Limpopo

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Swaziland had been interesting – more African than the affluent feel of its neighbor - and it had been strange to notice how few whites there were. I was now keen to head north, and make some progress on my return journey up the continent.

Instead of taking the main trunk road – or Great North Road – up to the Zimbabwe border, I picked out a route cross country heading in that direction. Instead of travelling across the high veldt plateau with little to distract from the monotony, I would wend my way along the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment – the range on my left - and the lowveldt and Kruger National Park on my right.

Crossing the border back into to South Africa, I got off the main road as soon as possible and struck out for Lydenburg, arriving there, a little circuitously, for lunch. The countryside was rolling hills, and very dry grasslands wiith few fences. Lydenburg was a surprise – entering town there were a number of tourist oriented shops and restaurants, and it was only later I realised it would receive a lot of traffic for the Kruger National Park, one of whose entrances was near.

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Resisting the temptation of Steers and the other chain fast food options entering town, I eventually pulled over at what I hoped I was looking for. And I got lucky, 'Froutjies' (“Little Wives” in my stab at Afrikaans?), a coffee shop, serving a really tasty fresh trout quiche which I followed with an indulgent chocolate pecan pie and espresso. My justification was
still that soon enough I’d be in culinary wasteland – this had been my practice the last month or two and my belly was by now showing it! Plenty of hardship ahead I reassured myself.

Tzaneen
That evening I reached the town of Tzaneen, a beautiful ride which brought me down off the mountainous Drakensberg escarpment into the markedly warmer low veldt as its called, the road flanked every few miles with private game reserves and tourist lodges. The Kruger National Park was a little further over to the east. Finding Satviks Backpackers a few kms out of town, I was welcomed into a rather ramshackle but quaint farm, guest cottages strung clustered down a slope looking onto a small damn. (Chatting to the owner later about their absence in ‘Coast to Coast’, the free backpacker bible for southern Africa, I learned it cost over €600 an entry.)

Generational Differences
The following morning the very friendly Zoely, a pretty woman in her early fifties who was part owner of the place, joined me at my breakfast table in the sunshine. Brought up in the Eastern Cape, she had been an actor in Johannesburg in her younger years. “I was hauled off to prison there for having pamphlets about a protest march. Spent a night there. It made the front page of the newspaper!” she said proudly, affirming her credentials before launching into the by now familiar rant about how South Africa had deteriorated. Zoely was saving up to “live somewhere in Europe. Its not safe here anymore”, she lamented. “An estate agent in town was just saying a few days ago that we should have security systems out here. You know, guards and fences. We’re sitting ducks is what she said.” I picked up on a definite fear for personal security, which I’d come across quite a bit in my travels through South Africa. Everyone it seemed had either had an experience of being robbed or knew of someone who had. “I grew up on a farm on in the Eastern Cape, and I don’t remember seeing as many black people as there are now.“ Quite unfortunately she added the expression “breed like rabbits”.
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Maybe the reason she was not exposed to many black people when growing up was because they had to live in separate designated areas, or reserves, and now didn’t. I felt it was sad to see this lady having grown up here in the apartheid era (with all its privileges for whites) unable to come to terms with the new South Africa, where indeed there are “lots of blacks now everywhere”, where she felt threatened by their presence. “They hate us you know,” she declared. I asked who did she mean, was that every black person, did she have any black friends? No, she replied, she didn’t.

Wildlife Documentary Maker
If Zoely typified one attitude of South Africans I’d encountered, Paul Henning in contrast was an example of a younger generation with less baggage (both pictured left). A wildlife documentary maker in his late twenties, he had introduced himself to me over the urinal. He too had an F650, and claimed I was “living his dream” (a humbling remark passed a few times to me in South Africa). In the morning sunshine, we chatted about my journey and also his travels, and he was able to recommend a number of spots on my route up the east coast of Africa (tracking the gorillas in Uganda was a travel highlight, but at USD500 a pop I don’t think I’ll be following him.) When I remarked on Zoely’s bleak take on living in South Africa now, it didn’t surprise me to hear his refreshing optimistism about his country’s future.

