2013 – Southern Africa Journal – 7

DAY 35. THURSDAY 28TH FEBRUARY 2013. RANDBURG. SOUTH AFRICA

Today was a good day. I met many charming people and had a most interesting day.

We began with a family breakfast around the garden table with Okkie and Antoinette, their son Jacque and daughter Tiana and her husband. It’s a thursday ritual and was for me a warm, congenial meal. Later I set out with an idea to visit the Apartheid Museum and half an idea to explore something of Soweto township. During the day I rode a remarkable 150 kilometres and never left the south east quarter of this huge conurbation. Mind you, I was lost a lot of the time.

Soweto was named thus as it was formed during the segregation era as a black township: SOuth WEStern TOwnship. Many thousands of black people were cleared from white residential districts and banished to the swelling township, which then had scarce infrastructure. Soweto is the result of a completely inhuman period that I find it still difficult to get my head around. As with Nazism in Germany, to which I see many similarities in the apartheid concept, HOW could apparently normal human beings, all of whom went to church with a certain fanaticism (enough said), ever become involved in and subscribe to such poisonous beliefs?

Soweto, unsurprisingly, became the hotbed of African resistance to the ills of apartheid and the segregation of the races during this awful inhuman period. It now houses a million people, almost all of them black. It feels like Africa! I rode about quite a bit of Soweto and eventually found myself in the main Freedom Square amidst a busy, colourful and noisy commercial area. It was around here that many of the beginnings of resistance movements formed and the fight for human dignity started. It is a place that now celebrates all the history of the white against black struggles and the eventual victory of the African National Congress against oppression under its charismatic leaders.

A young man, Suwi, soon picked me up and guided me about the square and its hinterland. He was well informed and a useful guide. Standing inside the conical brick monument that contains the Constitution of the new South Africa carved in stone, I interrupted his flow. “Yes, I know this is the constitution but I am more interested in your opinion of how it’s working…”

He was a little surprised but then went round the constitution dismissing the parts that are still just wishful thinking, however laudable their ambitions. From his estimate it is not really working above about half power. Many of the ambitions of equality and availability of work, housing, education and financial fairness will remain distant goals for a long time.

We walked across the square and entered the dirt streets between small, meagre block houses that make up most of this huge urban area and he introduced me to Colin, a young black volunteer with an admirable youth project in a well kept compound. Here they educate and feed children, provide computer skills and a library (much like the Biddenham Library in Navrongo, Ghana, that I set up with a lot of help over a number of years). The project is also an outlet for the major African campaign of ‘One Computer, One Child’, an initiative that aims to supply basic computer access to all children in Africa. This is a distribution place, charging station and checking place for the small green and grey plastic computers. I was intrigued by Colin’s description of the education that goes on here and how children then go home and teach what they have learned to their parents. Children also get some simple food here, sandwiches in the morning and a meal in the afternoon.

The alleyways were generally clean and relatively litter free. Despite the fact that there is only one latrine between about every 70 people in Soweto, I noticed sewerage trucks plying the dirt roads. Water is also limited. But things are so much better than they used to be: the squatter camps still exist here and there but a semblance of town planning can be seen and the houses, although basic, are just about adequate. It all felt much like life in Ghana, even to the smiles of welcome I received as I walked – in this once most notorious of townships. But then, I smile at everyone anyway and I do believe that what you give out is reflected.

Nelson Mandela lived in a small tin-roofed brick house at 8115 Vilakazi Street in the Orlando West area of Soweto, moving in in 1946 with his first wife, Evelyn. It is now open as a museum (Mike’s project). Mandela himself said of his home: ‘It was the opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own and I was mightily proud’. Mandela and Evelyn divorced in 1957 and in 1958 his second wife, Winnie, moved in. After Mandela was arrested in 1962 he spent no more time here and Winnie was hounded by the police and security forces relentlessly all the time she stayed here. On Mandela’s release in 1990 he returned to 8115 Vilakazi Street for 11 hectic days.

My guide was a very charming elderly black lady called Madonna. She lived in the area for most of her life and was a member of ANC meetings and remembers much of the history of the local struggles. When I told her how Ghana partied when Mandela was released and how the government declared a public holiday the NEXT day, she told me, with a nostalgic smile, of the riotous scenes that Vilkazi Street – and all South Africa – witnessed in 1990.

Archbishop Tutu lives a few doors down the street despite the tourist activity in this particular street with buses arriving all the time with people on Soweto tours. I was glad I could explore for myself with my own wheels. I rode here and there and was universally greeted with smiles.

Finding the Apartheid Museum was not easy. It took me half an hour and many kilometres to find it. It was, however, worth it.

The museum is a terrific design, full of hard surfaces, cage-like structures, high walls and bars. All hard edges, it packs an architectural punch that enhances the fine images, in harsh black and white from the era of apartheid. They portray very movingly and graphically the cruelty and evilness of the movement that divided communities so strictly and with such evil force. It really did begin to remind me of Nazism and the holocaust museums I have visited. That same fanaticism, fear and cruelty; the same inhumanity. Yet it was devised by, voted for, upheld forcibly by and supported by apparently normal white people who, in all other things were rational, supposedly compassionate beings. HOW did it ever happen? How did it happen AFTER the evils of the Nazi regime had been defeated? HOW do people get caught up by such beliefs? Ethnic cleansing… The ‘thought police’… Even to police and officials spying through windows to try to catch black/ coloured /Asian and white ‘in flagrante’, a punishable crime. The signs throughout the museum: ‘Whites Only’, ‘Blacks Only’ for every situation, make a remarkable statement. With your entry ticket you are arbitrarily classified as ‘White’ or ‘Non-white’ and must enter by different steel barrier turnstiles.

Sadly, I had spent so much time lost and riding about Soweto and south western Johannesburg that I was not half way round the exhibits after an hour and a half when all the lights went out and we were escorted from the museum by torchlight – a somewhat Draconian way to signify that the museum had closed for the day, I thought.

The ride back was easier as I now knew the way, well, the long way, back to Okkie’s. The traffic was thick by now but I find it quite exhilarating to ride a motorbike in African city traffic. You have to be very aware of every other vehicle but a bike can really make headway. So long as you treat traffic regulations the way the locals do, you can be quite safe and have a lot of two-wheeled fun!

It has been a delight to meet Okkie again after all this time. I cannot remember how we met or why we became friends but even all these years later I can see how we might have found common interests and similar ways sufficiently to form an acquaintance. Then he admits to being much more prejudiced but now he and his family are enlightened and open-minded. Both he and Antoinette admit to liking routines and find my casual and unstructured approach to life a bit difficult to understand but that’s fine. Just as well we don’t all see life like I do! We have enjoyed warm, congenial conversations indeed.

And they are destined to see more of me! I talked to my colleague Bob in Boston this evening, using my iPad to Skype him. I have agreed to interrupt my trip to fly to Boston on the 11th of March and return on the 20th. My motorbike will stay at Okkie’s house for those days while I fly to freezing northern America to visit Wisconsin, discuss the project and work with Bob on a proposal for another museum show in Charleston. How odd it will be to find myself in America, without even going home in the meantime. I have decided to fly from Jo’burg direct to Boston and back and continue with the last part of my African journey, returning home as planned in early April. It makes no sense to quit next week to fly to England and lose the rest of my journey completely.

DAY 36. FRIDAY MARCH 1st 2013. LYDENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

Some days just don’t work. This was one. A too long ride, boring scenery, awful traffic, bad driving, chill and pot holes that could kill a motorcyclist. It meant concentration and tiredness and didn’t add up to a very interesting day. Some days just go that way when you travel. Sun would have made it more acceptable…

It’s still an amazement to me how small the world has become, even in my lifetime, let alone the last century. Today I sat at a kitchen table in Johannesburg and booked tickets to fly to North America – and then paid for them using a bank account based in Manchester! We take it all so much for granted now. On my first journey, the one that wandered about in Central and South America for eight months, I was virtually out of touch, beyond help except in emergency and travelling entirely on my wits. There was no internet, no Google for information, no credit card that was useable, no Facebook for people to be in constant trivial contact, no mobile phones – no iPads to write diaries and blogs. Yesterday, over the ether, not a hard wire, I spoke to Bob in Boston; today I researched, chose a flight, booked my seats (exit rows all the way); paid for it and received instant acknowledgement. What’s more, I was then able to send an instant message to Boston with my plans set out. It IS remarkable.

