2015 – SOUTHERN AFRICA JOURNAL – 12

DAY 71 TUESDAY FEBRUARY 17th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO

Lovely Lesotho. How happy I am to be here once again. It is unique.

During my seven previous visits I have ridden many of the roads, tarred ones and rough tracks. Today I thought I would ride a circular route that takes in two of the spectacular mountain roads, joined by thirty miles of gravel road. With this in mind, I set off, only to realise after fifty miles that I was still only about a fifth of the way round, still on the lowland bit and would be pounding the roads for many hours if I persisted. I turned round and headed back into T.Y – the local nickname for the tongue-twister town of Teyateyaneng, a small town famous for its weaving houses – from where I bought my fine ‘Independence’ mat two years ago. I called at both the cooperative workshops but did not see any weavings as fine as those I already have. In the large one, I pulled into the yard, which is shared by a big primary school, an event that excited about a hundred delightful little children. They came running to besiege me, hundreds of small brown hands grasping mine with polite greetings and chatter; a sea of bobbing faces full of smiles and excitement.

Leaving TY I spotted a road sign: ‘Kome Cave Village. Arts and Crafts Centre. 21kms’. A fine new tarred road led through lovely wide scenery, swaying about the hillsides with high blue mountains in the distance ahead and huge outcrops and cliffs of red and white sandstone rearing amongst small, very green, terraced fields that quilted the slopes. At last a sign directed me onto a bad rock track onto a ridge above one of the sharp valleys. I could see the large overhang of the cliff dwellers’ homestead below.

It’s been taken over by the Lesotho tourist authority now, although five people still live in the adobe houses under the rock. My guide was the pretty Atang, a name pronounced as ‘Atta-nnnngg’ with a nasal ‘nnnng’. Her name means ‘let there be many’.

Atang at one point bemoaned the fact that the residents were recalcitrant about moving out, even though the authorities offered to build new houses above the rock so that they could ‘develop’ the site. It would be sacrilege! Much to Atang’s astonishment I berated her for the very thought. “This is wonderful! It is a LIVING museum! You must leave it exactly as it is. You cannot recreate this sort of integrity! Believe me, it’s what I try to do with all my work. Leave it! Even the washing line!”

I don’t know if I convinced her. Generations of the same family have lived beneath that rock overhang since 1824, adapting their homes as they need. Now they are open to the public: I got to meet the residents, two elderly women in their 80s, a woman of 60, a young man and a young woman with a new baby – signified by two bamboo canes poked in the perimeter fence of her yard. The houses are small organic shelters like rounded pods in dark grey adobe spread over sticks. They have been like this for many years, although now the tourist authority has prevented any further change. But what was so magical was to see the linoleum floor sheet, the plastic containers, the carrier bags and the fluttering washing. This is still a home and a much stronger evocation of the historical sense of the place than the tourist authority will ever manage by moving out the last inhabitants and trying to ‘dress’ the adobe houses with period articles. Why can’t officials SEE the value of what they have, instead of wanting to ‘develop’ the site? Their plans to ‘interpret’ it would kill it immediately. The old lady fondling a kitten, the mother and baby, the anachronisms are what make it alive. To move those old ladies into new block and zinc houses would probably kill them too… I am happy to have seen it the way it is now.

*

Ricocheting back up the rocky track I passed an old fellow with three oxen. Two of them pulled a load of grass piled on an old lorry tyre, the third plodded behind. This is a Basotho sledge, used in country regions for transport. It also grades the dirt and rock roads a bit! This is an agrarian economy of ox ploughs, small patches of cheerful yellow sunflowers, small grass thatched rondavels and curving terraced fields full of the brightest greens as summer moves towards autumn. Fissured by great canyons, dark shadows lining the cliffs of red and brown, the rounded hills disappear into a far distant landscape of green and brown. The intense light washes away much of the colour of the Lesotho landscape and a sky full of freshly laundered shreds of clouds dissolves dazzlingly from the faintest shades of blue at the distant rocky horizons to the deepest, infinite blue overhead.

