemfontein via Ladybrand, the nearest South African town. So I exited by the quiet route by which I entered three days ago.

On my way I passed the small, originally mission town of Morija. Katt, my American companion for the last couple of evenings in Roma (with whom I hope to make contact sometime in New York), mentioned that Lesotho’s only museum was there. It is a charming place, delightfully amateur and openly enthusiastic. Once again the words ‘home-spun’ come to mind, an eclectic hodgepodge collection from meteorites to baskets, commemorative tea cups to dinosaur bones, from old Basotho weapons to pictures of the kings. I particularly enjoyed the plastic dinosaurs used as illustrations of what might have been the former prehistoric life of Lesotho, where a lot of footprints and fossils can be seen. Sometimes the enthusiasm and desire to share the odd collections in a couple of very basic rooms communicates better than in far more sophisticated museums: most endearing.

*

And so back to Bloemfontein and welcome from my generous friend, Steven. I am here now until I leave on wednesday.

DAY 90 SUNDAY MARCH 8th 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

Not much to report from a relaxed day like this, spent largely in Steven’s home in this Bloemfontein suburb, with one short ride out to meet a friend and a trip out for dinner this evening, my treat to this kind man – and his son – who will not only store my bike for perhaps a couple of years (on the assumption that next winter might be occupied by work) but will probably strip it down and rebuild it as well. He is so hospitable, a trait I have come to admire amongst the Afrikaans people, even while I have some problems with the social politics of the country. Warmly generous people, almost everywhere – a few exceptions, like that awful man in Mozambique with his foolish theories about ‘bleck’ people.

I’m sorry I didn’t get to Orania, a dorp that has declared apartheid somewhere to the south west of Bloemfontein. It is a whites-only town where the ideals of apartheid are honoured and all the statues of the discredited apartheid leaders have been rescued and put on display in the town. Steven was dismissive. “Huh, it’s an awful place. Killing themselves like that from inbreeding. You have to accept change. Ridiculous people.” I pointed out that it is rather wonderful that they are ABLE to recreate a whites-only town: it shows great tolerance in the system of the modern South Africa, especially with its evil history. I surmise that the general attitude is one of contempt of a small fanatic fringe who should be allowed just to live their ludicrous lifestyle. I’m still quite sorry I didn’t make it, at least for a cup of coffee – probably the ersatz ‘Ricoffy’ – in town. Just to say I’d been there, to confirm a few stereotypes and make myself irritated!

I spent some time today sorting what goes home and what stays. At present I just don’t know if I will make another trip here in southern Africa. My vague thought is that I could ride up to Kenya next time. I have asked Steven to investigate the customs and excise formalities of taking a South African registered motorbike beyond Zambia (I know you can get that far without much bureaucracy). I’ve also taxed him to keep a look out for an Elephant down here for me! He has a lot of contacts in the biking world, even the fellow who wasn’t at home in Middelburg the other day when Ponnie drove me about town. It turns out that is the man who, Steven told me some time ago, rebuilds old bikes like my Elephant. Pity he wasn’t home that day…

Anyway, all that is possibly in the future. ‘Who knows tomorrow?’ as Wechiga would say.

DAY 91 MONDAY MARCH 9th 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

I’ve spent some days in Bloemfontein at various times and never really explored the city, not that it has much to hold a tourist, a few fine sandstone colonial buildings and some museums, the central hill and a few parks and gardens.

The National Museum, however, is the best I have visited in southern Africa. The in-house design and display team is really rather imaginative, and I doubt they have much budget. I was surprised to find I had spent several hours there. In the past few decades, South Africa has a problem in museums in that names keep changing, as have ideologies. The Bloemfontein museum has done well to keep up with modern history and represents it well and fairly, for it must be remembered that this was the capital of the Independent Free State before it joined the Republic of South Africa. This is the heartland of the repressive politics of the twentieth century and the museum does well in reflecting the changes in an unbiased way. It has exhibits from the very traditional and old fashioned – stuffed animals in dioramas – to imaginative displays about the value of archaeology and the work of archaeologists, through palaeontology, meteors, the formation of the universe, a live bee hive, natural history and very good social history collections, including a recreated Edwardian street. The museum even documents the history of the revolutionary years and the formation of the ANC, which started in downtown Bloemfontein. It deals with black and white history, sensitive events for museums to get right.