I am to fly away from this trip for eight days and return to complete it later. In that week I shall fly to Boston, then to Wisconsin, somewhere north of Chicago, back to Boston and then back to Africa. Bob wants me to art direct the filming of scenes for a 360 degree theatre in a museum in Kenosha, Wi. The filming will take place in June or July and the theme (again!) is the American Civil War. This is not, unfortunately, a scenery build job, just a smaller art directing job. I shall, however, enjoy it a lot. I have worked with Bob on the last two big American jobs and we work very happily together and share, pretty much, a vision of what we want to see. While I am in USA we will also work on a proposal for a smaller (Civil bloody War) project that we might get in Carolina. So it seems as if a good deal of my summer will be taken up in trips across the Atlantic once again. That suits me!

So, it was noon before I left Randburg, following Okkie’s car across the centre of the vast Johannesburg conurbation to pick up the road east. Okkie had business in an area on the east side so was able to guide me through the first ten miles of the city. Then I spun out of its centrifuge and was hurtling along a highway towards Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. Traffic was heavy and ill-disciplined and roadworks were everywhere with lanes diminishing in speeding ‘black taxis’, trucks and badly driven BMWs and very large, brutish SUVs – with a liberal sprinkling of old bakkies that pumped out black fumes and had beds, animals and dozing Africans in the back and crawled up the slightest incline.

My petrol was getting low as I left the city behind so I turned off into the ugly country roads that are hereabouts filled with colliery traffic – extended wagons with dirty trailers – and hundreds of minibus taxis that stop at will and are always in a hurry since they must make many journeys in a day to recoup the money their drivers pay to the owners. This, combined with deteriorated roads did not make for happy driving. It is friday and – sort of – the end of the month. That’s the time, you may remember from the end of last month, that banks have lengthy queues and shops are filled to bursting with shoppers. Weekend traffic added to the mix, and I was heading into a popular holiday area for the residents of Jo’ urg and Pretoria, South Africa’s most populous region. Caravans, jet skis, campers, boats and trailers.

Disliking the traffic on the old roads, I headed back to the highway, but now I could see not just rain clouds but what looked like storm heads gathering right in front of me. As the rain just began to spit down I turned off to head north to avoid the wetting. It worked, but took me further out of my way (such as I HAVE a way). It was also getting quite chilly. Snarled up in town traffic as the factories, businesses and mines disgorged their huge numbers of poorly paid workers to get into the millions of careering minibuses, I decided I could stand it no more and turned directly north, failing to find signposts much of the time. At least, I knew, to the north was more open country and a visibly lighter sky. But here there were roadworks to contend with… In South Africa, when they repair or rebuild stretches of road, they just make them one way for long stretches and put a traffic control at each end. The waiting time can be anything up to 40 minutes, although it’s usually about 10 to 15. I caught one at the back of a very long, slow-moving line but at the next one, being on a bike, I just bypassed all the waiting vehicles and took front place. At least this way I avoid all the grit and dust thrown up by the vehicles in front.

I’d looked at my map and decided that a small town called Stoffberg would be as far as I could stand to go. So I thundered on, weaving between killer potholes through not very interesting scenery of grassland and trees. At last, pretty tired and pretty fed up, I reached Stoffberg, to find the mark on the map about the same size as the completely dead village. There was certainly no accommodation option. In fact, I couldn’t find any people. It seemed utterly shut up, a dull grey place in the middle of nowhere. My only choice now was to battle another 55 bloody miles into cloud-wreathed mountains. The road became somewhat better, but still pock marked with some deadly holes.

By the time I reached Lydenburg (new name: Mashishing) it was after six, later than I usually choose to ride. Fortunately, I found a place to stay quite quickly. Mind you, I would probably have taken the first place I could find by then anyway. I was really chilled and very weary. I have a sort of motel room in a chalet development cum campsite. It’s more than I like to spend, at £25 B&B so I will just have to make the most of the second B. It is warm, anyway and has a restaurant on site. That’s the other thing… Not only do I now jet about the world without so little trouble, my travelling has certainly changed from those impecunious early journeys, carried out on £35 a week! Even in 1973 that was a slim budget. It certainly didn’t pay for motels and restaurants. It paid for doss houses and a plate of beans and rice with an egg on top once a day! Oh well, I’ve done that and don’t feel the need to prove I can still do it – which I can, if I really have to. Difference is, I don’t have to any more.

It’s cool and intermittently raining now. I just hope the weather improves tomorrow. My vague plan is to head north towards the bottom of Zimbabwe and Botswana. I will have to be back in the Johannesburg traffic in nine days.

DAY 37. SATURDAY MARCH 2nd 2013. TZANEEN, SOUTH AFRICA

Shame I never liked rugby, ever since I was made to play it at school. I’m eating my supper tonight in a (TOTALLY white, of course) bar with loud rugby commentary from cupboard-sized speakers and images on multiple screens. It’s a local derby – there are two black players in the 30 on the field. They won’t show soccer in this bar, apparently. It is soccer that unites this continent, the black continent, at least… Of course, many Afrikaners look like rugby players too – even the women. They are a big, out of proportion race, so unlike the much better scaled Africans, such a more beautiful race. When you stop in some of the smaller ‘dorps’ you do wonder if the gene pool is getting a bit thin too. You know that look, the low brow, the scowl, the dead gaze and the unhelpful attitude. But I shouldn’t judge too harshly I suppose, that was just a young couple in a shop this afternoon who looked as if there was rather a lot of intermarriage in their back story! Whites here are very overweight, not surprising when you look at the diet of huge quantities of meat and potato and liberal quantities of rather bad chemical beer. The women (and the men) are so ugly when compared with the black majority. Inappropriately dressed too. Huh! I sound old and censorious!

It’s so odd the way I react to this country. I guess I have spoken to twenty black people today and no more than a handful of whites. I go out of my way to engage with black people. For instance, I interrupted my meal and drink and have just had a twenty minute conversation with Clement, the waiter. I am in a dark corner away from the rugby where his boss can’t see us. He is philosophical about the division between colours here. It’s just part of life for him. He lives in a township forty kilometres from this bar, sometimes sleeping here in the bar. Tonight, he says he feels like going home. I hope he makes it. He’s a single parent with one child to bring up and educate. A charming fellow seldom even seen by most of the customers…

Oh dear, there I go again.

*

This was a mixed day. The morning was drizzly and chilly and my mood accompanied the weather, becoming dull and introspective. I was in fine scenery but I was cold and not much appreciating it. I wound up over a 2150 metre pass (that’s almost 7500 feet), chilly and cloudy. Later the sun reappeared and my mood lifted as the scenery became increasingly impressive.

I am now heading up into the north eastern region of this vast country, towards the borders with Zimbabwe and Botswana and Mozambique. Blyde River Canyon is considered the third largest in the world – after the Grand Canyon and Fish River Canyon in Namibia (which I had entirely to myself eleven years ago). But those canyons are rocky and red and brown. Blyde River is a huge green slash through the red rock mountains, a cascading river far, far below, so insignificant to have caused this giant rift. Like orange-coloured ants, I could make out a group of white-water canoeists way below me as I stood on the lip of the green canyon. Saturday was not a particularly good choice of day to look at waterfalls and canyon viewpoints as they were busy with bus groups and tourists, Africans noisy and cheerful, talkative and jocular, Afrikaans ones reserved and separate. This is an important tourism area, a day’s drive from the Johannesburg/ Pretoria region and on the way to the vast Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s major sights.

I paused for a while for a beer at a ‘bush kitchen’ by a river amongst oddly shaped weathered rocks. It was an amusing idea, a restaurant of rough tables, logs for seats and a shelter of sticks and poles. The cooking was a large braai pit made from tractor wheels beside a fissured rock face. But the fare was typical Afrikaans: large barbecued steaks with ‘pap’ and fried onions so I stuck with a calm beer for a rest from the road. By this time the sun was breaking through here and there but the day was notable for the layers of blue, grey and white clouds that filled the enormous African sky.

The ‘Museum of Man’ hardly lived up to its grand title. It was a rock shelter with a few barely discernible San rock paintings and a medley of tatty shop dummies (some of which had even fallen over!) and home-made displays that had not been updated or tidied for years. It was a sad place but I only called as I had stopped for much-needed petrol a quarter of a mile down the road at a single pump outside a shack. The pump was behind a link fence with the nozzle poked through and hung on a wire bracket when not in use. Petrol is always served in South Africa, black labour is so cheap.

