Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Crossing borders

Well, Clarens was a very attractive and appealing place, but as with many tourist destinations, the attraction and the appeal can wear thin by the end of a week. 

We extended our stay from its original four days after a local big cat sanctuary tried to up the B&B prices when confirming our booking, then ignored my email query. Checking on TripAdvisor it seemed that other visitors to Lions Rock had bad experiences in various ways so we cancelled and stayed in Clarens. 

More about Clarens. It is a tourist and weekend destination for day trippers and weekenders from Johannesburg and nearer. There are also many extremely desirable houses in beautiful gardens and it is safe, restful and full of eating places, many of them really excellent. It is also full of shops. Yet here is the anomaly: many of these shops sell clothes, but they are relatively downmarket. They are mostly cheap and lacking in style, and perhaps surprisingly some of the visitors to the town look the same! Most of the clothing, and I think many of the gift shop trinkets too, are 'made in the foothills of the Himalayas'. They are only rarely made in South Africa. And there is virtually no African craft ware on sale here either. 

This appears to say something about the feelings whites here have towards African craft and style. Yet why are the middle class white shopkeepers of Clarens not selling the kinds of clothes worn by the middle class white tourists to the town? Or the wealthy (white) residents?


It is only after a few days that I have begun to realise how shallow the 'culture' is in these towns. I can only speak for the white communities of course, but they appear not to put on their own entertainments (except for inviting friends to a 'braai' which is a drink-heavy and very carnivorous kind of barbecue) and very little 'happens'. They don't show films or have the kind of events we put on in village halls. 

Plus of course the race divide broadly decides who will go to what, with the further subdivision that a black friend refused to go to a flute recital because it was organised by Afrikaners. There is of course plenty of music, singing and dancing in the townships, where poverty is no barrier to knowing how to enjoy yourself. 

So with very little to go to in the entertainment line, sadly little to interest by way of cultural heritage (as I have explained the San have been more or less wiped off the map, and they did not leave stone circles, cathedrals or castles or write books!!) except for memories of the Boer war and other colonial conflicts enshrined in battlefields you can visit and monuments in town centres and churchyards, and a landscape that is as impressive and beautiful on first acquaintance as it is monotonous and repetitive after the next few hundred miles … well, the appeal only goes so far. 

Obviously you can 'do' the country differently. You can spend a few days on safari in a national park and a few more in a gated compound or a hotel defended by armed guards in Cape Town or on the Garden Route or in one of the seaside suburbs south of Durban ( I have no experience of any of these but I have seen them advertised and written up in guidebooks). But that's not the real Africa and it's not what we came for. 


Today we are in Lesotho. It's almost exclusively black and we stick out a mile. People are on the cadge and beg far more than in South Africa, and set up informal roadblocks to extort money from motorists, but are still warm and friendly. The Orange Free State occupied the fertile lowlands in the 1860s and forced the Basotho off their land and into the mountains, where they were obliged to cultivate steep slopes hitherto used only for summer pasture. The white settlers similarly over-cultivated the valleys. Both activities caused the thin topsoil to wash away into the rivers, creating new barren ravines in the landscape called dongas. 

So a drive through the country today is remarkable for the lack of trees and the often barren and deserted farmland. No wonder they want our money. They are selling their water to South Africa however, who are in desperate need of it; they pay Lesotho around 24 million rand a month for it (about £1.32m at today's exchange rate).

We tried to drive to the Katse dam this afternoon but ran out of time. We allowed about six hours for the round trip but our little car couldn't make it in the time. I daresay it is spectacular but the USPs are all statistics. To me a dam is a dam, and I'd prefer a real lake (with an interesting shoreline) and a natural waterfall any day. Again the drive was through spectacular scenery but it amounted to mile after mile of the same, with no attractive places to stop, plenty of potholes and sides of roads falling away down the mountain sides … There is little pleasure in such driving. 

In Lesotho more than in South Africa we are voyeurs. At least in South Africa we can enjoy our privileged position of merging into the small white minority and enjoying all the benefits that brings. And the nasty taste it sometimes leaves in one's mouth. 

You also wonder how to categorise these countries. I am repeatedly told that South Africa is a third world country, by way of explaining the increasing corruption found here and the often poor infrastructure. Yet if South Africa is third world, what is Lesotho?! Driving across the border makes the former seem like a  Cotswold idyll! Briefly. 

It's gone cold and wet. A bit like England!

No comments: