So… into the tenth month on the road and I finally, finally reach South Africa, what had, in my original estimation, been the half-way point for this adventure. That was before the Cape Verde Fiasco, the Gaff in Gabon and the Crisis in Congo. Now I’ll just have to settle with seeing Mandy again sometime next year – you’ve no idea how much that I would like to wake up in the morning with her beside me. To say it’s been too long, is an understatement.
Africa, sorry, you’ve been a bitch. A real bitch. But now I’ve made it to South Africa I’m feeling good, no injuries, no countries that I couldn’t get into (one way or another) and best of all, I still haven’t had a day off ill. My main task here is to get a new passport, as although mine has a good two pages left (as well as copious amounts of space around solitary entry stamps), Africa has conspired to fill my little maroon book with as much ink as it possibly could. Seriously, I have no less than EIGHT different stamps for Gabon – considering I only (officially) entered that country once, that’s some feat.
I have a strong suspicion that the wives of African border officials have to make do with the couch while their husbands spend the night cuddling up to their little stamps. The obsession is as bizarre as it is homogeneous. If it was just one country, they’d get a let, but when I enter Togo for just three hours and lose three good pages of my passport in the process, one can only hum in amused disbelief.
But, hey, if Africa wasn’t TOTALLY LUDICROUS, then it wouldn’t be Africa now, would it?
The morning began as early as it possibly could on the overnight bus from Windhoek in Namibia. We crossed the border around 4am, getting into the pleasant town of Uppington later that morning. I didn’t have a ticket for the connecting bus and (after being told that all the buses were full until next Monday) proceeded to beg for a space on the bus. Luckily, somebody hadn’t turned up, so I managed to snag a seat to Pretoria.
The Intercape bus service seems to be run by a Brian Souter-esque evangelical Christian, which made the choice of on-board movies rather less than compelling. If I want to be preached at, I’ll go to a church thank you very much, I have little time for people who abuse a captive audience to proliferate their own world-view. I found the whole experience, erm… rude. It’s not like I can shut off my ears, and after an entire day of this glurge, I was ready to set up my own chapter of the South African Satanist Society.
I was particularly embarrassed when the hostess thanked God for getting us to Pretoria safely, rather than, you know, the driver who had ACTUALLY got us there. It reminded me of those egomaniacs who thank God for curing their cancer, when in reality it was a small army of specialised doctors, surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, scientists and researchers who saved their life. I doubt too many people bother to track down all the people they should be thanking, but it would make a good television show.
The bus journey was made more tolerable by the fact the bus was comfortable, the roads were, well… roads and we stopped a good number of times for food and drink, which was provided by various clean, snack-filled service stations along the way.
Something that I think is much more shocking than what you see in much of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is what you don’t see – and South Africa, being a developed nation, really drove this home. In most of the countries that I’ve travelled through in this continent, you see no industry, no manufacturing (when did you last buy something with ‘Made In Gabon’ stamped on it?), no farms bigger than subsistence-level plots, no farm equipment, no decent housing, no decent hospitals, no decent schools (at least not for the locals) and, most horrifying of all, hardly any elderly people. In fact, thanks to Malaria, AIDS, war, malnutrition and road accidents, over half of the population of SSA is under the age of 18.
Luckily for South Africa, it has all the mod cons associated with modern life (which, having just struggled through the last vestiges of the 17th century, I can quite honest say is not rubbish), and the journey was similar to one you would take across the USA.
I got chatting to a couple of South African guys on the bus. One of them, Jared, filled me in on the beat of modern South Africa. Apparently, Pretoria is the capital of the ‘Boarvost Eaters’ (the Afrikaans), Johannesburg is just as dangerous as everyone thinks it is and Cape Town is the best bit (shame I won’t be seeing it on this trip).
By the time we got to Jo’burg, it was dark and the first thing that greeted us in the murder capital of the world was, yes, a murder. A body bag at the side of the road, police cordon and two police cars, their lights flashing. I’ll be pressing on to Pretoria, if it’s all the same to you, thank you.
Arriving at around 9pm, I jumped a taxi to the Backpackers on Glyn Street (right next to the British High Commission). A little tired after my marathon coach journey from Windhoek, I was planning for an early night – but first I wanted something. I wanted something more than the desert wants the rain… I wanted KFC.
You really, really don’t miss something until it’s gone. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country that has no KFC, (according to The Onion, Islamic, Jewish and Christian leaders hold a symposium each year celebrating their mutual love of chicken) but West and Central Africa have not a single outlet of the Colonel’s Finest in like 25 different countries. And as much as I bemoan American fast food culture, there are times when only a KFC will do.
After four months of Africa throwing everything it has at me, I felt I deserved it.
After devouring three pieces of original recipe like the Kraken (just three pieces, no coke and no fries thank you), I was walking back to the hostel when I realised I could also do with a drink. So I dropped in to ‘Cool Runnings’, a log-cabin style affair with good music playing. Now drinking on your own is sad. Even when I’m travelling on my tod, it is a very rare occasion that I’ll go into a bar without company, if I do, I’ll always be armed with my laptop or a book to read. The same rule applies to restaurants and cinemas. Although in a cinema, having a book doesn’t help.
In this case, I just intended to swig down a bottle of the local grog and then return to the Backpackers and go bo-bos.
