I found myself running away from Namibia trying to save some money. As I expected, crossing the borders of Namibia to enter South Africa was too easy (the easiest border crossing among all the countries I had been). The police and the customs officers were supposed to check all my documents etc, but that never happened. It was late in the afternoon when I got to the borders and everyone there were too bored to do what they had to do. That was ok with me! They only put a stamp on my passport (which was the visa with the date of my entrance in the country, giving me the right to stay there for 90 days).
(the video has English subtitles!)
I didn’t even have to use my carnet de passage, which would expire in some days and I would send it back to Greece. I was also informed that I wouldn’t need the carnet de passage for South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland as they are members of some kind of Union and they give you the right to travel in and out of these countries without having to put a stamp on it every time you cross their borders*.
The stories I had heard about South Africa were stories of terror (such stories I had also heard about many other African countries). About armed robberies which happen even in daylight, about the notorious “carjacking” and many others! So, I did the same thing as I used to do for any other country about which, the stories were terrifying: keep them in mind but without any prejudice or fear. Especially for South Africa, the number of stories I heard, was equal to all the stories about the rest of the African countries. The first 2 nights in South Africa, I managed to free-camp in remote places. Of course, it wasn’t that easy because those…fucking fences I first met in Namibia were here, too…everywhere! So what I did was to find any narrow dirt road on my way, follow it for some 2-3 kilometers until I was away from the main road and pitch my tent there, between the fences and the dirt road. The other thing I “loved” about South Africa, apart from the fences, was the way South Africans drive! I still think that it is a miracle I survived on the road until Pretoria! Huge trucks overtaking me leaving a distance of some centimeters between us, trucks or cars coming from the opposite direction driving exactly towards me on 2-lane roads…Pure madness!
Another problem I had, was that mysteriously the Vespa couldn’t travel with more than 80 km/h. The first day it didn’t bother me that much, but during the second day and as I was traveling in a bit boring landscape, I decided to try and fix it. I changed the stator plate (ignition) which I assumed that was the problem and luckily I was right. I also opened the carburetter, and fixed every screw that was loose. Many of them were already lost somewhere…After that, the engine worked properly but I continued to feel that it couldn’t give the maximum of its power. One month later, I learned the reason for that: When I went to Piaggio in Johannesburg, I waas informed that I’m at an altitude of 1800m where there is not enough oxygen, so they provided me with the appropriate jet.
When I got to Pretoria, I stayed at XXX home who were XXX, a guy I had met in XXX. I stayed there for 9 days and it was a really interesting experience sharing with me their life-stories and their -positive! – opinion on the Apartheid. In South Africa the couchsurfing community is big enough, so I spent approximately 1 month hosted by various couchsurfers in Pretoria, Hennops River and Johannesburg. That gave me the opportunity to meet very interesting people such as Abrie, Rob and Tom. During that month, I spent some time fixing my tent and my vespa and renewing my passport. So, let’s start from the simple things: renewing a passport – paying, waiting, taking the new one and go…or not! It is a Greek passport! That means dealing with the Greek embassy! My old passport would expire in January 2016 and anyone who travels should take under consideration that in many countries, in order to let you in, the expiring date must be at least, at 6 months time. That means that to be sure that there wouldn’t be any problem, I had 9 months ahead of me with no worries. However, my actual problem was that there was only one page left in my passport. It was full with stamps. When I went to the Greek embassy I found myself in a place resembling to a bank: clients and employees, nothing more than that.
“Good morning sir. How can we help you?”
What a pity! I was really hoping that I could find some nice Greek people here in South Africa, like those I had met in the D.R.C. Of course, in South Africa there are some thousands of Greeks and I couldn’t compare that number with the number of Greeks in the D.R.C., but I was just hoping to meet some people and have a nice Greek time with them! I don’t want to lie: I met some good Greek people in South Africa. Pambos and his family, and Xenia were really nice and of course Efi – who is not a permanent South African citizen – who hosted me and helped me with everything I needed and I should probably write a feature on her!
I know I shouldn’t compare directly a Greek community and a Greek embassy because they are completely different but unfortunately I met some Greeks in Johannesburg and in Pretoria who made me completely unwilling to meet more. But let’s go back to the bank..err…I mean to the embassy. Convincing the clerk to accept my request for the renewal of my passport was not too easy, but I did it (at first she wouldn’t accept the fact that I wasn’t a permanent south African resident – what could I do? – maybe drive my vespa back to Greece only for the renewal!). The second problem was the expiring date of the new passport: since the problem was that there were no more pages left, when would the new passport expire? Guess! At the exact same date as the old one! I had just spent 100euros and at 6 months time I should go to another embassy at the country I will be at that time to re-renew my passport! They are idiots! (I’m not referring to the clerks at the embassy but to anyone who has the full responsibility for that!)
