July 21, 2008

The Journey is the Destination, Or Everything I Need to Know about Horse-Riding I Learned by Watching the Rohirrim Charge Minas Tirith

The initial idea was to spend part of our two-week vacation with Nthantisi, one of the pre-school teachers, at her village home near the town of Matatiele, about four hours northwest of Mthatha. She was only going for a week and when I checked the map and saw how close Matatiele is to Lesotho, I decided to spend the second week of the vacation in the mountains. Lesotho, so the tour books say, is the country with the world’s highest lowest point. Nothing is below 1000m. Everyone I spoke to said Lesotho was a gorgeous and spectacular country and wished me well on my trip. Then they would pause and say, “But it’s winter - it’s going to be cold up that high.” Despite my background in some cold climes, all these warnings nearly put me off the trip but I decided a) I wasn’t spending my vacation in Mthatha and b) how cold could cold really be in Africa?

Turns out, though, that Nthantisi had to change her plans so she’d be spending the first week of the vacation in Mthatha and then the second week in Matatiele. We decided I’d spend the first week in Lesotho and then come south and meet her sometime in the second week.

The car I use is not really cut out for the mountains of Lesotho and I wasn’t in the mood for paying for all that gas anyway so I decided to travel by mini-bus taxis. These are the backbone of transportation in Africa and though people expressed horror when I told them of my plans, hundreds of thousands of them transport millions of people safely every day. True, there are a few crashes and deaths, as with private vehicles, but I liked my odds. This seemed like as good an opportunity as any for some sustained experience with taxis and a true test of one of my favourite sayings, “the journey is the destination.”

Given the positive response to the report of my Uganda trip, I’ve attempted something similar. So pull out your atlas and follow me as I travel almost the complete circumference of Lesotho. You might not want to read it all in one go.

Day 1 - Monday, 30 June 2008
Right off the bat, I make a rookie mistake. I want to be on the first taxi out of Mthatha to Matatiele so I arrive at the taxi rank at 7:30, thinking that since I’ve developed this stereotype of Africans as early risers, they’ll be at the taxi rank early too. It is a clear and cold morning and the taxi drivers huddle around their taxis surrounded by plumes of exhaust. I tell them where I am going, they point me to the right taxi, and ask, “Why are you here so early? It’s cold - people won’t be here for a long time.” Since taxis go when they are full and I am the first one there, I have a long wait ahead of me. Not for the first time, I realize I am learning a lot about patience by living in Africa. Around 11:15, 16 of us are finally on our way to Matatiele.

The drive to Matatiele gives me my first taste of the mountains. Even as we climb up into them, there continue to be steeper and taller mountains in the distance and it is exciting to know those are my destination. In Matatiele, I am quickly able to find a ride going to Qacha’s Nek, the town just over the border in Lesotho. The ride is in a bakkie, the small trucks that are used for everything around here. It is smaller than, say, a Ford Ranger, is old, and is weighed down with about a dozen people in the back, three - including me - up front, and all our stuff strapped to the roof. The road to Qacha’s Nek is a steep climb on a dirt road and we do pretty much the whole thing in first and second gear. The bakkie makes an interesting whistling noise every time it enters second gear. The woman up front with me gives me a blank stare when I say, “Molo,” (hello in Xhosa). I remember I am in Sotho country now, a language only distantly related to Xhosa, and say instead, “Dumela” (hello in Sotho), the only word of the language I know.

We reach the border around 4:30 and everyone gets out as the bakkie driver is going back to Matatiele. It is the first time I have crossed a border on foot but it is without hassle. We exit through the swanky and relatively-new-looking South African post, walk through a little no-man’s land, and enter Lesotho at the tumble-down border post that needs a new paint job and some structural reinforcement. My American passport attracts a lot of attention and the supervisor comes out just to see what the commotion is about. But I get my stamp and cross into Qacha’s Nek.

Qacha’s Nek is the middle of the country, on the southern border. I am to learn that it is “in the sticks” and is the end of the paved road from Maseru, the capital. But for now it is a pleasant and very small town and reminds me of a slightly larger version of Unalakleet, Alaska. According to Lonely Planet, all the evergreens here are redwoods and they are impressively tall but not as tall as the mountains that just loom over everything. There’s a nice, clean, and cheap bed and breakfast (that doesn’t serve breakfast but whatever). There are two beds in my room and I take the covers off the other bed and add them to my own just in case it gets cold. I am plenty warm but they sure know how to make blankets here. The weight of the combined covers is like sleeping in a straight-jacket.

