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 – 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.


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.


Maseru’s suburbs start to give way to countryside

The Highest Country in the World – Becky

The other times I was not in a hotel, but was invited to stay with one of the project officers.  Becky Banton had been working in Lesotho when I first visited, but had not been recruited by Sentebale.  Originally from the Blue Grass state of Kentucky, she had volunteered with the US Peace Corps and built up an impressive CV of immersion projects in Lesotho.  It was her job to pull off this Letsema project.  Progress, like in so many similar projects in development, was slow but she was diplomatic and a great respecter of Lesotho culture and norms which helped grease the wheels.  She was also a big mama, a large lady, and I think, despite being white, that also gained her a lot of respect from many people who interacted with her. To be honest, it was more her fluent Sesotho, the main language in Lesotho, and her mannerisms and approaches to getting work done that was so impressive.

She had almost free reign on a large villa style house in the back suburbs of Maseru.  It had big rooms, a deck out back and a fair sized garden shaded by jacaranda and other trees.  Her only requirement was that if her boss said, she had to share it with project visitors.  This was not a problem as Becky and I hit it off pretty well from the first day.  The more I showed how the Excel spreadsheets I was creating and the Google Earth mapping I was doing could help her visualise her results she started to be really enthusiastic.  I remember one time I showed her how the spreadsheet was manipulating all the information from the different agencies she was logging, and turning it into some kind of code.  I would copy all this code and paste it in to the legend of Google Earth, and all the points would appear in the right places on the map, with symbols and labels telling you the details about who the organisation are, where they are, websites and what they do.  Becky would say “that is magic” as I seemed to throw the gobbledygook from the clipboard  onto Google Earth.  I taught her how it worked and she and I kept up a dialogue on how to refine it both throughout the visits and subsequently.

Becky was a great host at her house (she was happy cooking for me as she was vegetarian and didn’t want me poisoning her with meat) and we sat and drank a few beers and learnt about each other’s past history.  All my trips to Lesotho were quick week long visits, and this last one was no different.  I had one weekend where time was my own, and Becky proposed that we did something together.  One option was to head up into the mountains and base ourselves in one of her favourite villages.  The second was to travel over the border into South Africa and spend some time in a lovely little town called Clarens.  Both were appealing for different reasons; the first because it would expose me to village life in Lesotho and make me see some of the more mountainous countryside that Lesotho is renowned for.  The second would give the opportunity for more of a road trip and be in a place that was more for pampering than for raw experience.

In the end the decision was made for us.  A friend of Becky’s was in need of a pamper, and had access to a house in Clarens.  I hired a vehicle from one of the rental companies that operated out of the big hotels, and we were set.