2013 – Southern Africa Journal – 9


…And there are sometimes days that just don’t work.

Funny, botswana has turned out to be as much of a disappointment as Zimbabwe was a lovely surprise. I’ve always claimed that if you travel a great deal you develop a sort of sixth sense, an instinct, about countries and their people. I came to Botswana with no real preconceptions and I am disgruntled tonight. I never thought I’d say that it will be a relief to get back over the South African border.

So what went wrong? Well, that’s the funny thing: nothing specific. It’s just a feeling that has grown on me since I arrived yesterday lunchtime. Maybe, too, it’s a reaction to my absolute delight at the Zimbabweans, their quiet smiles and their generous warmth that felt so genuine. Here in Botswana I feel none of that. I sense a lack of interest; a take it or leave it attitude; a sort of insolent arrogance and a lack of genuine friendliness. A few people have been friendly, but on a superficial level, the rest just rather impolite and off-hand, especially in the hotel trade. And this latter is the worst value in all of sub-Saharan Africa that I have travelled.

No one has been downright rude but no one has been outwardly warm and welcoming either. I am missing Zimbabwe. I wish I had stayed an extra day. I could have happily stopped even in Bulawayo – but I was aware that I have a long ride to Johannesburg and an appointment with an aeroplane that I didn’t dare to risk. So I thought I would spend two nights here in Gaberone, the capital city. But I doubt I could find things to engage me here and I certainly am not prepared to pay the outrageous accommodation costs of this country. Tonight I have a gloomy room not much bigger than the bed, fridge and chair, so much so that I keep tripping over my own bags as there’s nowhere to put them. I have to share a bathroom that has no sink plug or soap and is like a basic camping ablutions block. For this I am paying twice the amount that I pay for better conditions in more pleasant surroundings in South Africa. It should be costing me about £12 but is costing £32…

So Botswana is off my itinerary for my return to Zimbabwe and Zambia. Oh well, it’s a very long and very boring road anyway. I rode almost 300 miles today without seeing anything interesting. It was a slog, parts of which were stinking hot; parts windy and parts showery. And all this to reach a rather boring city that didn’t exist before 1966.

Add to this litany the driving… A newly rich country has a lot of drivers in big cars out to impress – well, that’s my theory for the speed and tail-gating. I am still angry several hours later at one fellow in a smart large BMW. I saw him coming up in my mirror and usually pull left to let them pass, but there was a line of traffic approaching so I waited. Suddenly, he was gone from my mirror and even as I wondered why, he swept past on my inside at 120kph. Bearing in mind that I don’t have a mirror on the left handlebar it was the most dangerous manoeuvre I have seen in all my many thousands of African miles (now approaching 40,000 on five bike trips). Later, in city traffic it was only my highly developed sense of knowing what’s going on around me that made me swerve and just avoid being knocked off my some idiot pulling out of a car park. A very close shave. All in all, I think I will head for the border tomorrow!

This evening I just wanted a simple bar to sit and have a beer and some local food for supper. Doesn’t appear to exist. People sent me to ‘The Mall’, an ugly shopping mall in the city centre where I could get only fast food on styrofoam plates. I ended up at the only restaurant I could find, and that was Portuguese, for goodness sake, and expensively tarty – and full of ex-pats. It depresses me, eating alone in restaurants. A bar at least holds the potential for some conversation or rapport; tables of diners hold none of that and make me feel isolated. I ate my meal (fortunately a good chicken curry for the £10 but not really 16 times better than the bowl of local meat and vegetable stew that cost me 60 pence last night) and left, bringing a couple of cans of beer from supermarket to my dingy, lonesome room.

Yep, not a day that worked!


My arm is still puffy and itchy. I obviously have quite a reaction to those particular wild bees.

I was amused by the can of cockroach killer in last night’s bathroom dramatically called ‘Dyroach’ a ‘Super-fast triple action killer’ (It contained DDT…) ‘Kills for up to four weeks’! Sounds miraculous, that.

The country is pretty apprehensive of the spread of foot and mouth, it seems. I came through a liquid wash bath at the border and another on the road from Zimbabwe and a couple more check posts on the A1 road to Gaberone. I had to dip my boots each time, an action that in Zimbabwe would have been an occasion for mirth all round.


This has been a calm, relaxing day: I am not expected back in Johannesburg until tomorrow afternoon and the ride from Gaberone to there is not extreme, so I could take my time. A hot day, I could ride gently through the vast, mainly flat landscape of low trees and grasslands and choose a small town at random in which to stay tonight. Lichtenburg, the town I selected from the map, could be in the mid-west of America, one of those towns you see in the films, with wide main streets lined by tractor and agricultural machinery sellers and dominated by silos. Yet it also has green suburban streets of white-owned bungalows set in pleasant, well tended gardens. It looks like a wealthy town.


It wasn’t much of a disappointment to leave last night’s accommodation! Tonight I have found a guesthouse in which I have a room bigger than Rock Cottage, with a small bathroom and a kitchen; a room perhaps six times larger than the rip-off Botswana dump for 60% of the price.

For half an hour I parked up in the city centre, desperate to find something attractive about the place, but I failed. It is just a modern commercial city of little interest, is Gaberone.

