Lesotho. A magnificent land!
STOP PRESS! Jonathan is on his way home. With the current situation with the flu virus pandemic, it seems to me that the tail of the politicians’ is now being wagged by the dog of the media and governments are reacting chaotically. Things change hour by hour. South Africa is changing transport options hourly. I do not want to get stuck in South Africa with hotels and restaurants closed and transport cancelled. I could have managed in Kenya with my African family and Mosquito, but to be marooned here with many restrictions isn’t a pleasant option. I have bought an eye-wateringly expensive ticket home at short notice…
Back to the journal…
DAY 75. WEDNESDAY MARCH 11th 2020. BLOEMFONTEIN. FREE STATE. SOUTH AFRICA
A day in Bloemfontein reinforces the impression of a country with an economy on its last legs. It’s good for my budget that the Rand has dwindled away to over 20 to the pound – in days gone by it was about 14 or 15. A walk through the city centre shows plenty of evidence that things are bad. Every public fountain and pool is a turgid puddle filled with floating plastic bottles and packaging; a hundred empty office blocks are tired and shuttered, their lower windows plastered with posters for cheap abortions and penis enlargement; many traffic lights don’t work; the water supply goes off for days at a time – it’s been off these past two days, we flush the lavatories from the fortunately underused swimming pool. There’s rubbish and potholes, I’m the sole customer in a coffee house in the centre of the big, plush shopping centre, where most appear to be window shopping as sales staff stand about chatting. A coffee and snack (oh, I’d forgotten that I am in Afrikaner Land and portions match girth!) at £5 is more than most can afford.
The past government, Zuma’s, and doubtless the present one is no better, robbed the country bare, stole any money there was. Steven tells me that the water authority used to be first rate. They built systems and then leased them back to themselves, prompting a regular income and spare cash for repairs. Says Steven, “Then the new managers arrived and saw there was money in the bank! They bought cars and gave themselves raises. Now there’s no money left and the system is getting old. This current stoppage is caused because the pumps are old.” Of course, pumps only work when there’s power, and most of South Africa is now ‘power sharing’ – periods when the power is switched from area to area to share what’s still available. All this impacts on business and trade. It’s a downward spiral. A mess, in a word. Much of it from the greed and lack of control of the people at the top, filtering money away to their own pockets. The African problem. Lack of accountability from a largely uneducated and often coerced electorate. Sadly, gone are the exciting days of Mandela’s truth and honesty, his integrity and respect. We’re back to corrupt officials fleecing everyone for what they can get personally, not public service in the image of their great hero.
My walk through the crumbling, faded city centre wasn’t helped by rain. Gutters blocked by rubbish, puddles in the potholes, stains on concrete. Tonight the heaviest rain is coursing down noisily on the roof of Isabel’s bungalow out here on a northern hill. We are in a white Afrikaans estate of large homes in tree-filled gardens and driveways full of large bakkies and SUVs. No one’s about on the streets. It’s a South African life enclosed behind high walls and electric gates. How I miss places like Sipi! Where the village people wander the narrow mud lanes to look at and greet the mzungu. Where we can wander the shambas and chat to people, be invited for chai, investigate life and gossip readily. There’s none of that in white South Africa, with its fences and gates, security and surveillance.
The morning I spent at Isabel’s business, where Steven told me it was his honour to make me a new belt! It appears to be a thriving business and Steven is so happy, working between helping to manage the business, creating leather goods with considerable skill, and making his own engineering shop at the back of the property, where he has made his own computer-controlled cutter and is inventing a chipper for foam rubber, based on an old lawnmower, to use and sell the scraps for upholstery and manufacture. He’s a good engineer, with knowledge of electronics from his work in telecommunications, and of heavier invention from his love of machines. He’s in his element and the relationship with Isabel – both of them have a girl and boy, growing through teens to young adults – is warm and affectionate. I’m happy to see such a kind man content. His pleasure at my visit is fulsome. Like most Afrikaners, their horizons are somewhat limited by circumstances and the insularity of a minority amidst a huge majority. He’s worked in neighbouring countries, but he wants stories of my wider travels. Going back, remembering people, keeping in touch every now and again, is so important in life. I’ve discovered on my African travels just how much respect is shown by going back. I’ve been lucky to meet such kind, warm people on my journeys. Most days now I field a short text message from young Alex, back in Sipi.
‘Gdmorning jb. Lovely day in j’berg. Nice to know how your doing and because we love you. Yours alex.
Greetings from home. Gdnite and take gd care of yourself
Hi jb, hope your enjoying your stay in south. Am happy texting you. Love to you and enjoy urself sir jb:-)
Good afternoon, jb, are you okay? You make me believe that I can fulfil my dreams. P asked me to greet you. Loving family of sipi.’
This has been a journey of consolidating friendships. Not a bad alternative caused by a game of rounders on a beach and the subsequent incapacity!
