Trains and cities and mild luxury are all nice, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy it. But now we’re back in my element. The true epicenter of my happiness: traveling the remote back roads with unknown adventures ahead, where other tourists are few and far between (and seldom from the U.S.).
I sit now writing of our last 2 days inside our private rondeval at the top of Sani Pass just inside the southern border of Lesotho. And, admittedly, the accommodation is awesome and pretty swanky. Also it’s the only thing around. And it has the claim to the highest pub in Africa. (yeah, yeah, a tourist trap phrase if you ever heard one; still, it’s fun) I have my feet next to the propane heater, and outside our cozy rondeval blows a full-on snowstorm. Snow coming down and down, the locals says they don’t know if it will stop by tomorrow. They are happy for the moisture. At this altitude it comes largely in the form of snow. So once again we have towed in the weather like a trailer on our truck.
Yesterday we came into Lesotho later than we planned because of the previous day being botched by the train delay. We had to curtail our itinerary slightly, but it’s been a fantastic 2 days. We crossed over at a tiny border post on a dirt road that wasn’t even signed from any highway or town; we found it eventually, after a couple wrong turns, by coordinating a map with some help from a Tom-Tom GPS unit that came with the truck. We didn’t leave SA and then enter Lesotho through 2 stations, just one lady took care of everything (in theory…. I guess we’ll see when we try to leave; I worry slightly considering our experience in Mozambique ...). After we got inside Lesotho and programmed into the GPS the next town on the map we intended to pass through, and then started driving, it kept telling us, “turn around as soon as possible.” Almost immediately upon entering Lesotho, everything changed – from the topography to the housing to the people. In the photo below we're coming up to the hard-to-find, only mentioned in half the maps/guidebooks, border crossing of Monontsha.
The landscape is completely spectacular. We wind our way up and down along endless curves and hairpins on narrow dirt roads through valleys and to mountain tops almost 10,000 feet high, many sheer cliffs surround us at any given time. Layers and layers of canyons and gullies, somewhat like a mini Grand Canyon. The first part after crossing the border, the mountain sides were all green with new spring grass. As we progressed further south, the green faded into rocky colors of red and gold.
The people live in very neatly-kept rondevals (round stone building with pointed thatch roofs). Though the people are unquestionably poor, they obviously take some civic pride in their homes and landscape; there is no litter lying about, the yards are neat, the houses well-kept and not run-down. Though many in South Africa live in the exact same type of home, they are very often in shambles and belie a certain squalor. Not so here. Second photo, see how dwarfed they are in the mountainous landscape.
The people are largely shepherds with sheep and cows and also farm terraced tracks of land along the hillsides. Horses are the main type of transport beyond walking, and donkeys are the beasts of burden. We got out of our truck once because we were driving with our windows rolled down and kept hearing noises outside. It turned out to be the tinkling of the cow and sheep bells, amplified by the valley. It was a mild cacophony. The little donkey alone on this huge hillside, below, I thought was so cute.
We very rarely saw any pack animals in South Africa and no one riding horses. This is a horse-oriented culture, and in fact the biggest tourist “attraction” besides hiking in this country is pony trekking. The indigenous form of dress involves heavy blankets wrapped around one’s body. We can see why…. it’s just plain nippy up here. It’s nice that the majority of people walk around with this style of dress rather than Westernized jackets and such.
Most people along the roadside wave at us. The adults are just friendly; the kids, unfortunately, have come to believe that white people are candy fairies and yell out at us with hands open, “Sweets! Sweets!” I dunno, I guess it’s better than saying, “money money!” Though the gesture is still annoying. Once, I got out of the car to take a photo of the scenery and didn’t notice a kid sitting there on a rock. He got up and asked me to take his picture, so I did and then showed it to him. Then he asked me for money; I said “no.” So he started telling me this story that his parents had died and he wanted to be able to go to school but he couldn’t afford it because he had no parents. He was telling me this while wearing a school uniform.
We stopped at this friendly looking store ... clearly is has a friendly indoor atmosphere if you notice the sign above the door asking patrons to disarm themselves before entering ... because we were enticed by the prospect of scones, as advertised on the big blue sign. I stayed in the car while Erik went inside to make the purchase; he came back rather dejected with a loaf of white bread. That was the "scone."
Passing through one village, a man with a police officer’s hat stepped into the road and vigorously flagged us down to stop. In South Africa, we likely wouldn’t have stopped, as car jacking and hijacking is too common and we have been warned repeatedly not to do so. There was no police car or anything, and no uniform but the hat. But we stopped. He wanted a ride to the next town. We decided to oblige; it’s Lesotho, not South Africa. He was terribly amused by the Tom-Tom GPS unit. He giggled incessantly over it. We dropped him off at his desired destination. Who knows if he was really a police officer, maybe he just found an officer’s hat somewhere, though we asked him several questions about his job which he seemed to answer legitimately enough.
The only vehicle ever to pass us was a police vehicle ... they are yellow vans. But it was a bit comical, as it was a slow-speed overtake, and because of the roads snaking so circuitously across the mountainsides skirting canyons and ravines, we could chart the progress of the van ahead of us for a long time -- illustrating the fact that it take 5 miles of driving or maybe more to travel one mile that the crow flies. I love this photo for showing the scale of the landscape ... can you pick out the tiny yellow van?