Away from the towns not much disrupts the rural tranquility or the loveliness of the scenes. Many people wave and smile. Lesotho is very special: a wonderful secret of the travelling world.

*

Sometimes as I ride I spot a tall pole with a waving white cloth blowing in the wind near a rural house. I suspected these signify the presence of locally brewed maize beer. Atang explained that a white flag is indeed for home-brew; a green flag tells of vegetables available; a red flag of freshly slaughtered meat and a yellow flag means the availability of yellow corn, fresh maize. I will look with more understanding as I ride on. So many cultural secrets.

*

There is in my room tonight a very loud cricket screeching incessantly. I hope it stops when the light goes out or I shall be forced to use ear plugs again. I have searched unsuccessfully for it, but it goes silent whenever I approach wherever it is. Huh, the joys of impecunious travel! (Note: It was an ear plug night!)

At supper tonight I shared my table with Rachel, a thirty-somethjng teacher and traveller from Bristol whose parents spend every winter golfing near Cape Town. Sensibly, she decided to see a little of some of real Africa after ten days in the odd white Africa of the south and flew into Maseru’s miniature airport – but ‘international’ of course, for where can you go in this tiny land-locked country? She has never visited Lesotho before and was glad of my enthusiasm and confidence that she will enjoy it, be safe, find herself surrounded by friends who feel equal and be warmly welcomed. Her impressions of South Africa echo mine, a strange country with much deeply rooted social unhappiness and inequality. Lesotho is at peace with itself.

DAY 72 WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 18th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO

It’s happened again. I was to leave this morning but the attraction of Lesotho is just too magnetic. You see, the trouble is that when I leave this magical kingdom in the sky, I have to return to South Africa… The contrasts are just too stark to be bearable. From one of the world’s most beautiful places, populated by friends, back to the undoubted beauties of South Africa (although rather further spread) and the restraint – and the pressure on all my political and social ideals.

Somehow Lesotho days fill themselves and I sit at the end of the day and look back and smile at what a good time I have enjoyed. Astonishing: the joy never reduces.

*

An email from Steven in Bloemfontein has changed my plans a bit too. I had thought to wind up in Bloem at the end of my trip and from there take a bus to Johannesburg and spend the last couple of nights there until my flight on the 11th. But Steven is away from home until the evening of the 7th, so I reckon I will arrive a day or two later and then fly from Bloem on the same day that I fly out of Johannesburg at night. It gives me two or three extra days before I need to get back to Bloemfontein in order to leave my red bike and get sorted to go home.

I’d rather spend those days in Lesotho than South Africa!

*

So how did I fill yet another Lesotho day? Actually, it sort of filled itself.

It is the high mountains that most attract me to Lesotho – and the people of course. So I thought I would ride up to Thaba Tseka – again. It’s a spectacular ride, up all those bends and over three passes, one of them at 2630 metres. It was a fine sunny morning, with high white clouds in the infinite blue skies.

At the top of the Blue Mountain Pass, highest of the three on this trip up into the highlands, I decided to turn off onto a gravel road I began to take last year, but retraced my route after a few kilometres, thinking it was a very long way to get to Mohale Dam, and one that was unknown to me, just a suggestion on my map. Today, with no time pressure and without my pannier bags, seemed a good time to take another look. What a great ride!

The track starts well enough, in fact, the first fifteen miles weren’t bad, just a few rocky patches and a few steep rocky hills to descend, not a lot of fun on my road tyres. Some way into the journey I found myself in a straggly village, exciting the schoolchildren. Minutes later I arrived at a gate to a ‘training camp’ – or that was what the gateman called it. “Where to..?” he asked. “Mohale,” I replied.

“Wrong road!” he said, “That road,” pointing across the scattered village at a scratch on a far hillside.

“Ah! your country is SO beautiful!” I exclaimed as I turned round.

“Where..?” he asked with a frown, looking around. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and all he beheld, quite obviously, was the restrictions of a ‘training camp’ miles from anywhere in what for him was a godforsaken valley, viewed from his bleak, comfortless hut. I saw different things.