My rondavel at Roma
DAY 76. THURSDAY MARCH 12th 2020. ROMA, LESOTHO
What a pleasure it is to write ‘Lesotho’ at the top of my entry tonight. I am SO content to be here again. I just poured my first Maluti beer in four years: ‘barley malt, maize, hops and crisp pure water from the Maluti Mountains’. And you can bet, up here, that it is crisp and pure too. It’s such a delight to be back. It’s the antithesis of South Africa with its friendly smiles, sense of equality and cheeriness. Within moments of crossing the border – a simple formality in which no one even asked for papers for The Box, despite paying an extra £35 for that sheet of paper – my face had relaxed into a gentle smile. I can’t help it here. Children waved from the back window of a school bus, even to me in my box. On a motorbike this is one of the friendliest countries on the continent – rivalled by Uganda. These people are good looking, with their oval heads and light brown skin tones. A smile is their default and welcome the normal expression. Smartly dressed schoolchildren walked home in gaggles by the roadside. Within miles I was spotting herdsmen wrapped in colourful blankets, with their long woolly hats and white Wellies – the national costume. There’s a very strongly individual culture here in little Lesotho and it’s a scenically magnificent land, high, clear skies, few trees but that sensation of altitude and the clear, almost tangible light that goes with the soaring heights beneath a sparkling sky.
Mind you, I am writing more from memory than fact, when I talk of the blue brilliance, for today is heavily overcast and sadly grey. Autumn is approaching and these mountains experience deep snow in July. The South Africans – the few who deign to visit – come skiing here and have built what I think is the only ski resort in Africa. I might pass that way later in the week. I wonder if I will be remembered? Of course, I am now disguised as a mundane car driver…
I’ve spent many days and nights in Roma. It’s the university town of Lesotho, a small place, really not much bigger than a village. The Catholics brought their churches here, I suppose early last century, and the schools and university followed. It’s now the centre of intellectual culture within the small country. I have walked the region and ridden all the roads. I always stay at the Trading Post, a very long established place. It was originally developed by an English settler family, the Thorns, as just that: a trading post. It was also a farm and developed a guest house on the property, with simple rondavels and some smarter rooms in the old house. There’s still a supermarket and trading centre, machine shops and trades. The guest house operation has been leased out since I was last here, but that appears to be causing some renovation as well as something of a price rise. The rondavel that for a while became ‘nthate Jonathan’s’ (nthate means uncle or daddy) is now £24, so I’ve happily taken a charming rondavel called a ‘backpackers’ room’ – exactly the same but with the bathroom 30 yards away. Who needs to pay an extra £10 to be able to pee next door? I can pee outside after dark! Not a bad £10 economic strategy! Haha.
Every day in Harberton I am reminded of Roma, Lesotho. Ntsilane is one of the staff here. Her portrait appears three times on my walls, including a fine laughing portrait that is one of the first things I see at the end of my bed when I wake. I’ve partly come back to see Ntsilane. When I asked a new member of staff as I checked in, “Is Ntsilane here?” he gave a whoop of delight and literally ran down the corridor to the kitchen, where fat Ntsilane was preparing food. Soon all the staff were laughing as Ntsilane gave me a hug like a large mattress. “Oh, we have heard so much about Daddy Jonathan!” exclaimed the receptionist. You see? Fun to go back in Africa! Ntsilane is a large woman, round and well padded, quite young I think – no more than early 30s, with the best smile I know. Despite her bulk, she is dainty and light-footed. Infrequently I receive a brief email from Ntsilane. Last year, when this business went through the upheaval of new owners, she lost her job for a while. I’m glad they had the wisdom to reemploy this delightful woman. She told me in one email that her daddy had died. Asking her this evening, it seems he was a mere 55, but had worked in the South African gold mines, as do so many Basotho. “Eh, he was sick!” she exclaimed, doubtless describing the respiratory disorders from which so very many miners die in these countries. Probably with little or no compensation, working for mining companies probably owned by European conglomerates. (I haven’t checked that fact, but I reckon it’s probably the case…).
Steven wanted me to visit a small museum in Bloemfontein before I left town. It’s the house of a British settler, an architect, from the late 19th century. To me it was just an old late Victorian house dressed with many items I recognised. I mean, I’ve dressed just such historic houses during my career! Still, it was fun to be shown round by Shani, half English, half Afrikaans. She had such enthusiasm for the house and her job as guide, that she must bring it alive for many of her visitors (of whom I don’t think there are many). Steven and Isabel had done the tour a few weeks ago, and he had told her extravagant stories of his famous friend who designs museums all over the world! I came with a pretty powerful pedigree. However, the fame was actually borne out once again, when it turned out that Shani had strong, impressed memories of visiting the Jorvik Viking Centre way back in the mid 80s. Funny, forty years on, it still impresses people to meet the set designer of the original Viking Centre in far away York. It’s worked so frequently in America too. A one-stop CV for all these years.
It was 2.30 before I reached the border at Van Rooyens Gate. An effortless crossing, with no one showing much interest in the bureaucracy, more intrigued to hear that I was a returning visitor with so many memorable impressions of their country. I was soon in Lesotho. Smiling Lesotho. One thing I am enjoying about The Box is that I can pick people up and give them lifts. A couple of young men thumbed a ride to Mafeteng, the first town. They spoke little English, just enough to tell me they wanted to go to town but had no money for a fare. “God bless you, Daddy!” was a heartfelt greeting as they parted to go about whatever they had come to town for. Looking for girls, I imagine.