Leaving the fine canyon scenery, I rode on to the north west. I had picked Tzaneen from the map as a medium sized town that was likely to have various accommodation options. And so, after seventy-odd miles it turned out. Since I was last here, tourism has developed a lot. Now, approaching towns and about town, are brown signs directing to accommodation or sights. Often they include a phone number and this was a reason for me buying a cheap phone. I called this place from outside and others from the roadside, saving a lot of riding and time. I chose this place for its pleasant gardens.

I was in bed by 9.20! Some days I just get so tired from the fresh air and the physical effort of riding a couple of hundred miles watching for potholes and crazy minibus drivers. It’s 11.00 now and I have dozed off for a couple of long periods. I can’t continue…

*

Now I am completing these paragraphs over breakfast – of cornflakes, yoghurt and milk left in the room. There is a story – probably apocryphal – that when cornflakes were tested on rats they preferred to eat the cardboard box. I rather sympathise with the rats.

The sound of churches is all around me. Africa really does like its religion; the Africans were converted rigorously by those meddling missionaries from their own beliefs, which were generally monotheistic, a fact the churches conveniently used – and Afrikaners brought their own puritanical beliefs from Europe.

This hotel is a series of (white owned and used) chalets and bungalows set in pleasant gardens full of mature trees and clipped lawns. I had a decent large room with bathroom and a small kitchen area. It’s got a steel grille-enclosed porch or stoep where I am eating my cardboard and yoghurt, although Clement last night told me that crime is very low in Tzaneen. I have yet to sleep in a room in South Africa without steel bars over the windows. Troubled South Africa.

DAY 38. SUNDAY MARCH 3rd 2013. BUBI RIVER. ZIMBABWE

Even for an old traveller like me, it’s quite a thrill to be in a new country. A thrill, but apprehensive too. I have ridden along for a couple of days wondering whether a trip through the bottom corner of Zimbabwe was going to be a hassle or an enjoyable experience. In the end, you just have to come to see for yourself…

It’s been a day that gained significance by the romance of lines on maps – somewhere I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn today. I crossed the Limpopo River, surely one of Africa’s most romantic names; and I crossed the border to Zimbabwe. Not a bad geographical and lexical score!

With the sounds of religious singing and bells fading behind me, I got back on the road, riding northwards to the top of South Africa. I hadn’t planned to be in Zimbabwe today: I thought I would wait until tomorrow when I could change money in readiness, for I imagined a lot of bureaucratic hassles involved in entering and travelling in this country, which I know only from media reputation. However, I found myself already at the last town in South Africa at one o’clock so I thought, ‘go for it, see what happens’! I am, after all, a world traveller…

*

The Tzaneen area was rather fine, an area of fertile soils and rich agriculture. It produces most of South Africa’s tomatoes and also mangoes, citrus and bananas. There are also tea estates, making for a well-tended, rich scenery. So pleasant to look at that I missed the speed limit sign.

South African police seem to spend a lot of time sitting at the roadside with radar cameras. I have seen many, but have always been either within the limit or taken heed of discreet signals from approaching drivers, who give warnings that must frustrate many potential prosecutions and money-gathering possibilities. I was enjoying the scenery and afterwards realised I had been warned by a bakkie coming the other way. I was pulled over, very politely, and asked for my licence. “Eighty eight kilometres,” the young policeman said. “Sixty kilometre limit!”

But the foreign licence is great, as is the ‘Mr Bean!’ Sometimes I swear at Rowan Atkinson’s choice of name for his ridiculous character, but it frequently helps me too. The senior officer, politeness itself, said I could go, with a warning. I told him I was enjoying the countryside so much that I had missed the signpost and, anyway, at least they could claim to have caught Mr Bean in their speed trap! You know, smiles and laughter help me in every transaction in Africa.

I continued northwards, somewhat chilled by a cloudy ride. The middle part of my ride was not very interesting, just rolling bush country beneath a grey sky. At last I hit the main toll highway, the Great North Road, the N1. Usually I don’t like the highways but here I had no choice and up here the road was quite quiet. I was at the extreme of South Africa and the toll only a couple of pounds.

*

At Musina, South Africa’s northernmost town, I drew out another 2000 Rand from an ATM – about £143. I knew I would have expenses at the forthcoming border. Huh!

I have crossed a number of African borders now. I think Zimbabwe is about the 18th African country I have travelled in. I expect chaos (the little border at Bulumbu, the 13th traveller coming out of Swaziland that day was an exception!). I found chaos…

It took a mere two hours to get out of South Africa and into Zimbabwe, probably not a bad time. But, oh, it was difficult to keep patience. The paperwork! The paperwork and forms that will just pile up somewhere and never be read again. Forms and chits, money and stamps. I also got caught off guard by touts who probably DID get me through quicker for the £10 ‘fee’, or whatever you like to call bribes that I paid up. It certainly was not as bad getting into Zimbabwe as getting out of South Africa, where I had to join the ‘queue’ for non- South African passport holders. More people pushed into the queue than originally formed it. In the end, I took charge! Sometimes being a bossy white man can be put to everyone’s advantage. I went to the front of the queue and put out my arms in an authoritative manner and said, “THAT is the queue there! Join it or we will all be here all day! NOW MOVE!” It worked! People who had been in the ‘line’ in front of me then tried to usher me into the queue in front of them. “No!” I said, “I shall wait my turn. I am after that man there!” And I waited, looking stern and unmoving, policing the line, as the next ten or so people had their passports stamped, then entered the queue in my place, to the amusement of the waiting people. Oh, the Englishman abroad! Mind you, there were quite a few grateful Zimbabwean folk who got through the formalities a bit quicker with me.

Then it was over the Limpopo bridge and into Zimbabwe. Oh dear, if getting out of South Africa was bad…

Immediately, I was in the hands of a group of touts. I decided, unusually, to go along with it. They asked 200 Rand for their services to grease palms. I just laughed and said they could have 100 (£7) if they guaranteed to get me through in ten minutes. Well, in the end it was an hour, but they did actually get me through the arcane bureaucracy a little more efficiently than I could have done it myself. It was now hot and I was getting bothered but did not show it to any officials, although I did get some money back from my touts for breaking their contract! Officially, I had to pay £40 for the visa and £27 for some a temporary import duty for the bike, plus about £14 less officially to various ‘officers’ and touts. One of the most expensive borders I have crossed. I decided to reserve judgement on Zimbabweans until later. I should not judge the nation by the tricksters and corrupt officials at the border.

At last I was on my way. The countryside is now proper Africa, as I expect it to be. It changed around the Tropic. This is bush land with baobabs and thorn trees. The road has been not bad for the first fifty miles to Bubi. Traffic has been light and reasonably disciplined. I hope that is a good omen.

*

The ‘Lion and Elephant Motel and Guest House’ is one of the few places to stay along this road. Despite my map showing a dot that suggests a town at Bubi, apparently this is just about it: a guest house, scattered village houses and a petrol station. But the guest house complies with a more romantic view of Africa and could well become the best place I stay on this journey. I am so happy that these days I don’t have to doss down in some slum. I can actually afford to spend a bit more and stay in a delightful thatched bungalow beside a dry river bed with baboons barking and scampering on the red sand. It’s very peaceful and there is a nice bar and eating place beneath a thatched roof. The whole place is amongst mature trees and clipped lawns. It seems to be white Zimbabwean owned, so someone has retained their business in this crippled economy. My room costs me $40 (£25). “We have very little crime here; not like South Africa, even though the country’s been demolished,” says the owner. “And you’ll find people very friendly.”

Things are being restored, it seems. Everyone tells me that stability and business is coming back. But the economy is so shot to pieces by Zimbabwean politics of the past decade that the money used in Zimbabwe is now the US dollar! The hotel owner laughed when I said I would be in USA next week. “They wouldn’t recognise our bank notes, especially the one dollar!” I decided I must take some to the US with me. A picture of Robert Mugabe gazes down from above the hotel reception, as it did above all the immigration desks. This used to be one of Africa’s most robust economies. Interesting to be here.

