DAY 51. SATURDAY MARCH 16th 2013. PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND. USA
DAY 52. SUNDAY MARCH 17th 2013. PROVIDENCE. RHODE ISLAND, USA
DAY 53. MONDAY MARCH 18th 2013. NORFOLK. MASSACHUSETTS. USA
DAY 54. TUESDAY MARCH 19th 2013. ON A PLANE TO SOUTH AFRICA
The pace of life these past days and, very unusually, ill-health, mean that I shall just summarise the four days together. I can see, with 20:20 hindsight, that the infection in my leg was a problem I should have tried to sort out as soon as I realised it was worsening. But the timing and logistics were just so difficult. I arrived in USA – exhausted and probably with very low immunity – on tuesday afternoon. The next morning, after a long sleep, I was picked up at 8.00am, went to the office for arranged meetings and flew to Milwaukee. There I was involved with five colleagues for the next two days; flew back to Boston, stayed overnight in the Jamaica Plains suburb with my colleague, Shannon; made it back to Providence just in time for a trip to the opera live relay in a cinema nearby; next day was sunday; and on monday I was back in the office for meetings. Meanwhile, I had no American dollars and couldn’t use my credit cards because they are currently cleared for use in southern Africa and I had no opportunity to ring my bank during their hours to get it cleared for use here!
On sunday the fever was taking hold. I think I have been feverish almost since I arrived. Certainly by the time I reached the hotel in Racine I could feel all the lymph glands at the top of my leg swelling sorely as they tried to fight the infection. By sunday my energy was zero and I spent the majority of the day dully dozing on the settee and went to bed very early. At 3.00am on monday morning I was swimming in the bed! I was so wet that I had to turn the duvet over and move to a drier part of the bed! On monday I finally asked for help.
My colleagues are the best with whom I have ever worked. The company is friendly and compassionate. Within moments Bob was hustling me out of the building with his Chief Financial Officer, Karen to a neighbourhood surgery. So on this trip I have had experience of a South African public hospital and an American private clinic. Most notable about both, I have to admit as a supporter of the beleaguered National Health Service, was the efficiency of the cashiers! But the American clinic was clean, pretty quick and extremely efficient – if a trifle faceless. I felt part of a machine. But a useful machine. First up, was the bill: $75 from Karen’s credit card (mine still not working. Too early to ring the bank in England!). I was seen quickly by a triage nurse, then by a doctor – brief but polite – and even had an X-ray taken to check that there was no damage to or debris left in my ankle. Within half an hour we were despatched to our selected pharmacy to collect a prescription.
Karen had elected to use the enormous pharmacy chain, Whalgreens. It’s in every other mall across the states and there was one a couple of blocks away. By the time we were there, so was my prescription. “Do you have health insurance?” is the first inevitable question in the medical forests of America. No, we’d be paying cash. I have an annual medical policy to reclaim the costs if I can be bothered but my cynicism about insurance is that for relatively small sums life is more enjoyable without trying to get blood out of insurance company stones…
“I have to make you aware that this drug will cost you $115!” said the pharmacist. I just stood, open-mouthed. That is approximately £75! FOR ANTIBIOTICS!! Wow!
“Let me see how I can help”, mused the kindly counter assistant. “Well, if you have a residential address you could join the Walgreen’s Club. That’s $20… Then the drug will only cost you $15!”
“Who wouldn’t join a club like that?” I wondered as we gave my address at the office.
Where’s the logic in it? Well, I am now tied to Walgreens next time I buy drugs…
“The joy of Capitalism…” as Bob put it.
So now I am on a course of veterinary-sized pills that are so blue and huge they must work. Pretty strong, no nonsense antibiotics, I think… I awoke at 4.00am this morning with a VERY odd sensation that I was completely bleached and smooth, no doubt a mental allegory for what’s probably going on inside. My ankle is still sore and I am sure the drugs are purging a lot of good things as well as bad, but so be it. I couldn’t go on that way. I wonder what happened? I only just broke the skin when I fell seven weeks ago, but my boots were on and the wound seemed to heal up quickly. The inference is, I suppose, that the infection was INSIDE my own boot! I’d rather not think about that…
So it’s been a testing time. Very demanding. I tried to keep up with my colleagues and in so doing got more and more exhausted and less and less able to fight infection. With luck things will now begin to improve.
Now I have begun the journey back to Africa. As I write, I am sitting on the first leg of the journey, flying south towards Atlanta again. A short time ago we passed New York and a spectacular distant view of Manhattan from about eight or nine miles distant, picked out in winter sun and demarcated by snow. I could even make out a tiny white dash that is the Statue of Liberty. New York is such a remarkable city to fly over, especially on a clear night when it just dazzles! An odd optical moment occurred as the plane came at right angles to all the parallel cross streets of the city and they were suddenly formal black lines.
I am trying to psych myself up for the dreadful flight back across the south Atlantic tonight. At least going back half the journey will be in daylight. Not that there will be anything to see until the last three hours, and then it will be the Kalahari.
