I am fully aware this is out of order and I have yet to report back on Namibia or the work at Bara yet. But this was most convenient, so here we go.
I was fortunate to grab a few days off from the hospital last week and seized the opportunity to do some local travel. My primary ambition was to totally escape the city for awhile and have somewhere to be alone and see some natural African beauty. As it happens, my spontaneous decision was just the ticket.
I booked a dorm bed in Semonkong, Lesotho [le-soo-too] a couple days before leaving, and without any expectations I hit the road after night shift.
What I knew:
- Very high elevation
- Totally unique population of people
- Technically a kingdom, totally independent from South Africa
- Sparsely population
In fact it’s actually quite a cool story. Essentially King Moshoshoe was the ruling chief who continued to fight both the Brits and the Dutch in the area. They were pushed back into this mountain area by war. They ended up winning some key wars with the Europeans, when Moshoshoe approached Queen Victoria with an agreement to make Basutoland a British Protectorate in 1868. She agreed and things chilled out a bit, but not entirely. Eventually they gained independence in 1966 and huzzah, here we are.
One thing I had heard as well was that there had previously been difficulty in bringing in rental cars for one reason or another. We had previously had this worry on a trip into Albania, so I took the same tactic as we had used there; I just went for it anyway.
HERE maps told me I was in for an 8.5 hour journey. So I topped up the gas and left around 9 am on Sunday.
It was a fast drive with smooth blacktop roads all the way. The majority of the time the speed limit was 120 km/h. I hit the border at Maseru in about 5.5 hours. I had to get out of the car and have my passport stamped, then get back in and drive through vehicle inspection.
This was the point at which I was worried they might turn me around and send me back home.
He asked “is this a rental car?”
I said “yes it is”
He asked to see the rental agreement. I shuffled around in the glove compartment before realizing I had only received a digital copy. So I took what seemed like forever to pull up the email and open the pdf of the agreement. As you might imagine the text was objectionably small to read. I tried to zoom in on the relevant parts for him.
Eventually he seemed to grow tired of trying to read the fine print on a smartphone and just waved me on with a tired ‘shap shap’.
I was smiling ear to ear with that stressor behind me. On the other side you again must park you vehicle and walk into the customs building to have your passport stamped for entry.
Finally I was off!
I entered Maseru and absorbed the environment. It was instantly a different vibe from South Africa. It felt more like a himalayan Indian town. The ubiquitous street-side food stands lined the main street. Tiny cars and the ever-present passenger shuttles honked to get the attention of potential customers. I made sure to quickly adapt my driving behaviours to slide my way past with sufficient assertiveness.
As I passed one shuttle it was loaded with drunken teenagers, with two more on the roof. They were bouncing and dancing and yelled to me as I passed. I tried to film this but blew it.
Unsure of what the fuel availability was outside the capital I topped up at an Energen station, which was about 2 rand cheaper per litre, and zoomed away into the mountains.
The roads were of good quality and mostly good repair, so as I zoomed into the Kingdom I questioned whether my GPS was being too conservative suggesting the next 120km or so would take me 2.5 hours.
The bustle of Maseru quickly turned into the rural agricultural pattern of the rest of the country. In addition I also managed to get lost for about 30 minutes. I ended up in a small village and had to ask for my way back to the correct road. Everyone was incredibly friendly and willing to help and they quickly got me back to where I needed to be. The sun was coming down and I got my first (of many) explanations for why my GPS was correct about the travel time
Livestock everywhere. Every 10km or so, I had to wait for kids to shepherd their family’s livestock across the road for the night. This, combined with the steep climbs meant I spent most of my time in second gear climbing the dramatic inclines and switchbacks.
I also had to stop a few times to take in these incredible views. These views were constantly presenting themselves, with a new one around every corner. The sun gradually slipped down behind me and I pushed on to hopefully sleep in a bed for the night.
I finally made it to the village of Semonkong around 7pm, and transitioned onto the lumpy dirt roads for the final few kilometers. It dipped downwards alongside the river and a small bridge connected to my accomodation. I couldn’t see anything but knocked on the kitchen door and found someone to help me. She brought me to my rondel, which was full of three bunk beds but no other people, and pointed to the firewood and fireplace and left me to sleep.
It. was. freezing.
I started a fire and happily shivered off to sleep.
In the morning I grabbed a picture of my rondel in the daylight and also one of my neighbours having breakfast outside. (and yep those are snowflakes.)
There was no one else around but I knew I wanted to get to the local waterfall during my only full day there. So I found a gent down by the parking and he connected me with a local guide who would bring a horse around to go see them.
I hadn’t ridden in years so was quite excited. I felt slightly guilty because these were ponies, rather than full size horses, but she was tough and seemed to have no problem with my weight.
We galloped through a couple of local villages en route. Neither of which are connected to anywhere by road. Everyone comes through the lodge into town to get supplies. They are either on horseback, or one foot with a donkey to carry their supplies for them.
After about 45 minutes we arrived and had to get on foot to reach the edge of the canyon. It was absolutely brilliant to see
We rode back and my poor trotting technique was ensuring I would be sore tomorrow. It was also freezing cold and we both wanted to get back to the fireplace, so we galloped for a good portion of the return trip. It was nice to get to push her into a full gallop and have a bit of a race with my guide. You may have guessed he ended up winning.
I settled alongside the fireplace and got some studying in. Then I ended up having some roommates arrive. Four German girls arrived around 6 pm. They travelled the way I did when I was around their age of early-20s, which of course meant a few rounds of beer pong before I headed off to bed.
I wanted to leave early to get back at a reasonable hour, so I checked out at 7 am. She suggested the roads had snow on them still and might be difficult to get back. She suggested I wait until noon to leave. Stubbornly, I had a quick breakfast and hit the road by 8:30 intent on beating mother nature.
After I scraped the windshield and waited for the ice to melt off the windows…….
The first 10km were beautiful, the road wasn’t covered at all and I zoomed at 100km/hr. I reached the pass seen in the image below,
I caught significant speed on the first straight uphill, feeling like I had conquered it, I began to slow to around 30km/h, but I thought, one more corner and I would win. But that ‘one more corner’ became three. With each one I slowed 5 km/hr or more. Finally my tired began to spin and I was stuck. I was disappointed by my little two-wheel-drive Datsun. I began the reversal of shame back down to the first available section of flat road and waited. My only option was to sit and wait for the snow to melt enough for me to grab periodic traction on the way up and spin my way over the top.
After about an hour, the path cleared enough for this to happen. I cheered as I pushed over the top of the pass, only to come upon two more similar passes. Both of which required a further hour of waiting and multiple attempts. I finally made it over all three by about noon. Which you may recall was exactly what the local in Semonkong had suggested!
Eventually the elevation became low enough that the snow was just a bitter memory and I was able to enjoy this area of the Kingdom in the light of day. More sheep, more sweeping vistas, and also incredible mountain formations which villages snuggled into their feet.
The kids wound notice a white guy from 100 metres away and wave at the car, which felt a lot more like my time in Zimbabwe, rather than the time so far in South Africa.
Nonetheless, it was a wonderful trip. I barely tasted Lesotho and would love to come back with a week or more to drink in these views and experience what seem to be a very warm and friendly population of peeps.