*

For supper I ordered an eland steak because I never ate one before. It’s a large antelope, one of those graceful African animals. I have to admit, however, that I doubt if I could really identify it from a Findus horseburger. I have been following the wonderful indignation of the British consumer finally finding out some of the shenanigans of the processed food industry and the corrupt practices thereof. I did note a small newspaper hoarding yesterday in South Africa that suggested that – shock! – kangaroo meat had been found in ‘biltong’ the tough, dried meat that is sold there as snacks. When I travel thus, I have no particular judgement about what I eat. I have no doubt that some of the donkeys, of which I have seen many this afternoon (and a few dead and bloated by the roadside) gets into the food chain round here…

*

I often wonder what it is that makes me take these journeys. Maybe just a challenge to my fears. I got quite nervous about coming to Zimbabwe, having been influenced by all the adverse press. I get nervous, too, about my mechanical ineptitude. Why the hell do I ride a motorbike when I have no idea how it works? I think I have a quite reliable machine and I just hope it keeps going. I listen to it all the time anxiously. But I also know from experience that when ‘what if’ happens, I usually end up with the most memorable stories. I am getting accustomed to this machine. I don’t like it much: the weight is badly distributed and the seat is awful, with a badly designed dip into which I slide all day long. It is not a machine I would buy under most circumstances and I still ride along wondering whether to sell it again soon – or keep it for another brief trip in South Africa first. I know I would not take this machine on a trip like the last one, through all the east African countries. I don’t ‘bond’ with it very well – but then I have been spoiled by my long acquaintance with my old friend and partner, my African Elephant.

*

A fine, clear starry African night outside. Orion upside down as usual. The underside of a lovely vaulted thatched roof over my bed. Fancy being in Zimbabwe! It feels so much more ‘African’ somehow. Now I can relax, replete and calm, the border struggle seems worthwhile.

DAY 39. MONDAY MARCH 4th 2013. GREAT ZIMBABWE. ZIMBABWE

Sub-saharan Africa has very few tangible clues to ancient civilisations. Great Zimbabwe is probably the most famous, the massive stone walled structures of a people from the 12th to 15th centuries. In the 13th and 14th century this was the largest settlement in southern Africa. After independence in 1980 the ruins gave Rhodesia its new name, Zimbabwe.

Ruins can disappoint, but I must say that Great Zimbabwe does not disappoint. Partly, I suppose, for its remote quality, its lack of development and the fact that a young Australian budget traveller called Alex and I had the entire place apparently to ourselves for the afternoon. There seem to be no tourists in Zimbabwe at all. Bad press lasts a long time.

*

Last night’s hotel was charming, calm and peaceful in a lovely setting. I took a leisurely breakfast in the pole and thatch restaurant, falling into conversation with a group of five black and one white South Africans in Zimbabwe for a meeting with their organisation, a Christian bunch that teach farming strictly according to the Bible (which was written a millennium and three quarters ago…). A nice group, I spent half an hour with them walking across the dry river in front of the hotel. For the black fellows it was their first expedition outside South Africa so they were excitable and voluble about every new thing.

Finally I was on my way about 9.15 for the 220km journey north into Zimbabwe. The air was cool and a little damp. There had been a rain shower in the night and there was a light misting of droplets still in the air, but the day remained just about dry and some sunny spells made everything look better and cheered me up.

“Drive safely – and stick to the speed limits,” said the hotel owner as I left. I am glad she reminded me as Zimbabwe is notorious for its tedious police barriers. I passed eight on my journey. The majority waved me by politely. Only one officer tried to spin me a line that I had made a dangerous manoeuvre by turning in front of another vehicle when I went back for petrol. I remained smiling and talked my way out of that one. I certainly had not done anything dangerous anyway and I was not playing the bribery game with him. The rest were all kindly and wanted to know about my bike and how fast it would go, where I was from and where was my wife. “Oh, you know the ladies, they like more comfort than a motorbike!” is always my answer. It makes them laugh, and a laughing policeman, I have found, never gives me trouble. At the two radar traps I was pottering along innocently thanks to the hotel owner. Mind you, I seldom ride at much more than 55-60mph for comfort and to enjoy the journey.

The scenery reminded me so much of the upper part of Ghana after the rains, only much more thinly inhabited. Here there are baobabs, the upside-down-tree of Africa – one had a hollow large enough that I parked the bike in it for a photograph – and the usual mix of thorn trees, bush and roaming cattle. Later, large granite ‘domes’ began to appear in the bush, large protrusions of bald-faced rock that rise suddenly from the flat bush with rounded sloping sides towering several hundred feet above the bush.

Just short of the regional town of Masvingo I turned east for the fifteen miles to Great Zimbabwe, itself partly set on and around one of these granite domes. Arriving at the site I paid my entry and tried to get accommodation on site, in one of the pleasant rondavels that have views of the historic site. But a large school party had taken every place. I tried the smart hotel nearby but at US$125 per night I told the receptionist I would need at least five or six nights for that price! In a local village I found a slightly down at heel chalet that needs a a coat of paint and some new bed linen, a lavatory seat and a good deal of attention. But at $20, next to one of Africa’s prime archaeological sites I cannot complain.

Great Zimbabwe is dry stone walling on a massive scale. Some of the walls are up to and above 30 feet high in the Great Enclosure. That is a circular structure with concentric walls and a lot of unexplained massive rock walls with distinctive curved features and small doorways through the six foot thick walls. Virtually all the information about the significance of Great Zimbabwe seems to be speculation. Parts may have been a royal place, the queen’s palace, of ritual importance, the homes of the elite of the society and so forth. In Africa no one kept written records before the white men came so all the theories are based on archaeological finds and research.

Up on the rock hill near the Great Enclosure is the hill complex, an extraordinary collection of intricate walls balanced on the curved granite rocks, with narrow stairs running in fissures and walls contoured to the odd formations. It is a remarkable place of organic shapes and wonderful stonework. And there are no tourists. I did appreciate the Zimbabwean regard for health and safety – none whatsoever – on all the tricky rocky surfaces and sheer drops. I also appreciated the lack of ‘do not..’ signs, any form of interpretation and any form of landscaping for visitors. You just take Great Zimbabwe the way it is: a half-fallen down rock ruin on an impressive scale.

The most important of the artefacts recovered from the ruins are eight fine soapstone bird carvings on tall pillars. One of these has become the icon of Zimbabwe and appears on the flag, money (if the country had any – it now uses the US dollar) and the national arms.

I clambered over the broken rocks for a couple of hours. It was worth the ride to Zimbabwe for this. Then I rode back via the expensive hotel where I had a beer and checked the menu, for I would need to eat tonight. The beer was 30% overpriced at 24 Rand (you can use Rand in many places at a bad exchange) and the restaurant would cost about $20-25 for a meal.

I walked to the local village and asked someone where there was food. Unfortunately Caleb was drunk. Pity I picked him as I then heard the same stories over and over as I ate a simple meal of maize meal, vegetable and sausages with my fingers from an enamel plate, sitting on a step in a noisy yard behind some shops. But maybe anyone I asked would have been drunk: alcohol is such a huge problem in rural Africa. Better to be inebriated perhaps than face ones poverty, which is, of course, exacerbated by the problem. A number of men were drinking what I found to be a local sorghum beer called ‘shaky-shaky’ from litre-sized cardboard cartons at 50 cents a box. Caleb was an educated middle aged man: an agricultural adviser but completely pissed on a monday evening at 6.30. My meal, quite adequate but without the tablecloth or waiters of the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, cost $2! I gave the pretty, shy, tubby lady three dollars and made her day. A white tourist had eaten and enjoyed her food. I escaped from Caleb by walking away with loud thanks and a decisive step. Thankfully, he didn’t follow.

*

After a second day I can begin to form some impressions of the people around me. People with whom I have had dealings are very charming, extremely friendly and very welcoming. These are ordinary Zimbabwean people, probably far from the bizarre political wranglings that form the opinions of the outside world to this country. There is an attractive slight reserve about people in general; they need to be approached with a smile and they will respond. Here it is usually me who waves first, unlike some African countries. I have favourable opinions so far. As for the politics… well, that’s another matter…

2013 – Southern Africa Journal – 6

DAY 28. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 21st 2013. KLOOF. SOUTH AFRICA

Aaaaargh! I have reached screaming point with Hillcrest Ryder Motorad. I am SO frustrated that all they ever say is, we’re working on it. It is patently obvious that they are not. In fact, when I visited at lunchtime today every item on the workbench was in exactly the same position it was in at lunchtime yesterday. This afternoon Mike phoned the BMW head office in South Africa and put in a complaint. It seems my bike does not feature on the list of machines registered for maintenance at Hillcrest… I hope that his phone call will put a rocket under the bloody place and I can collect the bike tomorrow. If they had said it would take most of the week I could at least have had the seat recovered while I waited and made some other plans.