This flight is at least an hour late. Last night a snow storm hit the Boston area with some four or five inches of snow. I stayed with Bob and his wife Debbie last night, still doing sketches for the proposal for South Carolina until bedtime and then this morning until Bob ran me to the station to catch a train to the city and airport.
I have come away from this jaunt with two confirmed jobs – art directing and co-creating the ten minute or so 360 degree film in Wisconsin, and designing and constructing a Pepper’s ghost display for installation in Colorado Springs. If we get to interview with our ideas for South Carolina (which we probably will) I will, if I can, go to the pitch with my colleagues. I think I will be spending a good deal of the next three months over here in USA… In view of that, I am thinking of cutting short my last remaining days in southern Africa. I have only fourteen days left of the trip when I get back there tomorrow. It’s not enough to do anything meaningful, except wander about the KwaZulu Natal area, which is actually my least favourite part of South Africa. I could make a brief foray back to wonderful Lesotho but in a way the drive has gone out of the journey now that it has been so much interrupted. I will be leaving the bike in the country and maybe I should just come back next year to complete the Zimbabwe and Zambia part, with a quick taster trip to Lesotho at that time? I need to think all this out over the next couple of days. It would be nice to drop back and see Steven again. He sent me an excited email that he is going to get married again, with a generous invitation to the wedding, but unfortunately that will be on April sixth, three days after my booked flight to England.
It has been intriguing to come to USA in particular during these past days. My mind and observation has been so finely attuned (ad infinitum!) to racial socio/politics during my African journey. This is a journey the United States travelled over the last fifty or sixty years, from racial separation to relative racial harmony, if not economic equality. Still the large majority of Americans in prison are black, through inadequate education and poverty. But I have also seen many black and white people working and enjoying together. I haven’t felt noticeably white here, as I do in South Africa – but not in the neighbouring countries. And of course I haven’t heard the prejudiced language and assumptions. Nor, of course, have I been in a single room with bars on the inside of the windows, a porch with security screens, seen an armed security guard in domestic situations or been made to feel intimidated by other white people against black people… It’s been refreshing. It gives me a little hope for change, except that one must add the rider that everyone in America is basically an immigrant, whereas more than 80% of the South Africa population, should they ever get the muscle to force it, are indigenous. Now in America there is a fast growing black middle class, educating their children alongside white, Asian, African and every race. It is in the passage of generations that one must pace racial acceptance, I guess, not a decade or two.
Yes, an interesting contrast indeed. Pleasant to have my sense of injustice displaced by a few other horrors for a change: obscene food, profligate wastage everywhere; ignorance of the immense material privileges that Americans take for granted; their lack of knowledge or curiosity of there being any other places outside their borders; and their general ignorance of the damage their cultural colonisation has done to the world in its eagerness to turn six billion people into consumers.
For all that, I enjoy coming. This has been my 29th trip since 1998. I find the people courteous, polite and generally friendly to strangers. Like Africans, they smile back.
SLIGHTLY LATER. VERY SLIGHTLY!
I doubt many people have made a quicker transfer from terminal B to terminal E at Atlanta, one of the world’s most spreadeagled airports. Our late plane from Boston, which should have arrived at 5.30, opened its doors at 6.46. My flight to Johannesburg was leaving at 7.05. I think I was probably the only one of four passengers on the Boston flight who made it, by running like hell. And travelling light… The Johannesburg plane closed its doors minutes after I boarded. And the good news is, it is only fourteen and half hours going back.
DAY 55. WEDNESDAY MARCH 20th 2013. RANDBURG. SOUTH AFRICA
It was a slightly less ghastly return flight, perhaps because I was prepared this time for the length of it. I didn’t sleep and watched films just about all night. At least this time I had Bob’s generously lent noise-cancelling headphones. My own are in the bottom of a cupboard in Durban from whence I imagined my next flight was going to be (Durban, not the cupboard). The plane arrived in Johannesburg in good time, before 4pm. Coming this way at least I had a short day ahead when I landed. Within minutes I was on the commuter train back to Sandton, where Okkie kindly collected me and drove me home. I was in the house before five and after a couple of beers and a braai supper I was in bed by 9.00pm.
DAY 56. THURSDAY MARCH 21st. 2013 RANDBURG. SOUTH AFRICA
I slept for almost thirteen hours and have already recovered from my jet-lag. It’s the best way: stay awake until an early bedtime in the new country then put in ear plugs, don eyeshade and sleep as long as the body requires. I find it works every time now – happily, since I may need this remedy quite a lot over the coming months.
After a late breakfast sitting beneath the shady patio, I decided to make some use of the rest of the day by visiting the Apartheid Museum again. When I visited three weeks ago I had seen only the first hour or so of exhibits when the museum closed. I was so impressed by that part of the story that I wanted to visit again while the opportunity offered. This time I was just reading the final panel when the museum closed, probably two and a half hours after I arrived. It is a fine museum, and shocking. Today is a public holiday in South Africa – Human Rights Day. With a title like that, not surprisingly the museum was free for the day, so it was busy, although most people were not spending much time reading the texts. It’s not a very family oriented museum, after all.
