AFRICA 2016 – Journal six

DAY 37 WEDNESDAY JANUARY 13th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO

“What are you waiting for?” asked a young girl, about fifteen, this afternoon, seeing me standing, gazing into the distance beside my motorbike.

“I’m looking at the beauty! Your country is SO beautiful; one of the most beautiful places in the world!”

“Oh, not that much…” she replied, with a world weary shrug.

Beauty surely is in the eye of the beholder. I was enthusing over a wonderful vista of an expansive valley, lined in red soils and brown rocks; a dust track meandering down into the distance; blue mountains ranges rising in the background and the endless African skies filled with buoyant, foaming white clouds. I could see for many miles; a rural idyll; a wonder to behold. ‘Oh, not that much…’

This was the view said to have inspired JR Tolkien in his vision of Mordor, the fantastical worlds of his stories, once sent in a sketch by his son, who had stood in awe at the same place that I found myself: a low pass between brown rocks forming a sort of gateway, a frame, a picture mount to the beauties of Basotho nature.

“Oh, not that much…”

But to me, it certainly had that fictional ‘lost kingdom’ appeal.

*

It always takes me time to leave Roma and the friendly Trading Post. I have made friends with many of the staff there now. That’s the advantage of returning to places. I will be there again, I am sure.

Then I had an invitation for coffee (“It’s the only decent coffee you’ll get in Lesotho!”) from Chris, the administrator of the theatre department, at his staff bungalow on campus – an interesting opportunity for me to see the University of Lesotho. It’s quite an impressive place, too. A university with 10,000 full time students, bringing a lot of vibrancy to the small, isolated town of Roma. But what an odd life to be an ex-pat professor. Chris, elderly, not in good health, abandoned in remote Roma in a gloomy faculty bungalow with lino tiles and grease-stained ceilings of hardboard panels – and paid in Basotho Maloti. Still, not a bad cup of filter coffee..! And a warm welcome with a repeat of his hope to be able to invite me at the university’s expense to Lesotho. Suits me!

*

The journey south is not so interesting. These are the relative lowlands of the country, rolling dry arable lands backed by distant sandstone outcrops beneath the bright Lesotho skies. Shepherds stand and stare into space watching their sheep and cows, shrouded in colourful blankets, disguised by a thick dark balaclava despite the heat, sometimes surmounted by a tall woven Basotho hat, raising a hand in a cheerful wave as I blow past. Traffic is light, the road sweeping ahead, visible for miles; straggling villages beside the highway. Children wave; donkeys have to be avoided; the sun makes a dancing black shadow almost directly under my rushing machine. But I seldom ride faster than sixty miles an hour, often no more than forty.

Riding through a congested town, a Basotho rider pulls alongside, engaging me in a cheerful conversation over the noise of two engines. Where am I going? How big is my tank (always a strange obsession)? Where am I from? “Welcome!” And he rides away. I stop in town, for I need a lead for my camera battery charger, having left it in Harberton. I find my way through narrow dusty footpaths between crowded market stalls, riding over debris and litter, laughing with stall holders and shoppers; parking the bike on a pavement and being accosted by cheerful voices from all around, jokes, greetings, laughter. “I need your motorbike! Give it to me!” It’s an outpouring of goodwill unlike any in the world – happy, smiling, utterly unthreatening, totally engaging.

Unusually, the girl in the general dealers, that has the lead I need, is Moslem, wearing a headscarf.

“How much?” I ask.

“Eighty Maloti!” she replies. (About £3.30)

“Wow!” I exclaim in mock horror, ”I bought one yesterday for twenty five Maloti!” (Mind you, it didn’t work.)

“Oh, give me fifty!”

This one works. We test it in the shop before I leave with a handshake and laughter.

*

Then onto a side road. Signpost: ‘Malealea 33km’. I had expected gravel but it’s tarred now, like so many roads here, swinging this way and that into a wide valley, the brown escarpments hiding blue mountains behind. The last few miles, a gravel road rising slowly to a low ridge, the hills closing in… And then, breasting the rise, a dramatic, theatrical reveal – dismissed: “Oh, not that much…” All the wonder of Lesotho’s spectacular scenery cut to size by a bored teenager.

*

Malealea Lodge is five miles or so down rocky tracks in the midst of that fabulous bright brown valley, the earth as red as copper. ‘Voted one of the ten best destinations in the world by Lonely Planet Guides’, it says at reception. For me, that’s the kiss of death for any location. It means unimaginative tourism, local ‘guides’, ‘cultural performances’, western rock music, European food, a lot of Europeans on their electronic devices, not interacting with the locals unless by arrangement and payment. I missed Mamohase and Roma, low key places where I talk to Basotho people.