From here the road became rockier and even rougher. I was now trail riding for real, fighting up rocky hills and across a stoney track that weaved its way along high contours with vast vistas of magnificent rounded mountains. I came to a junction. The left turn looked better used so I followed that for some kilometres, becoming more and more doubtful as I rode. It seemed to be rising higher and higher, and taking me onto the other side of the still invisible lake of Mohale.

You are never alone in Lesotho. I have explained often how I can stop in the back of beyond, thinking myself alone and then from a hillside far above or below, I will spot a herdsman wrapped in a blanket, sporting a woollen balaclava, staring into space beside a herd of cows and a flock of dirty wooly sheep. But now, when I really needed someone, it seemed I really WAS alone. Looking at my map, not a particularly useful indicator as the scale is not sufficient to describe the crazy contours and shapes of this crumpled country, I decided I was probably on the wrong track. I turned about and took the right turn some bumpy kilometres back.

For the next hour or so I was still in doubt. This track was remote and it was obvious that no wheeled vehicle had used it for quite a long time. I could see from the dust and the scattered rocks that had fallen from the hillsides that not much went that way. The scenery was still terrific and the sun shone on the many greens and browns. The track was of exposed rock and pebbles, badly deteriorated. In the whole 47 kilometres of this trail I saw no other vehicle. My only comfort was that even though it was badly maintained, this track had involved a lot of rock moving effort to build, which suggested it must go SOMEWHERE at least. And anywhere a cow can go – and I could see animal prints and dung in the dust and sand – my motorbike could probably go, even if four-wheeled vehicles could not…

At last I spied a woman walking, miles, it seemed, from anywhere, but that is not unusual in Africa. “Mohale..?” I called with a big smile and a question mark, indicating the appalling track ahead. To my relief, she nodded and gave me a big Basotho smile. I could often see my road scraped across the hillsides miles in advance, a mere scratch over the surfaces of the rocky slopes.

The lake appeared below, sinuous inlets and small islands set in the deep blue of the water. The level is low now and the husks of drowned trees have appeared on the lower slopes. But the water was on my left side, a hopeful sign that eventually I would arrive at Mohale. And I did, after 30 miles of very tough riding. But, oh what beauties I had seen on the way. Over one small pass I had descended to a stretch of about an acre of gently waving ‘red hot pokers’ and yellow potentilla flaming over a grassy hill. Above them coasted white clouds above distant ridges beneath the vast blue dome of the heavens. Elsewhere I watched ‘flappa’ birds, a most extraordinary expression of avian life. The flappa bird grows an immensity of tail feathers, such that it has to flap its small wings crazily to stay aloft, and then only flits from grassy clump to tussock, an ungainly but oddly dignified bird in shiny black, sometimes with a dash of white and red feathers.

*

By the time I reached what passes for civilisation at Mohale I was exhausted but smiling. Children everywhere waved and chased me. People laughed to see me emerging from this long, rough trail. The doings of we tourists must be a perpetual mystery to those destined to live their lives in the harsh conditions we come to see, photograph and leave behind as we return to our comforts. But in Lesotho one feels no judgement, just an amused welcome.

In all my visits to the Mohale Dam area I never actually ventured to the information centre and took a tour of the dam, Africa’s biggest rock dam. I had a personal tour, the only visitor for days. The guide introduced the project with a model and map, gave me facts and figures and then led me in his car to the dam itself. We went inside the very impressive outlet valve housing, a steeply sloping corridor that was disconcertingly angled so that the water surface, visible through a concrete slatted roof, seemed to be angled dramatically upwards and the tide marks on the walls angled even more oddly downwards. Of course, it was we who were compensating by leaning backwards on the concrete slope. The dam itself is something like 150 metres high and 600 metres thick at the base, just a vast heap of loose rocks piled across a narrow valley about 650 metres long. The waterside surface is covered in a sheet of concrete – complete with cracks that are being repaired and explains the low water level at present. Four workmen worked far down the concrete slope, presumably tied on to the ladder that sloped so steeply to the water below. Then my guide took me down the impressive zig-zag road on the rocky front surface of the dam, down to view it from below. It was a great tour – personal, and at least 45 minutes, costing a princely 50 pence.