The final panel says:
‘South Africa still bears the wounds of apartheid and the struggle against it. If these are to heal fully, and if South Africa is to develop into a truly non-racial society, the past must be grappled with and understood. Without that no full reconciliation can occur. This is the reason for the Apartheid Museum’.
The final part of the museum deals with the run up to the 1994 election. I was not aware quite how close the whole thing came to disaster or on what a knife edge the whole thing balanced. Although the final outcome was conclusive as a win for the Africa National Congress and Nelson Mandela I came away with a sense of what a miracle Mandela and De Klerk really pulled off in keeping the whole thing from flaring into violence and disarray. It really must be put to those two remarkable men for keeping the country peaceful throughout the transition from white rule to black. Mandela’s extreme wisdom has left an extraordinary legacy that it is difficult to overestimate. I just hope that his messages will live on long after his death…
My over-arching emotion from the museum was one of disgust at the brutality of the white regime, the police and defence force. I became angry for the black people, beaten relentlessly, tortured in confinement, shot at and moved without consideration from their communities like cattle being herded from field to field, and with as much feeling on behalf of white officials. The bullying and exertion of force was out of proportion until you see that this was a frightened people: frightened to allow rights to prevail as they were a tiny minority enjoying all the privileges of a prosperous land. The revenge of their enemy would have been swift and dramatic had they weakened in their disgusting resolve. So they fought without conscience, many of them brainwashed into the thought that the people they were fighting had little more right to life and happiness than the average steer on their farms.
But what shocks me is that this is such recent history. Only a little over twenty years have passed since some of the brutality. Those men who perpetrated it are still alive – and living in the community around me. They are absolved now from crime but how do their consciences lie with the memory of beating, kicking, chasing, shooting at and abusing their fellow men so ruthlessly, cruelly and foully, people who may now be their neighbours – unless they all went off to pollute other lands? Where are they now? Those ‘Defence Force’ bullies are still alive and well. I just hope their consciences trouble them. But born a bully, always a bully. There is so much tension not far below the surface of this troubled country.
Okkie and Antoinette have been so welcoming and kind. Tonight they reluctantly allowed me to take them out for dinner as a gesture of thanks for their generosity in taking me in and fitting so apparently cheerfully into my rather fluid plans. It has been fun to find Okkie again and rediscover a friendship from so long ago.
Tomorrow I shall set off again. I have decided to try to change my ticket from the wednesday in two weeks time to saturday next week. It will cost £100 but mean that I would arrive home on Easter Sunday, the 31st. I have to set off to America again on April 11th!
DAY 57. FRIDAY MARCH 22. 2013. BETHLEHEM. SOUTH AFRICA
There’s now just a week left of my journey. My ticket is changed to next saturday and now routed via the horrible Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, competitor with Heathrow for Europe’s most unpleasant airport. Oh well, it will give me a few extra days in Devon – and I WILL have stayed away until after the clocks change, always my objective.
So I paid my money and changed the flights. I fly out of Durban so I have time for about another five days of footloose wandering. Of course, Lesotho is the obvious choice! I don’t want the journey to peter out after the interruption. Lesotho will mean I end with a high.
Okkie is such a decent man. I can see why I must have been attracted to befriend him years ago. We have had such easy conversation, and so interesting. He lived through so much of the appalling South African history of the latter half of the twentieth century with its morally contemptible regime. And he sees now how everyone was bewitched by the authorities and brainwashed into beliefs that would never normally have sat comfortably with their personal morals. All news was censored and corrupted by the establishment. But even he asks, how did we let it happen..? The very many links with Nazism are uncanny. White supremacy, racial cleansing, torture, no mixing of races. Maybe mankind never learns from previous mistakes? Maybe we will just repeat and repeat the same ‘tribal’ disasters for ever…
Not, of course, that we only talked about old politics! He remembers that somewhere about his house he still has an 8mm film that he made in Biddenham. He recollects that in one shot I posted a letter and thinks there was some script that he was following. I guess we were somewhat obsessed by turning everything into film in those days.
It was almost noon before I finally rode away and through the enormous city that is Johannesburg, heading due south, avoiding the highways on a fairly boring journey to get beyond the city and its suburbs. It was a gloriously hot day, so good to feel after the bitter winds and frozen snow heaps of Wisconsin and Massachusetts. At least spring should be springing when I go back.
My journey today brought me about two hundred miles back to Bethlehem, where I stayed on the 13th of last month with the rabid racists from Newcastle. I am staying in their guest house again. They are absent and it’s looked after by someone else tonight. I wondered about coming back and listening to the thoughtless racism again. But I had the feeling that even if I had struggled to find somewhere else I would still find views I don’t much like around this district. It’s just the way it is here in the English end of the Free State.