So back to Roma. Tomorrow I think I’ll leave The Box parked up and take to my feet to meet the Basotho folk in town and the villages around. That, after all, is the fun of this little country: warm, curious inhabitants who love to share their lovely land.
It’s just started to pour with rain again as I settle down to sleep. Somehow, rain on my thatched rondavel is comforting, more so than in a bungalow in Bloemfontein with a steel roof. And thanks to The Box, no prospect of drying wet boots, gloves and waterproofs. I’m trying to see the positive.
Homes in the Roma arena
DAY 77. FRIDAY MARCH 13th 2020. ROMA, LESOTHO
Four years. What a difference. An interesting day… Many of the reasons wrong ones.
Tonight I am exhausted from six hours’ walking in the Roma valley. I sauntered many miles, at least eight, I guess. And I didn’t sit down and rest once. I have to push this bloody ankle and try to rebuild the calf muscles in my right leg. Rough walking seems to be the best medicine, and reduces the swelling better than rest. I walked to town, a mile away, because I had no local money, although the Rand and the Loti are interchangeable and linked in value. Then I headed out into the arena of the Roma valley on dirt tracks amongst green fields of maize and vegetables and small homes and the bungalows of the upwardly mobile – probably those who have jobs in Maseru or the South African mines. Four years ago I took similar walks amongst the rural areas.
Four years is all it’s taken. I’ve just been rereading my enthusiasm and delight at walking in those villages in 2016: the calling children, the greeting matrons, the schoolteachers who welcomed me to a small village school where the children rushed about in excitement to have a foreign visitor, the children who ran to hold my hand as I walked, youths and herdsmen giving me happy “Dumella!”, the Sesotho greeting, the old man who raised his hat, the respect from youngsters. I came away with countless cheerful, smiling portraits, everyone happy to pose for me.
It’s gone! The excitement, the calling children, the happy greetings, the wonder of Lesotho. It’s died in four short years. If I measure in smiling portraits, I took one today, a pretty schoolgirl. I had to persuade her not to make silly faces and gestures – the sort everyone now makes for their ubiquitous selfies.
I’ve come to trust my instincts pretty well after all these years and years of travelling. They’re well honed to atmosphere and the reactions of people I meet. On occasions it’s been a safety net, but it’s also become a measure of places I visit. For a few hours I began to doubt my instinct. Perhaps it was me? Had I expected too much? Had I held onto a romanticised memory of my visits to Lesotho, imbued them with a sort of magical glow? But the further I walked, the more I realised that people just weren’t showing much interest. Now I was making all the eye contact, the first greetings. And in reply I was getting a disinterested wriggle of a hand, a thumb up from children, a response of, “Hi…”
And children were responding with that vague, “Hi…” and sometimes laughing behind my back. Where was the legendary Basotho respect for elders? Where was the fascination? A few herders waved back with a shy smile of welcome, some older men reacted with sincere respect, some elderly ladies were polite and smiling. But youth and children..? The university students, who four short years ago showed interest, respectfully discussed their ideas for the future with me in a bar opposite the university gates? Made me comfortable with the only chair with four active legs. Now they just looked past me, or at their phones. It just wasn’t the Lesotho I have idealised for so many years – since my first revelation in 2002. A few children were actively rude, others insolent and disrespectful. A few even asked for money. This was not my fond memory of this perfect little kingdom.
The Roma valley
But why should I be surprised? I saw exactly this degradation in Ghana, the country in Africa I came to know best. It took less than a generation to lose all that I valued on my early visits: social warmth, mutual support, honesty, respect and generosity. As soon as electric power came, the first purchase was not a fridge or light, but TV. It overwhelmed households without the experience or media sophistication to question the fiction. What they saw must be reality. Soon everyone was hooked on the tawdry, lowbrow, populist, vulgarity of cheap soaps from around the world – and most countries make this exploitative crap. Or the inconsequential glitz and glamour and lewd international scandals of self made celebrities. Untruthfully named ‘Reality’ TV… 24 hour ‘news’. Then came phones. The internet. Finally, so called social media. Suddenly, youth knew more than the wisdom of their elders. Google became more valuable than long lived, hard won experience. Generally poorly educated youth had all the knowledge but none of the context or accumulation of skills and social interaction, none of the tact and sensitivity gained by time or deeper education. And with the flood of information came materialist ambition. After all, the media was just there to cynically disseminate desire and expose those without to all the ‘stuff’ they were missing. A godsend to capitalists: creating expensive tastes and ambitions. There was the ‘generosity’ of CNN, who ‘broadcast free as a service to the nation’ in Ghana. So they could sell people stuff they didn’t need for money they didn’t have. And it worked! Many Ghanaians began to judge people by what they had, or hadn’t, not what they were. People became acquisitive, greedier, counted the cost, kept things for themselves, retrenched to nuclear families and weakened the ties of the old extended families. Lost the old ways. They’d become old fashioned and valueless. Crime soared and we had to lock our doors. Communities split up as people became more mobile. Strangers lived around our compound. Shame, for centuries a harsh deterrent, was weakened. Why be ashamed when even your neighbours don’t know you, and mean little to you?