Later I visited an art gallery in a fine Cape Dutch mansion (built in the 1920s) in lovely gardens. A wide collection of South African art, some of it appealing and interesting; an equal amount that I passed quickly by – but that is the essence of good galleries. The majority probably white Afrikaans artists, but I spotted a number of African names creeping into the collection. Most interesting was to see that the European artistic influences slowly fade away over the decades, with a more African feel emerging amongst the later works.

Bloemfontein is South Africa’s sixth city by size. The name probably comes from the flowers that the wife of one of the earliest settlers, who started farming here in the 1840s, planted around the spring that was used by everyone travelling across these central plains, for Bloemfontein is situated in the vast area of high veldt, dotted with a few flat-topped outcrops, one of which, Naval Hill, was once outside the town but is now completely surrounded by the modern city and a popular viewpoint across the many miles of flat landscape to distant horizons: Karoo round much of it, the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho away to the east.

DAY 92 TUESDAY MARCH 10th 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

A final relaxing day in the southern African sunshine. I spent a pleasant couple of hours at the botanical gardens, fairly dull botanically at this time of late summer. Spring would really be the time to visit South Africa, when the wild flowers bloom in profusion. I’ve always wanted to come and see the flowers in Namaqualand, in the western deserts of the country. Here, in spring, for a few weeks, the desert blossoms spectacularly. Maybe I will come one day. After all, I have the transport.

A couple of hours communing with nature and enjoying my last day of this pressure-free freedom. Tomorrow I begin the journey back to the other life…

*

On my way home I passed the signs to the Anglo-Boer War Museum. Here the Boer War is the Anglo-Boer War. There is also a well known monument to the many thousands of people who died in this war, what is now called ‘collateral damage’. Thousands of innocent civilians – largely children and women, and a lot of black Africans – died as a result of the war. It was this war, so little remembered in Britain, during which the British invented the concept of concentration camps and internment camps. These were inhumane places in which tens of thousands of civilians were interned; where only the most basic hygiene was provided and many died of starvation and disease. One can’t help wondering if the process of forgetting that war has been encouraged by the British, for their inhumanity to the Boers and blacks. It certainly isn’t a victory to be proud of… Actually, it is shocking that so little compassion was shown – for slender political ideals; for the appropriation of land and, inevitably, for the wealth of diamonds and gold that the ‘enemy’ territories held.

After the war some half-hearted reparation was made on behalf of the white Boers but the promises made to black Africans, without whom the British could not have won the war, were shamefully ignored in the politics of the day – and a lot of days thereafter. Only after 1994 did the museum itself realign its displays to reflect the involvement of the indigenous people and their subsequent suffering.

But the museum is a fine example of everything a museum shouldn’t be! I guess it to be a result of the 1950s and 60s, and is a dingy uninformative place of dark panelling, miscellaneous memorabilia and displays that seem to wander off the subject. Nowhere is there an introduction to why the war happened, an overview of who did what, who represented what ambitions and just what it was all about. Only in a gallery that appeared to have been spliced on to the dull, dated galleries – at the end – did I find a relatively informative video that gave me a little background.

In two days I have seen one of the best and one of the worst museums that I have visited in southern Africa.

*

Steven does huge mileages in his work, quality controlling the installation equipment on cell phone masts. Today he had to travel north and was to be late home. I offered supper on my remaining Rands but even then he was further delayed, phoning young Steven to suggest we met him at the restaurant some miles away on the north side of town. It meant me driving Stevens big bakkie (pick up). I realised that, despite the amount of time I have spent on this continent, this was the first time I have driven a four-wheeled vehicle here.

Back at home, relaxing a few minutes before bed, a big storm was rolling around the south and west side of the city. Suddenly we were shocked by a strike that must have been very, very close indeed! I guess within a hundred yards or so. The whole roof shook and vibrated to the immense clap of thunder. Storms here are dramatic, arise very quickly – and frighten me considerably! I have several times been known to turn round and go to seek accommodation when I see storms ahead. A significant number of people are killed every year by lightning in southern Africa. I shall always remember my experience on top of Lesotho in 2002 as one of the most terrifying of my life when, in the midst of a torrential storm a clap of thunder almost threw me from my bike in the mud and rain, and I looked across the hillside to see smoke rising a couple of hundred yards away. My most frightening moments in Africa.