The cosmos is out in profusion at the roadsides. Such a pretty, dainty flower, it brightens the dull farmlands – and serves as a reminder of the Boer Wars that seeded the roadsides with horse shit filled with the seeds imported in fodder. Somehow, the distribution method makes the flowers especially attractive. Tall, gangly and colourful, over a hundred years later cosmos makes a better memorial than any graveyards and monuments.
From overweight Americans back to giant Afrikaners. But while Americans are normal sized people who’ve swollen up, Afrikaners just grew huge through generations of eating enormous, rich, protein-heavy meals. They have huge frames, thick necks, vast hands and over-sized proportions. Big bellies too, of course, from the beer, beef and cigarettes. BIG people. They are heavy smokers. It is amazing how so few little burning sticks of paper and leaf can pollute a whole area. Astonishing to think how it was so common only a few years ago. We even had to choose non-smoking areas on aeroplanes, with their recycled air! Thank god those days are past.
Good to be in the sun again.
DAY 58. SATURDAY MARCH 23rd 2013. MOKHOTLONG, KINGDOM OF LESOTHO
Eleven years ago I stayed in Mokhotlong and left for the western lowlands over Africa’s highest road and a couple of extremely high passes. The road was fine tarmac, sweeping this way and that, corkscrewing up and down with extraordinary views of the roof of Africa everywhere. Eleven years of snow and ice and harsh winter conditions later, that smooth tarmac has gone and for forty miles is replaced by stony gravel as the road is reconstructed.
Also eleven years ago, when I stayed here, I remember a violent lightning storm and torrential rain. The same has happened tonight. I assumed that perhaps this is a regular occurrence until I chatted with the waitress in the basic hotel dining room. It seems it is unusual. Just my luck. I sincerely hope the sun blazes back down in the morning and dries the gravel road or I am in for a trying, slow journey.
The woman looking after the guest house in Bethlehem turned out to be most interesting and enlightened. I had bracketed her with the racist owner and could not have been more wrong. It seemed that she had lived much of her life in Zambia and Zimbabwe and now runs a fruit farm here in South Africa. Coming from those countries she has little of the baggage of apartheid and herself sees South Africa as a deeply troubled nation with a long way to go to begin to achieve the relative racial harmony that she knew as she grew up in the Rhodesias. She now has a farm near Fouriesberg, the town through which I came to enter Lesotho, and travels quite frequently with her husband here in the small kingdom. She appreciates it very much and admits to the relief that I feel when crossing that border. It’s an emotion several Basotho people have admitted to me too, a reluctance to go over the border and a relief at getting back.
One elderly Basotho man told me he went to university in Nottingham. “South African universities were closed to us. We had to fly over.” He was, of course, black.
The smile spread cross my face within minutes – even at the border post where smiling men and women welcomed me to Lesotho and stamped my passport once again. Moments later I was on the road where people smiled and waved and the occasional herdsman on a mountain slope breaks into an excited jig as the white motorcyclist passes. This is a very special country. I am happy to be back for the final few days of my journey. I am back to the ‘national costume’ in White Wellie Land where most young men wear underpants or at most football shorts, a blanket held with a big shoulder pin, long socks and the inevitable gumboots. It is such an odd costume, but they must have found it practical over the years for it is everywhere much the same. Apparently, in one misguided attempt at aid during a particularly severe winter years ago more people died of hypothermia from being provided with western clothes than if the aid givers had augmented the national dress.
I am riding in the far north of the country, where Mokhotlong is one of the most remote towns imaginable. Until the 1970s it was a remote frontier, inaccessible throughout the harsh winters in May, June and July and only accessible by horse or on foot most of the rest of the time. Now there is a road (which was a fine road a few years ago) and even an airstrip. It retains the frontier feeling as it is about 250 difficult miles from the capital city.
The journey to reach here is very fine. This really is that on top of the world place like no other. The Tlaeeng Pass is the highest road in Africa at 3255 metres (or 3275 in another source). That is about 10,550 feet. Most of my road today has been above 2500 metres once I left the ring of so-called lowlands, which themselves are over 1000 metres everywhere.
At one place I stopped to take a photo and the damned bike rolled forward on the side stand and fell over again. In consequence I have pulled the very same muscle that I pulled some weeks ago. It had recently completely recovered too! So tonight, after soaking for half an hour in as hot a bath as I could stand, I shall have to take tablets to relax the muscles overnight. Otherwise riding tomorrow I will feel every bump and jolt! Bah! I do not like this bike very much. It falls too flat on its side. Of course the indicator is hanging off again, Steven’s super-glue repair having lasted until today.
