The Highest Country in the World – The last moments

Women were crying openly in the cabin; I was gripping the seat in front fiercely with my left hand while my right had tried to keep the book steady.  It had been a good life, I thought.

We had so far travelled the hour from Maseru, had been kept in the holding pattern for thirty minutes and taken another thirty minutes to try and land.  Could the plane fly for much longer?  Could the pilots stay concentrated?  Could the plane stay intact with the buffeting it was receiving? Could our nerves take more of this?  There was only one answer to all those questions – We had to!

We came around once more.  The routine was now familiar – dark clouds punctuated by lightning, the navigation lights and pools of orange from the street lights below.  The sudden clearing of the skies revealing the airport hangars, terminal and runway. This third time was different as there was no inevitable throttle up as we headed into the sky.  Instead, before anyone had noticed we had bumped down on the ground and the brakes were applied.  We drew up quickly to a slow taxi, turned off the runway and were safe.  The rain was still pelting down outside but now looked innocuous.  We had to cross another couple of runways to reach the terminal.  As I looked out to my right I saw a line of lights of four other aircraft desperately trying to get down on the ground.  Our captain gave us his farewell message over the tannoy, using as nonchalant a set of clichés about “bit bumpy” and ” sorry for the slight delay”.  There was a twinge of nervous relief in his tone, but also pride as he told us we were the first plane to have landed at Oliver Tambo in the last 40 minutes.  Hence the stack of planes now trying to land on every available runway.

I looked at my watch as we continued to taxi past busy scenes of planes being loaded with passengers and freight, fuelled and watered ready for their journeys.  In theory my Virgin Atlantic flight  was due to depart in thirty minutes time.  I knew already that this was an impossible timetable.  If no planes had been able to land they would not be able to allow others to take off.  We parked up out on the airfield and dashed down the steps and onto buses.  I caught all the passengers exchanging glances and smirking with relief.  We’d not talked much, we may never meet again, but we had shared a big experience that evening.  When I got inside the terminal building it was crowded with people waiting for their delayed flights.  I was surprised to see my own London flight was not badly delayed and we would be boarding in about 20 minutes.  In a way I was grateful for the slick transfer.  If I had sat around the terminal for much longer I may have had too much time to think about whether to ever fly again in my life.

My fellow passengers were all aware of the hassle and delays caused by the bad weather, but none of them had the same story I had.  I settled back and got myself comfy for the long haul back over Africa and Europe to home.  It was still lightning and rain outside but nowhere near as intense.  The wind remained strong as I could see the rain passing the floodlights horizontally.  But a fully loaded 747 at full throttle is more than a match for a headwind and after a few bumpy moments as we passed through the cloud, the storm gave us no further trouble and I was away.


Flying over Lesotho still spectacular

The Highest Country in the World – We are going to crash!

We only turned a couple of times before we felt the aircraft take a more purposeful direction indicating we were starting our approach.  We came lower and lower but that made the shaking of the aircraft worse.  We dropped into the lower level of clouds.  Lightning was illuminating the cloud around the wings, the little regular port and starboard navigation lights also lit up the cloud.  If I’d known I was safe I might have enjoyed the display.

Everyone jumped when a squall of hailstones hit the fuselage.  I focused in on my book but found it a struggle to concentrate on the words; I just stared at the black print on the white page and tried not to look beyond the edges.  But I could not help my eyes wandering back to the window.  The plane was at forty five degrees to the right, I knew this as a brief opening in the clouds below revealed, a few hundred feet below me, the orange street lights in an industrial estate.  We were close to the airfield, I hoped.  You could sense the pilots struggling to keep control of the aircraft.  The engine noise was up and down, you could feel the tug on the flaps as they fought against the swirling winds.  A ping in the cabin told those in the know that we were on final approach.  The stewardess had been strapped in for the last five minutes for her own safety but she reached for the intercom handset and recited the routine landing announcement as calmly as she could muster.

This situation was anything but routine.  I still could not see the ground as we came down and down – was it still a few hundred feet away, or were we about to be smashed against the tarmac.