The cute barmaid asked where I was from, I said Liverpool, she said she wanted to ask me something and before I knew it, I was knee-deep in conversation with the barstaff and barflies of Cool Runnings. The bar closed at god-knows o’clock and I was invited to join the staff on a good old-fashioned student night out.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
By the time we got to the place with the juke box and pool table (that’s pretty much all I remember of it), I was well and truly tanked-up and ready to take on the world. The barmaid, Mary Jane (or MJ – finally, I get to meet a chick called MJ) and her mate Eileen looked after me, eventually we ended up taking the party back to Eileen’s flat in the middle of town.
Ah, the beer vortex. I can’t recommend it enough.
Eileen’s flat was the stuff of all things that you’d expect to see if you went home with a girl from the Krazy House – vampire books, fairy tales, kick-ass CDs and DVDs, a hundred different ways of predicting the future… and, of course, a poster of Jack and Sally.
Eileen and I sat up arguing about nothing important until daybreak, while the others mooched around doing whatever it is you do in situations that you know you won’t remember properly in the morning. The whole shebang was a breath of fresh air – reminded me of a quality night out in Liverpool. These guys weren’t charity workers, they weren’t here to do a job, the conversation didn’t centre on the horror and futility of modern Africa – they lived here, this was their life, their home.
After 40 minutes kip, I headed out to the High Commission to get myself a new passport.
Country Count: 113
The British High Commission in Pretoria is a little tricky to find – I wandered about for about half-an-hour before I realised that the building with no sign and no flag was in fact our jolly old embassy.
I was served by a Scottish lady, who informed me that my new passport would take 10 days to come through and cost a whopping TWO HUNDRED QUID. Now being both in a rush and on a shoestring, this was something of a body blow. I cursed myself for not demanding that the border guards were a little more careful where they plonked their stamps. You can get away with random blots of ink peppered throughout your passport as long as they all stay congregated on the one page, but thanks to Africa’s lust for page-hogging glory (I have come to the conclusion that the amount of space in one’s passport taken up by entry and exit to one country is inversely proportionate to the country’s general feeling of self-worth).
The smallest stamp in my passport is China, a tiny but fierce red hexagonal affair, beautifully understated, meanwhile Gabon managed to sprawl itself, much in the manner of a lethargic teenager, over a whopping 3 pages, a total of nine separate stamps.
Making up for something, are we Gabon? The USA and Canada both have tiny stamps, and, hell Europe has no stamps at all, if you’re European.
Anyway, I didn’t figure I could do much about the price, but a bit of old school come-on-love-we’re-all-in-this-together brought the 10-day waiting period down to picking it up on Monday. I even got to keep hold of my old passport for the weekend, so I could make a break for the border with Botswana.
I then headed out to find bus times to Gabarone, the capital of Botswana. This turned out to be improbably difficult. I was, however, helped out by the nice folks at STA Travel, who probably deserve a mention since I also booked my original flight to South America through them.
Nearly all of the buses were full, unless I headed over to Jo’burg, which I didn’t fancy – Pretoria is a nice place and I felt safe there. I had missed all the buses for today, but there was a bus tomorrow morning. I had to shlump it all the way to the other side of town (the flaming taxi driver dropped me off a mile from the Bus Station, and everybody I asked for directions pointed me the wrong way. I ended up getting another taxi, which annoyed me no-end. I did manage to get a ticket for the next day’s bus, but for some illogical reason, I wasn’t allowed to buy a ticket back to Jo’burg (I had to buy that in Jo’burg).
It’s infuriating rules like this that really put me off Africa; nothing is ever easy. Crikey, it’s even worse than London.
LONDON: Just Like Home, Only A Little More Awkward
So I’d have to set off with blind abandon, hoping against hope that I could cadge a bus back to Jo’burg on Sunday. The nice folks at Lonely Planet had set me up with an interview on South African Breakfast TV on Monday, so failure was not an option. It also crossed my mind that they may employ a Suzanna Reid-a-like (the Jennifer Connelly of Breakfast Telly) who I could flirt outrageously with for the amusement of the hoi-polloi. I wanted to be there.
I’ve been slowly reconstructing my Laptop after the Congolese Police sabotaged it, so I headed to the local pub/internet wifi hotspot and wasted away my afternoon downloading, uploading and offloading to try and get my plucky little Dell Latitude X1 back up to speed.
Oh, and if one more person suggests I buy a Mac, I am going to shove my iPod where the sun don’t shine and enquire if it has crashed (like it does EVERY DAY) doing the incredibly difficult task of playing music. A few weeks ago, the nasty little Salacious Crubb of a thing decided to delete every song for no good reason other than it was bored of ALWAYS playing the same 5 songs (out of a choice of 4000) whenever I shuffle-shake the damnable thing.
In the evening, I headed back towards the backpackers to see if Andy, the British guy who had been living in Thailand (FAR!) too long (if that’s even possible), wanted to come and see District 9 with me.
Funnily enough, I met him halfway – he was coming to see me! District 9 it was then, although Andy took a little bit of convincing – he hadn’t been to the cinema since Howard The Duck (and who could blame him?). Knowing that the way to an Englishman’s heart is through his damaged liver, we went to the off-license so we could smuggle in a couple of bottles of whiskey. Why is there never any Mad Dog 20-20 when you need it?
The film was (as you will know if you’ve seen it) bloody HILARIOUS. Doublely so, given that Andy and I were gaffawing at the ridiculous South African accents all the way through (something our fellow patrons failed to find amusing, I really can’t see why). Prawns! I have to say, it was pretty cool watching a sci-fi movie that was set a few miles down the road.