Even the meanest thatched rondavel out in the villages here in the Roma valley has its white satellite dish beaming in cheap TV from South Africa and the greedy world. Then there’s the stuff on their phone screens day and night. Lesotho hasn’t a chance.
In 2016, I wrote this, when walking with charming Thato, who had attached herself to me to show me her home:
‘We visited the primary school that she attended in a village in the midst of the valley. Four very basic classrooms ranged together down the hillside, each room only small and rock built. The teachers welcomed me and polite, excited children pressed to get to look at the white man. There are 70 pupils, lovely kids full of fun, smiles and vitality.’
I happened to find myself in the same small, poor village this morning. One room of the school has collapsed. I turned down the track to visit again. A number of small children crowded to the wire fence to watch me, shyly smiling. A teacher stood in the first doorway, thumbs scrolling her phone. She looked up briefly, and ignored me. Carried on with her phone. This is not Lesotho. The children were diverted just then by two elderly ladies bringing buckets containing their lunchtime porridge. At last, I had to direct a question right at the teacher to get her attention. Somewhat reluctantly, she palmed her device and came to talk, briefly. There are now only 50 pupils in primary one to three, three teachers, and the government ‘has promised’ help for the ruined room. I could tell she didn’t really want to engage with me.
I was thinking, as I walked, that I mustn’t judge on one day’s wanderings in a specific valley – in the vicinity of a popular guest house. I should hold my opinion until I have given it further testing this week. Then I met Motena…
Approaching the Trading Post guest house a boy rudely demanded money. I turned and blasted him angrily for his lack of respect and manners.
A group of women were passing nearby. One of them called to enquire what was the trouble? I apologised and told her this was an act I put on, a show of anger, in the hope that it might save other visitors from the same treatment.
“I’m sorry! We’ll deal with it. We will deal with it… Where are you from?”
And I found that Motena runs a community project nearby. Her mother was ambassador to USA and a representative of her country in London. Motena has lived in USA for twenty years, is educated and aware, and committed to her community. “I needed to come back to my country,” she explained. “I felt I needed to come home. I lived in a high rise, on the 37th floor! I didn’t even know my neighbours, just “Hi!” Not even, ‘Hi, how are you’, or ‘Hi, how can I make your day better?’ So I came home. I was pulled into this project, helping children and young people, providing support for child-headed families, a homework place, a safe place for young people here in the valley. I was sucked in deeper and deeper.” She spoke with conviction and warmth. Then her voice changed and she said, “Now I just want to leave…”
Motena was fascinated by my story of my day, and my growing disillusion from my earlier love of the valley. “Just now, twenty minutes ago, a young man came in to the centre,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “He was completely drunk. He started removing his shirt and misbehaving. This boy was one we sponsored and schooled. And he came back like this! Making an example to the younger children. Shameless! We gave that boy a future and he just came back like that. What will he get from it? I will have to ban him from the project for a year. No, I just want to leave now. But my colleagues and the sponsors – we get money from Rotary International in USA and others – they want me to stay. One day I will just have to walk out. I want to go to my house in Leribe (in the north of Lesotho) and be calm. I don’t think you are wrong in your instincts. My country has changed. I think it’s the exposure to social media…” And, of course, social media is virtually unregulated and exposes these previously rather innocent children to ideas that are utterly alien to the Basotho culture. Or were.
“One local problem we have is when the Roof of Africa rally comes to Roma.” The Roof of Africa is a big off road motorbike competition, based here in the valley. It brings many South African riders and their entourages. It’s big business. And the riders aren’t very interested in Basotho people, the landscape or culture. They’ve come for the competition and thrill. “When they leave, they just give stuff away to local people. Expensive boots, equipment they don’t want to carry home. Money too. To them it’s not much, but it creates a sense that visitors are just to be seen to bring money. We teach the children not to ask, to respect our visitors, but…”
Motena’s phone rang. She apologised and answered. It was her friends, with whom she had been walking when we met. “Oh, my friends are asking where I am! I must continue. I hope you’ll come and visit the project tomorrow? I’d like to talk more. You know, I dread going to work now. This morning at 8.30 I was still in my bed! I start work at nine… I want to leave…” She smiled wryly, a bit angry and upset. “I felt I needed to come home. Now I am tired and I wonder what I am doing here. Sorry, I must go!”
How sad. This intelligent, driven woman disillusioned so deeply by the uncontrolled behaviour she now sees around her. Conduct that even I can see has changed. In four years.
Motena hurried away to meet her friends. I hobbled on, stopping wasn’t helpful to my joints after eight or nine miles of rocky paths and high sunshine.
In the next hundred yards three boys asked me for money. That’s not the Lesotho I knew four years ago. They’d have wanted to shake my hand.
Another big storm flashes and pours as I get ready to sleep. Thunder drums stereophonically about the mountain arena amongst the steep rock faces. I don’t mind rain at night. It’s atmospheric as it hisses on the thatch. I do like to sleep in round thatched rondavels.