The floodlights next to the terminal suddenly appeared and the ground  came up to meet us.  We were still struggling in the swirls of wind and at the last second, the pilot had to abort, the engines roared once more and we were heading back up in to the cloud.

The woman in front of me screamed and reached for her handbag under her seat.  I saw her remove her rosary and she started muttering prayers.  I read my book.  I tried to read my book.  If these were my last moments, I thought, give me time to read the last ten pages of this book.

Tossed and turned again in the dark clouds, the lightning close by; even above all the engine noise I was sure I heard the thunder, we circled another five minutes and came in for second approach.  We had to land this time.  We had to get on the ground.  How much fuel do these little planes have in reserve?  We lurched to our left, we lurched to our right.  Another fist of air thumped on the undercarriage and we were thrust upwards.  How can the pilot keep control?  With the cockpit concentrating on flying the plane, we were getting none of the announcements that usually reassure us that everything was OK.  Of course very little was OK.  We were still alive but our destination seemed as distant as ever.

We came around again and I could feel that we were making a second approach on the runway.  We must get down this time.  This is only a small plane – the runway could take Jumbo Jets that needed miles to take off at Johannesburg’s altitude.  There was the terminal building again, the lights smeared through the raindrops covering my window.  There was the runway, glistening with water, below us.  Another jerk to the left, one to the right, a frightening dip just at the wrong moment, and a second abort as the nose of the plane went up and we were once more heading into the cloud.

There was obviously nowhere else to go in the vicinity.  We had seen the wall of cloud stretching across the sky – this storm was bigger than Gauteng.  How far was it to an airport that could take us and would we have enough fuel?  We got no messages from the cockpit but we could work it out for ourselves.  It was land at Oliver Tambo or…. well, you know the alternative.

The Highest Country in the World – The Nightmare begins

It was always hard to say goodbye to Becky and Lesotho.  Chris and I had driven from Jo’burg to Maseru and back; the other two times I flew.  Maseru Airport was one of the cutest, quietest little international portals I have ever seen on any continent.  Just a few flights a day, just a handle of passengers each time.  You had to set out early as you could never predict the traffic across the city.  Perched on a plateau just off the Main South Road, its wide grassy airfield could just have been plucked from anywhere in the country, the same grasslands that must have carpeted big swathes of the country.

My first flight back to Jo’burg turned out to be a horrific nightmare.  It had been a hot sunny day in Maseru while I finished up my meetings, tidied up the handover with Becky and gathered my bits together.  There were a few clouds in the sky as we drove over to the airport and some were thickening up in the heat , but the terminal remained bathed in golden sunlight.

There were about 20 people aboard the small prop plane from South African Airways to take us the hour up to Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo Airport.  As we set out the captain did his usual introduction but warned us that the ride might get a bit bumpy once we approached Gauteng.  We passed over the border not far from Butha Buthe and it became increasingly difficult to discern features below.  The haze had become so thick the sunlight was bouncing off it instead of the ground.  I turned to a book I had and began to read, glancing once or twice out the window to see if I could see progress.  The fourth or fifth time I did this all I could see ahead of the plane was the darkest, thickest wall of thunder cloud I had ever seen.  There was no way round it.  The seatbelts lights came on and the stewardess told us to buckle up.  The captain came on to reinforce that we were going to have some serious turbulence.  With that we plunged into the cloud.


The wall of cloud – obliterating the last of the sunshine

We were only about fifteen minutes out from Johannesburg at this point and even without the turbulence we would have had to put on the seatbelts as we descended.  At first there were the little bangs and bumps which are a regular part of flying.  We kept a steady course and you could hear from the engines that we were slowing and despite being jerked up once or twice in the updrafts we were dropping in altitude.

We proceeded like this for another ten minutes, then the captain came on to say we would not be able to land immediately as there was congestion coming into the runway.  This unsettled the passengers.  We had steeled ourselves to be up here while we were travelling towards the final destination, but the thought of going round and round in circles tossed about in the storm was not good news.  Our unsettledness was punctuated as when the pilot turned the aircraft the turbulence increased and we could feel ourselves being flung sideways.  Hands went out to grab the seat in front.  A few gasps went up from the most nervous passengers, but the rest of us were just one notch below them on the frightened scale now.