I stayed at the Mokhotlong Hotel last time. So I returned today, rather than look further. But accommodation in Lesotho is expensive now. As a concession I was shown a room for ‘only’ £25. It was rubbish! A gloomy barren room with a wash basin and a single soggy bed with old sheets and a worn lino floor. I moved on. At the other end of town I have a large room with adequate bathroom and even a balcony with a view over the valley below for £2 more. It is still the second most expensive room – after the first night near Johannesburg airport – not counting rip-off Botswana. Here, though, I have a motel-type room, space, chairs, a log fireplace, and extra bed and a comfortable, well dressed double bed. The staff are very friendly, as I have come to expect in Lesotho and I expect a lot of the included breakfast!
The rain seems to have stopped so I hope for a hot morning…
Signs of autumn are evident now in the lower lands where the poplars and lighter deciduous trees are turning golden quite fast. The cosmos waves its pretty whites, pinks and magentas and the crops are drying, the grasslands turning to gold and brown, the maize brittle. Winter is not far away in South Africa now. Winters up here can be severe. There are new developments to create ski resorts up here in these high mountains, the ugly infrastructure an imposition on the extraordinary landscape.
I think my timing to leave by Easter is quite good. But flood warnings and advice not to bother to return to Devon arrive with every email communication too! However, that decision is taken now.
DAY 59. SUNDAY MARCH 24th 2013. ROMA. LESOTHO
I awoke to a rather dull, overcast day. Slowly the clouds burned away to leave a dry but cool day, especially at those altitudes, high on the Roof of Africa. My back muscles were surprisingly kind to me all day, reacting perhaps to the soak in a hot bath and the mild painkillers I have taken to relax the muscles, but they needed nurturing. My choices were to turn left and follow unknown dirt roads across the mountains to Thaba Theska and from thence on the very long high passes that I rode some weeks ago, or to return along the gravel roads I used yesterday. The unknown dirt road was 105 kilometres long; the known gravel section of my ride yesterday was 65 kilometres.
My back suggested I retrace my tyre tracks. After all, it is surprising how different places look when you approach from the opposite direction. I rode slowly and enjoyed the magnificence of the high mountains, some of Africa’s highest.
It would be little exaggeration to say that I must have waved at a thousand people today. It being sunday there were even more people than usual at the roadsides ready to greet a white man on a motorbike. Everywhere there were peak-white smiles and waving hands. Families returned from church – today everyone carried a switch of leaves and twigs (is it Palm Sunday? he asked ignorantly). Men sat in roadside bars and women walked under colourful umbrellas, shading themselves from the sun. There wasn’t a great deal of traffic, just the usual taxi minibuses creeping along and stopping frequently and without warning. As the day lengthened and I approached Maseru, the small capital, there was more traffic and worsening driving as men with fast cars felt the need to show them off to the donkey carts and trotting Basotho pony riders.
Most of the first several hours were spent riding at high altitudes, always over 2000 metres. The Tlaeeng Pass was cool again. I was riding in all my warmer clothes for a time. Then the mighty Moteng Pass wriggled and swept me down to warmer air and the lowlands, my road sketched here and there far far below. Thankfully, the Moteng is still tarmac. It is so twisting and convoluted that gravel would be very taxing. The higher passes are in open country and the roads sweep in vast curves, only occasionally needing to hairpin to gain or lose altitude. The Moteng climbs steeply up the face of the mountains requiring much more exacting engineering – and driving.
With the lower altitudes came warmer sun and gentler views of farmland terraces, drying maize and cosmos in pink profusion. Round huts with conical thatched roofs are everywhere, perched on tiny shoulders of the pale mountains.
Once out of the mountains my route brought me southwards in a loop following the vaguely circular western edge of the country. This is where most of the population lives but even here the towns and villages are small and rural. Only Maseru looks scruffily city-like with its warehouses, light industry and commercial centres sprawling about in low-rise confusion between dust-fringed tarmac. I rode through the small city and turned ‘inland’ again (it is difficult not to think of Lesotho as an island) to the nearer mountains, past the little airport and on towards Roma, where I had decided to stay, having been told of a guest house that is popular, called the Trading Post. Run by a white Basotho family who have lived in Lesotho all their lives, it seems a popular place. I imagined a friendly dining room or bar for conversation, so I am a bit surprised that I have a rather remote room with large metal-framed French windows in a garden some way from the main guest house and my excellent dinner was kindly brought to me on a tray! I am in solitary splendour. On the whole I was better off in that somewhat pretentious guest house a few miles away at Ha Molengoane where I stayed six weeks ago – and had conversations in the dining room at least. This way a whole day will go by without much in the way of meaningful interaction with anyone at all! That’s a problem with biking: you do need someone to talk to now and again of an evening…
Approaching Maseru ominously grey clouds were gathering. I don’t think it should be raining at this season – but it is. Some time after I reached my room a violent windstorm blew up, blowing dust and leaves in advance of shattering lightning and thunder. Half an hour later came the rain, machine gunning down on the tin roof. And potentially turning dust roads to grease unless there is strong sun in the morning. My rear tyre is now pretty well smooth! I will watch the weather. Maybe it is just settling in for these wet evenings and they are not a problem. I have just four or so days left now to get back to Durban. I feel I should be sociable with my hosts there before I dump a large motorbike on them for twelve months!