It is untrue to say that I had no preconceptions of Botswana, because of course many of us do now have ideas about the country from the charming novels of Alexander McCall Smith and his ‘No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’ series. But he is peddling a comfortable, gentle, somewhat colonial image of Botswana, not the hurrying modern city of so little interest and not much apparent compassion. His is not a city of speeding top of the range Mercs, BMWs and Audis. It is a city brought to life by Mma Ramotswe’s ‘little white van’. I saw no little white vans in Gaberone. On Saturday mornings the fictional Mma Ramotswe sits on the terrace of the President Hotel and drinks her rooibos tea. McCall Smith, so far as I can remember, (and I enjoy the books very much, I admit) never describes the President Hotel. So I, and I expect most readers, imagine a rambling old colonial building with a wide dark wood-floored verandah, roll down blinds, wicker chairs and white table-clothed tea tables. A sort of Raffles Hotel in McCall Smith’s quaint Africa. The reality is a hideous five or six storied block of concrete and tile, plate glass and net curtained windows above the ‘Mma Ramotswe Tea Terrace’, an unattractive place of brushed aluminium, plate glass and expensive plastic. It looks across an ugly slabbed square of 1970s vintage full of CD sellers, curio stalls and fast food outlets and is backed by busy supermarkets emblazoned with adverts for cheap food. He is a good story teller and sets an attractive scene that is unrecognisable – but if it makes people think of Africa in a more positive manner, then I applaud him. But, sadly, that Africa died out at least a generation ago. I witnessed the last of it with Akay and her generation in Navrongo, Ghana. She and her age-mates lived with those qualities of compassion, honesty and mutual respect. They respected tradition, ancient ways and the wisdom of the old. But Africa has changed, especially in the modern cities. Now it lives by the standards it sees in the sudden exposure to the rampant media and all the messages of consumption and materialism it sells so insidiously. Sadly, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makuti and Mr J L B Matekoni can no longer be found in Botswana, and probably nowhere in Africa. It is significant that when they recreated part of Gaberone for Anthony Minghella’s film version of the stories, in the words of the tourist booklet: ‘Longtime residents of the capital city have remarked how the colourful film set had captured the exact look and feel of bygone Gaberone’. Bygone Gaberone… That sums it up. ‘Bygone’.


As I rode, I was trying to analyse just what it was that disappointed me so much in Botswana. I could really only come up with that feeling – and we’ve all had it – of discomfort when you visit someone unexpectedly. They are polite but a bit distant and you know they don’t really want you there right now. You feel a nuisance. It’s uncomfortable. You must know that feeling? That’s about as close as I can come to my feeling. Maybe it would have been different if I had gone the other way and seen Botswana before visiting the lovely Zimbabweans who made me feel so warmly and easily comfortable?


I left Botswana through an obscure border post at Ramotswa, twenty miles or so south of the capital, avoiding the two much busier posts. This one was actually difficult to find amongst the rambling suburbs of a small dusty town. It was a quick, efficient passage back into South Africa – of course it helps that my bike is registered here, so it is returning and needs no paperwork.

The heat was fairly extreme by the middle of the day and at one point I lay on a concrete bench at a ‘rest area’ – these are provided every few kilometres in these countries – just some concrete seats and a table beneath an acacia tree at the roadside. I relaxed for the better part of an hour before riding on across the vast rolling landscape beneath a merciless sun. I spent the day on lesser roads, arriving at this farming centre mid-afternoon.

Tomorrow I have only a few hours riding back to the big city. And on monday I will be on an aeroplane to freezing North America. THAT will be the culture shock – not Africa!


Pottering along relaxedly at about 50mph today I achieved the best consumption yet on my 650cc motorbike. I got 27.3 kilometres per litre, or about 77 mies per gallon. That’s twice the mileage I would get from my old African Elephant – but I still wish he was here with me on this journey…

Tonight I had the worst meal yet on this journey (mind you, I am going to USA shortly!). I ate something described as ‘lamb curry pancakes’ served with a side salad, in a franchise, fast food outlet round the corner from where I am staying. The ‘lamb’ was old mutton, reheated in the microwave but hardly hot enough, rolled into a pancake that certainly wasn’t freshly prepared. With it I drank a disgusting pint of thin, watery Castle draught beer. It was an altogether vile meal.

The name of the fast food franchise? Dros… I couldn’t help an ironic laugh.


Sunday begins in rural South Africa to the sound of church bells clonking and cars passing on their way to church. The churches in a town like Lichtenburg are so busy they even have car park attendants. These towns are so reminiscent of the rural towns of the ‘fly-over’ states of America, not just in their car and tractor dealerships, Kentucky Fried Chicken, fast food and wide empty streets and church car parks and religious fervour but probably in their conservatism too. Jesus stickers abound on cars, crosses on houses, ‘This Town For Jesus’ hoardings and so on.

And I would stake my holiday money on the fact that black and white attend different churches out here. Difficult to read the Christian message in THAT… The veneer of racial acceptance is so infinitesimally thin and fragile.


I had to leave quite early as the landlady of the place where I took her sort of granny flat outside room had to leave for church, so I was on the road by nine and headed to town for a coffee and breakfast. Fortunately, I found a half decent restaurant rather than the Wimpy Bar that she had suggested. Then it was onto the bike for the last 150 miles back to Johannesburg.

My route brought me on relatively minor roads through immense farming country. This is where much of South Africa’s food is produced. I rode through sunflowers, maize and vast grazing lands stretching to every far horizon in huge vistas. Unfortunately there was a stiff and cool breeze blowing at me almost all the way, making it a wearing ride. Traffic was light until the last thirty or forty miles as I approached the big conurbation.