*

The ride back to the western lowlands is one I have enjoyed several times. In less than 30 miles there are more than 300 bends and curves, (yes, I counted!) some of them extreme hairpins, others that flick the motorbike this way and that in an exhilarating fashion. Best of all is that there is almost no other traffic, and what little there is is toiling up or down so slowly that it hardly registers with a happy biker using the whole road!

I was well ready for my 750mill bottle of milk stout by the time I reached my attractive rondavel at Roma, this place from which I find difficulty to draw myself away. So passed a happy Lesotho day once again. What a country – probably the main reason I kept the red bike for a third trip…

It’s 9.45 and I am yawning uncontrollably. Sleep calls. Strongly. Tomorrow I guess it IS South Africa. But I can always come back. Bloemfontein is only a couple of hours from Lesotho!

2015 – SOUTHERN AFRICA JOURNAL – 11

DAY 65/6. WEDNESDAY/ THURSDAY FEBRUARY 11/12th 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

Relaxing days and a chance to get some ‘housekeeping’ done – deliver the red bike to the mechanics for an oil change and check over. I asked them to check the front suspension and it turns out the front wheel bearings need replacing. They have had some serious work over a lot of rocky roads. It is serving me well, that elderly BMW.

Also a chance to sort out the road tax for the bike. Perhaps you remember, I went all the way to Matatiele in Eastern Cape two months ago to do this, to find that day one was a public holiday and on day two they had run out of forms (instead of sending someone to a photocopier, the instruction was ‘come tomorrow.’). Meanwhile, the tax ran out and a reminder was sent here to Kloof – my ‘postal address’. But you can only pay by cheque or cash. Now, who uses cheques any more? Neither Michael or Yvonne even have a cheque book and the bank I visited admitted they had stopped even issuing cheque books to their customers. So I had to take Yvonne to her bank where she could buy a counter cheque in her name for £4.50. This I have now photocopied along with the form and sent registered mail to Matatiele. Frankly, I don’t much care what happens now! I have proof if I am stopped and I am leaving the country in a month anyway… In fact, I have never been stopped in 30,000kms on the bike. The tax is only £12 for the year.

I’ve spent half a day sorting through bills and so forth to send my invoice to USA for my trip at New Year. It is easy to do these things at home but here I must improvise with my iPad and Michael’s scanner and another computer. All this takes time and a mood that doesn’t settle on me on the road.

*

Fascinating scenes in the South African parliament tonight as Jacob Zuma gave his State of the Nation annual speech. Very good TV! The minor, but vocal, opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, a left wing group that won 25 seats in the election last year, headed by the ex-youth leader Julius Malema, had vowed to disrupt the proceedings to hold Zuma accountable for some vast personal corruption in which he has allegedly appropriated funds for his own rural dwelling place – to the value of £14 million. Zuma is something of a buffoon and not much respected as a leader and denies (of course) wrongdoing despite an independent investigation that charged him with undue profit from taxpayers for the upgrades to his house.

All started calmly. Then it transpired that all mobile phone coverage had been jammed within the chamber – a totally undemocratic action for which no one could be found responsible. Yet. There was a lot of anger and points of order, talk of democracy and refusal to allow the proceedings to start until it was restored and someone admitted responsibility. It was eventually restored – but no one yet admits responsibility.

Lots of ridiculous protocol and then the president rose to give his speech. Up jumps Malema, in his red cotton suit and hard hat – symbols for his party of unity with the working man, with a point of order and probing question about when the president is going to pay back the money. Well, it was fascinating and very entertaining. The Speaker, a woman in a ridiculous yellow hat with aerials of feathers waving angrily, tried unsuccessfully to prevent the interruption; Malema persevered; the Speaker called for him to leave the chamber; he continued to ask his question. Next, the Speaker warned him he would be removed from the chamber by the parliamentary guards. His colleagues added to the points of order. The guards were called and the TV coverage was switched away from the chamber. But someone must, by now, have had a mobile phone up in the gallery. We, the nationwide audience, watched astonished as the opposition members were all forcibly – and roughly – removed from the chamber, guards leaping over seats and punches being thrown. Not an edifying spectacle for a national democratic parliament.