The Highest Country in the World – Landscapes, Histories and Neighbours that make the Lesotho Character

Then we joined a tarred road again, the main road between Maseru and the town of Sefikeng.  This one traversed the Berea Plateau, which also gave the district its name. This road was a lot quieter than even the main road, and it was getting late on a Sunday afternoon when people would be in church for evensong, or in a bar getting drunk, or snoozing under a tree being drunk.  You could tell by the lack of roadside stalls and fuel stations that this was the road less travelled.  It was bliss – uninterrupted panoramas of the agriculture in the depressions on both sides of the plateau, plus all the activity on top here.  Sometimes the road would get close to the escarpment itself.  We stopped many times to soak it all in.  The weather had not been as crystal perfect as the day before in Golden Gate, but that meant we had a superb cloudscape of wispy cirrus, dark looking cumulonimbus in the distance and the characteristic fluffy cumulus of southern Africa all around us.  People were few on the ground, but there were a number of children out and about.  Becky pointed out some playing on a roundabout in the middle of one village which had been placed there by one of Sentebale’s partners.  The charity Play Pumps has put together a remarkably simple concept.  Children are often told to get water for their families, but it is a chore.  Children like to play but play time means that they are not collecting water.  So Playpumps have put in different equipment that you might find in any playground the world over, but connected the moving parts to the water pump.  So a kid pushes a roundabout around and water is sucked up from the water table and into containers. It also gives kids a bit of extra exercise but is fun.  Critics have likened it to slave labour but I think they have lost the plot not to see the mutual benefits for everyone.



And children have a hard enough time in Lesotho, why not let them combine play and useful work?  Once more this was brought home to me as we drove along, just below the small midridge of the escarpment.  We were taking photos off the cliff to the east again, when I noticed that silhouetted against the western sky, right on the tip of the ridge, were two teenagers.  They were dressed up and with woolly hats and anoraks maybe they stood a chance to keep warm in the rapidly cooling air.  They were squatted on the grass, their gangly legs bent skywards, and both were holding long canes.  These were herdboys and we could hear and, here and there, glimpse a cow as its head reared above the ridge.  Whether the boys  had mothers or fathers, we had no way of knowing.  They were probably nothing like the feral children out in the mountainous regions.  But here they were, out in the fields on a Sunday afternoon looking after stock rather than socialising with their peers or their family.

Once more the late afternoon sun made for a marvellous light, but this time, instead of the whole landscape being bathed in a warming glow, the clouds kept some areas in the dark, and shafts of light floodlit particular features, a hillside here, a valley there.  It was a magical ever changing scene on my last night in Lesotho.  I tried to absorb as much as I could.  I could not help to notice that despite the stark beauty of this open landscape heavily cultivated, it was much denuded, and so many stretches treeless.  Soil erosion is a huge problem both taking away valuable land while choking up and killing life in the rivers.  Lesotho may look beautiful, but has so many environmental and social problems.  Looking out of the window of an aircraft flying back to Jo’burg the contrast between the lush, well maintained and vegetated fields on the South African sides and the pallid washed away fields on the Lesotho side.  For evidence of the social fabric being ripped apart you need look no further than seeing Sentebale colleagues being excused from work a couple of afternoons a week to go to friends’ funerals.  Big chunks of working population being lost through HIV/AIDS, and the knock on effects on particularly the children, but also the older generation who find themselves having to go through parenting once more when they should be sitting back.

Despite its frustrations and huge problems, the people of Lesotho are stoic.  I suppose to preserve their independence when other regions were first absorbed by South Africa and then subjected to the perversions of Apartheid must mean you either had stoicism or you developed it pretty fast.  While the poverty, health and environmental issues are being thrown at them, they still have the resilience to deal with each challenge.

Not far down the main road from here was Peka, where Christine worked from.  We stopped off at her convent/orphanage and Christine dropped off her mystery parcel.  She had a modest but clean, well maintained and functional house, set amongst the dormitories of the on site boarding school. Out the back there was a set of farm buildings with a stunning view through a wooded garden to the valley beyond.  We were introduced to her swine; she looked after pigs.  The sows were all snoozing in the sties, but the piglets were free range, a hoard of them snouting around in the weeds, chuckling and snorting at each other, and once in a while having a little disagreement that caused excess squealing.