DAY 93 WEDNESDAY MARCH 11th 2015. ON THE WAY HOME

Another trip ends… It’s funny, I feel as little emotion at the end of my trip as I felt at the outset. These trips have become just something that happens to me. There’ll be another, probably quite soon. They have become completely a part of my life and a major part of what makes me tick. These long, tedious flights and all their attendant waiting about, being herded like cattle and forced into inadequate and undignified seating, are just something with which I have to put up in payment for the experiences I can have ‘on the road’.

*
Ninety three days – including a bizarre diversion to America! The world is SO small now. Just now lunch with Steven in Bloemfontein, Free State, South Africa; tomorrow a lunchtime date with Marti in Leiden, Netherlands; a few hours later opening my own front door in Harberton. We take it so much for granted, but much of this has happened in my travelling lifetime. I remember the excitement of my first flight – to USA in 1965. None of my friends had flown anywhere then, not even on holiday to the Costas! In 2013 I think I made something like 57 separate flights.

It’s been a trouble-free trip and generally rewarding and enjoyable. I guess I travel at a slightly slower, more reflective pace these days – although, having said that reminds me that I have ridden 15800 kilometres in the last three months, a trifle short of ten thousand miles, hardly slower and more reflective! I have often stayed a few days in the same place and it has seemed quite relaxed. I stayed in 39 different locations, 58 nights in guest houses and hotels of very varying quality. My travels have changed considerably from my early days though. Most of the places I have stayed have been relatively comfortable, even on my budget of £16 average per night. The majority even had an en suite bathroom of some sort. I spent a total of £878 on accommodation.

*

The little red bike has been reliable and sturdy, especially considering my abilities as a mechanic. It has taken me most of the places I wanted to go, except all those sand tracks in Mozambique. Apart from the front wheel bearings finally giving up and the rear brake failing almost at the end, it has been trouble free and very economical. I get over 20 kilometres per litre (66miles to a gallon), and with petrol at an all time low cost here it has been cheap. I spent £524 on fuel and it cost me £582 in maintenance and insurances.

It turns out I have ridden much of the time without valid road tax after all. I spoke with Yvonne this morning to be told that the Matatiele licensing authority returned the bank cheque for my new license because I had not included payment for the over-run of dates. It appears that after all the trouble to which Yvonne and I went to send the payment by cheque, the envelope that I sent by registered post took twelve days to get from Durban to Matatiele, a distance of 300 miles, and arrived after the old tax had run out, so requiring a penalty payment. Haha! I told Yvonne to forget it. I don’t need road tax now and when I do it will be cheaper just to pay the penalty for the time the bike is not used. It’s her luck: she gets to keep my £20 cash that I paid her to buy a bank cheque on her account.

*

My in and out journeys from Harberton to Durban and Bloemfontein back to Harberton will have cost me £806. The total cost of my trip has been £4500; about £45.50 per day plus the costs of getting here and back. Of course that doesn’t include the American jaunt, which is paid for by others!

It amuses everyone how little ‘stuff’ I carry. I often ponder on the fact that if I need only the contents of two small panniers and a carry bag for three months, why do we all collect so much ‘Stuff’ around us. I have been free to pack and go every morning for 93 days and even now, flying home, I am carrying only my small backpack and the small hand bag. The backpack contains my large motocross boots, the same one, as Steven pointed out, along with the trousers, that I was wearing when he first met me in Ladybrand on January 2nd 2002!! I have used the same three tee shirts for 93 days. I was laughing to Steven that they must have been washed approximately 30 times each when I remembered that they are the same three tee shirts that I used last year for a further 56 days! Good value.

*

Old friends become more important as I get older. The impetus for much of my travelling now begins with old friendships: Yvonne and Michael in Durban and Steven in Bloemfontein, fond friends of great generosity. To them I have to add the new friends and acquaintances I have made or re-met – Joan and Brian who shared that rented bungalow so cheerfully in Katse in Lesotho; Mike Tuazeni, whose house had burned down in Chimanimani; the staff at the Trading Post guest house at Roma, and also at the Utopia Guest House in Mutare, Zimbabwe; the many charming, cultured Zimbabweans with whom I enjoyed such good conversations, people I met on the road, people I conversed with in guest houses – people who received me openly and without suspicion; people of all colours. It is for these contacts that I travel; finding out about other people and what makes them tick.

I have seen some wonderful natural sights too, especially in high Lesotho, also all over South Africa, a magnificent land. But I feel for now that I have seen enough of South Africa for a while. If you have read this far, you will understand something of the discomfort I feel travelling in that country, with its extraordinary social divide. All those white people living in such privilege with their leisure activities and possessions – in some of the poorest communities on earth, wracked by poverty, HIV, child-headed families and subsistence existences. And all those apparently invisible black millions in this well developed white land… I find it one of the oddest places on earth, and often very uncomfortable with my liberal social politics.