Now the main opposition party wanted to know who the security guards were. Were they parliamentary guards or were they – for they had firearms – South African Police? It is, of course, completely unconstitutional for police to enter parliament in a democratic state and remove members. This was fascinating – and very entertaining indeed! The Speaker, who is suspected of very partisan politics on behalf of the ANC, the ruling party, and known to have a short fuse, was now suddenly sidelined by a dragon of a woman, Speaker of the Council of Provinces, I believe, sitting by her side. She would neither admit nor deny – a bit of an admission in itself – that the armed officials who had man-handled the small party out (injuring seven of them, according to the reports) were or were not police.

So the entire opposition party now got up and walked out of the chamber, leaving only the ruling ANC – and their dumb president still sitting in front of the Speaker’s podium. Scenes of chaos everywhere – and in the midst of it all, and eventually starting his speech with absolutely no reference to all that had just happened, sat Jacob Zuma, as dumfounded as that memorable image of George W Bush talking to those kindergarten children as the Twin Towers were attacked – completely unequal to the situation and notoriously unpresidential in demeanour…

His speech, which he now delivered only to his own party, was lacklustre and uninspired, scraping the barrel for achievements and actions of his government that were astonishingly uninspiring, even to me, who knows only bits of South African politics. It was a pathetic effort, with no reaction to what had just occurred, to which any true leader would have responded. One wonders how such people get to such power? It was all most entertaining – but hardly statesmanlike or edifying. One can only hope that the corruption charges eventually catch up with him. Why does poor Africa have these problems of leadership? Power corrupts – particularly on this continent that can least afford it.

The South African anti-corruption watchdog found that almost £14 million of taxpayers’ money had been spent on the upgrades to Zuma’s private residence at Nkandla in rural Natal, in a display of ‘opulence on a grand scale’ in a place where villagers do not have access to electricity. The report continued that it: ‘…leaves one with the impression of excessive and unconscionable ‘Rolls Royce’ security in a sea of poverty and paucity of public infrastructure’. The ‘security’ upgrades included a swimming pool, amphitheatre, visitor centre, cattle enclosure and chicken coop. The swimming pool was justified in official documents as ‘firefighting equipment’!

DAY 67. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 13th 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

In Kloof, Hillcrest, Gillitts and several of these western, hilly suburbs of Durban you could easily forget that this is Africa. These are white, English speaking towns, full of white people shopping, eating, living and doing business. The only black people up here are the workers. I find it very odd indeed and strangely uncomfortable…

My old motorbike has new oil and new front wheel bearings. It’s astonishing how you can get used to things – until they change! Riding the bike back from the dealer I noticed how much steadier and less noisy it is. I guess the bearings had been slowly going over many many miles. Now the front end is quiet and smooth. Labour charges here are £22 an hour. In Plymouth the BMW franchise charges £85ph… My bill was about £100, a worthy investment for the last month on the red bike. So far this trip I have ridden a fraction over 9000kms (5650 miles).

Something I appreciate increasingly about my ‘mature’ travels, unlike those many years of impecunious journeys, is the ability to treat my friends to dinner now and again. I invited Yvonne and Michael tonight and they chose a new, quite smart tapas restaurant. Set round a pleasant terrace and fountain we had a bottle of decent wine, four pints of craft beer and six or seven filling tapas dishes, and coffee for one. This country is inexpensive. The bill was £41, plus a fiver tip. The meal was excellent. As usual, there were no black people present except for a few pretty servers – and probably most of the invisible kitchen staff. I do find this area very odd indeed. It doesn’t feel like Africa at all. The vast majority of residents are British immigrants since the war and their families. I find it impossible not to remember how I used to scan labels in the supermarkets forty years ago to make sure that none of my pennies supported the pernicious politics of South Africa – at a time many of these people chose to relocate… Until the end of apartheid I would not even visit South Africa as a tourist despite the attraction and invitations.