After that, we headed over to Cool Runnings, at which I proceeded to lose all track of pretty much everything (including Andy). But they did play Killing In The Name Of, which made me happy. Once again, I was whisked around town by unknown forces, taken to that place with the Juke Box and Pool Table (and in this case I was expected to play, something that probably wasn’t such a good idea given that by this point I could neither see nor stand properly) and woke up the next morning in my dorm bed not knowing how or why I had managed to get back home in one piece still clutching my camera and laptop.
Oh, the beer scooter, shall I count the ways…
A little water to help slacken my brains outer membrane and I shook off my hangover. Andy and I compared notes from the previous evening, but both our notebooks draw a resolute blank. I guess it’s like Woodstock – if you can remember, you weren’t really there.
I threw my clothes into the Laundry to pick up on Monday (along with my passport) and headed over to the bus station.
The bus would be getting in to Gabarone really late, and Botswana is terribly expensive, so I opted to get off at the last South African town before the border and spend the night there. This made as much sense as anything I plan to do while travelling, which is usually very little sense at all.
So I found myself in the little town of Zeerust, which looked so much like Australia I did a double take. Made me miss Mandy and Anzac Biscuits and Lamingtons and Arnott’s Shapes and Mandy. Off the map, so to speak, I stepped off the bus in the dark and asked the first person I met if there was a guesthouse in town.
Luckily, there was, but unluckily I had to walk half a kilometre down darkened side streets to get there. South Africa is the crime capital of the world, and here’s bobbins here walking down a deserted side street in a town he doesn’t know looking for a guesthouse he doesn’t exactly know the location of, weighed down with a camcorder, a laptop and all my tapes and sundry. It was a tense walk, but soon I was inside the Good Hope guesthouse breathing a sigh of relief.
My hosts were a wonderful Afrikaan girl called Nenien and her boyfriend. Nenien’s parents ran the guesthouse, but were attending a music festival this weekend. We whiled away the evening sitting in the communal room chatting, drinking and watching telly. They even made me a steak (the BIGGEST I EVER SEEN!) dinner. What was even more wonderfully wonderful was that they let me stay for free.
This is only my third night in South Africa, but I have already decided that I’m in love. Miles better than I thought it would be, with some of the friendliest people on the continent. All I knew from the television was that South Africa was full of Lethal Weapon 2-like racists, violent criminals and pant-wettingly stupid politicians (I trust you all know the story about President Zuma thinking that it would be okay to have sex (rape?) with a HIV-positive woman if he had a shower afterwards. Ygads, he’d give George W. Bush a run for his money in Dr Thicko’s school for the Thick).
So far, nobody I’ve met has been racist at all. Okay, they might be putting on a mask for the tourists, but I haven’t experienced any of it. I haven’t even heard a good old fashioned hackney cab driver ‘I’m not racist but…’. And I’ve got tremendously drunk with these guys, so you might have expected something to slip out, but no. I have to say, this is somewhat of a surprise as many South African I’ve met elsewhere have been as full of contempt for blacks as Jim Davidson driving drunk through Noddytown.
However, the violent crime here though is very real (as I saw for myself on Thursday night in Jo’burg), and the government are doing the usual trick of skirting around the issue and using bluster and misdirection – the problem is drugs/ unregistered mobile phones/ Hollywood movies/ Marilyn Manson (delete where appropriate).
Maybe the problem is that after 15 years of being in power, the ANC party (against which there is no effective opposition – always a mistake) has comprehensively failed to provide decent state-funded housing for the poor and disenfranchised stuck in what they optimistically call ‘informal dwellings’. I don’t work in marketing, so I’ll just call them what they are – slums.
Normally in Africa, everyone in the urban centres live in slums (or on the street) except for the 1% of the country that work for the government or oil company. But in South Africa, there are plenty of people living in normal houses (i.e. not in a tin shack with no water or electricity), this gives there a much higher incentive to commit crime. Put simply, there’s nothing in Sierra Leone worth stealing.
What’s weird about South Africa though is the level of violent crime. People don’t just rob you, they rob you and then kill you anyway. The stories I’ve heard would make your hair stand on end. But then I hear that there’s no effective deterrent. There are many corrupt coppers, the police service is grossly underfunded and FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE WHO PUT THAT DOLT ZUMA IN CHARGE?
Okay I hear you say, South Africa politicians might have all the intelligence of your average three-year-old, but what’s new there? With the improbable exception of Stephen Fry, people are generally frightened by people smarter than they are – it seems to hardly ever translate into votes. Look at George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Silvo Belussconi, Jacques Chirac – fools and jackanapes to a man. Maybe Stephen Fry should stand for parliament… But musing aside (and the sad fact that I’ll have to lose half my brain in a car accident if I ever want to pursue a career in politics) South Africa desperately needs somebody in charge with more than two brain cells to rub together in charge – especially as the world will be descending on the place next summer for the 2010 World Cup.
But with a leadership that won’t even condemn the crimes of Robert Mugabe, how can it even hope to tackle the crimes committed by its own citizens?
Best blog entry title of The Odyssey?
Up at 6am and down to the nearby service station where one goes to cadge a lift to the border. Was waiting until 9am before (finally) a minibus came and picked me up. The border with Botswana was a surprisingly long way away, but after some mucking about in a local village, the bus got to the frontier, I got my entry stamps and crossed the border.
Botswana is Sub-Saharan Africa’s one and only success story. I say this because (unlike every other country in SSA), it has had both free and fair elections and a stable economy since independence. While every other country in SSA has been steeped in bloodshed, corruption, greed and stupidity, Botswana shines out like a beacon of hope across the Kalahari and beyond.