So another day trapped (comfortably and in friendly company) in Kloof. I took Yvonne out for lunch again and kicked my heels about the house the rest of the day. This evening we went for a congenial supper party with Yvonne and Michael’s friends Di and Mark.

Oh dear, I am so frustrated by this delay, especially as it looks as if the American contract my cut my time here short.

DAY 29. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 22nd 2013. STILL IN BLOODY KLOOF! SOUTH AFRICA

Despite getting BMW South Africa’s customer relations department involved, I STILL do not have my bike. The maintenance manager admitted that nothing happened yesterday as he was away, and I know nothing happened the day before by the evidence of my own eyes. Today I went, bad tempered, and was firmer. This afternoon they were ‘still working on it as we speak’. It is now a week since I left it for a fairly straightforward diagnosis and repair. I have wasted a week of my trip. Well, that’s unfair on my kind hosts, Yvonne and Michael, but they will forgive me the use of the word.

I realise I just want to get over a border to a country where black people smile at me. These wealthy white suburbs just do not suit me. Sitting drinking coffee in a cafe exclusively used by white people and served by black people and then in the old railway station, now a bar, across the road with the same conditions is not what I want to see. I want to be in a place where my skin does not mark me out as a representative of a socio-political status of which I do not wish to be a member. Here I desperately speak to the waiters and even the fellow sitting at the street crossing holding a banner looking for work as a thatcher in an attempt to talk with Africans. I need to get to Swaziland. Soon. If I don’t I am in constant danger of offending white people around me!

After dinner tonight we got into a lively (partly wine-driven, it must be admitted) discussion of my observations and views of the privileges (as I see them) of white South African life and the appalling inequalities (as I see them) of opportunity. Mike listens and understands my discomfort but blames a lot of the current malaise on the present government missing opportunities and descending to a lot of unbalanced prejudices themselves in favouring black over white irrespective of qualification. Yvonne just accuses me of seeing all the wrong things and seeing them from my prejudiced angle. Maybe I do. But I do believe very strongly in some fundamental ideals of equality that I do not see in practice. She cannot accept my discomfort in the employment of servants, asking how those servants could keep their families if they were not employed by the whites. But in this argument I see a basic flaw: it’s the perception of master/ servant that I find abhorrent, not employment per se. Yvonne says I probably offended the maid this morning by doing my own washing in the shower (as is my travelling habit) as that’s what the maid is paid for and that money keeps her family. Lindiwe, the maid, is, in a paternalistic manner, very much part of the family (she is third generation in this household) – as is Henry the gardener – and gets paid much more than the government basic wage and enjoys a lot of perks on a personal basis. But she is still a maid and that for me has just too many associations with perpetuation of a class system for my comfort. I don’t know. I guess it’s just my personal confusion but I am uncomfortable with life here. The baggage of all those decades of racial suppression are going to take several generations to rebalance.

And I want my bike back from the bloody BMW dealer. I think I have justification for being VERY frustrated…

DAY 30. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 23RD 2013. VRYHEID, SOUTH AFRICA

At last I am on the road again. I finally rode away from Kloof at noon today almost exactly a week from the time I left the bike for repair. The maintenance manager was apologetic and accepted some responsibility for the delay – and reduced the bill by £32 as a gesture. It turned out the problem was the valve clearances – which were seriously badly adjusted. Trouble is, they told me on wednesday that they were just going to do that. It took until friday afternoon to actually achieve it. Oh well, I have the bike back now and it is running fine. The maintenance manager, Michael, says it is in quite reasonable condition and that Garvin’s price was very reasonable. So I cannot really complain at investing a further £183 in getting it fettled, as they’d say in Yorkshire.

I rode westwards towards the small city of Pietermaritzburg through the big rolling down lands that spread west of Durban, the road sweeping through the large scenery. At PMZ, as it is shortened, I turned to the north on a rural road, the R33, and followed that for the rest of the afternoon. Distances are so huge here. The road climbed into rolling hills that were about big enough to be called mountains, covered initially in sugar cane fields. Later the ride was fun as the road wriggled over the hills through a number of Zulu villages where people live in typical round houses with pointed thatched roofs. It being saturday there were a lot of people about. I stopped in one town, Tugela Ferry, for a short while. It occurred to me, with amusement, that the white people of the Durban suburbs I left 150 miles back would have passed through with their windows wound up and their doors automatically centrally locked (this usually happens as they drive out of their security gates). I stopped bang in the middle of a seething market area where hundreds of people gathered. Yesterday was the last friday f the month: pay day, so the supermarket was impossibly full. I just laughed at a small crowd sitting under shelters outside, shrugged my shoulders and said, “Wow! TOO busy!” and found a stall selling omelettes and sheets of white, sweet bread. I was famished. As I stood by my bike eating, I was the centre of a lot of cheerful attention. I always smile at everyone and I always get smiles in return. It was a warm-hearted few minutes with absolutely no need for central locking.

From there the scenery became vast and handsome, huge sweeping folds of green mountain and then later vast veldts of rich grassland grazed by large herds. It has been a fine journey, but long, as are all South African journeys. Distances are so big here. Towns are invariably 50 and more miles apart.

It was early to stop when I reached Dundee, where I had planned to stop tonight – as much as I have any plans. So I rode on for another 50 miles to Vryheid, an unprepossessing sort of town that is obviously a centre for the farming industry around. I toured the wide streets for ten minutes looking for likely accommodation. I alighted eventually on Rita’s Guest House, a smartish sort of place with a large garden. On asking the tariff, I was told £35, which is beyond the budget I allow by a long way. In this situation I am always very charming and tell them I am looking for somewhere for more like half that. I shake my head regretfully and ask advice for other places to stay. Sometimes, if it is the owner, as in this case, I get offered a deal. Rita, not looking a gift horse in the mouth and preferring a full room for £21 to an empty one for nothing, said she would do the room for that price, “Room only!” I looked a bit confused. “Room only? Will there be sheets and a bed?” This amused her so much she conceded to throw in breakfast as well! Always worth a try.

I have been riding through the Zulu Wars and the Boer Wars this afternoon. All around me are signs to battlefields (not a lot to see) with famous names: Blood River, where the Boer Vortrekkers massacred 3000 Zulus, fighting with spears against rifles and grapeshot in 1838; Isandlwana where 25,000 Zulus defeated the 24th regiment in 1879; and Rorke’s Drift, where 4000 Zulu warriors laid siege to a mission station defended in an epic military struggle by the British just after the Isandlwana battle. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded in this battle. Many other battle sites are dotted in this historic area.

“I can’t leave the TV remotes in the rooms,” says Rita, the middle aged blonde guesthouse owner, handing me a complicated device, “the blecks mess up the TVs so I have to get professionals in to retune them!” I may be white, but I bet I know a heck of a lot less about using a TV remote than any black guest who may stay here. If anyone here is likely to bugger up the TV tuning, it’s me! But I am allowed a remote – because the outer millimetre of my body is a pinkish colour… I don’t think I’ll work this place out.

DAY 31. SUNDAY 24TH FEBRUARY 2013. MALKERNS. SWAZILAND.

I am SO happy to be back in Africa! That’s what it feels like, just crossing an insignificant border and I am back on the continent I love so much.

“Oh, it’s such a relief to joke with Africans!” I exclaimed to an immigration official who was ribbing me about selling the bike to him when I go, to the amusement of his two happy women colleagues. “I just can’t do this over there,” I said, thumbing over my shoulder.

“There is so much fear there,” agreed the official.

“It will take at least a couple of generations to break that down,” I agreed.

“Maybe longer… The white parents still tell their children to be afraid.”