Perhaps tomorrow, away from the environs of the guest house, I’ll find the Lesotho I loved. If it’s still there…
Walking above Roma
DAY 78. SATURDAY MARCH 14th 2020. ROMA, LESOTHO
Drunk driving in boom-box cars seems to be the Saturday evening entertainment in Roma. Walking back from town earlier this evening I saw appallingly unsafe driving on the narrow road with its broken edges. As I write noise pounds from a car on the dirt road outside, not even the tar road below the guest house. The beer bars in town were crowded and noisy. It looked like a good night to stay home with a couple of cans of milk stout.
I’ve always maintained that one of the reasons I keep travelling is that I love not to know what tomorrow will bring. Today brought a lunch invitation from Motena and her close friend, Jenny, an eccentric white South African-born woman about my age, who escaped to Lesotho in the evil days of apartheid as persona non grata from the regime, against which she was fighting. She came in 1975 and stayed. She’s still got various family in South Africa but her allegiance is obviously to Lesotho, where she runs a kindergarten in Roma and has many adopted family members. Small, bustling, white haired with various piercings and some small tattoos, lots of bangles and a professed ‘sensitivity’ and witch doctor sympathies. “I was born with depression! I’m on all sorts of drugs. I’ve ADHD as well!” she declares brightly.
Motena said, as we sat in the compound of her community house, children playing around us noisily on seesaws, a slide and climbing frames, “I want you to meet Jenny! She’s my closest friend.” She pulled out her phone and dialled. “Where are you? What are you doing? I want you to come here. I want you to meet an Englishman. He’s called Jonathan. It’s no good telling you. You won’t believe it! You have to come yourself!” In minutes, Jenny appeared. “I was asleep late and I thought I’d go back to sleep. But my senses told me something was going to happen! So I got up, and then you rang me! You see,” she turned to me, “I have this ability. It’s nothing religious, it’s just there.”
Jenny, with her depression drugs and attention deficit disorder is never still or quiet. If opposites attract, that’s why she and Motena are such bosom friends. With Jenny’s arrival, Motena went quiet, as if she just couldn’t compete – which she probably couldn’t! But Jenny’s animation was good willed, if a little didactic. I’ve met others like this, eccentric expatriates who have difficulty fitting in any conventional society, but thrive where they aren’t judged by the standards of their own culture. In a foreign culture those eccentricities just become who they are, frequently exaggerated, a bit larger than life. She comes of well-heeled South African stock, originating from Latvian/ Estonians Jews, but rejected most of their values early on, rebelled politically and socially – and appears to live happily in her own world here in Lesotho, with informally adopted children and her somewhat opinionated ways. Her school takes 37 pupils. “Eighteen of them I charge for – their parents have jobs in Maseru or South Africa, they can afford it. The rest I pick from the streets. For them it’s free.”
“Well, shall we ‘Motiffer’?” It’s her word for ‘chilling’ with her friend Motena. “I want to eat meat! Jonathan, we invite you, if you’d care to come with us?” So we piled in to her ancient bakkie and drove (me reclining on a mattress and spare wheel in the back compartment) bruisingly to a smart restaurant ten miles away for a large lunch.
We bounded back to Roma, dropped Motena at home to rest and had a hectic tour of the university campus and forceful description of the town, before she delivered me home. I was bit breathless by now and needed a long rugged walk in peace! I hiked to the top of the cliffs that hang above the town and sat for a while on a rock gazing over the Lesotho landscape, rolling green valleys before me, in which I could espy people everywhere when I studied the apparently empty view. It’s a feature of the Lesotho landscape that it hides herdsmen, horsemen, women and children walking endless miles to and from their homes, standing silently, wrapped in a blanket watching their wealth – a few cattle. All day long herdsmen and boys stand and stare into the unchanging views of mountain faces, meadows and huge blue skies. Watch for long enough, and what seemed to be a dead tree moves. It’s a herdsman in blanket, dangling balaclava and wellies. The dull notes of bells hung around the necks of woolly sheep filled the landscape, reverberating into the cleanest air that I know anywhere in the world.
At last I drew myself away from the wonders of the Lesotho mountain landscape, stumbled back down the stony tracks to the town, now filled with the beat of loud music from bars around the university gates, bought some cans of stout and a disgusting red sausage and forced myself the last mile home. From three months of enforced sedentary life, I am determined to recoup the muscles in my calf, but my hips now suffer from all the unaccustomed exercise. I won’t let it beat me!
The Box at altitude
DAY 79. SUNDAY MARCH 15th 2020. THABA TSEKA, LESOTHO
Today Lesotho absolved itself to a fair extent. I’m now high in the centre of the small country. I never stopped in Thaba Tseka before. I always rode through on my motorbike; it’s not a particularly attractive town, sprawled across a wide valley, backed by distant mountains. It’s high though, but then so’s pretty much everywhere in Lesotho; the lowest point being 1400 metres – over 4500 feet. Someone said they’d tarred the road to Mohotlong now. They haven’t! So I’ll probably have to return by the mountainous road to the lowlands. I remember riding the A3 from here to Mohotlong a few years ago. It was an appalling rocky track. I remember wondering how the heck a minibus had made it, and took photos of the extreme conditions of that track, that in places taxed even me on my motorbike. Certainly it’s nowhere I can take something called a Ford Figo, a rental one at that. The other road out of town isn’t much better, 40 miles of dirt and dust that I rode on my last visit, corrugated and now almost certainly damaged by the rains – and then another 30 miles to a place to stay, an affordable place that is. It seems to me that the government has set new targets for accommodation prices. Prices of rooms have risen sky high. I tried all the guest houses in this pretty remote town, and all wanted £25 or more, my ‘Africa budget’ being £15. I was about to give in when I visited the Sisters of Charity guest house. I knew I might have to hold in check my religious position, and then found even they too wanted £25. A bit of charm on a sister of charity produced just that – some charity! The convent guest house was closed anyway for renovation, but she pointed down the hill to the hospital. “There’s a place behind the hospital! The nursing school. I think they charge 130 Maloti.”