I recently read The Bottom Billion, a book that I can’t help but recommend. In it, the author Paul Collier talks about meeting with the government of the Central African Republic. He asked them where they saw themselves in twenty years time. “Burkina Faso!” they replied.
We asked 100 people where they wanted their basket-case of a country to be in twenty years time, you said Burkina Faso, our survey said…
The top answer, C.A.R., is Botswana. Get with the programme. Incidentally, Botswana is the only Southern African country with the balls to slag off that monster Robert Mugabe and it therefore gets my vote.
It cracks me up that anyone who has a pop at Mugabe is slurred as a racist. Given the huge numbers of blacks his government has murdered or sent into exile (one third of the entire population of Zimbabwe, pop pickers!), it’s a bit like someone calling you anti-Semetic for slagging off Hitler.
My original plan was to take the bus from Windhoek in Namibia via Gaborone in Botswana to Pretoria in South Africa, crossing the Kalahari in the process, but the bus schedules did not tally with my schedule. So I had ended up going to SA first and Botswana (unfortunately) became just a border hop. As I needed to hurry back to Jo’burg, I didn’t have the time to go and check out the capital (and in any case, it started to rain), so I clocked my GPS and headed back the way I came.
The road back to Zeerust was a lot quicker (I think the rain put the driver off mucking about in villages) and I found myself chatting with a couple of – yes – nuns from Gaborone. Carmel, the older nun, was originally from Ireland and still hadn’t given up her Irish lilt, even after nearly forty years of living in Southern Africa. Talk about falling on your feet – out of all the missionary postings she could have been lumbered with, she gets the one country out of the SSA’s forty-four that doesn’t go completely cock-a-loop after the colonists left.
Finding myself back in Zeerust, I picked up my bag from the Good Hope Guest House, said my fond farewells and then worried about how the hell I was going to back to Jo’burg. After enquiring at the local Shoprite Supermarket, I found out that there were no coaches until the following morning.
Humph. What now?
I headed over to the nearest petrol station. There were loads of minibuses there and I asked if they were going to Jo’burg or Pretoria. Yep, they were, but they were full. I’m a little desperate. No worries mate, just walk up the road and there’s a bunch of minibuses, just take the next one that fills up. They all go to Jo’burg.
Why didn’t somebody tell me?
Now I understood – the minibuses that buzz around South Africa are not recommended for tourists. Too dangerous, they say! Too dangerous? Bah! I’ve done the Lagos-Calabar ThunderRoad Minibus Rally without a safety belt, travelled down El Camino de la Muerte in a bus held together with sticky tape and crossed 300 miles of open ocean in a wooden fishing boat! Ygads, what are you on about, man?
I laugh danger in the face and kick peril between the legs.
I wish somebody had told me about the minibuses before today – to quote the great Indian philosopher Tony The Tiger, they’re GREAT! Not only did it cost a fraction of the price of the big coaches, they’re twice as fast and you don’t have to put up with bizarre Evangelical programming on the television, because there are no televisions!
As an added bonus, they only take as many people as there are seats. Which makes a change…AFRICA I’M LOOKING AT YOU!
We got to Jo’burg so fast, it made my head spin. My driver was a Zulu dude (headdress and earrings, oh yes) who seemed to know what he was doing. That is until I reached central Jo’burg and EVERYBODY GOT OUT, leaving muggins here the only one in a minibus in a traffic jam in the middle of murder central with my bags on my lap and a door that wouldn’t lock. I put on my jumper, covered my hands and dipped my hatted head as my buttocks became one, although not with the universe if you know what I mean.
After a full forty minutes of WHITE-HOT TERROR, we escaped the central Jo’burg traffic jam and I had hopped a taxi towards David’s house. David is a mate of mine from Liverpool who’s been living in Johannesburg for three years. He came to meet me at what was once the Sundeck Bar in the Norwood area of town. While I was waiting, I found myself chatting with a guy from Zimbabwe (I’ve met more people from Zimbabwe here than South Africans I swear) who, like most of his fellow countrymen, are waiting for Mugabe to drop dead so they can go home again. Imagine being exiled from your home and having to wait for a man – one man – to die or be killed or (here’s a good idea) RETIRE just so you can return to your life, your family, your friends and everything you know.
It’s not fair. It really isn’t.
Once I got to David’s house, I saw why he had decided to stay in this massive Arkham Asylum for the last 3 years – my word, to get yourself a pad like this in London, you’d have to be on half a million a year. So few people want to work in Jo’burg any more, the ones that do live the life of Riley.
David’s dad had come over to visit, and by jingo it was nice to hear a good old-fashioned Scouse accent again. Made me miss The Jacaranda and the Docks and Sefton Park and Dale Street.
One of David’s mates was celebrating his birthday that night, so we picked up David’s lovely girlfriend and headed over to the bar on the top floor of the swankiest hotel in town. After five months of slumming it in grotsville, I felt somewhat out of place with my dirty t-shirt and ripped jeans (not a fashion statement, believe me!) but the beer and pizza went down a treat. David’s mates were cool, although the stress of living in a city where you could lose everything (including your life) had obviously taken a toll on these guys. Most spoke about getting out, others worried about the fact that the ANC have over 75% of the vote – what’s to stop them pulling a Zimbabwe? They spoke like people living at the foot of the volcano. Okay, the soil is rich and fertile, but what if…
Crikey, I could have done without this early start, but it’s all power for the cause. Today in a move guaranteed to get me another 500 clicks on this website, I had been invited to appear on Breakfast Television; always an ambition of mine.
