2013 – Southern Africa Journal – 1

FRIDAY JANUARY 25th 2013.

Finally the bond of Europe is broken. The tedious days of preparation are done; of lists and stray thoughts in the night of things that have to be done before I can set off once again. I am on my way at last, high above the unique Sahara, with such vivid of memories of the best weeks of my life. ‘Bean there – done it in’, trumpeted the headline in the Daily Mirror years ago in that silly week that the tabloids got hold of my story of motorcycling to Ghana to find my friend Perry was back in England. A clever journalist interviewed this naive ‘Mr Bean’, changed the dates to suit himself and wrote a nonsense piece that filled page three, about the way in which ‘The Real Mr Bean’s’ travels seemingly trailed civil unrest and disasters in their wake. It might have been six years later that the students revolted in China, but that didn’t spoil a tabloid journalist in search of an amusing story. ‘Bean out, students revolt’ said the caption beneath a picture of Tiananmenn Square. ‘Bean out, Russians Invade’, said the caption beneath a picture from Afghanistan. It was a year or two later, but why spoil the story? Sadly, my memories of Algeria may well have to remain just that, memories, now that Islamist fighting has effectively closed the wonders of the Sahara to travellers…

Still, no such unrest is likely to befall my destination: Southern Africa – Zimbabwe notwithstanding. This is my second trip down here, the last in 2001/2. That was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking journey, seeing for myself the odd political and social situation in South Africa; discovering one of the world’s best kept travel secrets: Lesotho; the warmth of the Zambian people; the finest natural sight in the world (after the Sahara of course) at Victoria Falls; and continuing on to north west Kenya, with adventures and stories along the way.

That trip, I shipped my old motorbike, my BMW R80GS, the African Elephant, to Durban, where it got stuck in a dock strike for a month, bobbing about in a ship I could watch frustratedly from a bar on the harbour front. I flew the Elephant home from Mombassa some months later. It took two days and was considerably cheaper. This time my poor old Elephant is tired at the age of 31 and the freighting out and back expensive, so I have bought, unseen of course, a motorbike on the Internet, which I will pick up on Tuesday next. That bike is in East London, somewhere down the east coast of South Africa, quite well placed to begin my trip to the interior and eventually back to the delights of Lesotho – and beyond as the whim takes me, for I have no real plans at present. I like to travel on these journeys with an open mind and see where serendipity takes me. That’s the fun of travelling: never knowing what tomorrow will bring.

One thing it will bring, I know, is a drastic change in temperature. This morning I crunched my way carefully from a basic ‘hotel’ outside Bristol Airport on the ten minute walk to the terminal over hard, frozen snow from a room of furnace-like, uncontrollable heat. In Amsterdam it was minus seven degrees Celsius and white. In Durban it was 37 degrees yesterday. Ouch! But before that I have a probably dismal wakeful night in Johannesburg Airport. The Romance of Travel evaporated exponentially with the ease and competition of worldwide flight. I’ll say it again: I am happy that I started my travels long enough ago – in the 70s – to experience a much bigger world. Here I sit, cramped but otherwise untroubled by the difficulties of moving 5000 miles in a few hours, one of the few people aboard this uncomfortable cattle truck/ bus in the sky with actual experience of how it is to be in such close contact with that desert down below. I have been covered in its sand, sand-blasted by its winds, astonished by its scale, and irritated by having it in my eyes, my ears and my teeth – intimate encounters that make it real, even from six miles high.

LATER. 25th January 2013. JOHANNESBURG

Never believe what airlines tell you, even if it is KLM. They would check my bag all the way to Durban, they said. You should be able to use the lounge at Jo’burg overnight, they said… Huh! I’m now lugging my bag about and am in a B&B fifteen minutes’ drive from the airport. Ah well, travelling was always thus and I do enjoy the need to live on my wits and adapt as I go along. Just as well, I thought, as I carried bags about the enormous airport at night, looking for a non-existent information stand. They’d all gone home for the night at 10.30.

Finally, I found a fellow sitting behind the tourist information counter. I don’t think he was a tourist officer, but he did have leaflets for a B&B for £35 including free transport to and from the airport. He was probably just another hotel tout, but who cares? So I followed nearby Prince to his car and drove off into the night. It did occur to me that Jo’burg (as everyone calls it) is one of the world’s crime-ridden cities and we might be headed for a dark lay-by but sometimes you just have to trust people and Prince appeared to be trustworthy. A quietly spoken man, it was difficult to adjust my ear so quickly to the South Africa lilt and upward inflections as we drove in the balmy warm night on city motorways that could have been in the Mid-West of America.

I am now at the Transit Guest Lodge in Kempton Park, a faintly faded large bungalow with four otherwise empty guest rooms built along one side of a grassy yard with a calm swimming pool. The young hostess is the chubby, smiling Florence with a warm African welcome, the customary African handshake (palm to palm, wrist to wrist, palm to palm) and a gentle manner. Immediately I know I am back on this endlessly fascinating continent: the warm air wrapped about me, quiet welcomes, the pulse of a just-enough-distant disco beat drifting under the huge black sky – always so apparently soft in Africa after the brittle skies of winter Europe – and a slightly seedy hotel where the chipboard wardrobe is just that – chipped, the taps wobble and the shower door doesn’t quite fit.