The food is a compromise – nothing much of Lesotho about it, but my room is comfortable. I’d paid for a ‘Basotho hut’ with shared facilities but it’s so quiet now the receptionist gave me an en ensuite room for the same tariff. I dined communally with three Brits and a young American and I could be anywhere in the Lonely Planet version of the world. “This is number fifteen in your Book,” as the minibus driver called to his passengers outside a bland hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam. “No, we want number 7!”; “…and I want number 9!” came voices from behind. I sat next to the driver, older by a couple of decades than any of the passengers, and whispered to him, “take me to a hotel that’s not in ‘The Book’, will you?” He gave me an appraising look and a sort of mental wink, and took me to a delightful place, cheaper, with a garden and run by Vietnamese, with Vietnamese guests. No, getting in Lonely Planet is a complete sellout to hackneyed conformity. You could be anywhere. I like the individuality of Moruti’s ‘cultural’ B&B – because the culture is Basotho, not humdrum backpacker travel.

*

It’s raining again tonight. I took a wander through the local village – spurning the proffered guide since I prefer the chance encounters and just seeing what will happen to seeing the same as every other visitor, as expounded on Page 234 in The Book. This is rural Lesotho (with a veneer created by the adjacent Lonely Planet top ten destination lodge). The dwellings are crude, from red stone and red mud, surrounded by tall spiky grey aloes and red dust. But people still greet me and welcome me, walk along with me asking questions.

Some of the homes are little more than shacks, home sweet home surrounded by bare red dirt. Some of them have a tall pole standing nearby, a strip of old dirty cloth or a plastic bag billowing in the breeze at the top. They are signals: a white flag means a provider of sorghum beer; yellow means sour local corn beer; green is for vegetables for sale and red, meat for sale. Here and there people are busy wheelbarrowing containers of water from the valleys and wash-outs in the red and brown rocky scene. All are affected by this deep drought, numerous man and woman hours spent in fetching water. Grubby sheep chew at desiccated grass, some with clunking bells around their necks to keep away jackals in the hills. No one has much in the way of material possessions, just what they need to get through a hard, probably short life. There are children everywhere; the birth rate still enormous despite the privations.

Then the rain began to spatter and I turned for home: the insipid guest house – but good company for an evening, ending round a brazier as the rain gunned on the tin sheets overhead – three of my countryfolk and the young American. Interesting people that I encourage to get off the beaten track of ‘The Book’ and see for themselves. Two of them are seeing South Africa, with a short diversion into Lesotho, by minibus, the ‘black taxis’ that so terrify white South Africans, who expect robbery and murder from the black-skinned travellers. We all wonder at the fear of the whites for black people, for none of us has found out what it is we are supposed to be afraid of yet; all of us experiencing nothing but welcome, even in deepest downtown taxi stations. We all agree that Leeds/ Nottingham/ even the Isle of Wight, on Friday night are more threatening in tone, more vulgar in manner and infinitely more drunken.

*

Water is rationed here to a couple of brief possibilities for showering, flushing and washing. Electricity is only available from six to ten, provided by a generator for the guests alone. There’s no power in the village. In Africa one must try to leave a small footprint on the strained landscape. But the birthrate still rockets and most of the valuable resources feed corrupt politicians, western corporations, South African industry and The People’s Republic of China. Not much is left for the rural people and the beauty of the views doesn’t put food on the table – except in white-owned guest lodges… And I pay as much for a bottle of beer as many of the people in the red rock and earth shacks outside the fence probably earned today – if they had good fortune. It’s an unequal world and we do well to remember that when we complain at the trivial irritations of our privileged lives.

Beauty, for a bored fifteen year old is probably in escape; in the material possessions pushed at her as a measure of success in the world; in getting away from Malealea and the lives of generations of her family.

“Oh, not so much…”

DAY 38 THURSDAY JANUARY 14th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO

“Hey, I like your hair!” I said to a young woman, her elaborately woven style running in braids close to her scalp, radiating backwards from the forehead.

“Oh,” she smiled, pleased, “it was just done yesterday!”

“It must have taken a long time…”

A beat for thought… “No, not so long. Only about three hours.”

The things people do for fashion and adornment. Three hours!