Day 2 - Tuesday, Canada Day
Notwithstanding my experience yesterday, I am up early again to catch a taxi towards Maseru. Not for the first time on this trip, I get to watch the sun rise over the mountains from the taxi rank. It is a cold morning and I enjoy seeing my breath for the first time in a long while.

One of many sunrises I will see from a taxi park on this trip.

I find a plush taxi going to Maseru and we set out around 7:30. This is about the only taxi plying the road between Qacha’s Nek and Quthing at this time of day so we stop frequently to pick people up and let them off. Gradually, the taxi fills up and I get squeezed in tighter and tighter with the young mother and her two young children next to me. Eventually, one ends up on my lap and it reminds me of my first bus ride in Uganda. But my leg falls asleep much more quickly and pretty soon I have to kick the poor child of my lap.

This portion of the drive is my first introduction to true Lesotho mountains and they are absolutely stunning. We spend some time in the Senqu River valley (this becomes the Orange River in South Africa) and the whole drive is fantastic. We pass a number of small villages and I struck by many differences to those I’ve seen in South Africa. The overriding difference is that it seems so much poorer. Many of the huts are made out of stones and I think about how the wind must just whistle through them all the time. All the villages are centred on agriculture and I am impressed at how much land is under cultivation for the size of the villages, particularly as I watch the team of oxen plow the land. I am also shocked, I must confess, to see so many men actually working and working hard. I am used to men sitting around and drinking.

After Quthing, the terrain becomes more rolling and the villages larger. We pass through several larger towns as we approach the population heartland of the country. We also begin to see more police and get pulled over five times at road blocks. Our driver evidentially doesn’t have his paperwork in order because he has to spend so much time convincing the police to let us carry on. But it means a break for us to stretch our legs.

I get off the taxi at Matsekuoa, a tiny junction town where I could catch a taxi to Malealea Lodge, an old trading post now converted to a tourist lodge in the attractively-named Paradise Valley. I wait at this junction for two hours, at first enjoying the break and the sun, then getting a bit bored, then getting really bored and entertaining the assembled crowds with my juggling of oranges, before finally sitting down to wait. As I’m sitting, a police truck with eight of Lesotho’s finest on board pulls over. They immediately surmise I am going to Malealea Lodge - clever detective work - and offer me a ride as they’re going there as well. (I don’t ask what business eight cops have at the lodge I’m hoping to spend the night in.) I climb in the bed with three others and we do our best to huddle out of the wind. A few stops and a few more hitchhikers later (we are now about a dozen or so in this truck) we begin a climb up a dirt road to Gates of Paradise Pass, 2001 meters according to the sign. There’s an old sign here that says, “Wayfarer, pause and look upon a pathway of Paradise.” It’s breath-taking, though that just may have been a particularly cold burst of air that hit me as we crossed the pass. The valley lives up to the sign, dotted here and there with little villages, farm land, and rivers. I realize that Lesotho is such a spectacular country that on my second day in the country I have run out of adjectives to describe it.

Aptly named.
Some of Lesotho's finest who picked me up.

Malealea Lodge is a great place and feels very remote. Fortunately for their bottom line, we’re not that far from the main highway and they attract a lot of tour buses. Indeed, I am the only solo-traveling backpacker there. But the place is big enough for all of us and they even have a price range that caters to people like me with some very comfortable accommodation. The man at the desk sits down with me for quite a while and tells me not only what they have on offer but also what else I should see in the country. I begin to question if I should go to Nthantisi’s at all or just spend the second week in Lesotho.

The stars are gorgeous at night, as you might expect, but I wrap myself up in my sleeping bag pretty early. Have I mentioned it gets cold in the winter in Lesotho?

Day 3 - Wednesday, 2 July 2008
The highlight of any trip to Lesotho is supposed to be a pony trek through the mountains and I am eager to do this but not the day after spending two days crammed in taxis. So I get a guide and hike through part of the valley to a waterfall. It is the first waterfall I’ll see on this trip and it looks great but I later realize it pales in comparison to others.