Sterkfontein Caves are part of a World Heritage Site known as the Cradle of Man for here have been discovered a large number of very early fossils of humanoid people, our early ancestors. Modern man came from East Africa and these fossils are amongst the best preserved, including one called ‘Little Foot’ that was discovered after a palaeontologist recognised a few humanoid foot bones in trays of animal bones and asked his researchers to see if they could find the rest of the rock from which they came. Within two days they did just that – a needle in a haystack – and one of the most important archaeological finds is still under excavation today: a virtually complete fossilised skeleton. It seems that funding and sponsorship has run out at present so not much is happening while the university that owns the site awaits sponsorship from China. But I guess that if the bones have been there a couple of million years, another couple of years won’t make a lot of difference. There’s a good museum on site and guided tours every half hour through the caves, which are rather grubby and defaced by limestone mining, the reason for their opening up originally. It is thought that the early beings probably fell to their deaths through some of the dangerous and well disguised sink holes in the bush on the hills above. There’s not much concession to tourists in the caves: they are ill lit, uneven floors and steps and some places where squatting on one’s haunches is required to get through passages. Having been in many of the world’s show caves, these are unremarkable except for the discoveries made here – and no doubt still to be made.


Okkie and Antoinette have made me very welcome once again and we have enjoyed a very congenial evening round the garden table over supper and a few beers. They are very charming and warm hearted – and refreshingly liberal in attitude.


This is a SIXTEEN HOUR FLIGHT, and that’s just to Atlanta, Georgia! From there I have another three hours to Boston. I am already completely shot to bits. How the hell will I be when I get to Providence? Then I have to get up at the crack of dawn to get to a 9.00am meeting on wednesday, stay all day at Boston Production’s office and then fly two hours to Milwaukee on wednesday night.

To add to my extreme discomfort I hardly slept a moment last night. A combination of a large blended whisky late in the evening (malt puts me out like a light for three great hours; blended keeps me awake most of the night – odd, since they are both just whisky) and the Dros revenge from the evening before. As I ate that terrible meal I thought to myself that if my stomach was going to succumb to anything it would be the Dros fast food franchise lamb curry, not market stall food. Bad indigestion…

Fortunately I had little to do except visit a supermarket to buy food for the journey since Delta’s ‘food’ is an insult to the palate and I now carry my own. Okkie drove me to a nearby Woolworths. Strangely, F W Woolworth, the cheap and cheerful chain store which went bankrupt as one of the first High Street, British victims a couple of years ago, is still alive and well in its South African guise as a smart food retailer, the equivalent perhaps of Waitrose.

For a couple of hours I just rested on the bed until it was time for Okkie and Jacques to take me to the new rapid transit railway that connects the suburbs to downtown Johannesburg and the O R Tambo Airport. The train link was constructed for the Soccer World Cup in South Africa. It’s an efficient way to get out to the airport.

My motorbike is standing beneath Okkie’s car port and my two saddle bags, helmet and boots in the guest bedroom. I have with me only the small rear pannier bag, the size of a large brief case. I shall have to borrow some shirts and a jumper from Carl when I get to Providence. This was not really a planned trip. If I was going to take it, I thought it would be from Durban not Johannesburg so various things (particularly my noise-cancelling headphones) are there. My usual ‘kit’ for my American trips is in Devon so I am making this one up as I go along.

I have only been here seven hours so far… At least I have managed to get exit row seats for all the journeys so I can stretch a bit. This is the longest flight I ever took.

Well, another nine hours – and then it’s only Atlanta.


This is a completely bizarre experience! My head is stuck somewhere in the sun-scorched Africa bush and I am on a commuter train riding out of Boston. It will be hours (maybe days!) before my head catches up with this very odd situation. It’s even odder than returning home, since in eight days time i will be back in the African bush… There is ice and snow outside the train windows and I am completely exhausted after two virtually sleepless nights. I spent almost the whole sixteen hours dozing fitfully, fortunately my seat by the wall in the exit row allowed a little relaxation at least – bodily if not mentally. I had no headphones so I could not listen to music or watch my own films: the headphones are in Durban… My ears do not fit those horrible little earphones that fit into your ear. Wearing them is painful so I could not even watch one of the MANY films available on the aircraft. Mind you, they were almost all Hollywood productions which I seldom bother to watch as the movie machine here has only bout four or five variants on stories and within minutes you know that the small/ ugly/ poor/ or disadvantaged character will win out. That, after all, is the American Dream. Astonishing how people still fall for it despite the evidence.

So, back to the land of fat. I wonder just how it must be to carry round perhaps half the weight of my motorbike round your stomach and legs? From children to adults you see it here. Children that cannot put their arms down by their sides for the folds of fat; adults that it’s difficult not to surreptitiously glance at and wonder how they got this way. But of course most of them are carrying buckets of grazing fodder full of sugar, corn syrup and additives. Not surprising America has such problems with health care. A man across the train carriage has thighs almost as big as my stomach (32 inches) and I doubt I could reach round his middle – I can’t call it waist. So his trouser measurement must be in the region of 65 to 72 inches. More than twice my waist size. And he is not uncommon by any means.

Oh dear, the world outside is now completely white. And tomorrow I am going north.


LATER. In Providence.

Thanks goodness for a warm welcome from my ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ here. We are so completely at ease that their house is my house. It’s even been that I had the keys to Grace and Carl’s house when they were in England. I keep some personal items in the chest of drawers in their spare room. It was SUCH a piece of luck that my one reliable work contact in USA has their offices only forty miles from Benefit Street.

Carl took me to his gym, where I wallowed for 45 minutes in a hot Jacuzzi to wash away some of the aches.


I went to bed last night at 8.00pm, perhaps something I haven’t done for about 55 years. I put in my earplugs, put on my eyeshade and was asleep within minutes. I woke twice in the night briefly and the next thing I knew, Grace was hammering on my door at 7.30 this morning. I still feel exhausted. As I write this, my iPad tells me the time is 04.40 on thursday morning while here, near Milwaukee the time is only 9.40 in the evening. Once again, as so often on this trip, I am battling toothache. I feel that I am in for false teeth quite soon. Such a shame; I am otherwise so healthy and game for anything.