“Do I have to stay with the nurses, then?” I joked. She was a broadminded sister – I guess most African sisters have to be. She chuckled and pointed down the hill to a gate by the hospital. “Just ask the guard, he’ll tell you where to go!”
I pulled up in the hospital grounds by the nursing school. A couple of young men greeted me with big Basotho smiles, found the matron for me, and I was soon the holder of keys to a basic room for the grand price of £6.50. It’s absolutely fine! Two beds, an electric heater, kettle and coffee and a bathroom just next door. A nasty purple carpet and yellow walls is the only complaint I have.
Thuso and John were my two guides. Nursing students, they are training to be auxiliary nurses. If opposite attract, as I wondered yesterday about Motena and Jenny, then it’s the same for these two young men. Thuso is 21, utterly feckless, vain, but a charmer. He proudly breaks any rules he can, smokes dope, drinks, loves dancing and has probably tried to bed half the girls in the school – so far evading the ire of the nuns in charge. I’d think it’s a matter of time… Then there’s John, more stable, more mature at 24 and also charming, but with a steady take on life. They piled into The Box to show me where I could eat later, and I bought them both a beer in a rough local bar. They insisted that I sit on a beer crate, ‘to be local’. No problem for this old nthate. Fortunately they must be in the nursing school compound by 7.00, or it’s the wrath of nuns, so I was spared their honest, ebullient company for the evening, although they both showed up at my table in the hotel restaurant that they’d shown me to check that I was looked after. So, yes, thanks to Thuso and John – two youngsters willing to engage with an old nthate, I’ve recovered some of the Lesotho I admired so much, them and many more waving children, although the youth still react rather haughtily, just about allowing an unconcerned, “Hi…” as they fiddle with their phones.
But, oh, I miss my motorbike up here! This is one of the world’s most magnificent landscapes and the road I drove today is a feat of engineering, clambering in spaghetti twists and whirls well over 10,000 feet. It’s the most invigorating bike ride, leaning and swooping, shifting my weight from side to side, dancing on the tarmac in a sort of ballet of weight and space. It’s exciting, lively, immediate, the sense of risk – on these barrier-less heights above dramatic drops – adding thrill and danger, but controlled by skill and experience. It’s such fun! Maybe the best riding thrills there are. I’m part of the wondrous landscape, chilled by the extreme altitude and speed, dodging donkeys, dreadlocked sheep and nimble horses. The sun beats down. The hills are denuded of trees far up here, just the highest moorland, baked beneath the big blue sky. Low scrub interspersed with bright flowers that glow beneath the bright sky. A wonderful sense of freedom and space. A top of the world sensation. The air clear, the vistas unimaginably huge, the landscape curvaceous and immense. The sky filled with drifting snow white clouds against the deepest blue of high altitudes. It’s just wonderful. Utterly spectacular, a superlative I try to limit, but one of the few that does justice to this soaring landscape.
Lesotho, a high land
When I first discovered Lesotho, many of these roads were even more adventurous – gravel and stones, sweeping across enormous mountainscapes, sometimes teetering on the very ridges above vast curving valleys of moorland vegetation. It was more enlivening than sitting in a Ford Figo Box. Even with the windows open and the chill breeze rushing through the boring Box, the temperature reducing by eight degrees from lowland to summits. I can’t conjure the thrill of those rides – the first of which I took 18 years ago on my African Elephant, of which I have specially fond memories.
My rotund favourite, subject if three photos on my wall at home, Ntsilane, has a junior sister, Adolfina. She too is built like a large pillow and shares a wide, happy smile with her sister. Cheerfully, she submitted to a laughing photo before I drove away mid morning. Then it was a slow climb to the heights, often driving at 25mph on empty roads, curling higher and higher over the passes and into the treeless altitudes. I eventually arrived at Thaba Tseka about 3.30 and drove the first couple of kilometres of the road to Mohotlong before accepting that it had not been tarred, as have so may fine roads in this semi-vertical kingdom. Maybe it was as bad as it was when I couldn’t believe that I was riding the A3 of Lesotho. I saw that in The Box I hadn’t the freedom that I have on my motorbikes, turned around and began my search for lodgings, it now being too late to start down the serpentine highway again.
Great roads! But better on a motorbike!