This country has no ‘baggage’ of apartheid…

Ncommy and Ellen, two cheerful young women outside the bar where I ate (amongst all black people for a change) summed up my contentment. They called to me as I pulled in and as they were getting into their car. They spotted the Union Jack sticker that I now have on my rear mudguard. We were soon in happy conversation, swapping phone numbers (that will never be used, but this is the African way) and finding out about each other. Just a few minutes of friendly contact with strangers in that wonderful fashion that Africa preserves but we have largely forgotten. There is a lightness of spirit in Africa, a sense of fun and that most lovely quality: curiosity.

Africa, the absorbing, wonderful continent, so much overlooked and judged by standards of past times, its social values disregarded in our material economy. Dismissed as ‘backward’ and ‘undeveloped’ when, in fact, they have clung to so many important social qualities that we have lost in our race for material wealth: family, generosity to strangers, charity and mutual help – human warmth. Humanity.

And all those smiles.

*

Breakfast was large and probably nutritionally nightmarish in that Afrikaans guest house where the black servants had downcast eyes and the owners deep fears and insecurities that they tried to pass on to me. Walking a block to get a meal last night was an appalling, fearful concept. Rita seriously expected me to drive for safety. There wasn’t even anyone else on the street in that block of town pavements for the six minutes or so it took me to walk, after I had been let out of the electric gates. I acknowledge that there is a lot of crime in South Africa – with that division of wealth it is to be expected – but so much of the fear is self-perpetuating. I travelled in South Africa for about seven or eight weeks in 2002 and now for another month. I have not met with a single potentially threatening or even mildly suspect event. If you go through life looking for disaster, the chances are you will find it! It’s like my distrust of legalised gambling- aka ‘insurance’. When you look at the risks (and the head offices and pension funds of the insurance companies) you can see who’s the winner. Peddling insecurity is one of the most valuable lines of our modern economy. It certainly keeps a heck of a lot of security companies in business in the rich suburbs of South Africa.The ’24 Hour Armed Response’ signs, razor wire and electric gates on every house are one of the most memorable visual aspects of South Africa.

Breakfast in Rita’s Guest House was probably one of the more life-threatening half hours of my trip so far – slick processed sausages, grated orange-coloured tasteless cheese (that the Afrikaans population seem to love), rather lumpy eggs, greasy onions and grim Kleenex ‘toast’. ‘Juice’ that is actually mainly sweeteners and, as usual, the worst instant coffee.

*

So getting over that border my heart lifted despite the dully overcast, cool day. People waved and smiled at the roadside, all quick smiles and conversation when I stopped. My road brought me through more over-sized scenery. I get a bit blasé about the scale of the hills and mountains as I sweep along. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I can see so much landscape around me. It really is impressive.

There have been significant improvements in infrastructure since I was here in 2002. I even found myself on a motorway. The driving, though, does reduce to more African standards… The roads were busy today, sunday, and I was soon looking for smaller roads, although these too had their share of poor drivers. I rode to a smart restaurant cum touristic development with some rather good fantasy, quirky architectural fun and some good craft shops and a very pleasant restaurant. I relaxed over a beer and an excellent bowl of soup to read the ‘what’s on in Swaziland’ paper and a tourist magazine they handed me at immigration. Swaziland is small enough (about alf the size of wales, I should imagine at 17,000 square kilometres, the smallest country in the southern hemisphere) to be covered by one publication.

Swaziland is another small monarchy landlocked by South Africa – but Swaziland does have a border with Mozambique too. King Mswati, who has been accused of profligate spending and a lavish lifestyle is head of the government although he does now have a prime minister and a two house legislative body beneath him, so he is not quite the power he was. However, he is still head of government… He is, of course, brother to HRH Queen Mantfombi who gave me a basket this week! He has a lot more queens than the Zulu king. I have a feeling he gets a new one every year.

*

Then came the stressful part of my day. Funny, I was reflecting that travelling really is a bit of an emotional roller coaster. For much of the time I question why the hell I feel driven to ride all those miles, sometimes not very stimulated (downright bored quite often) to stay alone in strange, sometimes thoroughly seedy grotels and eat mediocre food and worse beer. Then some small event makes me forget the boredom it took to get here as I chat to two young women with such open warmth and such genuine human interaction. Or I breast some rise and before me lies a scene that no one else I know has seen or will ever see. Or a small event just lifts my day from mundane to special. Infrequently comes that almost physical excitement that wells up in an ‘I’m here’ moment.

All of that seldom happens in the late afternoon stress of finding a place to stay. I tried a backpackers’ place but dismissed it: I don’t come here to hang out in noisy places where the clientele listen to European rock music and retreat into Facebook. Anyway, it was no bargain. I rode on to search for places. I turned round and rode back to the quirky tourist place. Their B&B was delightful and I almost treated myself but the price was just too steep. I rode on again and this time found an apparently virtually empty chalet development. It too was too expensive until the pleasant Swazi on reception asked me how much I was prepared to spend. That’s always a sign that a bird in the hand is worth a lot more than one riding away on a motorbike in search of somewhere else. In the end I have a lovely room. I really like it. It is an old wooden cabin all alone amongst ugly concrete chalets and large gardens. It reminds me of Norway and is silent and welcoming. I got it down by 30%. It’s still £22, which, when I think of my impecunious travels of old, is a king’s ransom, but I have nothing to prove any more!

*

So, happily back in Africa for a day or two. It’s a wonderful benefit that so much of this continent speaks English so I can communicate meaningfully. Of course, all these southern and eastern African countries drive on the left as well so I never have to adapt.

Africa! I do love it.

DAY 32. MONDAY 25TH FEBRUARY 2013. MALKERNS. SWAZILAND

Whenever people ask for my advice about taking long journeys on their motorbikes one of my first suggestions is to stay in the same place for a couple of nights at least once a week. If you find a nice place just relax and enjoy not moving on for a second day. I like the wooden cabin so much that I have saved myself all that stress of finding another place to lodge tonight. Swaziland is very small so I decided to see this area, which contains the main towns, the King’s home, Parliament and most of the craftspeople from my wooden cabin. It has been a delightfully relaxed day.

I began a bit slowly as I didn’t realise that breakfast was included in my bargaining last night. It seemed that despite the reduction in price, breakfast remained available. Well, I don’t look gift horses in the mouth either, so I downed a ‘full English’ to start the day when I realised it was still available as I was about to ride out. Then I set out with reduced luggage – not that I have a lot – just two partly empty soft panniers and a bag that sits behind me. I am travelling the lightest I ever managed. I impress even myself this trip. The day was sunny and warm and tonight there is a totally cloudless sky and a brilliant full moon.

Much of the morning I spent at a large craft market, with shack stalls spread round a large area of sand and grass. I investigated half the 126 stalls, enjoying the process in this friendly, unpushy country. It was a relaxed atmosphere, unlike most African craft markets full of smiling, chatty saleswomen and some craftspeople – some of the women meticulously threading beads onto cottons to make the colourful beadwork.

One has to be careful nowadays with African crafts. Much of the stuff you see in the shops is made in China! That is a fact, a sad one. The Chinese copy, for instance, Zulu beadwork and can produce it cheaper than the Zulus themselves. Much of the touristic wood carving is produced as copies in China too. I have been travelling so long that I limit my collection to just two items (the odd woven mat not-with-standing when In can afford it!): carved spoons and the toys made from recycled materials. I have over 100 of the former and almost 30 of the latter. Today I added three spoons to my collection and two toys. The main toy I bought is a petrol tanker very cleverly made from two oil tins and a lot of cut and bent tin sheet. Mavis and I bargained hard together for some minutes, eventually arriving at a price that suited us both. If you submit to the bargaining process with goodwill on both sides it can be a cheerful experience. I bargained down from £18 to £10. It still makes it amongst the pricier of my collection but the economy here has improved a great deal in the last decade and the toys that cost me a pound or two are no longer available. Prices have generally shot up since I travelled here before. It is still not European prices, but it is about 60% of them, I suppose. The way of the world.

So many cheerful ladies talked to me. It took a couple of hours to wander the 60-odd stalls. everyone is astonished that I even came from Durban on a motorbike, let alone that I hope to get to Zambia, impossibly far beyond their experience. When I tell them that last time I went to Kenya from Swaziland they are impressed. Most of them want to know why I don’t buy a car! It was so much fun to have equal conversations with them, even superficial ones. Two or three of them told me they don’t like to go to South Africa as they are treated unequally and one went so far as to say she feels the prejudice from many white South Africa shoppers here in her market.

