DAY 71 TUESDAY FEBRUARY 17th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO
Lovely Lesotho. How happy I am to be here once again. It is unique.
During my seven previous visits I have ridden many of the roads, tarred ones and rough tracks. Today I thought I would ride a circular route that takes in two of the spectacular mountain roads, joined by thirty miles of gravel road. With this in mind, I set off, only to realise after fifty miles that I was still only about a fifth of the way round, still on the lowland bit and would be pounding the roads for many hours if I persisted. I turned round and headed back into T.Y – the local nickname for the tongue-twister town of Teyateyaneng, a small town famous for its weaving houses – from where I bought my fine ‘Independence’ mat two years ago. I called at both the cooperative workshops but did not see any weavings as fine as those I already have. In the large one, I pulled into the yard, which is shared by a big primary school, an event that excited about a hundred delightful little children. They came running to besiege me, hundreds of small brown hands grasping mine with polite greetings and chatter; a sea of bobbing faces full of smiles and excitement.
Leaving TY I spotted a road sign: ‘Kome Cave Village. Arts and Crafts Centre. 21kms’. A fine new tarred road led through lovely wide scenery, swaying about the hillsides with high blue mountains in the distance ahead and huge outcrops and cliffs of red and white sandstone rearing amongst small, very green, terraced fields that quilted the slopes. At last a sign directed me onto a bad rock track onto a ridge above one of the sharp valleys. I could see the large overhang of the cliff dwellers’ homestead below.
It’s been taken over by the Lesotho tourist authority now, although five people still live in the adobe houses under the rock. My guide was the pretty Atang, a name pronounced as ‘Atta-nnnngg’ with a nasal ‘nnnng’. Her name means ‘let there be many’.
Atang at one point bemoaned the fact that the residents were recalcitrant about moving out, even though the authorities offered to build new houses above the rock so that they could ‘develop’ the site. It would be sacrilege! Much to Atang’s astonishment I berated her for the very thought. “This is wonderful! It is a LIVING museum! You must leave it exactly as it is. You cannot recreate this sort of integrity! Believe me, it’s what I try to do with all my work. Leave it! Even the washing line!”
I don’t know if I convinced her. Generations of the same family have lived beneath that rock overhang since 1824, adapting their homes as they need. Now they are open to the public: I got to meet the residents, two elderly women in their 80s, a woman of 60, a young man and a young woman with a new baby – signified by two bamboo canes poked in the perimeter fence of her yard. The houses are small organic shelters like rounded pods in dark grey adobe spread over sticks. They have been like this for many years, although now the tourist authority has prevented any further change. But what was so magical was to see the linoleum floor sheet, the plastic containers, the carrier bags and the fluttering washing. This is still a home and a much stronger evocation of the historical sense of the place than the tourist authority will ever manage by moving out the last inhabitants and trying to ‘dress’ the adobe houses with period articles. Why can’t officials SEE the value of what they have, instead of wanting to ‘develop’ the site? Their plans to ‘interpret’ it would kill it immediately. The old lady fondling a kitten, the mother and baby, the anachronisms are what make it alive. To move those old ladies into new block and zinc houses would probably kill them too… I am happy to have seen it the way it is now.
Ricocheting back up the rocky track I passed an old fellow with three oxen. Two of them pulled a load of grass piled on an old lorry tyre, the third plodded behind. This is a Basotho sledge, used in country regions for transport. It also grades the dirt and rock roads a bit! This is an agrarian economy of ox ploughs, small patches of cheerful yellow sunflowers, small grass thatched rondavels and curving terraced fields full of the brightest greens as summer moves towards autumn. Fissured by great canyons, dark shadows lining the cliffs of red and brown, the rounded hills disappear into a far distant landscape of green and brown. The intense light washes away much of the colour of the Lesotho landscape and a sky full of freshly laundered shreds of clouds dissolves dazzlingly from the faintest shades of blue at the distant rocky horizons to the deepest, infinite blue overhead.
Away from the towns not much disrupts the rural tranquility or the loveliness of the scenes. Many people wave and smile. Lesotho is very special: a wonderful secret of the travelling world.
Sometimes as I ride I spot a tall pole with a waving white cloth blowing in the wind near a rural house. I suspected these signify the presence of locally brewed maize beer. Atang explained that a white flag is indeed for home-brew; a green flag tells of vegetables available; a red flag of freshly slaughtered meat and a yellow flag means the availability of yellow corn, fresh maize. I will look with more understanding as I ride on. So many cultural secrets.