David graciously hauled his ass out of bed to take me down to the ‘Sunrise’ studios. With his gleaming, smart banker’s suit and tie and me in my scruffy jeans and T-Shirt, he couldn’t have more like my agent if he tried. Soon enough I was on the couch in front of the cameras nattering about my adventures thus far with the presenter, whose name was also Graham (I think it was spelt Graeme, but you can’t have everything, even if you quite like diphthongs).
It was one of those days when I thought, heck…I love my job! Who else gets to bum around the world for a living? Suddenly all the crap that I’ve crawled through to get to South Africa seemed worth it, and it put me in a good attitude for the task ahead: the next 86 countries.
After the show, I returned to David’s place to pick up my stuff and say ta-ra to his dad. David was now achingly late for work, so we had to be quick. My next task was to get to Pretoria and pick up my new passport (as well as my laundry!).
After a bit of Zen Navigation, David dropped me in the middle of Jo’burg and after a fond farewell, I headed to the bus station, which was surprisingly massive. I mooched about for half an hour and was recognised by a couple of people – ah, my first brush with infamy. I felt a surge of regret that I didn’t get my bits out and wave them at the camera. Soon I had boarded a bus for Pretoria.
Brilliantly enough, nobody asked me for a ticket or anything, so I managed to bag myself a free ride. Christ knows, I need a free ride. I’ve been too scared to look at my bank account since March. It only takes an hour to get to Pretoria, so it’s not like I was stowing away or anything.
Pretoria, glorious Pretoria, one of the most laid back capital cities in the world (in fact, it’s only a third of a capital city, the others being Bloemfontein (birthplace of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, no less) and Cape Town); although I have to say it’s not as laid back as Canberra, Australia, which seems to be in a coma.
After purchasing my ticket to Durban from the bus station (it left at 8 that night), I headed straight to the British High Commission (Commonwealth nations get High Commissions, the other 150 get Embassies or Honorary Consuls – the losers) and with no delay or inconvenience, I was presented with brand new passport number 76xxxxxxx. The guy even smiled at me as he handed it over. Maybe he’d seen Sunrise.
So then back to the backpackers to get my gear, and there was Andy cooking up a feast for his breakfast. I honestly didn’t give him the puppy-dog eyes, but he decided to share it with me anyway… steak and egg and beans and mmm. After brekkie, we decided it might be an idea to head to the pub. How marvellously British of us.
So we bundled ourselves into Cool Runnings and set up stall at the bar. I had a stack of programmes to (re)download, including Skype, so I was happy to abuse the free wi-fi. I was also happy to see Eileen again working behind the bar. I was less happy about the raving nutcase who (despite our best efforts to persuade him otherwise) decided that Andy and I were his besht mates and that what we would really like is for him to annoy the hell out of us all afternoon with his mad-as-a-hatter antics. The type of guy who, whilst you are deep in conversation with somebody else, will forcefully tap you on the shoulder and show you a postcard he’s just picked up from the ‘Free Postcard’ stand for the new series of Survivor and say triumphantly “what do you think of THAT? Eh?” as if he’s just solved Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Andy reckoned it was too many drugs taken in the past, so let that be a warning, kids.
Plus he liked U2, so there was nothing down for him.
But as I said, it was nice to see Eileen again. As the morning effortlessly segued into the afternoon, I found myself getting progressively more intoxicated, although (as is the manner of Dionysus’s bewitching ways) I didn’t notice it at the time. My bus wasn’t until 8pm – I was supposed to be shopping for new jeans (seriously, mine were beyond their last legs) but the pull of the beer and the company (not including the nutcase, obviously) was far more enticing.
By 7pm, I could barely see; I had been taken on a run with a girl in a car that I thought would end up at the coach station, but ended up back at the pub and then was taken by her fella (who promptly accused me of trying to hit on his girlfriend!) to the coach station in double-fast time, tyres almost screeching as we arrived just in the nick of time to catch my overnighter to Durban. The lady taking my ticket didn’t think the unfunny joke I made about not having a ticket was very funny and accused me of being drunk. Struck dumb with indignation (how dare you! I’ll tell YOU when I’ve had enough – falls over), I muttered an apology, got onboard, took out my laptop to write up some blog and promptly fell fast asleep instead, speeding southwest towards the Indian Ocean and my next quarry: Lesotho, Nation 115.
I actually didn’t want to go all the way to Durban – I wanted to get off at a place called Pietermaritzburg. I heard you could get minibus from there to Underberg, just a few miles from the Sani Pass – the fabled border with Lesotho. By some unholy magic, I woke up at 4.19am – quite amazing luck considering how drunk I was yesterday.
I looked about – we were approaching Pietermaritzburg – ha! Timing or what? Within half an hour, I was at the train station as dawn began to break. Across the road at the all-night convenience stall is where the minibuses left from and I was only waiting for about 30 minutes before the first one arrived and trundled me off to Underberg. Well, I should say towards Underberg as about fifty kilometres away from my goal, he chucked me and the other hapless passengers off the bus – he was going the ‘other way’.
So we waited for a good while, me as impatient as ever (won’t I ever learn?) pacing up and down. Eventually I found myself squeezed into the back of a small van with eight other passengers heading to Underberg. Upon arrival, I sniffed out what I wanted – a big bus with ‘Sani Pass’ written all over it. But it was full – get a tour, the driver suggested. His bus was a tour bus – you go up in the morning, have a look at a typical Lesotho village, grab a bite to eat at the highest pub in Africa and you get back for about 4pm.