But if you’ve read this far, I have probably said it all and won’t repeat it yet again!

*

Highlights? Lesotho and Zimbabwe of course. One of my best days was riding that high, high rough road in northern Lesotho before Christmas, much of it at more than 3000 metres altitude. Then there was, also in Lesotho, the day I rode that remote track in the mountains and discovered the expanse of unforgettable red hot pokers, flowering red and orange against the distant blue-green mountains, and when I gushed to the gateman at that training camp a few miles further on about the extreme beauty of his country, he looked a little mystified, looked about him and asked, “Where?”

Many rides are memorable, most of them involve mountains, of which these lands have many and magnificent. There is, for me, something very special about being amongst mountains alone for a while that makes me very happy.

But, all said and done, it’s about the people, the smiles, the laughter, the welcomes and generosity of spirit. That’s what keeps me travelling. That’s why I will be off again before long, I don’t doubt.

Watch this space!

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2015 – SOUTHERN AFRICA JOURNAL – 15

DAY 83 SUNDAY MARCH 1st 2015. MIDDELBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

Rather a slog today. It is easy to underestimate the sheer size of this country. Distances are long, towns separated by many miles, roads sweeping over mountains and across expansive deserts. And the only way to get to the other side is to put my head down and ride. I am about half way back to Lesotho from the southern coastal region.

And depending on the outcome of finding the local bike mender, I may have to return to Lesotho via Bloemfontein, not such a diversion if it’s necessary. For this afternoon my rear brake disappeared completely. That’s fine on the long highways, since bikers use at least 75% front brake as a rule. But if I go off road, the front brake, of course, stops the front wheel too fast and the rear wheel continues to power – and down you go. So before I get back to Lesotho, I need a rear brake. I guess the seals have gone on the piston, finally succumbing to yesterday’s usage maybe. If it can be done here, well and good; if not, Steven will happily repair it for me, I know! I am only about 250kms from Bloem now. I could be there by late lunchtime if I need be. “Nothing goes on for ever!” as Steven said when I phoned him this evening for advice. It’s true that my red bike has proved to be VERY reliable indeed. In fact, now that I feel so much more comfortable with it, a good choice of machine to partner my crazy journeys. Pity it’s not my old Elephant, but it is becoming a good second best at last.

*

Middelburg is the town in which I stayed some days ago. I wasn’t going to stop here, but in Cradock, fifty miles earlier. But I knew that here I could stay in Ponnie’s pleasant guest house, and if I need to ride to Bloemfontein, I am part of the way there. Sometimes the strain of finding somewhere to sleep makes it worthwhile just to ride on a little further. Cradock didn’t appeal much, in any case. Those mid-desert, mid-everything towns are pretty dreary on sundays. The white people are pious, puritanical church-goers and don’t approve of fun on sundays and the black males are frequently drunk on cheap booze, or driving their clapped out vehicles loudly round town, under the frowns of the buttock-clenching church goers. The black women attend their cheerfully noisy churches and then repair home with the children. There’s not much choice of food on sundays in a lot of one-horse South African towns, especially if you don’t consider Kentucky Fried or Wimpy food

*

The fertile valley in which Patensie and other nearby towns are situated is known for its citrus orchards. This country has so much fertile land. My ride today brought me past many large orchards and rolling farmland, until I finally turned northwards and headed back into the Karoo desert, away from looming dark clouds ahead. My little red bike hammers along quite well at 75mph on these big sweeping highways with almost no traffic. It’s going to be a struggle, as it always is, to get accustomed to British traffic density again in ten days. Often, even on these big roads, I can see no other vehicle in front or behind – and here you can see a very long way!

Roadworks are a hassle on the highways. They just restrict long stretches of several kilometres to one way traffic. Sometimes the wait can be up to 45 minutes! Today I met three sets of workings – with no one actually working on sunday – with waits of mercifully only about ten minutes each. It’s not what you want just after you decide to ride on a final fifty miles extra. Road quality, however, is generally excellent in South Africa.