DAY 68 SATURDAY FEBRUARY 14th 2015. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

In all the times I have spent up here in Kloof, I have seen little of the city of Durban, down the hills to the east. So today I rode my newly quiet and smooth bike down to the centre. It’s a well developed city with good infrastructure – and a lot of one way streets, as I found to my frustration, looking for many kilometres for a museum I wanted to visit (only to find, when I eventually found it, that it was, contrary to its website, closed). The museum is housed in the former notorious ‘Department of Native Affairs’, and shows the oppressive administration of the black population during the twentieth century, a subject that, it must be obvious, fascinates me: how could any apparently civilised society think up such a system as the ‘Durban System’, the ideological precursor to Apartheid? And how could it thrive for almost fifty years in the modern world?

The botanical gardens were open and busy this sunny saturday, with wedding parties and photographers arriving every few minutes and an orchestra practicing rather painfully for a Valentine’s concert. The speaker system, tested at some boring length as I walked around the neat and fine gardens, was dreadfully badly balanced, even to my not well tuned ears. The orchestra sounded most peculiar, with sections that should be mellow and quiet, strident and forward, and the bass set far too high. I was grateful not to be attending tonight’s concert. I repaired to the tea house for coffee and the well known scones made by a band of elderly white women and sold for TB charity and enjoyed the almost tame birds, including a hardida bird, a common wild bird the size of a thin duck with a four or five inch curved beak that makes an astonishingly loud squark that sounds somehow onomatopoeic.

Instead of a concert, Yvonne and Micael hosted a cheerful dinner party for eight of their friends, most of whom I have met over my visits to their home. As we partied, the rain coursed down outside. I hope the weather dries up for the rest of my journey. As usual at this season, the clouds and rain will probably be attracted to this eastern coast and my ride inland will bask in the customary brilliant sunshine that I seek in my desperate avoidance of British winter!

DAY 69 SUNDAY FEBRUARY 15th 2015. UNDERBERG, SOUTH AFRICA

New experiences are what travelling is all about. Haven’t I said that one way or another many times? But just sometimes it’s difficult to credit the things one is forced to do. Tonight I was compelled to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken! I do hope that this first will also prove to be a last. It is the worst sort of food that I despise and hector my unthinking American colleagues about: these artificially raised chickens kept in utterly inhumane conditions and food filled with chemicals, preservatives, sugars and fats. But Underberg on sunday night is a complete culinary desert. It’s not much use on any other night, but at least a few basic places are open. Tonight it is a ghost town. The petrol station sells bags of crisps and bottles of pop; KFC, a popular South African chain – because it is an affordable junk food at the lowest prices – sells crap next door. And that, on sunday, is the culinary choice in Underberg. I did think about starving rather than following my principles but decided I was just too chilled to go without food – however foul…

NB. LATER. I awoke in the early hours gagging for a drink of water. It must have been the KFC junk. I add no salt to my food – ever. The ‘meal’ was ‘served’ in about an acre-of-trees-worth of paper packaging, all throw-away and unrecycled in South Africa. Included in the mound of waste were no less than four packets of salt. A can of Coke, a beverage I will not contemplate putting in my stomach, that came ‘free’ with my ‘meal’, I gave back to the nice, smiling – rather fat – server.

A day or two ago I was reading an article about food safety in USA, a subject that fascinates me for, like my interest in apartheid – how could any educated nation let it happen? Much of what Americans eat is poisoning them in the financial interest of large corporations, just a handful of which now control much of the food chain in USA, with zero integrity and callous disregard for health. Look at the Americans – as I frequently do now – and you will see with your own, not even very critical eyes, the literally burgeoning problem of a people who are undiscerning about what is in their food. You will never see them reading the labels as I do in their supermarkets. I read a lot about food supply these days and it’s made me a lot more aware of what I put in my own mouth.

One paragraph from the article impressed me enough to copy it:

‘In considering these adulterations and their probable safety, we must consider that the human stomach evolved in a world stocked with game, eggs, milk, fruits, berries, cereals, and seeds, vegetables, and a very limited supply of natural sweets like honey—no sulphur dioxide, no sulphate of soda, no glucose, no alum, no aniline dyes, no benzoate of soda, no liquid, “artificial smoke” for curing ham and bacon, no frozen meats or eggs, or bleached or denatured flour. The only race of beings that can successfully live and breed on adulterated and sophisticated products is one which has spent its period of evolution in a chemical plant and fed from among dye vats, crucibles, acid carboys, desiccators, stills, and sulphurizers. And we who now live on this planet are not that race.’