The hike to the waterfall is the highlight and takes us through Malealea village. We pass men and boys tending their flocks of sheep and goats and cows. There are men and women bringing in the old corn stalks from the field for fodder for the animals. Not for the last time on this trip, the song “Bringing in the Sheaves” springs into mind but as I only know those four words and barely know the tune, I don’t get very far. Some women are de-cobbing corn kernels that will eventually go the mill at the lodge to be turned into corn meal. Though I’m careful not to romanticize the poverty or difficulty of the life, it is encouraging to see an example of what seems to be a thriving rural life, particularly after hearing so many stories of the death of rural life in Alaska and the Transkei.

Scenes from a walk around Malealea.

On the way back, we stop at “Musi’s Donga,” a small farm built on reclaimed land. Soil erosion is a big problem here (as it is in the Transkei), and there are lots of eroded areas that interrupt fields and reduce the amount of farming land. A donga is an attempt to reclaim that land by building terraces and dams with rocks to prevent the soil from washing away. This is a particularly impressive example and I get a thorough tour from the son of the man who started it all. The amount of land they’ve reclaimed and the work it must have required to haul all those rocks is impressive.

My guide Lucky had invited me to his soccer practice in the late afternoon so I go check it out. The team is practicing for a tournament and they are quite good. At the other end of the field is one guy practicing his corner kicks and a lot of younger boys who seem more interested in catching the ball than kicking it. Given all you hear about soccer in the developing world, these guys are actually not all that great. When they invite me to join them, I oblige but make sure to hide my soccer talent by missing any ball that comes my way. I don’t have to try very hard.

In the evening, I prepare for my pony trek. I’ve decided to take the four-day pony trek, one of the longest on offer, that will take me into some remote villages in the mountains that tower on the far side of Paradise Valley. You’re supposed to bring along all your own food on the trek and I had none with me aside from the backpacker’s mandatory jar of peanut butter. The only thing on offer in the village is a small spaza shop (convenience store, kind of) and I manage to find what I think is enough sustenance for four days, mainly rice, baked beans, and oranges. I stock up and begin to pack my saddle bags. I feel adventuresome and try to push down any trepidation that comes from never having ridden a horse before. “I’ve seen the Magnificent 7,” I tell myself. “That should count for something.”

Day 4 - Thursday, 3 July 2008
I am ready and raring to go at 8:30 but delay follows delay and we don’t set out until 10, me, my guide, Matelfi, and our horses. (A word on the animals - traditionally, the “steeds” of Lesotho are called ponies because they are shorter than horses. But they were bred initially from horses, I think; the altitude and the weather has stunted their growth. A pony to me is what you ride at the fair and not an animal that nonchalantly climbs mountain passes the way these guys will.) Riding a horse turns out to be easier than I thought, particularly one as docile as mine. I figure he knows the route better than me so I sit back and enjoy the ride.

All the literature about pony-trekking in Lesotho concentrates on the steep and rocky ascents and descents the ponies manage while the rider hangs on for dear life. As advertised, we begin to descend to our first river valley forty-five minutes or so after setting out and, predictably, it is steep and rocky. I like to think I handled myself as calmly as the pony did but there were a few terrifying switchbacks.

After climbing out of the river valley, we pass through yet another village and are greeted with smiles and laughs from the children. As they will be throughout this trip, the huts are made of stone or mud and are a uniform brown throughout. The cornfields are mostly cleared so there is an overwhelming sense of colour sameness on this trip.

Soon after lunch, and another death-defying descent into and climb out of a river valley, we cross a fairly major-looking dirt road and I am a bit stunned to find it is a road that goes to Maseru. There’s a fairly large village here and some impressive-looking local government offices. As we cross the road, a bus from Maseru rumbles by and my sense of the remoteness of our location is shattered.

In the afternoon, we continue along this road, through the many villages that surround it and I get to practice my limited Sotho by greeting everyone we pass. As the daylight fades, however, the road dead-ends and we begin to climb and climb and climb towards an impossibly-distant and steep pass. On our way up, we pass shepherds and their flocks headed towards lower elevations for the night and a few other pony riders, trotting along much faster than us and bareback to boot.

As we cross the pass, a new - and much more remote - village comes into sight, a short descent away. We dismount here and I’m walking like John Wayne, sore from the waist to the knees, but I’ve survived my first day on horseback. There are some children hanging around and I am tempted to play with them but there’s too much to do and too little daylight remaining. I insist on carrying my own water from the spring and it nearly does me in, even though it’s only a few gallons of water abut 50 yards (uphill, mind you). The rondavel is warm and comfortable; I only wish I could have cooked a better dinner. I fill myself up but a lot of my dinner goes to the dogs hanging around. As it’s dark and the village is quiet, I head to bed early.
A common sight on my four-day trek: a steep pass and my guide's back.