*

I was astonished to find how much I had undervalued the minimum wage in South Africa. I had assumed, based on my sense of what I spend in a day and what things cost, that it must be at least £1.50 an hour. I did some research and find that for most people it is about 10 to 12 Rand – 55 to 65 pence an hour. A typical breakfast with a cup of coffee costs me about five times that. My dinner tonight, in the balconied, old fashioned hotel round the corner, is priced at 99 Rand, my 340cl bottle of beer at 15 Rand – over ten hours at minimum wage, which is, I am sure what most earners get, not even mentioning the unemployed. Hardly surprising there’re no black people drinking in bars, only serving – at something little above the minimum wage, I bet. Hardly surprising that servants are the norm, and in numbers, for the white invaders. I certainly could live like a millionaire, if my scruples let me… In one hour of ‘design consultancy’ in the USA, I can earn an obscene multiple of the wage of a maid or garden boy in this unequal country. But the spurious argument that ‘we are giving THEM employment’ just never stacks up in my morality.

Oh well, mustn’t get onto that sidetrack.

I just fell into conversation with Johan, a local sheep farmer. He kindly bought me a drink before he drove home from the bar. His family has been in this area since the early settlers. He farms in Hanover, a bit north and west of here, with a 90 year old father here in town needing care and attention. He tells me that he can keep one ewe on two hectares of land. Not surprising the farms here are so vast. But he told me that the greatest revolution in sheep farming down here came in the 1880s with the introduction of fencing, and then the invention of the Karoo windmills to water the animals. His deepest windmill is pumping water 100 feet. He tells me that the Karoo is trying to ‘brand’ their meat, like champagne, and all the specialist regional products. But to do so, the animals must be proven to have eaten from seven distinctive shrubs and herbs. He also applauded Prince Charles for his support for wool products, having become patron of the International Wool Secretariat (based in Ilkley) and says his work is raising the profile – and value – of the Karoo product. An interesting conversation for a few minutes over his nightcap, before he got in his bakkie and drove off to see his old father. Yes, the Afrikaans people are friendly and warm-hearted…

DAY 84 MONDAY MARCH 2nd 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

Well, Bloemfontein it had to be. Not a great sacrifice of course. I have the pleasure of seeing the Stevens again for the night.

My neck aches again from the stiff wind. Always a head wind: it is bizarre! Sometime last year I had cause to visit a chiropractor about a shoulder problem, an old injury from hitting a wall with my first motorbike in 1978. He diagnosed part of the problem being caused by some hugely overdeveloped muscles, ones that hold my head on, probably over-used from holding my head and helmet in the wind. Well, they’ll be even bigger now.

Back across the vast Karoo, endless expanses of golden dried grasses, low fnybos bushes and red rock earth. The road is wide, empty and long. Sometimes you can see the road, straight as an arrow, even TEN miles ahead! This was the N1, the long, long highway that stretches fro Mussina, on the Zimbabwe frontier, where I stayed on February 7th, to Cape Town, a distance of twelve hundred miles. Gritting my teeth, I flogged along for three and half hours, into a chill headwind beneath the cloudless enormity of the great blue dome of sky.

*

My host, Ponnie, was helpful, guiding me round Middelburg in his car in search of assistance with my rear brake problem. But I soon exhausted the two possibilities: one fellow was away and the other, a small-time bike repairer, admitted he would have to send to Bloemfontein for the necessary parts. “I’m afraid you might as well ride there!” said Johan, after a look at the brake piston. “It’s a simple repair, but I’d need the seals.”

So ride I did.

*

Back here in Bloem Steven has all the contacts to help me fix my bike and get on my way for the last few days. I will return here on saturday. Meanwhile, I took both Stevens, (young Steven is 14 and delightful) both very charming and good-hearted, out for supper. I look upon Steven as a friend. I am happy to see him once again. A warm bond.

DAY 85 TUESDAY MARCH 3rd 2015. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

Still in Bloem, but an enforced day with warm friends is really no cost to my journey – in fact, it’s really what my journey is about. The two Stevens are such kind, generous friends – even little Steven, aged 14. As for big Steven, well, he has become a valued friend over my visits to South Africa.

It turned out that there was no replacement master brake cylinder for my motorbike in Africa. Ordering one from Germany would take two weeks. I was sent to look for second hand parts but those, too, were unavailable. I phoned Steven, who had gone on to work and he determined to strip the brake cylinder down for me and make a repair. Well, what with some work commitments as well, it took all day to do this, driving round town finding parts to bodge a temporary repair, the problem an O ring so valueless it was given to us. Steven is a good African repairer: making do with what he has, like Rico in Kenya. A replacement cylinder was estimated to cost £160. Steven’s repair cost nothing – except a bit of time, and dinner for the three of us again. An undistinguished dinner in a fish food chain.