There is in my room tonight a very loud cricket screeching incessantly. I hope it stops when the light goes out or I shall be forced to use ear plugs again. I have searched unsuccessfully for it, but it goes silent whenever I approach wherever it is. Huh, the joys of impecunious travel! (Note: It was an ear plug night!)
At supper tonight I shared my table with Rachel, a thirty-somethjng teacher and traveller from Bristol whose parents spend every winter golfing near Cape Town. Sensibly, she decided to see a little of some of real Africa after ten days in the odd white Africa of the south and flew into Maseru’s miniature airport – but ‘international’ of course, for where can you go in this tiny land-locked country? She has never visited Lesotho before and was glad of my enthusiasm and confidence that she will enjoy it, be safe, find herself surrounded by friends who feel equal and be warmly welcomed. Her impressions of South Africa echo mine, a strange country with much deeply rooted social unhappiness and inequality. Lesotho is at peace with itself.
DAY 72 WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 18th 2015. ROMA, LESOTHO
It’s happened again. I was to leave this morning but the attraction of Lesotho is just too magnetic. You see, the trouble is that when I leave this magical kingdom in the sky, I have to return to South Africa… The contrasts are just too stark to be bearable. From one of the world’s most beautiful places, populated by friends, back to the undoubted beauties of South Africa (although rather further spread) and the restraint – and the pressure on all my political and social ideals.
Somehow Lesotho days fill themselves and I sit at the end of the day and look back and smile at what a good time I have enjoyed. Astonishing: the joy never reduces.
An email from Steven in Bloemfontein has changed my plans a bit too. I had thought to wind up in Bloem at the end of my trip and from there take a bus to Johannesburg and spend the last couple of nights there until my flight on the 11th. But Steven is away from home until the evening of the 7th, so I reckon I will arrive a day or two later and then fly from Bloem on the same day that I fly out of Johannesburg at night. It gives me two or three extra days before I need to get back to Bloemfontein in order to leave my red bike and get sorted to go home.
I’d rather spend those days in Lesotho than South Africa!
So how did I fill yet another Lesotho day? Actually, it sort of filled itself.
It is the high mountains that most attract me to Lesotho – and the people of course. So I thought I would ride up to Thaba Tseka – again. It’s a spectacular ride, up all those bends and over three passes, one of them at 2630 metres. It was a fine sunny morning, with high white clouds in the infinite blue skies.
At the top of the Blue Mountain Pass, highest of the three on this trip up into the highlands, I decided to turn off onto a gravel road I began to take last year, but retraced my route after a few kilometres, thinking it was a very long way to get to Mohale Dam, and one that was unknown to me, just a suggestion on my map. Today, with no time pressure and without my pannier bags, seemed a good time to take another look. What a great ride!
The track starts well enough, in fact, the first fifteen miles weren’t bad, just a few rocky patches and a few steep rocky hills to descend, not a lot of fun on my road tyres. Some way into the journey I found myself in a straggly village, exciting the schoolchildren. Minutes later I arrived at a gate to a ‘training camp’ – or that was what the gateman called it. “Where to..?” he asked. “Mohale,” I replied.
“Wrong road!” he said, “That road,” pointing across the scattered village at a scratch on a far hillside.
“Ah! your country is SO beautiful!” I exclaimed as I turned round.
“Where..?” he asked with a frown, looking around. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and all he beheld, quite obviously, was the restrictions of a ‘training camp’ miles from anywhere in what for him was a godforsaken valley, viewed from his bleak, comfortless hut. I saw different things.
From here the road became rockier and even rougher. I was now trail riding for real, fighting up rocky hills and across a stoney track that weaved its way along high contours with vast vistas of magnificent rounded mountains. I came to a junction. The left turn looked better used so I followed that for some kilometres, becoming more and more doubtful as I rode. It seemed to be rising higher and higher, and taking me onto the other side of the still invisible lake of Mohale.
You are never alone in Lesotho. I have explained often how I can stop in the back of beyond, thinking myself alone and then from a hillside far above or below, I will spot a herdsman wrapped in a blanket, sporting a woollen balaclava, staring into space beside a herd of cows and a flock of dirty wooly sheep. But now, when I really needed someone, it seemed I really WAS alone. Looking at my map, not a particularly useful indicator as the scale is not sufficient to describe the crazy contours and shapes of this crumpled country, I decided I was probably on the wrong track. I turned about and took the right turn some bumpy kilometres back.