Day 5 - Friday, American Independence Day
Last year on the Fourth of July, I ran street races in Nome, Alaska, ate too much free ice cream from the Fire Department, joined in a jam session on the public square, and bar-b-qued salmon in the evening. This year, I am up by 7 and we are back on the trail soon after 8.

The trail leads through the village and soon we are past the huts and climbing again, this time to another pass that doesn’t seem quite as impossibly steep as yesterday but is still impressive. When we cross over it, there are no signs of any human habitation, just an open expanse of somewhat marshy ground stretching to the next pass in the distance. We pass a few boys and young men driving donkeys or ponies the other way towards the mill but mostly we are alone. As with virtually all the other people we see on this trip, they are wearing the traditional blankets as a sort-of overcoat. Matelfi rides ahead and I am left to contemplate the stark remoteness of the area and its overwhelming beauty.

Towards mid-day, we begin another steep descent to a river, pausing this time so Matelfi can point out a unique spiral aloe that grows in this part of the world. We cross the river and break for lunch, peanut-butter, bread, and the ubiquitous orange for me. I am already tiring of my food and it is the second day of the trip.

The pretty neat spiral aloe.

After lunch, we climb away from the river, headed towards another pass. In the distance is a very small village but that has been the only sign of life since this morning. That changes when we cross the day’s final pass and see a sizable village stretching out below us. The well-tended fields climb up the hill towards us, in the middle-ground are the huts, and in the far distance are a series of sharp cliffs that indicate there’s a river at their base. It is a spectacular scene.

After descending through the fields and huts, we arrive at our evening’s accommodation, a similarly pleasant rondavel. As we have plenty of daylight remaining, Matelfi takes me first to the nearby waterfall. Apparently, it is a 100-plus meters tall and one of the most remote in the country. The cliffs around the river are so steep we can’t reach the waterfall’s base but we get a good view from up high.

Later, I wander through the village in the dying light of the day and pick up a large coterie of children. I also meet some men headed home, including this one who wanted to be sure to show that he had been working today.

The rondavels we stay in are owned by local villagers and tonight’s host is a woman named Georgina, who wants to learn all about me. I turn the questions back on her and learn that it is a day’s journey to get to Maseru, leaving before dawn. She’s lived in this village for more than 25 years and hasn’t been to Maseru in nearly two years, though someone from her family goes once a month.

It’s another quiet evening and bad dinner and I head to bed early. Happily, I am less sore now than I was yesterday at this time.

Day 6 - Saturday, 5 July 2008
The sun is shining and there isn’t a cloud in the sky this morning but it is cold and the wind is whipping fiercely. I put on my gloves, my winter hat (purchased just before I left Mthatha for exactly this eventuality), and all the layers I have, a long-sleeve t-shirt, a fleece jacket, and a warm sweater. (The last two items had been donated to Itipini just as we closed for the break. When I realized they fit me and were warm, I “borrowed” them for the trip since it was too late to get them in the hands of any of the intended recipients.)

Despite the layers, it is cold all day and our trail takes us up and up and up. With each pass that we cross, we don’t seem to descend much at all. Most of the day is spent skirting valleys below, headed for another pass in the distance. We see little sign of human habitation most of the day and we break ice in the streams we cross. Despite the season, the amount of green we see is striking. My gloves (actually glove liners from my Alaska days) are insufficient and Matelfi - gloveless - looks cold too. At one point, he insists we get off and walk the horses, not because they can’t handle it but to get the blood moving in our extremities again. It is great advice, as my feet are particularly cold.

In all the time with my thoughts on horseback, I found myself creating a list of movies with great horse-riding scenes. The one that sticks in my head is the charge of the Riders of Rohan on the armies of Mordor before Minas Tirith in The Return of the King. Matelfi had given me a small stick in the morning to give my pony little whacks to keep moving but I found a better use for it was to slash at the tall grass we passed through a la Theoden, Eomer, et al. A couple of times I nearly fall off, a few other times I confuse the poor horse, and eventually I drop my stick altogether and the distraction ends.

Having head east for the first two days, we are now headed vaguely north and west. As near as I can tell, we are right in the middle of the mountain range I first saw from Gates of Paradise Pass and some snow-covered peaks loom especially close and tall.

