Sunday, 23 February 2014

From one extreme to the next

Well, we didn't go to Lesotho as expected, except to hire a car from Avis at the airport. And how pleased I was to see an extensive solar photovoltaic array in front of the airport buildings. Lesotho sets an example! I also noted the gigantic Chinese-owned clothing factories on the way. 

We had planned to begin a circular tour that would take in the kingdom of Lesotho as well as a couple of South African mountain villages. But a beer festival had booked out the accommodation in Clarens for the first weekend, so we began the tour in the reverse direction. It was a pity to have missed the beer festival though!

Many of the main roads round here have potholes of a size I have not seen before. Signs saying "Potholes 40km" give an indication of what to expect, but you can cover perhaps 10km without incident at the permitted 120km/h only to encounter a further succession of kilometres with giant potholes spread liberally across the road with no further warnings. Wow. It makes driving incredibly stressful. One blink and you could write your car off. 

But the last 50km or so to the mountain village of Rhodes is on a dirt road. Guides and other information sources all reassured us that the road was fine for a 2WD. Which is what we had hired. Well, in wet conditions or after a storm, like when we tackled the two-hour drive along (or up) it, it wasn't. At times I wondered how we made it. You don't believe it will get worse but it does. 

The idea of driving back down in similar conditions was plainly rather frightening. When the following morning dawned bright and sunny and the muddy, gravel-spread 'road' began to dry, we decided to cut our losses and depart. Rain forecast for Sunday would have been the last straw. As a matter of fact the dry day that the forecast promised for Saturday was soon in doubt as giant black storm clouds surrounded the peaks above us. Were we pleased to be off!?

The drive back to Ladybrand was a solid seven hours, two of them on the dirt track and the rest spotting and dodging potholes on the main roads. With a thirty-minute break in Lady Grey for a toasted sandwich and coffee. 

Our memories of Rhodes. The Brit-owned Walkabout Inn is a lovely place run by extremely considerate and friendly people. We spent our one night in one of their self-catering cottages and ate in the inn itself, a delicious meal cooked by a young Afrikaner chef who just loves living there and for whom vegetarians present no problem. It's a trout fly-fishing area of some repute: we said yes to fish and were served two of the most wonderful trout imaginable. His milk pudding (a secret recipe!) was a real pleasure. And the mushroom omelettes for breakfast the next morning were a delight. 

And we met some delightful people (Afrikaners with fluent English) both here and in Lady Grey who offered generous help and advice on our journey. 

The village of Rhodes is a cluster of attractive cottages and houses with minimal signs of 'security', reached after passing the usual scatter of shacks for the blacks. There is a cafe cum gift shop, a petrol station, a library… Three weeks before we arrived a family of four became a family of two after being attacked when out for a walk by two black wildebeest. It is certainly a wonderful area to explore but the open area round Rhodes is quite limited: beyond that you are on private land, there are no public paths unless you walk along the road, and while in theory you can approach a farmer for permission to walk on his land, it could be quite a drive to locate a given farmer. 

By the way, I should mention that farmers tend to house their own black labour. Some farmers are more generous in their provision than others. Some of the houses are of a relatively reasonable size (I say relatively, note), well presented and shaded by trees. Others are plainly squalid. I imagine that these come with all the problems that tied cottages used to involve in the UK. I took some photos, but that's an acutely embarrassing process, the more so when conducted through the window of a shiny 3-litre 4WD. You think you are looking across the fields at a row of cattle sheds but then you see the washing hung over the fences to dry. 

It is easy to make the glib assumption that these people need very little and do not have our appetite for acquisition. Remember though that all who can afford it have satellite TV so know perfectly well how you and I live, as well as how the lucky minority in their own country lives. We think we live in a country of extremes of polarity of wealth. Take 80% or more of the population of Charlbury, give them each a pound a day, knock a couple of brieze block garages together to house each family in a sprawling settlement of 1000 homes beside the road beyond the station, lay on electricity and water, give them minimum land (less than we expect for a garden), and leave the other 20% living as they are presently accustomed, supported by an endless pool of ludicrously cheap labour, and you have the picture. The planners would be pleased: hardly any of them will have a car and they will walk to any job available between Witney and Chippy. And home that night. 

Don't worry though, it wouldn't be that many houses. Lots from the same families will share, I'm sure. 

And do we meet hostility and resentment as descendants of one of the colonial powers that stole their land and impoverished their recent ancestors? Surprisingly seldom. A couple of hundred yards from where I write is a street named Vorster Street. STILL! The country's last apartheid prime minister commemorated in a street name. Other streets celebrate Piet Retief and the Voortrekkers, the very people who swept through this country with their guns and coopted the land one and two hundred years ago. Why do the local blacks not paint out these signs?

A country of extremes and extraordinary contradictions. 

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