Sunday, March 02, 2014

One of the most amazing drives in Africa: Venda Sun 6

Risenga (front) on the piebald pony heading for the waterfall
from Malealea LodgeV e
Venda Sun 6

This year Giya leaves home and Mrisi returns. I'm a year away from 60. I began transcribing these diaries a year ago, after my last trip in July and August 2012. 

When Giya heard she'd been offered a place to study documentary photography it was as if one of the last remnants of their childhoods found a place for itself. 

I'm not sure I'll fulfill my intention to explore bringing up mixed race children. I record journeys, time away but in between I have raggedy notebooks - records of meetings, cuttings, reminders, lists, workshop plans in boxes on top of my wardrobe. My poems also record our lives. Giya once said to me that she couldn't read my poetry because it was like reading a diary. Children of writers find things that are not talked about on bookshelves, being read aloud, being read by strangers. This is an attempt to offer them something more - a record of the trips that gave them confidence as children to explain where their father came from, to discuss South Africa, to learn for themselves about the country, its culture, music, politics, to know their family. I hope these trips established a habit of regular visits and I know they gave them new landscapes to feel at home in. 

And South Africa feeds my work as much as it feeds Mrisi's music or Giya's photographs. These lines from 'Moteng Pass' are about Lesotho:

            Before we start that journey down
            past a man selling diamonds
            from an abandoned mine
            we stop to see the sun come up
            clouds flatten into broken lines
            and I remember why we came -
            a man on the highway from the Cape
            walking as if he could go on and on
            heading for the Moteng Pass
            its pastures in the sky, dangerous stars. 

(Fever Tree, Arc, 2003)

Tuesday 8 January 2002
We’re going pony trekking.  Set off for the Boetsela waterfall, through a village and down a steep path filled with rocks. Amazed the ponies can manage. At one point we pass the village where R’s pony lives – his is the only piebald - and it wants to go home. We’re going down the slope on rock, don’t understand how the ponies don’t slip.  I thought I’d be nervous about the city but it’s the country that scares me. We pass isolated houses and villages. M & G swim in the waterfall with local kids. R’s a real tourist with his video camera – at one point videoing us while he rides! We set off in the morning for the north of Lesotho. It’s described in the Rough Guide as one of the most amazing drives in Africa.

Wednesday 9 January
It takes us a day to reach Oxbow with a stop in Maseru. From Maseru to Leibe/Hlotse is flat and boring. The towns marked on the map are in fact collections of shacks selling tomatoes, fruit, maize, snacks. Apart from one enormous industrial estate in an unmarked town, there’s no industry - car repairs, masses of taxis. Everyone seems to be traveling all the time with plastic bags full of tomatoes. At Buthe Buthe we start climbing. Later at a kind of checkpoint 2 guys ask for money and sweets. The road climbs and climbs. Eventually we reach Moteng. It’s getting late. We see a lodge, decide to carry on. It’s 9 km of hairpin bends and incredibly steep climbs. The car temperature rockets. I have to go into first gear for most of the steepest slopes. When we reach the top it’s hit red. We stop. The engine’s making awful noises, cooling down. I’m terrified. It’s 7 pm and we’ve still no idea where Oxbow Lodge is. We’ve obviously found the Moteng Pass but have a way to go yet. We find an agricultural research place and they say Oxbow’s 5 miles. But we’re climbing again. I can’t imagine why we attempted this and all I can think about is that we have to go back the same way. The car’s overloaded, the mobile doesn’t work and a BMW’s passed us twice with no number plates. R’s convinced it’s hijackers. Mrisi and Giya are making up a song about falling off a cliff. When we reach Oxbow I’m close to collapse. The owner, a Greek guy called Costas, pours us both a Chardonnay. There’s a room. This place is in the middle of nowhere. He tells us he first came in 1967 and stayed. He’d been a road engineer.

We eat an enormous meal sink two bottles of wine. When we go to bed I can’t stop thinking of the drive. R says I wake up shaking, sit up in bed at 2 am terrified. I’ve never been so frightened. Most vehicles we see are 4x4s or buses. But Costas first came here in a normal saloon car. If it wasn’t for the fact we seem so overloaded, I might not worry so much, but even on minor slopes it strugges in 2nd. Nine km in 1st! Then I worry about the brakes. Or meeting a lorry. Or coach. We decide to stay 2 nights.