By the end of the day I have a working rear brake and a repaired oil leak from my engine. I also have a replacement front tyre to match the new rear one – a part-used tyre that Steven gave me. So for the final few days of my trip I have a functioning motorbike. The bike will be stored here at Steven’s house until such time that I make a decision whether to ride it again or sell it. For now, it costs me nothing to keep it, whereas finding another that is so reliable would be troublesome and costly. If I decide to ride it more, Steven will rebuild it for me in the meantime.

A hot day in Bloemfontein. This city gets a continental climate, behind the Lesotho mountains from the Indian Ocean and a long long way across the deserted interior to the cool Atlantic.

DAY 86 WEDNESDAY MARCH 4th 2015. RAMABANTA, LESOTHO

Lesotho. Back again. I wanted to spend the last few days of this trip in this lovely country. It hasn’t turned out quite as I hoped yet, but maybe it will. I rode back to Roma, my favourite slightly ramshackle guest house, to find it in the throes of preparing for a party of fifty tonight. So I rode on into the interior another thirty miles to Ramabanta. Two or three weeks ago, as I rode through, I briefly met a white South African called Alex who runs the ‘Trading Post’ guest house here. It’s in a bit of a different league, one that on the whole I don’t appreciate. It is much more pretentiously up-market and feels like a poncy place in South Africa, rather than Roma’s home-spun quality and cheerful – equal – staff. What’s more, I have arrived along with a party of about twenty noisy elderly Afrikaners on a ‘4X4 Adventure’ – although it looks to me as if many of the vehicles haven’t been out of the supermarket car park and malls of South Africa, and I certainly wouldn’t want to rely on the MOUNTAINOUS men to help me get my vehicle out of the mud – unless using them as anchors, for their beer bellies would provide a good winch-weight. The women are pretty large hills too… I had to share my rather good self-service dinner with them, eating perhaps half the quantity of any of them. Relegated to a table for one, I chose to eat at the bar while they chomped and chewed, went back for more and told noisy stories in Afrikaans, an ugly language. I couldn’t travel like that: groups always look inwards; no one giving me more than a nod.

*

Steven, after hospitably cooking breakfast for me again (ostrich mince, fried eggs, toast and that awful South African tasteless orange cheese that I so look forward to leaving behind) had a busy day of work ahead of him, so it was quite early when I got on the road today. I rode to one of the smaller border points at about eight o’clock on the map of Lesotho, for I wanted to find a long dirt road that I haven’t ridden yet. But in the end I had not enough faith in the temporary repair to my rear brake to take it. It is working, but not to full strength, and I had no idea what to expect on that quite long loop of dirt and rock road. So I turned back to the tar road and headed for Roma – and then Ramabanta.

*

Ramabanta is now connected to the rest of he world by a tarred road. It is on the new road that traverses the centre of this small country. Only last year, this road was still largely gravel, as they constructed the new highway. Now it is a fine two lane road right across the mountainous interior, as usual representing a vast debt to the Chinese.

The guest house is fine. It’s just my perception of it that finds it wanting in simplicity. It stands, a series of nice rooms and smart thatched bungalows, amongst lawns and trees, overlooking a lovely valley to the distant mountains beyond. I negotiated for a room, managing to knock £11 off dinner, bed and breakfast by agreeing to take what I think is a room normally given to the drivers of tour groups, something more of a shed, making DB&B £21 – well within my impecunious budget. Smaller and more basic my room may be, but it is relative luxury for me!

Below the guest house on its grassy ridge is a steep valley to a contorted rocky river, currently virtually dry. I clambered down the rocky slope and sat for some time on a rocky outcrop drinking in the very handsome view.

The happy sounds of children playing reverberated around the rocky green vastness. A cluster of red-stone thatched rondavels perched on a ridge five hundred yards away, a line of calmly flapping washing catching an updraft and animating the still scene. An occasional horse and rider picked their way up the grassy slopes, all backed by the high, curvaceous mountains of Lesotho beneath a washed blue sky with handkerchiefs of cloud scattered above. Two children gleefully slid down a grassy slope beneath the village on plastic sacks. It was deeply peaceful, the stillness only disturbed by the whine of a few mosquitoes round my ears and the dull buzzing of passing flies in the warm, still, late afternoon air. As the sun lowered, the rondavels dissolved into a general shade, their organic qualities lost amongst the shadows that increasingly sculpted the curves and folds of the background mountains.