The road to Mbabane was short from there. Mbabane is the capital, a small town of little note, just a commercial town of banks and shops, a bustling place of ill-disciplined traffic and jay walking pedestrians. It ranges over hills surrounded my steep mountains. The approach is a steep incline through big trees and sharp embankments. There is a new road now, formed since I wound my way up a narrow twisting road in 2002. Swaziland is so green. It’s the main impression, even around the cities, since the mountains rise as backdrops.

Mbabane did not hold much interest and finding a parking place was difficult so I rode out on a road to the northwest and found myself on a lovely ride for the next couple of hours, riding up into impressive scenery amongst limitless plantations of conifers. It DOES look a bit Scottish sometimes. Just rather bigger and under a hot sun (can’t be Scotland then…). The road was empty, the scenery lovely with range upon range of dark conifers interspersed with waving grassy meadows and nearby grassy banks and oddly shaped bald rocks. Eventually I descended back down to the valley in which Malkerns and all the main towns are found. By now the school day was finishing and crowds of small children walked the roadside home in their green and beige uniforms, most of them very smartly turned out for small children at the end of the day, and many of them waving happily to the passing motorbike (of which I have seen no others for two days). School is free at primary level but becomes a significant part f the family economy after that.

Back at Malkerns I passed a delicious smell of barbecuing meat and realised I was hungry so I turned round and went back to a small roadside shack. In half an oil drum a young man was roasting chicken. I asked for a piece but had to have it from the stall – complete with ‘pap’, the staple of these countries – a heavy maize porridge – and green mushy stuff that was made from pumpkin leaves and tasted full of iron and vitamins. I could not just have a piece of chicken from the fire, the pretty, quiet stall holder said, as that was an old chicken! I must have the one prepared earlier. I managed to reduce the pap to an edible amount and sat on a crate at the roadside, chatting to a young man about the difficulties of finding work in the present economy, as I ate the food with my fingers. The chicken was delicious. Pap I find dry and starchy but here it makes just about every meal for the people. The greens were quite good.

Later I ate a much more Western meal of curry at a bar table as I watched the sun set behind the low mountains to the west, thin draft beer in hand. The food was good, the beer mediocre, but I enjoyed the street-side stall more than the rarified confines of the lovely garden and the beer umbrellas and middle class customers with a preponderance of white people. And as I came out, chatting to the car park guard as I tipped him, I realised that I had spent the entire day thinking south was north again! For me with my highly developed bump of direction, it is a deep instinct to sort of know which way is up, so to speak. It’s a sixth sense. But here in the southern hemisphere all the signs are inverted. The midday sun is in the north, which I find deeply disturbing to my instincts. It’s not until I see the Southern Cross stars at night that I get my bearings again. And, by the way, the water goes down the plug hole anti-clockwise. I never remember to write that down so that I can check if it really does go in opposite directions in the southern and northern hemispheres (or if it is just a feature of sink design!). Have a look when you pull the sink plug out next time. Definitely anti-clockwise here in the Brookside Lodge at Malkerns, Swaziland.

DAY 33. TUESDAY 26TH FEBRUARY 2013. BARBERTON. SOUTH AFRICA.

Barberton, almost Harberton.

Back to South Africa, last refuge of the right wing, racist English bigot. Maybe this is where they all came when we at last got a bit more politically correct and racism finally became an offence! I heard such offensive views in the hotel bar just now that I left after one beer. I don’t really want to mix with them. ‘Paki’ jokes that have rightly been outlawed at home; (I have been to Pakistan several times and before the present Islamist-fuelled troubles (caused by a tiny minority) it was one of my favourite parts of the globe, where I was always made consistently welcome by those who could least afford it. One of the most generous societies with admirable values, many lost by the West). Xenophobic jokes, racist opinions about almost everyone else, and anti-EU propaganda: all alive and ‘well’ in the Phoenix Hotel bar in Barberton. What’s more some of this came from a black South African (who, rich irony, had lived – and worked – in Britain for ten years!) as well as the three or four English ex-pats (who, rich irony, were ‘escaping’ Britain’s immigration and pro-european policies – by going and living in someone else’s country!). Ugh. The black fellow didn’t even like the Swazis – and they are only 43 kilometres away.

*

The Swazis are quite delightful. I’m missing them already. They would have been such polite, friendly, warm company in a hotel bar. Maybe I should have stayed the other side tonight, but often it is only whim and circumstance that plans my routes and the last village in Swaziland seemed to have only one ‘country club’ type hotel that looked rather expensive. The road back into Swaziland was the worst I have ridden in the last month and the border post was closing in twenty minutes, so no chance to investigate the accommodation options before leaving the country. Thus it is that I am in Barberton, the first South African town down the mountains from western Swaziland.

And what a spectacular last forty miles they were. My map showed an obscure border crossing at a place called Bulembu at about 10.30 on the map of Swaziland, a 20 kilometre bad rocky track from Piggs Peak, a mining town in the north west of that small country. The road clambered up into forested mountains, the air cooling as I rose. It was a rough gravel road with rocky patches but some huge mountain views over plunging green valleys. Bulembu was a charming place, beside an ugly asbestos mine, but while I was joking with a lovely happy group of Swazi women in a small, relaxed co-operative embroidery venture, they told me the border would close shortly. So I didn’t get to see the mine (but I have seen the world’s biggest asbestos mine anyway! In Asbestos, Quebec. The biggest hole in the ground I have seen) and a quick look at the country club persuaded me to head the last curling miles to the border posts. I came out of Swaziland through that unfrequented crossing, only the thirteenth person of the day, and since the South African official was lowering the flag as I rode away, there would be no more. From the border the road became the most scenic I have ridden since Lesotho with sensuously rounded green mountains disappearing into the far hazy distance across yawning valleys. The sun was becoming lower and describing the contours and shapes with graphic beauty. It was a wonderful ride, taken at about 30 miles an hour to enjoy the sense of space, elevation, peace and isolation.

Barberton is a small town with a colonial feel. It grew up in one of the South African gold rushes and some of the buildings retain a vestige of their Victorian charm and their green spaces and gardens. The first gold stock exchange was built here but the rush only lasted a few years. The stock market crashed as speculators were sold shares in bogus companies and investors lost heavily. By the time of the Boer wars, Barberton (I keep typing Harberton!) was pretty much abandoned and the gold rush had moved on. Recently the gold mining industry has been rekindled round here and four mines operate in the vicinity. At one time Barberton was a frontier town of bars, gambling and whisky in corrugated iron and timber. Now it is a place of rich white houses, a typical low rise commercial centre in which I can glimpse a few of the old Victorian buildings and a large black township a few miles away that supplies labour. The usual South African urban topography…

The Phoenix Hotel is an old, faded town hotel with a grand entrance that has seen much better times, a bar that still has that frontier quality and a vast empty dining room that looks faded and jaded. Once again I have had to rig up a makeshift repair (with a couple of luggage elastics) to the leaky lavatory cistern. ‘Hotel Lavatory Cisterns of the World I have Mended’ could well be a sizeable volume. But my room is comfortable enough – with that ridiculous pretension of having no less than TEN pillows and cushions on the bed – that I now have to fling off in a large heap that I must climb over in the night for a pee.

*

Back in friendly Swaziland the day began with not a cloud in the hot sky. Reluctantly, I left my homely cabin and headed back to Lobamba, the area of the Royal Palace, Parliament and National Stadium. There I spent an hour or so in the museum, which has a good collection of period photographs from the colonial period and some excellent cultural artefact displays and costumes. Culture frames so much of Swazi life, with ceremonial events and festivals binding the national identity. Tribal values, loyalty to the royal family and indigenous crafts have stood the test of time and withstood the trend to westernisation.

They call this area in north west Swaziland and the neighbouring part of South Africa, the birthplace of mankind since some of the oldest identified rocks in the world are here and some of the oldest evidence for conscious thought amongst pre-humans has been discovered in archaeological finds in this part of Africa. I was intrigued by one thought-provoking item in the museum that suggests that the rise of life on earth probably began because of the particular qualities of grass, and grass in Africa. The theory goes that almost all plants grow from the tip, so if the tip is eaten the plant stops growing. Grass, however, developed to grow from the base, so if it is eaten it grows even more. Thus there was a plentiful supply of grazing for early life forms.