Thursday 10 January
R’s dreamed about his dead aunt coming to visit us on a horse. Thinks this is a good omen. I decide I should try Maya’s Bach Flower Remedy for panic. Rub lavender and geranium oil around liberally. There are little yellow weaver birds nesting outside our door, a colony of about 15 – 20. I sit and watch them, smoking a cigarette. The view is incredible, I wonder, though, if it’s worth the anxiety. R’s convinced the bar last night was packed with prostitutes. Later we go for a walk with the night porter as our guide - Mo's an ex shepherd - and he confirms R’s suspicions about the BMW. Says he knows the guy and that he’s barred from the lodge after doing a runner without paying.

There are sheep bells in the hills and the river’s noise. The generator stops overnight. We eat an enormous breakfast. The lodge works out at £33 or so full board – breakfast and supper – for all of us. Mo takes us walking up a mountain where cows are grazing. He meets a shepherd who wants ganja and cigarettes. We meet a young boy with a pony and two cows, take a picture with him. Up the mountain there’s crystal everywhere. Mo says there’s a diamond mine not far away.

There are guys mending a pylon. Mo tells us as soon as pylons go up they’re pulled down in the night by shepherds stripping the copper. They’ve never stayed intact long enough to carry any power.

Giya names the hill 'crystal mountain'. We walk back to the lodge, lunch and then the river where we find rock pools and a small natural jacuzzi. The rocks are baking, the wind comes up, the children wash their quartz and crystals.

A party of English people in the lodge are going further into the mountains. We’re sitting in the bar when the rain starts. This is what I was dreading. R talks about the shepherds we see sitting by the entrance as we return from our walk. They are statuesque, R says, different beings. They start as young boys and finish when they marry. They have an independence, self- sufficiency about them, so strong, like the young men we saw on the road at Buthe Buthe, a procession, their faces smeared red, wearing blankets and beads, a circumcision procession.

To be a shepherd is a rite of passage, to isolate yourself, be isolated, to understand self-sufficiency. A young man with short dreadlocks wearing a blanket fastened at the shoulder with a safety pin, a cloth around his waist short as a miniskirt, wellies to protect him from snakes.

In the bar after supper, Giya sits on the sofa with me. Mrisi spends his time front of the tv. I hope they didn’t hear the thunder and lightning. The rain's torrential. I imagine rock falls, the road flooding. Thunder continues.  The storm comes from nowhere. We may have to stay another night. If it goes on all night there’s no way we’ll be able to leave in the morning until we can be sure the road is passable. This is as far as you can get from Brighton.

I overhear someone in the bar saying he’d never driven up such a steep road. Perhaps the storm will pass. Perhaps I’m putting all my anxiety about this trip into the drive down the mountain. The pass is 3000 km, but there are minibuses doing it all the time. I can’t stop thinking about hairpin  bends, the children say I’m swearing a lot. I can’t believe anyone would build a road this high.

Friday 11 January
We leave at dawn. The rain has stopped. Mo is with us. It’s a hefty climb to the pass, but there's no traffic. The sun’s coming up in total wilderness. At the Moteng pass we look down at the road. There’s a group of shepherds towards the bottom, 15 to 20 of them, drunk at 6 am from a circumcision party in the hills. As we approach in 2nd gear, all the way, there’s a guy at the side of the road with diamonds for sale, says he used to work at a mine that’s now closed but goes back to dig them up. We reach Mo’s village and he points out his beautiful round house on the side of the valley. He sleeps at Oxbow during the week. 
As we reach the straight roads Oxbow Lodge seems more like paradise. It will be years before we can come back. Giya’s feeling car sick. We’re heading towards the N3 north but it’s hard to find. The border post back into South Africa has stinking toilets and we have to pay tax on the Sotho blankets we bought in Maseru, on top of the tax we paid in Lesotho.

We leave through the Caliedorp gate off the Buthe Buthe road. It takes us into the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, sanitized, closed in, guarded and immaculate. No shepherds, no shacks. The national park is part of the Drakensburg escarpment but we don’t see a single animal and the waterfall where we plan to have breakfast is little more than a weir leading into a dirty pond. Little point in staying. We head for Harrismith driving through endless fields until we come closer to Vereeniging. By the time we reach Palm Springs we’re shattered. The sweat’s falling off us. We have a night at Joe and Margaret’s. The house is like an oven. But the children are happy to see their cousins again.