But it is some 26 degrees warmer than it was at 4.30 this morning in Bristol and I am about to start another journey! I feel content… I am in Africa. The crickets are singing…

…And of course the shower is dripping since the taps don’t turn off properly.

Day 1 SATURDAY JANUARY 26th 2013. KLOOF, DURBAN

This has been a congenial, relaxing day, a start to my holiday feeling. Cool – 23 degree – light rain kept us on the covered ‘stoep’ (porch) of the bungalow.

How is it one makes – and maintains – friendship, often in unlikely circumstances? I suppose it is a very basic instinct, perhaps fostered by feelings of trust and tolerance; trust that confidence will be respected in every situation and tolerance of differences. There is really no explanation of why Yvonne and I have been such fond friends for 35 years! We’d both admit that. Scatterbrained Yvonne, my neighbour in 1978 and friend ever since. She married Michael and they moved out here 25 years ago. Michael works as a tourism development consultant and Yvonne discovered painting a few years ago and her paintings seem to be popular and sell quite well.

I stayed with them, in the very large house from which they have moved just this week, on my trip here in 2001/2. It was they who had me billeted on them for a month while my old Elephant was stuck in its crate outside Durban harbour. It meant that I stayed with them for Christmas 2001 and used their home as a base for my subsequent travels. This time I hope to do much the same and store my motorbike here for more travels later. Assuming, that is, that there are no tedious official hassles in registering the bike in my name, for I have bought it on the faith that all will be well bureaucratically. Doubtless, I will find out next week. ..

*

One sunday in March 1886 one George Harrison stumbled across an outcrop of gold-bearing rock. Within ten years the camp was the biggest settlement in Africa. Johannesburg, known in Zulu as ‘egoli’ or ‘place of gold’ is now the world’s third largest conurbation by area. It is a huge, sprawling place, made wealthy because forty per cent of all the world’s gold has been mined in the region. It is now a place of 12 million – and a place that looked, superficially this morning from its airport outskirts, like any American city except, that is, for the number of its black inhabitants standing at street corners waiting for transport in the infamous ‘Black Taxis’ or minibuses – that I used so unusually during that time my motorbike was unavailable in 2001; an experience I enjoyed and which shocked all my (white) acquaintances, for in this strange ‘Rainbow Nation’ white people do not travel in black transport. However, here in developed South Africa, unlike in West Africa (and so much of the world I have travelled) the minibuses have four tyres that roughly match and have tread on them; have windscreens more or less in one piece; don’t have the doors held on by coat-hangers; don’t have to be started by touching a couple of bare wires together, and have even maintained their internal linings beyond the odd scraps that flutter out of the broken windows of their West African counterparts.

So the softly spoken Prince drove me to the airport as we listened to a rather detailed programme about breast cancer and mastectomies. The motorways of Jo’burg were well disciplined and not so busy. Here and there elderly cars stood on the hard shoulders with their bonnets up or their tyres flat with upwardly mobile black drivers looking a little forlorn waiting for rescue beside their third-hand vehicles.

I cannot claim to have seen much of Johannesburg. Maybe I will revisit later in this trip.

*

It was just over an hour to Durban, hardly up before we began the descent. And so to a new airport that I did not recognise and an excited Yvonne and a half hour drive home to a house on the hills of Kloof, a suburb of Durban, a comfortable, privileged enclave full of black servants and gardeners…

If you sense a mild overtone of criticism in the last paragraph, here comes my Reader Warning. Don’t bother to read the rest if you find an awkward sensitivity to the statement above, for I am afraid you may read it repeated time and again! I have reread my journal of my journey here eleven years ago and realised that my sense of fairness and justice was very frequently outraged by the social set up of this nation. It runs as a theme throughout that journal – and probably will through this, for I doubt much has changed – unless for the worse as the white population gets edged to the sidelines by the vast majority black population in their political ascendancy. It is a very complicated mix, and one I only superficially understand I suppose. So much history is involved, not just colonialism and all its arrogance, but also colonialism with all the benefits it brought to a well developed country like this. Three hundred years of history cannot be overturned in a few decades or even generations without a good deal of anguish. This is a quite fascinating theme which will, I am sure, occupy me over the coming weeks. I observe it, of course, from outside and with the knowledge that some of my closest friends have (very) black skins but share with me – and all mankind (and woman-kind) – very similar needs, desires, fears, ambitions, delights and disappointments. Only the outer millimetre or two of our bodies divides us, such an arbitrary way to make the judgements we do… I shall be travelling amongst both black- and white-skinned people and will receive great generosity (and maybe the odd unkindness) from both. It will tax my senses every day, my liberal beliefs in equality of opportunity and my views on morality of rich and poor.

So, reader, you have been warned! On the other hand, maybe I will make some discoveries that help me rationalise all this. Somehow I am sure I will remain as confused in three month as I do today. The relationship is so complex.

“Ukuhamba kukubona” – ‘Travelling opens a window to the world’, in Xhosa, one of the official tribal languages of the country.