*

Back on the road, I rode south east through fields of spiky pineapples, back through the chaos of Manzini, the commercial heart of Swaziland, and turned northwards to ride up the centre of the country. The landscape became a bit boring. It’s astonishing how you can become blasé about huge views of low rolling mountains covered in low green growth, fronted by villages of small block houses and round thatched storerooms. Cattle graze the veldt – and the roads – and people are everywhere. It is always fun in the early afternoon in Lesotho or Swaziland as all the primary schoolchildren wave gaily at the passing motorbike, giving thumbs-up and pink-palmed waves.

In the far north I looked again at my map and decided not to head directly into South Africa for if I did so I would get trapped on major roads on the other side. Instead I turned south again to Piggs Peak, named after a French gold prospector William Pigg, who arrived in 1884. There was a gold mine there until 1954, but no one made any great fortune. Now it appears to survive on the extensive forestry that covers much of northern Swaziland with some of the largest planted forest in the world.

Travelling this way brought me the discovery of the fine scenery and means that a good deal of my route to Johannesburg will be on minor roads instead of the boring highway.

*

Swaziland is a delight. Not perhaps as wonderful as Lesotho, but actually the Swazi people are more open and inclined to conversation. Basotho people are more reserved and less confident with strangers.

But Swaziland, for all its happy smiles and welcomes, and its deep-seated culture, hides some dreadful statistics and unhappy conditions. It is the AIDS capital of the world, not just Africa. the incidence of infection is an appalling 26% in adults and up to 50% in Swazis in their 20s. Seventy five per cent of the population is employed in subsistence farming and 60% live on less than US$1.25 a day. Swaziland has the lowest life expectancy in the world.

Yet despite all that, this tiny country just 120 miles by 81, is filled with the friendliest, most disarming of people. How remarkable that is. It could only be thus in Africa.

As my ‘Footprints’ guidebook (bought second hand some years after my 2002 trip, so I must have meant to return) puts it: ‘One of the attractions of Swaziland is the African atmosphere which pervades the country. After South africa it can be a pleasant change to relax in a country free from the tensions which plague South African society’.

Amen to that.

DAY 34. WEDNESDAY 27th FEBRUARY 2013. RANDBURG. SOUTH AFRICA

Old friends! Thirty six years ago Okkie Venter was at the London Film School in the term below me. We became friendly and he even came on a trip to Biddenham (where he remembers the pub!as a friendly community gathering). We lost touch completely in the mists of time and my attempts to find him in 2002 came to nothing, except that I managed to establish that he worked then for the South African Broadcasting Association. Now, with the magic of the internet, I have been able to find him. Tonight I am staying in his home with him and his wife, Antoinette (pronounced Ant’inette in Afrikaans).

It was a long ride from Barberton and a very hot day. When i set off at 8.30 I looked at the skies and thought it likely that I was to get wet. Barberton is on the edge of the mountains that border Swaziland and the skies looked heavy. Some miles out I wound up into a wide mountain pass. I was watching the road and the views and didn’t notice that the skies were suddenly crystal clear with not a cloud in sight. From then, the heat increased into a very hot ride.

For the first part, once out of the mountain ranges, I rode through huge landscapes of open grassland rolling away to distant low mountains. The scale of scenery here in southern Africa is so extensive. I can see for many miles across vast expanses. Of course it also means that I have long distances to cover between towns and destinations. Usually I pick my route from the map in a fairly arbitrary manner to avoid the main highways. My choice today was either a toll motorway or a somewhat convoluted route between smaller towns and habitations. I found myself in an ugly coal mining district tot he east of this huge conurbation, with hundreds of long, grubby wagons with trailers to overtake and open views of pits and farmland of enormous fields of maize. It was not an interesting journey except that the cosmos flowers bloomed at the roadside in profusion, lifting the scenery with a bit of much-needed colour.

Signposting was not good round those pot-holed roads busy with huge vehicles. Eventually I found myself on one of the main highways for the last miles into one of the world’s biggest urban conurbations. Traffic increased and sped up and I had a small map held on top of my tank by an elastic. I needed it! I had to race along with hectic traffic that dodges and weaves from lane to lane, battle it out with thousands of minibus taxis that have their own rules of the road (ie. not many) and commercial traffic. I knew the rough area for which I was heading in a northern suburb but had to make quick decisions as I rode. At last I found the correct off ramp, as they are called, and spun off into local traffic that was, if anything, worse disciplined. I was very happy to pull into a shopping mall in the general district that Okkie had told me to head for and fall into a coffee shop seat under an umbrella, from where I rang Okkie and got directions for my final few miles. There is a certain sense of achievement to be had from negotiating African city traffic successfully, especially in Africa’s largest city!

*

Okkie lives in Blairgowrie, a subdivision of Randburg, itself a suburb of this huge city. I found myself at last (by means of asking other drivers while we stood at traffic lights (‘robots’, as they are called in southern Africa) in a leafy area of small streets, and with relief, at journey’s end. Okkie’s family bungalow has an eclectic feel and is shaded by many indigenous trees he has planted in theri 33 year stay here. Okkie was born down in Oudtshoorn (where I was a month ago) and Antionette in Alicedale, the tiny one-horse town where I arrived on a sniff of petrol to find the pump dry and the Chinaman telling me, “No petro! No petro!” Her father was a doctor there. Okkie was working as a lecturer in Port Elizabeth when he decided to go to London to study film in 1976. He was then in his mid-thirties making him 7 years my senior. He returned and, after an obligatory two years back at PE, where his employers had helped him with is costs, he joined SABC as “a tea boy, virtually!” and went on to become a producer of children’s TV, then teenage and finally of documentary TV with an ecological bent.

It’s interesting to hear him and Antionette and their extremely liberal, understanding views of South African life and politics. As often amongst the Afrikaans population I find more acceptance of the situation than I find amongst the English settlers who now, it seems to me, harbour increasing resentment about the turn of fortunes for the whites in South Africa. Afrikaans people are South African and have no option but to accept and adapt. Not all of them do, of course, but families like Okkie’s are enlightened and understand that there are no jobs to be had thanks to the colour of your skin as there were in their younger days. Now you must make your own way. They have inculcated in their children Jacque and Tiana, a self-reliance that will probably help them weather the storm that is raging in employment. White skin holds no right to work. I hear a lot of carping amongst the English that their children cannot get work because of their skin colour. I think this is merely a reaction to a status that was untenable in a modern racially mixed society. Okkie, like a number of Afrikaans people with whom I talk, knows that things have to change but agrees it will take generations for any sense of fairness and equality to recover. Good to talk openly, though, with unprejudiced white people who number black people amongst their friends and colleagues. Antionette tells me of her weekly trips to Soweto, the infamous township of a million people, and how she enjoys the atmosphere so much. Okkie admits that his journey has been a hard one of adaptation and his overt prejudices had to be slowly overcome by knowledge and experience of getting to know black people which, in his youth was hardly possible.

They were not ‘good old days’ for the majority here and only resentful bigots (quite a few of whom I seem destined to meet on my travels!) hold onto the concept.

NOTE: I now have to include USA as part of this trip. What a bizarre change that will be. I have to fly to Boston on the 11th of March and return to Johannesburg on the 20th. I will leave the bike here at Okkie’s and complete the last two weeks of my journey when I come back. Now off northwards to use the next ten days. To Botswana and points north for a bit. Will add photos later. It takes so long with this programme, which is not very friendly to iPads… More later JB

2013 – Photos days 21-26

The northern Drakensburg near Caledonspoort SA

The northern Drakensburg near Caledonspoort SA

An isolated 'koppie' near Bethlehem, SA
An isolated ‘koppie’ near Bethlehem, SA

You just know food this colour must be bad for you...
You just know food this colour must be bad for you…

Thhe old faded hotels are the ones I look for. The Grand National, Harrismith.

Thhe old faded hotels are the ones I look for. The Grand National, Harrismith.

Roaad sign.

Roaad sign.

Busy dung beetle.

Busy dung beetle.

Zebra

Zebra

Nature takes the strangest forms. giraffes are my favourite.

Nature takes the strangest forms. giraffes are my favourite.

Impala posing by the track.

Impala posing by the track.

Wildebeest. No fear of the vehhicle.

Wildebeest. No fear of the vehhicle.

Mother and daughter. A close encounter with prehistory

Mother and daughter. A close encounter with prehistory