And the small injury that I received when I fell off my bike in the Swartberg Pass seven weeks ago developed, a few days ago, into a very sore spot on my ankle. My ankle is swollen, a fact I hadn’t really noticed for weeks. It has been no trouble to walk on it. Tonight the lymph nodes in my groin have swollen very uncomfortably as they try to fight whatever the infection is. I shall have to visit an American doctor for the first time. I carry an annual medical insurance policy mainly for just these trips to USA. It’s not expensive and looks like it may finally come in useful.

The good news is… The fungal infection stopped like a switch had been pressed! Might have been forty five minutes of very warm water! (I did shower first!)

So, one thing and another – two infections together – I am slightly less than my usual happy condition. This plus being so tired (which may be why the infections have appeared now) are making this trip a bit stressful.


Suddenly I am in a superficially lavish, faceless American hotel in a wasteland of strip malls and distantly spaced businesses in dead flat Wisconsin, not far from the western shore of Lake Michigan, the Great Lake that points north/ south. I have a room that measures almost thirty square metres. Rock Cottage, with two floors, is fifty four square metres. It has, of course, the customary and very unpleasant, hermetically sealed windows looking over acres of car parks, single-storey buildings and wastelands of dull American grass partly covered in frozen snow banks. The customary unattractive American town outskirts that could be in any state in the Union.

We flew here here after a day of discussing ideas for a concept bid for a museum in South Carolina. I will have to be back in the office on monday and tuesday before I fly out again to South Africa.

The final part of my southern Africa trip looks more and more shaky. Suddenly, My colleague Bob, the owner of Boston Productions with whom I so much enjoy working, has presented me with the likelihood of yet another job, this one in Colorado. It would be a small but complicated job for which I would probably have to build the scenic parts – probably a part of Abraham Lincoln’s office or the parlour of the woman who wrote the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ – in his studio since it involves a ‘Pepper’s ghost’, that old Victorian trick of making one thing appear in another place by use of a full size 45 degree reflective surface. It involves quite a lot of complicated geometry that we would really only be able to work out in practice. The challenge of this small job, and the threat to my travels, is that it has to be installed about May 1st – a challenge even for me, who works to pretty short deadlines sometimes! But, let’s face it, I am not going to say no… I enjoy this work and I have such a great contact here that I want to be as amenable as possible. Bob has described me on his submission for the 360 degree film – the job we won – as his Art Director and Co-creator. I appreciate that trust. So I may have to get back to Johannesburg, ride to Durban and lay up the bike until next winter, and fly back to Devon and out here again within the next couple of weeks. A jet-setting life. But I do like working here. Creative Americans have such a positive attitude to their work and in Bob I have finally found a major player who likes to work the way that I do.


We have had a long day of discussing ideas and requirements for our 360 degree film for the Kenosha Civil War Museum. We toured the museum. It is terrific. I was delighted. It is so uplifting to be asked to put your work into a museum of such high quality, and this will be their signature piece that completes the original museum concept when it opened five or so years ago but for which the money was not then available. The museum story is told in just the fashion that I have always worked: using scenic reconstructions and figures to tell personal stories. A true social history museum. For someone who has worked in them for thirty five years, I rather dislike most museums. I am only interested in history in how it affected ordinary people – people like me. This museum does just that, telling the stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

The Civil War is a huge part of American historical baggage. Some say it is not over yet a hundred and fifty years later. When I ask why it is such an obsession for so many, I am told it is because it is what shaped America and it was such a horror in which families were split and so many died and were maimed for life. Technology had outstretched traditional methods of war and guns were now accurate and deathly, slow, large bullets that wrought havoc. And most men were fighting alongside, and dying alongside, the fellows amongst whom they had grown up. Cowardice was not an option. Also, religion played a huge part. God was on your side, and his will would be done. If it was God’s will that you died; you died. Of course, the trouble with this faith was that, as always, the enemy believed the same god was on THEIR side too… Sadly and unintelligibly, in my opinion, religious faith has been, throughout history, the most persuasive way to make men kill one another brutally. It still is. ‘In the name of God’, often even when both sides share the same god.

We dined together – we were six from Boston Productions – at an Italian restaurant on the usual trough-sized buckets of food, of which, against my principles, I now have to leave a little more than half. Is it any surprise, with a diet of vast quantities of high fructose corn syrup (VERY cheap to produce and quite addictive) and obscene helpings of over-rich, salty, sweet food that America has built itself this obesity and diabetes problem?

I counted the other day. This is the 32nd time I have visited USA, 29 of them since 1998. I recon this year could bring me another five or six visits. Thank goodness I have ‘family’ to welcome me and feel so comfortable with the whole process now. Pity about the awful flights!


Work-mode has been a strain in the middle of Africa-mode. But I have to adapt and make a meaningful contribution. That’s what I am being paid for. It is much easier when your peers actually believe you do make a difference to their conceptual discussions. And mine seem to… All those years ago I went to film school, and now it is paying off, my knowledge of the mechanics of telling stories on film and in 3D. At the same time, it appears that we have almost certainly got the small contract in Colorado so I will have that to build and fit up as well. It is a small but complex theatrical job that will be challenging but fun. It is for the Museum of the Bible. Yep, me, a firm atheist. One thing I really enjoy about my work is its complete diversity. We will be working on both at the same time, and if we get the third one, in South Carolina, it looks as if I will be in USA quite a bit of 2013. But here I am still employed in an industry pretty much moribund in Britain. And a whole lot better paid – even if these are not particularly lucrative projects.