After three quarters of a litre of stout, I abandoned The Box in the hospital grounds and walked to the restaurant of the hotel that had asked £30 for pretty much what I have here in the nursing school. Maybe the bedcover doesn’t have ‘Parray School of Nursing’ scrawled across it in felt pen. I just returned in pitch blackness under a deeply black sky with an array of stars such as we seldom witness in more developed places. It’s silent and infinite, the stars still ‘upside down’ to my northern sensibilities, down here in the southern hemisphere.
It’s great to be here. Great to be ‘on the road’. Great to be in Lesotho, even if some of its social mores have changed. Said Annah, receptionist at the Roma guest house this morning, when I commented on the changes I was sensing, “You see, if the head is sick, the body will certainly be ill. If the government doesn’t look after us, we become angry. I think that’s what you are seeing. People are unhappy…” Which, of course, brings me to mention the big scandal that has even brought Lesotho to the international news this year – the accusation against the prime minister and his second wife of the murder of the first wife! He has been claiming diplomatic immunity and causing huge unrest in this rather peaceful little kingdom. Not surprisingly, few Africans, of any country, have much faith in or respect for their leading politicians.
But why do I single out ‘Africans’?
Roads on ridges
DAY 80. MONDAY MARCH 16th 2020. QUTING, LESOTHO
I drove too far today, got tired and grumpy. Trouble is, there aren’t many places to stay in Lesotho. For some reason, no rural people seem to have taken the initiative to open any B&Bs – just not in the culture, I suppose. It meant I had to drive about 100 miles more than I like, and now am being ripped off in a sub-standard overpriced hotel with pretensions. I’m paying £25, having beaten the owner down from £32.50, for a small room in which there’s not even room to walk around the bed (with multiple stupid pillows!). I had to apologise to the manager for my mood just now.
But what a magnificent drive. Happily, the loops and swirls of the extraordinary landscape look completely different in the other direction, for my first 100 miles were those I covered yesterday. I’ve ridden all the roads before, but no amount of preparation can weaken the wonder of those treeless heights and the plunging valleys. Dodging flocks of curly sheep, dogged plodding donkeys, horses and meandering cows, and the rocks that have rolled down the steep hillsides onto the road needs concentration, but I drive slowly to enjoy the ride.
I drove 250 miles today, coiling and twisting up and down these most impressive roads, a low yellow shrub cloaking green mountainsides, bright against the orangey brown sandstone ridges. Here and there in lower valleys, fields of cosmos blew pink, white and maroon amidst the bright greens, beneath the endless clear skies.
Cosmos is supposed to have been introduced from Ireland in horse fodder and subsequent shit!
My plan was to come down the mountains and turn right to visit Teyateyaneng – conveniently called TY by even Basotho people. It’s from there that I have bought my several colourful mats, a distinctive craft of this country. But it meant driving right through Maseru, the small but busy capital, and on north on some tedious roads.
Then I saw that a huge storm was building in that direction, and thought to myself, ‘honestly, where can you reasonably put ANOTHER Basotho mat in tiny Rock Cottage?’ and turned left instead to drive right over the centre of Lesotho via Semonkong to the south east corner of the country. Sadly, the storm soon overwhelmed most of Lesotho and I was eventually driving in thick cloud and pouring rain.
For once, The Box felt quite welcome. I was high in the mountains in torrential rain, thick in the grey chilly clouds. The temperature dropped to 9 degrees at one point, reminding me that for all its sunny splendour Lesotho is a harsh place, one of the few places in Africa that experiences heavy snow in July. The amazing landscape is still impressive, even in scudding cloud and lashing rain. The play of light amongst the varied densities of a million swirling and dashing clouds; the shafts of light that penetrate and spotlight patches of intense green; the wind that turns grasslands into oceans of rippling waves; the flash of puddles and the fast flowing brown of rivers – it’s a visual feast, even in rain. This evening I have taken some of my best landscape photographs.
It was after sunset by the time I reached Quting. I knew from other trips that there were hotels here, but the first two were full, with conferences, and the third, that I found after dark – an activity I hate when travelling – was expensive and argumentative. But by then they had advantage of me, as I could go no further. On principle I bargained and won a concession of £7.50!
And I may need those concessions! It looks as if my 2020 journey has just been extended by an unknown amount. I’ve refrained from any comment of the hysteria and madness that is currently gripping the world about a dose of flu. It seems to me that the excitement is fuelled entirely by social media and the press (it’s selling vast amounts of advertising…) rather than rational planning. Yes, it’s a pandemic, but I am told over 11,000 people regularly die in South Africa of ordinary flu every year, and as for TB, AIDS, malaria – well, they’re all contagious one way and another, but we don’t close down the world. Even the good old Guardian had a headline one day recently that ‘Coronavirus cases surge in UK’. Read further and they’d gone from 66 to 110 in a population of 65 million. ‘Surge’. The same day the first Briton died, causing huge thrills for the media. Read on, and you found that the doctor treating her said, ‘she had been in and out of hospital with underlying health issues’. In other words, she’d probably have died quite soon of pneumonia or a urine infection… Ten Britons have died so far, I find today, all of them had ‘underlying health conditions’.