Having spent my money in that idiotic situation I had to continue with the other things I had to do. The major problem now was my tent: plenty of holes and with the zippers torn. The poor tent! It didn’t look like that steady, waterproof tent I had once bought! I had put duct tape everywhere wishing that it would last for 2-3 more years! I had also put some pieces from other tents and generally I had improvised a lot in order to make my tent again a place to live! The problem with the zippers was a serious one because they wouldn’t close properly and the only way to open them was by swearing a lot! My budget wouldn’t allow me to buy a new one, so I had to find someone to fix it, sew it and stitch it! Paul knew many places where we could take it to be mended (South Africans love camping, caravans and 4X4), but unfortunately they would only mend big size tents made of canvas. The only solution was Osman, an Indian guy with a store, selling sewing equipment, from where I bought the zippers and everything else I needed. Osman would find someone to fix the tent, but apparently the whole procedure was not that easy. It took me 3 weeks to finish with the tent! The first “quotation” was at 900 ZAR and I found it very expensive so I rejected it. The second one, which I accepted, was at 600ZAR (approx. 43 euros) and it included the cost of 7 meters of zippers and the working hours. Two weeks later it was ready. The operation was successful and the patient had survived! What I saw when I entered the store, was not exactly what I was hoping for: the tent was on the floor out of its case – which was nowhere around – with footprints on it…that exact moment, I had my first stroke! The “best” moment was when one of the workers took it and brought it to me:
“Here’s your tent! Ready to go!”.
“I cannot take my tent like that! I need its case! I’m not willing to go for kite surfing on my vespa carrying it like that!”, I replied a bit angrily.
Osman appeared: “Is there any problem, sir?”.
I explained to him that my problem was that they had lost the bag of my tent and that I would like to see if the zippers were properly fixed. When I saw the tent carefully, the second stroke hit me! The lady who tried to sew the zippers was probably drunk or she had never seen a tent in her life! The quality of the work she had done was really unacceptable. It was so badly sewn that the zippers would open and close with difficulty, but the real surprise was that she had sewn both the external entrances of the tent, making it almost impossible to get in or out of it! She had only left a hole open to jump in and out of the tent. I cannot imagine what she had been thinking when she did it!
“Osman, if you manage to get in and out of the tent, I will take it and leave, but I don’t think you can!”.
The poor tent was in terrible condition: small holes everywhere due to their mistakes, and a big one stitched with a random piece of cloth…and of course, the bag missing. So, after reporting all the problems to Osman, I waited for 10 more days and finally, my tent was ready in its bag! I think that the problems I had in Congo were not that serious! The last thing I had to do was a little service to my vespa. But that was not difficult at all. I already knew that the engine was ok. “Vespa South Africa” responded immediately and offered their services for free! (some people should take this as an example!) They washed it, checked it, changed the oil, put new spark plugs, new brake pads to the front and shoes to the rear drum, cleaned and regulated the carburetter, changed the wheel bearings and oiled a bit all the cables. One day, when I was staying at Tom’s backpackers inn at Hennops River (he hosted me for 2 weeks for free – I had found him through couchsurfing), I received a message from Alexandra.
I first met Alexandra 3 months ago in Lubumbashi. We were neighbors at the house complex of the Greek Community of Lubumbashi. The houses of the Greek Community are built for the teachers who work at the Greek school, but as it was summer, everyone was on holiday and the houses were vacant. Alexandra was doing a research for her PhD thesis on the History of the Greek Diaspora in the D.R.C. and I was doing a research on the limits of my vespa and on my own limits when dealing with the difficulties of the jungle and the mud. By pure coincidence, when I got to Johannesburg she was also there and she had seen on the internet that we were in the same place for once more.
We met again and stayed at the same house for 1 week, hosted by Efi (professor at the University of Johannesburg, whom I had also met in Lubumbashi). Alexandra and I, decided to continue the trip through South Africa together, for the next month. She bought a helmet and we put our stuff – only what was necessary – in the smallest bag we could find. We also bought raincoats because it was the rain season and we started organizing the trip. Fortunately the plan to build a trailer and tow it with the vespa didn’t work (not allowed by law in South Africa) and you will learn why I say “fortunately”, when you will read about our adventures in Lesotho! The plan was to leave Johannesburg and go towards Bethlehem. From there we would enter Lesotho crossing it to the south and if we could make it, we would continue to Durban. The best possible scenario was to go from Durban to Cape Town and then back to Johannesburg.
To be continued…
* Even if I repeatedly asked the customs officers for some kind of documentation which proves that I legally entered the country with my vehicle, they insisted that I don’t need any. However later on, when I took the decision to send the vespa to Latin America, many of the cargo companies I addressed to, refused to send it because I didn’t have any papers stating that I legally entered South Africa with the vehicle. Finally, I found one company that accepted to send it and took the responsibility to do all the paperwork I needed.