We have driven a lot of the day. Shannon, our amazingly efficient producer with whom I worked on both the last great jobs, drove Bob and I and John the writer to a heritage house almost two hours north of Milwaukee. It was snowing, cold and dismal. And the location we went to see, apart from being difficult to imagine as June fields, was not very suitable. We drove on to another snowy heritage site nearer to Milwaukee – and solved our location hunt on day two of the job. After lunch at an entertaining local biker bar, called Knuckleheads in a small town nearby, Eagle, Wisconsin, we visited Old World Wisconsin, an open air museum with various recreated villages of European settlers set in many acres of great woodland and rural-looking fields. We should be able to make our whole seven or eight minute production in that location. Better still is that the new director was our main historical and story consultant at Conner Prairie Museum in 2010. As a quid pro quo for us using the location, Bob and I have agreed to help him conceive a theatre piece about the dreams and aspirations of some of the settlers, recreating their European lives before they emigrated to the then western frontiers of America. Of course, that one is further away, but it is still a distinct possibility. All this keeps me not just in work – and travel money – but in the loop of the museum interpretation business here in USA where the arts are kept alive by proud benefactors in collaboration with the state, a situation that we seldom see in Britain, where the present government has been consistently cutting funding from the arts, easily done in a land that puts so little education or importance on culture.

It’s been a hard day, starting at 7.30 and ending in a late flight home to Boston, an hour and three quarters away – with winter storms forecast. This has been a hard late winter in the eastern states with many trees lost to storms. Grace and Carl lost three in their property alone. Getting in at midnight, I am staying tonight with Shannon and her husband in a Boston suburb called Jamaica Plains and will train home to Providence tomorrow morning, in time for an Opera in HD from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a pleasures of some of my trips over here when they coincide with my visits.

Oh dear, I am SO tired. The toothache has abated a little. At least I can swallow again but I have to be very careful. I am trying so hard not to resort to the antibiotics with which my old Yorkshire dentist always sends me away. If I take those I can have no beer for a week! One of my colleagues told me that having a tooth pulled in USA will cost me about $300 (£180). In England, even amongst the greedy remnants of NHS dentistry post Thatcher, it only costs about £40. I had one out before leaving. Anyway, time is too short while I am here. Maybe I will try Durban or just persist until I get back to Devon. If the clinics that are open to Americans without insurance open on sunday I will, however, try to get my leg infection attended to before I have to face that sixteen hour flight back to Johannesburg.


We visited a brewery pub before leaving Milwaukee. It is a famous brewing town: the publicity line, ‘Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee famous’ used to be the best known thing about the city. It also houses the enormous Pabst brewery, although it is now made elsewhere. But a great piece of whimsical Victorian industrial architecture with turrets and embrasures, filagree and patterned stonework.

It’s been a good day with colleagues I like and respect, each of us good at what we do and open to ideas from the others. Worth coming for that, even in the midst of a footloose African journey.

Gosh, I am so fidgety from exhaustion and sitting in aeroplanes and cars. Tomorrow after the opera, Grace and Carl are going to the theatre. I told them that was just too much for me. I need to rest for 24 hours. I won’t get much rest between monday morning and arrival in Johannesburg on wednesday afternoon.

2013 – Southern Africa Journal – 8


The day started early – for me – with Vonni (I have no idea how it is spelled, that is my phonetic translation), the round young woman who seems to be in charge of the scruffy Nemanwa Chalets tapping on my door at 7.00am with a tray of rooibos tea, the local, much loved bush tea, literally red bush tea. It is caffeine-free and has a slightly smoky flavour like a light Lapsang. I was the only guest, not surprising since there is not even a signboard on the road to advertise the place and it is obscurely hidden four kilometres from the famous ruins. Odd, the African lack of commercial initiative. Often I see this: investment that is not followed through by maintenance or sales.

Well, it got me going into the dull cloudy day. I am very disappointed by the weather on this trip north. It is consistently cloudy and on the edge of rain. “It is threatening rain,” as Wechiga would say. Fortunately, it seems to stay a threat but a couple of times today I had to stop to warm up from the chill air as I moved.

It was quite a boring ride, two hundred miles of fairly undistinguished bush country, green and gently rolling and all of it, I was surprised to find, at an altitude of over 1000 metres.


When you travel a lot (and I was counting today on my boring ride: I reckon Zimbabwe is the 90th country I have visited, not allowing for the ones that split into more countries after I travelled through, like Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Montenegro and others that must bring me near to the 100), well, when you travel a lot you develop an instinct for places. I think I can say that Bulawayo is the nicest town I have found in Africa! It is calm, well ordered, laid back, feels completely safe and is full of pleasant, polite citizens. It really is delightful. It has retained many of its fine colonial buildings and a lot of its quirky Edwardian architecture. It has a cultured, quiet feel. I have met with kindness and great civility everywhere. It even has an art gallery with a collection of interesting contemporary paintings and sculptures. It boasts wide streets and a lot of shady trees, few high-rise buildings and pavements on which you can walk. People are well dressed and quietly mannered. It’s great!

I had no idea what to expect. If anything, I supposed it would be just another rather run down African town of teeming supermarkets and cheap shops – South Africa boasts a lot of those (with posh white streets kept well separate). Riding into the town, it looked like any other place. I found the tourist information office and asked for suggestions of places to stay. It was only late lunchtime. The charming tourist lady suggested I try The Berkeley, a cheap sort of hostel cum hotel a couple of blocks away, right in the downtown area. Here I have a somewhat basic room (the washbasin is lolling drunkenly and the shower tiles have fallen off) which will be quite adequate, and at $20 (£12.50) will do just fine. I brought my motorbike in through the double front doors into an internal yard, where it sits beneath a tall palm that grows out of the top of the well of the hotel. For once, I was able to stop riding and wander the streets in the now warm sunshine. Not a soul troubled me but everyone returned a smile. There are no particular sights to see but I enjoyed just watching people. A most attractive town. My hostel is just off the main Robert Mugabe Way. Every town seems to have one of those, named after the megalomaniacal dictator. I get the impression that in his late years he has mellowed just a bit and some sense is being restored but I spoke with one white South African who told me that his cousin, after a three year battle, had lost his farmlands just last month. I see a smattering of white faces about town, probably white Zimbabweans as there seem to be almost no tourists.