Looking out from the farm I saw the striped fields stretching off in the distance and the looming high mountains in the distance.  I surmised this might be the last chance I get to see more of Lesotho’s countryside.  It was still only mid afternoon, and when we got back in the car, I took a look at the road map I had bought, and suggested we took a back road that went closer to those mountains.  Both Christine and Becky loved the idea, without their own vehicles they often didn’t get off the regular routes.  So we drove further down to the next town, Teyateyaneng and turned left.  A few kilometres further we turned onto a wide well maintained dirt road towards Koali.  The scenery was little different from the main road for a time.  There was the mix of villages and roadside stalls, the stripy fields covering every bit of flat and gently rolling land, cut through by the sporadic steep escarpment or river.

The Highest Country in the World -Border life

Still full from our brunch we packed up the car and headed back along the road to Lesotho.  The journey felt less like an exploration into the unknown more a catch up with old friends.  I did get that moment of trepidation as we approached the border post.  Going through my mind, I started to panic that what if through some administrative error, I was not allowed through.  My suitcase with my laptop and most of my possessions were sitting a couple of hundred kilometres south of here on the other side of the border, and I was due on a plane back to Jo’burg the next day.

My paranoia was of course unfounded, we got through with no problems.  Christine asked us to take a detour.  Being a peace volunteer meant she was immersed in the community and was not given access to the trappings of many a development project, such as big white vehicles.  When she wants to get around  more, she has to rely on slow buses on main routes.  She had to pick up a  parcel from a shop.  I forget the details but I seem to remember it had been shipped across from South Africa.  The pick up point was in the Maputsoe, which was off the main road as it was slap bang on the border.  It was a fair sized town but it had a different air from most Lesotho urban areas.  It felt more ephemeral, more transient.  And of course it was; it had the air of a border town.  Maputsoe lies back on the Mohokare River and another bridge crosses to the twin town of Ficksburg on the South African side.  The main road that descends to the border post is lined with all the usual travellers stuff, but the road also seemed much more full of small wholesalers, grabbing stuff from across the bridge, bringing it across the border and then waiting for Lesothans to come and see if they can get it at bargain price.  Everything was being sold here, household, industrial, transportation goods, food, drink.  And of course there was the constant flow of people passing through, picking up buses or taxis, or being collected by family members near the border control.  For many of the towns in northern and western Lesotho, this crossing into South Africa was far more convenient than Maseru.  This one faced north and it was a fairly short hop and a jump back to the N1 and the road to Gauteng.  From Maseru you also got to the N1 easily, but another hundred kilometres further south, and you had to travel down and through Maseru to get there.  So this was a busy crossing, with migrant workers going back and forth, relatives visiting in both directions, as well as the commercial operators passing through.

All sorts of other opportunists were there too , hawking and selling whatever they could.  I saw a new trend here for the first time, some businesses in Africa allowed you to use phones, and internet cafes had appeared, but this was the first place I saw air time being sold from a shack.  How times have changed – it seems now like there is not a shop in Africa that does not sell air time, or little stands on the street under colourful umbrellas with the branding of the phone company emblazoned across it.  We had some trouble finding Christine’s pick up spot, but eventually we located the store.  At first sight it appeared shut, but after some inquiries we found the owner in a back office going through his paper work.  A mystery parcel was handed over, money was exchanged and we could proceed.

The Highest Country in the World – Exploring Clarens

Like many South African towns, this lovely Californian style open plan town had originally been for whites only.  The servants and workers, the black community, had been crammed together in a little township down the hill.  Despite the breakdown of Apartheid, it is the black population who are predominantly poorer than the whites, and still the divisions where people have to live remain.  From our deck that evening, we could see the lights coming on in the villas around us, and people relaxing in large open plan houses watching TV, drinking , having parties.  While, from down the hill, the smoke rose from the hundreds of open cooking fires, the chickens clucked or crowed, the children cried or screamed.  That was not the only contrast, there was one between the sterility of suburban streets and the sounds of chatter, laughter and even singing that showed a stronger sense of shared community down the hill.