*

Ramambanta isn’t on the grid, so a generator hums away across the grassy lawns at the back of the guest house (where I am!). I forgot to ask at what time it will plunge us all into darkness, so I had better get my shower while it will still power the Calor gas geyser…

DAY 87 THURSDAY MARCH 5th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO

A day of happy smiles – one of them mine – and waving hands, also one of them mine. I am in Lesotho. Oddly, for one who needs so much novelty and constant activity, I don’t tire of Lesotho. Today I rode places I have ridden several times, visited reasonably familiar places and saw all the mountains I have seen before. But the situation is always different: the light, the weather, the people and what they are doing; why, sometimes it’s just me moving in the other direction.

A note I made in the small notebook I always keep in my pocket when I am travelling is interesting: ‘cleaners wave at guests. Equality’. I was sitting in a very plush hotel development, probably the most expensive I’ve seen in Lesotho. It is a very fancy lodge with a ‘cultural village’, museum (not yet operating), an amphitheatre, conference facilities and so forth. Not my sort of style, but I had been to see the ‘cultural village’ (rather phoney and lifeless. Culture needs people…), and stopped for a cup of coffee (Nescafe!) on the luxury hotel veranda, the sort of things I can do with the exchange rate. As I sat, a cleaner passed pushing a laundry trolley and gave me an expansive wave and a cheerful smile. In South Africa that would never have happened – well, it MIGHT, but I would have had to wave first and the smile would have been perfunctory. Here she smiled and went on her way, she to do her work, me to enjoy (if that’s quite the word for Nescafe) my coffee. It was an expression to me of equality and welcome. The Basotho really DO seem to like to see strangers.

The pretty waitress, Intebile, brought my coffee. “Don’t bother with the sugar!” I told her.

“YO!” she exclaimed, with a shocked expression, a delightfully unsophisticated reaction to the fact that I could take coffee unsweetened. But to me, it represented an equality that she could overcome convention with a guest like this.

*

From Ramabanta I rode on to Semonkong, the town in the centre of Lesotho that, until last year, was remote on long gravel and rock roads. Now the Chinese are busy tarmaccing this little mountainous kingdom and roads – and subsequent debt – are stretching across the contorted contours. I am told that much of the A3, a road that will long live for me as a rugged, adventurous ride a year ago, is now tarred. The tar rather ruins the excitement for we bikers but it opens up so much of Lesotho for the local population. My little bike puffs and pants, struggling up some of the inclines at these altitudes, up around six or seven thousand feet. But it is all so scenically wonderful that I hardly notice. I still have the excitement of donkey dodging, avoiding flocks of dirty sheep, trotting horses and meandering cows.

The temporary repair to my brake has not lasted. We need the actual BMW seal, I suppose. So I am back to one brake for now.

In Semonkong I bought a handful of delicious local peaches, small and yellow, and wandered the dusty, bumpy tracks of the ‘frontier-town’ with its decrepit buildings, dark supermarkets and tin shack kiosks of the market. Here there are many horses and riders – more than there are cars – and donkeys. Young men watch me and gaze at my bike. They wear their woolly balaclavas and blankets, twitch their sticks and stare until I smile, mysteries to one another.

*

Now back in Roma, one of my favourite places in southern Africa, I am back in ‘my’ small rondavel at the Trading Post. I like it here: I know all the staff now and can be informal with everyone. Tonight I have enjoyed the company and conversation of Katt, a drama teacher from New York, who comes to work at the university here in Roma, drama projects around social issues, with AIDS awareness being an important topic in this poor country, with its high incidence and its astonishing numbers of grandparent or child-headed families, and missing generations.

*

There is an autumnal chill to the air in the mornings and evenings now. I found myself riding with jersey and jacket and scarf, with waterproof jacket on top to keep out the cool air until lunchtime. The sun, of course, just below tropical Africa, is hot when there’s no wind, awkward when I stop…

My trip is running down now and I am happy to end here in Roma, Lesotho. Somehow, this guest house; this town in its dramatic valley with cliff walls of pale sandstone forming bizarre shapes against the blue African skies, sums up a lot of what for me is best about Africa – smiling, equal people with the greatest fortitude, generous spirits, an unsophisticated naturalness in their interactions with me, laughter never far from the surface, warmth and welcome, optimism in the face of apparently crushing obstacles – just lovely human beings. A wonderful place to know: a wonderful place to be – and great memories to take away with me.