Our final pass of the day is the highest and we hunch low as we climb. It is another vast open and empty valley before us. As we traverse it, I realize it is more a plateau for the end we are headed towards is more or less a sharp drop-off. Near the edge, we break for a late lunch (neither of us had wanted to stop before) and Matelfi immediately begins to make a fire. There is almost no vegetation of any consequence at this elevation and searching for fuel reminds me of the challenge of starting a fire on the tundra in Alaska. But we manage and I singe my gloves on the flames.

The endless plateau

Looking over the cliff edge, we can see a village in the valley stretching out below and a waterfall on another side. The waterfall looks great but my fingers are so cold (this is before the fire got going) as to have lost any dexterity and I am afraid I’ll drop the camera off the edge if I take it out. In the far, far distance, I can make out Malealea Lodge (notable because of the grove of trees that surrounds it, not cut down for firewood).

The remainder of the day is a steep descent to the village. This is probably the steepest descent over the loosest rock we’ve had and it’s remarkable how the horses choose their path and even when they stumble or slip right themselves quickly. For the entire trip, I felt completely safe on my horse.

We arrive in the village and meet some other folks who are either on one-night treks or doing the same route we’ve done in reverse. We hike to the base of the waterfall from here, along a narrow path on the side of a hill. It’s clouded over in the afternoon and as we sit at the base of the waterfall, it begins to snow, quite heavily actually, and we make our way back through the squall.

The toilets along the way have all been outhouses, mostly made of corrugated tin and quite small. The outhouse tonight, I am pleased to find, is made of stone and quite large. I take a picture and file it away for my lifelong study of comparative outhouses.

Day 7 - Sunday, 6 July 2008
It really snowed overnight because the mountains that towered over our village last night are now quite white at the peak. We didn’t get any snow that stayed at our elevation but I’m thankful we are headed even lower today, rather than back on to yesterday’s high plateau.We are joined byanother solo traveller, finishing his one-night outing. Since he ended up helping me out so much, I should note his name is Jamie and he works for Clowns Without Borders. It is nice to have company and we chat a while but mostly just enjoy our winding path along the floor of a broad canyon/valley. High above us, we can see the smooth rock eroded away by the river many millions of years ago. As we climb out of the canyon, I can see in the distance the path we took on Thursday and Malealea even closer now. Predictably, as we approach the lodge, the horses begin to canter and trot and I find it all a bit uncomfortable and hard to control but we make it back it one piece. We are back at Malealea before 2 and it feels good to step off the horse for the last time.

He rides again...for the first time.

My plan had been to spend the night at Malealea before heading into Maseru the next morning and then onwards. But Jamie is going into town for the evening and offers me a ride. Maseru is essentially the only place in the country with Internet cafes and ATM machines and I am eager for both. It is only an hour or so from Malealea and when we get out of the car in Maseru, we both comment how warm it is at this lower elevation. I am still wearing all the layers I have pretty well constantly been wearing for the last four days and immediately begin to sweat.

In relatively short order, I locate the Anglican cathedral, which has a dormitory on property. After ascertaining that they have space for me, I have only one question: do you have hot showers? They do and I have a long one before heading in to explore Maseru for the evening.

Day 8 - Monday, 7 July 2008
Aside from my stop in Heathrow on the way to South Africa, Lesotho is the first kingdom I have ever visited and I am eager to see the palace. But when I check the map of Maseru to locate it, I realize I walked past it yesterday afternoon - it is right below the cathedral - and yet I hadn’t noticed it. (I did notice the impressive-looking Reserve Bank of Lesotho. I wondered what all those employees did when the currency here, the loti, is interchangeable with and pegged to the value to the South African rand.) This morning, I set out to find it again and when I do it powerfully reminds me of a retirement home, with a gently sloping lawn, three stories or so with glass sliding-doors here and there. I can’t even be bothered to take a picture. It is an anti-climactic moment.

After doing a little more business in Maseru, I head north again, this time on a small bus carrying way more people than the rated capacity posted in big letters at the front. Taxi drivers are generally known for playing music very loudly and this one is no different but he is playing American jazz instead of the usual techno dance music. It sounds out-of-place and odd on the bus’s gigantic subwoofer that is as de rigeur here as elsewhere in the world.