But one must surmise that a country that has abandoned its own currency in favour of other people’s must be in dire fiscal straights. Prices are quoted in US dollars (the petrol pumps are even printed with the dollar denomination so this must be long standing) and I can pay in dollars or South African Rand. The dollar bills are old and almost faceless with use. As someone said yesterday, I am sure they send the old ones to Zimbabwe. But what’s so funny is that you pay in dollars but receive Rand coins in change. The Americans obviously don’t supply coins. I have kept back a couple of almost illegible dollar bills to take with me to America next week!

As the afternoon lengthened I needed a beer so I entered the Cape to Cairo Bar. ‘Cape Town 1150, Cairo 3500 miles’ says the text on the facias of the old colonial corner building. It was dark and incredibly noisy inside, all the curtains drawn over dusty windows and the ceiling, walls and floor dark wood. Music pumped out such that I had to shout my request for a Zambezi beer across the bar and TV screens showed British soccer as usual. One beer was enough for a bit of local colour. For my meal I found a less busy but even louder bar a few blocks away. The pork chop was scorched but with chips and a little salad was only $5 or £3. An ice cream across the road was $1.50 (or $1 plus four Rand and fifty cents!). A litre carton of juice, that in South Africa costs me 17 Rand (£1.25) is here 45 Rand. People all had a smile for me as I tried to get my head round dollars and Rand together in payment.

Zimbabwe, which I feared would be difficult and about which I was apprehensive, has turned out to be a delight. It just goes to prove you should make your own opinions and not imbibe those of others, or worse still, the media. Since I won’t now get to Zambia, one of the friendliest nations in Africa, at least I have made a new discovery.


Only, the police checks do get a bit tedious. Mostly, I get waved through but sometimes I have to stop, take off helmet and ear plugs and justify myself with licence, Temporary Import Permits and answers to questions of my destination and provenance. I keep strictly to the limits although I find I m cruising along at no more than 55mph on a day like this anyway. There are many cow and donkey hazards, the latter often just standing in the road unconcerned as I weave around them. A benefit of the steady speed is that I am often getting 65mpg (almost 25k/l) consumption from my motorbike. Petrol in Zimbabwe is £1.00 a litre, slightly more than South Africa at about 90p.

In the art gallery I met Nompilo, a disabled woman with little use of her arms or waist. She paints, writes and handles money with her feet. It was remarkable to watch her adaptation as she added columns of figures in a ledger and wrote her address for me. I was intrigued to see that she was left-footed. I wondered if she would have been left-handed. She laughed and didn’t know. I also chatted with Stanley Sibanda, a charming young painter in his studio. While not forward, Zimbabweans enjoy talking and chat with a liberated equality. I have had at least five conversations of which the gist was how Zimbabweans find South Africa deeply divided, unhappy and prejudiced. Interesting to hear my opinions corroborated by Africans themselves. Such a relief to be back in Africa.


As I rode today I entered the Province of Matabeleland, another resonant romantic African landmark.


How could I ever have felt APPREHENSIVE about visiting Zimbabwe?

Media, of course, is the answer. I have heard nothing but negative news from Zimbabwe for the past decade. No one told me what lovely people the Zimbabweans are. They only told me of the fighting, unrest and the extremes of an unhinged president. No one told me that even the drunks are harmless! No one told me that the majority of people are quiet, respectful, gentle, polite, charming and even good looking. No good news ever comes out of this amazing, fascinating continent. We all, in the West, harbour such negative views of Africa. Yet, in reality, Africa has retained so much that we have lost in our race for material wealth. Africa has so much humanity, so much warmth, so much that is positive. I have fallen in love with Zimbabwe – in much the same way I did with her neighbour, Zambia. These must be two of the finest countries in the world. I will be back.

This evening I had one of those ‘I’m here!’ moments, sitting in a quite noisy beer bar with a plate of (very tough – ‘roadrunner chicken’, the young barman described it with a smile) chicken and rice with beetroot, coleslaw and butternut. People around me were cheerful and a bit inebriated but I felt entirely at ease and totally safe amongst them. Two very charming young boys were having a beer to celebrate some modest educational achievement. They came from ‘the ghetto’, said the shorter one, with such an attractive face and a jaunty baseball cap. “We are very poor, but we are celebrating!” People in the bar were making a lot of noise but were happy to greet me or just to accept that I was amongst them, sharing the bar. It was a lovely, warm-hearted experience as I downed a couple of pints and ate the local food.

It’s been that way all day: polite and friendly. People are reserved but always respond so warmly to my approaches. Zimbabwe is a discovery and goes right up there amongst my most favourite people. I have been slightly cheated out of a trip to Zambia by the need to interrupt my travels to go to America. Otherwise, I know I would spend the next three weeks in Zim and Zam.


Bulawayo (locally pronounced without sounding the ‘u’) has been so pleasant that I decided to stay another night and relax here. I rode out 15 miles to the Matapos national park, where there are many odd balanced rock formations, a cave and the grave of Cecil John Rhodes (founder of Rhodesia). But at the entry gate I found that motorbikes are not allowed as it is also a game park. Ironically, I don’t care to see the game and had come to see the rocks but to get to them I would have to brave rhino and wildebeest. So, after a chat with the two rather bored young women at the gate who, such are the myths of the golden pavements, really aspired to cleaning or care work in England instead of their employment by the national parks and accommodation a couple of kilometres walk into the park. They could telephone someone to drive me round, they said. But at $50, plus an entry fee of $25, it was a lot to look at balanced rocks, so I demurred and rode back to Bulawayo. I took one of the other roads out of town and called at the game orphanage instead.

