Into the Jungle – The long road north

It was well after 2pm when we left Makeni.  We initially travelled over tarmac road again but on the edge of the town we turned off, across the new railway and onto a wide dirt road.  And now came the real test.  Not only was the road rough , in places boggy, in others rocky and bumpy, but it was interminably longer than you thought.  Every time I looked at the map and though we were making progress I would be sorely disappointed.

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The long dusty road – sometimes muddy

The slow progress did mean I noticed a lot of detail.  As we progressed northwards the vegetation got thicker and more scrubby, and we had risen up onto a low plateau.  The road passed through the middle of a string of villages – most of them similar in construction.  Their centres had quite substantial houses made of concrete or at least locally made bricks.  Although they were often dilapidated and covered in mould, moss and lichens from years of long wet seasons, you could see they were comparatively of high status.  Surrounding these were more modest local brick houses.  One thing I noticed here which I could not remember from trip in East or Southern Africa were washing poles.  Whereas elsewhere people peg out the laundry on lines or lay it across bushes or on the floor, the majority of these houses had thick poles, maybe 20cm across, held in place by two more forked poles, where clothes were wrapped around.  To me it seemed like a very inefficient way to dry clothes – my experience has always been the minimum amount of cloth touching anything else is best to help lower the humidity, but maybe in the dry season the heat generated out of the wood would help to toast the clothes very quickly.  In the current cusp of the rainy season it seemed like they were more useful as washing poles than drying ones.

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 – 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.