Eventually we hit a paved road and major (by Lesotho standards) town and stopped to get gas and buy beer. The people at the tavern seemed quite impressed that white people came into their store. They asked where we were from and when we said “United States,” they didn’t seem to understand, so we said, “America.” “Oh, America!” they all chorused. “Obama!” One guy asked how many times we’ve met Obama since he became president.
Darkness descended while driving through the splendid scenery. When I told Erik that my “aim” for this country was simply to drive around through the interior, Erik said “it certainly feels like we’re in the interior of something.” It is remote, rugged, sparsely populated, and beautiful. But once it was dark, the road was extremely hard to follow. The pavement was very black and there are no painted lines and it continuously twists and turns. There are reflector tabs on each edge of the road. On the rare straight-away, the orange reflectors on left and red reflectors on right outlining a black path in the black night made it look like we were on a runway at night at an airport. One of the couples we met on the train said the straightest patch of road in all of Lesotho was driving across the bridge at the Katse dam. I believe he’s right. It’s quite cold and though we did buy a few things to be able to subsist in the new truck, we ended up driving into the night to the only accommodation anywhere in the area, near the Katse dam. They charge an arm and leg, but at least we could eat cheap with the food we’d bought at the grocery store in the morning and put in our cooler. The guidebook said this place was like a hospital, and it totally is with the rooms lined up down cement hallways. We would have been miserably cold inside the car.
I was excited to wake up the next morning to see just exactly where we were, what our surroundings were, as it was so mysterious driving in, nothing but curve after curve and blackness... pretty much no electricity anywhere. We could have woken up on desert island for all I knew. When I looked out the hotel window, we were about 15 feet from a cliff at the bottom of which lay the reservoir backed up behind the Katse dam. Quite striking. One luxury about the hospital hotel was the hot buffet breakfast.
So we set off again, taking the smallest road the map showed which would still lead us to today’s destination. The dirt road was nearly deserted all day as we drove around. Once, we did get into a bit of traffic congestion when we encountered 2 cars in a row traveling the other direction. The Tom-Tom GPS went cuckoo and took a decided dislike of us, vowing our demise by continually trying to send us up cow trails and down cliffs, fording rivers, and breaking into peoples’ yards. How on earth they programmed in their road data, I don’t know. The directions were so ludicrous it wasn’t even like we got lost, it was utterly evident we weren’t supposed to go where it said to.
More breathtaking scenery filled our day. Great slices of life, passing women washing clothes in the river and men plowing fields with oxen and a single blade plow. I would very much like to learn this African skill of carrying every manner of thing on top of my head.
I love so many of the business names painted on the sides of buildings. Such as "public phone" (below), "beauty salon" (on the sides of the dumpiest cement cells), "car wash" in the middle of nowhere in a place where no individual owns a car (again, below). Will try to get one of a beauty salon if I see another one; I saw several in the Kosi Bay area; it's just funny because of the squalor of a building purporting to make one beautiful.
I have to admit, I was very curious about the doctor's office. It looks so improbably from the outside that the inside would be very conducive to having surgery performed. I imagine I may be too judgmental about the outside of the building, but that's precisely why I would have loved to see the inside of this surgery center.
Then about mid-afternoon it started raining and not too much time had passed before it turned into snow. And not too long after that, the snow began sticking to the road. We had been following the tracks of a car who had gone before us through the snow. We reached a summit of sorts and those tracks circled round the way they came and disappeared. We forged on and very soon wondered whether the owner of the other tracks knew something we didn’t. We spent several hairy hairpins biting our nails in low-4 first gear trying not to slide off the road. Finally the road straightened and flattened out a bit. We continued, figuring we were nearing our destination – the pub/chalet at the top of Sani Pass – enough we could abandon the car and walk if necessary. We came across a man in the road flagging us down with immense pleas for us to stop. We obliged; he wanted a ride to another town across the border in South Africa. We told him we could take him to the pass. He was very grateful. We fed him bread and bananas and cookies and beer which again he was very grateful for. When we arrived at the border post, where our accommodation is, we realized he didn’t understand what we had told him about only going that far. It took awhile to explain but he finally got it. I’m sure he was dejected, but we sent him on his snowy way with a bag full of more food (he never asked for anything, but he looked so cold and miserable when we picked him up and all this food was literally sitting on the seat beside him… it seemed cruel not to offer)
And so we turned into our place at the highest pub in Africa and now I sit in our hut next to the propane heater sipping wine from a shot glass while the snows falls and falls, piling ever-dubiously higher. We have one spare day tomorrow… if we get stranded here tomorrow it’s OK, except we’ll have run out of Rand to pay for another night’s room. But the next day we must be able to get down if we want to be able to make our flight home. There are some other young people here who stayed last night, went hiking today and got caught in the snowstorm. Their 2WD car is at the bottom of the pass on the South African side and the locals who said they’d give them a ride there this afternoon left to go down before the snowstorm. They are worried they’re stranded for the night. Tomorrow, if we are able to leave, we’ll offer them a ride. But the prospect is looking bleak. We asked the proprietor if it could be a problem getting down the pass if it keeps snowing. He said, “yah, it could be a problem.” Worse coming up, apparently, and we’ll be going down; but still, the few hairpins we took downhill today were nerve-racking and at this rate, there is going to be significant accumulation of snow tomorrow. What an adventure.