We’ll see what’s outside that window over the next weeks.

*

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2013 – Southern Africa Journal – 2

DAY 2. SUNDAY 27th JANUARY 2013. KLOOF. DURBAN. SOUTH AFRICA

This was a pleasant family day spent at home enjoying a lunch party and conversation on another dull, grey day. I had expected better of the weather! Oh well, at least it is not below freezing and crunchy snow. Lunch with a few friends: Mark, Yvonne’s painting teacher; Simon and his mother Di and Yvonne’s elderly mother. Good food, good conversation…

DAY 3. MONDAY 28TH JANUARY 2013. KLOOF. DURBAN

Unexpectedly, I found myself at a business meeting out in Nottingham Road with Michael, to discuss the possibility of a new visitor project: a fascinating new venture to showcase and represent the San culture, the first people of Southern Africa and perhaps the world. The San are the earliest indigenous people here – otherwise known as the Bushmen and found not just in the Kalahari Desert, as I thought, but all over southern Africa from the Southern Cape region up to Zambia. DNA evidence suggests these are the earliest ancestors of modern man, in a direct line.

One of South Africa’s four World Heritage Sites is the Drakensburg Mountains which contain many thousands of rock paintings of the San people. I was in Nottingham RoadC eleven years yesterday by coincidence. I rode up to part of the Drakensburg park, one of the major sights of South Africa. I found them beautiful but over-developed to my eyes, who had been riding up in the magical kingdom of Lesotho, which is the top of the same range and as Nature has left it. The range is a magnificent escarpment of high mountains that hangs over the hills of Kwa-Zulu Land and the somewhat touristic area of the ‘Midlands’. It is out here that a small group of honourable, entrepreneurial people intend to set up a ‘gateway’ attraction to celebrate and honour the San culture and protect their intellectual property. Mike’s been pulled in to advise on the practicalities of setting up the project and a meeting was arranged, it seems, specifically to include my input. So we drove out the hour and a half to Nottingham Road to the farm that will be the site for the new museum/ centre.

It was a stimulating meeting with several very knowledgable people with deep commitment to the project, which is already nine years in the gestation and now approaching the practical phase of development. It would be fine to be involved! We met around a table in the farm coffee shop and restaurant that looks out upon an unsurpassed view of the Drakensburg range – or into thick fog with visibility of about 200 metres! I had to accept the word of the assembled local people, who included the head of the park wardens and owners of the farm, a fascinating anthropologist and the instigator of the whole project, that the mountains were indeed out there beyond the damp wall.

*

“…But you have to remember that South Africa has forty per cent unemployment!” says Yvonne, as I am prompted back on my moral high horse by some observation. “If we didn’t employ them they wouldn’t have any work and they wouldn’t be able be to support their families. We pay our servants a lot more than the government minimum as well. Michael even put our maid through computer school”

It’s certainly true that my hosts here have a social conscience and support their servants and families in a fairly paternalistic manner with all their broni wawo (Ghanaian name for ‘White man dead’ clothing) and household goods. “…And we insist they call us Yvonne and Michael!”

“I really object,” interjects Michael, hearing our conversation, “to being called ‘boss’!” (pronounced in the South Efrican way as: Baaas).

Michael and Yvonne are probably very good employers. Mike is particularly liberal, and respects the people of several tribes with whom he works and joins me in some of my distaste for the status quo. But still, while they may be good employers there are still many ‘old colonials’ and privileged whites who take it all for granted as a right because of their skin colour alone.

And maids still wear uniforms: white headwear and white-collared dresses and aprons… It is my sense of social equality and EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY that is constantly outraged. I see the inequality of the division of wealth – based on something as arbitrary as the colour of a person’s skin.

It’s changing slowly, says Michael as we ride through the sweeping green hills of Natal towards Nottingham Road, a town to me notorious in 2002 for its ‘old impoverished gentry’ who hooted about the etiquette of maids of honour and the dress code for the hunt (!) in the hotel bar, while David, a clever young (black) fellow lived outside the hotel in a tin shed to protect our vehicles. David had matriculated from school and dreamed of going to Natal Tech to study town planning. I would guess he’s probably still dreaming….

“I think it won’t really begin to improve properly until the old ‘revolutionaries’ have died and taken their resentment and pride with them. It will be the children, maybe the grandchildren, who have grown up in the new South Africa that may begin to change things,” says Michael. Everyone also criticises the corruption of the present government, lining their capacious pockets like most other African rulers – gone are the heady, optimistic days of Mandela, the World Statesman. People still complain that white kids cannot get work here any more, despite their qualifications. I remember that positive discrimination was all the talk of 2002. It seems it still is. There’s so much resentment on both sides that the complexity of the social problems here are overwhelming.

I think of the fifty years it has taken in the USA for this process of racial reconciliation to beign. Now little Roma and Joy in Washington DC have kindergarten and primary school photos amongst children of every colour and race and they, at last, may grow up in the realisation that it is only skin that separates them from their fellow pupils. They are all of one even more rainbowed nation than this one. In America I see signs of acceptance; I suppose it will happen here one day, long after the memory of apartheid and white superiority die away. Schools now are integrated here, but of course, those who can afford to still send their children to the ‘better’ schools. Only slowly do ‘those who can afford to’ include black South Africans. It is a long term problem and will be a longer time reaching any equable solution.