I’d add to that list, no antibiotics and no hormones, and none of the ‘rendered’ animal shit and urine that gets into the processed foods and no petrochemicals such as we eat in margarines and ‘spreads’ (look next time). I went back to moderate amounts of butter after one book I read about those (by Michael Polan, an erudite and ruthless researcher into food matters).

*

It’s two months ago tonight that I began this trip in Underberg. Here I am again. On December 15th I had a pretty horrible ride through dismal dampness wearing every piece of cold weather clothing I have with me – which, of course, isn’t a lot. Today was actually worse! I rode through a dull, drizzly, chilly and eventually thickly foggy afternoon with steady rain and arrived completely chilled, wrapping myself in a duvet for the first hour and a half after my arrival in an attempt to get life back to the extremities. A day or two ago I was sweating buckets. But Underbergians do say that they can get all the seasons in a day here where the weather builds up against the high wall of the Lesotho mountains, invisible today in thick cloud. The other side of Lesotho is probably basking in hot sun. At the worst, I have to head round the country, a ride that I could undertake in a day if necessary.

It’s just a 220km drive to Underberg from Kloof, and seems to be becoming a bit of a habit to start each leg of my journeys here when leaving the comforts of my temporary home from home there. Partly, of course, it is just a relief not to have to search for accommodation.

Underberg is a dull place, a few shops, a petrol station, a few small cafes and businesses and a spattering of farmers’ suppliers and repair shops. It exists as a centre for the local farming community and a base for the ‘adventure’ tours up into Lesotho. There are a few B&Bs and the old Inn, a downtrodden old hotel with little to recommend it beyond budget. It is adequate for my meagre needs, although tonight even the bar is closed. My motorbike sits under the verandah in the pub yard. It’ll do.

I have about three weeks now to travel until I need to be back at Steven’s in Bloemfontein ready to leave the bike and bus up to Johannesburg. I only have a vague direction: to head down to the Western Cape province, with Cape Town as a possible goal. My next directions will be dictated by weather. I have the wall heater on in my room tonight.

DAY 70 MONDAY FEBRUARY 16th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO

Back to my special favourite, Lesotho.

I rode along today trying to analyse why the smile had spread across my face within minutes of entering this tiny kingdom. As I rode to the border I felt a lightening of my spirit, a rejuvenation of my enjoyment of travel and a warmth for this little country. Why..?

It’s difficult to put my finger on it. The magnificence of the scenery of course… The lovely soft green of the rounded mountains; the silence; the waves and smiles; the look of glee on children’s faces as I pass in a flutter of waves; the sense that I feel no discord between my whiteness and their brown skins; the lack of ugly commercialism prevalent in much of South Africa: advertising, hoardings, lorries with brash captions, roadside businesses and so many buildings that contradict the landscape (oddly called ‘development’). Here in Lesotho most of the structures seem to grow out of the green landscape. Even the sweeping roads, twisty enough to put a smile on any biker’s face, appear to meander purposefully but organically across the mountains in a way that seems complimentary rather than an imposition. The least possible movement of rock means that they are light scars rather than huge carvings from the mountains as they follow contours. Everywhere people wave and react; old ladies at the roadside, young men on trotting Basotho ponies and school children wandering home from distant schools, smartly uniformed, talking together, playing the fool, fighting and flirting.

This is a very special place. I am so happy to be here once again. This is my eighth visit to Lesotho. Not surprising I needed to replace my passport before this trip, even with three years to run. Eight visits to Lesotho means 32 passport stamps here alone, in and out of South Africa.