I make my way via Maputsoe to Leribe and am dropped off in the taxi rank around noon. So far, I’ve been passing around the outer-rim of the country and today’s journey in particular has so far been through the heavily-settled and well-traveled parts of the country. But in Leribe, I get on a taxi to Katse, a tiny community in the middle of the country and, depending on how you measure it, the site of Africa’s tallest dam. The Katse Dam was completed about 10 years and is the centre-piece of the Lesotho Highlands Water Development Project that diverts water from Lesotho to Johannesburg and creates hydro power for Lesotho along the way.

The drive there is truly spectacular. (I know I’ve said that before but, like I said, it’s easy to run out of adjectives in this country.) It turns out that Highlands in the project’s title refers not to the fact that Lesotho is generally a high country but that the dam is in the highlands of Lesotho. Before being allowed to climb a high pass into the area, we have to pass a checkpoint where our taxi is inspected. Remarkably it passes. The road is superbly-engineered and takes us up to an elevation where snow and ice cover the road and the waterfalls on the side are frozen. From there, Katse Lake comes into view and we follow its length for some time, through tiny village after tiny village until reaching Katse and the end of the tar road. It is only 122-kilometers from Leribe but it takes nearly four hours, so steep and twisty is the road.

There is a very poor-looking village perched on the hill above the taxi rank in Katse. Since entering the highlands area, I’ve seen high-tension power lines everywhere but there doesn’t seem to be any electricity in this village. My destination is the Katse Lodge, which Lonely Planet had said had a hostel. To get there, I follow the tar road until it gets to a manned gate. I am convinced I am headed the wrong way - what sort of hostel has a gate? - and tell the guards that but they point me further down the paved road, which winds among some trees, very nice houses with SUVs in the driveways, and paved roads, which even have street signs and stop signs. It turns out this is the community purpose-built for employees of the dam and rich South Africans wanting a mountain vacation. At the end of the road is Katse Lodge, which, whatever Lonely Planet says, is no hostel. In fact, it is quite ritzy and quite expensive. They do have a hostel but it is all booked (by a short-term Baptist mission group from Ohio I later learn) so I am forced into the main hotel. I manage to bargain the price down to about $35 a night but it is still about three times what I anticipated paying. To top it off, they don’t have a self-catering kitchen, which any good hostel has, so all the groceries I bought in Maseru and lugged here, intent on finally cooking myself a good dinner, are meaningless. Instead, I head back to the taxi rank where I find a few women running a small restaurant and have my dinner there. I get a free Sotho lesson too.

Day 9 - Tuesday, 8 July 2008
The Lesotho Highlands folks offer tours of the dam twice a day so I make the forty-minute walk out to the visitors center after breakfast. I am the only one there and the tour guide - a pleasant-looking but foul-tempered young woman - is stunned to find I don’t have a car and says she can’t give me the tour without one. I am content to walk and tell her so but she stalks out. I am about to leave when she returns with the keys to a company vehicle and a driver. I get the most perfunctory tour ever but even that can’t take away from the impressiveness of the dam. We get inside, see the control room, and stroll along the top of the dam. I am effusive with my thanks and my guide says, “Pleasure” in a sing-song voice that tells me it was anything but.

Katse Dam

In the afternoon, I hike up a nearby hill that commands a great view of the lake and dam and snow-capped peaks in the distance. It is steeper than I anticipated and I attract laughs from the shepherds I pass. It is also incredibly windy up top and I practically get blown back down the far side to another village where I have lunch in a small restaurant. The wind stays constant all afternoon and evening but the sun is bright and warm.Sunset over Katse Lake

Day 10 - Wednesday, 9 July 2008
The first taxi back to Leribe leaves at 6:30 in the morning and surprisingly it is on time. I get to watch the sun rise and the constellations fade as we head to Leribe. From there, I get a ride to Butha-Buthe and then on to Mokhotlong, the farthest-east town in Lesotho. Butha-Buthe to Mokhotlong is a long journey, probably four hours, and our taxi is crammed with mattresses and other goods purchased in the larger Butha-Buthe. Fortunately, I get a seat up front, which gives me (marginally) more room and a great view. The taxi driver can’t seem to get his radio to work and asks me to look at it. I think I see what is wrong but act like I don’t so the ride passes in blessed quiet.