Excellent. Just what I was after. I found a tour company and asked if they had any spaces. Indeed they did and within an hour (after some yummy Spar breakfast – there’s always a goddamn Spar), I was in a 4×4 heading up to the Kingdom in the Sky along with a top bloke called Doktor Daniel and his girlfriend, a trauma surgeon and nurse combo from Germany.
Now for a little history lesson about Lesotho, one of the smallest countries in Africa. Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa, which doesn’t make much sense when you see it on a map, but when you see it in real life you go, “ahh, now I get it – it’s a country in the mountains – like (but substantially bigger than) Andorra”. Apart from Vatican City and San Marino (which are arguably too small to count), I can’t think of another goodly-sized nation that is surrounded by another in such a way. It all came about because of a fruity bit of colonial administration. When Britain decided to pull the old “do you have a flag?” trick on the black and Afrikaans population of South Africa, Lesotho was already a British Protectorate, so I guess we had to go on protecting them (as opposed to our first preference, which would no doubt have been good old-fashioned torment and subjugation).
Oh, and it’s pronounced Lee-Soo-Too, the people are called Basotho (Baa-Soo-Too) and the language is called Sesotho (See-Soo-Too). Now you see soo too.
The track up the mountain was as beautiful as it was perilous. I was glad we were in a 4×4 and our driver seemed to know what he was doing (an ex-policeman, no less). I find it hard to describe in words what it was like to breathe fresh, crisp, cool mountain air; free from petrol-fumes, dust, drains, sewage, litter and the usual crap that Africa throws up at you.
As I drew the sweet clear air into my lungs, I felt like a smoker who had finally kicked the habit – fresh, clean, renewed and ready to take on the world. The landscape was awesome – towering giants of stone, rocks perched on precipices, crystal-clear waterfalls trickling down the mountainside. It made me want to yodel, but that would ruin the tranquilly – oh, the tranquilly! Out of the 4×4; no motors, no engines, no constant vibration: just me and my mountain fortress in the sky.
Doktor Daniel and his girlfriend were wonderful companions on our journey up over the Sani Pass – which is just as well as I had no idea how long it was going to take – it’s only a few kilometres, but it’s uphill all the way, the road isn’t sealed and there are no crash barriers. After a couple hours of switchbacks and inclines that would make your head spin we reached the border, a mere formality, as my crisp new virgin passport enjoyed its first glob of ink – an exit stamp for South Africa. We then headed to a village to check out the mountain lifestyle of the Basotho people.
The huts in which the Basotho (in the village we visited at least) were great – 100% organic, thick, thick mud-brick walls and thatched roofs. They also – cunningly – place a bloody large flattened stone under the dwelling before they start to build, so the fire in the middle of the hut radiates its heat along the floor. As much as I loved the organic architecture, the poverty of the average Basotho was not a joy to behold. With 45% unemployment, many of the men end up working in mines in South Africa – a surefire way to come home HIV positive if ever the was one. Getting to grips with the scale of the HIV epidemic (30% of all adults are infected) here is probably not something that the government here can even contemplate – I certainly can’t. But at least they’re trying.
After our trip to the village, we headed off to what my tum-tum secretly desired – a drink and something to eat. Luckily for us, a mad scouser (YES, WE GET EVERYWHERE!) had set up a pub at the top of the pass – arguably the highest pub in Africa.
There, I met yet another barking mad Englishman, who had left his London home the previous February and decided to cycle to Cape Town. Why the hell not, eh? So that’s exactly what he’s doing – down through Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa to here. There must be something in the water in Britain that makes us all quite delightfully daffy in the head.
After lunch, we began our descent (which I have to admit was hairier than the climb) and soon enough, we were back in merry old Underberg just in time for me to catch the 4pm(ish) minibus to Durban. Happy days.
Doktor Daniel was leaving South Africa the next day, so he loaded me up with all the trauma kit I would ever need (useful if I ever need to sew my arm back on). I did mention he was a doktor didn’t I? Daniel also gave me an unwanted shirt that he had just (accidentally) bought. I love people, I really do.
I haven’t met a single Vogon in days. Life is good.
Once I descended upon Durban, it was my intention to hook up with Jared, the guy from the Intercape bus when I was coming into South Africa last week. Unfortunately he was out of town, so I headed for the Durban Backpackers, stuffed my face full of pizza and had an early night.
Being a massive four months behind schedule now, I don’t really have time for dossing about, but today I really needed to get things done. Jeans and teeth where the order of the day. If people are donating me their clothes, then it’s a surefire sign that my Levis ain’t lookin’ the besht. Also, given that the filling I had done in by the dentist in Spain fell out within two days, I thought it would be smart to get my tooth fixed before my high-sugar diet did any more damage to my pearly off-whites.
So off I plodded to the nearest dentisht, getting an appointment for 11am, all is good. Then I headed towards the city, with an eye on getting a taxi. Did I mention how difficult it was to get a taxi in South Africa? I should have done. They just don’t seem to exist. In Pretoria, for example, there are three (and there are only ever three) waiting at the bus station to take you where you need to go, but should you stand outside one of the biggest shopping malls in the city, you’d be lucky to get a taxi next time Hale-Bopp comes into view.
The other option are the minibus taxis, which seem the reserve of blacks – is this apartheid by the back door? If you’re a whitey, do you need to know someone with a car? The minibus taxi I got in Pretoria the previous week was a disaster – it didn’t take me to where I wanted to go and I ended up wandering about like a tool for the best part of an hour looking for the bus station myself.