The Voortrekker
From Tzaneen, it was a gradual climb through scenic forested hills, at times cleared for banana cultivation which looked quite incongruous this far inland in the dry Limpopo region. I was also riding through South Africa’s principal tea plantations. After an hour or so, I joined the Great North Road before the town of Makhado, or Louis Trichardt as it was formerly known. Named after a renowned Voortreker leader in the early 19th century, he led his people from the Cape to find land to settle away from the hated British, across what is now South Africa, only to die of ‘the fever’ - malaria - in Mozambique five years later (memorial in the capital Maputo pictured below). I was now up on the high veldt, the land flat, brown and dry covered in dense thornbush and scrub. It looked impossible terrain for the ox and wagons of the Voortrekkers to pass through.

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The 'Blacks' Question again
The town of Makhado straddles the main road, the older part of town to the east thronged with (overwhelmingly black) shoppers on this Saturday morning. I bit the bullet and opted for the new shopping mall on the opposite side, quieter and mainly white, with guarded parking for the bike. A tall, thin fellow in his forties, in pressed short sleeve shirt, shorts and long socks was watching me park the bike and came over. A friendly Afrikaner (I was learning to tell by the accent - also the de rigeur moustache), he asked where I was going and what I thought of South Africa. “Yes, it is a beautiful country,” he agreed. I could see from the unhappy expression on his face the ‘but’ was coming. “It’s a pity about the way its going though,” he obliged. “Its changed so much. You know, the tension thing. You can’t walk around at night anymore, not even up here in this town. And untidy. We used to be able to come into town and do our shopping on a Saturday, but now… did you see the town? Its swarming with blacks. You can’t get into the shops!” When I asked for his advice on where to buy some things I wanted, he very kindly offered to drive me over to the other side of town to do my shopping.

It seemed to me South Africa was now an African country, blacks not out of sight anymore, and it is no longer the construct engineered and protected over the previous century. Once again I was struck by how many white South Africans don’t want to accept this, are nave and resentful of the changes to ‘their’ country. Certainly they point to how without the expertise, industry and ambition of the European settlers, “they would all still be sitting around in mud huts”. But I’m pretty sure if asked which would they prefer – the current situation, or the predicted ‘chaos’ if “blacks were given the vote overnight” scenario pre democracy days. It seems to me the new South Africa is not doing too badly for a very young country struggling to shake off generations of repressive rule and racial prejudice!

Despite the generous offer of this man to drive me into the town to buy my messages, it wasn’t necessary and I took advantage of the last opportunity to shop in South Africa, including a visit to the Pick ‘n Pay supermarket for a few packets of dried mango strips I’d developed a liking for! Leaving the mall, I came upon a restaurant showing the All Blacks – Wallaby Tri-Nations rugby game and sat down for a plate of ‘sadza’, a delicious African mix of maize, beans and I believe some cheese. (The first half was played at an breathtakingly fast pace, with the All Blacks, leading comfortably most of the game, unbelievably losing in the last ten minutes!)

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An hours ride, over the scenic Soutspansberg mountains and back down to the plains again, brought me through the untidy and hectic border town of Musina to the South African frontier. The formalities went smoothly. “Where are you going?” “Home. To Ireland.” It felt strange saying this for the first time. A look of incredulity from the Immigration officer as a smile slowly crossed his impassive features.

Zimbabwe and Africa
If exiting South Africa was straightforward, entering Zimbabwe was not! Despite the apparent chaos and mass of heaving people trying to get attention at the various counters, interestingly I felt undaunted. In fact there was a vague sense of excitement at being back in Africa. What was different though was all the charges demanded of me – a R60 carbon tax for the vehicle, R60 road tax, R390 visa for an Irish passport (apparently it had been free for Irish citizens but that changed, understandably, when the Irish government charged Zimbabweans for their visa). When I tried to leave, I was directed to another office to buy insurance. When the agent attempted to charge me a further R300 for the few days I was intending on spending in the country, I refused. From my experience in the rest of my travels through the continent I understood that insurance wasn’t really worth the paper it was writtten on – if I was in an accident it wouldn’t matter what type of insurance I had. The wealthy white foreigner is always liable. After a brief stand off, the insurance official kindly stamped my gate pass, which allowed me leave without further ado. I was now officially in Zimbabwe and on the return journey north to Ireland.

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