The animal orphanage is privately run – by white Zimbabweans, I think, and receives many animals that have been orphaned or injured by poachers, accident or natural causes. They aim to re-release as many animals as possible back into the wild. But it seems that lions never readapt after captivity so they have rather large number of lions. Apparently, one of the workers – an Englishwoman – was telling me, primates adapt very quickly, even the baby monkey, Terence, will have forgotten all the petting of the young volunteers and visitors within six months of his return to the bush, There were leopards, antelope, crocodiles, snakes and lions as well as some fine birds. The atmosphere was inevitably rather zoo-like, but the ideals fine.

A hot day, and I enjoy the town so much that I decided to relieve myself of the strain of finding accommodation tonight and to stay in the odd hostel with its friendly staff. I did ask for my room to be sprayed, however, as the mosquitoes gave me a poor night. There’s no malaria in Bulawayo, it is, I expect, too high at over 1000 metres. My room is basic but cheap and the location could not be better as I am only a block from the City Hall in central Bulawayo. Last night I had to use the fan to keep the mosquitoes away, then I had to use a blanket to combat the cool of the fan.

I always ride protected by clothing but sometimes when I am on open roads with little traffic I make a concession and leave off my leather gloves. This morning a wild bee blew right up my cuff and stung me on my elbow. The last one, the one on which I stood in Swaziland, itched like crazy for a whole week. My elbow is now swelling and beginning to itch!

Today I have noticed quite a number of white faces, obviously residents – white Zimbabweans. A woman who works at the hostel was talking today quite openly about the problems that were caused by Mugabe’s mad scheme to divest the white farmers – who were trained and experienced and feeding the nation – of their lands and hand them to unskilled, untrained African workers. As she said, the first year was fine as the seeds were already planted, but trouble set in when the cattle were killed for food and bore holes and infrastructure went unmaintained. Farms devolved to chaos and bad production, the economy died (and Zimbabwe was held as an example of rich African economies) and the world took its revenge. Things became very difficult for poor Zimbabwe. “The president will never admit he was wrong…” she surmised. This week the president, Robert Mugabe, infamous for his despotic rule, celebrated his 89th birthday. “Things are getting a lot better now, thank goodness,” she concluded. “We are stable again for now. And we have elections coming up.”

So, lovely Zimbabwe. A new discovery for me. I hope I will return here and to Zambia. Maybe that will be the destination before I sell the bike again? Of course, one thing that makes travelling here such fun is that everyone speaks such fine English. In fact, here I have heard almost no tribal language at all. And the people are SO good looking; the best looking African nation I have seen. People have generally small dark stature, almost European noses and many of the women have long hair. The men, also handsome, have open, friendly faces and a lot of the younger ones sport rather fine braided hair styles and beards. Everyone is neatly dressed in Western clothes that appear to be new, not ‘broni wawo’ (white man dead second hand clothes). This is a smart nation of charming, respectful, polite people. I am very impressed indeed and very happy I came. Ignore the bad press: come and see for myself… How, indeed, could I have felt apprehension?


So to Botswana, one of Africa’s wealthiest countries – thanks to diamonds and a tiny population of only about 2 million spread over a country the size of France. But of course much of it – 70% I believe I read, is desert. It is one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world. It has probably the fourth gross national income in Africa and a pretty good standard of living – all this since independence in1966 when it was one of Africa’s poorest countries. Those diamonds helped a lot. Botswana has a very high HIV infection, second only to Swaziland, but it also has a very high access to free retroviral drugs from the government. The government is, and has been since independence, very democratic and literacy levels in adults are 83%, extremely high for sub-saharan Africa.

And, boy, is it HOT! As I rode from Bulawayo, only 120 miles to the east, the temperature soared. By early afternoon it must have been in the high 30s, certainly 35 or 36. It’s just about okay when I am riding, the wind-chill factor keeps me comfortable, but stop at a traffic light (‘robot’) and I swelter in my black jacket and helmet. So much so that I decided to stop at Francistown, a rather boring modern town that could be anywhere in Europe, except that when you leave the main streets there are African market stalls – and of course everyone is black skinned around me.

My other reason for stopping early for the day is my arm. The wild bee sting from yesterday has swollen my arm to at least 50% its normal size round my elbow. It’s now all puffy and stiff and riding another fifty miles just did not appeal in the extreme heat. I have invested in calamine lotion but that didn’t stop the swelling so this afternoon I have bought an antihistamine cream as well. It itches like hell.

This is supposed to be a no holds barred travel diary so I may as well say… I eat and drink everything put in front of me, most of it with, if not pleasure, just acceptance that it’s all that’s available. I drink well water if necessary; I eat tough roasted dog if I am called upon; no doubt I will try mopane worms (dried caterpillars that are a favourite snack hereabouts) if the opportunity occurs. I have a stomach of steel – stainless steel. A great attribute in Africa, well, a great attribute for a traveller. But on these journeys, the problem I have is with my outer layer. Not just bee stings – and this is the second of those – and sunburn, but bloody fungal infections! You try sitting for hours every day in the tropics, on a plastic seat, and NOT get fungal infections! Oh, the itchy bum syndrome! I have been battling it for about two weeks. It’s been an uncomfortable feature of all my long bike journeys in Africa! In the end I am grateful to that bee because the pharmacist sold me calamine cream and it’s worked on the itchy bum better than the bee sting. That and liberally dousing my riding trousers and clothes with anti-fungal powders…

Enough of that – but it IS all part of the journey, I am afraid.