*

Lesotho days just get better. This has been another wonderful day, endearing me so much to the Basotho and the fine landscape of the mountain kingdom. I set out on a dirt track out of the village that would take me round the other side of the valley, roughly contouring the mountainside. You can see the track scratched indistinctly across the steep slopes from over this side. In the end, I rode all the way back to Roma – the direct, cross-country route! And it was tough and rough in places. I am exhausted, pleasantly exhausted. Controlling the bucking bronco of my motorbike across more than fifty miles of trail riding uses a lot of different muscles! Having no rear brake makes for extra concentration and the trail was, in places pretty rough. I had intended to ride about twenty kilometres to a viewpoint that overlooks this fine valley, but by the time I got there I looked at my map and thought, ‘why go back the same way?’ It couldn’t be worse in front, than the pass I had just negotiated. I had run out of car tracks in the dust some miles back, always a bad sign. It was another three or four miles before I found them again, coming up from the other side of the mountain range. It always gives me confidence to see fresh tyre prints: it means that four wheels have been able to make the grade, so on two I have twice the chance, for I need only six continuous inches of clear track to keep moving while a 4X4 needs five feet width and has four points of contact with the rocky track.

The road contoured for the first ten miles then turned right and virtually fell down the mountain slope into a deep, steep valley, twisting this way and that, loose stones and rocks sliding beneath my wheels. Going down is always harder on a motorbike, and you really need rear braking! I had to rely on my engine braking… I could see the track continuing just as steeply up the other side. There was evidence of a bicycle having gone this way but no other vehicle was evident. In places the road width reduced dramatically, the scree tumbling down the mountainside rather dramatically.

Then I was on the level again, high above the valley on a rocky shelf carved from the plunging slopes. I made a guess that the worst was behind me and that in front I would again find villages and a continuous track to the main road far ahead.

Two years ago I rode the A3 of Lesotho, little more than a goat track across the mountains. Imagine then the B251! But, oh what magnificence! I cannot fully describe the sensation of being in this astonishing landscape, the space, the freedom, the light – and with every person I met, walking or in villages, ready with a warm white smile and a happy greeting. I had to concentrate on the surface, but I also had to wave at hundreds of Basotho – and enjoy the breathtaking beauty of this high, craggy highland nation. There’s nowhere like it.

*

A remote secondary school, really at the end of the motorable road – from the northern end, barely accessible except on foot or motorbike – and that bicycle – from the south, stood on a bluff. Term starts next week. Here I met the first vehicle for quite a few miles, driven (rather inexpertly on the dust and rocks) by a cheerful, laughing woman, with three passengers, two women sitting under supplies and sheets in the back and a fat passenger in the seat beside her.

“Eh, daddy, I am looking for a white boyfriend!” exclaimed the passenger, with a huge white smile.

“OK,” I replied, laughing happily, as is so easy here, “jump on my seat! We go!” And I patted my pillion, to much amusement from them all. The driver accelerated, sliding sideways on the dust, accompanied by waves and laughter from all of us as she slipped and skidded uphill to her village. At least now I knew that if she could drive as badly as that from the tar road, I certainly wouldn’t have too much problem!

Mind you, I know not how early they set out… I was still tens of miles from the tar road down to Roma. I had no idea from my map that I had undertaken quite such a journey! They must have been on the road for hours. I had another two and a half to go! For at least an hour and a half I kept expecting to see the new tar road from Roma to Semonkong somewhere in front but it never appeared. I bounced and bashed through a dozen small widespread villages, asking my way here and there; clattered over hills and zigzagged round hairpins, waving in reply to a thousand greetings. Hundreds of miles later – which was, of course – less than fifty, I finally saw the smooth blacktop ahead, a junction I have seen on several previous occasions and wondered what would happen if I turned there. Now I know: I would hammer and bash my way for half a day through some of the world’s finest scenery, round mountain ridges and across plummeting slopes to the Malealea Valley with its rich brown soils, copper red terraces and cream coloured river cuttings.

*

Once on the tar road it was a matter of minutes to ride back to Roma, and on through the town onto the main highways back to Malealea, sixty or seventy miles away. I was tired but enlivened by my long, challenging ride through the beauties of central southern Lesotho, a region of the country previously unknown to me. Back at the guest house I took a walk down the village to espy the smear of a track that had been so familiar to me in close detail just a few hours earlier. I could see the line of that trail, a faint mark pencilled across the steep slopes that line the big valley. From where I stood, a couple of miles away, it looked innocent and simple, visible only by virtue of its continuity in the jumbled landscape.