And it’s interesting how easily and thoughtlessly I hear the word ‘they’ used to describe the strangely invisible vast majority of this country by the oddly visible ten per cent minority.

Endlessly fascinating!

*

One of Mike’s projects was the restoration of the Nelson Mandela home in Soweto, the sprawling township of Johannesburg. He obviously looks back on it with justifiable pride.

“I went outside one night for a smoke, we were working late. It just struck me how many people there were, talking, laughing, living outdoors with the street as their social world. No, Jo’burg is not so bad now. The crime is much less than it used to be. Durban though… I’d still say you need to be pretty careful where you go, there are parts of the city just off-limits.”

And out in the suburbs like Kloof I see so many people living behind razor wire and security gates with a certain paranoia. But, to my observation at least, this area of KwaZulu Natal has the worst race relations, the grossest division of rich and poor – and the worst bigots amongst the white settlers who came out here even in apartheid years and can enjoy the life of the old colonials – but the cost is razor wire, locked car doors, security gates and armed response security companies at the end of every street or driveway…

DAY 4. TUESDAY JANUARY 29th 2013. EAST LONDON. EASTERN CAPE. SOUTH AFRICA.

My journey has begun. My motorbike and I have been introduced and the travelling can start. It’s been eleven years since I was really able to indulge what has been such a major inspiration in my life. Circumstances – of work and Mother’s increasing frailty made long distant journeys difficult, so the past decade has seen only journeys within Europe and North America and a few trips to familiar Ghana. Yes, that’s more than most people expect to travel in a decade but it was somewhat wing-clipped for me! Already, one day into a journey about which I was just a little apprehensive, I feel the old magic enfold me: new places, new people and not knowing what tomorrow will bring. It makes me feel very alive and very cheerful.

And I meet such good people when I am in this mood. I know that my own mood will often be reflected over the weeks ahead. When I am irritable I will meet with difficulty, but when I am happy, optimistic and smiling I will meet with great kindness and acts of friendship.

*

So here I am in East London with hospitable folks doing their best to make me comfortable. What a wonderful thing is travelling and opening up to such chance encounters.

Some weeks ago I made the final decision late one night to take this journey. There and then I booked a flight before I could have second thoughts – and at £850 there would be no chance of that! Next day I began in earnest to look for a suitable machine for my safari (safari is a Swahili word for journey). I tried various South African websites, emailed owners, missed a copy of my old African Elephant, had no replies from my email enquiries and finally found what I was looking for on a smaller website. I phoned the advertiser to find if his BMW was still for sale. Yes, it was. So could we negotiate by email to save me the costs of the phone, and would Garvin, the owner, be happy that I was from overseas and it might be just a little more complicated? Garvin’s Afrikaans accent assured me that all that was acceptable and a few days later I was able to transfer the 24,000 Rand he was asking between our accounts. That cost me about £1775. It was, I knew a lot more than the same 1999 BMW F650 would cost me in Europe – probably about double – but I had been told that second hand vehicles were expensive here.

I was led by my instinct that Garvin sounded trustworthy, a decent fellow, and I paid my money and subsequently arranged with him that I would eventually pick up my motorbike today. He hospitably, in a way I came to associate with the Afrikaans people on my last trip, offered accommodation and maybe a ride out together, ‘…but there I go, getting ahead of myself!’ he added disarmingly in his email.

Today, after a brief shopping expedition with Yvonne to a local mall – groceries approximately half the British price, I estimated – she ran me to the airport in the mid-afternoon. I flew the one hour down to East London, a bumpy flight this very windy day. I had told Garvin, who was kind enough to meet me, that I would be ‘the grey-haired bloke with the motorbike helmet’.j

“Well, I was looking at all the grey haired passengers and dismissed them all but you as not fit to be riding motorbikes round southern Africa! I knew it was you waiting by the baggage belt.”

Garvin, had his ‘bakkie’ (pick up) outside and we drove home to the suburb of Abbotsford and a spacious bungalow – with rather well fitted furniture, for Garvin is a cabinet maker. He has just returned from a brief, and frustrating, contract in Nigeria, where all the workers whom he was supposed to be guiding and mentoring, lacked the most basic of tools and any commitment whatsoever.

Garvin is coloured; his great grand parents having originated from Ireland, England and native Khoi peoples. I suppose it is inevitable that my first reaction was one of surprise. I mean, I had been idly wondering which of the waiting people through the airport glass might be Garvin – and had picked a tall – white – fellow. I am not proud of this reaction. It shows how the old prejudice can linger, for I know that most bikers here are white… However, Garvin crosses all racial boundaries now that the law cannot brand him any more. He is likeable, intelligent and welcoming and seems to lack the resentment gene that perpetuates racial stereotypes.

” I reckon I’m about one eighth Irish!” he says amusedly.

His wife, Mia, is a Belgian paediatric surgeon working at two of the local hospitals, the established government one and also a township hospital. She specialises in trauma surgery and wanted to work in the developing world. “For medicine this is such a good mix of first world equipment and developing world problems and challenges.”