Lovely Lesotho, unique and unknown.

DAY 88 FRIDAY MARCH 6th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO

For one last, and I hope lasting, look at the scenery that I consider some of the finest in the world I took the little red bike, with one brake, over one of the world’s most impressive passes into the Highlands around Katse Dam. It was my intention to continue and complete a huge circuit, returning down the also wonderful road to Roma, a road I have taken quite often with its three vertiginous passes. However, when I had almost reached Katse a dose of sense overcame me. Must be old age.

I had already ridden 200 kilometres and was less than half way round the circuit, still with 60 kilometres of gravel road connecting Katse and Thaba Tseki. It’s not a bad gravel road but it twists and turns over some fabulous mountain scenery with the Orange River far, far below. From Thaba Tseki back to Roma would be another 75 miles at least. No rear brake was meaning that I had to ride with more circumspection than usual – judging every one of the bends (supposedly 728 of them to Katse, I seem to remember reading and noting earlier) so that my speed was correct to get round without braking. I was getting tired, quite tired. Forty miles of gravel would tire me even more – then seventy five miles of curly passes over the amazing mountains to get me home, all with one brake… I decided to turn round. Well, I said yesterday that everything looks completely different in the opposite direction! Mind you, I still had those 728 bends to contend with.

By an astonishing fluke, I think I also avoided several soakings had I continued. For the afternoon developed into sharp thunder showers – every single one of which I missed! Some of them were heavy, judging by the puddles and wetness. And, what’s more, I had foolishly not taken my waterproof trousers with me. Providence seemed to be on my side today. I saw the best of the mountains in sunshine and then turned my back unwittingly on the bad weather. Back here in Roma a thunderstorm had put out the electricity for some time, making for late dinner and, apparently, complaints from a couple of German tourists. This is Lesotho, for goodness sake! You take life as it comes here, and enjoy the unpredictability.

*

This is, I find from looking back at old diaries, the 27th night I have stayed in this little kingdom in the African skies. But I don’t tire of it; in fact, I increase my sense of wonder at the beauty and magnificence of the country and the cheerful welcome of its people. Everywhere I meet with waves and smiles, especially when I get off the main roads as I did this morning. I guessed there was a way to ride to the northern part of the country without the boring traffic, speed humps, crazy taxis and dust of Maseru, the small capital city. Indeed there was, a lovely ride through a great fertile valley with the high mountains as a backdrop. For about six or seven miles the road reduced to gravel but the scenery was immense, natural and sunbathed. People waved and greeted and those from whom I asked my way were friendly and helpful, curious about why I was there and full of smiles and warmth. The majority of Basotho speak some English, except right out in the country. It’s pretty much a bi-lingual nation. Where education has reached, so has the English language.

Summer is fading now. The tiny terraced fields have been harvested and straw piled in large stooks about the landscape. Animals are well fattened in preparation for the coming winter, which in the Highlands in particular is harsh. As I rode up the astonishing Mafika Lisui Pass, one of the highest in Africa at 3090 metres (a whisker over 10,000 feet), signs warned of the snow and ice that will come. For now the air was chill enough to warrant my over-jacket, the night cool enough for a duvet for the dawn hours, even for me.

*

Thinking of cold makes me ponder my return to England. In a week I will be waking up in Harberton. While I look forward to being ‘home’, which Harberton with its uniquely welcoming property has become, I realise that my body really isn’t adapted for the British climate. And as I get older, it has changed even more. People around me as autumn comes to southern Africa relax in tee shirts and shorts while I put on jumpers and fleeces and try to make heaters work. This year I have pretty well avoided winter, beyond a short unexpected flurry in Massachusetts. What about the next few? I sometimes ride along wondering just how long I can go on pretending that I am twenty years younger than I actually am!

‘Who knows tomorrow..?’ – a very African expression.

*

A dramatic storm just passed over, lightning flashing blue about the steep ridges, thick wet clouds obscuring the about full moon tonight. Rain is still pattering on the thatch and the trees dripping onto the tin roof of my bathroom. Summer really is drawing to an early close this year. I make no pretence: lightning in Lesotho terrifies me. This country, with its height and its situation between a vast ocean and a huge landmass has one of the world’s highest incidences of lightning strikes. That is no comfort to me, on a chunk of steel and very flammable propellant when I am up on the high tops of Lesotho.

Better than Devon damp, though, I think.