The Highest Country in the World – Sizing up Maseru

I was looking forward to this as my two previous trips had given me precious few opportunities to explore the countryside. On my first trip I had managed to get to Roma for a meeting.  Situated about 50km south east of Maseru, it is the seat of the National University, and we had been given a couple of names there to talk to.  Although the distance was short we had to negotiate the suburbs of Maseru first.  Maseru can appear a bit like a coastal city at first sight, with the river marking the border between Lesotho and South Africa as the beach.  The main road from Bloemfontein crosses the river on the tip of a meander, so the city started out on a kind of peninsula. Once through the border crossing there is a wide and chaotic area related to transport.  You find lots of lorries parked up on the tarmac or in lorry parks, there are taxis hanging around to ferry people from the border into town, there are stalls to buy the usual transitory items, air time, newspapers, sweets, snacks and water.  Then the road winds up the hill past some of the most salubrious suburbs of the city.  Both Sentebale’s offices and the house where Becky lived was up the back here.  On either side of the hill were industrial estates, and then the road comes to a major junction.  What was once the main through route passes straight through the heart of the city centre, with all the government buildings, banks and high end shops and restaurants.  Now the traffic veers off to the right along a dual carriageway down and up a river valley.  This road has now attracted modern shopping centres, and the first really big supermarket, a Pick n Pay, that Maseru had ever had.  This was one of Becky’s delights to have a proper big store like the ones back home stacked full of goods.

At the crossing where these two routes diverged stands one of Lesotho’s iconic buildings, the Basotho Hat.  It is a conical building, shaped like the traditional hat worn by the Basotho, the majority tribe in Lesotho.  I was to see this shape repeated time and time again on my visits.  Although a modern glass fronted building the majority of the high conic roof was thatched.  I ate in a restaurant on the first floor a few times – a great place to watch the traffic coming in and out of the country from the border road.

All this was crammed into a relatively small area and it was easy to mistake Maseru for being a small to medium sized provincial city.  But head up the east end of Kingsway and you started to realise how big Maseru really was.  The ordered ,, almost sterile, civility you got at the west end broke down and you got the real sense of a vibrant, chaotic southern African market place.  There are a few more institutional buildings up this end, such as the Roman Catholic Cathedral,  but then following the main road out of town you are into a pattern of fuel stations, car and bike repair shops, small retail outlets, seedy bars and cafes and residential blocks of all types, shapes, statuses and sizes.  And when you go over a hilltop you get a peek at the expansive suburbs carpeting every hillside around as far as the eye can see.

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The Roman Catholic Cathedral as we speed by

Eventually the suburbs do thin out – although you see the building work going on in the fields out here that shows it is not long before Maseru will creep further east.  Like so many cities the infrastructure is not catching up – although a good highway, the single carriageway road we were driving on is the only decent route through the area.

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Maseru’s suburbs start to give way to countryside

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