Bulawayo was quite delightful. I am missing it tonight. I am missing Zimbabwe. It has shot high up in my shortlist of friendliest countries of the world, alongside, of course, Ghana, and Zimbabwe’s neighbour Zambia. Botswana, on all of eight hours assessment, is friendly to a degree but on a much more take it or leave it level. Most people respond with a smile but it’s not automatic and warmly welcoming as the Zimbabwean smile, and certainly not as equal as the smiles I remember from lovely Zambia eleven years ago. In the first eight hours I feel much more a white man here than I did in Zimbabwe.

Reluctantly, I rode away this morning after breakfast amongst the very pretty waitresses of the Mulandi Cafe. Zimbabweans are VERY good looking people, women and many men too. Open, honest faces; very attractive people, probably the most pretty and handsome in my African experience.

I rode out of town towards Figtree and Plumtree, past Balmoral Road, Luton Road, Donnington, Cavendish Road, Dundee Avenue and a hundred other very British-sounding names. The colonial legacy is very prominent in Bulawayo. The scenery, once out of town, was just endless rolling bush country, green and low stretching from horizon to horizon. I had probably better get used to it as I think it will last pretty much all the way south now. My journey from Bulawayo to Johannesburg is about 1000 kilometres – 600 miles – and it will all be very flat. I potter along at 50 to 55 miles an hour, just about fast enough to get places but slow enough to daydream and avoid the donkeys.

It was 60 miles to the Botswana border. There’s hardly any traffic on these roads, perhaps a vehicle every three or four minutes. By the time I reached the XXXXXX border it was pretty warm, but nothing to what was coming…

After the chaos of Beitbridge border the other day, I was apprehensive about the crossing but I reckoned I had seen little enough traffic that it might be quite easy. It was so quick and easy I was in Botswana in less than half an hour. Leaving Zimbabwe took all of ten minutes and getting into the new country not a lot longer, even though I had to change money. At least Botswana uses its own currency, the pula, meaning ‘rain’ in Setswana, the local language. Interestingly, I am writing in an upstairs balcony bar in a quite expensive hotel (I ate down the road for 60 pence first!) and I can hear no English being spoken although it is the official national language. In Zimbabwe I heard almost no local, tribal languages except amongst a few market and street traders and I heard lovely African/ English accents. I notice that the Batswana are much noisier than the more gentle Zimbabweans.

‘Mr Bean’, the comic one, is often quite helpful down here. I take it in good part and it eases my way through bureaucracy. At police checks they love it; at the border they loved it. So I milk it to help me through. The policemen on road block duties are basically very bored and stop me for someone to speak to. The fellows who flagged me down ten miles outside Francistown told me they had a duty of one month stuck out there with a khaki tent in the 36 degree heat with little traffic to stop and few dramas of traffic infringements to brighten their days, beyond some vastly overloaded bakkies.

Francistown, named, I believe after a British diamond prospector, is an odd place when you have been travelling in Africa. It is suddenly like being in southern Europe – all shopping malls and supermarkets. Since it was still only early afternoon I searched out a tourist office to find my accommodation tonight. It may feel like Europe and it costs like Europe too. I had expected this. When I passed briefly through Botswana in 2002, just travelling fifty miles across the north western corner, I couldn’t even afford to stay there and had to continue for a very long day into Zambia. Here I have to pay £35 for a room, no breakfast. It is, admittedly, a large room with air-con, a bathroom and kitchen, but it’s not fancy at all. It’s probably the cheapest room in town.

Tomorrow I have a long ride south. It will probably be very hot. I hope my arm stops itching and reduces in size quickly! I have enjoyed sitting here in this balcony bar with a pleasant breeze, surrounded by drinkers who don’t trouble me (but I’d rather be in Zimbabwe where people by now would have talked to me). The arm is itching. Time for medication. Time for rest after a scorching day.

2013 – Photos days 26 – 39

Okkie, with whom I went to Film School. Last seen 1976!

Okkie, with whom I went to Film School. Last seen 1976!

Bubi River - a peaceful night in Zimbabwe

Bubi River – a peaceful night in Zimbabwe

Parked in a baobab!

Parked in a baobab!

Climbing to Great Zimbabwe Hill Enclosure

Climbing to Great Zimbabwe Hill Enclosure

Great Zimbabwe ruins on a granite dome

Great Zimbabwe ruins on a granite dome

Great Zimbabwe ruins. Walls thirty feet high

Great Zimbabwe ruins. Walls thirty feet high

https://jonathansjourneydotnet.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/20130306-174315.jpg” alt=”Great Zimbabwe ruins, entrance to the Hill Enclsoure” width=”300″ height=”200″ class=”size-full wp-image-404″ /> Great Zimbabwe ruins, entrance to the Hill Enclsoure[/caption]

Great Zimbabwe, the Royal Enclosure

Great Zimbabwe, the Royal Enclosure

7.jpg”><img src=”https://jonathansjourneydotnet.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/20130306-172537.jpg&#8221; alt=”Blyde River Canyon, the world’

The huge -solid - 'granary' is thought to have been a symbol of wealth and plenty. 'Thought...'

The huge -solid – ‘granary’ is thought to have been a symbol of wealth and plenty. ‘Thought…’

s third largest canyon.” width=”300″ height=”200″ class=”size-full wp-image-389″ /> Blyde River Canyon, the world’s third largest canyon.[/caption]

Riding down to Barberton from Swaziland

Riding down to Barberton from Swaziland


It all seems to be speculation, what Great Zimbabwe really was...

It all seems to be speculation, what Great Zimbabwe really was…

ion id=”attachment_386″ align=”aligncenter” width=”300″]A fine evening ride from Swaziland A fine evening ride from Swaziland[/caption]