DAY 60. MONDAY MARCH 25th 2013. LADY GREY, EASTERN CAPE, SOUTH AFRICA
It’s been bad luck to hit a rotten summer down here. Everyone says the weather has been unreliable and changeable. It should not be raining now. But it is…
I woke to another gloomy day. The sun struggled through but a look at the horizons made my decision easy: no point riding to the interior on gravel roads to look at waterfalls in the probable rain. Better to ride round the southern road that circles round inside Lesotho. It was that road that gave me one of the best days of my journey here in 2002. I remember writing that there were some days you wished could just go on and on. I was on a very long gravel road that wound about on the contours following the Orange River far below. I passed through friendly villages and stopped very often to admire the views. That day was sunny and pleasantly warm and full to the brim of the magic of travelling.
Maybe it is best to keep the memory, for my plans changed again mid-morning. I really needed to find an internet connection today. My colleagues in USA were preparing the draft script of the 360 degree film for presentation to the client. Since I am proud to be described as ‘co-creative director’ with my friend and colleague Bob I felt it my duty to read and comment on their script. I tried three towns in Lesotho and found no internet connection. “It’s down!” I was told every time. So I decided I must cross the border back to South Africa at a nearby remote crossing and visit the small town of Sterkspruit to find an internet cafe. There IS an internet cafe in Sterkspruit – but “it’s down!” exclaimed the young woman. I rode on to Lady Grey, where it seems there is no internet at all! It was suggested that I should ride on another fifty kilometres to Alliwal North, where I would be sure to find a connection.
I set off again, watching ominous grey storm clouds. I had so far managed to dodge the rain as I rode to Lady Grey. About ten kilometres out of town I breasted a rise and saw my road ahead… The skies were leaden and forks of lightning streaked from the deep darkness of the skies – roughly, I reckoned, over Alliwal North. I make no pretence of being terrified of African electric storms. I turned round and rode back to Lady Grey, justifying my lack of professionalism on the fact that my colleagues would rather I was a bit late than their late designer.
Eleven years ago I stayed at the smart Lady Grey Hotel. I am sure it is now beyond my budget. Those days were remarkable with the strength of the Pound and the weakness of the Rand. I had already had a conversation with the very pretty, very bored young woman in the tourist office in Lady Grey. I was the only visitor to sign her visitors’ book since the one visitor yesterday. She had identified a B&B across the road for me. I had already visited it and rather liked its quirky eccentricity. I came back and checked in.
The house is an old Dutch influenced sort of place in this funny little village of old houses on mainly gravel streets. There are lots of trees and mountains rise up behind the village. I was a little put off by all the crosses outside the guest house and coffee shop – and bar. Then I realised it IS almost Easter and pious Lady Grey is well known for its annual Passion Play. These small towns are pretty religiously dominated and Afrikaners generally very religious.
My room is about sixteen feet square and probably fifteen feet high. A wood floor and a large, low bed made from logs and rustic sticks with a frightening African carving in the middle of the headboard. A full cow skin is on the floor and the light pull must be ten feet in length. It is very odd and rather attractive in a strange way. There’s a bar next door and the owners are a very Afrikaans couple with the thickest of accents. This is small town South Africa. But I am happy to be here out of the steady rain that followed a lightning storm early this evening and took all the power with it.
I must admit that some of the energy has gone out of my journey after the odd interruption of the trip to America – and perhaps the infection that made it such a struggle. I don’t seem able to recapture the fun of the journey right now and feel that I am filling time rather aimlessly as I wait to fly out. It’s making me unsettled and indecisive. A few minutes ago I managed to talk to Yvonne, who had not received my email that I am returning to Durban and flying out on saturday! They are in Port Elizabeth but by good fortune, they are also on their way back home, expecting to be there on wednesday night. I hope the rain stops for me to ride back…
There is the biggest frog or toad I ever saw in my shower. Wimpish I may be but I think I will stay grubby tonight! African toads – they’re fine when David Attenborough’s about but I am made of much lesser stuff…
DAY 61. TUESDAY MARCH 26th 2013. MACLEAR. SOUTH AFRICA
If they’d told me my resting place tonight was 23 kilometres up muddy and dirt lanes on a rainy night I might not have agreed to stay here! I have to slither and slide out in the morning – 15 miles. But it did seem an odd coincidence that Yvonne and Michael were booked in to a farmhouse B&B at Maclear, roughly just about where I would be looking for accommodation tonight. So I agreed to stay too. But I didn’t know it was fifteen slippery miles into the back country. Oh well, I will have an adventure getting out I suppose. The rain, which had been threatening for some hours, began to fall as I reached the remote farm.