I can’t lie in when on holiday – I do not want to waste any of the time doing things I could easily do at home, so next morning I was up early and making myself a coffee.  The others too were early risers and we discussed our plans for the day.  We needn’t be back in Maseru till late afternoon but not worth chancing driving on Lesotho’s roads in the dark.  I might take a chance on the big wide empty roads on this side of the border, but in Lesotho you never knew which chicken, goat, pothole, kid, bus would jump out at you at any moment.


Sunrise as good as sunset

Becky was after some pampering and had had a Clarens’ masseur recommended to her by a friend in Maseru.  She set up an appointment for mid morning.  We had a couple of hours to kill so we all agreed to treat ourselves to a lazy brunch.

We walked into town – barely a half kilometre away.  The centre town was set out grid iron style with low density plots all around, almost all single storey.  The wide roads with equally wide verges were shaded with pines and jacaranda trees.  Clarens had become an escape for wealthy Johannesburgians and Pretorians.  They would hack down here on a Friday evening and spend the weekend either soaking up the numerous antique shops and cafes, or getting involved with some extreme sport or other.  In the centre, the Main Street opened up into a wide grassy square dotted with manicured shrubs.  If you have ever been to one of those Northern Californian small towns  this was a mirror image;’ bohemian in a way, very neat and tidy, people living easily and laid back.  This was not the image of the Free State that I had.  I saw it as a rather strict community, Lutheran at its heart, and living a simple life that was of its own making and not swayed by outside influences.  But here in Clarens was the most remarkable resort town; definitely something for everyone.

We settled down in the garden of a cafe, a pergola covered in climbing roses and bougainvillea giving us a dappled shade, but with enough sun shining through to make us smile, and we ordered the major brunch experience. Loads of juice and cantaloupe, Eggs Benedict and toast and croissants with fresh butter and jams, all washed down with copious freshly ground coffee.  Considering some of my African breakfasts (cold beans, white bread straight from the loaf), this was enlighteningly sophisticated.

Becky, with a little trepidation, made here excuses to leave for her massage.  Christine and I took a leisurely stroll round town, soaking up the atmosphere and bathing  in the intense sunlight.  When we met up again with Becky, we saw a different woman.  I don’t think I have ever seen anyone so relaxed.  She said she had been pummelled and pushed and slapped, but the effect had reorganised her body into the right shape, and placed a massive grin on her face.  It was a bit of a pity there were no more slots in the masseur’s schedule for Christine and I to get the same experience.

The Highest Country in the World – A touristy example of Basotho life

A few kilometres further on we turned off the main road and visited the Basotho Cultural Village.  While a highly sanitized representation of a Basotho settlement, it offers an insight into the rich architecture, crafts and everyday living of the people.  The huts are well made and washed in dark ochres, purples and oranges strongly decorated with white and black diamonds , swirls or crosses.  Some were just stone, others covered in adobe, still more studded with intricate stone mosaics on the walls.  Inside were pristine artefacts of your average Basotho household, the pots, wooden mortar and pestle, the long wooden spoons, the knives, the mats, the hats.  Yes, there was that iconic conical shape once more.

I looked eastwards and consulted the map – I saw mountains to the south east that I realised were the ones at the back of the Royal Natal Park.  I had last been in this area some twenty years earlier when I had holidayed in South Africa with my friend Kirsty.  Funny when you have been travelling long enough that you start joining up the dots, seeing an old historical memory for real again but from a different angle.

We had to drive back the same way, but that was no hardship.  More game in the shape of impala and waterbuck were now out grazing in the late afternoon sun, and the colours in the buttresses were more vivid in the lowering sunlight.  It was hard to tear yourself away from this environment.

Fortunately we did not need to tear ourselves too far away.  As we reached our villa, Clarens was now in the shadow of a mountain to the west, but the valley we had just returned along was glowing in all the sun’s glory to the east.  We cracked open a bottle of wine and watched the sunlight play on the scene, a marvellous slow motion disco of yellow, red and purple.  We then settled down to make some dinner and flopped about feeling relaxed.  It had been a long but fantastic day.