In the new South Africa so much stigma has been removed – already. It really does seem like a hopeful sign. Garvin speaks Afrikaans, and Mia finds it close enough to Flemish, and is an excellent linguist anyway, once again putting this Englishman to shame. Oddly though, I find I can often understand the gist of an Afrikaans conversation. Garvin grew up in fairly straightened circumstances on a farm in Alexandria, a hundred miles south of here, not far from Port Elizabeth. Occasionally he is still mistaken for the driver when Mia’s family comes to visit and tour together, but now it seems a situation for ironic amusement, not racial resentment. It’s good to see this happening.

Petr, is a younger Afrikaans fellow and a rock climber like Garvin. Petr arrived and we all sat in the kitchen watching Mia cook (like African men! But Mia did admit to enjoying cooking and the tomes of Jamie Oliver scattered about the work surfaces (designed, made and fitted by Garvin) suggested she was happy cooking) We watched her prepare a mammoth and very tasty dinner – chicken, chops, roasted vegetables, beans, potatoes and mushrooms on a truly Afrikaans scale.

My instincts have been proved correct: Garvin, his wife Mia and even his friends have proved to be hospitable and open, as I came to expect amongst the Afrikaans on my previous trip.

And now I own a motorbike in Africa so I will have repeated opportunities to enjoy the southern African hospitality. It’s funny, once Africa gets hold of you, if you react in an instinctive, trusting manner, no other continent ever has the same appeal again…

DAY 5. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 30th 2013, EAST LONDON. SOUTH AFRICA

“Shall we take the bikes?” asked Garvin over breakfast. Well, I am here to bike, so yes. So I packed my identification papers, collected the bike’s documents from Garvin, took along some passport photos and money, and we rode off to a cheerful day of bureaucratic trivia.

I had to register the motorbike as my property here in South Africa. It has South african plates (CLK074EC – the EC identifying it as licensed in Eastern Cape region) and I needed a South African identity, it appeared. So from the vehicle licensing station in a far suburb we had to ride to a police station toperjure ourselves and sign a couple of spurious affidavits. A fat policewoman signed the paper we had both written, which stated that I was ‘currently residing’ (perfectly accurate in point of fact!) at Garvin’s address and that I had la postal address at Kloof. Garvin had to ride home to get papers to prove his residency and while he did that I rode to a beach cafe a couple of miles away to enjoy the sun-filled, breeze-cooled experience of being in South Africa in summer…

Armed with our affidavits, it was back to the licensing office for more form filling. Then I had to get a Certificate of Roadworthiness from the nearby testing station. We could not find the engine number that is stamped on the engine block. Garvin rode home – again- to look in the manual and on the internet for its location. He telephoned through to the inspector, who managed to read it off (I still haven’t found it!). The bike tested fine and I then had ten minutes to complete the registration before the office closed at 2.30. I made it as the penultimate customer, so registering the machine as mine and providing myself with, in effect, a South African identity.

It reminded me of getting the African Elephant through Customs in 2001. The frame number of the bike was covered over with several repaint jobs. Quickly, Mike learned the number from my registration document and made a good act of apparently deciphering the dips and bumps. The official was satisfied – and I went home to Kloof and painted the numbers on the frame!

“Will you be able to find your way home?” Garvin had asked before leaving.

“If I can get myself to Zambia, I guess I can find Abbotford!” I declared with ill-founded confidence. For the trouble is, when you follow someone else, you don’t take much notice of the road directions.

Gonubie, the suburb in which the licensing office is situated was less than 20 kilometres from Abbotsford but I managed to use up 40 finding my way home. I asked numerous people, but when you ask directions in Africa you really need to ask other drivers, not people walking at the roadside, who probably don’t have access to cars and use only the ‘black taxi’ system. I MUST remember that! While I was riding about East London, South Africa’s sixth largest city, looking for a needle in the hilly haystack, Garvin phoned the testing station, where we had become quite friendly in the hour we grovelled about searching for that damned number. “Oh yes, Mr Bean (suppressed chuckling as always) has left!” So Garvin rode out yet again in search of me. Meanwhile, I eventually found my way home myself, after a trip right down to the seaside where I was able to remind myself where I stayed at the Mimosa Apartments in December 2011. There has been considerable development.

“If you have to have me here again tonight, I’ll invite you all out for supper,” I suggested. Mia had a voucher for a ‘ribs’ supper at the Black Bull in East London so, with the charming Petr again, we had supper (meat and chips, South African style!) and a few beers.

I was tired from a warm day but content to have registered my bike and cheered by my conversation with the mechanic at the testing station, a black fellow, who told me some of the problems of the apartheid era and his optimism for the future, given – always – patience.

DAY 6. THURSDAY JANUARY. 31st. 2013 EAST LONDON, SOUTH AFRICA

“I promise I won’t be here tomorrow!”I exclaimed mid-afternoon as the day ran away with more bureaucracy. But it really only seems to be an issue in my mind. The South African very generous spirit of hospitality was again to the fore. It’s also a feature of motorcycling: this camaraderie in the fraternity of bikers.

