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.

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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.

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playpump

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 – New Country, New Landscape

I say that these parts of Lesotho and South Africa are the same terrain, but it was incredible how different the landscape looked once we crossed over.  In Lesotho every piece of flat land appears cultivated – lots of narrow field strips allow subsistence or low income farming to go ahead – mostly hand ploughed, hand sowed, hand weeded and hand harvested. The farmsteads all intermingled with the crops and the livestock roaming everywhere.  And the soil was so dusty at this bum end of the dry season.

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Spot the border – South Africa on the right, Lesotho on the left

In South Africa, there were hardly any villages, just miles of rolling grassland, some of it fenced in for cattle, some being prepared by machinery for the next season’s crops.  There would be a ranch or a farmstead of immense proportions and loads of outbuildings for their kit and storage.  Hidden away often amongst a grove of trees, you might get a glimpse of the African style houses of the farm labourers and their families, but they were not allowed to be cultivating their own crops or hold a lot of livestock.  Maybe the odd chicken.

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The sparsely populated, big fields of the South African side of the border

Here we were in Free State, the big wide open spaces, one of the breadbaskets of Africa, such a low population density compare to Lesotho.  This was scenery on a gigantic scale.  Each time we would pass through a gap between the mountains and a new valley would open up for miles around us it would take your breath away.  We skirted a low lying area called the Brandwater Basin and every time we reached a ridge a new vista would open up.   We travelled for another hour or so before we dropped down into the eastern extremity of the basin  to find the small town of Clarens nestling in amongst all the hills.

The Highest Country in the World – Land borders

We turned off the main road in Butha Buthe as we needed to cross the border in to South Africa.  Still a well maintained road it dropped gradually towards the Mohokare River. I rarely come across manned border posts as coming from an island nation you cannot drive to another country.  Even in Europe with the Shengen Agreement there are few places where they occur.  Lesotho being landlocked is dependent on South Africa alone to allow land transport in and out of the country.  Only a few of the border crossings are open 24 hours a day.  I did use one of these, at the western end of Maseru when I went with some people Maseru on my second trip over to Ladybrand for dinner one night.  I suppose it is not surprising that people can go back and forth fairly easily – it is after all the same piece of countryside, just split into  two different states. The border crossings along the river in Lesotho are a little less arbitrary than some.  I remember passing through the extensive complex at the Sierra Leone/Guinea border crossing on the edge of a town, and then being told that the actual physical border crossing is about 10km north of there.  I could not quite understand why people would set up immigration and customs posts so far away, but I suppose there is always a question of whether you can purchase enough land to build all the car parks, offices and inspection huts needed for a busy crossing.  The funniest part of the Sierra Leone , Guinea border was that it was very clearly marked on the road.  The Sierra Leone side had been tarmacced under a recent EU funded infrastructure programme, the Guinea side was a potholed piece of metalling that had seen no maintenance for twenty years.  And the line in the road was obvious, not to mention the change in smoothness of carriage.

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The border between Guinea (foreground) and Sierra Leone (background) marked by the new tarmac and road markings put in by the EU

The Caledonspoort border control near Butha Buthe was both very modern and heavily secured.  On both sides approaching the river the roadside was heavily protected with razor wire atop high chain fences.  Cameras and even look out posts were strategically placed.  Having said that the crossing guards on both sides were very friendly.  The Lesotho buildings slightly up from the flood plain  on a plateau, then the bridge over a dramatic gorge (but no photos of course) and then the South African control in a steep sided valley.  The road takes advantage of this valley to work through another escarpment of hills, and then we were away.

The Highest Country in the World – Village Life and the “not the capital” cities

We passed through village after village where life was going on – funny how so often in African villages the routines never seem to change. If you didn’t consult your calendar, you would have trouble working out whether it was the weekend or not.  Men always sit under trees or close to bars and drink, there are always women cleaning clothes or cooking pots, kids either doing chores up at the water pump or carrying wood or shopping or containers from A to B, or else when you pass by they are distracted from their games and grin and wave.  Only the increased amount of church or mosque could indicate what day it was.

As well as the dozens of villages,  we also passed through several towns;  Maputsoe, Hlotse and Butha Buthe.  This last one was a substantial city which contrasted strongly with Maseru, and shows why in my line of work why you should escape the capital.  The types of people I tend to have meetings with are going to be government officials or heads of agencies and NGOs.  Their offices are either large brick or concrete blocks in the centre of the city, or leafy compounds, or grand villas in the upper class suburbs of the city.  Apart from the little pieces of ordinary capital life you get as you drive by, you get a very distorted image of the country.  You can start believing that the capital is the only thriving location – everyone in the rest of the country either longs to travel there or has already migrated.  While the little villages and towns may seem like little hick locations in comparison to the capital city, I can see the civic pride in some of the larger provincial cities like Butha Buthe that sort of say “Yeah, Maseru is the capital, but who needs all that hassle when we have everything we need here”.  Butha Buthe has that air about it, even from the vignettes you observe in the ten minutes or so it takes to drive through.

The Highest Country in the World – On the main road through Lesotho

So to date, apart from a few visits around Maseru’s hotels and restaurants, including a rather dodgy Chinese restaurant near the bypass, that had been my experience of Lesotho.  So I was looking forward to at least traversing through the more populated regions before heading out to Clarens in Free State.

