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!