*

It has been a chilly day. When I opened the curtains, it was to a dull day of cloud. I looked up towards Sani Pass, the dramatic route up to Lesotho and decided that riding up that serious trail into a cloud swept morning at nine thousand feet would be unrewarding, so after a short breakfast in an Underberg cafe, I took the road south. The entry points to Lesotho on the eastern side are limited to just two. Well, there is a third one that I took in 2002, but that is not for the faint-hearted and, even I will unwillingly admit, not for the 65 year olds, not, at least, on the bike I am riding now. I’d still contemplate it, mainly from sheer cussedness, on my old Elephant. So I had the choice of the rugged Sani Pass up to the damp clouds and two days of rough gravel roads over the top of the country, or the easier road via Matatiele and Qacha’s Nek, followed by the fine new road across the centre of this beautiful kingdom. With all the dirt roads likely to be greasy and damp, there wasn’t much choice. I rode south towards Matatiele.

The air was cold! As I rode the sun reappeared but not with much warmth. The clouds parted and split into puffy patterns across the huge South African skies. For twenty miles I took to a dirt road to cut a large corner and miss the ugly town of Kokstad. And from Matatiele to the border post is another rugged fifteen miles of rock and dirt too. Tonight I am tired indeed – a combination of the chill, 35 miles of rough trails and a ride of almost 250 miles.

It’s a remote and relaxed border crossing, taking only minutes of formalities up in a rocky saddle. Suddenly, in a way that is always so astonishing when crossing international borders, everything looks different. The scenery ‘inside’ Lesotho is quite different to that on the ‘outside’ of the mountains. Soon you are sweeping and curling through wonderful scenery, softly contoured mountains tower all about you, brown rivers flow in deep canyons far below. Small rondavels with thatched roofs stand on tiny terraces in inaccessible places far up the mountains slopes, across wide brown rivers and along scratched tracks far across valleys that don’t appear to connect with any other tracks or make any geographic sense. Tiny fields, laboriously formed in intricate terraces over centuries, fit the landscape and their multiple shades of green are a visual feast. Now, two months on from my last visit, some of the minute fields are being harvested of splashes of yellow grain stalks, Basotho families bending and cutting the sheaves, colourful splashes amidst the lushness.

This is a beautiful landscape, surely amongst the world’s finest. Yet this country is such a well-kept secret. Maybe if South African whites were less racially sensitive they would discover what a wonder they have on their doorstep. Fortunately for me and the few who share the secret of Lesotho the perception amongst a lot of white South Africans is that Basotho people, as well as the disadvantage of being black-skinned, are ‘poor’ and life here is ‘backward’. The majority of black South Africans have neither the money or the cultural habit of travelling as tourists. Oddly, the majority of other white people I meet in Lesotho are Europeans, not any of the nine million white neighbours who live no more than 100 miles away.

Tonight I had my dinner with a middle aged Swiss couple who worked here as volunteers thirty five years ago. They are here meeting old acquaintances and revisiting places they knew and celebrating the fact that their middle child was born in the hospital here in Roma. They see a lot of change of course…

*

Once again I am sleeping in ‘my’ small thatched rondavel at the Roma Trading Post. It’s probably my favourite place to stay in southern Africa, this little round house, about twelve feet around, with a comfortable double bed and a small en-suite bathroom tucked behind, down three steps. Above me as I write, the inside of he thatch reaches up in a cone above organically hand-plastered walls. It is very quiet, surrounded by mature gardens, shady trees and pergola-covered pathways. The place is well maintained and friendly. By now I know many of the staff. It’s a couple of hundred yards off the town road, insulated from the passing taxi mini-buses and the activities of the small university town below. A generous dinner, bed and breakfast is about £19.50. It’s usually difficult to tear myself away.

*

There’s to be a general election in Lesotho in about two weeks. It seems that, once again in Africa, the choice is between democracy or the ruling corruption. The same the continent over. So much manipulated by vested interests outside all these countries; interests that rape African economies for cheap resources, keep corrupt politicians in their pockets and ruthlessly ignore democracy in the race for corporate wealth in their overseas markets. As I said before on this subject: it is in the interests of the so-called ‘developed’ world to keep Africa poor. It keeps the prices of commodities, labour and extraction down and the local governments under control.

Poor Africa.