For the next hour or so I was still in doubt. This track was remote and it was obvious that no wheeled vehicle had used it for quite a long time. I could see from the dust and the scattered rocks that had fallen from the hillsides that not much went that way. The scenery was still terrific and the sun shone on the many greens and browns. The track was of exposed rock and pebbles, badly deteriorated. In the whole 47 kilometres of this trail I saw no other vehicle. My only comfort was that even though it was badly maintained, this track had involved a lot of rock moving effort to build, which suggested it must go SOMEWHERE at least. And anywhere a cow can go – and I could see animal prints and dung in the dust and sand – my motorbike could probably go, even if four-wheeled vehicles could not…
At last I spied a woman walking, miles, it seemed, from anywhere, but that is not unusual in Africa. “Mohale..?” I called with a big smile and a question mark, indicating the appalling track ahead. To my relief, she nodded and gave me a big Basotho smile. I could often see my road scraped across the hillsides miles in advance, a mere scratch over the surfaces of the rocky slopes.
The lake appeared below, sinuous inlets and small islands set in the deep blue of the water. The level is low now and the husks of drowned trees have appeared on the lower slopes. But the water was on my left side, a hopeful sign that eventually I would arrive at Mohale. And I did, after 30 miles of very tough riding. But, oh what beauties I had seen on the way. Over one small pass I had descended to a stretch of about an acre of gently waving ‘red hot pokers’ and yellow potentilla flaming over a grassy hill. Above them coasted white clouds above distant ridges beneath the vast blue dome of the heavens. Elsewhere I watched ‘flappa’ birds, a most extraordinary expression of avian life. The flappa bird grows an immensity of tail feathers, such that it has to flap its small wings crazily to stay aloft, and then only flits from grassy clump to tussock, an ungainly but oddly dignified bird in shiny black, sometimes with a dash of white and red feathers.
By the time I reached what passes for civilisation at Mohale I was exhausted but smiling. Children everywhere waved and chased me. People laughed to see me emerging from this long, rough trail. The doings of we tourists must be a perpetual mystery to those destined to live their lives in the harsh conditions we come to see, photograph and leave behind as we return to our comforts. But in Lesotho one feels no judgement, just an amused welcome.
In all my visits to the Mohale Dam area I never actually ventured to the information centre and took a tour of the dam, Africa’s biggest rock dam. I had a personal tour, the only visitor for days. The guide introduced the project with a model and map, gave me facts and figures and then led me in his car to the dam itself. We went inside the very impressive outlet valve housing, a steeply sloping corridor that was disconcertingly angled so that the water surface, visible through a concrete slatted roof, seemed to be angled dramatically upwards and the tide marks on the walls angled even more oddly downwards. Of course, it was we who were compensating by leaning backwards on the concrete slope. The dam itself is something like 150 metres high and 600 metres thick at the base, just a vast heap of loose rocks piled across a narrow valley about 650 metres long. The waterside surface is covered in a sheet of concrete – complete with cracks that are being repaired and explains the low water level at present. Four workmen worked far down the concrete slope, presumably tied on to the ladder that sloped so steeply to the water below. Then my guide took me down the impressive zig-zag road on the rocky front surface of the dam, down to view it from below. It was a great tour – personal, and at least 45 minutes, costing a princely 50 pence.
The ride back to the western lowlands is one I have enjoyed several times. In less than 30 miles there are more than 300 bends and curves, (yes, I counted!) some of them extreme hairpins, others that flick the motorbike this way and that in an exhilarating fashion. Best of all is that there is almost no other traffic, and what little there is is toiling up or down so slowly that it hardly registers with a happy biker using the whole road!
I was well ready for my 750mill bottle of milk stout by the time I reached my attractive rondavel at Roma, this place from which I find difficulty to draw myself away. So passed a happy Lesotho day once again. What a country – probably the main reason I kept the red bike for a third trip…
It’s 9.45 and I am yawning uncontrollably. Sleep calls. Strongly. Tomorrow I guess it IS South Africa. But I can always come back. Bloemfontein is only a couple of hours from Lesotho!