*

On a mild evening with lightning splashing about the horizon far off behind the mountains, supper was good on the open terrace of this rough and ready guest house. I have found agreeable company with the Isle of Wight couple (almost my age, working in the arts organising festivals) with some broadly coinciding views of life, and later in David from Amsterdam. He’s obsessed by travel and making his way about southern Africa as I am for a few months, travelling by local minibuses and camping here and there. He uses a guide book that is years out of date like me, for he wants the general information, not the slavish following of conventional routes. He prefers to get lost and see what happens than take guides in places like this. I agree, that’s all part of the fun, just seeing what happens. We chatted long after the generator died, sitting beneath a wondrous spray of jewel-like stars across the velvet-black skies, the milky way a broad daub of light arcing overhead. I liked his attitude to life and travelling. Trained in marketing but self confessed unemployable, he is lucky that he inherited a house in Amsterdam and can live off the rent. He was surprised to discover, after a couple of hours’ chat, that I am the age of his father but we talked without any generational reserve, exchanging views learned from our travels. An enjoyable evening.

I misjudged Malealea Lodge to some extent. It seems to be on the tourist ’taste of Lesotho’ circuit, with many guests arriving on a self-guided itinerary, created for them and booked from Europe – Jo’burg/ Kruger/ Malealea/ Cape Town – but it does seem to attract fairly independently-minded, slightly older travellers. Trouble is, most of them are only in Africa for a couple of weeks so only get the précis view and are directed by their tour company, missing out on many even better locations – like the northern Maluti Mountains. Still it’s making for fairly open conversation and they do much to promote the local community, raising sponsorship for new schools, handicraft ventures and other very worthy development causes around this beautiful valley.

I am tired now, ready to stretch out flat for a few hours after a strenuous but very satisfying day.

DAY 39 FRIDAY JANUARY 15th, 2016. MALEALEA, LESOTHO

It’s official. Lesotho is my favourite country in the world. It is spellbinding, glorious and unique.

*

I checked out of the guest house here this morning and rode away. As I rode I was already wishing I was not leaving Lesotho back to South Africa today. It’s been a wonderful week and I didn’t want it to end, returning to unhappy, divided, reserved South Africa. I rode out of the lovely valley with its lost world feeling and turned onto the tar road, crawling unwillingly towards the west at 40mph. In front the sky was going a strangely misty brown colour and the wind was rising in blustery blasts. Far away, probably over the Free State, where I was headed, clouds were building in towering storm heads. I had seen a forecast for 9 or 10 millimetres of rain in Bloemfontein today.

Everyone was smiling and waving – and I was returning to the cold country next door…

I turned in the road and headed back to the lost valley and checked back in! I have no time pressure (except to visit Steven at a weekend) and I hate to be drawn away from Lesotho. Why not stay tonight and go to Bloemfontein tomorrow? It was meant to be, as when I returned to the guest house, Glen the manager, worked out that I had been overcharged when I booked on the internet for my New Year stay, the one I didn’t make, and tonight is free! Lots of very convincing reasons to stay…

*

Lesotho and the Basotho. Just what is it about the place and the people? Without doubt, it’s the friendliest, most naturally welcoming country I have visited in my 95 countries, or whatever the number is now. The landscape is spectacular; the sense of exploration that one can get is addictive; the altitude makes for crystal clear skies and cloudscapes that are unequalled… But it’s the people, the people, and the people that make the country irresistible.

These are people who, in our material terms, on which we base so much of our social judgement, have nothing. They live in shabby huts made of misshapen rock, red mud, zinc sheets and thatch; the fortunate ones own a few cattle, sheep and donkeys – all land in Lesotho belongs to the crown. They dress in mismatched second hand clothes and in hard times like this, they are on the edge of poverty. Yet they have warmth, welcome, friendship, identity, community and fortitude in spades. “Oh, from a tender age we are taught to greet strangers with a smile,” as Sophie in Roma said.

Perhaps a confident identity is the defining quality the Basotho enjoy, and from which springs all the rest of their cheerful welcoming natures. The two million or so Basotho people are all of one tribe, have been a nation for a couple of hundred years (achieving independence in 1966) and are internally peaceful, without the tribal rivalries that cause so much of Africa’s conflict and distress – and, of course, no history of the poison of apartheid. Basotho are proud of their kingdom, assured in their cultural identity, comfortable together, independent, respectful of education and mutually supportive. These things are more valuable than all the ‘stuff’ and riches in the world. We, with all our obsessive material ambition, greed and fractiousness would do well to learn from the ‘undeveloped’ Basotho. They possess poise and contentment, in the face of privations most of us could not conceive. Surely to possess happiness together is more valuable than all the stuff for which we strive?