Soon after we leave Butha-Buthe, we begin to climb (surprising, I know) into the Drakensberg escarpment that forms Lesotho’s eastern border with South Africa. We may have to reach down to first gear a time or two but we eventually cross a pass at 3222-meters (10,000-plus feet) and don’t seem to descend much after that. It is almost completely deserted at this height, with only scrub brush and few signs of human habitation. We pass a huge diamond mine at one point with a small and, frankly, miserable-looking village nearby. We also pass one of Africa’s few downhill ski slopes. It is not very steep or very long but has a legitimate chairlift and lodge at the foot. It looks kind of pathetic.

Mokhotlong is described as having a “wild west” (actually east) feel and that is mildly true. When we get out of the taxi around 4, the sun is sinking quickly and the wind is blowing bitingly hard. My ensuing search for lodging for the evening is frustrating and comical and lasts much too long. I’ll spare you the details but I end up walking up and down Mokhotlong’s one paved road far too many times and eventually find a small guest room in the offices of a local NGO just as the sun is setting and the wind getting particularly strong.

Day 11 - Thursday, 10 July 2008
I arrive at the taxi rank at 10 past 6 and though it is still cold and dark, there is already a crowd of people waiting. I watch upside-down Orion fade in the east as the sun rises. We don’t leave until 7:15 and when we do it is as a convoy of three four-wheel drive mini-bus taxis. The road immediately turns to dirt and begins to climb. Evidentially, the drivers think this is some sort of contest as they drag race their way to the top of Sani Pass, overtaking each other on the narrow dirt roads and generally driving recklessly. This is the only time I have found myself questioning a driver’s judgment on this trip but, in retrospect, it is a fun ride. I am crammed in the last row and the young woman next to me insists on loudly cheering our taxi on every time we pass another. The side window won’t stay closed so we endure a steady stream of icy air the whole way.Our four-wheel drive taxi.

Sani Pass border post.

Sani Pass is a high, mostly-empty plain and the drivers floor it to get to the border post first. We win and are rewarded with a chance to get our passports stamped first. Then the fun begins. The South African side of Sani Pass is the hands-down winner for steepest road on this trip and most switchbacks per mile. Of course, its unpaved and water/ice flows across the road. I don’t know whose idea it was to put a road here but it makes for an exciting ride. The taxi drivers wisely slow down for which I am grateful. I’m also grateful for the cushioning of my fellow passengers as we bump and swerve downhill. My seatmate, with no race to cheer on now, lapses into general screaming at the ride. It is a great experience.

The view coming down Sani Pass

My screaming seatmate

We are through the South African post at the bottom of the pass and in Underberg fairly quickly. This is a fairly well-off area of South Africa and it is an incredible contrast to the poor villages just up the hill. But I’m not thinking about that. I’ve learned at the taxi rank in Underberg there are no taxis to Kokstad, a junction town that will allow me either to head north to Nthantisi’s or south to Mthatha. I’ll have to hitchhike or, as they say here, hike.

When people hike here, they make signs that have a cryptic combination of letters indicating their destination. As I don’t know the code for Kokstad, I write out the full name on my sign and add, for good measure, a “please” below. Within about three minutes, I am picked up by a Nestle representative, who buys milk from the farms in the region. My sign obviously said Kokstad and I thought he said he was going all the way there but as we pull away, he mentions he is not going all the way but a few kilometers short. During the drive, he mentions it a few more times and each time the distance from Kokstad gets longer, first 10 kilometers, than “15 or 20,” before he eventually drops me off by a sign that says “Kokstad 35 km.” He turns down a dirt road to a farm and I am left alone on the highway. This is farm country and there is nothing around. No town, no houses, and certainly no cars, just big fields. My driver had been friendly and I learned a lot about the milk business en route but this seems like a crummy thing to do to a hitchhiker whose sign had explicitly said “Kokstad,” not “the middle of nowhere.” In the next 45 minutes, a mere 19 cars pass me by (I counted), and it is finally the twentieth who picks me up and takes me all the way to Kokstad.
By this point, I am tired and have a backpack full of dirty laundry. I also have a long list of things to do in Mthatha before I take off on my break and the time remaining until that break now seems much shorter. I have no energy for what will be an intense second-language experience at Nthantisi’s and reason I can go there sometime in the next year. As it is, she doesn’t answer her phone when I call her. I find a taxi headed for Mthatha and a few hours later and I am back at the same taxi rank in which I began my trip.

When I see Nthantisi at work on Monday, she says, “What happened? Did you get lost in Lesotho?”

“Pretty much,” I reply.