This morning I was still a bit obsessed about finding the internet connection so that I could communicate with my American colleagues. Finally, I blagged my way into the best hotel in the little town of Lady Grey (I stayed there with my valuable Pounds and dismal Rands eleven years ago) and used the owner’s computer. He was very kindly disposed and I was able to do my business quickly from his office. By the time I had done, he had left the hotel. As I rode past the church I spotted him up a stepladder photographing a large bronze church bell that hangs in the churchyard. It was, he told me, when I stopped to say a fulsome thank you, made in east London, not East London, South Africa but east London, England – where the bell foundry still exists. Much of the structure and architectural details of these small colonial towns originated in Great Britain and was shipped out piecemeal in Victorian and Edwardian times.
Otto, that was the hotel owner’s name, spotted my dangling left hand indicator and offered to fix it for me. He was a motor engineer and designer until he left the job and bought the hotel. He complained, not the first time I have heard it, of how he was ousted by the positive discrimination that occurred throughout the 1990s, when black-skinned people were promoted without qualification. He complained that the black engineer put alongside him did not know the job; he had to assist him and then the work was signed off up the ladder and eventually the black worker was promoted – on the strength of Otto’s work and knowledge. It’s a complaint I have heard in various ways over my conversations here. It’s a difficult one… On the one hand it sounds unfair and unprofessional, on the other, how do black workers get promoted unless there is drastic change? It has caused a lot of resentment amongst the white community who have, until recently, never had to battle for promotion.
“What’s the population of Lady Grey?” I asked.
“About 400 whites, here in town; 7000 blecks over there (pointing in the direction of a huge ‘township’ of tiny block houses in rows across a barren hillside); and 1000 coloureds across the Willow Stream, as we call it.” Almost twenty years on from reunification and the answer could have been from pre-1990s. Or even the 1970s. Fascinating.
“The only trouble occurs between the coloureds and the blacks…”
“I closed the hotel bar. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. Once the blacks started coming in, I had so much trouble. If I threw out a black for drunkenness I was accused of racism, then it’s a knife in your tyre, a stone through the window… So I just closed the whole bar. I didn’t want that trouble…” It is, of course, true from my own observation that Africans do not drink in a social manner. Many of them drink to get drunk. I have seen this so often in Navrongo – so much so that I never go to town in the afternoon on market days any more since normally sensible people will trouble me with their drunkenness. South Africa has a very long and troubled journey ahead before it gains any measure of equality. I could not live with this social disjointedness.
I rode out of town towards the mountains and over the Joubert’s Pass, built by seven local farmers and opened in 1914. Of the seven farmers five were called Joubert. The area from Lady Grey round the bottom of the Lesotho mountains, still actually the tail of the Drakensburg Mountains that circle the north of Lesotho, is still derisively known for the amount of in-breeding amongst the Afrikaner community! I was told tonight of a very remote Afrikaans community, high in the Drakensburg that was only ‘discovered’ in the late 1990s, living almost without contact with the outside world. Now that IS in-breeding. You can just about imagine it happening in the Amazon Basin or deep in the Congo, but in the most touristic mountains in southern Africa..!
Joubert’s Pass is worth the effort to clamber up its steep rocky stretches. After about five miles it arrives at the ‘Nek’ or top and then continues down into quite lovely farming landscapes that continue for another 30 plus miles. I met one vehicle about four miles from Lady Grey, a Telecom bakkie that had probably been servicing the tower on the summit.
Joubert’s Pass is the fourth highest pass in South Africa at 2226 metres, mere nothing beside the Tlaeeng in Lesotho at 3275. Many of the high passes are hereabouts in the Eastern Cape region on the south and south east sides of Lesotho. I shall have to return some day and see some more of them. This region seems to be very scenic. I have ridden today through some lovely countryside.
But… once again the clouds were gathering by mid afternoon over the mountains. And for the first time I had to dig my fleece jerkin out of my pannier bag, for I was pretty cold. I did discover that where I was cold I was actually still above 2000 metres at the top of the Barkly Pass. But even when I descended 500 metres the wind was still chilly. I had, by this time, agreed to meet Yvonne and Michael at Woodcliffe Farm, owned by Phyl, a cousin of their friend Di. Yvonne had rung ahead and found that space could be found for me too, and dinner as well. So, with finding accommodation being the most stressful part of my day, I rang Phyl on my cheap South African phone and confirmed that I was on my way. She told me to follow the R369 out of Maclear, a gravel road. “We’re about 14 K out of town.”
Well, that was just fourteen kilometres of rocky gravel (that will turn to grease after the rain) to the turn off… It was then another five or six miles on a very deteriorating track (“Yes, I had to engage four-wheel drive!” exclaimed Mike, cheerfully) to reach this remote farm at the foot of the mountains. I had to slide and slip over five or six miles of MUD! And that was before the rain began. Going back will be something of an adventure, I fear.