We rode out in the warm sun to an insurance office. I had been in correspondence with Candice from England. She’d now activate the quotes and phone Garvin on his mobile when the paperwork was completed. We rode off to look for maps in a nearby mall. I have my maps from 2002 but the scale is limited and the pages make no sense of the whole landmass.

Then to David’s house, a biker friend of Garvin’s. He is about my age and lives in an inventive house with a beautiful garden. We chatted while we waited and I was reminded that evangelical Christianity is very much alive in Afrikaans circles. As a confirmed atheist from the most secular country in Europe I just keep quiet. Everyone has a right to their spiritual beliefs – even me.

Candice called us back to her office, but it really was a waste of time: the difficulties of getting three months’ worth of third party insurance was finally kicked out by the inability to pay by credit card and to have the extra months refunded. It would have meant bank transfers and that, as I know, is expensive and not easy in these days that all banks suspect us of money laundering – a rich irony, as I see it, in a recession created by the banks doing just that…

Southern Africa covers drivers with a basic third party insurance paid for by petrol taxes, so I shall have to rely on that. I may have to purchase national cover at borders as before. Anyhow, insurance being legalised gambling and the paranoia of the insecure, I am content to take my rather small risk.

Failing to get insurance, we could at least purchase tyre levers and a few necessities for my journey before a snack lunch at a coffee bar across from Garvin’s house and an afternoon and evening messing with bikes and perusing my new maps – during which I almost dozed off at the table. Interesting to happen upon strangers like this and find several links and compatibilities – even to another household without TV! When the rain came I was very happy I was not on the road to King William’s Town but in Garvin’s garage as he and Petr fitted new spotlights to Garvin’s 1150 BMW.

New friends are one of the delights of life. I shall visit Petr’s aunt and uncle on a remote farm in the Karoo and I am sure I will be back in East London, now that I have a South African motorbike.

DAY 7. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 1st 2013. PATERSON. EASTERN CAPE. SOUTH AFRICA.

317 kilometres today, my first day – and 9pm feels like midnight. My face is beetroot and my neck is on fire. I am lying on a bed willing myself to write my journal!

Sometime this morning I was riding along the coast road south from East London experimenting with seat positions. I decided that the screen on the bike was deflecting all the wind right into my face and beneath my helmet visor, shaking my head about. I either need a higher screen or, I thought, I could just remove it altogether. Mid afternoon I just about managed the latter. I was riding over a difficult mountain track, signposted as a road from one transverse valley to the next. I was on reserve petrol and a little nervous. The track was rocky and pretty rough. The views were superb up there. Then I hit a patch of greasy mud in parallel troughs and was ignominiously tossed into the grassy embankment at 25 miles an hour. The indicator broke off and the screen ended up crazed into a number of pieces. It’s just hanging on there but I really think I may as well remove it now.

It is an extraordinary statistic: only ten per cent of South Africa’s roads are tarred. This is because so many minor roads between small dorps cross huge expanses of empty territory. This must be an ultimate trail riding country for we who like to ride off road.

At my first stop, a lagoon south of East London where a river met the Indian Ocean behind a white sand bar beneath a brilliant tropical sky, a formation I was to see repeated many times, I met a white couple from Bathurst, a village on my back road to Grahamstown. “You should stay at the Pig and Whistle,” they said. “It’s the oldest continually run pub in South Africa.”

But I passed through Bathurst at 2.00 in the afternoon, rather early to stop for the night. It was a pretty, one-horse village with a white Baptist church – I think it is named after the first Baptist minister – and not much else. So I rode on to Grahamstown, over high roads that had expansive views to the left of mile upon mile of dark green hills dotted with conifers and cacti. Grahamstown was busy. Friday afternoon is obviously pay day and the many banks and ATMs had queues round the block. It is a fine Victorian town with candy stripe architecture and wide, European style streets. There are trees and a lot of Victorian churches, dozen of schools and a big university. And no accommodation whatsoever. Well, at least, according to the tourist office. It is Induction week at the university and all the students and their parents are in town. So I carried on…

When I travelled here in 2001/2 I made it a rule to fill up whenever I saw a petrol station. Why don’t I listen to my own advice? I headed out into the Styx. Huge rolling hills and, after twenty miles or so, gravel roads. Mostly, I can ride at 50mph on these roads that make up so much of South Africa’s system. Riebeeck East was a significant mark on my map. I should be able to get fuel there.

Reibeeck was a small, sandy, spreading village. I was out the other side before I realised that I had passed the ‘centre’ of town. A beer-bellied white man was sitting outside the general store drinking beer with a rather drunk old black fellow. I pulled up to ask where I could fill up my tank.

“Oh, there’s no fuel here! You need to get to Paterson!” said the flabby white man. The drunken black man just repeated everything the fat man said a couple of times.

Paterson was about 70 kms away. “Or you could tekk the road to Alicedale. You’ll certainly get fuel there. Twenty kilometres. But you’ll have to tekk caere. The road is rough and bends a bit! It’s beck down thet waay a bit!”

“…back that way… …that way… …Pettterson…” came his inebriated echo from behind a waving beer glass.