The ability to be able to stand and gaze into space and be one with the landscape, a blanket thrown casually across a shoulder, white Wellies and a big home-woven grass hat – to be content with tradition while tending a flock of greasy sheep – that is the unique quality of the Basotho.

*

Walking down through the village I found the handicraft centre; four cheerful women and a man sitting making mats from grass, dolls from scraps, table mats from bottle tops and beaded belts. The nearby tourist lodge has created some small cottage industries in the village. I stopped to chat, for this is why I travel, and perhaps why I find Lesotho so special. And of course, I always see my chance to add to my rather large collection of photographic portraits. These are such outgoing sociable folk, always with time for strangers.

Eventually I wandered on, down the dusty paths to the lower village, greeting and waving to all the inhabitants. Behind the village the deep valley of the lower gorge drops aways steeply and here I sat on the lip for a long time, gazing in awe at the enormous view around and below me, a vista of rock and scrub, cliff and scree, cream and brown, bald bare rock domes and undercut caves. Around my head soared swallows, maybe the same ones that sit on the wires outside Rock Cottage and shit on my car in another world and another season. Behind me a threadbare, skin and bone horse, its ribs like furrows, nibbled determinedly at the dusting of crackly dry grass searching for some sustenance. The sun beat down as I sat on the pale rock.

The longer I sat there, I slowly became aware that this vast empty landscape was actually hiding people all over the view. No more than elongated dots, I began to see shepherds standing about the landscape. One dot was still for so long, with what I thought were white Wellies, far below in the curve of the totally dry river bed that I doubted it was more than a post until, looking away for some moments at other human commas that I began to make out, I looked back and the still shepherd was gone. The tuneless metallic clank of the sheep bells rose from all around and far below and I could hear incongruous modern music drifting from somewhere on the wind. I took it to be coming from a small village of thatched rondavels that stood outlined on a distant ridge at least a mile and a half away. It was a magical time of deep peace.

*

Returning up through the scattered village houses, children came running, sometimes to take my hand and walk with me, always to greet me very charmingly. I turned off to walk across the hillside to bring me into another parts of the straggly village and was all of a sudden surrounded by little girls, aged six to twelve as I found out. Their leader, a fabulously pretty twelve year old called Anaclettar, was quite charming. “You have come to see our museum?” she piped. “We will take you to our museum.” And they all gathered round and guided me across the hillside to a couple of fine rondavels, one of which contained artefacts of everyday use in the village – until the arrival of the Chinese plastics and enamel. I left a donation in an open basket – that no one will steal, and gave Anaclettar 40 pence to buy biscuits for all the six or seven little girls. They were all tiny in comparison to children of the same age in Europe, so much so that I had pegged them all as about three years younger than their ages. But what a beauty is Anaclettar! More happy photos… I have learned that the Sesotho word used to make people smile, as we would say ‘cheese’, is ‘lisilise’, which amuses everyone enough for a good smile! Lisilise is a sorghum porridge.

*

This turned into such a lovely afternoon. I am so happy my instincts made me turn round. If I didn’t have a date with Steven soon, I would be staying longer and just wandering – without local guide as advised by ‘The Book’ – and sitting in the villages to see what would happen and whom I would meet. As it is, I shall be back in Lesotho at the slightest opportunity!

*

Certainly, this lodge, although so well known and busy with people passing rather quickly through, attracts an eclectic selection of foreigners – and thankfully few racially blind South Africans. Tonight I have sat until long after my travelling bedtime by the brazier drinking at length (midnight, long after the generator died) with two Scots and David, the Dutch traveller. The elder Scot, another David – and I am surprised by how many of my generation are about in Lesotho – has worked in many African countries. Born in South Africa, but living on the west coast of Scotland, he was imprisoned and deported in 1975 for activities with the rebel ANC party that was fighting apartheid. So of course his left wing politics are still strong – and generally in accord with mine. His family, for whom he has little time, are still in Natal, living a wealthy ostrich life moaning about their servants. His own father disclaimed him in his political years and the rift with them all is pretty conclusive, to judge by his comments. He reckons nothing will change until all those whites, especially those who moved to South Africa durning the apartheid years, die. But I wonder how many of their children will carry on the unthinking prejudices, many of them having been educated at exclusive, and almost entirely white, public schools modelled on the old British ones, straw boaters and all. One generation won’t do it. About four might.

My first impressions of Malealea certainly changed and I’m actually quite sorry I must leave for Bloemfontein in the morning, but it’s best for me to go there at the weekend to visit Steven. So this is my last night in Lesotho for now. It won’t be long before I am back.

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