In hindsight (which, let’s not forget is always 20-20!), I should have headed back to the backpackers and got them to ring a private-hire taxi, but it was uphill!! Sod that. I strode stridently down towards downtown (which was downhill, obviously), asking everyone I could, where I could find a taxi. Everyone gave me different directions (as is usually the case when asking for directions and is also why REAL MEN DON’T ASK FOR THEM, GODDAMNIT) and soon enough, I ended up crossing a massive intersection, hitching my little canvas bag (containing, amongst other goodies, my camcorder and passport) up on my shoulder.
I should have just painted a luminous target on my chest and be done with it. South Africa. Crime Capital of the world. Sh*t.
Luckily for me (I am a lucky so and so, it has to be said… have you seen my girlfriend?), an ambulance that had stopped at a red light ahead of me, started to reverse back towards me.
“Get in! Get in quick!”
On-board was the driver and a chick paramedic, together with a guy that I took to be a medical student. They may well have just saved my life.
“Do you have any idea how close you were to being mugged then?”
“Er… I do now.”
Apparently, I was being followed by a chap who was rather notorious for that kind of shenanigans. Thanking goodness (I love goodness, the best thing about humanity), I rode with the ambulance crew into the city centre where they dropped me exactly where I needed to be to get a new pair of Levis.
Thanking them profusely (and feeling like a ten ton t*t), I headed towards my quarry – a pair of blue 501s, 33 waist (fat b**tard) and 32 leg. Within ten minutes (in your face, GIRLS!), I was walking out of the shop with my new fancy pants. The old ones I donated to the bin.
I also tried to find a new pair of Vans – shut up, I’m racing around the world, this is no time for trying something new – but all the ‘new’ stock were these penny-dreadful white soled creatures with thin canvas uppers. They’d last five seconds on the road I was taking, so I stuck with what I’ve got (after nearly 300 days of relentless pounding they’re still going – but for how much longer?) and headed back to the dentist’s.
This time, I took a taxi.
Now I have to tell you about my trip to the dentist, ‘cos it was BRILLIANT. Best trip to the dentist EVER. He had a look at the gaping hole in my lower right first molar and put it bluntly. “I could fill it, but it would just fall out again.”
“But what I could do is…”
“Oh. My. God.”
The lovely dentist said that I could get a new porcelain crown, which would be CARVED BY A 3D PRINTER. I said yes before I even asked the price. A 3D PRINTER? The pinnacle of my architectural thinking: the thing that will bring the masons back from the dead and carve statues, pillars, capstones, balustrades… oh sweet lord YES. Carve me a new tooth, good sir, there are possibly more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy but such wonders I am not FIT to imagine!
DO IT, MAN! DO IT NOW!!
And there, in the back room of the dentists, I watched it happen: before my very eyes, the 3D scan that the good dentist had conjured up of my missing tooth converted to 1s and 0s and was piped as if by magic into a machine the size of a office printer and there, oh yes, there, my tooth was forged before my very eyes, rendered exact to the nearest micrometre, buzz-cut via two diamond-tipped drills (and plenty of water). I almost fell over.
THIS TECHNOLOGY, more than any other, will dictate the future aesthetics of the world. Aye, the master masons may be dead and gone, but who needs them in a world were my filling can be rendered out of a ceramic block before my very eyes.
Just imagine the possibilities…
My lord, wonders upon wonders. And it was all so pedestrian. All so…common day. No fanfare, no ta-daaa! Just a piece of artificially rendered missing tooth, but to me it was so, so much more. If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.
A tenth of the price that it would have been in Britain (I’ll have you know!), my tongue glided over my new piece of orthodontistry with glee. I have now, in mouth, hopefully until the ends of my days, the proof (if it were ever lacking) that now, whatever beauty we render in our minds might be rendered in reality, free of human thumbs and frailties. We could sculpt the Black Taj, the capstone of Cheops, Da Vinci’s horse… the possibilities, the possibilities are endless. The future, our future, in my mouth. Heavens No, Hell Yeah.
I returned to the backpackers, mouth still numb and weird. I made a mistake, which was to be hungry, but then, I could never argue with my tummy when it needed something. And what it needed was a bunny.
Not a lovely hopping floppy-eared bunny, but a Durban bunny, a Chicken Tikka-Masala-dumped-in-half-a-loaf-of-white-bread of a dish served up by Indian ex-pats who know the secret of their spice. Never underestimate the power of spice – wars have been fought over pepper, opium and saffron. People have died for this stuff. Yep there it is – a Durban bunny, like what Ghandi possibly never ate when he was here. It’s slightly mad at first – who in their right mind would dump a Tikka Masala in half a loaf of bread? But it works, by God it works, damnit. And therefore gets no complaint from I.
However… I reached the Minibus ‘depot’ at 2pm. The last bus for Swaziland left at 1.30pm. If it wasn’t for that damn bunny… Gutted, I returned to the backpackers for another night, an early one at that. Durban’s not as fun as Pretoria. Humph.
Staggeringly early bus to Swaziland, but I needn’t have bothered. Let me explain; I rose at the butt-crack to get my ultra-early bus across the border into Swaziland, which is a bit like Switzerland only with different letters. I rode right on through the city of Manzini, the crossroads to Mozambique – maybe I should explain why… because I had heard a nasty rumour that Mozambique was no longer giving out visas at the border like Father Christmas, you had to go get that pesky stamp WHICH THWARTS ALL MY DREAMS in the nearest capital city, in Swaziland’s case, that would be Mbabane.