Rico has been monitoring the African news and keeping me up to date when I get an email connection. He tells me tonight that South Africa just closed all its borders with immediate effect. Whether that includes Lesotho, I will find out tomorrow. And Kenya Airways has stopped all flights to Europe and to countries with any virus cases. Since South Africa has its first few, that means I may not even get back to Kenya, let alone Europe! I am trapped. How long for, and how it will be resolved I have no idea at all. And no information. I’ll try to get to South Africa, only 10 miles away now, tomorrow morning and work from that. What I do until perspective prevails, remains to be seen, since public transport is also heavily reduced. Airlines are in difficulties and economies plunging all around the world. If it does nothing else, the flu proves how flimsy and vulnerable are the foundations of our world capitalist economy!
I’ve made the decision not to listen to the hype and hysteria but see what happens.
So my immediate future is unknown. Just as well I am so adaptable. How I spend a month, or whatever the time may be, and where, remains to be seen. It doesn’t look as though it’ll be at home however.
DAY 81. TUESDAY MARCH 17th 2020. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
One hurdle is jumped: I managed to exit Lesotho through what I think may have been the only open border post at Van Rooyens Gate, where I entered a few days ago. No one took much notice, and apart from having my temperature taken, I was through in ten brief minutes. I drove on, back to Wepener, and stopped for coffee and a look at my book of maps to decide on the next destination. I decided to head south west into the Karoo Desert area, one of my favourite bits of the country.
Two kilometres down the road, I stopped, thought for some minutes and turned about, rang Steven and headed back to Bloem. It seemed sensible to try to get information, even maybe to drive to the airport and ascertain, if I could, just what’s going on. In fact, I am little more informed, but Isabel has put a travel agent onto my case for me. My goal is to get the next hurdle out of the way as soon as I can, if it’s possible. Rumours and stories are rife, and ‘social media’ having a field day with falsity and hysteria.
The border near Quting was already closed, I found over breakfast. I’d have to drive to Mafiteng, 60 miles away. Van Rooyens, they said, was still operating. South Africa has closed 34 land border posts between all the neighbouring countries. My flights to Nairobi and on to Amsterdam both left yesterday and today. But for how long will South Africa let people out of the country?
But what so I do now? That is the big question… Normally so resourceful, I am utterly without ideas of which way to move.
There’s heavy rain again tonight. It doesn’t do much for the idea of being trapped in this country for weeks – with hotels apparently closing and travel restrictions increasing. I have to make decisions but there’s precious little information available…
I’ve discovered one advantage of The Box. I can dry my washing on the headrests with the windows open to the breeze!
DAY 82. WEDNESDAY MARCH 18th 2020. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
It’s been an anxious day. What to do? Hysteria reigns in the international media and I am stuck in South Africa, a country going into winter, which will fuel the rapacious flu virus, causing, I suspect, ever increasing restrictions on travel. There’s no advice available for tourist in this situation, except the panic advice ‘get home NOW!’ In the end I may have joined the It’s quite possible they’ll soon prevent any travel even out of ZA, they closed 34 land borders, so I guess if I have to be trapped anywhere, it may as well be Rock Cottage! At least I can self isolate on my bike a bit. I fear I will be made to do that – being also over 70 and an incoming traveller…
So tomorrow I will drive the car to Johannesburg and leave it there instead of Bloemfontein airport on Monday. Pick up my boots from a hotel near the airport and hopefully fly out tomorrow night, unless things change again!
So, it’s a mad world. Admittedly the fears here are also fuelled by the fact that the southern hemisphere is going into winter and cooler weather, which will help the bug. More than that though is the appalling statistics on HIV/AIDS here – no one really knows, but 20% is a low estimate. And the flu will affect them unequally.
The perception around me is either, “It’s crazy, out of all proportion. It’s flu!” or “This corona, Eh, it’s killing us!” In about equal proportions. The latter from people who’ve only read the headlines (amongst whom we have to include trump, johnson and many other populist leaders controlled by social media). The young woman immigration officer at Lesotho border won’t die. She may get ill for a few days, as we do with flu, but she won’t die. But it’s on everyone’s phone 86,400 seconds a day, hysterically screaming out of context sound bites, to people who don’t rationalise the situation or read beyond the headline. I don’t want to get flu, but I’m not likely to die if I do.
Schools have been closed in South Africa, which so far has about 100 people with flu – so all the children congregate in the shopping malls instead. It’s very difficult to find out what the rational situation is, all I can find is the hysteria and thrill of the media. Where have rational commentators gone?
Well, I just received an email from KLM to check in, so, so far it’s going OK, this most expensive flight of my lifetime. £1600 – ONE WAY!!! Business class prices for cattle class. Just as well I flew out for £1.46! I should be eligible for a refund on half that ticket and maybe the Kenya Airways return half to Nairobi too. Whether South African Airways will refund my £54 from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg I don’t know.
So tense has been my day that it ended, despite a couple of beers with Steven and Isabel (she’s had the influence of him occasionally submitting to a beer in her company!), with a hammering headache. I’m not prone to headaches. In the current hysteria, you immediately look up the symptoms of the new flu!!
So, my journey is cut cruelly short, just a few days from ending it as planned. I guess I’ll always wonder if racing out was impetuous or sensible…