So I turned in the totally empty gravel road and went back to the side turning signposted: ‘Alicedale’, where a red dirt track led steeply out of the village. The track became rougher and rougher as it clambered onto the open mountainsides. I was doing well, bouncing up an African mountain. Then, on the summit level, the road turned quite suddenly to greasy mud in channels and, next I knew I was blasting into a big grassy embankment on my side. First of a few probably, but a bit embarrassing.

I righted the bike – quite heavy, I decided, and it falls further than my old Elephant which just reclined gracefully in this situation onto the engine protection bars and panniers – and battled on, having found the broken-off indicator and brushed myself down. In the middle of nowhere, high on the mountain, I found a large steel gate across the track. I opened it, disturbed seven beautiful gazelles, and set off across magnificent fell sides with wonderful mountain views into what, I later found, was a game park containing rhino, elephant, lions and the rest! Needless to say, I saw none of them. My total count for the day being seven gazelles, five baboons and a monkey.

He was right, was the fat man in Riebeeck. It was a twisting track. It meandered and twisted down in rocky steps into the landscape, slowly approaching an untidy village of dotted township houses and a small centre. Here the road began again after another gate, elecric this time, that I had to open to exit the private game area.

“No! Is fineesh! Just fineesh this mor’ing!” exclaimed the Chinese shop keeper, waving at the petrol pump. “No pe’row! No per’ow a’ all! Nea’ess per’ow, Pa’erson!No per’ow. You ‘ave to push!”

I had been on my reserve tank for twenty two kilometres and Paterson was another 30.

Well, to cut the story, as I have to sleep, I made it. Very tense… I now know that my tank will carry me about 340Kms and 50Kms on reserve. It is, I believe, a seventeen litre tank. In Paterson I put in 17.23 litres. I must have been running on a sniff.

So I decided enough was enough. I would stop in Paterson. There seems to be just one place, the Sandflats Country Inn, a rather quaint place in an old fashioned style down short cul de sac amongst trees. A low bungalow backwoods place with a small pub/ bar and rooms at the back around a white painted courtyard. The elderly white, bushy-bearded owner, Rudy, has been here 40 years with his wife Denise and used to work in forestry. He showed me to a quiet room with an old fashioned bathroom and chintzy bedcovers. The room costs 300 Rand – about £21 without breakfast. I can’t see the point paying another 50 Rand for a meal I don’t value and can get at the petrol station.

I showered very gratefully and relaxed for an hour. I certainly needed to! It has been hot and very sunny all day and I have exerted myself. Then the only choice for a meal – of sorts – was the petrol station again. These are small dorps that spring up around the main arterial roads – here the long N2 from Durban to Cape Town round the curve of South Africa. There I had an unremarkable double hamburger, egg and bacon with chips and an apple juice for about £4. Terrible food, but all that was available and welcome, having not eaten since my two slices of breakfast toast. On my journeys I eat to live. Just as well sometimes.

My bike is in a garage with a rickety door across the cul de sac. I had three beers with Rudy in the time-warp pub and just fell asleep writing this. Now I am sitting on the side of the bed so I don’t doze off again. The pub is a small room of dark wood, stools at the bar and no smoking ban. South Africans seem to smoke a lot. The customers were white people who own a tented camp game watching place nearby. On the walls were many pictures of party nights (difficult to imagine tonight) with revellers having fun. There must have been a hundred and fifty photos on the wall. Not one of them showed a black, or even coloured face. What a strange country with this invisible majority. The old black faces at this odd, old fashioned inn are at the liquor store opposite the pub. Never the twain…

This has been day one of my tour. Hard, warm and stressful (my own fault for not filling up!). But it’s been fun and satisfying too. Great scenery and that feeling of freedom that cannot be imagined. I have met friendly people, not least a couple in their car who stayed behind me on the last miles in case I ran out of petrol. When I set out, I had no idea whatsoever what would befall me today. I enjoy that so much. Time to throw off the chintzy eiderdowns (!), bedspreads and at least five chintzy pillows and a blanket (it must still be almost 30 degrees) and pull up a sheet and sleep to see what tomorrow brings. “Will you want to leave early?” asked the owner.

Will I want to leave early..! Haha.

DAY 8. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 2nd 2013. OUDTSHOORN. WESTERN CAPE.

Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of South Africa. This is an important farming district and became very rich in Victorian days thanks to the fashion industry and, of all things, ostrich feathers. Surrounded by mountains, it will make a base for me for a couple of days.

I have ridden 466 kms today, nearly 300 miles. I try to make it a rule to keep my mileage down to less than 250. Otherwise, it all just becomes a blur of tarmac, junctions and petrol stations. But I decided to move far west to be within reach of some of the parts of the country I very much appreciated last time. It’s been a hard day.

It has been VERY hot, up around 35C. There is no respite from the sun on these long empty South African roads. Perhaps once every ten minutes another vehicle passes. I rattle along at a steady 60mph, counting down the kilometres on the speedo and gazing across vast expanses of dry desertified scrub dotted with small tenacious green thorn trees and large aloes.