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Our little Kia

Our car was a little bright orange Kia, we packed our overnight bags in and drove round to pick up Becky’s friend, Christine.  She was another peace corps volunteer working out at an orphanage in Peka but had been down in Maseru for meetings during the week.  We planned to take her north to Clarens then drop her off back home on the way back.  It was nice to be out with Becky away from the office and we began to talk less about our work and more about life in general and life in Lesotho in particular.  Christine was great company too and we loved the road trip up north.

The route is one of the busiest roads in Lesotho, connecting half a dozen of the biggest towns in the country.  It was easy to tell that we were travelling through the most fertile and forgiving part of the country, and ominously standing over us to the east was the massif of the really high snow-capped mountains where life was immeasurably more harsh.  In the big scheme of African Roads it was generally well maintained although there were a couple of chaotic road works where you ended up deep in hardened ruts made by hundreds of lorries which had already passed by.  There were the potholes, and the tarmac did flake away at the sides in many areas but compared to most African roads, it was serviceable and we made fast progress.

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Hope he has good suspension – in Leribe

It being the weekend the commercial traffic was lighter than normal, and most of the larger vehicles seemed to be pickups taking football teams to matches, or minibuses containing church group outings.  Black smoke belched out of the local and intercity buses  ato nd the odd four wheel drive (many with South African plates on) would roar and try overtake.  Considering this was one of the main roads in the whole country, I was taken aback at how quiet it was.

The Highest Country in the World – King Moshoeshoe’s last resting place

Our other excursion outside of town on that first visit was a morning drive to a famous tourist site, a few miles north east of Maseru.  Lesotho is a monarchy, although the legacy and continuity has sometimes been disturbed.  One of the recent kings, King Moshoeshoe II, reigned from independence in 1966 to 1990, although he had a struggle with another guy who wanted more presidential power.  He was then forced into exile, only to return in 1995 to reign again. His second term was cut short by a tragic car accident, but he was buried at his family grave, which has now become a place of pilgrimage for many locals and tourists.

Chris and I drove east towards Roma once more, but then turned north just where the city peters out.  The grave sits atop a flat mesa, called Thaba Bosiu.  Although there was a sign on the road, with a car park, and a visitor centre was under construction, the pathway up to the grave was not marked.  We walked up the most likely route passing through a small village.  Two young boys were pumping water into their family’s containers and posed and smiled for us as we took photos.  After that we saw no-one else.  The route was rocky, but dried grass still bushed up either side of us, and the odd pine tree gave some much needed colour to the brown landscape.  We were walking up the vegetated scree, and the mesa like so many was capped by hard rock that formed a sheer face all round the edge.  I wondered how we reached the top, but the pathway led us into a small gorge between two massifs and before long we were on the flat summit.  The vista back to Maseru was stunning under the clear winter sky; every detail of every farm, road, field and tree was crystal.  We tore ourselves away from the view and commenced exploring, we only had a couple of hours before we had to get back to Maseru, pick up our bags and drive back to Johannesburg to catch our overnight flight back to the UK so we had to keep moving.

This natural fortress is a sacred site for Lesotho.  The Basotho people had been forced to resettle from further north west due to both tribal conflicts with others like the Zulus, and then being squeezed out as white Boer Voortrekkers took over the plains.  The highlands we know now as Lesotho became their home and they defended the territory fearlessly.  Thaba Bosiu was the location of some of the fiercest battles for the territory, and its attributes were well noted by the original King Moshoeshoe I.  He moved his capital south from Botha Bothe on the border with South Africa to Thaba Bosiu .

Once we were on top, we saw evidence of a settlement, some buildings in ruins, others no more than a footprint in the sand.  We tromped across the expanse of the mesa, but drawn to a set of erections poking above the long grass.  They were memorials and graves to the royal family.  The largest was a black marble frame, like a small Greek temple, surrounded by iron railings and set within a small grove of trees.  Across the top were inscribed the words “King Moshoeshoe II”, the grave itself marked by a small grey stone.  Surrounding him were many more graves, most no more than a carefully arranged cuboid of stones, some marked with hand painted inscriptions; one even had a curious naive statue, presumably a likeness of the man buried beneath, but recently painted in dazzling black and white.  There were a couple of hundred graves in this area set aside from Moshoeshoe’s mausoleum.

The Highest Country in the World – Heading to Roma

We were there first time in the winter, as the temperature differences we were experience might have hinted at.  Spring was in the air though, and I saw trees with a delicate pink blossom in so many back gardens and fringing fields.  I was told they were the peach blossom, a delicacy in Lesotho.  They decorated what was otherwise a dull brown landscape, the bare fields had no crops in, the rocks were clear of any moss, and the dirt roads were the same colour as the soil.  We were grateful for any colour we could see.

That is not to say how gorgeous the scenery looked on this bright sunny cold morning, with the blue sky as a backdrop to contrast against the land…. it was just a little monotone. Roma itself nestles at the foot of the first serious step up of altitude, so the backdrop to the city is a stunning set of escarpments and the odd stand alone mountain.  Immediately striking of these were how similar they were to the Basotho hat building and headgear that were a symbol of the country.  A plug of hard square rock atop, a uniform scree all round that formed the cone.

Southern Africa is the place in Africa where you see the locals all covered in clothes – wrapped up in balaclavas, scarves, sheepskin coats, moon boots, and the cold of a Lesotho winter made everyone put on everything they owned and head for the nearest fire.  At this elevation, it took people much longer to warm up than in Maseru.  I wondered how they coped up in the true highlands.  Even when we reached the university we found the lecturer we had come to meet huddled around a three bar electric fire.