So I got another bus, not to Maputo, but to Mbabane. Strange, but true. There, I met the delectable Lilianna, my couchsurf contact. Lilianna’s from Portugal and she’s one of only two Portuguese teachers in the country, which kind of makes sense when you think that Swaziland only has too borders and one of them is with Mozambique – which speaks Portuguese. It was early afternoon and I figured that I had bags of time to sweet-talk the embassy into giving me a visa forth-hence. Only… bah! The rumours were falsehood! Balderdash and Tomfoolery. Damn those slippery tykes. I could have got a visa on the border.
If I had played my cards right, I could have been here in Mbabane last night (with the delectable Liliana) and been in Maputo by now, but I had blown it all on a bunny and a whim, dagnamit. But (as I can personally attest) worse things happen at sea and at least I had the delectable Liliana to play with. First up, we checked out Swaziland’s equivalent of Ayers Rock, a whopping great giant in the sky that you wouldn’t want to wake up on with a sore head.
Next we headed into town for a bit of opium. No, sorry, not opium… live music. Just as good. A guy singing with an acoustic guitar with his mate on bass playing music, sweet music. None of this fist-fingered Casio-keyboard crap that I’ve heard blasted out at distortion level elsewhere in Africa, but some great vibes, cool blues, swinging rhythm and kick ass rock n’ roll. Happy days.
I haven’t got the foggiest what the guy was singing about, but that never stopped me liking Sigur Ros, so pick your act up, FRANCE; choosing a random country entirely at random there. To top off the end of a great set in a bar that could have been the Ca Va in Liverpool (before they decided that Mexican Tequila fitted more with the French nomenclature), they played Hey Ya by Outkast. All was good.
But that was not the end of the night – the delectable Lilianna had other sights to show me. A restaurant, a little out of the way, but one that rustled up some proper bonza Swazi grub like no other. THIS IS WHY I TRAVEL. I have little interest in eating the same old, same old in every country I visit (KFC last week was a BREAK!) and the scran that the lady put on for us was epic. My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. Swaziland – you’re ALL RIGHT. I’ll be coming back to check on you in a few years, you see if I don’t.
You know when you should really be getting up but you just really can’t be bothered? That was me this morning. Feeling a little bad for waking Lilianna with my snooze alarm every 15 minutes from 5am, I eventually elected (after several recounts) to rise from my slumber somewhere around the wrong side of 7. Lilianna drove me down to the minibus park and before I knew it, I was whisked away back from whence I came to the crossroads town of Manzini. There, I caught another minibus to Mozambique, Nation 117, feeling like I’ve arrived at the party a little late.
But to be honest with you, even if I had left Durban on Wednesday, I would have only got to Mozambique yesterday, and the buses up north go VERY early in the morning, so I would have been stuck there until this morning anyway. I figure I’m only a day (not two) askew. The border was a breeze and Maputo, the capital no less (although you probably already know that, you little clever-clogs you) was arrived at, just in time to make arrangements for a comfortable coach ride up north tomorrow morning (VERY early) and to make a couple of new friends at the Base Backpackers (thoroughly recommended, by the way).
We went out for a few beers, but I (uncharacteristically) called time way before normal. Burning the candle at both ends and all that, thinking about it, I hadn’t had a lie-in since I was in jail. Which doesn’t really count. It’s not like Mandy brought me a cup of tea while we watched Grindhouse on the wall using my brother’s projector. So when the devil take the hindmost (whatever that means), I crashed out for an rather early (11pm) night. My coach was leaving at half four in the morning, so gimme a break.
Yep, back in Aff all right, back in Aff. First up, buses in Mozambique are not allowed to run at night (no street lights + drunk drivers = too dangerous), which is why the bus left at half-four in the morning (my taxi driver was even less than impressed than I). Secondly, the roads in Mozambique are in that kinda half-built stage that all African roads seem to be in north of the Tropic of Capricorn.
What was particularly amusing was the fact that responsibly for building roads in Mozambique (like the Empire) lies in the hands of the regional governors. Which means you’ll be hurtling along a lovely strip of Asphalt at 100 miles an hour when suddenly WHAM you cross a state boundary and suddenly you’re up to your bits in dust and cattle. This is what it was like all the way up to Beira, our destination on the east coast.
Now, once again I had made the exclusive decision to divert from my planned route and spend the night in a place that took me a few hundred kilometres away from the red road up to Cairo. There was a good reason for this: I had a couchsurf contact in Beira, and if I had got off at the crossroads at Inchope (which would have made more sense), I would have been left dangling slackly in the gargantuan hole of fate as I had no idea when (or if) the buses left from there to go up north to Tete, which was my elected destination.
Anyway, detours and tangents are all part of the story, so I found myself in Beira for the night, which is a bit like going to Liverpool to get to Scotland when you could have stayed in Preston – I don’t think it makes too much of a difference. And who in their right mind would want to stay in Preston? The may as well just call it DePreston and be done with it.
I was picked up from the bus station by the husband of Flore, in whose flat I would be surfing the zzz’s. I ended up seeing little of Beira, it was dark when I arrived and I was already beyond tired. I felt dreadful as we ate dinner, barely keeping my eyes open… mmm… the couch… let me surf the couch… But Flore was terrific company – a wonderfully crazy French hippy, who reminded me of the Dowricks and had been living in Madagascar for many years – Nation 123, I’ll be there soon! I wished that I had the stamina to keep on keeping on, but by half eleven, it was all a little too much for my psychosomatic functions to continue functioning and by 11:31, I was fast asleep.