Oh well, that is for tomorrow. Tonight we had a cheerful dinner round the table by a crackling log fire with Phyl and her two daughters and a young man friend. We ate lamb, of course, for the lamb from these parts of South Africa is renowned. I have a large room upstairs – the bathroom and lavatory are a long hike away downstairs – in the old farmhouse. Outside my window, across a few fields, rise the black mountains. When last I looked it was all rather wet but I am promised that the forecast – for Durban area at least – is better. All I have to do is get out again.
Autumn is arriving fast. Leaves are turning and the air is cooling. It’s early this year but I think the first frosts are not so far away in the higher regions. Definitely time to be on my way.
DAY 62. WEDNESDAY MARCH 27th 2013. KLOOF, DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA
Slipping and sliding through slicks of churned red mud, I got back to the gravel road and then skied my way over the greasy gravel surface back to Maclear and tarred roads for the rest of the chilly, damp and drizzly journey. It’s been a hard day and tonight I am physically weary. I rode 250 miles this autumn day.
It would have been a day of expansive, handsome scenery had the clouds been higher and the sun brighter. Once past the smart little towns of Lady Grey, Maclear and Matatiele I was crossing the old Transkei district, during apartheid years an independent black state created so that many black people were transported there from across the country. It is still noticeable that there seemed to be less white people and less white towns on my journey today. It was also noticeable, although it may be coincidental, that there were more people waving at me, as is common in the neighbouring black, African countries. Many schoolchildren waved and greeted me as I passed.
This was a long slog of a day, chilly and initially damp too. We left the farmhouse in the morning into drizzle – and mud. Our overnight stay was pleasant, a family feel to the B&B accommodation. Indeed we ate our meals as part of the family. But I must admit, I could have done with eating breakfast indoors, not on the stoep in the morning dampness. I had enough of that to follow. And the first twenty three kilometres were challenging as a start to my journey.
After a few hours the weather dried up but remained cool. By now I needed a stop and, finding nowhere for coffee or a break, I turned off at the next dirt road. By coincidence Yvonne and Michael had caught up behind me when I stopped for petrol and, seeing me turn off, thought I had decided to go another route and stay out until tomorrow. But I had stopped for a much-needed piss and to stretch my legs and they passed without my knowing. Standing by my bike, checking the map, an elderly, white haired woman stopped in her equally elderly Mercedes and engaged me in conversation. She was a white South African from a nearby farm, a widow. “Oh, I should have had a British passport. My father was British. Here I am applying for one at this age!” Why, I wondered, not just put up with being in the new rainbow South Africa at her age? It seemed something of an obsession for her to distance herself from the new state. “When is Kate and William’s baby due? (as if I knew!) The royal family seems to be in a mess. What will happen when the queen dies do you think? Who will become king?” (Well, Charles, of course. This is immutable). “Yes, but with Camilla..?” (Well, I expect she will be Queen Consort or something…). What an ODD conversation to be having, as the elderly lady sipped blood pressure medicine from a spoon as she sat behind the wheel on a gravel road to Kargs Post in the middle of nowhere! “Oh, what a shame I have to go out. I would have taken you back to the farm and made you a cup of tea!” I guess I would have disappointed her terribly if I admitted that this Englishman dislikes tea!
It was hours before I found a place for a coffee and toasted sandwich to warm up. By then I was back in the white neck of the woods approaching the Durban area. I reached Kloof about five ready for a warm shower and large whisky.
So my bike and I – we have never really bonded – reach the end of this journey pretty much. By saturday I have to lay it up for at least the next ten months or so in Yvonne and Michael’s garden and leave my pannier bags in a cupboard with a few things that I will use again if I finally make that journey to Zambia. I am tempted just to sell the machine, but if I am to ship my old Elephant to Africa again, it makes more sense to take it on a trip further north, from Rico in Kenya to Ethiopia and Uganda perhaps. Now I have this one, I may as well keep it for now. I will have to return to Durban in the fullness of time, even if only to sell the bike. Meanwhile, it will cost nothing much to keep it – a new pair of tyres and the seat recovered while I am away. Even in a year’s time I should get at least three quarters of the cost back, if not more. I will negotiate to sell it nominally to Steven in Bloemfontein and suggest he sells it and keeps a portion of the sale money in recompense for his trouble next year.
I have ridden about 11,000 kilometres (almost 7000 miles) in the last nine weeks. The bike has been reliable, I must say, once the trouble with the valves was sorted out. But every day I have missed my travel partner, my old African Elephant, seldom more so than in Lady Grey at breakfast yesterday when I met an older biker on the same model. His was a year younger than the Elephant. Sensibly, he had changed the front forks for those of the next model – much stronger; the forks were always the weak point of my bike – which just bolt on. I think I am now determined to spend some money on getting my Elephant fettled up for another journey. The experience of riding another bike has shown me just how much that old machine is an integral part of my travels.
Back to Kloof to sort out my luggage and prepare for the journey back to Devon, gripped by cold and darkness and flood warnings. Yorkshire and the north is still in the grips of deep snow. I have to do a quick turn around into work-mode once I am home. Well, at least that will pay for another journey sometime!