The Highest Country in the World – Past the Golden Gate

Many small towns in southern Africa are fortuitously off the main road – to let the huge trucks make their noisy gear changes and brakings beyond the residential area.  We turned off the main road and headed up a steep hill – Clarens was perched on a small plateau above a couple of rivers. Our accommodation was a villa on this hillside just below the town centre, a well appointed house with a big open plan centre, and best of all, a massive deck from which we looked east down the valley.  Becky and I had done a shop in the Pick’n’Pay in Maseru after picking up the car, so we pretty much dumped it all in the kitchen and headed out into the town.  We had decided that we would have a quick lunch and then do a sightseeing tour of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, saving a tour of the town of Clarens till the Sunday morning.

So after a quick burger and a chance to say “Hmm this place looks good”, we set off along another good road.  After several miles of farmland and forest, we reached the park entrance.  The scenery had been stunning since we entered South Africa but now it took on an extra edge.  Above us on either side , steep weather worn cliffs looked down on us.  The colours in the sandstone ranged from washed out grey to deep orange red, with camel, khaki and yellows in between, where exposed looking like a layer cake of sponge and cream topped with the green icing of grass.  The rocks were soft and eroded into marvellous shapes, caves scoured out by wind and rain, and where the top level was harder than the lower, huge stone mushrooms appeared to grow out of the valley sides.

Where exactly the “Golden Gate” is somewhat open for debate.  There are several viewpoints that give you the perspective of your route passing between huge golden coloured barriers.  Maybe the gate was the whole valley.  At the far end of this long wide canyon the elevation drops substantially and maybe that could be  the gateway.  Whatever the final definition of gateway, I could see that above the natural wonders, this was a supremely important pass.   Beyond the highlands of Lesotho to the south, the Rooiberge to the south east being the first manifestation of these, Golden Gate was the first sensible place to pass through to get from the Northern Cape and Free State into Kwa Zulu Natal and the Eastern Trans Vaal.  The pass and the fertile terrain rich in game was much coveted both by the British and the Boers, and the Basotho and other African tribes were keen to maintain their presence there.  This meant the region was the site of many conflicts and regularly passed from hand to hand.  Given we were in amongst a crumpled topography of mountains, the Brandwater Basin supplied a useful hideaway location too, which had been used to good effect in the Boer War.  However, the restricted number of exits from the valley, the Golden Gate being one of them, meant you could also get trapped in the basin.  Boers in the Boer War came under siege that way in 1900, and were forced to surrender.  In theory the view from the top of the pass should give lookouts ample opportunity to spot activity coming up the mountainside.  The nooks and crannies of this terrain, though, are often hard to discern as an inexperienced outsider.  Deep streams, low ridges that are invisible amongst the grass can keep you hidden, and once in the mountains themselves the caves, rocky outcrops and screes still provide good cover despite the lack of trees.

The Highest Country in the World – up into the hills

We detoured a couple of times off the main road taking us up amongst the buttresses and higher elevations.  The air clarity meant we saw for miles.  We distinguished areas of bare ground, some of which were due to poor fertility and thin soils, but others reputedly from massive ammunitions fires from the Boers that scorched the earth and basically killed it.

Few trees grow here in the Golden Gate, but a few protea clung to the hillsides.  These weird plants are common place in gardens across the world, but in their native habitats are restricted to Southern Africa and mainly South Africa itself.  Its thick leathery leaves are well suited to the dramatic changes in  temperature in these high elevations.

At one location we got a picture of just how fragile the rocky escarpments are; a fresh rock fall, so clean and bright, may have only possibly dropped in the last week, and you could see the brand new scar in the rock face too.  Gradually the mountains here are being worn away, but from the scale and quantity of them, the Park is safe for a few more millennia.

The main road dropped down onto a wider green plain.  A small herd of zebra were grazing nonchalantly a hundred metres from the road, an ostrich or two were glancing around.  Sometimes South Africa’s landscapes seems more like the USA or New Zealand, and then a sighting like that will put you right back on its own continent.


And then back in Africa