Now and again I pass a warning sign: a red triangle with an image of a leaping beast, signifying animals on the road. When the reality occurs it is a wonderful, heart-stopping moment. In the distance I saw two large animals. As I came closer I could see they were very large gazelles of some sort probably as tall as me. As I neared they took flight and gracefully soared over the four foot high stock fence at the roadside and bounded away, quickly blending into the scenery. Those moments are wonderful. They make up for some boring hours in the saddle pounding along under a relentless sun. I also saw my first wild ostriches today, one of nature’s more extreme visual jokes. Oudtshoorn is the centre of the ostrich industry so now I am amongst extensive ostrich farms; the first vineyards too, as I head west.

It wasn’t an early start. It was about ten before I pulled out of the odd Sandflats time warp and onto a minor road heading west. A quietly cheerful fat black woman was cleaning the hotel as I drank a leisurely coffee in the yard. I smiled a few times and greeted her. She smiled diffidently back. Later I saw her in the reception office, duster in hand, being impatiently instructed (in a language not her own tongue…) by Rudy. “NO! Put the Jif ON the cloth. Not so much! No, you don’t have to move the telephone. I didn’t ask you to move the telephone! I want you to clean this ledge. Do it!” I caught her eye. Discretion almost overcame this simple, honest looking woman. Her eyes told me so much of the dislike she rightly had for being treated like a naughty child by her paternalistic ‘baaas’. “Why are they like this?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. (Italics mine).

We talked about ‘they’ and their attitude to pay day, for that explains all the long queues at the banks and ATMs. “Why don’t they take it out as they need it? Why do they always queue up like this?”

“Well,” said I, who seems more in tune with them than so many local white residents, (for I have taken the time and effort to get as much as possible inside an African culture in Ghana) “they probably feel empowered by having their own money in their hands, and anyway, they probably have to pay the previous month’s debts before they can begin again for the new month…” After all, I didn’t say, they get paid a pittance. Why should they feel loyalty?

And why should uneducated people, manual and domestic labourers trust banks, for goodness sake? They have been shafted so frequently that I am sure they feel safer in control of their own money, even when it’s paid into a bank account by employers.

I have been skirting the edges of the great Karoo Desert, the empty interior of South Africa. It’s a huge landscape – and not really very interesting, except for its scale. Most of the day I spent on tarred roads, with just one stretch of about 40 kms on dirt to cut off a very long corner. For many miles the road reduced to a strip of concrete a couple of metres wide with a dust shoulder. I met so few oncoming vehicles that I did not have to be concerned.

The last fifty kilometres became something of an endurance test. My bum ached wherever I moved; my knees were stiff and my back strained. My nose was sun-blasted and my cheeks burning. I was hot and bothered. In just the mood, then, to look for a place to stay…

I have always believed you make your own luck, but I will admit to those who often tell me how lucky I am that I am just a bit charmed. The worst part of my travelling day is always finding a place to sleep. I do not like to camp on these journeys. Frankly, after a long day on the bike I can think of little less inviting than crawling into a small tent to sleep on the ground! No, I want a bed and somewhere to lock out the world for a few hours.

Tonight I have complete luxury for about £14. I turned down the faded elegance of the hotel I used in 2001(then about £15 thanks to the exchange rate). It is now £35 and a non-negotiable rate this weekend as the hotel is hosting a wedding. A large chalet development was full at £21, another place was £28, so I finally tried the ‘backpackers hostel’, places I usually avoid vehemently. I don’t come to Africa to mix with young Europeans on their bungee jumping holidays. I come to meet Africans. Even the backpackers was full but Marius, the owner, looked at me and suggested he had another place for bit more money. I am staying in what seems to be his new house in a residential suburb with lovely views of the distant mountains, a luxury thatched home with lovely features, timber terraces and a luxurious bathroom. A young Dutch couple are the only other inhabitants. I am content tonight.

A pleasant supper, at a restaurant Marius recommended, of Cape Malay curry, creamy, spicy and fruity, washed down by a litre of water and a bottle of good local wine (I brought two thirds of the bottle home to avoid falling off the bike) and now I am sitting listening to ducks out on the dam behind the house. The bright stars are largely unfamiliar; Orion upside down and the Southern Cross marking out my position. It is warm, peaceful and calm. So am I.

2013 – Some photos – 1

Wild flowers are a feature of travelling in South Africa

Wild flowers are a feature of travelling in South Africa

35 degrees...

35 degrees…

Long, long, long, long roads...

Long, long, long, long roads…

The start. Garvin says, "He's finally leaving..?"

The start. Garvin says, “He’s finally leaving..?”

The Sandflats time warp.

The Sandflats time warp.

Indian Ocean!

Indian Ocean!

Stuck in another era

Stuck in another era

Sometimes I am plain lucky. Oudtshoorn.

Sometimes I am plain lucky. Oudtshoorn.

A fine view to wake to? Oudtshoorn.

A fine view to wake to? Oudtshoorn.

Montagu Pass. Just how I like them.

Montagu Pass. Just how I like them.

A distant view of the 1840s Montagu Pass from across the valley was incentive enough to go amd find it!

A distant view of the 1840s Montagu Pass from across the valley was incentive enough to go amd find it!